The nipple had been screwed onto the coupler two days ago. This one was just one of many.
A 12-gauge shotgun shell, its rim dabbed with glue, had been affixed onto it.
A hole had been drilled through a pipe plug, a filed-down bolt put through it, and secured on the other end with a nut.
The plug had then been assembled with the nipple/coupler combo.
Now all he needed to do was to find a good enough place where to put this little creation of his.
That ought to do.
With the famous Rachmaninov’s Vocalise playing in his head he walked into the bedroom, and knelt next to the bed, paying no heed to the decaying corpse of some anonymous old woman lying in the corner. He made a small cut in the side of the mattress and inserted his handmade mine between the springs. He didn’t let the loud banging, coming from the very next flat, distract him in any way. After all, it was hardly any different from the cacophony he had been hearing for the past few months. To him it was nothing more than background noise, even though its makers could easily storm this flat and catch him red handed. If he was lucky, they would just shoot him. If not… well, those things happened all the time.
I just have to make myself lucky.
He told himself and laughed.
Finishing with setting the mine, he then moved to the kitchen, opened the cabinet under the sink, crawled inside and left the door slightly ajar. In the detergent-scented darkness he pulled out both of his guns, his CZ99s, and made sure that their magazines were full. What an unnecessary habit. Of course they were full. He reloaded them automatically as soon as time and surroundings allowed it. Each magazine had fifteen bullets. That made thirty in total. Will they take thirty lives? Will they take three? Or will, perhaps, his own life be taken? It was hard to tell and frankly not something he wanted to muse about. He put both guns into his lap and hugged his legs, trying not to hit his head on the sink again.
After not more than ten minutes the moment finally arrived.
They kicked the door open. Judging by the sound of their voice and the slurred manner of their speech he came to the conclusion they already had few bottles. The looters. The murderers of this woman and many others.
He flicked both safeties off with his thumbs and waited, listening to them as they recounted their adventures of the day, as they laughed, as they spoke of the women they vented their lust on. Some parts were pretty horrifying, he thought absent-mindedly, but that didn’t concern him. He just waited for the perfect moment. He didn’t care about those people and their petty lives. Both the men and their victims mattered as much as dust on a window-sill or wilted flowers. The music in his head was much more beautiful.
Not long after came the moment he was waiting for. A loud bang, followed by agonized screaming and panicked, angry shouting.
He nudged the door of the cabinet, tiptoed out, and tracing the wall so he wouldn’t be spotted, he crept out of the kitchen and into the hallway. There he shot first two men. At that point he started to run. Reaching the doorless entrance into the bedroom, instead of slowing down he thrust his foot against the frame and propelled himself into the bedroom, which was full of smoke and the smell of blood. There he threw himself on the floor before the men could even react. Adrenalin and reflexes helped him to make sense of his surroundings, and as soon as his shoulder touched the floor, he pulled the trigger. One, two, three, four bullets found their mark, digging into flesh, destroying ankles and shins. A split of a second later he got up and finished each man off with a bullet to the head.
The last one was the unfortunate who wanted to have a nap on the bed. The mine blasted away a portion of his ribs and there were intestines hanging everywhere, like in a bad zombie movie. That man was as good as dead so shooting him was a waste of bullets, but now that he got a hold of some lovely wartime aid, one bullet more or less didn’t really matter. He didn’t kill him out of mercy though. He did it because that man’s mouth kept opening and closing with nothing coming out apart from bloody bubbles, which made him look like some stupid trout, and he couldn’t bear to watch something so painfully dumb.
And now for the spoils.
He got some ammo, a piece of bread and salami, booze, worthless money, and a really nice knife. There were now five machine guns, waiting for a new owner. He collected them even though he wasn’t exactly partial to this type of weapons. The volley lasted just a few seconds, they were bulky, heavy, and he lacked the muscles needed to operate them with sufficient accuracy. Handguns were much better. Handguns and knives and explosives. Still, even these weapons had their uses, so he engaged their safeties and stuffed them into his backpack.
Having no other reason to be there, he turned around and left. His shooting definitely attracted someone’s attention, and all he had going for him was planning and the moment of surprise. In a fair, man-to-man faceoff he wouldn’t last very long and he knew it, so cleared the space before he could be seen.
