Quiet People

Short stories inspired by all those who stood, and will stand, firm against evil…

A surprising offer

Бой Ивана Царевича со Змеем.jpg
He was aware of someone moving about in the small space around him, yet, he himself could hardly lift a hand: the pain in his legs and lower body was calling him back into darkness. He sunk back to sleep.

It had happened so simply: a tour of inspection around the perimeter of their position, far away south, perhaps even no longer in his country, he could not remember. There had been a rain of missiles, melting steel and clouds of sharp needles: fragmentation bombs… his men dragged him back to safety, his body on fire, his legs broken, a mess of burning flesh and bones.

The military surgeons had done miracles. He knew he had legs still, even half artificial, he would walk again. They saved his spine, and even his penis, but other parts had been irremediably burnt: he’d lost his manhood.

The next time he woke up he was on his own. Somehow his sight was clearer, in his mouth he felt the bitterness of the powerful pain killers he must have taken. A window was on his right, and he could see a little triangle of sky, peppered with pale grey clouds. The room was clear, spartan. He thought the hospital must be nested in the central mountains, away from the front line… To the left was a cupboard, he guessed his uniform was hanging there. Then it stroke him as obvious: he’d been here for months, being reconstructed, and the war…

Somewhere, beyond his vision, a door opened; he could hear quiet footsteps, then he saw a young nurse walking toward his bed, smiling. He recalled seeing her, or her shadow, on and off, through the dreams of his revival.

“Good morning, colonel, I am pleased to see you awake, Sir… Would you like some coffee?”

He turned toward her, her smile was contagious, but it hurt him to try. He must still have some stitches around his face, probably. “Yes, I’d love some real coffee…” She came closer, rearranged his pillows. Her touch was fresh, firm and competent. She had to inspect his layers of bandages first, the coffee would come later. As she lifted the sheet, he looked down his body, recognising the mess of tortured flesh around his groin, the many suturing points where the surgeons had to bind him back together. His thighs were still in bandages. “Soon I’ll remove this tape there,” she said holding his penis up between her fingers. She smiled: “Hey! I felt some motion in there!” Indeed he had responded to her touch, the first tremor since his coming back to the living. She touched him on the forehead, a gesture that surprised him. But then, he thought, she’d seen me in bits, naked, raw, the remnants of a man. She went out, her eyes still fixed on him.

Soon the nurse was back with two cups of coffee. She sat next to him on the bed.

“You should know, colonel, there are two surprises for you: the first is a letter from the ministry, I leave it on the table, for you to read when you are on your own, it’s tagged for your eyes only… The second, well… I’ll spend some time with you today, to see how things are working…” He saw the serious smile on her pretty face. Like him, she was a soldier, and she too had received her instructions. He guessed she’d been tasked to make this wounded warrior alive again. Was he like those martyrs of ancient traditions, rewarded with delights in paradise?

They drank their coffee. She told him some news: the general truce extended to the whole front, after the intervention of the United Continents, now under the leadership of the Saharan Union, the terrible hurricanes that were devastating the East coast of the United States, small victories in the fight against CO2… He was listening, charmed by her presence, the sound of her voice, her Western accent. She said she’d be back with his correspondence and to help him wash in one hour, he could then have breakfast, and some time, he and her, together.

Alone, he opened the letter, addressed to Lt.-Col. Viktor Kerensky, c/o Military Hospital etc. He had been made a lieutenant colonel, and a golden cross would soon adorn his uniform jacket; this was in recognition of the outstanding prowess of his regiment in keeping its position when faced with superior forces. In the clear and to-the-point idiom of the military, he was informed of his new posting. This was in line with his discharge from combat duties – effectively a semi-retirement – he was nominated to head the Space Sciences college, at Surgut. He paused.

At the beginning of the century Surgut had been the capital of the oil and gas industry in the Federation. Since the Reformation of 2026 it had evolved into one of the world’s centres for alternative energy industries. He did not know about the college, but an explanation note attached to the letter  said that it was some two hundred kilometres east of the city, in the middle of a densely wooded area. The college was host to two thousand students, and attached to Surgut university. In this transition period, the note stated, the overall governance was with the military. His starting date was one month hence. His mind floated toward the immense steppes, the deep forests and the mysterious lakes he had visited as a young boy, before the war.

