I'm fully aware that most of the internet-isms used here were not in use during the early nineties. See the slang clause from chapter 1. If you're reading this, I have faith in your ability to understand 21st century English net-talk.
This is the first half or so of the chapter. Can't say when the second half will come out, but keep an eye out for it. There's a few familiar faces who're showing up very soon. Hope you enjoy.
Color Pages, Dramatis Personae, and Prologue
Chapter 3 (1/2)
Chapter 3 (2/2)
Chapter 5, Epilogue, and Afterword
To the casual observer, Rehe Pictures, Inc. (熱河電影公司) was just an ordinary cable TV provider based in Roanapur. It sometimes filmed joint projects with other companies, but all of the actual work was done at the Bangkok branch, leaving the actual headquarters' unimpressive lobby void of any famous movie stars.
...Which was only natural, since the company was actually only a cover for the Thai branch of the Triad, the Chinese organized crime ring that spanned the entire globe.
So it only stood to reason that the man seated in the CEO's office was none other than Chang Wai-San. Though he was known to all and sundry as one of the most striking and stylish men in the city, for some reason he shied away from managing the organization's activities in the movie sector, instead leaving the specifics in that area to his underlings. Word on the street was that he was wary of the movie scene because he'd been mistaken for a famous movie star and started a huge commotion when he visited the organization's Bangkok headquarters, but nobody knew for certain.
By the time Chang, who was already somewhat tired due to taking care of the ruckus on the Zaltzman in addition to his normal duties, found himself faced with yet another item of work to do, the sun had already set and neon lights were beginning to cover the city with their flamboyant glare.
"...An informant, you say?" Chang asked doubtfully. His faithful right hand, Biu Yu Yun, only nodded.
"He says he knows where the men who tried to kill you are hiding, Da Ge (1). He's just a beggar who makes his living on Charkuwan Street, but his story makes sense. There's a good chance he's telling the truth."
"Hmm... Just what are those Lagoon fellows doing out there, anyway?"
An information lockdown had been put into effect within the Triad regarding the attack on the Zaltzman. That meant that for a spy to have come to them with information, there had to be a rumor on the street already about the assassination attempt.
There was the possibility that the Lagoon Company's members had let something slip about the assassination attempt during their search. And if it were to become known that the Triad was involved in this event in any way, it was only natural that anyone with information would find it in their best interests to sell to whoever was willing to pay the most.
If this spy was telling the truth, the Lagoon Company's efforts would all be for naught. Chang's surprise was understandable.
"What will you do, Da Ge? Our boys are already ready, if you want them to move in."
"I don't know. What shall we do?"
Leaning back in his leather chair, Chang sighed and stared up at the ceiling. He'd been hoping to leave the whole thing to Dutch and his crew, for the sake of their future relations if nothing else. But if the Lagoon Company kept showing such dismal results, he'd have no choice but to rethink the matter.
Chang spent many long minutes turning the matter over in his head, and then, having arrived at a conclusion, stuck out his right hand. Biu placed a cellphone in it as though he'd been waiting for nothing else. First, Chang placed two calls to some trusted employees, and finally dialed the Lagoon Company's number.
"...Ah! That's right!" Rock suddenly cried. The crew was in their office, gathered around a delivered pizza and having what passed for dinner.
Dutch and Revy glared daggers at him, their nerves already set on edge from an entire day of fruitless searching.
"The hell is it?"
"I just remembered this. Do you think it might be a clue?"
Rock drew a small piece of paper from his shirt pocket. It was Jake's business card, the one that he'd tried to pass Revy during the commotion in the hold. Even Rock had forgotten all about it after shoving it in his pocket.
It couldn't really be called a business card, though. The only thing on the card's front were the words "Ultimate Cool J," written in ridiculously decorative font, with no address or phone number to speak of.
Revy only gave it a cursory glance before snorting and looking away, perhaps remembering something she'd rather have not.
"...Ya dumb fuck. How the hell is that a clue?"
"Look at the other side. Isn't this a web address?"
Benny pushed his way forward to take a look, as though sensing his turn had come.
"Hey, you're right. I don't know whether it'll help us or not, but there's no harm taking a look."
"Fuckin' fuck, like hell it'll help. Fuckin' site's probably some kinda porn site filled with viruses."
"Maybe. But I think it'd probably be more fun than sitting here eating shitty pizza."
Dutch, who'd been scowling as he chewed away at cold margerita pizza, got to his feet and walked over to the computer.