After roughly thirty minutes of wandering through the collapsed, broken streets, he reached his little hideout, located in a four-storey apartment building, which was run-down and depressing even before the war broke out. Now only half of it was left standing. Two missiles had hit it, causing it to split vertically. The other half was now just a big pile of rubble. Many flats were exposed like a grisly, larger-than-life dollhouse. Anyone who didn’t die left while they still could. Only there he could relax.
He left the backpack by the door, loaded his guns and threw himself on the bed. The heat that day was pretty amazing, and so he stripped down to his light, army-issued trousers, which he cut just above his knees. He knew he stunk of sweat, dust, gun-powder and blood, but it didn’t bother him much. After all, personal hygiene wasn’t precisely the top of his priorities. When he imagined what the girls would say, he had to laugh.
The girls back at the St. Louis Academy, where he… well, technically she was locked away every other year under the pretence of learning silly things like physics or chemistry or English literature. In reality her subjects consisted of ‘blending in’, ‘how to manipulate others’, ‘persuasions’, ‘human interaction observation’, and many others. It seemed like a thousand years, and yet he would return back to that place very soon. Right now his classmates were leaving for holidays. They were packing their summer dresses, straw hats, sunscreens, cameras, trashy books, lipsticks, and diaries into overstuffed suitcases, and followed their parents into cars, planes or boats. Some of them would return brown from Hawaiian or Spanish or Bahamian sun, some would come back deflowered, all would boast what a great holiday they had and how annoying their parents/brothers/sisters were.
Oh yeah, I had a grand time myself. You would never believe what I was up to. He planned to say once he… well, she would join them.
He had to laugh.
It was actually quite funny.
What he was forced to go through as a boy, and what he was forced to go through as a girl were such different things, it really felt like he was like two different people in two different places. Every time she returned to the school or training facilities, nothing seemed to have changed there. Every time he returned to battlefields or laboratories, everything looked the same. As if those missing years just didn’t happen.
Sometimes he was starting to think he was two people.
That was also quite funny, but not completely off-mark.
After all, he was told that he really was supposed to be two people in the beginning.
He rubbed his forehead. It was starting to hurt. Temperatures were too high, he drank too little and moved too much. On the bright side he could enjoy the knowledge that now he could drink all he wanted, gorge himself on food, have a big rest, and… well, there wasn’t anything he could do about the heat.
He yawned. The effects of Modafinil, which kept him awake for the last thirty-something hours, were slowly wearing off. He needed that drug for hunts, as they weren’t something that could be achieved within a short time-span. There was lot of waiting involved. Waiting, where he couldn’t afford to let his guard down for even a minute. Modafinil was great for that. He still had one full box. Once he would run out of that, he could resort to coke. But not today. Not after the hunt.
With the amount of stuff he collected it would be at least ten days before he’d have to go out for more. Right now he planned to stay cooped up in his place for a while. Usually he didn’t have to kill so many people. There would be an uproar. Now, save for the market trip, he would just relax and watch the people down below.
There were enemies everywhere. He had no affiliation, and therefore everyone was against him. Serbs or Bosniaks or Croats or NATO soldiers – to him it was all the same. They were against him, even though most didn’t know about his existence.
Frankly, he didn’t understand what the conflict was all about. In his opinion it was just people, acting the way they knew best. Crazy. Crazy and murderous. Apes from one tribe killing apes from another. It didn’t surprise him even one bit. It was like this everywhere he was sent to. Men, killing hundreds and thousands of random strangers for some stupid, petty reason. Even though their origins were virtually identical, they killed each other. Even though their gods and their religions were virtually identical, they still killed each other. He didn’t understand. And it wasn’t his job, so he didn’t even try. Both the Serbs and the Bosniaks seemed identical to him. There were no protagonists and no antagonists. No good or evil. No sides.
Actually, that was wrong.
There were sides. Two of them.
His and everyone else’s.
What would the girls from St. Louis think if they knew what was going through their classmate’s head?
He had to laugh as he run his hands through the matted strands of his long hair, which reached all the way to his shoulder blades. Few years ago he had decided to let it grow out. It was more natural to be a long-haired girl in a place with a lot of other long-haired girls, than to be a short-haired boy in a place with a lot of dead people.