Then his thoughts turned back to the nurse, her name badge showed “Alyona” as her first name. He knew, without any doubt, that she was here guarding him, ensuring the orders from above were obeyed. A month from now he would travel to his new posting, the first time in months he would be out of hospital. He guessed a month of training and physical work.

Image: “Бой Ивана Царевича со Змеем“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia

A New Home

To his surprise, he did not leave alone; Alyona came with him to the station, driving the official car herself, and, with him, boarded the train. Then, as they took their seats, in a carriage reserved to veterans, she introduced herself. She was Captain Alyona Mykarenka, to be his assistant and medical officer at the Space Sciences college at Surgut. He was baffled.

She was observing him, the calm grey eyes smiling, but her beautiful lips closed. Sitting back he told her he was delighted, that in fact he had been rather sad to leave the hospital, guessing he wouldn’t not see her, perhaps ever again. Her silence told him it had been ordained, that her medical competence, and personal charms, were part of the plan to bring him back to life, and that their friendship was to be helpful to  his new role at the college, and to the future that awaited him.

It was to be a long, but fast journey. Soon the bullet train left the extended suburbs, and reached  its cruise speed, soon surrounded by immense fields. It was late April, further East, they may find snow. Alyona was soon absorbed in a book, from time to time lifting her sight to him, the calm gaze of his guardian angel. He let his mind drift to the unknown, now in a world at peace. Peace. The word in his mind floated, on the verge of reality. He was now thirty one, when the war started he had been seventeen.

He had received ample information on the college and his duties. He was to have two deputies, one of them, captain Alexander, a former colleague from his regiment, the other, the college deputy technical director, a scientist from the extreme East, and a specialist in solar system geophysics whose first name was Mariya. He expected Alyona, Alexander and Mariya to play important roles in his new job, and maybe his personal life.

The train soon was crossing dense forests of birches and pine trees. All of a sudden they entered what appeared to be a military compound, with rows of armour and missiles, seen in a flash of green and metal grey light. Soon they were back on the plain, immense and silent.

Viktor let his attention drop, and fell asleep. When he woke up, perhaps two hours later, Alyona said they were approaching their destination. Their train was stopping at the main station, where they were to be met by a car from the college.

He did not know what to expect for sure. The country was being demobilised, in the military sense, and perhaps for that reason, the station was full of soldiers. Alyona led then expertly through the crowds toward a small group: six Spetnatz soldiers in plain work fatigues and an NCO who saluted him in the fashion of war veterans acknowledging another. Their light luggage was taken to a waiting truck, Viktor noticing the discrete badge on the door: his security was not left to amateurs.

Once out of town they followed a narrow road marked off limits to civilian traffic. After twenty minutes the road was rising, surrounded by a dark forest. Viktor had a glimpse of a missile battery, just visible through the trees. Alyona and the NCO were chatting and exchanging the latest gossip.

After a drive of over an hour, around a sharp bent, they came to a halt: across the road was a barrier, and a sentry post; beyond a thick mesh of barbed wire they saw two enormous T4 battle tanks, partly camouflaged with foliage. Their escort handed them over to another group of three soldiers, and one officer who introduced herself to Viktor as Mariya, his second deputy. Immediately Viktor understood that Mariya, the scientist in uniform, and Alyona knew each other. The three soldiers wore the badges of a missile unit. Later Viktor would learn that they were part of the college garrison. They boarded a command car that was to take them to the college. Mariya explained the plan for the rest of the day: she would accompany him to his quarters, and then to a visit to the college main buildings; at six, Viktor would receive the salute from the assembled garrison and the 4th year college students. Herself and Alexander would later have dinner at the officers’ mess with him for a first briefing. She handed him a letter from the high command which contained last minute information. All the time Mariya’s watchful eyes were on him.

The car stopped at a gate, cut through a tall wall covered with vine. With military precision Mariya invited Viktor to review the guard, and take a first look at his new domain. From the gate Viktor realised the immensity of the college campus: the wide parade ground was surrounded with classical buildings of a spartan but elegant style. Newer buildings could be seen beyond, as the ancient stone wall, bordered with oak trees, seemed to stretch on to the horizon. The Federation’s and the college’s flags flew from a high pole. In the eyes of the young soldiers of their escort, Viktor recognised a light he knew well, their awe at meeting a war hero in person.

