Chapter 1. Road

A lonely trucker driving in the blizzard at the dusk

Tuesday 4.8.2048. 

Rebane Nordstrom knew that all was lost. Sitting straight was hard labor with her hands cuffed behind her back. She moved her numb fingers to keep her blood flow going. Occasionally, bare branches scraped the tarpaulin which covered the truck’s cargo, and it sounded like the rattling of bullets. The enemy had shoved Daniil to the back of another truck, but the smell of his wounds stayed with Rebane.

A sudden bump in the road slammed her teeth together. Rebane tasted blood and discovered that she had bit her tongue. The driver didn’t bother to dodge the frequent holes in the grainy asphalt. The wind had molded sleek dunes from the fresh snow. The driver used the edge of the ditch to avoid getting stuck in the deepest banks, and the monster of a vehicle wailed and rattled as it tilted.

The guards leaned against her when the truck turned, and the reek of diesel dispersed into the cold air. One of the young European Union men in fatigues lit a cigarette and steadied an old M-16 assault rifle between his knees. Rebane remembered her double-bladed knife which was far beyond her reach inside a locked crate. The enemy took everything. Her team had endured three long nights of siege behind enemy lines until the survivors were forced to surrender. That blade would fit nicely into the young man’s kidney if she directed the sting upwards.

He looked straight at her now- like he suddenly realized that she was female- or human. Her winter camouflage was frozen stiff with blood and mud, and she had tugged her fur cap under the wide leather belt. Rebane Nordstrom fought for the Russian Federation and bore the tabs of a second lieutenant. She was in her thirties, and her face was clearly Siberian.

Her hair shimmered with the darkest black of the forest raven, and the slant of Asian eyes was evident when she laughed. Rebane was a Nenets woman, and she looked alien to these German and English boys. They had probably never seen a woman at war. Rebane was a creature which they had only heard rumors of.  The propaganda machinery of the European Union claimed that the Russian women snipers were not women, but blood-thirsty hermaphrodites. This young private stared at her with his mouth hanging open. He forgot his cigarette. The glow died, and the ash landed on the frozen pellet.

“How long,” Rebane asked with her perfect German: “before we arrive?”

But he didn’t answer, and Rebane repeated her question in English. The sergeant sitting next to him thrust his elbow between his ribs to knock him out of his trance.

“You don’t tell her anything,” the sergeant ordered.

Talking with the enemy was a risky business. Rebane could be raped at will. Horror stories about imprisoned Russian women started spreading in her unit a month before this specific mission was planned. Rebane exchanged glances with Ivanov who sat opposite her. Ivanov was a mountain of a man from Kazakhstan who would defend her with his life. She tapped thrice at the pallet with her right boot to signal a thank you. Communication with taps was a simple prison language. You could do it across distances if you found something which carried the sound: a metal pipe for instance.

The Union guards didn’t understand what kind of treasure they had seized. Rebane and her comrades wereSpetznaz– as the Russian special forces named their elite. Capturing them alive was a stroke of unbelievable luck to the enemy. But maybe the prisoners had enough time in their hands to slip away.  Rebane needed an opportunity to escape before someone with brains- a senior officer from the EU Battlefield Reconnaissance- connected the obvious dots.

She was the crown jewel of her task force: the sniper- “a white shadow of death,” as the enemy named her kind in winter warfare. Soldiers feared and hated snipers more than tanks. A sniper killed from hiding which was a cowardly act.

Nothing pleases them more than taking revenge on a sniper.

The air felt like fourteen degrees Fahrenheit. Hunger constricted in Rebane’s stomach. She hadn’t received food for two days, and she scooped some snow twenty-four hours ago. Thirst parched the lining of her mouth. Rebane tried to feel if they traveled south or west but couldn’t sense any direction. The tarp was open at the back, and the plateau stretched on forever. The West-Polish horizon appeared flat as the cover of snow thinned and vanished. Long grass bowed to the fierce wind. The yellow strands had withered without sunlight. This was hunger country.

