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Full Metal Panic! - Volume SS - Side Arms 2 - Chapter 1


[Voice from the North]

 

Do you believe in God?

If you were to ask me that, I, Andrei Sergeyevich Kalinin, would have no choice but to answer:

"Once I did not, then I think I started to, but at the end lost any reason to."

 

Born and raised in an atheist society, I then found something I truly loved, then it was taken away from me. This is the kind of person I am.

 

Do you believe in Fate?

If you were to ask me that, I would answer the opposite:

"Once I did, then I think I stopped to, but now I do, again."

 

If you think about it, God and Fate are very similar concepts. You could almost say they're the same. So if I have two completely opposite standpoints on these notions, am I contradicting myself? I do not think it is that easy to dismiss. That this world turns around contradictions is an undeniable truth, and it is also one of the things that makes us human.

 

My subordinates call me a cautious optimist. They consider me to a man of unbreakable will, one of that particular breed - leaders of men, like Captain Testarossa and Commander Mardukas. The kind of people that, no matter how desperate the situation seems, will not fall prey to empty pessimism or wishful thinking, but will tacitly do what has to be done. People like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa. They could all be called "cautious optimists". Although I naturally do not think of myself that way, they believe me to be one of those people.

 

They are wrong.

 

The real me, right now, is a person defeated by Fate. Swept by its tremendously powerful current, I barely cling to a withered branch, hanging from the river bank.

 

Fate...

 

A terrible storm, one that surpasses human understanding, ready to destroy everything to achieve its arrogant purpose, or perhaps just to create chaos.

 

That boy must have felt something, too, and started resisting it.

There is something special about my connection with him, although it is possible that I alone can feel it...

 

I met him for the first time about thirteen years ago, in the far North, a realm of bitter cold, where nothing could survive, right in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

 

It was a time when relations between the United States of America and the Soviet Union were cooling down again after a brief thaw. Despite understanding that their thousands of strategic weapons of mass destruction could obliterate the entire world several times over, the two only escalated their seventy-year-long tug-of-war. The whole world, divided into two camps, became a silent battlefield. This sea, devoid of life, was no exception, often becoming the frontline of the conflict. A cold stage for a cold war, on which an unseen drama was playing out. From a distance, the opponents were always watching this sorrowful struggle on a desolate battlefield. I happened to witness it once.

"K-244" was the name of the warship that I was travelling on, also known as Project 671RTM "Shuka", a nuclear-powered submarine1, known to the West as Victor-III class.

 

The boat was a hunter-killer submarine, assigned to patrol duties near US territory. It did not carry nuclear missiles for a direct attack of the American mainland2 - its role was to escort the submarines that did, observing and, if necessary, pursuing enemy ships and disabling them with precise strikes.

 

The K-244 was a new warship, - quiet, fast, unmatched in its detection capabilities, so it was sometimes assigned to special missions, like gathering various intelligence near North American shores. The risk was great, but it was a rather low-key assignment overall.

 

Slowly moving underwater, it raised an antenna which intercepted communications traffic on both civilian and military channels. It analysed the traces of the daily utilisation of electronic equipment by the US Army, received reports from Soviet spies inside the Pentagon and the NSA, and in return confirmed the reception and appraised them of the current situation. That day's mission seemed to be no different.

 

This mission lasted only several days, but at other times the submarine would be at sea for months. As someone who was taught everything about Western technological means of communication, and was fluent in a few foreign languages, I was frequently given the opportunity to assist such intelligence-gathering operations.

 

 

       

The K-244 was a modern, but still ordinary submarine, and unlike the "Tuatha De Danaan", was not controlled by an advanced AI and could not reach speeds of fifty knots while remaining completely silent.

 

Being only ten miles from American territorial waters, it was difficult to maintain vigilance and manoeuvre while gathering intelligence, so it was not surprising that changing the position of the antenna sometimes required half a day's worth of manoeuvring.

 

For me, then a junior officer of the special forces, freshly graduated from a military academy, spending weeks on end reading through files inside a steel cigar ten metres underneath the surface of an icy ocean was decidedly not a pleasant occupation. Waking up inside a boat where no distinction between day and night existed, sorting all the information recorded by the machinery every thirty minutes, carrying on empty discussions with the political officer about party theses. As a junior officer, and on top of that, somebody from the surface, I naturally did not enjoy the comfort of a private room - the only space I had was my bunk on the second level. This routine continued, unbroken, every day. The little diversions I had were writing letters to my wife back home and reading an anthology of William Blake that I had discreetly brought with me. Of course, I had to bear with the inspection of my private correspondence, but owning the works of Blake, an Englisman, was a grave offense3.

 

I did have another source of enjoyment - my conversations with the commanding officer of K-244, Commander Sergey Khabarov. Then in his fourties, that man had an appetite that was only matched by his good humour. My father's name, evidently, was also Sergey4, and we were both from Leningrad5 - we talked about that the first day I joined the crew of his warship. His only son went to Afghanistan, where I had been fighting only half a year earlier, so he asked me a lot about the situation on the ground, and I did my best to satisfy his curiosity.

 

The captain often invited me to share dinner with him, and I had an opportunity to listen to the many stories of his life. As a fresh graduate of the military academy, I was just a cynical young man, but I can say with confidence that my current command style, as a commissioned officer, is the result of everything I learned from him.

 

That day, too, I was having lunch with the captain. I still remember exactly what we talked about.

 

It was an idle chat about the gold that, supposedly, the last Russian emperor, Nikolai II, left behind. After the period of chaos that followed the revolution, the figure of Nikolai II became clouded in mystery and

baseless rumours, such as the legend that his beautiful daughter alone was not executed with the tsar and his family, and escaped to Germany, or France, or even America, and led a troubled life there. The story about the gold went along similar lines: it was said that, just before his execution, Nikolai II entrusted a loyal Leib Guard6 with the location of an enormous treasure.

 

                                                          

- I swear, it's got to be true, comrade. I'm not joking - this one could be real, - told me Khabarov with a very serious face.

 

I did not believe in anything like that from the beginning, so I asked him:

- If so, where would this gold be hidden?

As the captain was ready to tell the most interesting part of the story, he was interrupted by a sailor who had just come into the cabin, so I never got the chance to find out where the location of that treasure. From that point on, because of an unexpected turn of events, we did not get a chance to continue our peaceful discussions.

 

The sailor began whispering something to the captain, but I heard it as well.

- Sir, the sonar reports - contact ten kilometres northeast, something like a large passenger plane which possibly made an emergency landing on the ice, - these words became etched in my memory.

                                                       ***

Afterwards I learned that, more precisely, the location was 11 kilometres north-north-east of our position, on heading zero-three-two.

 

Nobody found out the exact cause of the crash. Even though I was able to analyse all the communications traffic in this airspace, even I could only guess what happened.

 

This Boeing 747, flight MUS-113, belonged to Musashi Airlines, the largest airline company in Japan. It was on its usual route from Tokyo International Airport to Anchorage, then London. Those days the planes on most international flights were not able to fly from the Far East to Europe without refuelling.

 

That time, if my memory serves me well, the atmospheric conditions above the Arctic Ocean were particularly poor, however, it shouldn't have had an impact on a international flight travelling at an altitude of around 12,000 metres. The Western mass media speculated then that the crash was due to maintenance problems, or even a pilot's sudden bout of madness.

 

Even having observed it directly, I was not a crash investigation specialist and thus cannot say whether there was any truth in these hypotheses.

 

From the transmission records that I could gather, it seemed like up to a certain point there were no problems with flight MUS-113. Then, something unusual happened. Without warning, a fire was detected in engine number three, leading to a shutdown of both right-wing engines. The 747's robust design would have normally allowed it to retain its flight capability, but this time luck was against it.

 

 

 

Right afterwards the horizontal stabiliser jammed for an unknown reason. Whether it was a blown off wing fragment that hit the tailplane, or damage to the stabiliser's hydraulics system I did not know.

 

Over the radio I heard the flight 113 pilot's voice, strained, struggling to keep calm and not give in to desperation in the face of inevitable death. I had it all in the recordings. The pilot's name was Horita.