"Benny Boy, I'd wager it's worth giving a try. Let's see what we have."
Benny opened up a web browser on his beloved PC. Behind him, Dutch, Rock and Revy all peered over his shoulder with various degrees of expectation on their faces.
Soon enough, a gaudy logo showed up on the front page.
A seesaw game of life and death played on a razor's edge.
That's the Ultimate Cool style.
"Ah... er... well... I guess you could say... um... his style's very unique?"
Rock smiled awkwardly, as Japanese were wont to do when faced with something wildly outside their comfort zone.
Below the logo, there was a photo of the gun that Jake had shown to Revy so proudly in the Lagoon's hold, the automatic pistol that was so heavily modified it was impossible to tell what the model had originally been. There could be no other gun like it in the entire world. It was certain that this blog was run by Jake himself.
"What is this... some kinda commercial? Is he running some kind of internet business?" Dutch asked, taken aback, but Benny only shook his head.
"Nah, this isn't anything like that. This is... a journal. He's running an online journal."
As Benny scrolled downward, they saw dated entries appearing one by one.
Wisconsin. I close in for the killing blow. The only light on the deserted highway, the cold, cold rays of the moon. The sky's spotlight shines on this showdown just for two. In other words, the main event, the battle between me, UCJ, and Willows "Junkman" Ganash. Far as I know, you can count the number of professionals in the midwest on Ganash's level on one hand. We've all been waiting for this, yeah. This promenade of two men, played with gunpowder and gunshots..."
"...Jesus H. Christ, this fucker's crazy," Revy muttered, her disgust passing some invisible threshold and transcending into a sort of reverent wonder.
If one were only to read the text, the journal entry could easily have been dismissed as a made-up story. But the image that had been uploaded along with it made that impossible.
It was a picture of a corpse. Not of a dead body lying on the ground. It was of a man, the very moment when the bullet struck home.
From the blur and the low resolution, it was clear that the image was a screenshot from a video file, not the work of a skilled cameraman. But the rough resolution actually served to make the scene seem more real, the spray of blood exploding from the man’s back coming to life amidst the gritty pixels.
Though his way with words wasn't even worth the effort to ridicule, even Revy could understand the allure held by this one picture.
For those with certain tastes, this image represented something even more enticing than expensive caviar.
"...How in the world did he take this picture?" Rock murmured aloud, repulsion clear on his face. Revy opened her mouth to make fun of him, but closed it as she realized something important. Rock had adjusted a lot to the chaotic mess he'd found himself in, and the simple sight of a corpse could no longer shake him as it once would have. But he would have never have seen a corpse from this particular angle. To Revy it was a familiar sight, but for Rock it was surely an utterly alien perspective.
"Rock, this is the barrel's point of view."
"Think about that fucker's gun. Y’know, the one that was just up there. There was something weird on the frame, wasn't there? I thought it was a laser pointer, but I think it musta been a camera."
"Ah, I see."
Rock looked down, embarrassed at his own ignorance. It was a simple enough answer when he thought about it, even though he’d never shot anyone before.
"...But wait. He posts these sick, masturbatory stories to the whole world whenever he does a job? He must be insane. Why doesn't he save the cops the trouble and turn himself in?"
"Because he won't get caught. This site looks like it's full of dangerously revealing information, but if you look closely, there's nothing that really helps you find out who Jake is, at all. It's the anonymity of the internet at work," Benny explained, pointing at the chrome plated pistol at the top of the page.
"The only clue to Ultimate Cool J's identity is this customized gun. There's not a single image on this site with his face in it. Even these journal entries are written all about 'who died where', but with not a single clue on who actually did the killing."
"...I get it. As long as Jake didn't parade around with his custom gun on display, nobody would know that he was this site's owner," Dutch said, nodding.
"No matter what kind of crazy shit he posts about here, everyone's hate would be focused on some imaginary man named J... But wait, that doesn't make any sense. Why did he show Revy his gun, then? And he gave her a card with his site on it, too. It's like admitting who he is outright. What was he thinking?"
"Maybe he thought it didn't matter if a bunch of people from some backwater city in Taiwan knew of him? Or maybe he's expecting something from Revy seeing this site."
"Fuck off, that ain’t funny," Revy spat, looking genuinely disturbed by Benny's suggestion.
"Bah... Does this dipshit really get his rocks off on doing this? Why would he work so hard on something that nobody's gonna read, anyway?"
"...No, Jake might be a narcissist, but I don't think that's all... Look right here. And here, too."
Rock pointed at several places in the entires.