Maybe I’ll never return.

Rebane gave in to exhaustion as the truck progressed. Leaving the snow behind felt like abandoning safety. Between awake and sleep, Rebane hallucinated. She saw the bleeding sun of the Siberian Yamal Peninsula behind her eyelids; the blazing disc plunged into the deep-blue horizon during the magic hour. She remembered the ozone smell of frost and the touch of a double reindeer parka against her numbed cheek. Her long hair floated in the pure Northwind, and she was home.

No! You must remain awake and memorize your way back.

She opened her eyes and straightened her posture as the air filled with ash. Sometimes the weather brought the atmosphere of the nuclear war back. Rebane could taste the scorched humans and cities. The Union men placed scarves over their faces but the prisoners could do nothing but breathe through their noses. Grains of sand remained between Rebane’s teeth although the air cleared a couple of miles later.

Bubbles of magenta grew from the horizontal distance as the dusk progressed. When the convoy inched closer, Rebane understood that the shining pearls in a string were enormous greeneries protected by transparent domes. Sprinklers switched on automatically, and she could almost hear how the green mat of nutritious plants ruffled in the artificial rain. The enemy guarded the conservatories heavily. Perimeters of barbed wire surrounded each one. Soldiers with assault rifles and artillery stations kept the hungry crowds of refugees at bay.

The second truck’s headlights revealed the sunken faces of children who were forcibly dragged onwards by their equally famished relatives. The Greatest War Ever- the nuclear one- produced hordes of these rootless ghosts, and the countless conflicts ever since had driven great nations into extinction. But the European Union grew from the holocaust of others and seized an unprecedented opportunity of hegemony while The US and The Russian federation limped.

Today’s weapons were outdated; whatever people could find and mend. Digital stuff was mostly useless after the EMP, but the lack of excellent gear never stopped the human race from waging war. If only two men were left on earth- or the occasional two women- one of them would pick up a rock and bash the other one’s skull in. That’s how the perpetual warfare over farmable land, fertile women and robust fighting men had gone on for twenty-five years. It was a war of worn-out uniforms and people dwelling in ruins. Two empires emerged from the ashes to engage in a cut-throat battle on the European soil: The EU and Russia, both ruled by authoritarian leaders and their ruthless right-hand men. Still, Rebane Nordstrom preferred Russia. She was born in Siberia and raised in Finland which had been a Russian buffer zone since the blast. The Union was an incarnation of the devil for her.

Rebane was four years old when the all-engulfing fire scorched everything in its wake. Pertti Nordstrom, her Finnish stepfather, saved her life by carrying her into an elevator shaft. There- behind the shield of multiple concrete walls- they waited for forty-eight hours and emerged to find a world which had changed forever. They never found the body of her Nenets mother Khadne.

A scrawny mule drew a cart stacked with furniture. The kitchen table was this family’s most prized possession? Rebane felt sorry for the skeleton animal as the lorry crawled past the mule. The flapping tarp revealed a mountain of winter clothing on the roadside. As the enemy soldiers ushered the refugees onward, Rebane understood that the fur and wool coats had corpses inside; some of them were the frozen forms of small children. The smell of boiled cabbage told her that the babies had died a while ago. The touch of the wind on her hair gave her goosebumps again. Frost gathered on the tarmac but the temperature wasn’t low enough to deep-freeze the bodies.

Those are the babies of teenagers.

Rounds of automatic fire punctured the night when the darkness swallowed the truck again, and Rebane tilted against the man sitting next to her. Most women of Rebane’s age remained sterile because of the radiation and the toxic ash clouds which plagued Europe for a decade after the nuclear inferno. The uneven road took Rebane’s mind off procreation and forced her to concentrate on sitting straight again.

The vehicle passed through a thick-eyed net fence with large warning signs of radioactivity hanging on both sides. The guards gazed at their personal dosimeters and put on gas masks, but the Russians had to do without. Rebane observed a dosimeter on the young private’s uniform. The count never rose over two microSieverts. On the other side, another fence and the soldiers removed their protective gear. Two micro-Sieverts were nothing. She knew what was beyond the critical limit.

