The major retreated behind his fortress of a desk, and Rebane had no idea if she cleared the test or not. The captain traced the route of his commanding officer across the muffled carpet.
Weisser continued his initial task of filling out intelligence reports as nothing had ever interrupted his concentration. The captain stood attention behind his back and nodded at regular intervals when Weisser gazed over his shoulder at him. Rebane couldn’t pick up their murmured words. The major never looked at her again, and she forced herself into thinking the gravest danger was over.
Rebane yearned for an assuring bear hug from Daniil, but she settled for her leg brushing accidentally against his shin. She froze when the surveillance camera turned at the end of a rusty lever. The device let out a whisper as the lens auto-zoomed on her face. Two burly MPs launched towards her and sent her heart racing. She braced herself for a beating.
But they took Daniil instead. They hurled him up the stairs leading to the second floor of the crumbling hotel. Daniil clawed the wooden railing as his knees turned to water. He raised his eyes which mirrored the cloudless Karelian sky and tried to establish a desperate connection with Rebane. She averted his gaze, but a memory of their doomed escape attempt plagued her.
A shift in frontlines blocked their escape eastward after the assassination mission on German soil. They joined the beat-up remnants of a Russian infantry unit retreating East. Orders from the highest level of the GRU- The Russian Military Intelligence- guaranteed her team disguises in standard uniforms and gear. Rebane and her comrades buried their civilian clothes and hoped to break through the blockade as ordinary servicemen.
The Russian Federation had been losing the war from the early years. The nuclear war left the country devastated and famished. The raincloud of A-bombs spared The European Union but it suffered from ashy skies like the rest of humanity. Only ten percent of Russians survived the last cohort of American-made nukes. One Russkii soldier faced ten Union ones, and each Russian prayed the match was even. What saved Mother Russia now was the same as always: the void plains of Ukraine and Belorussia, and the frozen expanses of Siberian tundra. The Russians retreated- and set the remaining farmhouses and natural fields on fire. They shot the animals and forced the civilian population to migrate at gunpoint.
Russia was flat and empty, and she protected her people. She starved and froze the enemy to death. Siberia and Scandinavia emptied of people during the nuclear autumn and the nuclear winter. The Invisible Zone formed. Only the men and women who ran from conscription, bounty hunters or violent spouses, stayed on the Zone and risked dying of starvation or radiation. The frontlines shifted forth and back, but without nukes, The Union could not conquer Russia. Without more men, Russia couldn’t invade mainland Europe. The conflict went on for two decades, and the young people had no memories of a world without war.
Rebane lay with Daniil on the roof of a shed in eastern Poland where the Union troops had trapped the Russian group. The smell of wet straw and rotting fields surrounded them as the sun began to warm the misty air. The snow melted into puddles under their bodies. Their muscles stiffened from a long night spent lying on their bellies under the camouflage net and leaves.
The enemy’s pincher movement was complete. Rebane’s team agreed to do their part although they had no chances of breaking through the siege ring. The sergeant gave her a sniper rifle and decorated Daniil with the spotter’s binoculars. Rebane had zeroed the scope sight, and Daniil had directed her to click on the adjustment turrets according to the hits. The silencer had allowed only slight thuds to escape into the chilly air as she had pressed the trigger and punctured the paper men at the other side of the frosty field.
Daniil and Rebane crawled into position when the dusk whispered among the birches. They let the first snow settle around their hideout during the freezing night. The enemy was near. Rebane heard them talking soon after dawn. The German youngsters babbled about their girlfriends, and what they’d prepare for food if they could ask for anything on earth. The officers smoked and camouflaged their thoughts as their faces appeared in detail through her scope. And then Daniil ordered firing, and she never hesitated to kill. Rebane exhaled and let the trigger move under her index finger. Daniil reported how her hammerheads met unexpecting flesh and how the enemy tried to figure out the direction of the attack. She paused because the enemy ducked for cover. The Union gun tower started rotating, and the pair sped on all fours to the flank. Daniil wrapped his uniform jacket around her shoulders. He never admitted he was freezing as the northern wind whipped his bloody flannel shirt. They crawled into safety before the Union artillery bombarded the source of sniping.
Daniil had transferred his courage into Rebane with his smile, and she would never be able to let go of that smile. Now, a fatalistic horror jackhammered inside her skull in the hotel lobby: I’ll never see you again. They’ll kill us both.