-It's all over... for him. What I had that he didn't? This awesome muzzle break. Gunsmith Tracy's special compensator once again seduced Lady Luck onto my side. If you want to control a .45 ACP's awe-inspiring recoil too, click here.
-The punks thought they finished me off, but I got the last laugh. An ultimately cool guy like me knows that it's better safe than sorry. My cutting edge kevlar shirt blocked their 9mm parabellum bullets, letting me rise from the ashes like a phoenix. For more information, click here. It'll be the best decision you ever make.
-It's finally time for the biz to start in New Orleans. Canada's winters are really cold. In a freezing environment like this, you have to be careful about what kind of gun oil you pick, too. That's why I use Lev Mikey's special high quality oil. Even if it's so cold you can use bananas as nails, if you got this by your side, you're A-OK. Click here now!
Clicking on the links one by one, Benny discovered that they all led to internet shopping sites specializing in guns and other firearm-related items.
"...Aha, he must have made a deal with these businesses. Maybe he gets advertising commisions?"
"Advertising? The fuck? Telecom World'd do a better job selling stuff than this shit."
"Are you sure? If this counter's telling the truth, this place gets a lot of hits... Let's see what's on the BBS."
Benny clicked the link that led to the visitor's guestbook.
>robin666: I tried the adjustable rearsight J recommended on my colt. fuckign cool! ultimately cool! every1 on the shooting range was looking at me! he's a real pro!!!
>Car-Morgan: UCJ's the best. I'd love to sleep with him.
>Savage-X: The latest Murder Review was fucking awesome. Who's awesome? You're awesome, Ultimate Cool J. Next time, kill XXX and XxxX!
>spookydog: lets fight ucj ill b waiting 4 u at teh bank of ameriac parking lot 2nite lets see who the real ultimit cool is
>IIIOwOIII: Please, J, kill my homeroom teacher Miss Garroway! The whole class is willing to chip in for your pay. Send me an email, okay?
>xXsteelCommanderXx: Typical Americans and your blind magnum worship. Speed counts for more than mass in terms of kinetic energy, so if you’re talking about actual power there's not much difference between a .45 and a 9mm parabellum. Isn't it the obvious choice for a pro to pick the 9mm then, since you can fire more bullets before having to reload?
>MADMAX: Hey fuck off nazi. the nazis made 9mm so anyone who uses 9mm is a nazi get it? now gtfo
"...Hey, Benny. Is the whole internet full of retards like this, or is this place just somethin' special?"
"Well, depending on how you look at it, I guess you could make a case for the former."
Revy turned slightly pale at the unexpected display of stupidity, but Benny, who was used to such idiocy, looked more bored than anything.
"Well, I guess now we know how Jake's mind works now, but I don't think there's anything here that'd help us find... huh?"
Benny stopped his absentminded refreshing of the page and leaned forward, adjusting his glasses.
"There's been an update... Another journal entry, maybe?"
It was dated today.
The new image gracing the front page was a picture, not of a cadaver, but a hugely magnified picture of someone taking part in a gunfight, the quality of the image almost laughable.
That someone was a woman wearing a tank top and denim hotpants, a very familiar tribal tattoo featured prominently on her right arm. But at the same time it seemed unfamiliar, as though someone had edited the image before posting it.
The woman's breasts looked about twice as large as they'd expected, and even though she was in the middle of a ferocious firefight, her eyes had been retouched to be seductively half-lidded instead of glaring at the camera.
-Hello. Our special this time comes to you from the seas of southeast Asia. Today I want to tell you about this cute kitty cat who I, the illustrious UCJ, happened to meet.
We'll call this hot babe here, who uses a pair of custom Beretta handguns, Two Hand R. She's a seductress who charms men into her bed with her exotic body and then kills them when she's done, a real shameless whore. She also happens to be my target.
At first I thought I'd enjoy a little romantic cruise while pretending to be on her side, but the desire in her eyes was so hot I thought it might even melt yours truly, ultimately cool though I may be. This kitty's got to be starved for a little sweet loving. See those tits? No bra for those babies, boys and girls. Watching them bounce, what can I say? They should've sent a poet. Way I see it, there's no way she's not hungry for some man, the way she acts.
But it turns out she can't feel a thing down under, short of a monster dildo or two. I can understand why she uses two guns, if you know what I'm saying. It must get pretty frustrating, all that need and no way to satisfy it.
So that's why I made my decision. I'm gonna fuck her, in the most ultimately cool way imaginable. I'll tap that ass so hard she won't be able to walk for weeks.