 

This Horita was later treated by the irresponsible Japanese mass media as the main culprit, the one responsible for the crash, however, his handling of the plane immediately after the accident was nothing

short of heroic. Properly speaking, the plane could well have fallen apart in mid-air, and an incompetent pilot certainly could not have performed anything close to an emergency landing in those conditions7.

Unfortunately, the only person in the whole world who could hear that pilot's voice among the clouds was me, on board the K-244, and all records of the incident, by the decision of the Kremlin, were

perpetually sealed away as classified information. As the recovery of the black box later proved impossible, the truth of the accident remained unknown to the world, just as the location of the treasure of Nikolai II to me remained another riddle of history, soon vanishing from sight.

But let us return to the events of that fateful day.

 

According to the information gathered by myself, along with senior sonar specialists, Flight 113 did in fact land on the surface of the ice. The emergency landing was quite brutal, but in the sonar records there was no trace of a large explosion, and no sound that could indicate the machine penetrating the ice shelf and sinking. On the contrary, there was a distinct possibility of survivors still inside the wreck.

 

The ice around the crash site was not very thick, and, of course, there was a certain danger of the wreckage sinking, but even more importantly, it was not hard to guess that the harsh weather - a true arctic storm - would soon end the lives of survivors, many of whom may have been injured. They would normally rely on American or Canadian rescue teams, but there was no time to wait for their arrival.

 

Even if the Westerners knew that a passenger plane had crashed in the first place, they would not know the exact location of the crash.

 

The senior officers of the warship were of the opinion that a rescue operation was necessary. Even if there were no survivors, they should gather as much information as possible.

 

Only one of them, the political officer, was opposed to it - his job was, after all, to criticise the absurdity of such a decision. K-244 was performing a highly classified intelligence gathering mission, and was

supposed not to reveal its presence in this area. Orders forbade communications with North Fleet Headquarters to ask for instructions. There was not a human soul for hundreds of kilometres around - except for us, the crew of the K-244.

 

After a heated argument, the captain made his decision: engines ahead full, starboard heading zero-three-zero. He chose to disregard orders from Headquarters and perform the rescue operation. Only later would I learn what this decision meant for his career.

                                                         ***

 

It took the K-244 almost ninety minutes of manoeuvring to get to that area. Captain Khabarov first stopped the ship precisely under the surface of the icy sea and raised the periscope. I was waiting for orders on the bridge, when he beckoned me to come.

 

- Take a look, lieutenant.

 

Saying that, he stepped from the periscope, inviting me to see the crash with my own eyes. The reason he called me was evident: having returned from Afghanistan, I had observed more aircraft accidents that other people on board the vessel. Even though I remembered that this would be my first time looking through a submarine periscope, that thought was not enjoyable.

 

The scenery that opened before my eyes only confirmed that feeling - leaden skies, snow blowing against cracked ice, and in the middle of it all a black mass seemed to be floating. The clock showed that it was noon, but outside it was almost completely dark.

 

I did not have any experience operating a periscope, so I asked the captain:

- Where do I set the magnification?

- This switch here, - the captain's finger pointed at the correct selector, and I adjusted the periscope.

 

The intense storm rendered my vision blurry, but now I could be certain that the dark mass was the wreckage of a passenger plane, a Boeing-747 jumbo jet. There was no fire to be seen. On the side of the fuselage I could make out the letters that spelled "MUSASHI AIRLINES". The plane was torn in half right behind the wings. The forward section was slanted to the right and half-buried in ice, while the tail was lying far apart, approximately four hundred meters back, as far as I could judge. The ice around them appeared to be littered with minor fragments and torn-off engines.

 

- Unbelievable, - said the captain in a gloomy voice.

 

- Yes, however, it doesn't look like there's a fire.

- Do you think there are survivors?

 

The front of the crashed airplane was mangled beyond all recognition, bringing only pessimistic thoughts about the fate of its passengers. The tail section, however, looked more promising. The tail itself was missing, but the rest appeared relatively less damaged, and the passenger cabin remained more or less intact. In the history of aircraft accidents, survivors were most likely to be found in the tail section of the fuselage. In the case of a crash or emergency landing, the shock weakened in the rear, so the likelihood of passengers surviving the initial impact was greater.

 

I had seen cases like this in Afghanistan. When a Soviet helicopter or transport plane was shot down, by an American-made Stinger missile, for example, it was rare to see pilots, sitting in front of the aircraft,

come out alive, while the people closer to the tail would often survive, if barely. Of course, the surviving crew was in most cases immediately taken prisoner by those guerrillas, and met a more gruesome death.

 

In any case, there was a possibility of there being survivors. I stepped away from the periscope and informed the captain of my opinion.

Khabarov nodded and lowered the periscope, lost in thought for a brief moment, then ordered the submarine to manoeuvre close to the tail of the crashed plane and break surface near it.

 

- First, we'll search the tail, - said the captain, combing down his hair and putting on his cap.

- It's likely a mess inside... I need people who aren't afraid of seeing dead bodies. Would you go?

- Yes, Sir,

- I immediately replied.

- A team of four will go first. If it proves to be too dangerous, return immediately.

- Whom shall I take, Sir?

- Your choice. Take two strong crewmen, and an experienced junior officer.

- Yes, Sir,

- I saluted and immediately left the bridge.

 

Having lived on board the vessel for several weeks, I had a rough understanding of the abilities and experience of most members of the crew, so the selection process did not take long.

 

First of all, Chief Petty Officer Oskin, a member of the engine crew. Oskin came from a family of miners from Sverdlovsk9, so he had some experience in mountain climbing, and was generally a very bright and

observant young man. Together with two other sailors that I took on his advice, we quickly gathered the necessary equipment and went outside the surfaced K-244.

 

Even with three people, clad in full arctic suits, getting the dinghy out of the narrow hatch was back- breaking work. Outside raged a terrible snow storm, and I could feel the stinging cold getting through minute gaps in my protective hood and goggles. In such weather, even a person unharmed by the crash itself likely would not have survived for two hours.

 

It was very hard just walking from K-244 to the tail of the downed aircraft. The ice underfoot was unsteady, and even Oskin, the last man in the file, was poorly visible in the blizzard. The weather seemed to get worse every minute since I first looked in the periscope.

 

One of the sailors, realising the same thing, anxiously asked me if it would not be better to turn back.

 

Oskin called him a fool and pushed him forward.

 

When we came closer, it became clear that the situation of Flight 113 was even worse than initially expected. The freezing wind blew through the passenger cabin through torn sections of the fuselage.

 

The crewman who was walking behind me stumbled on something hard and cursed, but then let out a small cry. The thing he tripped on was the lower half of a body, by now completely frozen. The gruesome state of bodies after an air crash does not need explanation - the fragile human body cannot hope to withstand collisions at several hundred kilometres an hour. It was impossible to remain calm in the face of such utter and merciless destruction. When I was a fresh recruit, I had seen similar, if not more appalling consequences of a high speed crash. Then I vomited, and the images haunted my dreams for years to come. This time, a combination of slapping and yelling by me and Oskin was enough to get

the crewman out of his panicked state.

 

Having spent some time inspecting the surroundings of the wreck, we tied ourselves together with a rope and went inside the passenger cabin through a round hole in the fuselage.

 

A hellish sight awaited us there.

 

The seats closer to the front were a ghastly mass of crushed bodies.

 

There was at the very least no smell - we could be grateful for the cold, which quickly froze the bodies. Even so, one of the sailors could not

bear the sight and, tearing off his mask, vomited loudly in a corner. Such was the cold that the contents of his stomach almost instantly started congealing on the floor.

 

Further in the back of the cabin, the motionless passengers looked like they were asleep.

- Nobody could have survived this, - sighed Oskin heavily.

- Doesn't look like anybody did... Should we go check the front half? - I wanted to do everything to get results, if it was at all possible. If there were no survivors, at least the cockpit voice recorder could be a

way to justify Khabarov's actions in the face of charges of disobeying the orders of North Fleet HQ and surfacing in this area. Humane reasons alone, unlike in the West, would not be sufficient justification for

the politicians of my home country.

 

However, my flashlight illuminated a world of death and cold, where the only sound was the howling of the wind...

...Or not?

 

In this realm of death, I had found traces of life not yet extinguished. I had noticed that three of the starboard seats in the very back of the cabin were vacant. There were no in-flight magazines in the seat

pockets, two of the seats had their backs down, and there were traces of blood on the third one. This may have meant that several people moved from these seats after the crash.

