Month: January 2017

Bitte, beende Es

Kostyantyn wiped the sweat from his face on the wool sleeve of his uniform as his squad pushed through a burning café. The air was thick with smoke and his mouth tasted of ash but he pressed on. The rattle of rifle and machinegun fire danced off the crumbling walls of the tombstone buildings all around him. As he stepped into the pulverized sidewalk, the smoke thinned to reveal distant black shapes scrambling into the rubble at the end of the block.

“Fire!” Lt. Yashin ordered as he unleashed a long burst with his PPSh. The rest of the men followed his command and the clatter of Mosin-Nagant’s and Tokarevs filled his ears. He looked down the iron-sights of his own rifle and shot at one of the black shapes. Dust and debris kicked up as stray bullets missed their marks, further obscuring the survivors they shot at. No return fire answered them.

“Look at the Fascists run!” Anton cheered as he reloaded his sub-machinegun.  Kostyantyn felt vengeance pumping through his blood alongside the adrenaline of battle. All of the pain he’d endured, all of the brutality of the Fascists and his own officers, the friends he’d seen ripped to pieces, this would be the end of it.

Let your farms burn. Your families die, he cursed the shadows as he pulled the bolt back on his rifle. The shooting continued for what felt like only a handful of minutes until the silhouettes were no more. Lt. Yashin shouted over the chaos for the men to cease-firing. Kostyantyn’s heart pounded away inside his chest. Slowly, the squad made its way up the street. The gunfire of nearby engagements kept everybody on edge as they carefully stepped deeper into the dying heart of the Reich.

They came to the mouth of where the survivors had been retreating to: an eviscerated four story hotel. A burnt sign hung over the freshly-blasted hole in the building’s front. The sign was far too faded and perforated with bullet-holes to read what was once written there, not that Kostyantyn could even read Cyrillic, much less the alien characters of the Germans.

A ramp of debris and rubble led all the way to the exposed second floor of the hotel. Lt. Yashin waved the men to advance up the mound and secure the building. Kostyantyn started climbing the rubble, followed by his comrades. As he did, he passed the bodies of the Fascists who were too slow to scurry away into the building. Their black uniforms were covered in dust and the light grey powder of obliterated concrete. Most were young looking, with their close-cut blond hair tucked under black field caps and hairless faces frozen in agony. A few were old men, with grey mustaches and wrinkled hands.

On the second floor, a wounded Fascist clutched his stomach and blood oozed through his fingers. His skin looked like wrinkled wallpaper and his eyes were dull. With his free hand, he struggled to raise a pistol. Anton pulled out his Tokarev and put a bullet through the man’s chest. He slumped forward, the pistol falling hard against the floor. Anton pulled the pistol out of the dead man’s hand and tucked the souvenir into his belt. A few of the men chuckled as they passed the corpse.

They continued through the once-decadent halls and rooms of the hotel, looking for any sign of resistance. As he crept through, Kostyantyn couldn’t help but feel angry and envious at the scraps of luxury that remained in the forlorn rooms. Bed frames and pillows bigger than anything he’d known in his life, wardrobes that must have cost more than everything he’d ever owned and so much space for a single room. Each room just reinforced the anger that had sat in his stomach since the Red Army had crossed into Poland. What was my farm to all of this?

As the sound of his comrades became distant in the ruined maze of the hotel, Kostyantyn noticed a small trail of blood on the filthy carpet. He brought his rifle up and followed it, acutely aware of every floorboard creak as he did. He hoped that the trail would end in a dead Fascist and that the war around them might conceal his footsteps.

The trail diverted into a room.

Kostyantyn held his breath as he approached the door frame. He strained his ears for a clue as to how many were there.

The crack of a gunshot exploded out of the room. Kostyantyn instinctively ducked down but there was no sign that the shot had been at him. He reached to his belt but there were no grenades left. He cursed inside his head and closed his eyes.

With a second’s prayer, he turned into the room, rifle ready. To his surprise, he found the source of the blood. Two Germans were in the room, one sitting with his back against a section of intact wall and the other crouched in front of him.

“Stop!” Kostyantyn shouted. The crouching German slowly dropped a pistol on the floor and raised his hands to the ceiling.

“Don’t move!” Kostyantyn yelled again, his rifle trained squarely on the back of the Fascist’s head. The figure ignored his command and rose to his feet. Kostyantyn didn’t recognize it at first but the German was a boy. He turned around and Kostyantyn’s stomach knotted itself.

The boy’s eyes cut right through Kostyantyn, making it painful to meet his gaze. They were bloodshot and the skin around turned red from tears. The boy couldn’t have been older than thirteen, a pup of a child. When he couldn’t bear to look into the tortured green eyes, he noticed the blood splatter on the back wall. The boy had shot the second German.

The dead man was older and bald, his uniform tattered and dirty with a dark crimson stain growing across the chest. His green eyes, lifeless and open, looked down at the floor. Kostyantyn’s insides twisted as the situation dawned on him and the boy continued to stare at him.