Now won't you all stay up with me and help think up ways to make her scream? If you have a good idea, leave a message on the guestbook. I'll be waiting!
Dutch, Rock and Benny all found themselves at a sudden loss for words. They were, at that moment, linked by a sort of shared psychic experience. Perhaps a technician standing next to an active nuclear reactor would have some inkling of the feeling enveloping them at that moment. The wordless terror brought about by being bathed in invisible, intangible radiation. Through their very skin they could feel the awesome power and fury being generated at their sides.
"...Benny boy. Close the browser," Dutch said, forcing the words from his parched throat. Benny hastily moved to comply, but in his hurry his index finger came down on the left mouse button as he moved. As luck would have it, it was just when the cursor was moving over the guestbook.
Only a few minutes had passed since their last visit, but already a slew of new posts had filled the screen.
>BunkerBuster: Holy shit Two Hand R! Damn, what a cutie!
>smokemoneter: Look at those tits, man. I bet that tattoo on her shoulder goes over her tits and all the way down to her pussy. My cock knows it's true.
>funfun85: i wanna see you skullfuck her dude. who cares if she dies?
>masamichi: nude shoop up on the uploader
>sleipnir: FUCK YEAH MASAMICHI
>Savage-X: My body is ready
>DX_Synner: Please UCJ for the love of god, give us a movie of you fucking her up the ass with the UC Custom stuck in her cunt. I'll cum all over my screen.
>MassiveBOY: Something's wrong with R's boobs. You sure it's not a trap?
>Jason13: a trap is fine too
Benny's monitor was a 20 inch EIZO display that was his pride and joy. It was a pricey piece of equipment to be sure, an investment on the Lagoon Company's part that served as the centerpiece of the office. Unfortunately, however, it had not been made to withstand a 9mm bullet fired straight at it.
Even more unfortunately for everyone involved, Revy had been at that very instant seized by the sudden and immediate urge to kill Jake and all of his fans, and-—since they were nowhere to be found‒-she found herself with no choice but to express her displeasure with the universe at large upon the machine which had shown her such unsavory words.
The only silver lining to this cloud was that no shards of glass from the grisly monitor massacre flew outward and hit anyone. Another stroke of good luck was that Revy didn't feel compelled to fire two or three more rounds for good measure.
"Motherfuckin'... Yeah, alright, I gotcha, cockstain... You wanna die that badly, do ya? Need an express ticket straight to Hell, y'say? Yeah, gotcha, I'll ring one right the fuck up..."
Revy suddenly began chuckling darkly to herself, as though her rage had produced a strange kind of narcotic inside her brain.
Just at that moment, when nobody could quite figure out how to defuse the situation and make it out with all bodily parts still intact and attached to their original places, the phone rang. Its shrill tones sounded to the three men like a chorus of angels from on high. And verily, the call was indeed something very much like the gospel-—it was Chang Wai-San himself, calling to tell them that Jake's hideout had been found.
Stand carefully studied the veins of his left arm. He needed to shoot up.
Countless needle holes already pockmarked the skin of his arm, drawing out a complicated road map that illustrated the depths of Stan's addiction.
"Hey, bro... Didn't ya just take a hit a second ago?" Jake said from the side, smirking humorlessly. It spoke volumes about how far gone Stan was, for a man like Jake to express his concern. He must be in worse shape than he'd thought.
But it didn't matter. All he needed to do was avoid seeing his own reflection. This was no time to be worried about how bad a state he was in. All he needed at that moment was the comfort that only heroin could provide.
He stabbed with the needle, depleted the plunger. Immediately, he felt the Reaper's sweet caress flowing through his veins. He could have traded the world for this pleasure. Stan's consciousness melted away the constraints of time and causality, falling deep into a maze of memory.
They beat him. They cut him. They held glowing irons to his skin. Still, Stan felt no pain. But soon enough the Mujahideen (2) interrogator realized that Stan was a heroin addict. That was when the real torture began.
Moaning in pain from the withdrawal symptoms, Stan told them everything in exchange for a just a single blissful shot. His name, his rank, the name of his unit, the places where he'd fought and who he'd killed there. That was when the guerrillas realized just who their prisoner was.
Their soft cries had contained not only hate, but also an unmistakable note of awe and reverence.
They gave him a stolen Dragunov. Told him to prove his skills. When he shot clean through a watermelon at 500 meters, the Mujahideen realized Stan's worth.