 

We searched the cabin again, trying to shout over the wind - "Is someone there?!". There was no answer.

 

Even then we did not give up and started searching the cargo hold under the cabin. The hold was twisted beyond recognition from the terrible crash, and even though it was sometimes too narrow for

us, in thick clothing, we somehow cut our way through with hatchets and hydraulic rams.

 

- Comrade... do you feel it?..

- Yes. Almost no wind there.

 

This compartment, full of dislodged containers, was sheltered from the wind. Even so, it was effectively a freezer, with a temperature close to minus twenty degrees.

 

And they were inside: a man, woman and child, huddled together under a blanket and such a thick pile of clothes, that their shapes did not even look human.

 

It was already too late for the man, an Asian in his twenties. He had suffered a serious wound to the abdomen and lost a lot of blood. Impossible to say what killed him sooner - the bleeding or hypothermia.

He was probably dragged here by his companions to protect him from the cold. The Asian woman and child were still breathing. We never found out if they were his family, or just happened to be sitting next

to him, but they were clinging to him desperately, as if trying to protect his body.

 

The beautiful young woman seemed to be around the same age as the man, whose body was already cold.

 

I asked her in English if she was all right, to which she only answered: "Save my baby... please..."

Judging by her accent, she was Japanese, so I answered in her mother tongue: "Yes, I have come to rescue you."

 

After I joined the special forces, I took several language classes at the GRU10, Japanese being one of them. I also had worked for a year in the Soviet embassy in Tokyo, handling mostly illegal activities.

 

There I was taught by a KGB agent who mastered the language, and my pronunciation became very close to that of a native speaker, but my vocabulary was somewhat formal, so with my way of speaking,

and a habit of repeating affirmatives, I sounded like a soldier on parade.

- Yes. We have come to rescue you both.

She breathed a sigh of relief, even though I was speaking strangely. She handed me the baby, weakened by the intense cold, and said again, in Japanese: "Save him... please..."

 

The child was four or five years old. I thought at first that it was a girl, but now I could see that I was wrong. Gripping a stuffed toy that looked like a fat mouse in a bowler hat, the boy uneasily looked at me

and Oskin.

 

- It's all right, boy. Let me take you to a warm place, - said Oskin in Russian, and took the child as he was, wrapped in a blanket.

 

The boy suddenly started crying for his mother and struggling to free himself from Oskin's arms. Despite her weakness, she managed to keep her voice firm and steady as she said to her child: "Don't cry... Go!".

The Japanese language is difficult, but on occasions displays an surprising depth and power. Then, as she said these words, she could have well meant to say - "Live!"11. I don't know which one it was - probably,

both.

 

At that moment, a sound reached my ears. At first, it was like the popping of bubbles in a fizzy drink. I thought that it was no more than the environment playing tricks with my perception, and that the faint

sound was imaginary. But before long, it became much louder and closer, like the roar of applause in a concert hall.

 

The ice was breaking up, and the machine was about to sink.

Even with such low temperatures, the ice could not support the weight of the plane for much longer.

We did not have a moment to lose. In the narrow hold, an adult alone had difficulty moving; leading the passenger through it was going to be even harder.

As the hold was beginning to incline downwards, three of us began to pull the woman up with the rope we brought, while Oskin was crawling out by himself, with the child. Meanwhile, the roaring sound grew closer. The ceiling split with a crack, and the plane began to sink into the freezing ocean. Bolts were snapping with a strange sound. Crawling, staggering, almost falling down on a few occasions, we managed to escape the sinking aircraft. But we could not rest safe on the swaying ice. If it broke

underneath our feet, we would be dragged in together with the plane.

My fears proved to be true. I let Oskin go first, with the child, and along with another sailor, was helping the woman. We were preparing to jump across a crack in the ice, when the block of ice on which we

were standing suddenly bucked underneath us, splitting in half. I will never forget that devilish shriek - the sound of the machine dragging us into the darkness together with it.

 

I barely managed to thrust my ice axe into the block, narrowly avoiding a fall into the dark chasm.

 

However, the sailor and the woman were not so fortunate. They both slid into the chasm and gulped down a lot of icy seawater. The sailor panicked and frantically shouted something - I could make out what, since his native language was Ukrainian. The woman did not have any strength left to scream, so she just raised her eyes and look helplessly at me. I still remember that look as if it happened today.

 

If I held out my hand, I could still help one of them. But only one.

 

 

In the dim light, my vision blurred, I could not see the faces of my companions, but I knew I had three seconds at most to help them. Only three seconds...

 

At the end, I caught the sailor's hand. He was closer to me, only two feet away. He was a young man, barely twenty years old, and he had no connection with this accident. He had a family to return to, back

home. The woman, on the other hand, had suffered a heavy blow to the abdomen, and judging by the symptoms, her internal organs might have been severely damaged, and she was already suffering from hypothermia. If I had decided to sacrifice the sailor for her sake, it was questionable whether the medical facilities on board the submarine were enough to save her life.

 

I had made my choice.

I somehow managed to grab the struggling crewman's sleeve, and over his shoulder saw the woman.

She was being sucked into the great, black maw of seawater and broken ice, and she did not even have any strength left to scream - her face never showed a hint of terror or despair. Calmly accepting her fate,

she was slipping into eternal darkness - and at that fleeting moment, she was surreally beautiful.

She did not look at me - her face was turned towards Oskin, and the child in his arms. Her pale, lifeless lips seemed to say one last word, which I thought was - "Fight". Then the darkness swallowed her completely, and she disappeared from sight.

 

- Comrade! Quick!! - were shouting Oskin and the other crewmen, throwing me a rope.

Up until then I did not even realise the danger that my own life was in. Without losing a second, we ran from the funereal wreckage. I could not even see the shape of the sinking plane, but I do remember the

sound it made. To me then it seemed like behind us a great, malevolent spirit from the underworld was cursing us in its terrible, thunderous voice.

***

At the end, we did not get to search the front half of the plane. With a tremendous rumble, it sank into the Arctic Ocean while we were carrying the lone survivor back to K-244.

When we got back inside the submarine, I handed the child over to the ship's medical officer and could finally take off my heavy arctic outfit.

Our spirits were low because we could not save the boy's mother, and our bodies were fatigued and frozen. The sailor, whom I saved instead of the woman, was then in a state of light shock, and was muttering incoherently and sobbing on my shoulder, blaming himself for what had occurred: "You saved me but... I should've died instead... we abandoned her..."

 

I was possibly the least suitable person on the ship for consoling him, so I whispered to Oskin to take care of him, and went to the next compartment. Near the medical office I met captain Khabarov, who

looked at me intensely and said:

                               

 

- What was left of that plane is already at the bottom, - saying that, he thrust into my arms a bottle of vodka he was carrying.

- Drink. You look like a dead man.

- Yes, Sir,

- I took the bottle and took a large mouthful. The liquid burned in my throat, then pleasantly warmed my stomach, and I finally let out a sigh. - We could only save one.

- One is enough. You did good, - the captain clapped me on the back.

- What's the condition of the child?

- Ah, you can come see that for yourself. Shall we?

- Yes, Sir.

We came inside, and I quietly listened to what the medical officer said. The child apparently only had light frostbite, and there was no danger of him losing fingers from it. He was now sleeping peacefully in the back.

- Is he Japanese?

- Most probably.

- Who is he?

The medical officer shrugged, and looked at me.

- Would you take a look at his belongings? - he asked, nodding towards the boy's clothes and his toy that were laid out on his desk.

- That's all he had.

The clothes were cut during his treatment, and were now almost unrecognisable. Upon further inspection, I found a tag on the lining on his shorts, with a name, written with a felt-tip pen most likely by the child himself, in hiragana.

It read "Sagara Sousuke".

That name was all he had left.

                                                     ***

Two days later K-244 turned back towards its home port, and the Headquarters of the North Fleet.

There was some anxiety over the Party's judgment on the rescue operation, conducted in violation of orders, but otherwise, the voyage was calm and uneventful. Once, the sonar reported that one of the new British submarines12 was pursuing us. That was the usual game. It abandoned its pursuit when we were getting close to the Barents Sea, returning to the waters near the Svalbard archipelago. Apparently it had detected the sortie of another new warship of ours, but that information had been classified. I learned later that the new warship sank because of an "accident".

