Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices

Fate of a Man 2: The Ninth Company

Written by Yury Korotkov

Translated by Max Nemtsov

* * *

In the blue frosty twilight, the draftees and their folks clustered near the gates of the induction center. An officer called out their names from the list, and the guys ran to the gates one by one, looking back at their relatives and stumbling upon each other. There were a shortish lop-eared boy and a girl with a sweet childish face in the crowd, standing still, holding their hands. They were pushed from all sides but didn't see anyone, gazing in each other's eyes. The girl was crying softly.
"Please, don't cry", the boy said, barely keeping back his tears. "Please don't, I'm begging you".
The girl shook her head: I won't.
"It's just two years", he said. "Only two years, you know?"
She nodded hastily, afraid to sob out loud.
"Ryabokon!" the officer called. "Ryabokon! Is he present?"
"There, they're delivering him", the crowd laughed. A procession was approaching the gates: five guys carried the sixth, drunk as a piper. Ryabokon waved his long arms and bawled mechanically:
"Brothers! Brothers! Sleep tight! I'm standing guard! They won't dare! Brothers! No pasaran!"
He was unloaded at the gates. The officer was going to call out the next name in the list, but Ryabokon appeared in the gates again and addressed the crowd with his arms raised high, hands clasped over his head:
"Brothers! The border is locked and I keep the key in my pocket!"
The traffic through the gates was instantly jammed. The officer pushed Ryabokon with his palm against the gangly clown's forehead.
"C'mon, move it, you'll give birth now!"
The girl fearfully glanced back at this scene.
"Vorobyev!" the officer shouted.
"Yes, sir!" the boy answered. The girl shuddered and grabbed him with both hands, as if trying to hold him still.
"I'll be back! It's only two years! I'll be back!" The boy ran to the gates.
"Yes, sir!" The next was a fad redheaded guy, and he trotted after the boy. Vorobyev wanted to look at the girl from the gates again, but the carrot-top rudely pushed him in the back.

In the lobby, the draftees clustered at the checkpoint.
"All the bags -- over here!" the duty officer ordered. "Vodka, beer, moonshine -- on the table! If I find it in your bags, you'll be in deep shit. I'll send you to the Northern Pole to jerk off the walruses". He fumbled in the bags and knapsacks, and looked at soda bottles against the light. The other one did the body search, briskly going over their pockets.
"Was she yours?" asked the carrot-top. The boy nodded silently.
"Did you manage to stick it into her in the end?"
Vorobyev gave him a hostile glance.
"Wha'? She didn't let ya, eh? Nevermind, she'll get it! Don't go chickenshit, there still are some OK boys, they'd fix your cow alright", he grinned. "The locomotive is still in the depot, and they screw her to heavens, like that! And like that!" He forcefully made the wide gesture. "For themselves and for those at sea!"
The boy didn't know what to do. Helplessly pressing his trembling lips together, he tried to push through the crowd away from the carrot-top, but Chugaynov followed him, droning maliciously.
"Now for two years you two will be fucked together. Over there, Comrade Sergeant will screw your ass, and over here she'll get it into every hole, like this, like this!"
"What's that?" The officer was amazed to find a handful of tubes in one bag.
"Paints, comrade captain", said a tall guy calmly.
The officer unscrewed one, sniffed, squeezed some paint on his finger. Then he fished a bunch of different brushes from the bag.
"What are you going to paint there, soldier, a tank wheel? You should have taken an easel with you! An artist!"
"Gioconda!" someone snickered, and the whole crowd roared with laughter. The artist coolly gathered his paints and brushes into his bag, paying no attention to the mockery.

Vorobyev walked fast along the corridor, almost running. The carrot-top followed him, stepping on his heels.
"What do you think, Sparrow (1), she'd wait for you or what? A soldier's letter in a simple envelope…" Chugainov laughed coarsely. "So you'll be scribbling a letter to her, smearing your snot all over, and she'll be banged double-barrel, above and below…"
"Listen!" The boy was almost crying now. "What do you want? Why are you following me? What did I do to you?"
"Wow, listen to this voice!" Chugaynov was happy. "Maybe you want to punch me in the face? C'mon, do it". He turned his full face to the boy. "Wave your feather, birdie. Well?" There was a sudden hatred in his voice. "You should know your place in this life, got it?" He resonantly slapped the boy in the forehead and walked away.

A big room had two rows of barber's chairs in it. Uniformed barbers handled their clippers hurriedly and disinterestedly. The floor was covered with hair, and two draftees brushed and rammed it into a huge sack.
A gloomy guy in a new suit occupied the last chair in the row. He winced as the barber tore a bunch of his hair.
"Relax, sonny!" The barber muttered mockingly. "D'you know the first paragraph of the field manual? The soldier should staunchly persevere all severities and hardships and military service".
The guy fixed him with the cold stare.
"What's the occasion?" The barber nodded at the guy's new suit. "Service as a festival? They'll throw it away anyhow".
"That's my only one", the guy said simply.
"Lissen, let's swap?" the barber suggested. "I'll give you mine and add some cigarettes. You won't need it anyway, and I have to go on leave downtown, discos, chicks, you know…"
"You have a nice job here", said the guy approvingly.
"To put it mildly". The barber exchanged glances with his cronies, and everybody laughed. "The service is a sweet dream, you wish you don't wake up. You handle the clipper all day long, and at night when the commanders are at home tending their wives, you go downtown, drink some beer, pick up some gals…" He threw the sheet from the guy. "Well, is it a deal?"
"Deal". The guy inspected his fresh naked scalp. "So you say it's a sweet dream?" He smiled.
Then suddenly he grabbed the barber by the throat with his steel fingers, pushed his head down, snatched the clipper from his hand, and ran it through the barber's longish hair.
"Freeze, lamers!" he yelled at the soldiers as they tried to make a move on him. "Relax, sonny! D'you remember what the manual said about hardships and severities?" He clipped a wide band through the barber's hair, from front to back. "Here!" He threw the clipper into the chair. "You'll finish it yourself". He calmly left the room.

Vorobyev, shaven already, was lost in the induction center. All the floors, corridors, rooms and halls there were hard benches packed with hundreds of draftees. All of them dressed in throwaway clothes, with the same bluish scalps, faceless. And this huge anthill was humming softly. The tannoy voice called out names and tem numbers, officers were running busily with lists in their hands.
"I'm sorry, do you know where the team number six is?" Vorobyev finally asked some other draftee.
"Are you a fresher?"
"You shouldn't jump as soon as you hear your name. You'd better check where the team is shipped first. If it's the Navy or the North, sit tight, who's gonna find you here? When it's closer to home -- that's when you run and surrender".
"No, it's just… Excuse me, could you tell me…" Vorobyev tried to stop some officer but he didn't even look at him.
Vorobyev plodded on. Suddenly, in the monotonous noise he heard some very loud laughter. In the deepest corner of the room there floated cigarette smoke, like a volcano, and a guitar was strummed. Vorobyev approached diffidently, stepping slowly. Several people made themselves comfortable on some benches pulled together, like an island in the throng. There were Chugaynov, Ryabokon, the artist and the suited guy who shaved the barber. They were smoking and drinking vodka openly.
"Is this the sixth team?"
"And why are you here, birdie?" Chugainov laughed. "You fucking Terminator! Beat it, pronto!"
"Drop it, Pig Iron!" the suited guy said sharply. "What's your name?"
"Vorobyev. Volodya".
"Lyutayev, Oleg". The guy shook his hand. "Fierce, in short. This is Ruslan". He pointed at the artist.
"Gioconda!" corrected him the choir of voices. The name seemed to stick.
"Piebald, Stas, Grey, Pig Iron. That's all for now".
Vorobyev nodded hurriedly and shook some hands. Chugaynov was the last to offer his, reluctantly.
"Move over, compatriot!" Lyutayev shouldered another draftee off the bench and pushed his bags to the floor. "Sit down, Sparrow!"
Gioconda passed on as bottle of vodka. Vorobyev took a swig, clumsily.
"So wha' happened next, Piebald?" Stas, the round-faced sturdy youngster, urged on.
"Well, to cut the crap, I wake meself up in the morn", Ryabokon continued, "and cain't move me head, pried me eyes with me fingers and look like this, from the pillow. There's some home, rugs with deers on'em, wha' tha fuck, I don't even know how I got here. And some gal sits and stares at me, nekkid. And her gov'nor standin' above me, lookin' down at me like into an open grave, and says: well, me boy, that's the end of ya -- me daughter is nay yet eighteen, so ye choose either ye go now to the registrar office, or I go to the pawlice. And that bitch, she pulls her blanket up her tits, eyes down and ugly like… like a bulldog. Ye nail her mugshot to the door and ye wain't need any locks. Looks like I ain't the first one to get caught like this. Who's gonna marry a bitch like this without court orders. So I says, ye know, dad, I'd better lay me down unner a fucking tank than on her. So I jump into me pants and her old man and me, we start this running marathon, like who's gonna get faster, he to the pawlice or meself to here".
Everybody laughed, except Chugaynov.
"I got married only yesterday", he said gloomily. "A combined celebration, wedding and seeing-off".
"You kiddin'? Why didn't you say so? Congrats!"
"Well, yeah". Pig Iron took a swig, breathed in some air through his clenched teeth and suddenly laughed, unkindly. "Well, she says, I'm all yours now. Come on, she says. Now I'm your wife, now it's proper. She thinks I'm out of my head. As if I open up her gates and let her out for a walk for two years". He laughed and shook his head. "She howled all night through: how come, I'm your wife now and will stay untouched. And I say, lemme get back and I'll inspect you. If you bust your cherry while I'm gone, you bitch, I'll kill you. I'll fucking strangle you!" His grip on the bottle was so tight that his knuckles whitened. "And I left her like this". He poured the rest of the vodka into his throat, threw the bottle into the corner, and turned away.
The half-cropped barber was going through the room, peering into faces. The duty officer followed.
"This one". The barber pointed at Lyutayev.
"Who are you pointing your finger at, sonny?" The entire crew jumped up from the benches and moved toward him menacingly. "Who the fuck are you?"
"That's alright, boys". The officer held up his palms amicably. "Sorry, there's some kind of mistake. Relax, would you?" He pushed the barber aside and slapped the half-shaved back of his head in temper. "I'll shave your ears off myself!" he hissed. "This is the Afghan team, you moron!"
And the Afghans whistled after them, roared with laughter, baring their teeth and slapping each other's backs, terrible, shaven, mean. Sparrow laughed with them, at first hesitantly, than aloud, happily, looking over his new friends, equal among his equals.

* * *

The white midday sun was scorching the faces and the hot air was streaming up from the white-hot concrete. Their warm and quilted jackets unbuttoned, fanning themselves with their hats, the boys were steaming near the plane, wonderingly looking round. The strip went along a narrow gorge, surrounded by mountains. Other draftees' groups were already marching to the barracks with their sergeants.
"Is this one ours, at last?" Pig Iron said lazily, looking at someone approaching them.
"Looks like he choked on his own cock", Piebald said and everyone laughed. The sergeant marched unnaturally indeed, keeping his back very straight.
He came up to the draftees, looked them over and asked blankly:
"Where are you from, clowns?"
He spoke strangely, too. Sometimes it looked as if he chewed on some words and then pushed them from his mouth with an effort, jerking his head. An ugly, uneven burn scar went across his cheek.
"Siberia, comrade sergeant!" Piebald reported cheerfully.
The sergeant still inspected them narrowly.
"I'm Sergeant Dygalo", he said finally.
"Say it again?" Someone didn't hear well at the end of the line.
"Who of you needs a hearing aid?" the sergeant asked calmly and suddenly screamed at the top of his voice, "Atten-SHUN!! Button up in formation! Put on your hats!"
Everybody hurriedly pulled their knitted hats and winter caps with earflaps on their heads.
"About FACE!" The boys turned around. "I hope all of you here have good eyesight. That mountain over there is ours. The next one is Afghan. So if you don't want to die as soon as you get there, you freaks, I will fuck you without pulling it out, for three months, 24 hours a day, starting this very minute. If any of you have your second thoughts, the flight back is in two hours. The rest of you, single file, double-quick, GO!"

In the barracks the boys lined up in their fresh uniforms. Dygalo went along the line, inspecting them with disgust.
"Private Chugaynov!" Pig Iron yelled as the sergeant came by to him.
"Your belt is not meant to support your balls, soldier!"
Pig Iron hastily adjusted his belt.
"Private Bekbulatov!" the tall Caucasian barked, goggle-eyed with zeal.
"Private Stasenko!"
"Private Petrovsky!" Gioconda shouted.
Dygalo stopped by him:
"Is that you, the dauber?"
"Yes, sir, comrade sergeant!"
"So why have you dragged your ass here? You should have daubed some naked molls or flowers in pots… I have asked you a question, soldier!"
"You see, comrade sergeant, if we believe Dr. Freud", Gioconda said, unshaken, "any sort of creativity is but a sublimation of human subconscious instincts, including the instinct of violence…"
The sergeant looked at him, without saying anything.
"Although", Gioconda shrugged his shoulders, suppressing a smile, "you are free to disagree with that, as long as the Soviet science does not recognize Freud's bourgeois theory".
Dygalo still looked at him.
"Smart, are you?" he said flatly.
"Sorry, comrade sergeant, I'll reform!" Gioconda smiled. "With your help".
Unexpectedly, Dygalo punched him into solar plexus. Gioconda's body folded and he fell to the floor, gasping for breath and jerking his legs.
"The rule number one: The commando should always be ready for an unexpected assault!" the sergeant enunciated through his teeth, and immediately punched Fierce who was the next in line, to his gut. Fierce held the blow without moving. Dygalo punched him again, with more force, and Fierce still watched him with his wolfish eyes, unblinking.
The sergeant nodded approvingly, turned his back and landed another blow with his elbow at relaxed Fierce.
"The rule number two!" the sergeant yelled without looking at Fierce prostrated on the floor. "Only the senior sergeant is smarter than the sergeant is! Is that clear? Who else wants to talk? You? Or you?" He dashed along the line of frozen boys. "Forget everything you'd been and learnt as civilians! Keep in your minds, freaks, you're neither smart nor dumb, neither good nor bad here, you're not artists, you're nobodies! You're not even human -- you're shit! And it is me who'll make you into people, with these very hands!"

The steep slope beyond the barracks was all covered with crushed stone, jagged and sharp as road metal. Young soldiers in full equipment, including body armor and helmets, were hurriedly packing the detritus into their backpacks.
"I told you, pack 'em to the brim!" The sergeant kicked the Stas' pack as he went by. "Who of you can't get it yet?"
"Comrade sergeant, but the first squad carries them only half-full". Stas nodded at some black dots that were crawling to the top of the hill.
"Pack 'em to the brim! And you, freak", the sergeant pointed his finger at Stas, "you'll carry some makeweight. Any questions?" he screamed at the rest of his squad. "Any more good observers like this one? You won't have to carry it when you take your whores to the bushes. And here, the more ammo you take the more alive you get out of combat. Do all of you get it, jerks, or should I demonstrate it with my fingers? Ready?"
The soldiers could hardly shoulder their packs bursting with stones.
"The objective is to dislodge the enemy from the height, occupy and fortify it!" Dygalo sputtered. "Commander, report the preparedness!"
"Comrade sergeant, the second squad is ready to complete the task!" Fierce shouted without a slightest pause.
Soldiers stormed the hilltop. Their boots slipped on the screes, their packs pulled them back, and they dug their fingers into the crushed stone breaking their nails and scraping their knees. They could crawl only three feet up, and then slipped nine feet down in the unbearable afternoon heat. The hot air stuck in their scorched throats, and they wheezed and rasped. Sweat flooded their eyes pouring from under their helmets.
"Go! Go!" The sergeant was climbing the slope with them, kicking stragglers' asses. "No lying down! When you run you're alive, when you're down you're dead!"
Sparrow stumbled, lost his balance, and fell to the stones heavily.
"Back!" the sergeant screamed. "Two of you, go back! Commandos don't leave their own!"
Stas and Gioconda slipped back down the scree, helped him to his feet and crawled up again. One of them pulled Sparrow who went lame, by the collar of his tunic, another one pushed him from behind.
Above them, as far they could see, there only were unending screes and crushed stone. Their vision was blurred by crimson fog. Then the scree ended, there was some land under their feet and it got easier to run. The hilltop loomed directly in front of them like salvation. There was a bandanna of the sky above it.
"First squad, action!" the shout rang up from above, and the first-squadders peppered the crest of the hill.
"Second squad, action!" Dygalo yelled. The boys dumped their packs on the run and stormed on. The first-squadders who had had some time to get their bearings, easily pushed them down from the crest.
"Commandos, go!" Dygalo screamed. "Forward! No lying down! Go, you freaks!"
It looked like a kiddie game of «the king of the mountain», only this one was terrible to watch. The guys, berserk with the heat and inhuman fatigue clashed in the hand-to-hand combat. Dirty sweat ran down their painted faces. Soldiers rolled down the slope and charged again whipped by commands into action, they crawled to the top on weak legs, and unable to move a hand, let alone fight, yet they were ready to tear at the enemy with their teeth.
"Retreat!" the order went, and the boys collapsed faces down, almost unconscious.
Dygalo inspected his squad, stepping over the bodies.
"The mission is not completed. All of you are dead meat. You", he kicked one of his soldiers, "and you too". He kicked another one. "You're cargo 200 in the "black tulip". Pieces of shit in zinc wrappers. The convoy that goes under this height will be ambushed, thanks to you. Do you know what does it mean, one machine gunner on a height like this?" he screamed madly, grabbing Fierce by the shoulder. "Have you seen this? When you can't go neither forward nor back, and nowhere to hide, and all your boys are shot one by one, and you just bury yourself in the stones and wait for the next bullet? Do you know this? Get up! Get up, you jerks! The dead don't need any rest! Shoulder packs, down the hill, double-quick!"

The naked boys, all covered with bruises and scratches, were crouching over the long low washing trough, washing their tunics. Dygalo was strolling behind their backs, with the belt wrapped around his fist. He raised his hand and whipped one thin ass.
"What is a Soviet commando?"
"A Soviet commando is the might, beauty and pride of the Armed Forces!" the boys shouted without straightening up.
"What is a Soviet commando?" Dygalo whipped the next behind.
"A Soviet commando is the model and envy for all morons and civilians!"
Suddenly, Sparrow lost a sliver of soap and tried to grab it as it flew along the trough. Dygalo belted his ass so fiercely that Sparrow's body convulsed.
"And who are you? I don't hear you!" The sergeant whipped a couple of asses more. "You are the shame of the boot camp and my personal disgrace. You'll stand with your asses up to the lights-out".

The boys froze in their bunks under the sergeant's stare, pulling the sheets to their chins. Sparrow was paralyzed on his second tier crouched in mid-motion, as the lights-out signal caught him. Following the sergeant out of the corner of his eye, he pulled his leg up, under the blanket.
In the dead silence Dygalo marched through the barrack, killed the light and closed the door behind him. The boys shifted and moved in the dark trying to get more comfortable.
"The faggot!" whispered Stas in a fit of temper.
There was silence.
"It's all fine and dandy, there's only one thing I can't get. Why does the first squad always go first?" Fierce said. "They always seem to run with light baggage and then smoke for an hour or so while we sweat. For them, it's a lark to kick us down. They could at least alternate us with them from time to time".
"Because their sergeant is a man, and ours is a faggot", Stas pronounced gloomily.
"A boy of the previous draft told me when he heard: that's the end of you, man. Dygalo will fuck you to death, you'll cry your bloody snot out", Piebald said.
"He's only seeking promotion, the cunt. He wants a wide stripe for his release".
"No, it's not that. He's shell-shocked all over. All his squad died, he's the only one who's left. So he was discharged to the boot camp. He's still writing letters to the defense minister, asking to be sent back. But who will need him over there, with a hole in his head? That's why he's so rabid here", Piebald sighed. "In short, we're fucked, boys, fucked to the kilter".
Sparrow closed his eyes at his second tier of bunks, slipping his hand under his cheek like a child…

…and immediately the light went up, the orders sounded, stinging like belt lashes:
"Company, reveille! First squad, reveille! Second squad, reveille!"
The boys, not yet awake, fell from their bunks. Fussing and stumbling over one another, grabbing each others' uniforms they dressed quickly. Sparrow jumped from the second tier and landed right on the Piebald's head, both of them collapsed and scattered on all fours to get their clothes. Dygalo counted aloud, rhythmically slapping his palm with the belt:
"Ten… fifteen… twenty…"

They bench-pressed near the barracks.
"Five -- and! Six -- and!" Dygalo counted curtly.
Sparrow froze with his face twisted with effort, trying to bend. Dygalo whipped his belly with his belt buckle, and Sparrow convulsed.