One of the MPs raised his truncheon as a threat to get Daniil moving along the stairs. Daniil placed his muddy boot on the next stair and the next one after that. He joined his palms behind his back. His handcuffs appeared as tight as those which numbed Rebane’s blood flow, and his fingers had dried blood on them. The wound on his upper arm had ceased bleeding. The trio disappeared around the corner, and Rebane noticed how the green and gold wallpaper peeled. She prayed that the enemy would store them in the same room.
Rebane followed the guards upstairs when it was her turn. The chandelier in the corridor didn’t give much light, and the young private used his tactical flashlight to show the way. He joked with his mate and his grip on her elbow wasn’t coercing. Dust from the explosions rested everywhere. This hotel was a grand old lady looted by a messy mob. The wallpaper had moist stains, and dog-eared flaps hung loose. Bullet holes riveted the walls, and an artillery shell had blasted half of the floor away. The trio leaned against the wall as the remaining floorboards wailed.
The young fellow winked his eye at her, and his friendly aura prompted Rebane to ask for something.
“I’m hungry,” she said in Russian and emphasized each syllable, but his face remained blank.
She tried anew: “Etwas zu essen?”
“Nicht jetzt,” he replied and smiled.
He opened the third door to the right and checked her handcuffs.
As soon as the door closed with a key turning in the rusty lock, Rebane lowered herself on the dirty floor. She squirmed her arms below her butt and wriggled her hands to the front. She unlaced her left boot and produced a hairpin from her torn sock. Rebane whispered curses between her clenched teeth as she worked on the cuff lock which refused to open. She paused to listen. The guards could enter at any moment. She forced the pin until the first bracelet chinked open. The second one obeyed, and her wrists were free.
A handsome man in his fifties observed Rebane’s actions with arched eyebrows. He was the only prisoner in the room beside her, and he sat on the bare floor with his bound hands resting on his lap. He had the resistance written all over him. The multiple layers of warm civilian clothes revealed he was a member of the Polish militia- The Forest Men. A siren wailed to warn about an impending air strike, and Rebane used the opportunity to talk with him. A few minutes of delay could earn good intel. She freed his hands and knelt next to him. She whispered in Polish: “I’m Rebane.”
“Arkady,” he replied with a harsh voice. He shook Rebane’s hand like a brown bear. His grip was crushing.
Arkady told her this hotel was a rendezvous point: a sorting station for prisoners of war flooding from the front. Union forces conquered this town yesterday. The big offensive started after the European Union president got shot. Arkady assured the Russians were behind the hit.
“A great shot, a professional,” Arkady said. Rebane chose not to comment. She hit her mark spot on. She saw him fold on the podium.
“How long for the front?” she asked.
“Eighteen miles, but there’s a peninsula of Union trenches, and a division of tanks protruding into Russian soil, near Gdansk.”
Rebane was sure the truck convoy traveled further than eighteen miles. She became suspicious of him because the enemy placed spies among the prisoners. She wore the Russian uniform. She was distinguishable from the local population.
“Do they have dogs?”
He shrugged. “I don’t hear barking.”
His left eye swelled, and a nasty bruise dawned at the side of his prominent nose. The breaking of a prisoner always started with an old-fashioned beating. Arkady reached for a cigarette pack and produced a lighter from his coat pocket. Neither one spoke while the smoke curled toward the ceiling. The musky room filled with the pause until the siren sounded again.
Rebane rose and gazed out the window. Two machine gun posts guarded the hotel gate. Searchlights combed the peaceful sky and sliced the velvet darkness. The menacing clouds parted to reveal the clear face of the Polish moon.
She gestured for Arkady to help. He steadied her standing on the narrow windowsill. Rebane reached for the ventilation window which wasn’t locked. The rusty hinges squeaked and the chilly night air entered the room. Both prisoners froze to listen, but no one moved in the corridor. Rebane tried to mount the flaking window frame, but couldn’t fit through the narrow space while wearing her winter garments. Arkady lowered her down without a sound. Rebane removed her leather belt and the padded jacket. She placed them on his shoulder.
They tried again. Time was running out.
She grabbed the old top frame and drew herself up with her muscular arms. She squirmed on top of the structure and extended her legs on the outside. Her feet searched for a steady hold until her boots met the narrow ledge. Arkady handed her jacket through the ventilation window. Rebane steeled herself to put more weight on the concrete structure.
If the ledge breaks now, I’m dead.
The freezing wind threw her long hair across her face. Rebane held on to the window frame with one hand and placed the other through the jacket sleeve. She switched handholds and prayed: Fox spirit, don’t let me drop anything on the yard.