 

In any case, I, as the only person who could speak Japanese on board the warship, together with the ship's medical officer, took care of the child, tried to talk to him and get him to open up to us. At first, he

almost never replied to me - quite understandable, considering he had just been through the terrifying experience of a plane crash and was probably in shock.

 

He only stared talking to me on the fourth day after the dramatic rescue. I was, as usual, trying to draw some kind of reaction from him, saying things that are usual in these cases. "Are you hungry? Do you

want something? You'll be home soon, you know. Don't worry."

Sagara Sousuke did not answer, in spite of my efforts. I remember shaking my head, giving up on him momentarily, and going to sit on a chair on the opposite side of the medical office. However, I had been

going through newly intercepted communications all night, and was somewhat exhausted. Possibly because of that, I slipped on the wet floor of the office, and fell, clinging to a nearby table and overturning it. I must have seemed quite comical to an onlooker.

 

However, Sagara Sousuke did not laugh. His shoulders dropped a little, he fixed me with a serious gaze and asked:

- Are you hurt, mister?

- Ah, no, I'm all right,

- I answered, getting up, surprised a little at the way he said it.

I've tried to ask him if he was all right, but he only said:

- Where's mom?

I opened my mouth, but words failed me. Just how is it proper to tell him something like that - I did not know.

- Ah, your mother...

- Is she dead?

Silence fell and lasted for a very long, tense minute. At the end, I did not know what to do, so I answered him honestly.

- Yes. She passed away. My condolences.

He immediately started to cry, hugging his old plush toy tightly. It was his own way of coping with the weight of my words.

 

- I'll die too... mommy... - he mumbled after a while, weeping.

I could not do anything except stand there, looking at the floor. I could not think of anything to say, even the most common words of consolation escaped me. I could not even tell him that "your mother had to go far away"...

 

In retrospect, I believe that my decision was unavoidable. I had no other options. But this small child's tears cast a shadow of doubt over me. I could have done more. I constantly blamed myself for not doing

enough afterwards, and I always felt that I owed him something I could never truly repay. He, of course, had no idea about it.

Up until now, I have still not been able to bring myself to tell him what happened that day, and he does not know that I was there.

Call me a dishonest person, and I will agree, but I cannot say it.

People misjudge me. Even being a soldier, a commander, with all my training and experience, I am stil too weak to say it.

                                                    ***

Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time with him on the way back to port. The block where he had lived, the dishes his mother prepared, the cats that lived nearby - he told me a lot of different things about his life.

I could not understand exactly what city he lived in, and where his home was, but I could feel that he had always been deeply loved and cared for by both parents. I was already calling him "Sousuke-kun", while he called me "An-oji-san". Considering our current relationship, I find it even humorous. I'm sure that he, being a small child at the time, doesn't remember most of our conversations.

 

Sousuke refused to part with his plush toy. Just before entering port, I teased him, saying that he "looks like a girl" with it.

 

He still did not go of the toy, scowled and said:

- It's all right. This will protect me.

I have always believed that people are moulded by their experiences of life after birth, but he at least seemed to be born for a virtuous existence. Perhaps he would not become strong, and he would fear

conflict and violence; no matter, for one thing was certain, - Sagara Sousuke wasexceptionally gentle and kind.

                                                      ***

When K-244 came back to her home port, my mission was technically over. However, I was ordered to stay inside the docked submarine, together with her entire crew. Only captain Khabarov was summoned to the Headquarters. While the captain was away, an officer with an escort of sailors came to take away Sagara Sousuke. That KGB officer, evidently proficient in Japanese, told Sousuke to come with him in a soft, coaxing voice. I did not have any authority to stop him, of course, and besides, I was disciplined by the Party and the army, and believed that nothing bad could happen to him. I waved my hand then, smiled, and told the nervous child: "It's all right. Be safe," and sent him off.

 

Captain Khabarov never returned to the K-244. Moreover, I have never seen him again.

 

On the second day of standing by in port, I was taken out by the same, extremely similar-looking people, who took Khabarov, and saw the lead-coloured sky above the harbour again. In the headquarters I was

subjected to a rigorous interrogation. Barely allowing me a moment's sleep, officers who did not tell me their names were continuously asking me the same questions, over and over.

 

What was your original mission?

Why did you abandon that mission?

Who inside the ship approved it?

What did the captain say at that time?

How did he argue with the political officer?

Were there really no other survivors?

Why did you not object to the captain's idea?

Did you not think for a second that this is an act of high treason?

Judging by the way the interrogation was going, Khabarov must have taken all the blame, saying that it was his own judgement, and that the crew and Kalinin had nothing to do with it. I continued to give vague answers, and was let go after three days. My interrogation training instructor back in the Spetsnaz13 was much more severe.

 

All said and done, we did not get any praise for rescuing even one survivor. Instead, the crew of the K-244 received a similar treatment, and most were in shock afterwards.

 

We heard that Commander Khabarov was relieved of his post and sent to the Far Eastern fleet, but in reality I don't think that was the case. He was probably sent to live the rest of his life somewhere in Siberia's harsh wastes.

 

When I returned to my home in Leningrad, enduring my wife's usual sarcastic remarks, I started to assemble any news that I could. The Soviet government was not about to declare that one of their

submarines was present at the scene of the accident. The crew were given an order not to disclose any information on it, - the K-244 never left port, and of course, the existence of Sagara Sousuke was not reported anywhere. Later, when I got my hands onto a Japanese newspaper from the time of the accident, I looked for his name among the deceased. Strangely, there were no passengers with the name "Sagara" on board. His parents may have been divorced, or he might have been an illegitimate child.

 

Even if the name on those clothes was wrong, the little boy never corrected me.

 

This situation puzzled me, and I thought that the little passenger called "Sagara Sousuke" could not have been alone - but finding family members proved impossible (when I finally set foot in Japan as a free

man, that accident was already forgotten).

For all intents and purposes, the boy was dead, for the political convenience of a superpower, and for a very long time I had no way of knowing what happened to him afterwards. I only got my first clue four

years later. Going back to the Afghan front again, I was talking to an acquaintance from the KGB, who told me about one of their special sections, where their operatives assembled foreign children and

raised them as assassins. It was called "Knife"14 - I do not know whether that was the official name, or an informal designation; that officer told me he had seen a Japanese child in the training school of that

section. He had apparently been brought in four years ago by a KGB officer with close ties to the Navy, being now around eight years old, and showed excellent results.

 

That was enough for me to understand: the motherland I had hitherto unquestionably believed in took this frail, tender boy that I remembered so well, and turned him into an assassin.

                                                    *****

In Afghanistan I had participated in three major stages of the war, broadly speaking. First was the prelude to the invasion.

That time I was attached to the force whose task was to assassinate President Amin, and I was part of the teams that secured the presidential residence. Then I had faith that I was doing a sacred duty for my

country.

 

The second time was a year before my mission on the K-244. As a junior officer of the special forces, I had several subordinates under my command, and was tasked with search-and-destroy operations

against guerrillas in the north-eastern part of the country. At that time, the mujahedeen, - the jihadists opposing the pro-Soviet government and Soviet Army, - were turning into serious, experienced opponents, steeled by their terrible losses. They had been only a crowd of poorly armed people who barely knew how to hold a gun, but over the years, they became an experienced fighting force, a fearsome opponent.

 

The third time would be during the new invasion of Afghanistan, that was liberated from occupation only a short time before.

 

After the incident on the K-244, I had been restricted to paperwork. There was always a shortage of capable men, who knew the area and had plenty of training and experience, on the ground, but I did not

participate Party meetings with any enthusiasm, - that was probably the reason why I still was not a major by then.

 

Three years flew by, and it was finally decided that I was to be transferred to active duty on the ground.

During those three years I was promoted to captain. Usually I would get command of a company of

 around one hundred people, but my unit was a special assault, reconnaissance and sabotage force, so in reality I took command of the equivalent of a platoon.