They pushed up on their knuckles.
"Twelve, thirteen, fourteen! Faster, you morons! You'll squiggle like this on your whore!" Dygalo stepped over them, kicking them into obedience.

They ran through the maze of shiny bars polished with other soldiers' hands, pushing themselves up, jumping, and flickering one by one, like a kaleidoscope…

They ran on the beam, maintaining their balance. Pig Iron slipped and sat astride the beam, then fell to the ground, gripping his balls.
"Back, you freaks! All back! Commandos don't leave their own behind!"
The boys rushed back, angrily kicking Pig Iron on the run.

They climbed the wooden wall at run, tumbling over to the other side, trying to run faster than the belt could whip them.
"Faster, morons! The bullet's not the belt, it'll catch up with you!"

They belly-crawled across the muddy puddle, below some low rows of barbed wire.
"Lower your head!" Dygalo kicked the Gioconda's head into the mud with the heel of his boot. "A stupid head is a gift for a sharpshooter".

"Ten to the left -- down! Ten to the right -- down! Don't let them catch you in the sights!"
The boys ran in short rushed, fell to the harsh ground, rolled behind boulders, jumped up again, rushed in the opposite direction and fell down again, bruising their elbows and knees.
"Ten to the left -- down! Ten to the right -- down! You're a corpse now, moron, you got it? And your mother is reading your death certificate! Ten to the left -- down!"

In full marching order, with their packs filled with stones, the boys lined up near the scree slope.
"Commander, report the preparedness!"
"Comrade sergeant, the second squad is ready…"
"As you were!"
Dygalo strolled along the rank and pointed his finger at Pig Iron.
"Open your pack up!"
Pig Iron, doomed, slipped the pack off his shoulder and unbuckled it. The sergeant shook its contents to the ground. Under the thin layer of stones there was some rolled up tarp. Dygalo slowly looked into the Pig Iron's eyes.
"This is a major screw-up, soldier", he said distinctly. "I'll see you after the lights-out!"

They were lying in the dark barrack without saying anything, listening. There were some heavy blows and muffled moans that came from the sergeant's room. The door opened, and Pig Iron crawled to his bunk on failing legs, shrunken and pitiful.
Gioconda turned away and pressed his face into the pillow…
…the lights went up immediately:
"Company, at arms!"
The boys, half-crazed with fatigue and lack of sleep, grabbed their guns, ammo belts and body armor in the armory and put them on on the run.

An unbelievably huge moon hung over the mountains, and the night was quiet and peaceful. There was only the thump of a hundred feet on the mountain road, heavy breathing and sergeants' commands:
"Close your ranks! Breathe even!"
The sky turned pink, the first rays of the sun shot between the mountaintops. The column was running steadily up the road that was steeper with each mile. The valley between flowered slopes was opening far below them, and they could see the concrete airstrip and toy houses of the boot camp. Nevertheless, the boys couldn't appreciate that beauty, their eyes were empty and senseless, and they looked only into the back of the ones who ran before them.
Sparrow suddenly rolled up his eyes and collapsed on the run. Someone stumbled over him without looking back, others jumped over his body or went around it.
"Back!" Dygalo screamed. "Second squad, back! Two of you, pick him up! His gun and pack, too, double-time!"
The boys took the Sparrow's pack, ammo belt, and gun. Fierce and Gioconda picked him up and dragged along. The squad slowed, and the rest of the company passed them and ran on without losing their speed. Soon they disappeared round the bend of the road…

When they reached the halting place, the company was relaxing at the grassy slope. The boys dropped to the ground.
"Here, you freakish bird!" Pig Iron threw the pack at Sparrow. Piebald kicked the gun and ammo belt to him. Sparrow crouched with his knees under his chin, pathetically trying to gain his breath and sobbing.
Fierce tried to strike a match with his shaking fingers and lost it. Gioconda whipped out a lighter, offering it to everyone, and they lit their cigarettes, holding his hand.
"Do I have to carry you on my back like that every time, Sparrow?" Fierce said. "As if I don't have my own shit to carry…"
"Well, kill me now!" Sparrow screamed thinly. "Kill me! C'mon!" He threw himself at Fierce, grabbing him with both hands.
"Fuck off!" Fierce pushed him away. Sparrow stumbled back and squirmed in the grass in hysterical fit.
"I can't stand it any more… I can't… I can't like this… I can't do it any longer… can't… can't…"
"Will you shut up?" Piebald fumbled about and threw the matchbox at him. "If you can't get out of here! The parade's tomorrow, step out and say so".
"I will!" Sparrow shouted. "I will step out! Do you despise me now?" He frantically searched the faces with his eyes. "I don't care piss. I don't care shit about you, see?" He spat on the ground, but the thickened trickle of spit hung from his lip. He wiped it and lowered his head silently.
"And there's Olya waiting for you", Pig Iron winked mockingly and demonstrated: like this and like this.
They sat without saying anything, smoking their cigarettes and not looking at one another.
"And down's the same way", sighed Stas, looking into the valley. "Maybe to take a run is better… Not to suffer long…"
"Say, Pinochet", Gioconda called over to Bekbulatov. "You're the Chechen, aren't you?"
"So what?"
"How will you fight against your own folk?"
"Listen, why do you call them my own folk?" Pinochet was easily angered. "You think before you speak, will you? My grandfather fought, my great-grandfather fought, my great-great-grandfather fought…"
"I'm not saying about this", Gioconda leered. "You're the Moslem. And they're Moslems. Allah won't forgive you".
"Fuck off, will you?"
"Pinochet, are you circumcised?" Fierce asked.
"Why?" The Chechen instantly pricked up his ears.
"Show us".
"Listen, you stick up your ass and I'll show you!" Pinochet was furious.
They laughed and fell silent again.
"I quit tomorrow too, boys", Grey said. He had been silent all morning. "My mother sent me a letter, a long time ago". He fished out a sheet of paper as a proof. "She's very sick. And if they kill me… She has no one else, only me… I wouldn't have quitted alone, like an absolute jerk… Well, boys, is anyone else going?" He looked the faces over. Everyone hid their eyes.
"The boys told me, in Afghan you scramble your combat duty in the mountains for a week, and then relax at the base for two", Piebald said. "And here, with this Dygalo you won't see the end of the war".
"So, what about you, Piebald?"
He took a deep drag and shook his head.
"So, Sparrow, is it agreed?" Grey asked uncertainly. "But we should step out together, shouldn't we?"
Sparrow nodded without raising his head.

Dygalo dressed up for the parade, putting on his aiguillettes and medals. The entire regiment was on the parade ground. The commander, burly man with no neck and short sturdy arms, spoke curtly, and his voice sounded deep, as if he ordered an attack:
"On the twelfth of December. While on a combat mission. In the area of the Kandagar Pass. The squad was trapped by the heavy enemy fire…"
Sparrow was standing still in the line. He looked at Grey out of the corner of his eye. Grey nodded imperceptibly. Sparrow looked the other way. Dygalo shot them a furious glance and everyone froze again.
"The machine-gunner of the Guard, private Samylin. The graduate of the second company of this regiment. Remained in the position to cover his comrades' retreat. Personally destroyed eight units of the enemy manpower. When he ran out of ammunition. He exploded himself with the hand grenade. Took with him the mujahedin that surrounded him. For the bravery and heroism displayed while rendering international assistance to the brotherly Afghan people. Private Samylin is awarded with the Order of Red Banner. Posthumously. That's how our boys fight!" The colonel raised his voice. "In honor of our dead comrade! Regiment! Atten-SHUN!"
Officers and sergeants saluted, boys turned their heads to the lowered banner.
After the pause, the colonel went along the lines, looking in the soldiers' faces.
"Each one of you. Himself. Voluntarily. Decided to serve in Afghanistan. I must ask you a question. Does any of you have any second thoughts? I won't ask you about your reasons. You will simply be transferred to different locations within the country to go on with your service. So!.." He stopped in front of the regiment. "Who does not want to serve in Afghanistan, two steps forward!"
Sparrow froze, looking under his feet, hunching his shoulders tensely. Grey desperately looked at him. Sparrow cast a sidelong look to the other side, caught the eyes of Fierce, Gioconda and other boys, and looked along the endless motionless ranks. He moved his shoulders, trying to make these two steps -- and remained standing.
The colonel looked the regiment over for the last time and saluted:
"Thank you for the service!"
"We serve the Soviet Union!" the regiment answered.
Sparrow hung his shoulders impotently. He was doomed.

One hundred callused fists screwed into the air with the scream of one hundred throats. A synchronous turn, a kick with a foot. Step back, block. Step forward, hit. The shadow combat was a terrifying performance of some primeval ritual.
"Barrel! Butt! Clip! Barrel! Butt! Clip!" the sergeant screamed.
Yelling wildly, voices lost, sweat sprayed from twisted lips, the glassy-eyed soldiers rehearsed close combat with sandbag mannequins. Barrel to the body. A short swing of the heavy butt and hit. Then the end of the clip to the eyeless tarpaulin head.
"I don't hear you! Louder! Solar plexus! Liver! Straight to the mug!" Dygalo ordered, accelerating the rhythm. Then he jumped to Stas.
"What are you doing, you moron, the calisthenics? Kill him! Kill him, I told you! Be the first to kill! You'll have one blow to save your ass!" He grabbed the gun from Stas' hands and threw the boy aside. "Like this! This! This!" With the inhuman rage he hit the mannequin, almost tearing its head off, and threw the gun back to Stas. "Well? Louder! You're not scaring me! I'm not afraid of you! Kill!"
Desperately, almost unconscious with the heat and strain, Stas screamed and threw himself at the mannequin.
"Well done!" the sergeant said. "Break his ribs! Beat his teeth into his throat! Kill him!.. Clutch! Undercut! Throw! Kill!"
The boys, broken into couples, threw each other down to the rough ground.
"Kill, I told you!" The sergeant jerked Piebald to him and screamed at his face. "You throw him and you finish him, do you hear me, you freak? Only the dead don't shoot at you back". He pushed Piebald down at his adversary and stepped back to see all of his squad. "We're working full force. Why are you so shy, like fucking virgins? It's healthy to get one in the face -- you'll be tougher! C'mon, hit him!" He set the boys against each other. "Stop!" he screamed and pointed his finger at Sparrow. "You soldier, cm'ere!"
Sparrow stepped closer and stood still.
"Lissen, sonny", the sergeant said. "Have you ever been in a real fight? In the schoolyard? In the kindergarten, for a scoop in the sandbox?"
Sparrow was silent.
"Cm'ere!" the sergeant nodded to Stas. "Atten-shun! Punch him in the face!" he ordered to Sparrow.
The boy looked at Stas who stood erect and motionless, his arms pressed to his sides.
"Do you understand the orders, soldier?"
Sparrow swung awkwardly, and hit Stas' face tangentially, against his will.
"You'll caress your girlfriend's panties!" Dygalo shouted. "I told you, knock him cold!"
Sparrow hit harder, checking his swing at the last moment.
Dygalo jerked his head, annoyed.
"Fight!" he ordered curtly.
Both boys assumed positions and circled around each other. Stas aimed several blows at Sparrow's head and succeeded.
"C'mon, Sparrow! C'mon!" He tried to encourage Sparrow, but the second boy only defended himself, trying to grab his arm.
"Enough of that ballroom dancing!" Dygalo shouted. "Full contact, I told you!"
Stas, all worked-up, threw Sparrow one with his right and bloodied his nose. Sparrow fell to his knees, smearing the blood gushing from his face.
"Up!" Dygalo kicked him in the ribs. "Up, d'ya hear me? Fight!"
They danced again, surrounded by the rest of the crowd. Sparrow only pressed his hands to his face, trying to cover it from the blows.
"Come on, Sparrow!" Fierce couldn't stand it any longer.
"C'mon, Birdie! Show him!"
Stas threw him another one, precise and powerful, right between his hands to the jaw. Sparrow collapsed. The sergeant stepped up, putting his boot very close to the Sparrow's face, and looked down. Sparrow tried to push up from the ground, his tunic all bloody.
Disgusted, Dygalo stepped over him. Stas and other boys rushed to help Sparrow to his feet behind the sergeant's back.

In the evening, all of them, sick and dumb with fatigue, lifeless, were sitting behind the barracks on the grass. They were not speaking. Sparrow sniffed from time to time, his nose still bleeding, and touched his swollen lips with the tip of his tongue. The evening sun lit the mountains from below. Cicadas rang piercingly in the silence.
"I wish they send us to Afghan sooner", Piebald said longingly.
"Sparrow?" Pig Iron called listlessly. "Birdie, d'ya hear me?"
"Take my cock to piss, will you -- I'm too tired".
"He won't do it -- it's too heavy for him".
Everyone laughed gloomily and fell silent again.
"Look, there's Snow White!" Piebald shouted ecstatically.
"Wha'?! Where?" Several boys jumped to their feet.
In the distance, along the officers quarters' fence there walked a thin-legged girl in a short flowery summer dress.
"Hey? Come here? C'mon! For a half-cock!" The men came alive suddenly, shouting, laughing, whistling, and waving their arms. They forgot about being tired.
The girl laughed, waved her palm from afar and went on, swaying her hips and making a show of it.
"That bitch!" Pig Iron said, grabbing his crotch. "Now it will stick up till the morning".
"Who's she?" Sparrow asked.
"Are you from the moon, Birdie?" Piebald laughed shrilly. "It's Snow White. The nurse's daughter. All drafts here went through her, and she never missed a single one. She has fucked half of Afghan. The boys of the previous draft told me, they took her to the warehouse and screwed until the reveille, the whole company!"
"Did they? All forty?" Stas didn't believe him.
"I'm tellin' you. By threes, like a chopper".
"How much does she charge?"
"Nothing. That's the trick. She does it for the interest. They pooled some money to buy food, cookies, and candies, got some moonshine. They say, the girl's the rave. It's not that you fuck her, she fucks you. There's this women's disease, the uterus rabies".
"What?" Gioconda chuckled. He was reclining in the grass, his hand supporting his head, and chewed on a match. "That's something new in the medical science".
"Get lost, scientist". Pinochet waved him off, looked around furtively and moved closer to Piebald. "Can you arrange it?"
"What's there to arrange? She's unfailing, like an AK. Just take her. The problem is, where. You've got to sneak her through two checkpoints".
"No, men, the talk is cheap", Fierce said calmly. "The previous draft did this before flying off to Afghan. They didn't care, there's nothing worse anyway. But we have to steam here for three months more. If we screw up, we're fucked".
The boys were silent and disappointed.
"Listen, Fierce, but would you go with her?" Gioconda asked. "After forty men, with that soap-sud?"
"Wouldn't you?"
"No", Gioconda shrugged. "It's better to starve to death than eat from the dump".
"I ate from the dump!" Fierce fixed him with the hateful stare. "Have you ever really starved to death, when you can't even sleep at night? What are you leering at? We've got three spoons of some joiner's glue for supper and then ramble through the city watching you in the restaurant window, as you entertain your whore, to be quick enough to grasp your platter before you throw it away. Got it?" he screamed grabbing Gioconda and pulling him closer. "And I have always had chicks like that". He shook his head after Snow White. "And I'll never have any better".
"Stop it, boys, don't", Sparrow said.
"Shit up, Birdie! You first sniff a woman, then raise your voice", Fierce waved him off. "And I don't need any better, got it?" Fierce shook Gioconda forcefully. "I don't need yours, but you don't touch mine. To eat from the dump? She's better than all your fancy whores. Another word from you, and you'll eat earth, got me?"
He measured Gioconda with his cold stare for another moment, then pushed him away and walked to the barracks.

"It looks like a piece of plasticine", the good-natured elderly major said showing them a greenish cube and handed it to Gioconda. "Let's try it, boys, feel it, squeeze it. Like this".
The boys around him obediently squeezed the green stuff, rolling them between the palms of their hands.
"It's easily shaped, it can take any form", the major continued unhurriedly. "It looks like some harmless kiddie stuff, you've all had it at home, making bunnies and squirrels, right? At the same time, what you're handling now is the powerful and effective weapon, the bulk-type explosive. The plasticite, to put it short. Of course, it has its chemical formula, but you don't need to know it. The plasticite is indispensable and is included into every commando's combat kit. The question is, why?"
Piebald, choking with laughter, poked Pinochet in the ribs and nodded at Gioconda. The whole squad was soon giggling. Poker-faced as usual, Gioconda formed the piece of plasticite as a huge penis, complete with the head and balls.
"Primarily, because uncharged it's absolutely safe, convenient to store and carry and is always at hand. As they say, it wouldn't tear a hole in your pocket…"
Gioconda illustrated the major's words, by bending the head down and showing that the uncharged cock was indeed safe to carry and always at hand. The boys were in hysterics.
"But in combat it is very effective and has enormous destructive powers", the major went on enthusiastically.
Gioconda, knitting his brows, prepared the cock for combat.
"Yet to handle it, you've got to have certain skills. Namely… Soldier!" The major suddenly and demandingly held out his hand, and confused Gioconda gave him his oeuvre. The major didn't look ant it and continued his presentation, waving the big plasticite cock for further clarification. "In combat, there are two simple rules. The first one: The firmer you squeeze, the bigger the bang. The second one: Don't stick it just anyplace. At first, you've got to find the most vulnerable spot of the enemy installation. It's best to find some nook or cranny and press it there as far as you can. We'll practice it at our next session…"
The boys were already bursting with laughter. The major myopically blinked at them, without knowing what was so funny in this serious issue.
"But this thing won't work by itself. In order to produce an explosion, you need what? Right, you've got to have a fuse". The major showed them the fuse and inserted it into the plasticite penis. And only then he saw what he had been holding in his hand.
The boys roared with laughter. The major went crimson with fury.
"Name?" demanded he of Gioconda.
"Private Petrovsky, comrade major".
"This is the fuck-up, soldier!" The major spoke through his teeth. "I will have to report this to your commanding officer".
He moved off, holding the evidence in the extended hand, followed by the gazes of bewildered soldiers who had been marching by.
"You're fucked, Gioconda", Stas said. "Dygalo will get you after the lights-out".

On his hands and knees, gagging with nausea, Gioconda cleaned the never-ending latrine with his toothbrush. Dygalo came in and stood behind his back.
"Follow me, soldier!"
Gioconda followed the sergeant to his cubicle and stood in the middle. The plasticite cock was on the table. Dygalo locked the door, sat in the chair without saying anything.
"Well done", finally said he. "Realistically…"
Gioconda didn't answer.
"Can you paint?"
"I studied painting", Gioconda said carefully, not knowing what the sergeant meant.
"Can you do a portrait? Like this big?" Dygalo showed the size.
"Yes, I can".
"It's this…" the sergeant started, hiding his eyes. He was nervous and jerked his head more than usual. It was hard for him to speak. It was amazing to hear him talk like humans, without screaming or yelling. He was clearly confused, trying to find simple words. "I… My girl's been writing to me… here…" He pointed at the stack of envelopes. "We met before the war… And she's been asking for a photo. And I… can I send her the one with this?" He gestured towards his mangled cheek. "I could have sent her an old one, but they all burnt… Can you paint me without this, nicely?"
"Sure. But it won't be just one session, if you want oils".
Dygalo nodded and paused again.
"I… I won't go to her after the discharge", he said wistfully. "Where should I go, the freak like this? Let her… let her write to me at least".

In the dark barrack, the boys strained to hear something from the sergeant's cubicle. Everything was silent there. Stas slipped from his bunk, tiptoed to the door and pressed his ear to it.

Dygalo, in full dress with medals, solemnly froze in the armchair. Gioconda in briefs and slippers, like he was, a piece of carton on the chair in front of him, arranged paints and brushes and started to sketch the portrait.