He wandered aimlessly. Not even the moon shone to illuminate the ebon night.
He might have been in Istanbul, or Varna, or maybe even Ankara.
He simply did what he was told, a dumb hunting hound. He killed, and in return he received heroin.
But his masters suddenly disappeared. Nobody showed up at the rendezvous point. Not even the emergency radio channel he'd been taught was of any use. Perhaps they had been destroyed before he was. It was well within the realm of possibility. The local police might have got them, or maybe a western intelligence agency, or perhaps they'd fallen victim to a Pashtun Taliban ambush. Stan had often been assigned to take out individuals belonging to such organizations, so it didn't seem all that strange that they'd decided to return the favor with interest.
That was how Stan came to find himself wandering alone in a strange land, with no home to return to and no companion at his side save the silent night.
Perhaps if he killed someone else, he might be given more heroin...
That was the sole thought running through Stan's head as he walked on, dreading the inevitable withdrawal symptoms that could strike at any moment.
The flow of time melted. The chains of causality faded away.
Stan carefully studied the veins of his left arm. He needed to shoot up.
The Hazara who'd given him the drugs glared at him before spitting at his feet.
"You killed my younger brother," the man said. The brother in question had been Mujahideen, one of the many who had fallen before the reaping gale of Shaitane Badi. That was back when the Mujahideen had still been fighting against the Soviets. Back when Stan had answered to "Sergeant," not "Dog."
"I'll never forgive what you did," the man said, hatred coloring his voice. "Pay back the debt you owe me with souls. Use the skills which felled so many of our brethren for our sake now."
The Afghani continued to fight. They kept fighting after the Soviets left, as they had been before the Soviets came. The enemies of Allah were, after all, without number.
Even those who worshiped the same god were enemies. The Hazara, the Pashtun, the Uzbek, the Tajik, all fought one another tooth and nail for control of the country. The adversaries standing in their way numbered as many as the desert sands, and their lives, too, were worth as little as those same grains of grit.
And so Stan fought on in that gritty hell long after his comrades had left. Every time he took out a target, he received heroin. It was the sole reason he lifted his Dragunov, day after day.
The flow of time melted. The chains of causality faded away.
He wandered aimlessly. He walked through choking black smoke, the stench of napalm hanging thick and cloying about him.
Some of the bodies around him were naught but blackened corpses. Others, even worse, were still alive. He knew that the small ones were the bodies of children. Perhaps the twisted masses surrounding them as though to shield them from the fire had been their mothers. He could see everything. He saw that not one of the bodies held a weapon in their hands.
He had been told that this place was a hideout for a splinter cell of antigovernment Mujahideen guerrillas who had set themselves against the Kamal administration. The information had come from a trusted source, so there had been no scouting, no confirmation. The infantry had been given the order to clean up once the bombers and artillery did their job.
“The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea,” Mao Zedong had said once. The Soviets, realizing they could not possibly catch all the fish, had taken to drying up the sea. Indiscriminate attacks on civilian villages were already becoming standard procedure. Soon, the province of Baghlan would become nothing but a deserted wasteland.
He felt no rage. He did not even feel it was unfair. If he let himself feel such emotions, he would be unable to accept reality. This was their mission. This was their war.
He had no choice but to accept… that in this place, a life was worth less than a grain of sand.
Stan carefully studied the veins of his left arm. He needed to shoot up.
He was surrounded by the desert, his own sense of self-worth fallen to less than a grain of sand. Whenever Stan came to his senses, he found himself searching for the comfort of heroin.
As long as he stayed at the camp, drugs were easier to come by than liquor. Afghanistan was a world famous producer of opium. The drugs came roundabout through the local rebels and into the hands of the Soviet army. And the profits came roundabout into the hands of the Mujahideen. But he couldn’t even bring himself to care anymore. He needed the fleeting moment of ecstasy that only heroin could provide. Without it, he couldn’t even lift his rifle anymore.
Why were the Soviets here in Afghanistan? The flimsy excuse that they were there to support the Kamal administration in Kabul no longer held any water. Rumors abounded, with some saying that they were using the stalemate as an opportunity to give soldiers real combat experience, and others whispering that the government’s real objective was to test new experimental weapons. Only the Kremlin knew the truth.
Either way, all the Soviets had to do was destroy the roads connecting Afghanistan’s cities, and take control of the airfields. Then they would proceed to burn all the farms, starving the guerrillas to death. Only a dry land of shifting sands would remain… yes. They were fighting here to return everything to dust.
