Second lieutenant Rebane Nordstrom knelt in the packed snow. She let her index finger rest against the trigger guard of the 9mm Grach Yarygin because her hands wouldn't stop shaking. Her spotter, Daniil Kowalski, moved, and the fabric of his snow parka made crackling sounds. Blood from his wound had soaked through and it was frozen stiff. She held his gaze for a long moment, but Daniil's tanned features expressed no advice.
"Say something, Daniil," she whispered. "You know what the enemy will do to me."
Daniil shifted his weight. He still held onto his assault rifle, although the magazine was empty. "Let's take our chances, Reb," he suggested after a frown. "It's a long way to the front line. Perhaps they’ll let their guard down during transport, and we can run."
He grunted from pain as he tried to sling the rifle over his shoulder. Rebane holstered her pistol and rose with stiff knees to help him, wrapping his rime-coated muzzle behind him. He had to be in terrible pain from the bullet still lodged between his ribs.
Before Daniil could reach for a last kiss, Ivanov, the resistance liaison officer, and a mountain of a man from Kazakhstan, emerged atop the ridge. He held the cotter pin of the last grenade between his fingers, ready to pull, and fire burned in his eyes. "We should blow ourselves to pieces right now!" he shouted. "Don't let the enemy get you," he added as Rebane stared at him.
"Ruki vverh – Lift up your hands!" A hoarse voice sounded from the mist before Rebane could object. A Union captain stepped forth as a silhouette against the pallid sky. "You're surrounded from all sides. Lower your weapons to the ground now," he yelled in his inept Russian.
Rebane opened the buckle of her gun belt and kneeled. Soldiers of the European Union rolled forth like links in a chain, and Ivanov let go of the grenade. The enemy wore their usual winter camouflage which blurred with the wet ground and patches of snow.
How the hell did they know where to find us?
She descended the hillside frog-marched between two privates. They had cuffed her wrists and patted her down. Gone was her double-bladed knife which she housed on her ankle holster at all times. The captain chased his peaked cap downhill after a gust stole it from him. She seized the opportunity to look over her shoulder and saw Daniil struggling to walk.
Rebane's raven hair messed into a bird's nest, and she squinted through the snowflakes the wind hurled at her. On the lay-by of the mountain road below, three military trucks puffed diesel smoke into the cold air. Rebane watched Daniil climb into the first truck and couldn't shake the premonition that she might not see him again. His trouser leg had soaked through with blood.
The smell of his wounds stayed with Rebane as the pimple-faced enemy sergeant helped her into the last vehicle and seated Ivanov opposite her. She met the gaze of this chained brown bear for a passing second and knew the Kazakh would die for her if she asked for his life.
1. On the Road
"Bastards," Rebane said under her breath as she felt the weight of the guard who leaned against her. The army truck groaned when it battled the crest of the dune. The tarp flapped open, leaving her with a view of the road as she memorized the way back east. She pinched her lips together in frustration. Her task was impossible with the everchanging landscape.
Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed Ivanov and caught him doing the same. Rebane looked straight ahead, not wanting to reveal signs of weakness to her captors. As the convoy reached below the tree line, branches scraped the truck's tarpaulin and rattled like bullets. Her soldier's instinct made Rebane duck. She straightened her posture the moment she understood she had overreacted. A veil of snow still slithered across the icy road, trying to snare them between the hills.
Nervous, she chewed the lining of her mouth. A sudden bump slammed her teeth together, causing the metallic taste of blood to dribble on her tongue. The handcuffs scraped Rebane's skin, and she wiggled her fingers to keep the remaining blood flow going. One of the Union men lit a cigarette, and she watched the smoke waft in the air forming a perfect circle. It took a lot of practice to accomplish that feat, and she wondered if his youthful looks were deceiving. He steadied an old M-16 assault rifle between his knees. She fixated her eyes on the weapon. All she needed was a minute before the sons-of-bitches would lie unmoving at her feet and the sickeningly sweet smell of blood filled the air.