Sparrow fussed and fumbled with his digging tools, trying to cut into the stony ground deeper, hacking, panting, blinking the sweat from his eyes.
"Five minutes". The sergeant calmly checked his watch.
Fierce, Gioconda and the rest of the boys were digging into earth at even intervals.
Sparrow sped up. He struck some root and started to hack at it, whining with impatience.
"Four minutes".
Sparrow couldn't stand it any more and cast a fearful look behind his shoulder. A tank revved up about ninety feet from him. Hot air raised from the armor. The crew smoked from the hatches.
"Get on with it!" a tank driver winked at him. "The grave should be wider. Smooth the edges!"
"Hey, commandos!" another one shouted. "Have you found any bones of the previous draft? We've buried a lot of you folks here!"
They screamed with laughter. The driver stepped on a gas, and the tank roared. Sparrow shuddered and dug into earth like mad.
"Go!" The sergeant waved a small flag.
"If you haven't hidden, it's not my fault, I go seeking". The driver shouted, spat out his stub and closed the hatch. The tracks clanged, and the tank moved forward, chewing on the earth.
Sparrow, clutching his gun, cringed at the bottom of his shallow entrenchment. The freshly cut earth in from of him shuddered, shook, some small stones and sand avalanched on him. Sparrow pressed every cell of his powerless body deeper into the ground. The tank shadow covered him, the track thundered over his head. At last, Sparrow remembered the grenade, took out the pin with his shaking hand and threw the training grenade after the tank…
"Look, he's pissed in his pants!" Pig Iron laughed suddenly when they gathered later for the debriefing.
Indeed, there was a wet stain spreading on the Sparrow's fatigue. He stood there shame-faced, his head low.
"It's all very well for you to laugh, and my bunk is beneath his", Piebald said. "Do I need an umbrella to sleep now, or what, eh Birdie?"
Everyone laughed. The sergeant came up to them and smashed the Piebald's lip with the back of his hand without saying anything. The laughter broke.
"Have you seen anything, soldier?" he asked Piebald, his face dangerously close.
"No, comrade sergeant". Piebald's eyes shifted.
"And you?" The sergeant turned and punched Pig Iron.
"No, I haven't!"
"You? Well? Tell us about it, I'd like a good laugh myself".
"It was a trick of light, comrade sergeant", Fierce answered.
Dygalo looked at the rest of the group.
"You may twist your snot on your fists, call your mommy or piss in your pants, but you should do it! Die but do it! And he -- he did it".

"Squad, single shots, fire! Fire! Fire!" Dygalo ordered.
The boys were training at the firing range. The sand around targets in the distance burst in fountains. Fierce shot violently, baring his teeth, as if the targets were their real enemy. Sparrow blinked involuntarily at his every shot and closed his eyes. Gioconda was cool about shooting and aligned the sight with the target precisely.
Later, when everybody held their targets, Dygalo inspected the results.
"Everything went down! Don't jerk the trigger, you'll be jerking yourself in a different situation. You're OK. And you, moron, are good only for watching over the flowerbeds and shoot salt up the asses".
He stood in front of Gioconda, looked at the closely-grouped holes, then at his face.
"You tried this ever before?"
"No, I haven't, sir. It's probably professional, comrade sergeant". He shrugged. "Just an accurate eye".
Dygalo looked at the Gioconda's target again and fished a coin from his pocket.
"Soldier!" He threw the coin to Sparrow and nodded to the row of targets.
Gioconda lay down on the line and pointed his gun at the glistening coin with the same cool concentration. The boys crowded behind his back.
The shot rang. The coin with the hole in the middle jumped into the air, accompanied by the yells of triumph.

When the first squad fired, the boys had a smoke break.
"Listen, Gioconda", Grey said. "Honestly, why did you go to Afghan? No bullshit, OK? You could sit in the HQ, paint your pictures. They asked you to. Hell, you could evade the draft at all".
"You won't understand". As usual, Gioconda chewed on a match.
"Try to explain, would you?"
"Explain?" Gioconda sighed and thought for a moment. "Look". He squinted at some tank at the distance. "Beautiful, isn't it? All this might, and nothing out of place, not a single line. The weapons are the most beautiful things the man created in all history…"
Bewildered boys looked at the tank, then turned to Gioconda.
"Well?" Grey asked.
"There was this Renaissance artist, Michelangelo. And was asked how he created his sculptural masterpieces. He said, it's very simple, I just take a stone and chop everything unnecessary. You see? The beauty is when you don't have anything unnecessary, no conventionalities, and no peelings. And the war is like this, it's just life and death, nothing out of place. The war is beautiful".
The boys looked at one another. Fierce spat under his feet.
"I don't get it, Gioconda, if you're an idiot or it's another practical joke of yours. When the guts are twisted around tank tracks, it looks beautiful to him. All our boys, who are not in jail yet, all went to Afghan. Maybe they'd have something changed in their life. They say, if you come back with a medal, you'd get an apartment. And he thinks it's fucking beautiful. War games, for Chrissakes".
Gioconda only smiled, squinting at the sun.

The boys threw themselves to the ground on the run and shot bursts of fire.
"Fire! Fire! Fire!" Dygalo screamed, raising himself on one knee behind the line. "Recharge!"
The boys rolled behind stones and hurriedly unclipped empty clips lying on their sides, pulling the fresh ones from their belts.
"Faster, morons! It's either you shoot or you're shot at! You've got three seconds of life! Fire! Fire!"

Pig Iron shot a heavy machine-gun, the "Cliff". Dygalo lay close, watching through the binoculars.
"Lower! Aim it lower, I told you! In the mountains it'll ricochet a hundred times, the bullets burst, or you'll get them with stone splitters".

Gioconda aimed his sniper's rifle. Dygalo on all fours crouched above him, following the line of his sights.
"Don't fuss. One shot of yours is worth ten clips. A good sniper is a half of the squad".

Sparrow tried to aim his launcher. Dygalo hugged him from behind, almost merging into a single body with him.
"You aim with all your body, freak. Not with your hands! Fire!"
The line of boys with launchers had puffs of smoke going off one by one, and in the distance ahead of them, among the targets their grenades exploded…

The aircraft gained the altitude over the valley. The boys were sitting on the deck, lining the walls in full equipment, with body armor, full ammo belts, guns, and launchers. Gioconda had the sniper's rifle with covered optics. Pig Iron had a fastened Cliff machine-gun.
The red light blinked over the pilots' cabin.
"Attention!" Dygalo threw the hatch open. The boys stood up along the wall, clipped on their hook lines to the rope near the ceiling. The sergeant quickly checked the hooks and equipment.
The green light lit up, and the buzzer sounded.
"Commandos, go!"
The boys, shouting, rushed forward, pressing their heads into the backs of those who were ahead of them, then poured out of the hatch. Dygalo pushed them all and himself was the last to jump.
One by one, their parachutes shot open, and the boys choked on the wind, ecstatically looked up at the sky now dotted with white flowers of canopies, and cried to one another pointing down, at the toy panorama.
Sparrow screamed out some triumphant song with no words.

The boys in their striped vests scrubbed the barracks floor. Some of them stepped on pieces of metal mesh and tried to clean off some old resin, others pushed brown muddy water around or wiped it with some rags, standing on all fours.
"Mail! Guys, we've got mail!" Piebald burst into the barracks, waving a bunch of letters. Everyone dashed to him, yelling joyfully. Dygalo appeared in the doorframe of his cubicle, and the boys froze under his stare, adjusting their fatigues.
"This is for you, comrade sergeant", Piebald reported, handing him an envelope. The sergeant silently took the letter and went back in. Everyone jumped at Piebald again, trying to grab them out of his hands.
"Where? Where do you get with your little hands?" He pushed the boys away and importantly took out the first letter. "Stasenko", he read. "What is the day today?"
"Wednesday. The third". Stas readily exposed his face, Piebald noisily slapped his nose three times and gave him the letter.
Sparrow surrendered smiling happily.
The boys wandered off into different corners of the barracks, reading the letters hastily, greedily. Pig Iron was walking among them with nothing to do. He sneaked up to Sparrow and looked over his shoulder.
"My darling little Sparrow!" he read expressively.
Sparrow tried to hide the letter from him, but Pig Iron snatched it away and jumped off.
"Girls asked me to go to the disco with them but I didn't go, I don't want to without you…" he intoned tenderly.
"Pig Iron, cut it out!" Fierce said.
"Give it back", Sparrow said in the low voice.
"What?" Pig Iron looked surprised. "Oh, this one?" he pointed at the letter. "Here". He handed Sparrow the letter but immediately snatched it again and continued in a different mocking voice, that sounded obscene. "But yesterday I picked up two classy boys and now we're in full swing with them!" Pig Iron winked and demonstrated: "Like this!"
Suddenly Sparrow hit him in the face, sharply and powerfully.
"You bitch… I'll show you…" Pig Iron said through his clenched teeth.
Sparrow grabbed the letter from him and punched him in the jaw with the same hand -- once, twice, three times.
"Attaboy!" Piebald cried out.
"Show him, Sparrow! C'mon! Beat the shit out of him!" All boys were on their feet.
Sparrow and Pig Iron fought silently, terribly, to death. They beat each other with their hands and feet, circling the barracks, slipping in the brown mud, turning the pails and stools over. The crowd dispersed, giving them way. Pig Iron was stronger, but Sparrow was more agile. Both of them were covered with blood. Pig Iron had his nose broken, Sparrow blinked the blood from his cut eyebrows. Finally, Sparrow managed to kick Pig Iron in the ribs with his heavy boot, felled him to the floor and jumped on him, beating the hateful face into bloody pulp.
"Freeze!" they heard the sergeant's scream. "Atten-SHUN!"
They both stood up, panting, covered with slime and blood.
"This is a fuck-up, soldiers", the sergeant said, pointing at both of them. "I'll see you after the lights-out".
When the door closed, Fierce, Gioconda, Pinochet and Piebald surrounded Sparrow, hugging him and slapping his back. He was still not quite himself after the fight, looking wildly and senselessly around, watching his subdued enemy. Then he broke free of the boys and went into his corner, carefully smoothing the bloodied and crumpled letter.
The boys went to their rags and pails. Only Stas who had sat motionlessly all that time with lowered head, looked like he turned to stone with a letter in his hand.
"Are you stuck or what?" Fierce pushed him slightly in passing. Then he stopped, looked closer, bent down, and saw his face. "What's wrong, Stas?"
Stas turned away, gulping back the tears. The boys moved closer. Stas was crying softly, gasping for breath through his clenched teeth. Then suddenly he tore the letter up, pushed Fierce away, rushed to his bedside table and started to tear all his old letters and throw them on the floor. The boys silently watched.
Stas took out a photo and ripped it in two.
"Wait!" Gioconda snatched the torn snapshot out of his hands. "Give it to me!"
He took a fresh album out of his trunk and carefully pasted the photo of Stas' girlfriend on the first page. The boys looked at him in surprise.
"Why?" Sparrow asked.
"We'll put it to some use", Gioconda answered calmly.

They were standing near the same scree again, with full kits and packs of stones by their boots. Dygalo was inspecting the line, kicking at the packs.
"Soldier! Will you fill it up yourself or should I help you?"
Pig Iron hurried to add more stones to his pack.
The soldiers shouldered their heavy packs, buckled up and froze again.
"The objective is to dislodge the enemy from the height, occupy and reinforce it! Commander, report the preparedness!"
"Comrade sergeant, the second squad is ready to complete the task!" Fierce reported.
The sergeant stepped aside, waiting for the first squad to reach the top.
"Lissen here, boys", Fierce said, without looking away from the black dots that crawled up the slope. His stare was wolfish and unkind. "We go steady, all of us, no lagging behind, no dispersing. Near the top, off that stone, Sparrow, Stas and Piebald, you go, grab them by the legs, topple them, at least two of them. Hold them with your teeth, if necessary, whatever. The main thing is to break through. Pig Iron, Gioconda and Pinochet, you go with me, the rest follows…"
"Go!" the sergeant screamed.
The boys stormed the scree, shouting. Grasping the stones with unyielding fingers, slipping and sliding, they caught up with the rest of the squad, moving up in the line. When the top was near, the first squad moved closer to the edge, giggling, waving, rubbing their hands, beckoning excitedly.
"Sparrow, go!" Fierce yelled gaspingly. "Pig Iron, Gioconda, with me!"
Sparrow, Piebald, and Stas dashed forward, grabbing at the feet of two enemy soldiers with a grip of death, and rolled with them down the slope. Fierce, Pig Iron and Gioconda, tramping their heavy boots on entwined bodies, backs and heads, rushed on into the hole and reached the top. The rest of the squad followed. The combat broke up into vehemently fighting couples. Fierce threw his adversary down the slope like a rag doll, then tore the Gioconda's and pushed him from the top too.
"Retreat! I told you, retreat!" Both sergeants tried to break apart the fights.
The first-squadders who found themselves outnumbered, jumped from the top themselves. Fierce was still dashing madly round the mountaintop but he had no one to fight with, and he finally stopped and screamed raising his head to the burnt-out skies. And the rest of the boys joined him in that beastly triumphant wail, hugging each other on the mountaintop.

"Private Vorobyev!" the colonel called.
Sparrow marched up to him measuring his steps, bent one knee, accepted the commando's blue beret, kissed it and one corner of the regiment's banner, stood up and put the beret on.
"I serve to the Soviet Union!" he saluted, barely keeping from smiling happily.
Fierce, Gioconda, Pig Iron followed him.
Soon the entire regiment donned blue berets, like real commandos now.
"Now you have every right. And you may be proud of it", the colonel customarily hacked his phrases into pieces. "To wear this blue beret. I do not want and will not name the names of the best or the worst. Because the main examination. Is still ahead of you. And you will be passing it over there". He nodded toward the mountains. "One of these days. All of you. Will be sent to the combat zone. To fulfil your international obligations to the brotherly people of Afghanistan. And today. For the very last time. I have to ask you this question. Who of you, due to some reason. Can not or does not want. To fly to Afghanistan?"
The parade ground was quiet. The colonel looked the ranks over.
"I didn't doubt your answer. Private Sergeyev, one step forward!"
Grey stepped forward.
"According to your mother's wish and the command's orders, you will continue your military service close to your place of residence".
Embarrassed Grey looked back to meet sympathetic eyes of his comrades.
"Comrade colonel, may I?.."
"No, you may not". The colonel's voice sounded somehow softer. "I don't have a right to do it. Neither as an officer, nor as a father myself".
"Comrade colonel…" Grey implored.
"Private Sergeyev, back to your ranks!" the colonel snapped.
The boys marched past the rostrum ceremoniously, with the music and unfurled banner. Grey fought back the tears and marched out of step in the middle of the column, his head low.

"Second squad, up!" Dygalo burst into the sleeping barrack. "Up! Up, you morons!" He was drunk, his eyes bloodshot. He rushed about the barracks, throwing the slow ones from their second tier to the floor. Sleepy boys lined up near their bunks, not knowing what was up.
"On the floor! Crawl, go!"
The boys crawled between their bunks.
"Faster! Faster, I told you! Faster, morons!" Dygalo spurred them on, kicking them in the ribs. "Don't raise your heads!" He pushed the Pig Iron's head to the floor with the kick of his heel. "Faster!"
The boys crawled, gasping, on the verge of collapse, knocking their knees and elbows on the planks.
"What?" the sergeant screamed suddenly. "What? I didn't get it. Up, everybody!"
The boys jumped to their feet, catching their breaths. Dygalo went around them, looking into their faces.
"What did you say, private?" He punched Stas with his left hand to the teeth.
"No, sir!"
"Maybe it were you?" The sergeant swung and hit Gioconda.
"No, sir, comrade sergeant".
"We-ell!" Dygalo leered triumphantly. He moved to Fierce, hunching his shoulders, like a predator. "That was you, soldier!" He came up to Fierce, standing face to face and staring groggily into his eyes. "You want to say something, that's true! I see it! You wanted to say something to me a long time ago! Well, tell me, please? Well? Whisper into my ear!" The sergeant turned his head, listening.
Fierce was silent, frowning at the sergeant.
"Well, come on!" The sergeant pulled him into the circle. "One on one! Like real men! No one will see us, no one will know? Well?" He punched Fierce. "You're a beret now, and I'm a beret. C'mon, do it!" He hit Fierce several times.
Fierce only defended himself, barely containing his fury.
"Maybe you?" Dygalo grabbed Pig Iron. "Come on, all of you against me alone?" He was feverish. "Here I am! Go, commandos!" He assumed the fighting position in the middle of the circle, lurched back, trying to hit someone with his foot, dashed to the right, to the left. The boys stepped back, giving way. "Well?!!" Dygalo screamed desperately. "Are there any real men among you or all of you are shameful lamers?"
Suddenly he was quiet, and his shoulders relaxed, as if all air went out of him. He slowly went to the exit, threw Sparrow from his way, and banged the door.
The barracks was silent. The boys exchanged glances.
"Did he have a bad dream or what?" Piebald said.
"Yeah… Bad dream", Stas spat blood, wiping his broken lip.
"Spring exacerbation". Sparrow knocked at his temple. "It happens to them…"
"Wait", Gioconda said, suddenly remembering. "I heard it in the HQ today. He wrote another report today, wanted to fly to Afghan with us. And today they refused him again".
They could see it in the window as Dygalo stumbled on the road, without seeing where he was going. Then he sat on the ground and covered his head with his hands.

Piebald triumphantly opened the three-quart jar of apple compote, sniffed the wide opening and ecstatically shook his head, closing his eyes. The rest of the boys reached for the jar, bumping their foreheads. They sniffed too and appreciated the smell. They were sitting around some food on a newspaper, in the half-lit drying room, under their jackets hung over the place.
Piebald struck a match like a magician and the fumes over the wide opening caught blue fire.
"It's the purest! My dad distilled it!" he said proudly, slapping the flame with his hand. He fished a stewed apple with his dirty fingers and poured the pinkish liquid into tin cups. They toasted and looked at each other.
"What now, boys? For the departure?" Fierce asked.
"We broke through, boys!"
"Fucking unbelievable, right?"
They drank and gagged.
"Wait… How strong it is?" Pig Iron wheezed.
"Seventy. What d'ya say, to send the moonshine by mail one hundred miles? I couldn't drink enough of this stuff".
Sparrow, goggling, looked around for something to chase the liquid. He grabbed the apple, bit into it -- and spit it out, devastated. Everybody roared with laughter.
"Isn't it a great apple, Sparrow, or what? From the Garden of Eden!"
"Hey, Birdie, you don't have to drink it, you know? Suffering like this", Pig Iron said. "Just peck some of this apple, that'd be enough for you".
"Well now, should we have the second one?" Piebald asked.
"Wait, what's the hurry? Pinochet, get it out", Fierce nodded.
Pinochet opened a tin of condensed milk with his knife and took out the plastic pack of dried grass. He made a joint, lit it, took a drag, and passed the bomber around.
Sparrow inhaled too, then slowly let the smoke out, trying the taste, shrugged and passed it on to Gioconda. Then he spat.
"The grass is like a grass. What's the joke?"
"Never tried it before? Fill your lungs with the smoke and hold it as much as you can. Like this". Gioconda showed him and gave the joint back.
Pig Iron cast a sidelong glance at Sparrow who sat concentrated, with puffy cheeks. He was bursting with laughter, trying to hold his breath, then couldn't contain himself any longer, grunted and finally roared with laughter, infecting the rest of the group. One by one, the boys started to giggle in the billows of marijuana smoke.
"Cut it out, Pig Iron. You're spoiling the trip. Are you high already or what?"
"No, I… I just…" Pig Iron couldn't stop. "How Sparrow pissed his pants under that tank. Artistically. Well, that was fine but… how did you manage to piss on your back?"
"Well, look at yourself, have you forgotten how you parachuted on the top of the barracks? You almost made a hole in the roof with your ass…"
Everyone was roaring with laughter now, convulsing, and whooping.
"And Gioconda, made a cock with the plasticite. And that guy didn't notice, standing there like a real sucker, waiving that cock in the air… inserting the fuse…"
Stas burst into the drying room and excitedly shouted in whisper:
"Commandos, at arms! Listen to my orders -- cocks out and ready!"
"What, have you brought her? Have you brought Snow White? Are you lying, Stas?" Everyone jumped to their feet.
"The first-squadders sneaked her in. Quick, boys. To the warehouse. Only quiet, quiet!"
The boys hurriedly grabbed food and moonshine and rushed after Stas. Gioconda and Sparrow remained in the dryer.
"What about you two?" Fierce turned to them from the door.
"I won't go", Sparrow answered.
Gioconda shook his head.
"If you don't want to, no one will pull your by the cocks", Fierce said. "But if we screw up, let us be together. Come on".

The huge moon hung over the mountains, pouring its lifeless light on the world. The boys moved in short spurts across the boot camp.
"Freeze, who's comin'?" the sentry asked lazily.
"Who's entitled those are coming", Stas replied. "And who's not, those are standin' guard".
"Do you have any smokes left, guys?" the sentry said, unlocking the warehouse gates.