The tar-coated road widened, and the driver accelerated. Squadrons of army jeeps and armed trucks swooshed by with increasing intervals. The convoy slowed down as the concrete buildings grew tall. Rebane still picked up Polish words from the people who walked the roadside. The truck wasn’t in Germany yet. It was good news if she planned to escape. A barrier blocked the entrance through the old city wall, and the convoy stopped obediently at a check-point. Soldiers in tactical gear examined the live cargo with swift utilitarian movements and pointed at the worn-out prisoners with rifle barrels and tactical flashlights.

Rebane tried to listen if the fence let out a hum of electricity, but the truck made too much noise. The air warmed up, or it was fear which made her sweat. Small drops of moisture gathered on her chapped upper lip. She wanted to take the padded winter jacket off, but sure as hell wouldn’t ask the guards to strip her.

The moment of capture intruded her mind. She had placed the barrel of her .9 service arm under her chin and calculated the angle to sever her medulla with one shot. Rebane had tried to convince her stiff index finger to press the Grach Yarygin’s trigger. An enemy captain had wrenched the weapon from her frozen hands when she hadn’t followed the orders in lousy Russian: “Ruki vverh– Lift your hands up.”

And Daniil Kowalski hadn’t kept his promise. He had sworn to shoot her to avoid capture. Daniil’s blue eyes had watered, and he allowed his pistol to sink into the deep snow. Rebane knew she would regret her lover’s gentleness soon but now she was happy to be breathing. Rebane Nordstrom wanted to survive even if survival was worse than death.

The whole team knew that the assassination mission was suicide. Rebane, Daniil, Ivanov, and Trash passed the SERE course with excellent marks. But now, every inch of her felt naked and vulnerable as the convoy arrived at the headquarters. Her first rough-handed interrogation was just around the corner.

The enemy team erupted from the truck with their catch. The private took Rebane’s arm and steadied her on the street when her numb legs gave away.

“Mind the stairs,” he said with a friendly voice as the dim lobby devoured them all.

She found her comrades standing in a row next to the wall. Rebane inched closer to Ivanov – an expert in resistance liaison, and Daniil- her spotter. Brushing against Daniil’s side meant that she wasn’t facing the enemy alone. If the prisoners interacted among themselves in any way, the guards used their telescope truncheons without hesitation.

Don’t let the prisoners plan a common pretense. Rule number one.

Most of the prisoners were alien to Rebane. They were Russian soldiers from different platoons and Polish resistance fighters who were easily distinguishable without uniforms.

While the others went through the initial interview, Rebane studied the HQ which was a hotel besieged by a war zone. A set of pillars supported the massive roof. She spotted the enticing statue of Diana, the huntress with a bow. Her lean hunting dog pressed against her legs gazing up with devout marble eyes. Plush carpets muffled the military bustle. Fading frescoes depicted dusty cherubs. Invading armies often conquered such places and turned them into offices of warfare. Armed enemy soldiers in leaf green fatigues and a constant stream of determined officers filled the lobby.

“Second Lieutenant Nordstrom?” A tall pimple-faced private addressed her. He had a pile of cardboard POW tags.

“Yes.” The depths of the grand hall dispersed her husky answer.

She gave her identification like she did on the front when they got caught. He matched the tag with a weapons form which contained the .9, the commando knife and the standard assault rifle which wasn’t even hers. Rebane buried her sniper rifle when she understood that they wouldn’t break through the siege ring and she ran out of ammo. She didn’t tell him that.

She leaned her back against the wall because her feet were tired and she was weak with hunger.

“Don’t do that,” the private whispered. “They’ll beat you up. Stand attention.”