 

I did not forget about the boy I saved while on the K-244, who was raised into an assassin, and even while preparing for my third departure to the front, every day I was continuing my investigation of his fate. The words of the KGB officer were not enough. While in hell that was front line, ensuring the safety of my subordinates would be my first priority, and I surely would not be able to interfere in any way with a secret, inhuman project that my country was conducting.

 

Yes - by then Afghanistan became hell, once again.

"Liberating" it from the former government, labelled corrupt and depraved, we, the Soviet Army, met tough opposition from the jihadist guerrillas, fighting against atheist rule. It would take too long to

describe the vigour, daring and relentlessness, with which they fought. They were admirable as soldiers, with great endurance, that could at times inspire fear. They only had old rifles, but they knew ways to

outsmart our modern equipment. On bread and water alone, they managed to walk through tens of kilometres of rugged mountains. They did not fear death, and faced many enemies - that is, Soviet soldiers - alone, believing that their purpose was to kill them for Allah, and in the most cruel way possible.

 

Many died then.

 

With our operations, we saved a lot of comrades, but I still had to write several dozen letters of condolence to the families of those we lost. Nevertheless, my subordinates admired me as a reliable

commander, and followed without question. In the eyes of the new recruits, I probably was an unyielding, stern veteran. Looking at our results, I might have seemed worthy of such an appraisal. Soon, even among the fearless jihadists in that area, my unit became well-known, and they started to be much more cautious when fighting us.

 

However... I remember that during that war I grew weary of life itself. My previously light hair, close to platinum blond, soon became a dead, ashen grey. When did it happen? I could not tell.

Then there was my wife, Irina Kalinina. By then she was a well-known violin player, and possibly because of her numerous travels and performances abroad, she was becoming a refined woman - intelligent,

with a sense of humour, she was a romantic at heart and loved children above all. We met in our early twenties, and I remember clearly that we fell in love on the first day, and married the same year. Above

all, she wished for a child, but neither I, nor her occupation permitted it. She was touring the planet, giving performances all over the world, and I was, in my own way, also touring the planet, on a mission

that did not allow for thoughts about family. As a married couple we rarely met, and when I came back home, she obviously could not be there, waiting for me.

 

Sometimes, as a husband, I accompanied her abroad on performances, but in fact it was an excuse for another mission from the GRU. Contacting a local agent or installing some transmission equipment - they were simple and discreet missions, but my wife considered that I was making "vague excuses" and scolded me for it. When I went back to the front, we continued to exchange letters, but she knew my personality too well, and rightly guessed that I would be annoyed if I had to write every day. When she saw words like "a safe mission" in my letters, Irina immediately knew that it was not the case. I was indeed lying, because the mission was far from safe.

 

Despite all of this, I thought that everything would somehow work out.

                                                      ***

At the end, the Soviet Army emerged completely victorious from the conflict in Afghanistan, but then it was often called "the Soviets' Vietnam War". The fighting was hard for the Soviet Army, the end was

nowhere in sight and victory looked very improbable. By then I had, of course, understood, that this was an aggression based on pure geopolitical motifs, but even so I still believed in fighting my country's cause. Realising that this belief was also futile and starting to see my own country with suspicion and distrust would not take much longer. Going there for the third time, as a commander, I could

understand the purpose of this war even less.

Afghanistan is an area covered by steep mountains, so friendly support vehicles and armour could only move on narrow, unpaved roads, that were winding through the mountains. It is unnecessary to explain

to a person with even the most basic training that it was extremely easy, just by laying mines on a road like that, to create a perfect ambush. Likewise, there is no point in explaining the difficulty of detecting

the enemy guerrillas, who were using geographical features and the cover of night to move and get closer to allied defensive positions.

                        

 

The "Hind" attack helicopters were effective in countering the guerrillas, they were vulnerable to the "Stinger" Man-Portable Air-Defence System that America had started supplying them with, and their

operation capabilities were severely limited by weather, so they were far from an ideal solution. Against able guerrillas, making use of terrain to lay ambushes and striking day and night, an ordinarily equipped army was simply vulnerable. With no break in this deadlock in the foreseeable future, the men of the Soviet Army were getting weary.

 

However, that break came when the newly introduced "Arm Slave" machines first walked on the field of battle.

 

We had been hearing rumours about new machines for around half a year already, when the first, brand new Arm Slave, called "Livenj"15, was deployed in our regiment. The NATO codename for this machine was Rk-91 "Savage". It was, of course, somewhat slower than modern AS types, but compared to a regular infantryman it was almost invincible. At the beginning, me and most other officers were sceptical about its capabilities and battlefield performance, but after a couple of weeks of field tests, we began to recognise its worth.

 

It is well-known that the AS is a walking armoured combat vehicle, whose form imitates that of a human.

 

Tougher and better armed than an attack helicopter, with an exceptional manoeuvrability that allowed it to pass through any kind of terrain, this human-like weapon was the perfect solution to our problems.

 

It was the perfect weapon for clearing out the guerrillas with their outdated equipment.

 

I spent my days ensuring coordination between the existing reconnaissance force and the AS unit, and working out successful anti-guerrilla tactics. This work immediately bore fruit: in just one month we doubled the area we controlled in the region, and friendly losses decreased drastically.

For the enemy it must've been a drastic turn for the worse. My enemy at the time was the reputedly invincible general Majeed, who commanded the guerrillas on the Panjsher plateau, the heart of the Badakhshan region16. The guerrilla force of the man called the "Tiger of Badakhshan" was known even among other Afghan insurgents not only for their powerful leadership, but also for their unusually merciful treatment of prisoners of war. As a professional soldier, despite fighting against them, I had

always admired and respected their boldness and fortitude.

 

This was the enemy that the AS unit under my command was busy exterminating. It was not a pleasant task, but one that had to be done to reduce possible allied casualties in the region. I did not have any

other options, and I could not use my own discretion in this case.

In that seemingly endless darkness of war, there were few moments when light shone on me, however, I do remember the one joyful event that happened in my family: Irina was blessed with a child. When I got her letter, two months after returning home for a short leave, I started believing that this was a turning point, that everything was going to be better from now on. I only had to concentrate on the mission ahead, ensure the triumph of my country in this war, and return immediately afterwards. I would survive, and return home - this was now not as difficult as before. I had to do it...

                                                     ***

I heard about it first from my adjutant, Lieutenant Krivenko, the week after the letter from my wife reached me. A similar mixed platoon of our regiment, while attempting to capture the suburb of a nearby town, was completely wiped out by an enemy counterattack. They had apparently used an Arm Slave. I could not believe my ears.

 

There was no previous record of a guerrilla unit operating AS-type vehicles, and no intelligence reports.

 

My first thought was that the American government supplied that AS to the guerrillas. However, the most advanced weapon they had hitherto sent them were the Stinger missiles. Could they offer an AS?

 

Taking into consideration all expenses and logistical problems, such a plan would be too complicated, and I had concluded that it was impossible.

 

When I went to see the scene of the battle, I could immediately say that, judging by the footprints and used ammunition type, it was not an American AS. The enemy was using one of our own "Savages" against us, probably stolen from somewhere because of incompetence on our part.

Having thoroughly observed its footprints, I could conclude that its pilot was still handling it somewhat unskilfully. There were some useless steps, an inefficient movement pattern, and several traces of it falling down by itself could be found. The pilot also wasted too many bullets.

However, there was only one reason why our damaged machine was taken away.

 

- They've taken it for parts, I bet, - remarked my aide, Lt. Krivenko,

- Sly bastards'll use it to repair theirs.

 

There were three other abandoned "Savage" wrecks in the area. One stepped on a mine and was subsequently destroyed by an anti-tank missile, another had serious problems with its powerplant and was abandoned on the battlefield. If they transported the third one by truck and dismantled it, with its working parts they could very well build one machine in perfect condition. Of course, I did not think that there was an AS specialist in the enemy ranks, however, there was a possibility of one of them being a student of an engineering college or a technician before the civil war.

 

Guerrillas capturing and seizing a new weapon that confused even trained military technicians? Yes, it was hard to believe at first, but facts seemed to point to that conclusion. The foolishness of the top-level

officers, who dismissed them as illiterate savages, was apparent. On the contrary, they combined the traditional wisdom of the elders with the necessary amount of scientific knowledge.