Gioconda and Sparrow, their friends and first-squadders in mixed groups, happy and high were sitting between long shelves of the warehouse that were lost in darkness. There were heaps of fatigues on them, body armor, new tied-up pairs of boots, columns of helmets. The boys finished the moonshine and passed joints around. There were merry voices and the girl's laughter from behind the shelves. Then the girl moaned, faster and louder.
The boys laughed and listened.
"Now she's started singing again".
"Attagirl! She climaxes like a machine-gun".
Suddenly, the girl screamed, and the boys laughed again.
"Well, who has charged her like this?" Piebald asked and raised himself, trying to see in the dark.
"Why are you so sour?" Guioconda pushed Stas with his foot.
"Oh…" Stas was upset and waved his hand. "My balls are twisted out of practice. You know, I could fuck her all night long, I could fuck her with my eyes, but the fucking balls hurt so much, it's painful to touch 'em. Maybe it will pass. Gimme a drag?"
Gioconda gave him the bomber.
"Won't Dygalo look for us?" Sparrow asked.
That was the moment when Stas took a deep drag, holding his breath, and waved his finger in the air, as if telling Sparrow to wait. Finally, he closed his eyes, let the smoke out and answered:
Lyutayev, sweaty and inflamed, staggered from behind the shelves.
"That was you, Fierce?" Piebald laughed. "And I thought who was firing large caliber there?"
Some first-squadder stood up and moved to the shelves, staggering, stepping on the feet and getting kicks in the ass from his comrades.
"Is there any left?" Fierce asked, pouring himself a drink from the jar. "I'll fuck me to the rest of my time here, so that it hangs low for eighteen months and doesn't squeak". He drank and sighed. Then he looked at Sparrow who was sitting next to him, and hugged him crushing his body. "Sparrow, birdie! You know how they smoked in my orphanage? Gypsy-style, one joint for everyone". He took a deep drag, then turned Sparrow's head to him and reached to his lips with his mouth.
"Beware, Sparrow!" someone laughed. "He doesn't care whom to fuck anymore!"
Fierce squeezed Sparrow's cheeks together with his fingers, prying his mouth open, pressed his lips to the other mouth and exhaled half of the smoke. They held their breaths together, foreheads close, looking into each other's drunk misty eyes. Then they let out the smoke simultaneously and laughed.
"Fierce", Sparrow said, deeply touched. He could barely speak. "You're so… so…" He couldn't find enough words for his feeling. "Guys! You all are so… You really don't know what you are. I'll do everything for you! I love all of you so much!"
"Well, the birdie's out of it", the boys laughed. "Don't give him any more to drink, we'll have to carry him on our backs".
"Listen, Vovka, are you a man?" Fierce asked. "No, you tell me, are you a man or just like that?"
"No. Don't, Oleg. Don't go into that. I don't want it with her". Sparrow moved away. "You know it, I have my Olya, she's waiting for me, you see…"
"Well, you may love your Olya to your heart's content. I'm not speaking of this". Fierce hugged him tougher. "I have my girl, he has his girl, everyone here does, ask anybody. Well, Gioconda is OK". He waved his hand dismissively. "He's got his own agenda. I don't understand it, so fuck him. But you -- remember what you were, birdie! Now you're a real man. You've got one final exam now. You've got to do it, bird, you know -- you've got to do it! Like Dygalo says: die but do it. You know, we're not heading for some fucking spa, to chase women. Maybe you've got the last chance. You can't go to war with your cherry untouched. The war is man's business".
"You go, Sparrow, he's talking sense", Gioconda said.
"Go, birdie", the others seconded.
"But maybe… she won't want to do it with me", hesitantly said Sparrow.
"You're insane or what?" Fierce whispered hotly, staring with mock surprise. "She likes you more than the rest of us. More than the entire draft".
"You're lying".
"Cross my heart. The men here won't let me lie, she has just asked me about you!" Fierce turned away, barely holding himself, winked at the rest of the boys and made a terrible face. The rest were snickering.
"No, is it true?" Sparrow asked suspiciously.
"Sure is. She had asked about you one hundred times in the garrison. And you don't pay a slightest attention. The girl's offended".
"No, I can't do it… with the whole crowd around". Sparrow hung his head.
"I'll be back. Here, drink this". Fierce poured him a full glass and ran behind the shelves. There were some angry voices, and some displeased boys appeared.
"Is he so fucking special?" Pig Iron grumbled, buttoning his fly. "Is he better than anyone?"
"OK, cut it out, we'll sort it out later!" Fierce pushed the last ones from behind the shelves.
"Sparrow, do you need any help? Hold her legs?" someone suggested.
"Forward, Sparrow!" Fierce slapped his shoulder and pushed him. "Commandos, go!"
Sparrow turned around, trying to produce a brave smile.
"If I don't come back, write home that I died in glory. Let them name a street after me".
"Right, Feather Alley. Move it, the time's running".
The boys squatted and lit their cigarettes.
"Admit it, boys, the assholes contract a bit, no?" one first-squadder said. "Honestly, no bullshitting?"
There was a long pause, and the boys looked away, trying not to see at each other.
"Come on… It's not all of us they kill…" the other one replied.
"No, it's not bad if they kill you at once… If you're maimed, that's the worst… I saw a hospital in Tashkent. The boys are there, the entire ward, and each one covers only half of the bed, what's left of them…"
"We've got one boy in our courtyard. He came back, in one piece, only his bladder punctured. And he walked everywhere with a glass jar stripped to his leg and a pipe sticking out of his gut. They called him the Bootlegger".
"Shut up, would you? If your ass contracts, why did you have to come here? You could stay at home or lugged bricks in the construction battalion. What's wrong there with your Sparrow? Is he asleep or reading some poetry to her?"
"Lemme see". Piebald raised himself to stand up, but at the same moment Sparrow ran from behind the shelves and shot to the door, without seeing, stepping on feet and the food.
"Hey, wait! Vovka, what's wrong?" Fierce intercepted him.
"Swine!" sobbed Sparrow. "Swine, all of you!" He broke himself free and banged at the door with his fists. "Open up!"
"Sparrow, what's got into you? Come on". Fierce tried to hug him. "If you couldn't make it, big deal. This happens to everyone".
"You're like swine, all of you!" Sparrow was in hysterics, his voice breaking. "You don't care with whom, where -- and I can't do it like this! I can't!"
The sentry finally unlocked the door, and Sparrow jumped out.
"I wished him well", Fierce told the boys, embarrassed and confused.
"Well… The boys break easily", was the philosophical remark.

Gioconda reclined on the several layers of tents with his head supported by his hand. With soft admiration he watched Snow White, his pupils dilated. The naked girl was sitting among men, one leg bent, voraciously ate cookies and drank from the bottle. Her swollen lips were encrusted with crumbs. Someone pulled her by the hand and she pushed the intruder aside with her knee.
"Screw off. I told you, I'm tired".
She was wet all over with her own perspiration and the soldiers' sweat, and her chestnut hair was soaked too. It hung over her face with shiny brown eyes, and she was drunk on the moonshine and her temporary power over the mob of strong men. They were lying obediently around like a pack of hungry dogs, patiently waiting for the command. She was unspeakable beautiful. Several arms were entwined around her breasts, belly and shoulders, and her body seemed to shine its own light in the dark through those rough limbs with protruding veins.
She felt someone's eyes on her and turned her head.
"What are you looking at?"
Gioconda still inspected her, enraptured.
"Has anyone told you before that… you're beautiful?" he said slowly, without expression.
The girl snorted, the crumbs flew from her lips.
"Are you in love or what?"
"If you're in love then marry her!" Piebald laughed. "And we'll come visiting".
"You should know it. You're very beautiful", Gioconda repeated slowly.
The girl scanned the men's faces: was he pulling her leg?
"Is he a half-wit or what?"
"No, he's an artist".
"Ciprida, walking out of the sea…" Gioconda continued.
"High as a kite", Stas grinned.
"Who's that?" Pig Iron didn't get it.
"The goddess of beauty. The sea washes all her sins away. The eternally immaculate whore…"
"The goddess!" suddenly yelled Fierce. He prostrated before Snow White and poked his head into her lap. "Pray! Pray, you morons!" He pushed Piebald's and Pig Iron's heads down, and the boys happily fell to their knees, clowning and bowing. Snow White shouted with laughter, pushing them away with her naked heels. Someone grabbed her and they fell to the tarpaulin together.
Gioconda turned to his back, took a deep drag, and dreamily watched the smoke rising to the ceiling with the same smile of admiration.

"Comrade sergeant! You're so… so…" Sparrow moved his lips with the last efforts, barely comprehensible. "You're the best! You… you don't even know how good you are! You'rer everything for me! Honestly! Don't laugh, comrade sergeant! You can't even know what you have done to me… for me! I have a girlfriend, Olya". Sparrow reached into his pocket, then fumbled in another one and fished out a photograph. "Here. I love only her and you. I love you so much, comrade sergeant! Can I… can I embrace you?" Overcome with the emotion, he grabbed the immobile sergeant. Dygalo was sprawled across his armchair, lips hanging, staring unblinkingly at his full-dress portrait on the wall, oblivious of everything around him.

In the gray false dawn the commandos in full marching order, parachutes, ammo belts and body armor, lined near the aircraft. Dygalo came up to his squad. Without saying anything he looked into stony faces, hugged everyone briefly, slapped his shoulder and moved on. Fierce, Gioconda, Pig Iron, Stas… When he hugged Sparrow, the last in line, the sergeant turned his back and walked away.
The commandos went up the rear slip of the transport in two files. They stomped their heavy boots on the resounding metal, ran into the dark insides of the plane and sat down on the floor in the herring-bone pattern, between the outstretched legs of the person behind, grabbing the shoulders of the one ahead and facing the after-hatch. Finally, the rearguard was in place, and everybody froze staring at the opaque quadrangle of gray light in the hatch. Only the dark silhouettes could be discerned, the unending ranks of soldiers seemed like some uniform multi-headed and multi-armed monster. The engines whined and roared, and the slip went up slowly, blocking the light. Only a thin sliver of it remained, and one could not see faces any more, only their eyes gleamed in the dark faintly.
The slip closed with a bang, and everything went dark.

* * *

The recruits went down the slip to the hot concrete of the Bagrama airfield and looked around curiously. In the distance, there were some "Rook" attack aircraft and bulky helicopters of fire support called "crocodiles", with blades hanging low and covered guns. A couple of "crocodiles" made slow circles above the airfield, shooting sparks of heat missiles from their rear ends. The airfield was squeezed between the mountains scorched by the sun. Off the strip, there stood some combat engineers, leaning on their probing rods like spears, with languid dogs on leashes. The PA blared some farewell marches, and the column of demobees marched to meet the newly arrived.
Two columns met at the concrete: fresh soldiers in crisp uniforms, pale-faced under the stiff brims of their Panama hats, loaded with equipment, and demobees in berets and dandified uniforms, decorated with medals, badges and golden aglets, with attaché cases and Japanese ghetto-blasters in their hands.
"The fresh meat has arrived!" The demobees roared with laughter, showing white teeth at their bronzed faces tanned with sun and winds. Although they were only a couple of years senior, they looked older by an entire life. "Go hang yourselves, newbies! You'd better do it now not to suffer later!"
The recruits were silent, warily looking at them.
"Are there any compatriots?" some demobee shouted. "Is there anyone from Piter?"
"Anyone from Archangel?"
"Any Rostovians?"
Two columns mixed, as the demobees embraced their fellow-countrymen.
"Yes!" Fierce shouted.
A demobee with straw hair under his blue beret pushed through the crowd.
"Where from?"
"And I'm from Yershovka! Hi there!" The demobee powerfully slapped Fierce's shoulder. "Don't shit your pants, we'll break through! Everything's gonna be dandy, got it? I'm flying from here, and you'll fly. Here, take this". He took a blackened silver Arabian polygon on a string off. "It's enchanted. A year and a half without a scratch, got it? Eighteen combat duties and not a single scratch!" The crowd pushed him to the aircraft. "Don't take it off, wear it all the time!" he shouted. "Never take it off! And when the new ones come, you pass it on to someone from Krasnoyarsk, got it? What's your name?"
"Oleg! What's yours?"
"Your name?"
"What? I can't hear you!" He pointed to his ear.
Fierce waved his hand.
The recruits sat on the edge of the airstrip covered with discarded parachutes, lit their cigarettes, and watched the transport aircraft taxiing before the take-off.
The plane took off, immediately made a steep turn, and roared above their heads gaining the altitude in a spiral. The march broke off in the PA system.
"Three hours, and they're home", someone sighed.
"Draw up!" shouted some lieutenant.
Fierce looked at the amulet in his hand, put it on, and hid it under his collar. The recruits picked up their equipment and marched on the airfield, looking back at the aircraft and stumbling on each other.
"Look!" someone shouted.
A bright fiery point rose fast from behind a mountain slope to meet the plane. The transport ducked, trying to avoid the missile, but it caught the plane in the wing. The transport shook and tilted. A muffled clap sounded a moment later.
The "crocodiles" dashed to the launch site from both sides. The projectiles took off from under their wings and left their traces of smoke going over the mountainside. Explosions followed. The guns rumbled from the next mountaintop.
The transport skidded with one wing burning, trying to stick to its course with difficulty, then made a turn and went down to land. The siren wailed at the landing strip, everything came alive with movement. Crews ran to their attack planes, fire engines approached the strip. Only a bunch of green soldiers froze right in the middle of it.
The burning plane tilted and swerved on its way down. Without dropping its speed, it struck its tail on the concrete, and it went off, leaving the trail of personal belongings and crushed human figures. The fore-body slid toward the small crowd of young soldiers, breaking off its wings. The soldiers dispersed. The plane caught up with some, with a terrifying screech, showering them with fountains of sparks. It was the moment when the kerosene stock in its full tanks caught fire, and the black and a red pillar of fire shot up over the airfield.

The firefighters were covering the still-smoking debris with foam. The shaken recruits, suppressing their nausea, helped the regular soldiers to sort out the mash of metal bits and burnt human bodies, and piled the corpses on the concrete.
Fierce noticed the lock of familiar straw hair. An opened attaché case was near the body. Fierce picked up the soldier's demobilization album, burnt on the edges, and opened it. His compatriot was looking at him from the snapshot, smiling bravely.

The garrison looked like any other military base in Russia: some prefabricated houses surrounded with barbed wire, barracks, the clubhouse, the store and the soldiers' mess-hall, warehouses buried in the ground, the parade ground with billboards decorated with garish propaganda posters.
The recruits were standing in the thinned-out formation near the HQ. They were bored. A sullen senior lieutenant came out and took out the list.
"Ryabokon, Petrov, Demchenko, Bekbulatov! The fourth company!"
"Bye, boys! See you soon!" Pinochet and Piebald waved to their comrades and followed the senior lieutenant.
There were only Fierce, Gioconda, Pig Iron, Sparrow and Stas on the parade- ground.
"We're the last again. Is it the bad luck or what?" Stas said.
"I'd sure want to eat something", added Pig Iron.
Finally, some round-faced and curly-headed ensign rolled up to them, like a round loaf of bread in baggy trousers.
"Well, fuckers!" he shouted merrily. "Losers! Drunks! Junkies! Hoodlums! Sexual fiends! The ninth company is crying out for you!"

In the armory, the ensign handed the sniper's rifle to Gioconda, who tested the butt against his shoulder and inspected the optics.
"Is that you, the artist?"
"Yes, sir".
The ensign glanced at the door and lowered his voice.
"Can you paint naked women? Like this big, a postcard?" He demonstrated the size. "Some hot stuff, with tits like watermelons and an ass like two mine".
"Why?" Gioconda was surprised.
"Why? It's business! Half of the revenue is yours, I'm an honest businessman. And I'll relieve you of the kitchen duty, you'll sit here and paint. Deal?"
"Deal". Gioconda signed his name in the armory log, hiding a smile.
"And another thing. When you get the money for cigarettes or canned foods, don't go to the regular store, I'll have them cheaper. Only it's…" The ensign put his finger to his lips with significance. -- "…for the insiders only".
"Gotcha, comrade ensign".

In the same armory, Pig Iron was amazed to see the machine gun with a splintered butt and twisted drop arms.
"Why is it all gnawed like this?"
"This is the machine gun that belonged to the hero, private Samylin! He finished eight Moslem bandits with it and got a medal! And if it looks slightly scratched, it's when he exploded himself on a hand grenade. You'll glue it up".
Pig Iron looked along the barrel.
"But the barrel is bent! How should I shoot?"
"You should be honored to have it, blockhead!" The ensign was offended. "It's an individual honorary weapon, if I may say so. And you should be proud of it, you should be ashamed to disrespect the hero's name!"
Pig Iron wanted to say something, but the ensign was faster:
"About-FACE, soldier, I told you!" he snapped. "Go!"

The newbies entered the barrack and stood on the threshold, looking round.
"The sent us the green ones", someone commented lazily out of the corner.
"Wow, some young growth!" A guy stood up from the nearest bunk. He was barefoot, his pants were rolled up to his knees. He looked sturdy, lower than Sparrow in height but more powerfully built, very wide in shoulders. His arms were covered with tattoos. Without letting a cigarette butt from his lips he came up to the boys and looked each of them over with some disgust.
"Atten-SHUN!" he ordered. "Congratulations with your arrival to the glorious ninth company!"
Then he inclined his head and listened.
"I don't get it, soldiers? Let's try again. Congratulations with your arrival to the glorious ninth company!"
"Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!" the newbies barked.
"You're a pain in the ass, Ukrainian". One of the old soldiers rose from his bunk. "Go jerk them to the parade ground, give us some sleep!"
"You were not allowed to speak, PFC", the man answered without looking back. "I'm Sergeant Pogrebnyak", he continued, strolling in front of the line of boys. "Forget everything you were in the boot camp. There are no A-students here. You're nobodies. And I will personally fuck you until you are excellent soldiers!"
The newbies exchanged gloomy glances. It all looked too familiar.
"I don't get it?" The sergeant was instantly wary. "Do I make myself clear, soldier?" He stopped before Fierce.
"Yes, sir, comrade sergeant!"
"Now", the sergeant said looking at his watch. "You have the time until twenty-one hundred to lick the entire barracks like the cat's balls. At twenty-one hundred, you'll go to the combat duty. The countdown!"

Fierce and the rest of the boys crawled in the dark in short spurts. They reached the barbed wire.
There were some cages on the other side, in the corner on the back of the warehouse. The ensign in his briefs and slippers fed grass to some bunny rabbits, scratching behind their ears.
"Here we go, my sweet one. And you too, you too… here, my long-eared ones".
When the ensign disappeared in the doorway, Fierce took out his bayonet, clicked it to the handle, and cut the wire close to the ground.
"Listen up. Sparrow and me take the first one from the right. Gioconda, Stas, you take the third one, to us more space. Sparrow, you open the door and run. I'll take one and follow you. Pig Iron, you're the back-up, you stay here". Fierce looked around and breathed out curtly: "Go!"
They crawled under the wire fence and dashed to the cages all at once. Sparrow and Stas opened the doors, Gioconda and Fierce grabbed the rabbits and sprinted back. Near the wire they threw themselves to the ground, crawled to the other side and disappeared in the dark.
The ensign shot from the door with a gun in his hand.
"Freeze! Freeze, cunts, or I shoot!" he screamed hysterically. He ran after the marauders but lost one of his slippers on the run and crashed to the ground full-length.

Sparrow kneeled, pushing the rabbit to a log. His hand with the bayonet was shaking.
"I can't do it", he said finally. "You'd better slaughter me".
"You feathery moron!" Fierce took the bayonet from him and grabbed the rabbit. He raised the blade resolutely.
The rabbit was staring at him with its beady eyes, twitching its nose in terror. Fierce raised his bayonet higher. Then he dropped his hand.
"Pig Iron, you try".
"Am I always the last in line?"
"Hurry up, guys!" Stas was looking around uneasily. "We may screw it up any time".
"Then slaughter it yourself".
"Let's cast lots", Sparrow suggested.
"Let me do it", Gioconda said calmly. He took the blade, lowered it, and froze for a moment, looking into space with his cold eyes. Then he swung briefly and hacked at the rabbit's neck.