As Mariya waited for him to take the sight in, he suddenly felt a deep desire to belong, to become part of this new world. He turned to her, smiling, and followed by the guard and Alyona walked in the direction of a smaller building: his new quarters. Everything was immaculate, the paved paths lined up with floor beds, and both mature and newly planted trees. The soldiers took position at the door, the NCO explained a new guard would meet him after his visit, and saluted. With his two companions he entered the building: at once he recognised a familiar smell, that of military disinfectant and beeswax, at the entrance the stone floor was polished clean, the woodwork on the stairs and around the high ceilings freshly waxed. The building was well lit and airy; it had two floors, the ground divided into the guard’s quarters, an armoury, two meeting rooms and a kitchen and dinner room, the first floor reserved for his own and his assistants’ lodgings, a gym and a library. Alyona said she had her room there too, as well as the officer in charge of his personal security. His apartment consisted of three large rooms, that he would organise as suited him. He would share the large office with his two deputies. The office bay windows, opened on the parade ground. His luggage was already neatly stacked in his room.

In the office they met Alexander. The two men had not seen each other since a common mission, three years before, in the Far East. They hugged in silence for a while and then exploded in questions and laughter. As they went back downstairs Mariya said their car was waiting for a first tour of the premises.

They had an hour before the flag ceremony, Mariya explained, and she would not have the time to show them even the whole perimeter. The grounds had once been the hunt domain of a Grand Duke, who, in the sixteenth century, owned most of the region. Later, the imperial army held garrison in the property, and in the eighteenth century the classical buildings were erected to house an elite guard regiment. The command car circled around the parade ground, soon to take a larger avenue that led to a cluster of modern buildings, half hidden behind tall trees. Mariya explained that since the creation of the college, in the early twenty first century, amphitheaters, laboratories and students lodgings had been added in a cluster recently with the dedication of the college to Space Sciences. Viktor asked about the facilities, the type of power plant, the role of the scientists corps Mariya belonged to. He was well aware that the aim of his role was to lead the transition to demilitarising the college. The campus had its own nuclear power station, but was also increasingly well prepared to take solar and wind power (later Viktor would inspect the wind turbines, at the easternmost end of the campus.)  They passed the science buildings, crossed an area of gardens, Mariya explaining that the college was nearly self sufficient for food, then what appeared to be a camouflaged parking area for armoured vehicles,  and a square helipad port where four transport helicopters were parked. Trees were everywhere, and wild flowers islands, populated by early bees. Following a long curve the car drove along a service area where Viktor noted a medical block, a fire fighting unit with numerous fire engines and other special vehicles, to finally rejoin the main central complex.

As he was getting ready for the flag ceremony, Viktor reflected that this new domain of his was a wake-up dream, if he was really awake. A campus dedicated to science, on a war footing, between ancient walls erected by a long gone aristocrat in the imperial days, guarded by elite soldiers of the now peaceful Federation. Naked under the shower, he knew, without seeing her, that Alyona was in the room, preparing his uniform, checking his medication. As he emerged she walked to him, towels in hand, and at once he knew she was in love with him, whatever her instructions may be. Soon in a clean day uniform, with for only decoration the golden cross, he was ready. He took her face in his hands, kissed her lips, and said he wanted her to be at his side, with Alexander and Mariya, to salute the flag. He would give a short address to the guard, and to the fourth year students who were present.

Together they walked to the parade ground: soldiers and students were there lined up in two perfect squares, a platoon of paratroopers standing by the flags. A triple hurrah saluted them. Viktor stood alone for a silent minute saluting the flags. As he turned round to face the assembly, he was aware of Alyona’s gaze on him. His words resonated through the campus. He welcome the chance to meet all of them, the veterans, the scientists, the students, the workers of the laboratories, the engineers. He was humbled by what he’d already seen. He would dedicate his time and energies to the future of the college. Alexander’s response was brief: he recalled Viktor’s battles in a few sober words, and underlined his mission: a return to peace, here, in the college, mirroring what would happen everywhere in the vast country. As he finished, a small band played the Sacred War, everyone standing to attention.

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