                           

If this was not the case, they would not have been able to use the Stingers so effectively against Soviet helicopters and transports. Taking into consideration the weather and movement patterns of the aircraft, as well as the special properties of infra-red rays in the atmosphere, they sent the missiles away with their usual "Allah akbar". It was, of course, a sign of their faith, not just a nonsensical utterance because of superstition.

 

The guerrillas had sufficient education - they just did not possess sufficient equipment. It was the only difference with the "modern army" we trusted in.

 

It took our army quite some time to realise that fact. Despite my warnings, Headquarters still continued to use regular tactics against them, and we suffered unnecessary losses. The AS that was assigned to the

mopping up operation was ambushed and destroyed by an enemy AS of the same type, and the defenceless infantry were quickly overrun. That is why I went to see the scene for myself. I had a feeling that soon the number of useless movements and fired bullets would decrease, as the pilot's skill improved. This time he had used a river or a paved road to escape, to avoid detection of his footprints.

 

He was already improving.

This pilot has just received valuable combat experience. This was a new machine. Even our own pilots did not have much experience with it, and now they were fighting against an enemy of about the same skill. No, rather, the enemy had an advantage - he knew the terrain like no other, and had admirably coordinated his actions with his fellow infantry - he would have been destroyed alone.

 

It did not take much to imagine that this enemy might soon become beyond our control.

 

I had received an order to destroy that AS immediately, and was moved out to the Panjsher plateau with three Savages, two infantry platoons and two Hinds. At the time of that mopping-up operation, I was introduced by our local informant to a certain man. He was an Asian mercenary, working here, in Afghanistan, as an instructor in a training camp for anti imperialist combatants from all over the globe.

 

His name was Gauron. "Anti-imperialist combatants" was, of course, a pretty name for terrorist group members, that would later carry out their attacks in the West, and the training facilities were supported from the very beginning by the KGB.

 

From the very beginning I had taken a dislike to that Gauron. He viewed such Western concepts as civilisation and humanism with scorn and disgust. We were not pleased that a suspicious training facility for terrorists was operated under our noses, in the middle of our war. Gauron's men also sometimes started fights with guerrillas on their own, calling it "practice". When I pointed that out, he gave a me a gloomy smile, and answered in fluent Russian: "Hey, now, we're only helping you a little with... pest extermination. You should be a little more grateful, captain."

 

His unpleasant countenance notwithstanding, I was forced to admit that he was a more than capable soldier. He was - yes, like a lion. When you were fooled by his seemingly languid appearance, he would suddenly display his determined and violent nature. He was unusually large for an Asian man, quick-witted, devilishly cunning; his piercing gaze seemed to read all the weaknesses of human nature in his opponent. It was almost impossible to make him yield, and indeed, I would later fight him time and again, and would not be able to defeat him completely.

 

On the first day after coming there, Gauron left without notice and came back with three people he captured. When I censured him for his arbitrary conduct, he casually shot one of those three, who looked like their leader. He pointed another handgun at Lieutenant Krivenko, who tried to restrain him, and shot another prisoner, then proceeded to swiftly extract intelligence from the already sobbing third man, the most faint-hearted of them all.

 

- Sorry, captain. But it did save us time, right? Well, don't forget to clean up, - said Gauron, killing the last man after his business with him was done, then turning away and casually leaving.

 

These were entirely rational, but quite unpleasant methods. However, my real first confrontation with Gauron would come later. That time, we would not be on the same, Soviet side any more.

 

- Ah, yes, - he said before leaving, turning his head to me, - about that guerrilla AS. You should capture the pilot alive. I'll show you something even more interesting then.

                                                     ***

Despite these complications, the information extracted by Gauron proved to be quite important. We could understand the deployment of guerrilla forces, as well as the number of their AS machines. There was still only one. Even though we had been considering the possibility that the enemy had captured three Arm Slaves, it proved to be a false assumption. At first it looked like they kept them away from combat, and used them for training purposes. The enemy also had very limited fuel and ammunition.

I instantly devised a complex operation to trap the enemy. We did not have complete knowledge of terrain or weather conditions, but there was no one more experienced than my own subordinates. The attack helicopters would attack the enemy from the front and pin them down; the infantry would also devote itself to tying up the enemy in combat. My aim was to leave the enemy AS without support. With proper preparations, our own AS would take it down without any problems.

 

It was one evening in late autumn. Winter, which was approaching fast, would render both armies'operations more difficult.

As dusk set in, guerrillas started their approach, using the cover of darkness. The enemy, being very skilful, usually moved in two or three groups, and only after reading our intentions. Even so, making

preparations against a fourth group was an easy matter.

 

Before long, the enemy AS appeared near a designated rock face, and the AS platoon, under my personal command, began the attack. The twilight calm was ripped apart by the growl of engines, and the roar of our guns drowned even the howl of the cold wind. Despite this perfectly executed ambush, the enemy AS calmly executed an evasive manoeuvre and tried to counterattack. Moreover, he used the loose ground to create a landslide that immobilised one allied AS, shot a second in the engine, and only

the third one, already half-damaged, managed to cause sufficient damage to the enemy machine, and it stopped moving.

 

Despite Gauron's recommendation, I did not give any orders to capture the pilot alive - there was simply no room for going easy on him. That he did survive was the result of his own actions. Then there was the fact that as soon as the enemy AS fell, our own suddenly lost his offensive capability... whether that was simple luck, I do not know.

 

The pilot of the downed AS was shooting back at us from the cover of his machine with his rifle. When he ran out of ammunition, he switched to his handgun. He must have realised that he had been completely surrounded...

 

At the end, I led several experienced officers to the wreckage of the AS and captured him. Even now I am unable to describe my astonishment at discovering who was lying behind his wrecked AS and

 shooting his pistol at us. It was a very young Oriental boy, approximately ten years old. This would be enough to surprise any soldier, but that was not all. Five years had passed, but I instantly understood who was before me. Perhaps it was his face, or other distinct features, or maybe even unexplainable

intuition, but I immediately knew - the child was Sagara Sousuke. Rescued in the Arctic Ocean and then made into an assassin - this was the boy from K-244.

 

And - oh, God. His eyes, - the eyes of that gentle child whom I remembered so vividly, sitting on the bed in the submarine's medical office and clutching to that old plush toy, - were now the cold, emotionless eyes of a killer.

                                                    ***

I cannot imagine what suffering he went through. He was no longer holding his toy, which would "protect him", as he told me then - instead, he gripped tightly an AK rifle, still hot from the shots it fired.

We restrained the boy and took him back to the base. During that time, like a beast, sensing an opportunity, he tried to escape several times, and had to be forcibly subdued.

 

Upon returning to the base, and finishing my report to the regimental commander, I went to the interrogation room, where he waited, and began questioning. I ordered all my subordinates outside, but even when we were alone, the boy kept silent.

 

- I am captain Andrei Kalinin. What is your name?

 

He did not answer. He only stared at me with a sullen look. The light that came from the small, barred window, illuminated him, and made eerie shadows dance on his face.

 

- Sagara Sousuke, - as I pronounced this name, for the first time his face began to show signs of surprise.

 

- Am I wrong?

- My friends call me Kassim17, - he finally said. - Nobody knows that other name.

- Think again. I also have friends from the KGB, - hearing this, his eyes became extremely alert.

– The special training program of child assassins - "Knife". That is where you are from, aren't you?.. Then why are you fighting alongside the enemies of the Soviet Union?

He did not answer.

- It can't simply be desertion, can it. Then... a mission? To kill commander Majeed, you'd have to get close to him first. Am I wrong?

I did not need to hear his answer. At that point in time I could already make a quite informed guess, and as I later learned, my guess was right.

The Soviet Command did not know how to combat the fierce resistance of the guerrilla unit led by commander Majeed, so the upper echelons of command together with the KGB decided to surgically remove the leader - that much I could gather. In other words, assassinate him.

 

He was probably sent here to perform that assassination. The reason why an Asian was chosen to perform a mission in Afghanistan was very simple - his results were excellent, and he could hide among a minor group of Khazars in Majeed's camp. It was known that Majeed, despite being Tajik himself, welcomed and cared after women and children of other ethnicities.

 

Sousuke probably attempted the assassination, but failed. Majeed was known for his compassion, and it was very likely that he showed it in Sousuke's case, making this young assassin a trusted subordinate, and thus getting him to help the guerrillas.