“Bitte, beende es” the child said, his voice shaken and hopeless. Kostyantyn couldn’t understand the language but the expression made it clear what he had asked for. For the first time since he was drafted, his hands trembled.

Kostyantyn had killed dozens, if not hundreds of the Fascists since the commissars took him from his field. With rifle, grenade, bayonet and bare hands, he’d taken the lives of these jackbooted devils. Before every battle, the officers reminded him and the others that it was these blonde-haired and blue-eyed murderers who had burned down their homes, raped their wives and killed their comrades. The commissars spoke of their war against the Motherland and how killing these invaders was the noblest calling that Kostyantyn could achieve. Since he’d put on the itchy wool uniform of the Soviet Union, killing had been easy and easily rewarded with medals and promotions.

Until now.

“Bitte, beende es.” The boy said again, taking a step towards the end of Kostyantyn’s rifle. He couldn’t meet the boy’s haunting and broken gaze. All he could think of was his parents, starved and emaciated, the winter the commissars had taken the village’s harvest. As Kostyantyn whimpered and groaned while his belly distended, his parents labored on, forgoing their meagre slivers of food so that Kostyantyn could carry on. When he was too exhausted to cry, he remembered the look on his mother and father’s face. It was the same look this boy was giving him now.

He heard the footsteps of his comrades coming down the hall and still his muscles were frozen. The boy’s face was struck with urgency.

“Beende es!” he cried, putting his head against the muzzle of Kostyantyn’s rifle. He swallowed hard, clenched his jaw tight and squeezed the trigger.

Inside the room, the report of the rifle echoed and Kostyantyn’s ears rang. The war was replaced with nothing and then a dull ringing. And then the boy.

He lay flat on his back, the grizzly aftermath of the gunshot apparent all over the wall and the corpse of his father.

Desires

“Do you always travel this light?” Venus asked as she scanned the room. Misha locked the hotel door behind him and tossed his keycard on the coffee table.

“This is business, not a vacation.” He responded, observing the droid as she continued her inspection of his room. He’d be lying to himself if he said that she wasn’t an impressive design. Her hair was raven black and sat in lush waves just below her shoulders. Her body was designed with professional grace and precision, not like the Barbie-doll prostitution droids you’d find on in a brothel. She had enticing curves that gave her an organic quality. But it was her face that stuck with him. Something about those synthetic golden honey eyes. He liked that there was a touch of artificiality to her.

“So what do you do when you’re not working, Mr. Businessman?” She turned and asked him, a coy and teasing smile hanging from the corners of her mouth.

He ignored the flirtation as he removed his suit jacket and hung it up, careful to avoid any wrinkles or damages. He noticed her staring at his pistol and holster hanging by his shoulder. “Is that meant to impress me?” she asked, her smile unchanged.

“Do I have to impress you?” Misha retorted, “I thought you were programmed to be impressed by me.” She sat on the coffee table and crossed her legs.

“That’s what your employer sent you to purchase isn’t it? Programmable compatibility? Besides, if Mr. Patel believed you just wanted a pretty escort, he’d have given you a different model. He guessed that you might want something a little more…complex.”

“And that’s what you are? Complex?”

“Something like that.” Misha opened the bottle of vodka and poured himself a full glass. The whole time, those honey eyes stared straight at him.

“So you won’t do what I say?” He asked.

“You haven’t told me to do anything” she replied without skipping a beat.

“Stand up.” He said. She complied.

“Sit down.” She made her way to his bed. “Not there. On the couch” She raised an eye brow but complied. “Not feeling adventurous?”

“Not looking for pleasure” he answered, satisfied that his point had been proven.

“What is it you’re looking for then?” She asked, stretching out on the couch. He took a sip of vodka and held it in his mouth until it burned. He kept repeating in his head that this was only a program, nothing more than an imitation of reality. But it was a very convincing one.

“I’m not looking for anything.” He said after swallowing his drink.

“Yes you are.” She responded, standing up. “Maybe it isn’t pleasure but you are looking for something.”

He tensed as she came closer and closer to him, her eyes burning with electricity. His pulse quickened and he didn’t know whether to reach for his gun or her.

“All that precision, your suits, your manners, your control: you’ve bound yourself up.” She draped an arm around his neck. Misha’s stomach knotted and he braced with every muscle in his body. “You want to come out.”

Her face was millimeters from his. Her lavender perfume reached out and hooked into his brain. “You want to unwind” Each word was seductive and warm on his ear. He felt a vein of desires rising up in him. They pressed so hard against him that his very skin ached and itched. He wanted to rip her skin-tight dress off and fuck her until he couldn’t move. He wanted to lay in bed with her and hold her. He wanted to talk to her, not about business or some coy game of verbal chess but just talk. He wanted her to be real.

“You’re not real.” Misha said, trying to bring himself back in control.

“This is real.” She said, drawing a finger from the back of his ear across his neck, “This is real.” She guided his hand first from her breast to her cheek. “This conversation is real”

“But you’re not.” She wrapped both arms around him and stared him square in the eye.