But… now that he thought of it… Stan asked himself a question, sifting through his hazy memories.
He felt as though things hadn’t always been this way. There had been a time when he had had a reason to fight, regardless of the situation, regardless of what the politicians said. Hadn’t there been a bravado in his heart that feared no death, a will in his breast that urged him to charge ever forward?
Now, he couldn’t even be certain that there had ever been such times. What had changed? Everything became obscured by the storm of sand, the smells buried beneath the stench of napalm and bubbling human fat, and everything once again hidden behind a veil of heroin. He remembered nothing.
He wandered aimlessly. The cold of the desert night seeped into his bones.
The barren land stretching infinitely in every direction, empty save the sound of blowing wind, somehow brought to mind the depths of the ocean. It must have been the pale moon in the inky sky, looking like the sun might look from beneath the waves.
He had no food or water, and certainly no weapon. Empty-handed, he’d walked all the way from the base. When the sun rose, the merciless heat would surely burn him to death. That would be enough. He welcomed his own death with open arms.
There was a faster, more certain way to go about things. It involved putting the barrel of a Makarov to his head and pulling the trigger. But if he’d had the courage to do so, he probably wouldn’t have become addicted to drugs in the first place. In other words, he was just trying to run away. He wanted to run and run, until he could run no more, and finally reach the land of death. The only method of suicide available to such a coward was “walking.” He was attempting to walk himself to death. He was giving his life over to the arid desert because he didn’t have what it took to end it himself.
But… even as he drifted through the hazy memory of that nocturnal journey, Stan once again asked himself…
What was he running from? Was he afraid that the weight of the lives he’d taken would crush him, grains of sand gathering and gathering to form an immense dune? No, the cure for that should have been heroin. Why was he looking for death now, when he’d buried his sadness and despair under a wave of drug-fueled fantasies? What was chasing him? What was he running from?
All he could think of was the memory of that one night, and the preposterous end that had come to that cold trek through the desert.
The price for his weakness had been great indeed. Some time after he collapsed, the strength gone from his limbs, Stan had regained consciousness… his hands and feet bound fast with chains.
A Mujahideen scouting party had found him unconscious in the desert. Fate had given Stan a life that was far more shameful and pathetic than death.
The flow of time melted. The chains of causality faded away.
The scream of bullets tearing through the air almost sounded like the laughter of Death itself.
The isolated forward base at Panjshir Valley provided a tantalizing target for the guerrillas. First they hung back, worrying the Soviet soldiers and forcing them into a constant state of hightened awareness, until finally the men were at their mental limit. That was when the guerrillas struck, bursting from the mountains to attack at full force. Stan had already experienced the cycle many times... but this was probably going to be his last.
The continuous attacks had already depleted the base's supply of able manpower, and even those capable of fighting were already wounded or suffering from acute exhaustion. And still, their enemies were like a swarm of locusts. No matter how many they killed, there was no end to the attackers. Old men and young boys, their voices raised together in the praise of God, charged over the bodies of their comrades and into the fire of the Deglachev machine guns without a backwards glance.
There was no way they could win. A thousand Kalishnikovs and a billion bullets would not have turned the tide. They would need enough bullets to fire at all the grains of sand in the desert to quell the voices singing Allah's priase. The Mujahideen came like a tidal wave. A sandstorm made of human lives. There could be no defeating it. All they could do was endure. Endure until they died, endure until there could be nothing else.
Stan's heroin-addled mind had long since done away with the concept of fear. Only empty apathy was left, a dry wind that blew through his heart. Yes, he thought. We are but grains of sand. It is our fate to be blown away in the face of this storm, piling up in this arid land. Buried and forgotten.
Vysotniki, someone muttered, the word simply a meaningless collection of sounds.
Still, there was a hopeless kind of hope in the man's voice, a foolish wish that had been too late in coming.
Vysotniki. It had once been something like a prayer, a holy word that brought salvation. Composed of the best of the best from the Soviet 318th rear distraction brigade's 11th squadron, the Vysotniki appeared wherever the voices of their allies were raised in pleas for help. Heedless of danger, they plunged into the deadliest killzones, the most desperate situations, to create paths to life where there had been none. They were, in a word, the last hope of the isolated and otherwise doomed Soviet soldiers.
...But the Vysotniki were just a legend, a note in the annals of history.
Stan knew this. He himself had been a member of the Vysotniki. He had once thrown himself fearlessly into countless hellish battlefields, and the name "Shaitane Badi" had made Afghani guerrillas tremble with fear. There had been a time, long ago, when he had felt the hot blood running through his veins as he fought to save one more comrade, one more life.