 

However - why did he not keep him away from this cruel war, together with the other women and children? It would be logical, if he felt compassion towards the boy. I did not understand that at the time, but I do now. Having met him much later, in Mithril, thinking along the same lines as Majeed, I treated him the same way. So why? To put it plainly, it was a question of adaptation.

 

Faced with constant danger and high stress, not even the bravest man would remain unchanged.

 

Adapting to the abnormal state of things called "war", the mentality of a person would be remoulded by it.

The first sign of change was an indifference to the person's own existence. Soon, the person would passively react even to the thought of his or her own death. No matter what crisis that person would experience, they would pragmatically observe the situation and behave accordingly, and because of this, no matter how cynical it may sound, the likelihood of their survival increased.

 

There were also other people, who believed from the beginning that they could not die. These were the most heroic individuals, often, as I can say from experience, blessed with incredible luck. This kind of people, however, could not understand the fears and fragility of their companions, and often lacked imagination. They were also unable to display strength of will in times of real crisis, instead abandoning all reason and logic, and finding a heroic death on the battlefield, - and often taking their subordinates and companions with them.

 

There were also those who firmly believed in sacrifice for a great cause, an ideology, or a deity. They truly did not fear death. Some became mindless religious fanatics, others found a peace of mind in zeal and righteousness.

 

Apart from those, I saw other adaptation patterns, but these three were the most prevalent. When I came to Mithril, the people around me at first glance seemed to belong to the type that forsakes their own life. I was one of them, together with Sagara Sousuke. He, however, took that concept too far.

 

A regular solder, in conditions where his safety was assured, could become an ordinary person again.

 

They would eat, drink, laugh, sing, flirt with women, and enjoy the peaceful life. He could not return to that. Perhaps it was because his mind was strained and brought to its limits from early childhood by the

constant stress, but the fact was, that he did not know the way back to peace.

This kind of mental affliction was quite widespread among veterans of many wars, and the symptoms manifested themselves most acutely in the best of them. I also a had a similar problem, though not as grave.

 

He was always prepared for battle. Even when there was obviously no danger, he sensed non-existing threats. An ordinary person cannot imagine that, just as it is hard to adapt to danger, it is also hard to

adapt to peace. Among people in a peaceful society this would become a problem, for they would ostracise the person, treat them as mentally ill, and the person would usually continue to live in seclusion.

 

When he joined Mithril by chance, I could have given him a much safer duty. I could have thought that if he was left to tinker with the written off machinery in the disposal department, it would entice him to

slowly forget about being a soldier. I was not as thick-headed as to not understand that he was only a sixteen year old boy, who was made to kill people, and feel nothing while doing it. However, I also understood that if he was suddenly switched to a completely safe duty, it would not produce any significant results, for the reasons I already mentioned.

 

And then she appeared. Chidori Kaname.

 

This had the appearance of a mission, but was also an opportunity to attend a normal Japanese school, adapt to local life, with minimum stress. Of course, I assumed it would cause some trouble for the locals, but if he learned to adapt to peace, surely a life between his school and his unit was a small price to pay?

 

My plan turned out to be more successful than expected. Already half a year later he would say that he wanted to attend school on his own accord. He was finally becoming an ordinary young man.

 

But let us return to Afghanistan.

At that time, the greatest problem I faced was the guerrilla Arm Slave, and its pilot, the young Sousuke, was sitting, restrained, in front of me. I had no more reason to hate him for killing my comrades, - on the

contrary, we both were overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and grief.

This war was becoming mad. We wanted to return home. Anybody would have thought the same.

                                                     ***

Several weeks after the capture of Sagara Sousuke, days were passing by without any large-scale operations. Having lost their AS, the enemy abandoned any active resistance, and changed their tactics to systematically delay us and hold out as long as they could. Winter came very soon, and during that time any fighting on that battlefield was drastically reduced.

 

Sousuke's punishment was determined on the basis of local law. If he had been an adult guerrilla, he would have been executed or given a long sentence for being a traitor to the Soviet Union, but he was only a child. He was to be sent to an institution for war orphans in Kabul.

 

Before his punishment was decided, I visited him regularly. At first, there was almost nothing that could have been considered a normal conversation - he answered very curtly to my attempts to chat. It was

exactly the same as in the submarine's medical office. He did not recognise me as the "An-oji-san" he met on the K-244, and my attitude probably puzzled him.

 

When I informed him that he would be transferred to an orphanage in Kabul, he only answered:

- How many guards are in that orphanage?

He was already thinking of escaping from custody. I answered, taken aback by his attitude:

- This is an orphanage - there are no guards. But if you will try to escape, you will probably be imprisoned further away.

- Where?

                            

 

- In Leningrad. My home is there, - he did not seem to understand the meaning of my words.

- Would you... agree to become my adopted son? My wife already agreed. She's a wonderful woman... Saying that I handed him her picture, and he, as if remembering something from a long time ago, stared at the photo.

- She is beautiful.

 

- Isn't she... next year she'll give birth. We can live together, the four of us. You'll learn to be more like a normal human being, with me. We'll teach you music... and cooking...

 

Hearing that, he hesitated - but he did not refuse right away. This alone was more than enough. I understood that inside him, some emotions and feelings were not dead yet. There was still hope that he

could turn away from the life of a killer to a normal human being.

- I have comrades here...

- I know.

- If I'm not there, Hamid and others will be in trouble. I'm the only one who can use the AS.

- And if you do get back, will you fight me once again? - he looked down and did not answer. – Having fought me once, did you not understand? You cannot defeat me. I have been fighting before you were born. And I still think more about life. One time was enough, now if you will meet my family...

 

He suddenly raised his head. Nothing was reflected in his eyes - no hope, no despair. These eyes were just there, and they gazed at me vaguely.

- I don't understand what you are talking about. What is there, besides fighting or dying? Why didn't you kill me and instead left me here, and why are you saying these things to me?

 

His words sent a shiver down my spine. I had thought there was something human still left in him, but I suddenly felt that I was losing that confidence. He really did not understand what I had been saying, and

I could not do anything. It was a terrible, but genuine question - and it could not be explained to him, like to a machine or animal.

- It has nothing to do with war. It's something for your sake, - I could not think of a better answer at the time.

I urged him then to think about it once again, and transferred him to a clean, single cell. At least like that he was no threat to my comrades. I thought that in time he would no longer wish to return to the guerrillas, and more importantly, the day when his skills stopped being indispensable to them was drawing close.

Secret ceasefire negotiations began at that time between the opposition government with Majeed as its head, the pro-Soviet Afghan administration, the USSR, the USA, Pakistan and Iran. These powers had already been holding preliminary talks for several months, trying to find a common ground between the rebel and government forces. It was a good sign. The situation on the front had changed drastically, and at that time a ceasefire was a very realistic solution.

                                                     ***

A harsh winter came to the north of Afghanistan. The war with the insurgents entered a passive phase, and my subordinates were enjoying a relatively calm daily routine.

It did little to change Sousuke's mood; however, I felt that I had struck a decisive blow to his mental resistance, and patiently continued to persuade him. My commander and my aide sometimes asked me about it, but did not question my actions. My position did not seem to be compromised by this, as far as I knew, at least. I presumed that I would be the last soldier to quit this battlefield, then I would start working at some factory, - after all, I had no real affection for a military career.

Soon, I would become a father. It was out of the question that I would continue in such a dangerous line of work. Every week I received letters from Irina, where she said that the baby was growing fast, and impatiently read again and again, and showed them to Sousuke, who asked me, incredulously, why I was showing him these, but still looked at them with interest.

 

The first letter from Irina that troubled me came in December, when the ceasefire negotiations reached their final stage. She said that her body felt heavy, that she had lost her appetite, that she had swollen joints and sometimes abdominal pains. I was, naturally, worried, but upon reflection considered it more or less normal for her physical condition.

Besides Irina and Sousuke, I also had to worry about my duty, which became increasingly important.

There was no combat, but I had a role in the implementation of security measures for the ceasefire negotiations. Minister-grade VIPs were meeting in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. Usually, in such circumstances, a third neutral party (usually Switzerland, Sweden or Japan) would offer its good offices for the negotiations, the parties would meet face to face, and discuss questions like defence, security and immigration. This was not the case for these proceedings; I have no knowledge of what went on behind the scenes in the negotiations process, but the insurgent side also approved the use of that meeting place, and general Majeed was personally present at the meetings.