Rebane smiled at him as he hung her tag around her neck. She read it upside down:

Date and time of capture: 1.8.2048 at 3:48 am. Serial no: 34 611FNB. Name: Rebane Nordstrom. Date of Birth: 5.12.2018. Rank: Second Lieutenant. Unit of EPW: Russian army, Arctic troops, Unit AU-157. Capturing unit: ADG15, European Union Battlefield Reconnaissance 1A. Location of capture: Prague strip, EU Zone 3. Grid Coordinates: WS 7667 0869, MJ 44LI 3657.

The bastards have no idea who we are- yet.

A phone rang until one of the senior officers, a major, took the call. The same telephone rang immediately after he placed the handset down. The buzzing irritated Rebane. She had a nagging headache.

A makeshift office had formed near the stairs leading to the second floor. Papers and files piled high on the counter, and a green-shaded lamp shed light on a memo pad. A masculine hand wrote with even, small handwriting. The burly officer with all the bookkeeping sat hunched. He rarely lifted his burdened, middle-aged face. His glasses gleamed as he looked up for Rebane studied him a second too long. He gave her a long hard look with those intelligent eyes and the lightning of fear shot through her body.

Shit! Don’t make eye contact. Rule number two and you just broke it.

She was the only female and bound to attract attention anyway. The enemy looked for valuable informants, and she had just made herself a target. Daniil gazed down at Rebane. His eyes were full of alarm and his brows furrowed. Rebane’s hands sweated behind her back. She felt a sudden pressure to urinate.

The large man yawned and stretched his broad back. He rose to talk with his assisting officer and pointed at her. Rebane felt Daniil’s hand touching hers. He had turned sideways to reach her. Rebane shook her head slightly. She feared that the major would notice the emotional link between them. Allegiances were powerful tools for interrogators. Besides, Daniil’s loving eyes would crumble her on the floor. She couldn’t bear to look at him, not now. She wanted to remember him like he was before: on a Midsummer night’s eve in Karelia when they kissed for the first time and…

Rebane felt overshadowed by someone enormous. She observed a neat pair of military issue shoes whose points touched Rebane’s snow boots. Her eyes followed the straight seams of his trousers upwards and across the immaculate uniform jacket. Her gaze reached the black tie with a perfect knot, and halted at the close-shaven jaw. She didn’t dare look at his face- to engage in a direct confrontation again. His leveled name tag spelled Weisser with white all caps. He had the tabs of a major on his hard collar, and she was supposed to salute his rank. She forced her lips to remain pursed.

He was 6’4″, and Rebane felt insignificant around tall men. She was minute, 5’1”, and had her back against the wall. She couldn’t retreat. If he leaned forward… The nearness was intentional, of course. The bastard weighed her up for interrogation already.

Her eyes zeroed on the Glock .9 on his belt, locked in place with a sturdy strap. Her fingers moved behind her back: the strap might come loose.

Her eyebrows frowned against her will, and she swallowed the hard lump which had ascended her esophagus. Rebane heard Daniil’s breathing. She prayed that Daniil wouldn’t do anything stupid to stand up for her. She pressed her hands into tight fists and buried her nails into her flesh to endure Weisser’s stare. This wasn’t the time to show weakness.

Minutes marched by. Behind the metal-rimmed eyeglasses this heavy man estimated Rebane and calculated the odds. Was it because of sex, that she was destined to be the weakest link? He waited for a sign that she was high-knowledge and low-resistance. The captain who stood beside the major, already shifted his feet and looked at his wristwatch for the fifth time. Daniil abided his training. He endured.

Rebane thought of a knee kick into Weisser’s groin. She wanted to turn around and extend her cuffed hands towards the firearm. Rebane needed to beat this man in front of his staff. She would run into the cold night and disappear across the dark fields with his sidearm in her hand.

Weisser reached for the cardboard tag hanging around her neck. His face melted into the smile of a lion who is ready to devour his prey.

“Nice to meet you, Miss Nordstrom,” he said.

Read ch. 2 Dogs >>

This is the first chapter of The Unholy Warrior by Rebecka Jäger. All rights reserved.