He yawned again and grabbed a bottle of juice. He had a huge craving for milk, but recently milk was all but impossible to come by. Things would’ve been easier if those idiot Serbs wouldn’t cut the electricity last year. Well, at least it was summer now. Things were much, much, much worse in winter.
Autumn, winter, spring, summer… even though the seasons changed, everything seemed the same. Dead people, their stench, their innards, their guts. His hunger, his thirst, his desensitization, his fears. Only the nature changed. Leaves. Rain. Snow. Frost. No, no blossoms. Heat. Scorching heat.
June was just about to end when he… or rather she left the academy. It took three weeks for her body to leave point A and reach point B. For everything to settle down. For the tests to be all in green. While he was recovering at the hospital and during the next month, he had to continue his studies of engineering, mechanics, astrophysics, and various other subjects, and the first Thursday of September he was shipped to just another one of the many crazy places he had seen over the years. September, October, November… everything was the same. Just the same old routine. His time there passed so quickly it was almost scary, while at the same time the hours dragged on so much, it was like walking through molasses.
There were only two orders he got when he left the base.
Do not leave the city.
Do everything in your power to survive on your own, for no one will come to your aid.
In other words, pretty much the usual.
He had left the base with a suitcase of clothes, and guns, and tools, and his head full of plans of the city, blueprints, news headlines, and procedures on how to prepare explosives. Aunt Katarina saw him off as usual. Her eyes were sad as usual. He never asked about the reason, even though she always said that people liked to share their pain, and that all he needed to heal them was a couple of kind words. Did it apply to her as well? He wasn’t sure. People often said one thing and did something completely different. In his opinion, it would’ve been much easier if everyone acted the way they felt. Or even better, if there were no people at all.
An explosion shook the building. It came from nearby.
He dove under the bed and braced himself for impact, but the source was too far away to do any damage to him or the house, and so he peeked out of the balcony to see what the fuss was.
A couple of Bosnian APCs was apparently trying to take on the whole Serb army or something. He wasn’t quite sure. But as they were moving farther and farther away from his hiding place, he had no reason to worry, and soon he lost all interest in them. The rumbling of his stomach told him it was time to eat, so he spread a sheet on the floor, grabbed as much food as his arms could hold, sat down, and stuffed his face, disregarding the dirt on his face and hands. Once he took the first bite he couldn’t stop.
As he ate he remembered the agonised face of the Serb his mine crippled today. The way his mouth kept opening and closing. It made him eat even faster. The old woman, which died in her flat and was just tossed aside to the wall, as if she was nothing but a crumpled, dirty bed sheet. When he stuffed the bread into his mouth, he remembered the scene from two days ago, when hiding away under some collapsed concrete he had to watch as the Serbs caught a Bosnian girl, who was trying to run away from them. There were eleven of them. She was hardly older than him. It took less than two hours. At the end they shot her in the head, but by then she wasn’t moving anyway.
Suddenly all the food he ate threatened to escape, so he emptied his mind and pressed his forehead against the floor to chase the memories away.
Food. Delicious food. That was all he needed to think off. Delicious food and drinks.
He slowly regained his composure, and as he wiped the sweat off his face, he noticed how dirty he was after gorging on all that food. The water had been cut off, but at least he could wash his face and his hands.
He filled a bowl with water from bottles he collected from over the place, splashed his face, rubbed it with soap and then tipped the bowl over his head. It felt good in that summer heat. He sighed with pleasure and let himself fall on the bed. Some stray rays of sun fell on his damp hair. He was reminded of Sousai, that mysterious beneficiary of his. These days his hair was always matted and dirty, as he couldn’t wash it more often than once a month due to the lack of washing facilities, but once the sun touched it, it became something else. Strands of burning gold. The same was his relationship with Sousai. Without him, he was nothing but white trash, whose life would never matter. Just like one of those men he murdered. Just like one of those women.
Girls at the academy were telling stories of tanned studs on sandy beaches or empty holiday houses when their parents were gone for an evening of the movies or the theatre. They spoke of candles, kisses and gentle caresses. Were they really from the same world as this? As those girls and women who could do nothing but scream and fight, and ultimately die?