The enemy used whatever weapons their gunsmiths could put back together, and they weren't always accurate or dependable. Dog-eat-dog skirmishes between the Union and the Russian Federation had gone on for twenty-five years—ever since the nuclear war had obliterated ninety percent of the population. The hunger in the soldier’s eyes made Rebane shift on the hard surface of the bench. She became suddenly conscious of her appearance—a Nenets woman from Siberia, thirty years old and dirty as a stray dog.
You bet I stink!
Her winter camouflage was twice her size and made her look heavier. Before the enemy had captured her, she had tugged her fur cap under the wide leather belt which reached several times around her waist. She looked alien to these German and English boys. No doubt he assumed she came from China by the looks of her. The soldier's mouth hung open now, and his cigarette landed on the frozen pellet. Rebane watched the glow die.
"How long?" she asked in German. "Before we arrive?" But he stayed mute, so she repeated the question in English.
The sergeant thrust his elbow between the private's ribs to knock him out of his trance. "You don't tell that bitch anything," he ordered. "Shut the fuck up."
She suspected the Union guards had no idea who’d they’d seized on that frozen hill in Poland because they hadn't beaten or raped her. The enemy hated the likes of Rebane more than tanks; every sniper who got caught was hung from the nearest lamppost or branch within minutes. Rebane, Daniil and Ivanov belonged to the Spetznaz–the elite of the GRU, Russia's Military Intelligence Agency. The three of them were all that remained of the special ODON task force. Any Union fighter who brought home such a treasure would receive a promotion on the spot.
Rebane shivered, and her face felt numb. She craved water and food but didn't show what the enemy considered a weakness. Ivanov looked unaffected as always. His size made the guards wary, and they kept their distance from him. Rebane tried to sense if they traveled south or west, but the sun never emerged from the ashen clouds to signal direction. Blades of long grass ruffled in the wind that whipped the ground without respite. The layer of snow grew thinner, and Rebane knew they’d entered Hunger Country.
I might never see home again...or Daniil.
Exhaustion forced her to surrender as the rattling of the spiked tires against the tarmac became constant. Between wake and sleep, Rebane hallucinated about the blazing sunset of her childhood in Siberia. The blue mirage of the arctic magic hour cocooned her. She smelled the ozone and felt the tug of the north wind in her hair.
No! Don't fall asleep.
Startling awake, she straightened her posture. Bleak flakes landed on the soldiers' long coats, and Rebane tasted them between her teeth. The Union men placed scarves over their faces, but the prisoners could only hope for the air to clear in a few miles. This was the ash from burned cities and vaporized bodies. Thankfully, the wind turned and lifted the clouds which had poisoned the earth's atmosphere since WWIII.
A magenta bubble appeared on the horizon. Soon, another one joined the string of transparent gems and dusk grew into darkness. As they drew closer, Rebane saw that they were enormous greeneries where UV-lights and sprinklers switched on. The enemy guarded the conservatories, and numerous roadblocks slowed the convoy. Refugees rambled in the middle of the road like zombies. They didn't mind the honking of horns, but the crack of rifle bullets swooshing above their heads divided the crowd like water. The second truck closed in on Rebane's transport, and its headlights revealed the sunken faces of children dragged onward by famished adults. A lump rose into her throat.
The skeletal animals—horses, donkeys, and mules—were too weak to make a sound, and Rebane pitied them. The ruin of mankind didn't exclude animals who had no cause in the war. Wild dogs snarled as they paced beside the equines, waiting for the weakest to collapse so they could assuage their own hunger. Helpless to do anything, Rebane wished the beasts of burden would find fresh grass. And the dogs...Rebane loved all canines. She had tamed foxes since she was five.
A net fence appeared from nowhere, embellished with bullet-ridden signs of radioactivity. The entrance through the old city wall went through a checkpoint and the convoy stopped. Soldiers wearing tactical gear examined the live cargo with experienced movements. They pointed at the prisoners with rifle barrels and heavy-duty flashlights. A sour taste dwelled in Rebane's mouth as her first rough-handed interrogation drew nearer. Drops of moisture gathered on her chapped upper lip. She wanted to take off the padded winter jacket but sure as hell wouldn't ask the guards to strip her. Every inch of her body felt vulnerable as she saw the hotel's crumbling facade. Invading armies often turned such places into military offices. The enemy team erupted from the truck with their catch.