But the Vysotniki had been disbanded, spread to the four winds together with the pride they'd thought would last forever. Together with the belief in battle that had been their only belief. On that fated day in July of 1987... Stan should have died. Better to have died there than be swept away like a grain of sand here...
Suddenly, an earsplitting crash came from outside. A flash of blinding light. The roar of double Ysoft engines, powering a helicopter's five-bladed rotor, dominated the battlefield.
Two Hind gunships soared over the Mujahideen, spreading fire and death in their wake. They looped around and their rocket launchers spat fire, the 12.7mm minigun hanging below the cockpit playing a song of massacre.
With all guns blazing the Hinds meted out death to the Mujahideen. They hovered in place, and Stan could see guardian angels rappeling down from the hatches. Mensov, David, and even the fearsome sergeant, Boris... His comrades in arms, together with whom he'd fought through thick and thin. Stan honestly couldn't tell whether they were real, or simply the flashes of memory that one saw before death.
The Vysotniki, someone shouted. There was joy in that voice, but also fear. Fear at seeing these messiahs returned from the grave.
And that was when Stan saw her. The goddess of war stepped into the bunker. The valkyrie had come.
Her face, smeared with the soot and dirt of the battlefield and twisted with horrific scars, was surely a face fit for a demon who could waltz lightly through such Hell. The stench of blood hung about her like perfume. And yet, Stan could only tremble, completely captured by her beauty... Yes. There could be no other word to describe her. She was an avatar of steely will, a concept given flesh that threw away the bonds of despair and terror to charge forward. There was a piety about her that could only be seen on the battlefield, in the godless Hell where they found themselves, a holy quality that announced to all just how strong human beings could be. She was living proof of that strength.
"...It seems I've kept you waiting, comrade junior sergeant."
The cold but strong tones of her voice defied all of Stan's attempts at dismissing her as a hallucination. I am here, the voice said. I am now.
How are you here?
You have already fought more than enough. You were captured while protecting refugees, resisting torture that lasted a month and left you with burns over your entire body. Your fight should be over. When I saw you beaten and battered after we rescued you, when I heard that you had been sent back home and the Vysotniki had been disbanded, I breathed a sigh of relief instead of a cry of dismay. I wanted to raise a toast to you, for you had finally found a way out of this hell. But why...
"Why... Why did you come back, Lieutenant?"
"Lieutenant Pavlovena was discharged. But Kapitan Pavlovena wasn't, comrade junior sergeant."
Sofiya Pavlovena smiled broadly, as though to say that a joke was the best reply for such a question. Then she turned to the forces gathered round her and gave her orders, her voice ringing boldly, just like it always had.
"All troops move out! Secure any surviving allies and hunt down any and all hostile remnants!"
...And so, the Vysotniki rose from the ashes, renewed once more. The hero had returned.
Sofiya Pavlovena had changed inside since she'd returned to Afghanistan as a captain. One could see that at a glance.
There was an emptiness in her calm, almost blank gaze, something that made it seem as though she'd forsaken something important to her. It seemed that there would never again be anything like hope or joy shining in those eyes.
"...Why did you return?" Stan asked again, after the battle was over. The evening wind blew against them as they stood watching the unit prepare to vacate the premises.
"I heard rumors that you'd been chosen for the Soviet firing team for the Seoul Olympics. But why..."
"Do you think that I could participate in a contest with my country's pride on the line with a right eye like this? Unfortunately, my eyesight on this side isn't half what it used to be.
With a smile far too bright to be called self-deprecating, Sofiya pointed at the burned right side of her face.
"The higher ups decided that I would be more at home in the hell of Afghanistan than wearing a medal in Seoul. And I agreed. I am... tired, I suppose you could say, of living my life according to their hypocritical whims."
Stan could feel in her dry and placid tones, from time to time, the heart of an old and tired animal that was looking for a place to die. A frightening premonition overtook Stan, and his face froze with anxiety.
But Sofiya smiled then, as though to belay Stan's misgivings. It was the same lively smile she'd worn a year ago.
"I've lost everything, but here, there is still something I can salvage.
"Our retreat from Afghanistan is finally being put into action. Finally. There is no longer any reason for anyone to lose their life in this land. The war we waged in search of a victory which was never there is over. All we're fighting for now is the lives of our soldiers."
Unlike when she'd been talking of her own life, Sofiya's voice as she spoke of the battles to come was full of iron will and spirit.