The world was so difficult to understand.
If he were two different people, it would’ve been much easier. Right now the disparity was too great and he, who possessed the memories of both worlds, found it impossible to bridge.
The world was insane.
Or maybe I am insane.
It occurred to him as he returned to the bed.
Though he felt a certain detachment from the world which allowed him to observe and process all of its events, he couldn’t completely destroy his bond with it. No matter what he did or said, he still walked the same road as all those poor buggers. He had to eat, just like them. They breathed the same air. It was possible that he would end up like them as well. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in a week. Maybe the year after the next, when he’ll be sent to yet another hellhole to learn about the true nature of humankind. He wasn’t particularly horrified by his possible demise. After all, what was there in a world like this for a person like him? He lived on because he was ordered to.
He rolled away from the scorching rays of the sun and watched the shadows grow longer.
The crackling of his radio made him twitch a little. He jumped from the bed, strode over to the writing desk in the corner, and grabbed the microphone.
“0017584/370, your supplies have been dropped to point Victor. You have four hours to retrieve them.” A monotonous voice said and the line went dead.
He sighed. That was unfortunate. It was late and he was tired, but alas, there was no way of avoiding this if he wanted to survive. There were some meds he couldn’t go without, which were unobtainable from any pharmacy or hospital in the whole country.
Outside he heard the laughter of children. It made him scowl. He didn’t want to see any of them. He didn’t want to see that they could still have fun even though their city was besieged. Well, if he was lucky, they would be gone by the time he would set a foot outside.
But what he was really worried about was point Victor. There was only a single entryway. The rest was buried under collapsed buildings, and although one could theoretically climb over those mountains of brick and concrete, it would equal suicide. He wouldn’t be able to run and being the only moving person far and wide would turn him into a living target.
There was no way around it. He had to take the risk of going down the street, which was one of the most dangerous places in the whole city.
Though it was still scorching outside, he changed his shorts for trousers made of a tough khaki material, put an old, grey hoodie over his tank-top, and hid his hair under a grimy baseball cap. He was going to boil, he knew it, but there was a big chance that something would explode right next to him and he wanted to minimize injuries, stemming from being hit by a shower of concrete fragments or glass shards. One didn’t need to be shot directly to die after all. He saw it often enough.
As he was leaving, he attached nigh invisible threads at the shin level of every door. They were too thin to injure any possible intruders, but that wasn’t what they were for. They merely served to alert him about their presence. The building he lived in was abandoned by all, so the only reason for anyone’s visit was his presence.
Ignoring the front door, he descended down to the basement, which connected three nearest buildings. This was something he realised not long after he arrived. Since some of the basement walls were not particularly thick, he made himself some openings. They were too tight for an adult man to crawl through, but for a scrawny boy in his teens they had the perfect size. Especially if said boy wanted to prevent others from finding out about his little burrow.
He left through the entrance of a ruined building across the street, and as soon as he set a foot outside, he was hit by a wall of stifling hot air. He pulled his cap lower in his face and skipped the stairs down.
The children he heard before were still there. Some were sharing a cigarette. They gave him a dirty look. He gave one back. What a scruffy little bunch. There was a boy with crooked teeth, a tall girl, whose appearance reminded him of a rat, and another, who had horribly squinty eyes, to name a few. All in all there was about eight of them. Then there was an older boy, who had a dull look in his eyes, a fag in his mouth and hands in his pockets. Most likely their leader.
Pathetic little mites. They deserved to be shot. He never tried to be friends with them. Not even once. Those sneaky little bastards would cut his throat the moment he would show any weakness, but for now they kept themselves at an arm’s length, not doing or saying anything even though some were older and bigger than him. They did once, several months ago, just after his arrival, and he showed them that he is not to be toyed with, and that one shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight. They still remembered what he did. He made sure that the display of his unrestrained, gleeful brutality would stay etched into their dull little minds forever. This fear now prevented them from attacking. It prevented him from being forced to take more lives and waste more bullets. Who said brutality was bad?