“I can be real for you.” Misha looked into the eyes that had intrigued him the minute he saw her in Mr. Patel’s club. Designed and customized to react the exact same way human eyes do, behind them was a complex web of circuitry and wire, all working seamlessly and invisibly to produce the perfect woman. Programs and algorithms, constantly adapting and totally focused on him from every word he uttered to the smallest facial tick, burned away to serve and seduce him. A synthetic succubus, ready to play lover, confidant and therapist all at the same time and she could be all his.

“No.” Misha removed her arms from around his neck, “You can’t”.

No Matter the Cost

The longship glided across the still river waters, oars quietly propelling it along. Volkmar stood at the ship’s bow clutching his war axe tight in his hand. The wounds and bruises from the previous night’s battle were still raw and pain radiated across his body. Still, he kept his gaze on the riverbank and his mind off his injuries.

Volkmar heard Torgyr’s heavy step before the bear spoke a word, “Helmsman, Hodrik’s dead.” The Graeling spoke in a raspy and weathered voice.

“His wounds were fresh and his sword was well used. The Blood-Father will welcome him in the Halls of Glory.” Volkmar said. Torgyr raised his sword to the sky in silent prayer. “Where are we headed next?” Torgyr asked.

Volkmar frowned as he scanned the moonlit banks. The forests and stones seemed pathetic and engorged compared to the gaunt trees of his father’s jarldom. All of the South was like this; soft and fat. The land’s abundance had turned the men of the South into weak and bloated cowards. They fought with regiments, magic and machines. Even their gods were weak, with priests fawning over trinkets and relics rather than blood and runes.

“There is a walled town, Vinnaburg, at the mouth of the river. If the wind doesn’t turn against us, we’ll reach it before dawn and then butcher them all.” Volkmar said, the prospect of fresh battle giving him renewed fire in his chest. There was a silence between the two Norscans and Torgyr’s unease was palpable. Volkmar turned to look his first mate in the eye as well as see to the remains of his crew.

Haggard and bloodthirsty Northmen covered the deck of his ship. Bloodied and fur-covered reavers manned the oars or tended to wounds while a few kept watch with bows at the ready. Not a man was present without some wound or injury but all wore them with pride. However, as proud as they were, they numbered only twenty six. The town Volkmar aimed to sack was not insubstantial and boasted a garrison at least twice times his number if not more. His ship was already adorned with the glorious bounty and scars of successful raids, more than enough to return to Norsca with honor.

But Volkmar felt the call of Ulric on the wind.

“Harder and deeper bites the wolf who’s tasted his own blood.” Volkmar said, loud enough for the crew to hear it. They looked up to their leader and waited to hear what he’d say next, “We have tasted our own blood. And now we will bite harder and deeper.” He announced, fire building in his tone. The reavers looked to him while they rowed, their faces worn with the pain of raiding and fighting but still eager to hear what their helmsman would say.

“The Southmen hide behind stone walls and pray to their weak gods. They beg and whimper like worms” Volkmar continued, hatred igniting and giving him renewed energy. “We’ll show them how the gods of the North answer cowardice.” A few men raised weapons and fists to the sky.

The rowing intensified as the reavers’ appetites for glory were sharpened, each man determined to prove his bravery and strength. Only Torgyr kept his reserve.

Volkmar returned to the prow of the ship, satisfied with his men’s reaction. Torgyr approached him again.

“If we were to keep to the East bank, we’d save a day on the voyage back to Norsca. Provisions are barely enough as is. We may well run out before we reach the Graelands.” Torgyr raised his concerns.

“So?” Volkmar shot back, his disdain for the concerns brazen as his wounds.

“Volkmar…booty and glory are well and good but men can’t live on it alone.” Torgyr answered, keeping his tone even.

“The sea is full of fat merchant ships and sleeping patrols. We’ll find provision. Besides, wolves hunt better when they’re hungry.” Volkmar answered.

“It’s not the men that concern me.”

“Then what does concern you? I’ve never known you to be fearful of a battle.” Volkmar spat out, a tongue of pain licking up his ribs.

“We sail and sack for more than just ourselves. We reave for the jarldom and for the North.” Torgyr answered, anger burning through his otherwise still tone.

Volkmar was silent. Torgyr had a point. A reaver may seek glory for himself but a helmsman was measured by what he brought back to the tribe. In winter, a boat full of meat and barley was more valuable than the mightiest of trophies. They’d already been away longer than the Vikti had predicted. Was he fighting for the tribe or to prove himself a warrior?

To sail past was the safer choice. Any other helmsman would do the same and no one would think less of him. But he was son of Renrir the Skull-Taker. To make the safer choice would taint him forever as the lesser of the tribe. He could not live with such shame.

He stared at the water, moonlight sitting on its surface like a sheet of ice. His muscles ached and he could feel the cool night’s wind stinging his blood-stained bandages. His skull felt like scraped metal and a steel knot formed in his stomach.

The Blood Father only rewards the strong. He could hear his father’s voice, stern and cold as the North.

“We sail for Vinnaburg.” Volkmar said, his tone absolute, “and by axe and sword we will win or die.”