A splinter from the dry wood stabbed her middle finger. She swallowed the pain and gazed down into the dark void. She hung to the second floor; the fall would sever her spine. The moon slipped behind the clouds, and a smothering blanket covered the city. She couldn’t see her own hands.
Moon, show yourself.
But the moon didn’t obey her orders. Rebane had to wait for the silver disc to drive the clouds apart and light the thin layer of snow on the ground below. She pressed her body flat against the cold glass. Her bare fingers grew numb and stiff. She wanted to straighten her arms to rest her muscles, but she didn’t trust the frame.
The cold moonlight revealed the ledge continued around the corner. The bricks on the wall protruded because the masonry was old. Rebane placed her fingers around the edges of the tiles. She advanced with quivering baby steps as a car’s motor started purring. A black Mercedes drove through the cast iron gates, and its headlights revealed the gravel on the front yard. The driver switched the engine off in front of the main entrance, and the headlights died. A faint light emanated from the first-floor windows. Rebane heard the driver stepping out and opening the passenger door for someone. She saw the glowing end of a cigarette straight below her and heard masculine chatter in German. The tobacco smoke watered her eyes. All the men had to do was look up as the moonlight revealed her silhouette. Rebane glued her body against the brick wall until the bright light of the lobby swallowed the men.
A square roof dawned nine feet below Rebane’s feet: the edges of a smaller building. The moon cowered behind ashy clouds when she dropped. She flexed her knees and landed with a roll to the side.
Two guards stepped out the front door for smokes. Their long shadows stretched on the porch. A German Shepherd dog appeared between the men. He whined and tilted his massive head. He smelled her scent. His keen hearing captured Rebane’s agitated breathing. The dog’s enormous muscles tensed as the animal released a deafening bark which echoed from the walls. But it was cold, and the men had finished smoking. They ordered the dog to fucking shut up and dragged him inside by the harness. The heavy door closed with a bang and allowed the darkness to win back the yard.
The rest was easy. When Rebane reached street level, she buttoned her uniform jacket and hopped across the street. She melted into shadows behind the next corner. Loose grains of gravel rattled on the road, and her breath formed puffy clouds above her head. She ran as fast as she could to gain distance before the search patrol traced her footprints. Rebane stopped fleeing to eat snow, and the cold descended into her stomach. She climbed over a broken picket fence and sneaked across a sleepy yard behind a family house. Soon the thunder of her heartbeat calmed, and she concentrated on finding her way out of the city.
She sprang across a cropped field, and the bushes shuffled at the edge of the forest. Puddles splashed, and her breathing echoed in her head. She left a trail of scent, but she had no time to make rabbit loops. Dawn hid below the rim of the horizon, and she had a few hours to find a hiding place.
Rebane tried to leap over a wide ditch between the fields. The jump was short, and she stumbled on her stomach. Her right boot submerged and filled with icy water.
Between her laborious breathing and her startled heartbeat, she picked up a sound in approach. Rebane became stone as she stopped to listen. The mist wrapped its eerie tendrils around the low ground where the air was moist. The western wind pressed the frosty grass against her legs when she tried to identify the noise. A mixture of sharp voices blended in disarray. She straightened her back and held her breath.
Dogs- barking fucking dogs!
She spurted toward the rough direction of East, the dawning light. Where could she find a shelter? The coal cellars, the yard shacks, and the outhouses of the city were far behind her.
Have I forgotten all my training?
A wall of bushes tore her clothes. The thorns inflicted wounds, but she forced through. Rebane stopped to fold and lean on her knees. She caught her breath when she reached the cover of a small forest.
The yelping is louder. The dogs are gaining on me.
She ran again and ignored the taste of blood in her mouth. The cold wind irritated her eyes and Rebane blinked to see beyond the top of the hill. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. She spurted downhill between the oaks and birches, and almost collided head-on with the stone wall nine feet high. Rebane tried climbing, but the stones were icy, and her grip slipped. She had to choose which way to run.
Left, or right?
She sprinted left, and the first dog leaped through the air. Rebane extended her arms for cover as the dog rammed her. She grabbed his collar to keep the mouthful of teeth from ripping her throat. Another set of Doberman jaws bit into her right elbow and shot electric pulses of pain across her nerves.
A swarm of muscular dogs ripped her clothes and pinned her down like their handlers trained them to. She lifted her shoulders to protect her neck. The patrol wasn’t far away, and she knew what the dog handler’s whistle meant.
This is the second chapter of The Unholy Warrior by Rebecka Jäger. All rights reserved.