Ukrainian, gangly and long-nosed Afanasy, flat-faced Kazakh Kurbachi and the newbies were sitting in the pantry round the table with some bare bones strewn on it.
"Who was your sarge?" Ukrainian asked, contentedly picking his teeth with a match.
"Sashka Dygalo?" Afanasy was astonished. "I thought he had been decommissioned a long time ago".
"Right, you'd had really had it, boys", Ukrainian said. "I wouldn't envy you. He's lost his marbles completely. At night, he used to scream like mad, gnashing his teeth. He still gave his order for that combat, never letting us any sleep, until they shipped him to the hospital in Tashkent. Before that, he used to be quite nice and merry. What do they call it in the medicine?" He poked Kurbashi in the ribs.
"They call it contusion".
"I thought you'd have some fancy name for it, gook. This one I know without you".
"Is Snow White still there?" Afanasy asked.
"Yep", Fierce said.
Everyone laughed, exchanging glances.
"See this". Afanasy pushed his striped vest up. A girl's half-face was tattooed on his chest. "Does it look like her? What do you say, dauber?"
"More or less", Gioconda answered evasively.
"A boy was doing this from his memory, a year after". Afanasy lovingly slanted his eyes to the portrait. "Have you heard about Tomato?" He snickered suddenly. "He has issued Samyla's buggered machine gun to him". He pointed at Pig Iron. "The new one probably is already written off and sold to the mujahedin!"
"Does he sell firearms to the enemy?" Sparrow inquired.
"Is he the only one? Were you born yesterday, or what?" Ukrainian shrugged his shoulders. "We are shot at with our own guns. The foreign ones are seldom. Only the Arabian mercenaries have them… Do you remember the M-16's we found on the ridge that time?" he asked Kurbachi. "I couldn't understand what they fired at us, the music was so strange…"
An orderly peeked into the pantry.
"Careful, boys, Tomato's on the move in the company!"
"Get rid of it all, quick!" Ukrainian ordered.
In a second, all bones were gathered up in a newspaper and shoved behind some cupboard. A teakettle appeared on the table.
The ensign pushed open the door, sniffing the air with his small lively nose, like a rabbit's.
"Come on in, comrade ensign", Ukrainian smiled boldly. "We're having us some tea here…"
"I'll catch you bastards, all the same! You'll rot in the guardhouse!" Tomato hissed. "I'll borrow the dog from the engineers and sick it on ya!" He darted along the barrack.
"What if he does?" Stas asked anxiously.
"Fuck it", Ukrainian said lazily. "We're in for the combat duty in three days. The war will write everything off".

Armored vehicles with boys in them were moving along the twisting road in file. The slopes here were still curving gently on both sides of the road. A river was flowing in the wide rocky bed down below the low cliff, divided into several tranquil branches. The mountains were breaking up the horizon in the distance.
Now and then, left and right from the road there were rusty shells of burnt trucks. The boys saw an overturned tank, black with soot, and an armored vehicle upside down, its bottom torn out with an explosion, and its turret thrown away. There were some burnt-out oil trucks hanging over the cliff. Sappers were standing along the road with their spears and dogs on leashes, showing the way to the convoy. Gunners were turning their cannons toward the mountains, entrenching them. A couple of "crocodiles" roared above the boys' heads, carrying missiles under their bottoms.
The newbies gazed around with anxious curiosity.
Then they saw a column of soldiers in strange uniforms standing on one side of the road.
"Who are they?" Stas asked.
"The greens!" Afanasy shouted back. "The Afghan army, fucking allies! There's nothing worse than to work side by side with them. They skedaddle as soon as the shit hits the fan. Without looking back. When you think that your wing is covered, they are five miles behind your back. There was a time when they screwed us up really bad. We were rounded up thanks to them, the faggots".
"Stop gaping around!" Ukrainian snapped angrily. He was nursing his swollen cheek and sucking on his bad tooth. "Gape at whores on your leave. If you're riding the armor, search the rocks. You'll be safer at least".
"Where does the mujahedin territory start?" Gioconda asked.
"Over there, behind the barbed wire", Stas showed the Afghan village with his chin. It was just a bunch of windowless adobe huts arranged on terraces on the slope. "By day, the shuravi is your friend and brother". He waved at some Afghans who were looking at the convoy. They waved back amiably. "But at night they dig out their guns and go -- Allah akbar, off with your heads! Wha', can't wait for some action? Stay cool, you'll have your fill with this war". He smiled crookedly and passed his finger across his throat.
"Have you already betted who's gonna kill a mujahed first?" some of the old soldiers asked.
The newbies exchanged glances and laughed.
"What was the bet?"
"A carton of Marlboros", Fierce admitted.
"I'll give you another one", Ukrainian said.
"Who was the first one in your squad, comrade sergeant?" Sparrow said.
"Samyla", the sergeant answered unwillingly. "He was the first to finish a mujahed off, he was the first to fly home in a zinc coffin… Whatever was left of him".
The road climbed higher, the slopes got steeper, and the river below disappeared in the gorge. The vehicles stopped.
"Here we are. The train doesn't run further, we humbly request to vacate the cars". Afanasy was the first to jump off the armor.
The soldiers followed, stretching their legs.

The commandos were rapidly climbing the mountain path in single file, under the scorching sun, loaded up with their equipment. Apart from their body armor, backpacks, and ammo belts, each of them had a launcher or a stand, a couple of mortar shells tied together over their necks, fire-thrower, radio, tents, rubber flasks for twelve liters of water, cartridge belts or grenades. The sweat poured into their eyes, their lips were cracked with heat. They didn't speak, only cursed silently through their clenched teeth. It was the lonely battle with the inhuman fatigue, heat, and burden that grew heavier on their shoulders, for each of them.

The order went down the chain:
"Rest, five minutes! Five minutes… five minutes…"
The sun was already setting over the ridge. The soldiers dropped to the ground, propping their packs on the rocks to give some rest to their shoulders, gulp water from their flasks, and chewed on they dry rations, staring into space with their glassy eyes.
Ukrainian rocked back and forth, holding his puffy cheek.
"What's wrong with you?" The company commander came up to him.
Ukrainian showed him the cheek.
"It even shoots to the eye, the bitch".
"What do you have the head for, idiot? You couldn't have dragged your ass from the bunk and go see the doctor at the station, or what?"
"I thought it'd stop by itself".
"You thought… Turkeys think as well, and get fucked in the end. Get me Kurbangaleyev!"
"Kurbachi! Kurbachi to the captain!" went along the line.
Kurbachi came running, the first-aid kit over his backpack.
"You're supposed to extract it", he said, inspecting the bad tooth.
"Then fucking extract it!" Ukrainian screamed.
"I'm not the dentist. I don't even have the forceps".
"You crooked-armed gook! Who has the pliers?" Ukrainian shouted.
Someone handed him the tool.
"It's just… it should be extracted complete with its root, otherwise it could be worse", Kurbachi explained.
"I know, you moron. Hold my head", Ukrainian said to Fierce.
Fierce gripped his chin and the back of his head. Ukrainian opened his mouth wide and stuck the pliers inside. Sparrow, Gioconda, and some others turned away.
Ukrainian pulled his tooth out, spat out the blood, and clenched his teeth around the cotton ball soaked with alcohol, which the paramedic gave him.
"Let's go!" he snapped and stood up.

At the daybreak, they hit a steep slope. The road was far below them in the gorge.
"Occupy the height, reinforce it!" the captain shouted. Then he crouched with the radioman and took the mouthpiece and the headset. "First! Nine calling! First! Nine calling! I'm in position!"
He charged the flare pistol and fired a green rocket. In a short while, another green light flashed in the sky above a distant mountain, then the next, on the other side.
"Our glorious regards to the neighbors!" the captain shouted into the mike. "The housewarming party starts!"
The chain of soldiers combed the height with their guns raised.
"Freeze!" Ukrainian suddenly yelled at Gioconda.
Gioconda froze with one foot above the ground.
"Two steps back!"
Gioconda made two steps back, like a robot.
"Are you strolling along a fucking boulevard with your chick? Look where you stepping".
Ukrainian waved to the newbies, and they came closer.
"See, the 'petal'! The meanest landmine of them all". He pointed at some yellow cube, looking like a toy between the rocks. "You step on it, it'll tear your foot up to the edge of your shoe. If you wear boots, then up to the knee. Look carefully where it's convenient to lie down or to go. It's almost definitely there, waiting for you".
He threw a rock at the landmine. It went off in a muffled clap.
The newbies moved on, suspiciously looking under their feet. At the other wend of the chain, there sounded another clap, then more of them.
"Ukrainian!" Afanasy called. "Here's the present from Uncle Magomet!"
Ukrainian and the newbies went to the gap of a well in the mountainside.
"Damn the kerizes…"
"What's that?" Sparrow asked, looking into it.
"An underground aryk", Afanasy explained. "The village is close to this place, and the water is down there". He pointed down the gorge. "So they dug a tunnel under the mountain to the nearest spring. At the opening, it goes like this, and then branch out on both sides. It may be ten miles long".
"How long does it take them to dig it?" Stas wondered.
"It may be five hundred years old", Afanasy chuckled.
Gioconda whistled softly.
"This means we still had Ivan the Terrible, and they built water-supply pipes here…"
"Shut up!" Ukrainian snapped. "Fierce, Pig Iron, Sparrow, check that side". He pointed. "There may be more openings there. Sometimes, mujahedin roam in there". He took out some wire and a hand grenade and put a booby-trap around the well.

Later, the soldiers picked up a relatively flat lot, took off their equipment, and stripped to their striped vests. Like ants, they carried flat stones to build the fortification with embrasures and machine-gun emplacements around their position.
Then, without any rest, they dug into the stony earth, making storage holes, dugouts, and trenches along the low walls of the fortification.
In the twilight, they put on their tents and distributed the equipment.
At night, they were dead asleep, exhausted, with their arms outspread or their hands tucked under their heads, as the sleep caught them as soon as they touched their pillows.

The moon, half-hidden by a mountain ridge, as if unevenly snapped in two, leaked its muddy light on the ground. Stas walked back and forth along the positions with his gun raised, warily looking around. There were more shadows than light in the piles of rocks. The silence hung, the sand creaked under his feet, and his own breath seemed deafening.
"First!" came the cry from afar.
"First, yes!" was the reply from the next sentry.
"Second, yes!" Stas cried.
He made several steps more, turned around and shuffled back. His eyes were closing, he tried to keep them open, blinked, and shook his head, keeping the sleep off. Then he closed his eyes without stopping, stumbled, and woke up with a start, pointing his gun barrel into the dark. Then he sat on a rock, clasping his submachine gun to his breast.
"First, yes!"
"Second, yes!" he responded without opening his eyes.
He slept fitfully, hanging his head low, when two silent shadows slithered between the rocks. A strong hand jerked his steel helmet back, strangling him with the strap, another hand clasped his mouth tightly. In the same instant, the gun was torn from his hands. Stas jerked his legs spasmodically, and doubled up, receiving the kick in the gut.
Then he was carried along the path, his hands and feet tied, with the sack over his head.
They dropped him on the ground, beamed with a torch and demanded something in Afghani. A hand raised his chin, another hand pressed the blade to his throat.
"N-no, d-don-n't," Stas moaned through the sack, wriggling.
The blade slowly slid across his throat, as if trying for a cut, scratching it from ear to ear. Then the ropes were cut on the sack, his feet and hands with short movements.
Stas lay for some moments without moving, then took the sack off with shaking hands, and sat up.
"Guys!" he said pathetically, looking around.
In the dugout, Ukrainian, Afanasy, and Kurbashi stood there around him. Closer to the exit, there were Fierce, Gioconda and Sparrow.
"What, did you have a bad dream?" Ukrainian asked compassionately, helping him up. And immediately and forcefully punched him in the mouth. Stas flew to Afanasy, who turned him around, added another blow to his gut, and pushed towards Kurbachi. They beat him silently and violently, passing him around until Stas dropped to his knees. The blood poured from his broken nose and mouth. Ukrainian jerked his head up.
"Do you know how it happens? Shall I show you?" he screamed madly into his face. "They come in through here!" He pointed at the entrance. "Then they slightly push the first sleeper, so that he doesn't moan in his sleep. And they cut his throat, ear to ear, like this!" He jerked his finger across his throat. "One by one! Thirty boys! One after another! Slaughter them like pigs! Because of the one, the only one faggot, who slept on duty!" He putt all his force into the final blow, and Stas collapsed.
Ukrainian dashed to the newbies who stood gloomily by the exit and combed their faces with his fist.
"This is not your boot camp, you shits, if you still don't get it!" he screamed. "They don't give you any bad marks here, they kill! If any of you sleeps on duty, I'll fucking shoot you myself! Let one moron die but not everyone because of this one moron! Take this shit outta here!" He kicked unconscious Stas. "Sparrow, you're on the second shift tonight instead of him!"
The boys picked Stas up and moved to the exit.

Gioconda finished his drawing with quick and assured strokes: some mountains, an armored vehicle on a road, and the intricate letters below, saying "AFGHAN". The soldiers crowded around him, looking over his shoulder.
"Fuckin' A!" The drawing was passed around. "Will you draw one for me some time?"
"C'mon!" One of the soldiers took off his striped vest and lied down. Another one smeared some alcohol over his chest and pasted the drawing to his skin. Then he dipped a bunch of needles in some ink and started tattooing the guy along the lines.
"Gioconda! Ukrainian's callin' ya!" someone cried.
"Comin'!" Gioconda put the unfinished drawing off and stood up. "I'll come back and finish it".

Pig Iron squinted against the sun, aimed his machine gun with its butt held together with some tape at a lone-sitting boulder, and fired a burst. The fountains of dust exploded thirty feet to the left. Pig Iron gaped at them in amazement, then took the pliers, and started to adjust the sights, softly swearing and puffing over his work. Then he aimed the crooked barrel at the boulder again.

Gioconda ran into the dugout with a box of matches, out of breath. The old soldiers played a game of cards.
"Comrade sergeant, Private Petrovsky has carried out your orders!"
"Here, mujahed, get your grenade!" Ukrainian slapped his ace in front of Kurbachi and roared with laughter. "Money up front, you gook!"
The Kazakh clicked his tongue, swore under his breath in his own language, tore off a piece of paper, and signed his name. Ukrainian fished out a stack of similar receipts and added the new one. Then he looked at Gioconda and glanced at his watch.
"You're two minutes late. All right, you're forgiven, it's the first time. Give it to me." He stuck a cigarette into his lips.
Gioconda handed him the box of matches. Ukrainian opened it and slowly raised his head.
"I don't get it. Are you pulling my leg, soldier?" He shook out three matches onto the greasy cards.
"No one has them any more, comrade sergeant", Gioconda helplessly shrugged his shoulders. "That's all they've got".
"Do you know when the next convoy comes? How long are we supposed to sit here, a day, two days, a week?" Ukrainian cried. "Get the matches in an hour. Two boxes".
"Where am I supposed to find them?"
"I don't care. Find them, steal them, give birth to them, whatever. Do you understand the orders, soldier? Go!" Ukrainian started to deal round the cards. "Hey, artist!" he shouted after Gioconda. "And you'd better come back with the matches. If you don't, I'll paint you all over like the Tretyakov Gallery!"
Gioconda went out of the dugout and looked round, at a loss. There were only the mountain slopes and the deserted road below. Suddenly, he saw an old Afghan peasant astride a depressed donkey on the path below their positions.
"Hey!" he shouted to the man, dashed forward, then returned to his trench, picked up his gun and a couple of cans of stewed meat. Then he ran after the peasant. "Hey, bacha! Wait!"
The man looked around but only kicked his donkey forward.
"Wait, I'm tellin' you! Stop! Freeze!!"
The man finally stopped and looked at him warily, slightly turning his head. Gioconda ran up to him.
"Matches!" Gioconda made the gesture of striking a match. "Get it, matches? Two boxes!" He raised two fingers. Gioconda shoved his hand into his pocket, and the man rushed aside. Gioconda fished out a can of meat. "This is for you, and the matches for me, understand?"
The man smiled and nodded, blubbered something in his native language and pointed along the road. Then he kicked his donkey and beckoned Gioconda to follow him. The soldier looked back at their positions hesitantly and followed the man.
They went on and on, and then the path turned sharply. Gioconda cast a final look at their positions and pushed his gun to his chest, combing the stony slopes with his eyes. The peasant was unhurriedly telling him something, not caring at all if the soldier understands him.
A small village appeared soon. A young guy dressed in an Afghan robe, with a player on his belt and headphones in his ears, was plowing a flat lot with an ancient-looking plough. When he saw them, he took off his headphones and hurried to the village.
The villagers had probably seen them coming, because the entire population gathered at the edge of it, the men mostly in front, and the kids further to the back of the small crowd. Gioconda cocked his submachine gun. The peasant turned to him and made a gesture: It's all right. He said something to the people, and the crowd parted and gave them way, without saying anything. The man dismantled and led the donkey on. Gioconda slowly followed him through the crowd, his index finger on the trigger, casting sidelong glances and looking back now and then.
The peasant led him to an adobe house, opened the rickety door, and entered. Gioconda warily stepped in. It looked like some kind of a storage room, with sacks of grain on the earthen floor. The man extended his hand: Give me the tin. Not letting go of the trigger, Gioconda fished out one can, then twisted his hand awkwardly, and found the second one in his right pocket. The man pointed at the floor: Sit, -- and went out.
Gioconda squatted at the clay floor propping himself on some sacks and pointed the barrel at the door. Inside, there was the stuffy semi-darkness, a single ray of sun shone through the small window under the ceiling. Golden dust was setting in its light.
The door opened, and a very old man entered. He wore a turban, and his face was all wrinkled like a baked apple. He had a horrible walleye, and two crooked and rotting teeth on bare gums stuck out of his mouth. He looked like an evil sorcerer in an Oriental tale. Without saying anything, he smiled and squatted across from Gioconda. His only eye never let the soldier.
Gioconda was sitting, gripping his gun with such force that his fingers went numb. The sweat rolled down his face, and he licked it from his lips. Every time he looked at his party, the old man readily grinned, demonstrating two rotten fangs.
The door opened sharply, Gioconda gave a start and raised his gun. Two dirty kids' faces peeked in, giggled, and disappeared.
Finally, the young guy with the player entered.
"Here". He put two matchboxes on a sack close to the exit. Gioconda stood up, sidled to the door, without losing sight of the old man, then showed the guy with his barrel that he should step back. He picked up the matches and put them in his pocket.
"Go", the guy said and gestured at the door. Gioconda showed him again that he go first, and glanced at the smiling sorcerer for the last time.
Drenched with sweat, with dark stains spreading across his chest and armpits, he slowly went through the crowd again.
"Go", the guy pointed at the path. "Go quick!"
Gioconda moved along the path carefully, aware of every slightest movement behind his back. Then he couldn't stand it any longer and broke into the run, remembering Dygalo's lessons: ten steps to the right, down, ten steps to the left, down.
The crowd was silently standing at the edge of the village watching him zigzagging back and forth.
When Gioconda went round the turn of the path, he saw the chain of twenty soldiers in body armor, with ammo belts on and guns raised. On failing legs, he went on to meet them.
"Alive?" the company commander shouted from the distance. "Who gave permission to leave the positions?" he asked when Gioconda drew closer. "Showing your heroism? A fucking Picasso!" He hacked Gioconda on the neck with his hand. "Motherfucking Ayvazovsky! Three extra duties!"
"Yes, sir, comrade captain, three extra duties!" Gioconda reported.
The party turned back.
"Why did it take you so long?" Ukrainian asked behind the captain's back. "We wanted to siege the village already, to blow it to smithereens. Got the matches?"
Gioconda took two boxes out of his pocket.
"Look, they're all soaked wet", Ukrainian laughed. "Well, you're the hero!" He slapped Gioconda on the shoulder. "You Motherland won't forget you!"