A private helped her step down onto the street. "Mind the stairs," he said with a friendly voice as the dim hotel lobby devoured them.
She found the others standing next to the wall. Rebane inched closer to Daniil, whose handsome features were distorted with pain. He avoided looking at her and a sting impaled her heart.
Don't let the prisoners plan a common pretense. Rule number one.
Their sides brushed and a jolt of energy went through Rebane's muscles. SERE rules ordered her to grab the first opportunity to escape, but wounded Daniil would slow her down. The steadfast pact of never leaving a comrade behind was now impossible to fulfill.
The Union battlefield reconnaissance had their hands full. Most of the prisoners were Russian soldiers from different platoons and Polish resistance fighters who wore scruffy civilian clothes. While the others went through the initial interview, Rebane studied the Headquarters. The marble statue of the huntress Diana stood beneath the grand stairway, a discarded piece of art. Plush carpets muffled the military bustle and faded cherubs stared at her with gentle eyes from the fresco. Armed soldiers in leaf green walked with a brisk gait, running errands and escorting prisoners to the second floor. A group of determined officers wearing SWAT black manned the sorting desks. Fatigue ached in her shins and pressed on her shoulders.
"Second Lieutenant Nordstrom?" A tall, pimple-faced sergeant addressed her. He held a pile of cardboard POW tags.
"Yes," she replied. Rebane repeated her name and rank and added her birthday.
That's all you'll get.
This string bean of a sergeant produced a form which contained her 9mm and the commando knife, which she already missed. Rebane reminded him of her assault rifle but omitted the sniper rifle she’d used in the Company job. When the siege ring had become watertight, she’d dug a hole in the frosty earth with much effort and had covered the burial ground with leaves and slush.
She slumped against the wall.
"Don't do that," the string bean leaned into whisper. "They’ll make me beat you and I don't want to do that to a girl. Stand at attention.”
Rebane obeyed. He shrugged before he hung the cord around her neck. She amused herself by reading the tag letters upside down.
Date and Time of Capture: 3.8.2048 at 3:48am. Serial No: 34 611FNB, Female, Rebane Nordstrom. Date of Birth: 5.12.2018. Rank: Second Lieutenant. Unit of the EPW: Arctic troops, Unit AU-157 of the Russian Federation Army, Capturing Unit: ADG15, European Union Battlefield Reconnaissance 1A. Location of Capture: Prague Strip, EU Zone 3. Grid Coordinates: WS 76670869, MJ 44LI 3657
She hadn’t had a phone where she’d grown up and the unfamiliar trill always startled her. It rang until one of the senior officers, a major, took the call. It rang again after he placed the handset down and the buzzing irritated Rebane. Papers and files piled on his counter underneath a green-shaded lamp. The burly man in his late forties sat hunched until he sensed her gaze. His metal-rimmed glasses gleamed as their eyes met. The lightning of fear shot through her.
Shit! Don’t make eye contact. Rule number two and you just broke it.
Daniil formed a silent curse and Rebane echoed it with a hiss. The large man rose to talk with his assisting officer, who pointed at her. Ivanov followed what happened. The brown bear's brows furrowed as the enemy duo approached and she bit her lip.
This is it. Stand your ground.
A giant of a man, the major made the petite Rebane appear to shrink in size. Her eyes followed the seams of his trousers and across the immaculate uniform jacket. She clasped her knees together.
What a pompous asshole.
His black name tag spelled WEISSER in white, all caps. He had the tabs of a major on his hard collar and expected her to salute his rank, but Rebane forced her lips to remain pursed while the bastard weighed her up for interrogation. A strap locked the Glock on his belt holster in place. If only she could get her cuffed hands in front... She buried her nails into the flesh of her palms to endure Weisser's expressionless stare.
Minutes marched by while the heavy man estimated Rebane and calculated the odds. Was it because of her sex that she would be the weakest link—high-knowledge and low-resistance? The captain beside him had already shifted his feet and looked at his wristwatch for the fifth time. Rebane thought of a knee kick into the major's groin. How easy would it be to run into the cold night, to disappear across the dark fields?
Weisser reached for the cardboard tag hanging around her neck and adjusted his glasses. “Nice to meet you, Miss Nordstrom,” he said in a shadeless voice.