Inside the Soviet Union itself, the driving force behind the ceasefire talks was the Communist party, which arranged the assassination of Gorbachev earlier, and in particular the influential voice of Alksnis, a

man from the army. Formerly an Air Force colonel, Alksnis was labelled by the Western media as a very radical member of the hard-line faction, whereas in reality he was a pragmatic statesman and skilful diplomat18. He did initially support the idea of continuing the war until complete victory, if necessary, but by now he recognised that continuing this war had no benefit for his country. More importantly, he understood the feelings of soldiers who were shedding their blood on the front line, and thus had the support of many in the Army.

 

As for me, I was temporarily detached from my regiment and put in charge of the security of the airport of Kabul. At that time, Kabul was, of course, under complete control of the Soviet Army, but there was always a possibility that insurgents that opposed the ceasefire were hiding among the local population.

And then came the news...

It arrived as an encrypted message from regimental headquarters. I was concentrated on the task ahead, quickly giving out instructions on security measures in the airport, when lieutenant Krivenko cautiously approached me and hesitantly called out.

- Captain...

- Later, - I said, turning towards a map of the airport area. The lieutenant's voice somehow seemed to become unnaturally thin.

- It is quite important...

- All right. Speak.

- Sir... your spouse has passed away... together with the child.

                                                        ***

It was medical error.

I did not hear all the details, but apparently this is the way it happened. Irina's physical condition was continuing to deteriorate, and was getting even worse the week after she sent me her last letter, and

one night, she had to be transported to a local hospital. The doctor was apparently a drunkard, and there were no necessary medical supplies. It was some quite common illness. In a western hospital, with a proper physician, something could have been done. Their lives could have easily been saved, but they weren't, and because of such nonsense Irina died. Together with my child. No, they were killed. Killed by the inferior system of medical care of my country, which I believed in19.

I remember grabbing the desk with the maps, trying not to fall as my head spun from the shock, and asking my lieutenant if he would take over command.

At the end, my life had no meaning whatsoever.

Nevertheless, immediately afterwards I shook my head and informed the lieutenant that I would personally see to the security. I did not want to think about losing Irina and my child now.

 

This was one harsh lesson of life, and there was another incident soon after.

 

On the appointed day of the ceasefire negotiations, "guerrilla" inside Kabul staged a city-wide uprising, on a scale not seen for several years. That scale... that equipment... that flawless organisation... Even if

our commanders were extraordinarily incompetent, it would have been nigh impossible to execute such a plan. The city was thrown into chaos because of the "insurgency", and Alksnis, who was staying in one of the hotels, was killed. Curiously, at that time there were almost no guards from the Army stationed near it, and the killers got in and escaped very easily.

Being in the airport area, close to the fighting, intercepting some communications and seeing the peculiar tactics of the attackers, I could easily see through the "insurgents". They were not Afghan guerrillas, but Afghan soldiers, trained by the special forces of the KGB. An order from the lieutenant colonel in charge of the defence of the airport to let nobody pass, and shoot Majeed on sight (because he was the supposed orchestrator behind this uprising), came soon. Not even an hour after it started, Majeed was already declared its leader.

 

I finally realised: this entire ceasefire proposal was a bait to lure him in, a spectacle, and the Arm Slaves that had been deploying from spring on were meant for a complete extermination of the guerrillas.

"The rebels broke off the negotiations. It is truly regrettable, but they have ruthlessly murdered Comrade Alksnis, who initiated it. He truly desired peace, but it cannot be helped. This war will continue until the last rebel falls." That was their scenario.

 

If my subordinates were incompetent, the guerrillas could have been saved. That, however, was not the case. They found Majeed, trying to escape from the city, and drove him into a corner of the airport lobby with admirable skill.

- What do we do? The orders from HQ were to shoot on sight, - said then my aide, lieutenant Krivenko.

 

I hesitated for a minute, then gave my men the order to stand by, and approached the Aeroflot counter, where Majeed was hiding, to talk to him myself. I understood everything now.

As I thought, when I approached him, without fear, he did not even point his gun at me. He was a man of around the same age and stature as myself, with a very similar moustache. A very familiar look in his eyes told me that he was tired of the war. His appearance was that of a quiet intellectual, but hid an iron will. I concluded that he held a grudge against filthy schemers that infested a rotten country, and was

not a man who would die without seeing his cause through to the end.

- I was finally able to meet you, Your Excellency. I am honoured, - hearing that, he immediately considered the situation, and finally shrugged his shoulders, smiled and answered.

- You must be captain Kalinin.

- Quite right, Sir.

- After you came into my territory, things got quite difficult. What of Kassim? The young Arm Slave pilot?

- He survived. He's still in my base.

- I am relieved to hear it, - he took out the magazine from his pistol, and even the round that was already in the chamber.

- Well then? What are you going to do, captain?

I glanced at my men. I could see a deep anxiety on their faces; lieutenant Krivenko shook his head a little, and the other men seemed to want to say the same thing: "Don't do it, captain, please." However, I said:

- I will accompany you to the plane. Please, travel with me to my base first. It is understandable that my words, as your enemy, may seem strange - but there is still a reason for you to be alive.

 

I fully realised the consequences of me saving him. However, now did not matter, for I would never see Irina again - in any case.

                                                      ***

We quickly flew out of the city and to the base near Panjsher. I left my men with Krivenko in Kabul. This act was mine alone, and I had performed it based on my own judgement.

I made up an excuse to the regimental commander, and transferred Majeed along with Kassim to a transport helicopter. After that, time became a blur.

When we were fleeing to the Panjsher plateau, fighters came in pursuit. There was no warning of returning to base - the fighters just fired at us. The helicopter pilot began panicking, and I had to hold him at gunpoint while he brought us very low above the ground - and one of the fighters fired a heat- seeking missile.

It exploded at point-blank range, and our machine sustained considerable damage. Pieces of the fuselage were coming off, the engine made a strange whine, the earth seemed to spin around us and the white rocks of the mountain seemed to be coming towards me very fast - then an impact of

incredible force, and I immediately lost consciousness.

When I next woke up, I was in Majeed's camp, a fortnight after we crashed. My body seemed to have been almost torn apart. If it was not for the care of the excellent physician, who was also one of Majeed's men, I would have certainly died. This doctor told me gently that my survival was a miracle,

but I thought then that I did not wish for this kind of miracle, for if I had died, I would not have had to suffer so much.

Kassim - no, Sagara Sousuke returned to his guerrilla unit. He came to visit me once. He brought back a picture of Irina that I lent him, and told me that he decided to fight and die here.

 

Majeed came to visit more frequently, and prayed for my recovery to his God, but said the same thing as Sousuke. There was no hope for a ceasefire anymore. We were all going to die there.

 

It took me two months to be able to walk again. I did not have any intention to try and return to my own unit. I betrayed my country just as it had betrayed me. Who would welcome me back?

After my complete recovery, I joined the same unit as Sousuke, and proceeded to teach him what I knew of war. At least, if I taught him this, and if he survived, he would perhaps one day be able to return to

the peaceful world. That is what I thought, or, rather, the only thought I was desperately clinging to.

 

Soon, spring came, and with it a full-scale offensive of the Soviet Army. Majeed's forces were getting slaughtered by the AS. That year would mark the victory of the Soviet Union in the Afghan war.

 

I also intended to die there, however, fate would not have it. I ended up escaping the Afghan hell together with Sousuke, and as mercenaries, we moved from one battlefield to another, because we did not know what else to do.

During that time, I taught a lot of things to Sousuke - tactics, survival, and a few languages. Japanese was one of them. Since I only knew his name in hiragana, I also chose the kanji for it. When we became separated on the battlefields of Cambodia, I travelled to a various places myself, and then - I joined Mithril. Sometime later, exactly one year ago, Sagara Sousuke joined the unit that was led by my subordinate, Melissa Mao.

Objectively speaking, it can only be called a coincidence. I, however, saw it as something inevitable.

Divine will? Whimsical fate?

I would not know... And neither does he.


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