Some soft humming was heard from the depth of the gorge.
"They're coming!" Ukrainian shouted.
The humming grew louder. Finally, the convoy appeared from around the bend in the distance. A heavy tank with a minesweeping road-roller in front of it was the first. It was followed by armored vehicles with soldiers on the armor, "Urals" heavy trucks, artillery haulers, oil trucks, radio cars, self-propelled guns, more oil trucks, "Hailstorm" self-propelled launchers with covered missiles, more trucks, field kitchens, self-propelled AA guns… The convoy spread over the whole length of the gorge, and new vehicles still appeared.
"Holy shit!" Sparrow exclaimed in astonishment. "How many are there of them?"
Pig Iron was moving his lips, trying to count the vehicles.
Through the optics of his sniper's rifle, Gioconda watched soldiers on the armor, tank drivers' heads sticking out of their hatches, and concentrated truck drivers behind their wheels.
Suddenly, an uneven trace of smoke extended from somewhere above to the convoy, followed by another one. The first grenade was shot over the target, the second one hit the truck and exploded in its body. The "Urals" sidled from the road, flapping with its burning tarp, the soldiers jumped off their vehicles, taking cover. The hatches were shut, the combat vehicles turned their turrets without seeing the enemy.
"Over there!" Ukrainian pointed and was the first to run along the ridge. Fierce, Sparrow and Gioconda followed.
On the run, Ukrainian fired a burst at the mujahedin he could see among the rocks. They never shot back, retreating up the slope. The soldiers closed on them in short spurts, firing as they went. Gioconda dropped on one knee and steadied his rifle on a flat rock. He could see one of the mujahedin clearly: a bearded man in a brown robe against the sky. Calmly and coldly Gioconda caught his figure in the sights and pulled the trigger. However, the man suddenly disappeared, as if vanished into thin air. The bullet chipped the stone where he had been standing a split moment ago.
Ukrainian ran up to the keriz, half-hidden with a flat stone, tore a hand grenade off his ammo belt, threw it down the well, and jumped aside. A dense column of smoke and dust burst from the opening. Tearing his elbows and knees against the walls, Ukrainian slid into it and fired a volley into the dark tunnel. Fierce was the second one to jump in. Slouching in the low and narrow pathway, taking their turn to fire, they moved forward.
"Down!" Ukrainian yelled.
They dropped to the floor. In the pause that followed, they could hear the sound on the hand grenade clicking against the stone floor. The explosion thundered and the blast swept through the tunnel, clanking the fragments on the walls. Ukrainian shot into the dark once, listened bowing his head intently, and stood up. He took out his torch and swept it along the endless walls of the keriz, then he touched the stain of some fresh blood and rubbed it on his palm.
"Gone", he said. "If only we could search the village and see who left these traces here".
They heard some footsteps behind them. Ukrainian shifted his torch. They saw Sparrow who made his way toward them with his gun raised.
"Wow, the reinforcements are here!" Ukrainian said joyfully. "And I was thinking, why they skipped along like that. They saw our Sparrow. C'mon, cutthroat! The war is over". He turned Sparrow toward the exit and propelled him by the kick in his ass.

They were riding the armor again. This time, the convoy was small: two armored vehicles, "Urals" and oil trucks. The vehicles' overheated engines whined, as they climbed higher into the mountains. To the left, the road opened on an immense precipice with a river glistening far below, to the right, it was hung over with rocks.
Gioconda sketched the scenery, steadying his album on his knees and struggling with the jerks and bolts of the moving vehicle. Now and then, he blew on his freezing fingers. Ukrainian cast him displeased glances but kept silent.
"Damn the cold", Sparrow huddled up.
"See how high we are", Afanasy answered. "The pass is near. When the sun's down it's freezing hell. And in winter, on the move, your balls bang on the armor like hollow".
"And this one couldn't care less", Stas chuckled nodding at Pig Iron who slept peacefully in the back of the vehicle. "Does that much fat warm you indeed?"
"Comrade sergeant?" Fierce asked. "And who exactly are those barbarians?"
"You'll see", Ukrainian grinned. "The remote garrison. The deeper the shit the faster they send the ninth company there. All normal people are relaxing at the base already, but we're like a plug for every asshole…" He spat maliciously.
"Eh?" Pig Iron inquired, raising himself from sleep. "A-a-a-ahhhh!" he screamed shrilly and heart-rendingly, then suddenly dived from the top of the armored vehicle and danced on the ground, slapping his fat behind with both hands. The seat of his fatigue pants was on fire.
The convoy stopped. As the soldiers roared with laughter, goggle-eyed Pig Iron screamed and tore his pants down to his knees, dashing back and forth trying to cool off his ass.
"What's up?" the driver said looking out of the window.
"That half-wit fell asleep on the radiator, snug and warm".
"You cunt!" The driver rushed to Pig Iron and kicked his naked ass several times. "And I'm wondering why the diesel boils over! It's that faggot cut the air off with his fat ass!"
The soldiers doubled with laughter.
"Stop this farce, now!" the company commander yelled. "We won't make it till the dark! Where's the paramedic?"
The convoy started again. Pig Iron wailed spread on the bench with his pants at his knees. His ass turned purple and started to blister.
"You've got to piss on that", Kurbachi said. "That's the surest thing with the burns".
"That's good, let me do it", Stas offered readily.
"No, let me do it!"
"I'll show you some piss!" Pig Iron hissed. "Put some ointment on it!"
Kurbachi dressed the expanse of his ass with gauze and fastened it on with Band-Aids.
"Do you think you're in pain now, Pig Iron?" Gioconda uttered philosophically without looking up from his drawing. "Well, no. You'll be in pain when you have to shit. It's the medieval Chinese torture. You'd better gag yourself before it, not to scream".
Pig Iron moaned, gripping the armor with both hands.

The garrison stuck to the cliff like a swallow's nest, just a patch of flat land off the road with several dugouts and a power generator truck. It was surrounded by a powerful stone wall with loopholes in it. Every dugout, the power station, and even the open-air mess hall, a wooden table with some benches, had their separate walls. It looked like a medieval castle more than anything else. The only difference was the red flag on a mast in the middle of it. The access road was blocked with heavy concrete blocks.
The convoy seemed to have been expected for a long time, and a crowd of about twenty locals gathered at the entrance. As soon as the vehicles stopped, and the travel-weary soldiers jumped off the armor, the barbarians rushed to them, feverishly looking into their faces, embracing them, shaking their hands.
"Hi, boys! Hi there! Ashot! Kolyan! Mikhey! Hello, guys!"
"Unload it!" the captain cried. "First things first!"

The twilight fell as the chain soldiers still unloaded boxes of ammo and provisions. The oil truck pumped out the fuel into the underground tank. Ukrainian chose the moment and winked at the driver. They moved behind the armored vehicle.
"Pour us some raisins brew, will you?" Ukrainian asked.
"You're nuts, it's the captain's! If he sees it, he'll snap off my head!"
"He'll never notice five quarts or so. We've got to treat the boys nice, no?'
The driver looked around furtively and unscrewed the lower cap of the extra fuel tank in the back door. Ukrainian was fast with putting a jerry can under the spurt of hissing and foaming brownish liquid with some mushy raisins in it.
"Has it fermented, no?" Ukrainian asked sniffing it suspiciously.
"You're out of your mind. It's just got shaken all over in the heat. It's like Massandra wine now!" The driver cut the stream off.

In the evening, Ukrainian, Kurbachi, Fierce and friends were sitting in a narrow dugout around the low table under a dim twinkling lamp. They were drinking the moonshine, pouring it from the jerry can, and passed a joint around. Pig Iron lay on his belly on a mattress with a tin cup in front of him.
"Listen, what do the girls wear these days?" Ashot asked.
"It's them who were civilians six months ago". Ukrainian nodded at the young soldiers.
"What do you mean, what do they wear?" Gioconda shrugged. "Dresses. Jeans".
"I know that they don't wear body armor and camouflage, yes? I ask, what kinds of dresses? Speak in details, yes?"
"Well, this past summer it was the skirts… like almost transparent, you can see through them against the sun… And someone like that is walking as you look, her legs like weight lifter's, but she wears it anyway."
"The skirts like that?" Ashot showed him the desired length.
"No, longer. And they're cut like that, wider, everything flies as she goes. When the wind blows, everyone grabs their skirts".
"And that Gorbachev? I'm listening to the radio, and I don't quite understand", Ashot's neighbor, slow-speaking Mikhey started. "That thing with the perestroyka. What do the people say, do they believe it? Or is it another piece of bullshit?"
"Listen, will you ever shut up?" bridled at his question Ashot. "See, I'm talking to people here? Well?" He turned to Gioconda again, his eyes burning. "So, there she goes, and her skirt flapping, back and forth, here and there, yes?"
"Well, yes".
"And she really walks like this?"
"Really", Gioconda shrugged.
"Wow, that's a bitch!" Ashot ecstatically slapped his knees.
"Guys", Fierce asked. "And how long have you been sitting here?"
"A year and a half".
"Fifteen months", Mikhey corrected.
"Listen, I can count without your help, you rotten potato-eater! It's only nice to eat shit with you, you won't ever let anyone open their mouths!" Ashot waved him aside. "That's how we're sitting here. A convoy comes every six months, brings fuel and ammo. And after that we sit here again. A turban rides by on his donkey once a week, and that's the only entertainment".
"But why?" Sparrow asked.
Ashot shrugged.
"Indicating presence".
"Wait", Ukrainian squinted at some photos and magazine clippings on the wall. "Is it Snow White or what?"
"So, you're from our boot camp, brothers?" happily asked Ashot. "Is she still there?"
"Where else can she be?" Afanasy laughed. "She saw the boys off, too".
"My beloved!" Ashot pulled the fuzzy snapshot off the wall and stroked it with love. "The beauty!"
They passed the photo around.
"And how old is she now?" Ashot asked.
"About seventeen", Fierce answered. "She hasn't changed much. Right?" He handed the photo to Sparrow and winked at him. Sparrow frowned and looked away. Fierce, Gioconda and even Pig Iron laughed.
"So here you sit here day and night, staring at the other side of the gorge", Ashot nodded. "Can you believe it? I know every stone here in the face. I could name them one by one, in order, without looking. The Elephant is below on the right, the Lizard is above it, then there's the break, called the Mother-in-Law's Cunt, then the Taras, that's the name of one of our guys, the sniper caught him from that rock, then the Fang…"
"After it there goes the Turtle", Mikhey raised his voice, "and the Fang goes after it".
"The Fang, I'm telling you!" Ashot went ballistic.
"The Turtle's the first!"
"You're nuts, potato? Are you telling this to me? You tell this to me?"
"Why are you calling me potato?" Mikhey couldn't hold himself any longer. "And who are you? The mountain goat? Just climbed off your mountain and saw the latrine for the first time in the barracks! If you get on my nerves, I'll get on yours you won't believe!"
"Come on, let's go!" Ashot was on his feet. "Let's go check! If the Fang is the first, I'll beat you to bloody pulp! What, yellowbelly?"
"Enough, guys! Stop it! Quiet!" Ukrainian and Afanasy pulled the barbarians apart.
Ukrainian poured from the jerry can.
"Let's drink for the D-day, guys. It's not far off. What did Grandfather Lenin say? The demobilization is inevitable, like the downfall of the imperialism".
They toasted with their tin cups. Ashot was still mad at Mikhey and cast evil glances at him.
"When I think of the D-day -- do you know what I dream about? You think, women, all that business? No. I have only one dream. I wake up in the morning, and don't see this mug in front of me".
"Enough, enough already! C'mon!" Ukrainian pushed his cup with his own.
Some barbarian with night vision binoculars pushed his head into the dugout and nasally announced in the voice of a radio presenter:
"Moscow time is twenty two hours. We are proudly presenting the concert on demand… Well, guys, should we go and shoot some shots?"
"Get lost", Ashot waved him away. "Lemme talk to the boys here. Listen, Gramophone!" he shouted after him. "Take the young 'uns with you".
Fierce, Gioconda and Sparrow looked at Ukrainian questioningly.
"Go", he chuckled. "Have some war".
The boys hurriedly sorted their firearms and jackets near the exit.
Stooping, they followed Gramophone to a low stone wall at the edge of the precipice. Several soldiers were already poised at the embrasures, having smokes and hiding the embers of their cigarette tips in the palms of their hands. One of them with headphones was lying near portable radar, a metal box of the attaché case size with dimly lit dials. Its vertical antenna was slowly turning in its nest, combing the opposite slope. Gramophone crouched by the radar and looked into his binoculars. Fierce, Gioconda and Sparrow anxiously peeked into the dark gorge above the edge of the wall.
The radar man stopped the antenna, fine-tuned the device, and raised his hand. The soldiers put out their cigarettes, cocked their shutters, and aimed their guns through the loopholes. There was silence for several deadly seconds. Everyone was staring at the radar man who intently listened to something only he could hear.
"Are they coming?" Gramophone asked in a low voice.
The radar man silently pointed his finger at the dial with a slightly swaying needle.
"How many?"
"Five. Or six. It's not very clear", the radar man answered.
He clicked the tumbler and turned the dial, listening.
"Above the Turtle, about sixty feet to the left, to the Big Tooth. Right under the Elephant". He finally showed them the direction, took off his headphones, and picked up his gun.
Gramophone looked into his binoculars.
"Here they are. Good evening, my dear friends", he intoned nasally. "Please make yourselves comfortable by your radios. Looks like five". He lowered the binoculars. "Akhmet!" he suddenly yelled, and Fierce and friends started. "Is that you?"
His yell echoed in the gorge.
"Lyooshaa!" they heard from the other side. "Salam aleykum, my deear!"
"Akhmet? Are you still alive, you shameful shit-eater? You tapeworm-farter, you stinking turban, you lousy bitch!" Gramophone charged the rocket-launcher and strained himself shouting. "I will be killing you a little now!"
"Lyoshaaa! I cut you gut, I strangle your neck! I fook you, I fook yo mama, I fook yo papa, I fook yo sistah!"
"You'll be dead fookin' so much! Your fooker will break!" Gramophone fired a rocket, and it hung between the slopes. Ghastly blue light played on the walls of the gorge. The volleys thundered from the other side immediately. The soldiers answered with fire all at once and the big machine gun rattled. The racket multiplied by echoes reverberated in the gorge crisscrossed by fiery tracers.
Fierce, Gioconda and Sparrow fired from their loopholes, catching the sparks of enemy machine guns on the other side in their sights. Bullets struck the stones in the wall and whined above their heads maddeningly. Sparrow rolled to his side, replacing the clip. In the same instant, the bullet struck the side of his loophole and ricocheted, banging loudly on his steel helmet. Sparrow automatically grabbed his head, feeling for the dent. He waited for a second, then returned to the loophole and pulled the trigger again, feeling excited.
"Now, will you listen to your favorite tune, 'The Moonlight Valley Serenade'!" Gramophone announced. "Go ahead, Kolyan!"
One of the soldiers raised himself, and shouldered the grenade launcher. His grenade crossed the gorge, leaving the smoky luminous trace behind it, and exploded at the other side. The second one followed. The sparks there became scarcer, then disappeared. Gramophone waved his hand, and his team ceased fire. The distant echo grew silent slowly, and in the mountains, all became quiet again.
Gramophone looked into his binoculars.
"That's it. They're leaving", he said. "The concert is over. We'll see you next on our radio waves, our friends".

On the way back to the dugout, Fierce and Gioconda took turns inspecting and feeling the dent in the Sparrow's helmet.
"No, can you imagine?" he exclaimed, still agitated by the combat with unseen enemies. "It went into the wall, than into a stone, then right into the helmet! There, here and then bang! No, can you see it? A palm-width lower and it could end right in my forehead!"

In the morning, Sparrow with a huge rubber flask behind his back went down to the bottom of the gorge to fetch water for the garrison. His submachine gun hung on his front, and he clutched at the rocks, slipping on the steep path. He slid on his heels past a huge boulder and started. There was a man there, just ten feet from him. A young guy dressed in an Afghan robe was bending over the spring, filling a leather water-skin. He started, too, raising his head. His hands were filled with the heavy leather-skin, and his gun was behind his back on the ground.
Sparrow quickly cocked his shutter. Two men froze, looking at each other and catching the slightest movements of the adversary. Finally, the guy smiled broadly, showing his even white teeth on his dark face.
"Lyoshaa?" he asked.
Sparrow shook his head and answered hoarsely:
"Oh, Voloda". The guy's smiled widened. "Salam, Voloda".
"And you are Akhmet?"
"Akhmet, yes", he nodded. Without shifting his pose, he shot a glance at the water-skin to see if it was full. In the same second, Sparrow looked back and up at the garrison. He didn't know what he should do.
They stared into each other's eyes again.
"I go soon", Akhmet nodded at the water-skin. "You soon come. You no wait at all".
Sparrow nodded.
"Live Tashkent, yes?" Akhmet asked. "Papa-mama Tashkent?"
"Krasnoyarsk. Siberia".
"Oh, Sibir!" Akhmet nodded his head with significance. "Cold. You have girl Sibir? You have, yes?" he laughed. He seemed nice enough, and looked the same age with Sparrow. "Love, yes? What name?"
"Olyaaa?" Akhmet smiled and winked. "Pretty?"
"Yes. Very". Sparrow tried to smile too. His finger tensely quivered at the trigger.
"My -- Fatima. Also pretty. You very love. Oh, braid! Fatima braid, yes?"
"Bride", Sparrow laughed.
"Bride, yes", Akhmet nodded gaily. "Other village, there… Wife soon. Live my home. Very soon".
His water-skin was full and the water poured over. Without making any sudden movements, exaggeratedly slow, Akhmet tied the skin and raised the load onto his back, all the time showing what he was going to do with his eyes. Then he stepped back to his gun, spread his hands palms up, squatted slowly, and picked it up by the belt. Without looking away from Sparrow, he retreated, one step at a time. The path was impossible to ascend with one's back first, so he had to turn, but he did it very slowly, holding the gun in his extended hand, so that Sparrow could always see it.
Suddenly, he lost his footing, slipped on a tiny stone, and Sparrow's finger automatically pulled the trigger. Akhmet fell face down and rolled to Sparrow's feet. Crystal-clear water spurted from several holes in the water-skin. Then it grew pink, then red. Then it stopped flowing.
A dozen soldiers hurried down the scree from the garrison, their guns raised. They looked over the slopes.
"Was it you firing?" Ukrainian shouted from the distance.
Sparrow nodded. The soldiers went round the boulder and stood over the body.
"Where did he come from?" Ashot asked. "The mujahedin are getting bolder, roaming like this in open daylight".
"This is Akhmet", Sparrow said without emotion.
"Hear this, Gramophone? That was your crony!"
"What?!" Gramophone pushed through. "Lemme see his mug at least". He turned the body over and maliciously kicked the dead face several times. "Stinking bastard! He fell three of our boys, the bitch!"
"Well, good start, Sparrow!" Ukrainian laughed. "You may start making notches now".
Gioconda, Fierce, Stas and others clapped Sparrow on his back and shoulders, congratulating him, but he only smiled weakly. He couldn't avert his gaze from the face of the dead enemy he had been the first to kill.
"All right, fill it up, let's go", Gramophone ordered.
When the group started up the path, he took a hand grenade out, extracted the pin, and carefully slipped it under the body. Then he adjusted the bloodied clothes, to disguise the trap, stood up, and took off his helmet.
"Farewell, our dear friend!" he intoned nasally, with much feeling. "We'll never see you again, but the memories of you will be forever alive in our hearts". Then he put on his steel helmet and followed the others.

The road was going down. The mountaintops were now at the horizon, and the river under the precipice grew wider. There was a village at the gentle naked slope.
"How long is it to the base?" Sparrow asked.
Afanasy glanced at his watch.
"About six hours. I'll catch myself a few zees for about thirty hours", he said dreamily. "With no moron to come close to me, and if they do it's gonna be the last step in their life".
"That's cool", Kurbachi screwed up his eyes in anticipation.
"What's the merriment, freshers?" Ukrainian snapped. "The war ends behind the barbed wire. I know that this one can't wait to run to the store". He pushed Kurbachi with his foot, fished out a stack of receipts, and waved in the air with them.
The Kazakh turned away and spat in annoyance. Everyone laughed, and a huge explosion roared in the same instant. The blast tore the receipts from the Ukrainian's hand and scattered them. The personnel carrier ahead of them reared and turned over. Its heavy turret broke loose and rolled to the side of the road, and one broken track hit the armor of the second vehicle. A smoky trace extended from the village, and the grenade went off under the oil truck's wheels. The truck went cab-first into the cliff, blue flames ran on its huge cistern. Submachine guns and some large calibers rattled from above.
The soldiers jumped from the armor. The trapped driver was screaming thinly and terrible. Several men tried to pull him out of the overturned vehicle. The road was blocked by the carrier in front of them, and by the oil truck behind. The armored vehicles opened fire from their turrets.
There was nowhere to hide there, the road was exposed to enemy fire.
"Forward!" the captain screamed. "Go, don't lie down! Never lie down! Go!"
The soldiers rushed up the scree, to the ridge, against the hail of bullets. Someone went down, he was picked up by two other people and dragged on. They dived behind rocks and fired at the mujahedin above them and in the village itself. Bullets whined, hit stones, and ricocheted everywhere.
Pressing into the ground near the radio operator, the captain shouted something into the mike, trying to catch something in the headset. He couldn't even hear himself in the roar of combat.
Pig Iron didn't rely on the sights of his crooked machine gun any more and showered the slopes with bullets, making wide circles with its barrel. Gioconda unhurriedly took the covers off the optics of his rifle, steadied it in the crook of his arm, and aimed carefully. He found a turbaned head, caught it in his sights, and smoothly pulled the trigger. His eyes remained calm and cold. The head jerked and splattered the rocks with red. The mujahed disappeared.
Gioconda moved the sights on. He saw someone's legs in baggy Oriental trousers. Another one was hiding behind a rock. Gioconda took aim and fired. A ragged wound appeared in one leg. The mujahed rolled to his side, clutching his wounded leg. Gioconda cocked the shutter ancalmly and precisely drove the bullet into the enemy's back.
"Afanasy, Stas! Who else is there? Fierce!" Ukrainian shouted to the soldiers closest to him, pointing at the ravine to the left. It led straight to the village. "Let's go from the flank! On the count three!" They all braced up behind their rocks. "One!" He threw out one finger. "Two! Three!"
They were on their feet in the same instant, ran several steps forward, and rolled into the ravine. The long line of the little dust fountains followed. Crouching, they approached the first huts of the village. Someone's robe flashed between the huts. Ukrainian threw a grenade after it.
Stas turned to some movement behind his back, jerking his gun up. A boy of about twelve cowered behind a rock, staring at him wildly. Stas turned back and moved on. The boy dragged a submachine gun from behind a stone. The firearm looked enormous in his thin hands. He fired at Stas' back and ran uphill. Fierce who followed Stas took the boy off with a long burst. The boy dropped his gun and fell down, his legs outspread.
Fierce ran up to Stas and turned him over. Stas smiled perplexedly, grasping the hole in his body armor.
"We're leaving!" Ukrainian cried as he came closer. "The 'Hailstorm' will be working here!"
Far from them, behind the mountain, the "Hailstorm" launchers were already turning their missile guides.
The soldiers who had been the first to reach the village, hurriedly crawled back to the road now.
"Hurry up! C'mon!" Ukrainian urged them. He and Fierce were dragging Stas down the ravine.
The first missiles raised clouds of smoke and dust. One by one, they left the launchers and traced across the sky.
The adobe walls of the nearest hut exploded from within. The dense blast of sand and small stones swept through the ravine, throwing Fierce and Ukrainian to the ground. Thew crawled on, dragging the Stas' limp body. Behind their backs, the village huts blew to dust, throwing out the flaming debris.
The village disappeared in clouds of fire and soot. A burning figure dashed from the flame, collapsed and rolled down the slope.