"I don't need honor or glory anymore. One more soldier to bring home is enough for me. Perhaps now, I've finally found a meaningful battle to fight."
Standing beside her, Stan saw in her casual poise what it meant to be a hero.
Indeed, only battle could support her soul. Even after being burned alive, Captain Pavlovena had found her hunger for war unsated. Faced with her dire resolve and noble courage, Stan couldn't help but take a look at himself. In his heart, the heart that had once fallen deep into the depths of addiction and turned away from facing reality, the hero's words found their mark. The pain couldn't even be compared to that of a bullet wound. It burned far more fiercely. It was far harder to endure.
He was almost surprised. He hadn't thought that he could still feel the emotion known as shame.
Sofiya spoke to him then, uncustomary sympathy coloring her voice.
"Junior Sergeant Stanislav, you have fought well. Go home now, and rest. It's still not too late."
Yes... She must have known in an instant. Stan's gaunt face and empty eyes were unmistakable, after all. They were the features of a drug addict.
Every thought he'd ever had came back to him as time melted away and memories lost cohesion.
Rage and pain. Pride and joy. Despair and shame... Everything he'd given away to heroin.
Back when he was called the Devil's Wind, Stanislav Kandinsky had once fought side by side with Sofiya Pavlovena. Not for an ideology, not for hatred. He had raised his weapon solely for the sake of his comrades who fought at his side. That was the entirety of his motive, without a smidgen of doubt. The cornerstone of his will to fight.
He had admired that nobility. That courage had illuminated his heart.
But he had tarnished those glorious days by his own actions.
What had he been doing during the year Sofiya was gone? He had killed old men too decrepit to bear arms, shot mothers trying to protect their children. Unable to bear the weight of his actions, he'd given himself over, body and soul, to white powder. Had he told himself that any human being would have done the same thing in the face of such harsh conditions? Had he really thought that was true? He knew of a woman who had been on Death's doorstep, a woman who had kept on fighting even when burns had covered her entire body. She was what it meant to be Spetsnaz. A model soldier, indominatable will emblazeoned on her breast. And he... he was trash, worse than trash.
The day finally came for the Soviets soldiers to return home, and none of them was in any state to sing triumphant songs as they left. But still, their homeland would surely welcome them back with open arms, acknowledging the hardships they'd endured and the courage and pride they'd kept in their hearts. What else could the people of their homeland call the ones who had survived in such harsh conditions but heroes? How could they celebrate anything if they could not celebrate the return of such brave soldiers?
But despite that--no, because of that--Stan had no home to go back to. It would be an insult to such noble warriors for a loser like him to walk at their sides.
He had dismissed himself as a grain of sand. He had given up, resigned to a fate of being blown away by the wind. How could he return home as a hero after thinking such things?
So he ran away. Ashamed of himself, unable to look the heroes around him in the eye, believing that disappearing into the deserts of this foreign land was the only way to atone for his sins, he ran away.
But even then, unable to die as he'd wished, he kept on fighting and killing, a tool for the men who'd once been his enemies. His mind once again a grain of sand, wandering, looking for a vein, cycling endlessly through the memories that melted away before the influence of heroin...
...Even now, we would never leave a comrade in trouble...
A voice from his past. The concern and support of his comrades, who he'd thought lost to the depths of his memories.
The sound still lingered in his ears, echoing inside his head.
It couldn't be. There was no way they could be living in such a wretched cesspool. Such voices should never have been heard here, in the place where he'd ended up after turning his back on the proud life of a soldier.
...They say the leader, Balalaika, is the cruelest, most hardcore bitch in town. They call her Fry Face sometimes...
A woman with burn scars on her face. The memory of the phantom who had once burned brighter than any other inside his heart.
Such a thing could not be. Such a thing must not be.
The hero had surely returned to her motherland to be showered with praise. Surely, in Russia they sang songs in her honor even today.
Though he had fallen into the dirt, he'd believed that there was still a star shining in the heavens. That was the only thought that had given his tortured soul any reprieve.
That was why there could be no woman named "Balalaika." Such a woman could not exist in this world...
The flow of time melted. The chains of causality faded away.
Trapped in an unending nightmare, Stan could only continue murmuring denials to himself.
(1):: 大哥. Literally "big brother." A catchall term in the Triad for anyone above oneself in the organization hierarchy.
(2):: Muslim freedom fighters, in this case specifically the ones who fought against the Soviets in the 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Chapter 3 Part 2