Kurbachi quickly sliced the bloody body armor and camouflage open, rolled Stas to the side and put tampons in the wound, dressing it. He stood up, looked at his comrades, and shook his head negatively.
"Kurbachi, here!" someone in the back hollered hysterically, and he ran to other wounded.
Stas gagged on his blood, jerked his legs, and tried to raise himself on his weak hands. He wanted to see the wound. Sparrow squatted close to him and put Stas' head in his lap. The rest of the soldiers stood around them.
"What's wrong with you, Stas?" Sparrow's voice quivered. "What's up, man? Don't close your eyes, man. Look at me, will you?" He tried to open dead eyes with his fingers. "Don't die, Stas!" he screamed. "Are you out of your mind? Don't die!" Then he sat back and cried, grabbing his head with both hands.

The tank set against the overturned armored vehicle, its tracks slipping on stones, and grindingly pushed it from the road. Then, with its turret turned away, it pushed the burning oil truck to the edge of the precipice. The truck seemed reluctant to leave the road, gritting its hubs on the stones. The tank engine whined. The truck's cab hung over the abyss, the cistern became vertical for a moment, and then the vehicle tumbled down. There was a pillar of flame, and the silent and frozen boys' faces were lit crimson.

* * *

Some paper snowflakes were hanging from the ceiling. On the wall, there was a rosy-cheeked Santa Claus with his sledge and a sack of presents, his chest decorated with big numerals: 1989. A flat cardboard Christmas tree was in the corner, it's needles and decorations crudely painted.
The boys in ironed-out dress uniforms, with shiny medals, were bustling about the row of tables. They opened cans and cut sausages into large slices.
"Move your wings, birdie!" Fierce pushed Sparrow on the run. "Thanks to you, freak, we've missed the New Year Krasnoyarsk time".
"Thanks God", Afanasy interjected. "See Vladivostok there, out cold since yesterday". He pointed at someone sleeping soundly in the cot, his boots on the pillow.
"Pig Iron! Did you hoard the stewed fruit again?"
"Why hoarded?" he grumbled. "I simply forgot about it".
"Forgot my leg! You wanted to gobble it under your blanket at night!"
Pig Iron put a three-quart tin can of stewed peaches on the table.
The door swung open, and in came Bekbulatov with a backpack.
"Pinochet!" The boys rushed to embrace him. "Come in, our dear friend, you'll be our guest!"
"What guest?" he asked gloomily. "Where's your spare cot?" He flung his backpack to the floor. "I'm exiled here".
"What? Why? What for?"
"Knocked some teeth into one lamer's head". He showed them his huge fist, raw at the knuckles. "He said I champed like a pig. Listen, a pig is a dirty animal with us! Moslems don't even eat it! We kill for such words!"
"So, together again!" Fierce laughed. "Meet the boys: Afanasy, Kurbachi, our medicine man, Ukrainian…"
"To whom I'm Ukrainian, and to some I'm comrade sergeant", Ukrainian answered, scrutinizing the newcomer.
"Come on, Serega, he's one of us, Dygalo's boys". Sparrow hugged Pinochet.
"Guys, the Hump is speaking!" Someone turned the radio up. They heard Gorbachev's voice through wails and static. He congratulated the Soviet people with the New Year, 1989.
The boys rushed to the table, pouring moonshine from a jerry can, and stood still with coveted cups in hands. The chimes struck at the Red Square.
"Ten, eleven, twelve! Hurray!" they shouted and toasted. "Happy New year, brothers! Boys, this is the D-year!"
The guy from the Far East raised his head weakly, reaching for a cup, but dropped it to the blanket.
"Chasing the first with the second one!" Ukrainian commanded. He stood up without saying anything else, and the rest of the boys followed. "For Samyla. For Stas. For Vas'ka Balashov, Nikita, Potap, Baldie, Kolyanych. For all of them who hadn't lived to this day. Commandos, go!"
They all drank this one without toasting. Then they sat, each one ate something from the table.
"Well, the compatriot told the truth, it's enchanted!" Fierce took out his amulet from under his tunic. "Six combat duties, and not a single scratch!"
"Cross your fingers!" Ukrainian cut him short. Both of them hurriedly knocked on the wood.
"Look, there's hardly enough moonshine to cover the bottom!" Someone shook the jerry can.
"What, you couldn't get it from Tomato? He's got ten of those at least".
"Well, yeah, go ask for some. He's sitting with his fat ass on them, hatching…"
"Wait", Fierce realized. "Pinochet! You surely haven't come to us empty-handed".
"Trying to offend me, eh?" Pinochet smiled and spread his arms. Then, accompanied by ecstatic moans, he fished a paper bag of grass from the bottom of his knapsack. They boys tore up a newspaper and passed the joint around.
"Pour a fresh one!" Gioconda said. "For those who are not with us tonight".
"We've drunk it already".
"Not yet", Gioconda said cryptically. He fumbled in his bedside table, produced a thick album and dropped it on the table. The cups clanked.
The boys gathered behind his back. Gioconda opened the first page, pasted with girls' photographs. All of them were of the same age, from all over the country, en face and half-turned, some of them diligently smiled into cameras or shot them languorous glances, their eyelashes thick with mascara, blond ringlets accurately curled, dark bangs cut short, beautiful and homely.
The boys silently stared at their former lovers.
"This is Stas' girl", Fierce pointed. "The first. And he was the first to go. Did she come to the funeral, the bitch, who knows?"
"This one's Piebald's".
"And whose is this one, with the teeth?"
"Sashka's of the second company".
"Afanasy!" Ukrainian knocked on a snapshot with his finger.
"I'm not blind", he grumbled. "Admire your own".
"This is yours, Fierce".
"She's married already, the boys told me". Fierce looked at the photo wistfully. "When I come back, I won't go straight to the dorm, wait at the station until she goes back from work with her new one, arm in arm. And I'll come out to meet them. Like this". He passed his palm across the medals. "And I'll never even turn my head. Let her throw herself at my feet. Gimme a drag!" He took the joint from Gioconda, dragged on it deeply, and turned away.
"Wait". Ukrainian looked the faces over. "Is anyone still waited for?"
"Me, probably", some voice answered hesitantly. "But she hasn't written for quite a while…"
"I don't have anybody", Pinochet said. "We're not allowed to, until we come back from service".
"Pig Iron there has a wide, she's supposed to wait for him".
"Do I know it for sure if she does?" Pig Iron answered. "All her letters look like carbon copies. The weather's fine, everyone's healthy. As if she writes them under court orders. I won't send her any telegrams, make a surprise for her. Oh, and if I catch her…" His jaw tightened. "I'll kill the bitch! Let them sentence me. In prison it's not scarier than here…"
"Sparrow is waited for".
"Well, Olya is a saint", Gioconda said half-mockingly. "If she deserts our Sparrow, that's gonna be the end of the world. That would mean there's no truth under the skies".
"Come on, stop it", Sparrow blushed.
"No, boys, there's only one in the whole wide world! She'll never desert and never forget!" Afanasy kissed the Snow White's snapshot on the last page of the album.
"For Snow White, boys!" Ukrainian yelled. Everyone laughed and toasted. Somebody turned the knob of the radio and found some good music.
Only Sparrow still leafed through the album.
"You know what I'm thinking?" he said wonderingly. "We're here, and they, each on of them, all of them, this very minute…" He pointed at his watch. "They all sit somewhere round their tables, beside someone, they dance and laugh…"
"Do we look like crying?" Ukrainian shouted merrily. He jumped to the middle of the floor, pumped up the tape-recorder's volume, and started dancing, moving his hips back and forth to the music. Everyone joined that obscene dance: Like this! and like this! and like that again! Dancing with the frenetic rhythm, Ukrainian extended his hand and pushed Afanasy slightly with his fist. Afanasy twitched in deathly throes, clasping an invisible wound with his hands, sagging to the floor, then pointed his fingers at Fierce, and fired a burst. Fierce dodged showing that the bullets whistled past him, tore a pin from an unseen grenade with his teeth and threw it. Sparrow shouted with laughter and drew an imagined bayonet, attacking Pig Iron in close combat. The incredible, impossibly wild war dance started, childishly funny and soldierly rude. The joint was clasped with teeth, the boots stomped, and the tape-recorder's speaker croaked. Even the drunk Far-Easterner crawled from his cot and joined them, swaying back and forth. Gioconda brought the tarp mannequin reduced to shreds with bayonets, with the target painted white on its chest, and launched into some spectacular tango with it, now throwing it across one arm, now pressing its head to his face cheek to cheek.
"Cheeze it!" a soldier hollered rushing in. "The regiment commander!"
In a split second the boys shut the music, waved the marijuana smoke away, pushed the jerry can under a cot, and put the stewed peaches on the table. They sat ceremoniously, hands in their laps, barely catching their breath, flushed and disheveled, when the commander marched in.
Everyone was on their feet, adjusting their uniforms.
"Atten-SHUN!" Ukrainian barked and marched to meet the commander. "Comrade colonel, the second squad of the ninth company…"
"As you were, sergeant", the colonel waved away. "Well, wrongdoers…" He smiled at the subdued boys. "Happy New Year!"
"Thank you, comrade colonel! You too, comrade colonel!"
"Why, aren't you going to invite me to your table?"
"Have a seat, comrade colonel". Ukrainian pulled up a stool and wiped some leftovers from the table.
"Quite a gallery you have here!" The colonel looked over their medals. "Here my political officer has made some calculations, and it looks like the ninth company has more awards than any model company".
"And we have three Heroes of the Soviet Union".
"And I think they are not the last ones here", the colonel said. "Well, pour me some".
Ukrainian poured him some peach compote. The colonel tasted and splashed it out into some empty cup.
"Have I missed the right door?" he said. "I told you to pour".
The boys exchanged glances, and Afanasy dragged the jerry can from under the cot. The colonel sniffed the moonshine and smiled.
"That's another kettle of fish. Massandra!" He was silent. The boys waited uneasily, looking at him. "What are we doing here, in this foreign land? Away from home, from our beloved ones, so far away", he started to speak in a low voice. "Are we needed here or not? This is not for us to decide. We're soldiers, both you and I. We're carrying out orders. If the war is big, it's the one for everybody. But there are small wars, and they're individual and private. When you lie on the frontline or go into close combat, you're not at war with an enemy army. You have one, two, three enemies in front of you. And this is your own war, and you must win it, you mustn't run. You should survive in it and you shouldn't let your comrades down. And if each of us wins his own small war, we all shall have our common victory. This is the only way". He raised his cup. "I drink this for you. I'm proud of you, guys!"
The boys shouted "hurray" and reached to toast their commander. The colonel stood up.
"Well, I won't interfere. Celebrate, but don't get carried away". Ho nodded at the half-asleep Far-Easterner. "The combat duty is near at hand".
In the same moment, there thudded an explosion on the outside, followed by more bangs and commotion. There were sounds of broken glass and some screaming. The boys jumped to their feet and listened.
"Is it a raid or what?"
"Well, here's the new year for you", the colonel chuckled. "Company, at arms!"

Armed soldiers were rushing back and forth all over the disturbed garrison. Somewhere a machine gun was already firing at the mountains. Another explosion went off.
"Where are they shooting from?"
"Over there! See the flashes?"
"Casualty!" someone screamed. "We need the doctor here!"
The colonel and some soldiers ran to the screams and saw Tomato in the beams of torches. His cut forehead bled, and the blood mixed with some brown slush. He was all plastered with squishy raisins and gripped the handle of the exploded jerry can.
"Are you wounded?" the colonel shouted.
Tomato only stared in response, half-crazed. The colonel drew nearer and sniffed suspiciously.
"The moonshine… overdone", Tomato sobbed. "Four cans". He pointed at the handle. "Saved it for the celebration".
The colonel roared with laughter and in a matter of seconds the entire garrison hiccuped with laughter, looking at the devastated ensign. Someone was the first to shoot some tracers into the sky, and the rest followed suit. The people fired at the sky with their pistols, submachine guns, flares, and that unexpected fireworks display brightly illuminated the huge expanse of the skies over the small military base surrounded with barbed wire, in the middle of the enormous dark valley in the midst of watchful and silent mountains.

Several trucks guarded by armored vehicles were driving along the gorge.
The boys crouched behind the rocks off the road. The let the first vehicle pass and waited for the middle part of the convoy.
"GO!" Afanasy ordered, curtly waving his hand.
Sparrow and Gioconda jumped onto the trucks' beds on the move and started to throw some cartons to other boys that ran after the convoy. One carton missed, hit the ground, and the cans rolled all over the road. Everyone dashed uphill with their trophies.
Someone from the last armored vehicle fired a volley above the marauders' heads.
"I'll fucking show you how to shoot at yer own, lousy lamer!" Afanasy screamed, turning and firing some tracers in return.
The soldier riding the armor shouted something into the open hatch. The vehicle's turret lowered its gun and turned slowly.
"Down!" The boys dropped the cartons and ducked behind some boulders. The soldiers in the vehicle laughed maliciously and flipped them some birds.

In the evening, the boys were sitting near their dugout in position and ate from their mess kits, burning their lips and fingers.
"Just look at those morons", Pig Iron said, nodding down the slope. "They can shoot you for a carton of stewed meat, six months before the D-day…"
"The D-day is further from you than China if you're jet-propelled by your farts. He's thinking about the D-day…" Ukrainian said. "It's Afanasy and me should start packing".
"Honestly, we shouldn't have done it, boys", Sparrow said. "To steal from Tomato is one thing. But these guys might have taken the provisions to those barbarians, to Ashot and Lyokha".
"Go ahead, Sparrow". Pig Iron scratched the bottom of his mess kit with a spoon and dropped it on the ground. "Teach me something about life. I like to listen with my belly full. Do you know, boys, whom do we have in Sparrow? Tell them, birdie".
"Why should I be ashamed of it?" Sparrow shrugged. "I'm doing the pedagogical institute, philology…"
"He's our schoolmarm!" Pig Iron explained, grinning.
Ukrainian roared with laughter.
"What's so funny?" Sparrow frowned.
"No, it's not that. I wish I could have you in my school. Teachers were afraid to enter our class!"
"Listen, Sparrow, how many boys are there in your year?" Afanasy asked.
"And chicks?"
"Fifty two".
There was a common merriment.
"Well, birdie. Butter wouldn't melt in your mouth! Found yourself a flower bed, eh? Have you screwed everyone there, or reserved someone for later?"
"Shame on you, boys", Gioconda reproachfully spread his arms. "He's got his Olya".
"Well, I'll be damned if I don't come and see that Olya of yours. She's the miracle or what?" Ukrainian said.
"Wait", Afanasy said. "Sparrow will be sticking up at the blackboard with a pointer, like a woodpecker. It's all clear with Gioconda. The gook will be hacking people into bits and pieces…" He waved at Kurbachi.
"No, I won't. Not the people, not any more", he replied. "Enough of this". He passed his finger across his throat. "I'll be the vet again. Sheep and horses are nicer".
"What about you, Fierce?"
"I don't care", he shrugged. "Wherever they give me an apartment to live. One should get by somehow, right? I wish I could grab at something and not get busted, to follow the other boys to jail…"
"Pig Iron?"
"I'll have me a proper honeymoon first", he smiled dreamily. "If she waits for me. And I don't care a fig about the rest".
"And you, Pinochet?"
"I have my brother in trade, my father in trade, my father's brother in trade", he counted on his fingers. "And I'll go into trade".
"What kind of trade?"
"Whatever they buy. Cars, tomatoes. If we don't have money, we're not people. You can't even get married".
"What about you, Ukrainian?" Fierce asked. "After the D-day -- what are you gonna do?"
Ukrainian picked at his teeth with a match, looking at the first stars in the sky.
"Drink", was his reply.
"Well, that's understandable. You'll drink for a week, say, and what's next?"
"Drink again".
"And then?"
"And then I'll drink more. Until I forget all this", he circled the panorama with his hand. "And after that, I'll stand up, wash my mug and start living afresh".

Stepping over the sleeping boys carefully, Gioconda took his folder and box of paints and brushes out of his pack and went out of the dugout in his striped vest. The false dawn was still dense, the gorge was filled with watchful and suspicious silence. The sun was still hiding between the mountains, and it was only near the tops where the sky was barely turning tender azure.
The chief sentry, with his back to the outside stone wall turned to him, raising his gun.
"Who's not asleep in the dead of the night?" he asked lazily. "Leave me some smokes, will you?"
Gioconda took another drag of his cigarette and handed it to him. The sentry tore off the filter with his teeth and spat it out.
"First, second, this is ours!" he shouted into the dark and pushed the cigarette stub between his lips.
Gioconda walked by another sentry who was shuffling along the path.
"Don't fall asleep, you'll turn into a goat".
"Get lost", the sentry grumbled.
Gioconda went down the slope, picking up a good spot. He sat, propped a sheet of cardboard with an unfinished sketch against a rock, arranged brushes and paints in front of him, and squeezed some onto the palette. Then he waited, looking impatiently at the sky that slowly turned pink.
"First!" he heard the sentry's cry.
"First, yes!" came the reply.
The sentry made a couple of steps, when a soft plop sounded from behind some rocks. The sentry started and stopped dead in his tracks, then turned around slowly. There was a little hole in the middle of his forehead, that has already started oozing some blood. He fell down sideways.
The first narrow rays of sun shot through the ridge in the mist of morning vapor. Gioconda mixed paints quickly and put his first strokes on the cardboard.
The second sentry reached the end of the path, leisurely turned, and his throat was suddenly caught with a swishing metal thread with a weight on one end. Then it was jerked back, and his broken vertebrae issued a gush of blood.
Biting his lip in impatience, Gioconda hurriedly and feverishly painted, tenaciously looking at the morning sky. Then he suddenly stopped with his brush slightly away from the cardboard, looking into a single spot in space in front of him. Ever so slowly, without turning his head he started to inch down to the ground. He crouched behind the rock, propping himself on his palette, looking desperately at their position, estimating the distance. Then he moved forward, stepping noiselessly, slouching. A stone slipped from under his foot and rattled down the slope -- and he dashed forward, not hiding any longer.
"Zex, boys! Mujahedin!"
A burst of fire caught him, and he swayed, as if stumbling, still several steps to the position, grabbed his head with both hands, and run his palms down his face, mixing blood with paints. Then he fell backwards, with his eyes open to the skies.
The first return shots sounded. The boys rushed out of their dugouts with their body armor flapping, firing at the mujahedin flashing very close to the stone walls. Pig Iron jumped and reached his machine gun in the flight, jerked the shutter and drove a volley into the figure that loomed right before him.
Finally, the soldiers took their positions in trenches, firing their bursts pointblank, throwing grenades at the mujahedin overtaking them. The enemy retreated to some clusters of rocks, firing back. Sparrow and other boys saw them off with the grenades from their hand mortars.
There was a pause. The soldiers fastened up their body armor and passed on their ammo belts and launchers.
"They're not the mujahedin, boys!" someone shouted pointing at the bodies strewn outside the wall. "Their armor is NATO-issued. Arabs!"
"Fucking bad. We're in shit", Ukrainian said. "These ones will butt to the end".
"Any casualties?" the captain cried.
"All sentries gone. Petrovsky's missing".
"We have two", was the cry from the other end of the position.
"Radio here!" The captain, who had been out with the boys initially, ran back to his dugout.
There was a muffled plop at the cluster of rocks, followed by another one, and they heard a nasty lisping whistle over their heads.
"All down! The mortars!" Ukrainian screamed.
Everyone went down, pressing further into their trenches' walls and bottoms. The mortar shells burst one by one, destroying the wall and showering the soldiers with sand and stones. The ricochets whined everywhere. Some wounded man screamed, taken over by someone else's insistent and hysterical "Kurbachi! Kurbachi here!"
The paramedic ran along the trench, stepping on the prone soldiers there.
The captain grabbed the headphones and mike given to him by the radio operator.
"First! First! Nine calling!"
The shell broke through the ceiling and exploded inside. The radio operator was thrown up and aside by the blast. The captain banged his back against the wall and slipped to the floor. Two rich rivulets of blood crawled down his cheeks from under the headset.
The entire position was enveloped in gray smoke.
"Where's the captain?" Ukrainian shouted. "Sparrow, to the dugout, run! They will roll us down here like dough!" Waiting for a pause between explosions, he half-rose and looked into his binoculars. "One's in the gully, behind the rocks, one-fifty to that height". He pointed. "The second one's also there. To the mortar!"
The mortar men turned their tube standing on their knees in the trench, charged it and bowed lowed, pressing their ears with their hands. The mortar jumped up. The explosion went off between the rocks in the distance.
"Twenty below, fifty to the left!" Ukrainian shouted, still glued to his binoculars.
The orders went down the chain. The mortar men adjusted the sights, and the second shell made a steep arch in the air and exploded in the gully.
"One down!" Ukrainian screamed triumphantly. "Oaks, boys! Twenty to the right!"
"Twenty to the right!" went down the chain.
The loader picked the shell up, but an explosion went off close to him, and the shell detonated in his hands. The heavy mortar pipe went up in the cloud of smoke and dust.
"Captain is dead!" Sparrow cried from a distance.
Ukrainian rushed to him. Sparrow squatted in the destroyed dugout. Ukrainian saw the gutted-out radio, took the flare out of the captain's holster, and fired once. Then he sat up and watched the mountaintops for a return signal.
"Where are they gone, motherfuckers?" he said desperately.
"They're coming!" several voices screamed at once.
Ukrainian and Sparrow crossed an open space and rolled into the trench under the remnants of the stone wall.
The mercenaries were up and going, covered by the fire of heavy machine guns, encircling the position from three sides.
"Company, listen to my orders!" Ukrainian screamed at the top of his voice. "Short bursts -- fire!"
The soldiers gripped their guns tighter, seeking gray body armor in their sights. Some Arabs collapsed, but their bodies were stepped over by the new ones.
"Holy fuck, how many there are of them?" someone screamed hysterically.
Grenades went off in the trenches, scattering the soldiers. The wounded screamed and wailed. Kurbachi, covered in other people's blood, was making a tourniquet on some severed foot.
Pig Iron swiped the barrel of his machine gun left and right. The mercenaries were already jumping over the wall into the trenches. Pig Iron picked up the machine gun and fired point-blank, left and right. The gun jammed, and he gripped the hot barrel, burning his palms, and drove the taped butt into the head of one mercenary in front of him. The butt broke apart. Pig Iron made another swing and caught volley in his gut. He was thrown against the trench wall and slid sideways to the bottom, gasping and staring wildly at the soles of army boots in front of his face.
There was a hand-to-hand combat in the narrow trench. Kurbachi turned away from the wounded soldier and snatched a Kazakh knife from his boot. He ducked under the Arab's extended arm and drove the razor-sharp blade below the edge of his body armor. Sparrow, as he had been taught to, met the enemy onslaught with the barrel to the mercenary's gut, the clip to his face and fired at him point-blank, following it with a short burst up, into the next one. Pinochet grappled with a huge Arab, rammed him into the wall, and drove his wide forehead against his nose. The blood splattered, the blinded enemy sank, and the Chechen stuck his bayonet into his neck from above. Afanasy hacked the mercenaries with a sharp trowel. Ukrainian gripped a wheezing Arab from behind, strangling him with his powerful hands. Fierce crushed the enemy's jaw with the butt of his gun, caught a blow from behind and swooned for a moment, propped himself on the earthen wall and looked around dazedly. There was a tangle of bodies everywhere, smudged by motion, arms bloodied to the elbows, bared teeth and wild eyes staring with inhuman hatred and rage, screams and swearing in all languages, heavy breathing, clanging of iron, gasps and moans of the trampled wounded…

The night mountains were deafeningly silent. The moon was pouring its deathly blue light over the ruins of the position and dead bodies strewn everywhere, from the remote trenches to the remnants of the stone wall.
The boys were sitting in the trench, smoking. They exhaled low and waved the smoke away with their hands. Ukrainian raised his flare and fired. The red dot of light hung over the gorge.
"No use. There's no one there", Afanasy said. "Save the rockets, they might come handy".
"They should come sooner or later. We haven't been in touch for two days".
"Hey, shuravi!" they heard a shout from the cluster of rocks. "Go away! I no shoot! You go away alive!"
Ukrainian raised himself and fired a grenade from his projector aiming at the source of sound. The shell went off in the rocks, followed by a volley from the other side. The tracers shot through the dark over the ruined wall.
"Hey, why do they fire the guns only?" Fierce asked. "They ran out of mortars, but they still have a lot of grenades".
"They wait for the convoy. Don't waste them on us, looks like it".
"Listen, and if we go quietly indeed, while it's dark?" Sparrow asked. "Down those trenches and away? They won't see us at all. And we move to meet our party, warn them? They'll call the choppers or the 'Hailstorms' and wipe them clean to hell here?"
"What about chirping uncle, birdie? Throwing up a towel?" Ukrainian asked softly and menacingly. "We've got the orders of keeping this height!" he screamed unexpectedly and madly, grabbing Sparrow and shaking him roughly. "Until the last! And all those boys realized that?" He pointed at the dead bodies. "And you want to leave 'em here or what? Save your ass? No, birdie, we'll stick to this place. We'll hold it with our teeth! Got it? And we'll keep it!"
Several volleys at once were fired from the other side, and bullets hit the stones over their heads.
"You've got the point", Ukrainian said quieter and pushed Sparrow back. Then he caught his breath and slapped the boy on his shoulder. "Go replace Andryukha".
Sparrow went to the soldier who was standing near the loophole in the remaining wall, and took the binoculars from him.
Ukrainian went along the chain of soldiers in the trench, trying to keep out of sight. Some of them dozed off with their heads thrown back and their guns clasped between their knees. Pinochet cut a can of stewed meat open and ate voraciously with his bayonet.
"What, hungry?" Ukrainian asked without stopping.
"It will be spoilt anyway. Pity to waste".
Kurbachi was sitting with the boy whose foot was torn off. The boy was covered with the mujahed's robe up to his neck.
"Cold… It's so cold", he repeated monotonously.
"Hold on for a bit longer. Not very long to wait", Kurbachi soothed him, barely able to open his eyes. "Ours will be here soon. The chopper will come for you, take you to Tashkent. It's good there, warm. A nurse in the white robe…"
Ukrainian returned to his position.
"How soon's the dawn?"
"'Bout an hour and a half".
"They'll start soon".

The first explosion went off with the first rays of sun, then another one, followed by more blasts. The stones flew from the ruins, smoothing out the remaining fortifications.
"That's it, they started with their grenades!" Ukrainian shouted. "Ran out of patience!"
The soldiers sat up between the blasts and shot at the advancing mercenaries. Ukrainian jumped up taking his aim, and the grenade went off in front of him. He was thrown against the wall, groping at his face. There was blood between his fingers.
"Kurbachi!" Fierce shouted without turning from his gun. "Kurbachi, here!"
He picked up and ran along the trench. Kurbachi's throat was cut with s grenade fragment. He was lying across the boy with the torn foot. Both of them were looking into the sly with empty eyes.
Arabs were already jumping into the trenches. The boys retreated to the both sides, crouching, firing back from every corner. Fierce shot one mercenary point-blank, then took another off, ripped a grenade from his ammo belt, tore a pin with his teeth, and threw the grenade around the corner. Then he raised himself to look.
Over the twisting trenches dug in the flat position, the steel helmets and Arabs' bandannas flashed. No one risked to be caught in the open, and the enemies shot out trying to stay below, emerging now and then to fire and ducking back in. Grenades flew above the surface from one trench to another.
Suddenly, Sparrow came up from the trench already occupied with the Arabs and ran to the Russians. A burst of fire stitched his legs, he fell down dropping his gun, and crawled on, on his elbows.
"Come on, Sparrow!" Fierce screamed desperately. "Come on! Here!"
Sparrow was struck by several bullets, sat up, and cried. He was alone at the flat and bare position. He sat shrunk and lost, pressing his hands to his chest, and looked at his comrades, crying silently, like a kid deserted by adults.
"Here, birdie! Crawl, Sparrow! Here!!" the voices screamed. The soldiers stood up, showering the position with fire, not letting the mercenaries raise their heads.
Arabian bandannas moved in the trenches, approaching Sparrow. He still looked at the boys. Then he tore his trembling hands off his chest and they saw a grenade in his palms. He offered it to them like a justification.
It went off. Fierce screamed and jumped from the trench in the mad rush, firing from hip, without stopping. The rest of them followed. Some of them collapsed immediately, catching bullets, others ran along the trenches killing mercenaries and throwing themselves on them. Fierce jumped into a trench, and the Arab there dropped his gun in terror and ran from him. Fierce caught up with him, felled him to the ground, and repeatedly beat his head against the stones, still screaming right into his face.
Pinochet jumped into the trench, too, ad the mercenary turned and shot him point-blank. Pinochet swayed, dropped the gun, and moved to him. The Arab retreated, firing short bursts at him, but the Chechen moved on, riddled with bullets, like a robot, staring madly and swearing in Chechen. There was bloody foam at his lips. He gripped the Arab by the throat thrusting all his weight against him and never let go, until the last throes of the enemy subsided. Only then he went limp and rested his head on the dead enemy's chest.
The Arabs couldn't resist that final onslaught and ran. Fierce followed them with volleys of fire. One of the mercenaries was hit, flailed his arms and collapsed.
Suddenly, there was silence. Fierce stood still, holding his breath, listening.
"Hey!" he finally called. "Is anyone's alive here?"
"I'm here!" Steel helmets appeared over the parapets in different spots.
"No more mujahedin?"
"No one at this side".
"All clear here, too".
Covered by rocks, they inspected the devastated position. The ground was covered with cartridge shells, twisted firearms and bodies, both Russian and alien. There were several bodies in the remote trench, with their striped vests over their heads and bloody stars cut in the flesh of their chests.
"Bitches!" Afanasy sobbed. "Bitches, cunts!!" He was in hysterics and jumped up, showering the cluster of enemy rocks with bullets and screaming something, his mouth distorted. He was answered by a volley of fire from the other side.
Fierce dragged him down and tore the gun from his hands. Afansy cracked, he cried and wailed, trying to break free and jump out again. Fierce had to give him a couple in the face. Finally, the soldier quieted down and sat back, grabbing his head in his hands.
"Who's the senior now?" Fierce asked.
The soldiers exchanged glances.
"No one".
"Right. Listen to my orders!" he shouted. "Count by numbers, the farthest side first!"
"One! Two!" they heard the voices. "Three! Four!.. Five! Six!"
"Seven", Afanasy said.
Fierce paused and looked around.
"Eight", he said. "Afanasy and me stay here, the rest of you inspect all bodies and gather all ammo, everything. Keep your eyes open for booby traps".
The soldiers started to search the bodies of their dead comrades. They slipped their hands under the bodies first and groped there warily, then unclipped the ammo clips, cocked the shutters extracting the cartridges, went through all pockets and ammo belts. From time to time, the mujahedin shot when they saw some movements, and their bullets struck the stones and hit the bodies.
"Water, boys! Here's some water!" One of the soldiers found a rubber flask near a dugout, hurriedly unscrewed it, and brought to his parched lips.
"Don't touch it!" Fierce yelled, jumped up, and grabbed the flask from him.
The soldier stared madly at him and the water being poured over the ground.
"It could've been poisoned", Fierce said.
In the trench later, they snapped all cartridges from clips into a helmet and shared between them.
"Twenty for each. Plus four grenades. And six projectiles".
"We're fucked", someone said calmly. "Not enough for one attack".

The sun hung over the height as if the time itself was stuck at noon. There was not a single shadowy spot at the position. The hot ground breathed with scorching air that burnt the soldiers' throats. One of them glanced to the enemy side time and again, the rest were motionless on the trench bottom, breathing heavily, the brims of their Panama hats low over their faces, their body armor open.
"Why are they so quiet? Maybe they've left?" Afanasy asked without opening his eyes.
"No way. They're there".
"What's the time?"
"Fuck knows. The watch stopped".
"They won't leave", Fierce said.
"I wish they started sooner then", said one of the boys. "Why are they so slow?"
"Relax", Fierce answered. "They're baking in the sun like us".
The soldier looked into his binoculars.
"Hey, there's a group of five now. Maybe I'll catch them with the projectile?"
"Don't touch the shit and you won't enjoy the smell", Afanasy replied. "Maybe we'll hold on until ours come".
"But where are they, those 'ours'?" someone said. "Two days now. If we had one chopper. One fucking chopper would've been enough".
There was another pause. Afanasy hummed suddenly and his shoulders shook with silent laughter.
"Wha?" Fierce cast him a sidelong glance.
"I just thought… There are people somewhere… living… walking the streets… Weird, huh?"
Another pause.
"Looks like they're stirring", the soldier with the binoculars said.
Fierce stood up heavily, took the sniper's rifle optics from his pocket, and looked at the other side.
"They're getting ready", he said. "Company, bear for action!"
The soldiers moved, buckled up their body armor, replaced their Panamas with steel helmets, and stood up, leaning on their guns. Now they could see clearly that the mujahedin were gathering at the outermost row of boulders at their side.
"Now they're coming", Afanasy said calmly, almost indifferently. "We're fucked".
Fierce pressed his cheek to the butt of his gun, put his chin on the stone, and lowered his eyes. All grains of sand before him were different, with intricate shapes and various colors. They moved and rolled with his breath. A bronze bug skittered from under the butt. Fierce blocked its way with his gigantic finger. The bug felt the mountain of flesh with its antennae, climbed it, and rolled to the other side. Then it was off on its very important bug's business…
They heard a guttural cry from the enemy rocks. Fierce raised his eyes, inhaled sharply, blowing his nostrils, and squinting. He was ready for the combat. The soldiers grinned in anticipation, their lips blackened, or moved their muscles on their stony faces.
The mercenaries marched into the final battle. There were fewer of them, but they still outnumbered the remnants of the ninth company. They have long lost count of the dead, too, they never noticed the passage of time, and the whole world shrunk for them to this piece of scorched and stony land. They were exhausted with heat, thirst, desperation, and inhuman fatigue. And they were the first to lose their nerve. They stood up to their full height and marched on, firing from the hip and praying to Allah for help.
"Well, boys, how about the last one?" Afanasy shouted.
Fierce jumped from his cover, looked over the widely spaced file of soldiers who lay under the breastwork, and screamed hoarsely at the top of his voice: "Attention, company! Commandos, GO!"
The soldiers surged to their feet and dashed toward the enemy with belligerent cries.
At the top, two files of the adversaries, two waves of hatred clashed, and some boy fell down throwing back his head. At that moment, the land between the lines shuddered and exploded. A couple of "Rook" fighters roared over them and made a steep turn above the gorge. The next pair showered the mercenaries with projectile missiles, and they ran in horror, under the wall of explosions. Everything was aflame, the earth itself, the hair and uniforms of dead bodies. The sun was a pale smudge in the black smoke.
Fierce stood at the top of the height numbly, his camouflage encrusted with blood, both his own and his friends and enemies'. The gun hung impotently in his hand. He took the helmet off and dropped it. A chopper bristling with gun barrels rose from the gorge and hovered above his head. The wind from its blades tore at the clouds of smoke and drove sand and small stones across the top. Fierce turned slowly. The man and the huge machine seemed to look into each other's eyes.
The helicopter landed, and some soldiers jumped from it and ran to the wounded. The regiment commander followed, looking over the battlefield. Fierce recovered, turned to him and saluted with his trembling hand, twisted with the effort. His head was bare.
"Comrade colonel… The ninth company… Mission completed… The convoy may come through", he reported without expression.
The colonel stepped to him and embraced him, pressing the soldier's body to his own, shouting something Fierce couldn't hear above the roar of the rotors.
"Comrade colonel… the height is ours. The convoy may go through", he repeated automatically.
"There will be no convoy! Do you hear me, soldier?" the colonel shouted, shaking Fierce by the shoulders. "Why were there no communications? Do you hear me? We're leaving!"
Fierce looked at him uncomprehending.
"Comrade colonel… The road is free… The convoy may go".
"There will be no more convoys!" the colonel screamed. "The war is over, do you hear me? The war is over! It was over two days ago. Why was there no communication with you? We're leaving the country, do you read me, soldier? Home! We're going home! What's your name, soldier?"
Finally, Fierce realized what he was saying. He looked at his commander without saying anything. His lips trembled foully. Then he turned away and went off, swaying as he went. Tears rolled from his inflamed eyes, leaving cleaner traces on his face covered with soot. A paramedic rushed to him, but Fierce shoved him off without even looking. He stepped on the burnt earth covered with empty shells, looked at the crumpled bodies strewn all over the top, and couldn't gasp enough to have a breath of air. Tears choked him. He smudged them with his dirty hand, felt for the amulet at his neck, as if it was something that strangled him, and tore it off and away. Then he fell to his knees, grabbed the handfuls of hot dust and stones and wailed and screamed up to the low smoke-filled skies, throwing his head back.

The endless convoy, armored vehicles, tanks, "Hailstorms", self-propelled and tractored guns, was descending the serpentine road to the Pyandzh River. The banners were unfurled. The first vehicle had a band that played the farewell march barely heard above the din of motors and tracks.
Fierce and his boys were riding the armor, holding on to the gun barrel. Fierce's arm was bandaged. The boys in pressed-out dress uniforms, with aglets and medals, were avidly looking over the border, trying to distinguish someone on the other side. There were generals saluting the troops, and the crowd of soldiers' mothers, fathers and wives who came there from all over the country to see their boys. Women broke through the security and ranks, losing their flowers, and the boys in soldiers' uniforms jumped from tanks and vehicles to meet them, nuzzling their mothers' cheeks like puppies…

* * *

We were leaving Afghan. We have won. We, the ninth company, have won our own war.
We still didn't know a lot at that time. We couldn't know that in the two years' time the country we had fought for would disappear, and it would be unfashionable to raise the banners of the extinct nation. We couldn't know that for a long time after that, some important people at the top would be arguing if we needed that war at all, and deciding for us who had been right and who had been wrong.
Sergeant Dygalo would stay for additional service, and together with his boot camp, he would be transferred from the foreign country to a place off Tula. In a year, he would die of a heart attack on the run, right in the middle of a night march. Snow White would stay in the deserted garrison. She would be slaughtered by the Moslems with her mother and other Russian families. And we, the boys of the ninth company, would be cruelly scattered all over the country. Some of us would become princes. Some of us would hit the bottom.
We didn't know all that at that time. We didn't even know that in the confusion of retreat we were simply forgotten by the huge army at that God-forsaken mountain.
We were leaving Afghan. We have won the war.

1. A translator's note on the proper names: Vorobyev in Russian is the derivative of «vorobey» (sparrow), Chugaynov sounds very similar to «chugun» (Pig Iron), Lyutayev is the derivative of «lyutyi» (fierce), Ryabokon can be loosely translated as «piebald horse», Sergeyev is associated with «seryi» (gray), and Mikhail Gorbachev's last name in the vernacular was associated with «gorb» (hump).