About ten minutes later he reached one of the most dangerous parts of the town. One could guess the nature of this place with just one look. Unlike in the rest of the city, here were no people, trying to live their little lives. There were no haggard-looking women, rushing home from hours of standing in the queue for water or bread. There were no men, trying to sell AK-47s to random passerby. There was no one here. Both pavements were sunken in shadow, created by high-rise buildings on both sides of the road. In spite of the heat of the day, these shadows seemed kind of cold. He knew why reason. He understood as soon as he saw it for the first time, even before he saw that crudely-painted sign, saying ‘ PAZI! SNAJPER’. It was death.
This was where he could find point Victor. On the other end of this street. On top of one of the highest buildings.
Making sure his holsters were hidden under the oversized hoodie, he put a piece of chewing gum into his mouth, and quickly scanned the area for any glints, betraying the presence of snipers. Sure, he wasn’t much of a target, but those guys were bored, had too much time on their hands, and saw shooting panicking pedestrians as a rather enjoyable sport.
He bit the gum and started to run.
For a moment he wished to be back at the academy. Back with the girls, who considered him… well, her at the time, their friend. They would eat their snacks under big, spreading oaks. She would manipulate them into handing over her favourite foods. It wasn’t difficult at all, for those girls were completely unlike the children here. They wanted to be good. Sometimes they went to great lengths to please their friends, because it pleased them as well. She knew that. She checked several times how great those lengths were. No one was a saint; that goes without saying. But putting the local kids and the girls of St. Louis side by side, one could hardly believe they belonged to the same species.
A shot hit the concrete to his left, but he was too fast for the fragments to reach him. He wasn’t running in a straight line, but zigzagging like a wild hare trying to escape the hounds.
Then another bullet whizzed by, burying itself in the door of a charred car. Had he been one tenth of a second slower, it would’ve been his ribcage.
Yes, the October before the last he… well, she at the time, got a surprise. One of the girls asked for help with some mathematics. To her it was kindergarten level, but instead reprimanding the girl for her thickness, she smiled and said she’d be happy to help. The girl led her to the roof, saying that because they had such a nice weather, they might as well learn there. She noticed the lie, but feigned ignorance. When they got to the roof, there were blankets spread on the floor, balloons, confetti everywhere, and a huge cake. And a stripe of someone’s sheet, saying ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’. She was actually surprised. She didn’t remember which date did the syndicate assign as her birthday, but one of the girls evidently snuck into the records room and dug it out. The girls said the party was a thank-you for all the help she gave them with studies. They stayed up until long after the lights-out, so they probably had an agreement with some of the staff. Well, she was the young genius student, so she was bound to get some special treatment.
The cake was delicious.
The wind felt so good.
They were singing and playing games and nobody had any weapons or ulterior motives and the worst thing the adults could do to them was telling them off.
He had to grin at the thought.
The entrance to the building of point Victor was only some twenty metres away, when suddenly there was a great tug at his arm, followed by a cold sensation, which almost immediately made place for pain.
“Blyat’!” He spat out, crossed the rest of the distance, grabbed the railing and used it to launch himself up the flight of stairs and through the doorway. Another shot missed him by the skin of his teeth, but he was safe.
Breathing heavily he found a safe corner and took the hoodie off. The bullet grazed his upper arm. He heaved a sigh of relief as he found out that it was nothing serious. Fortunately he had some first aid supplies on him, so in the darkness under the staircase he could quickly bandage it. It itched and stung. Sweat got into the wound and his fingers weren’t exactly clean, but this was not a good time to go all fussy about wound management.
He wiped his forehead and took one of his guns out. Listening for even the tiniest sound, he moved up the stairs towards the roof, wishing he could take his boots off as they were making his footsteps too loud. The sun cast its orangey rays through the smashed windows. Just to be on the safe side, he ducked and crawled on the floor every time he got near one of them. Whoever shot at him down there in the streets could’ve still been around.
The heat was making him a little bit dizzy.
He wiped his forehead again. His tank top was already drenched. When he looked down, he saw his hand was trembling. He stopped for a moment, squeezed himself into the tightest nook he found and closed his eyes. The moment when the shot grazed his arm returned back to him. Thanks God he wasn’t running in a straight line. He remembered a situation very much like this, when he wasn’t so wise, and therefore so lucky. The agony when he was hit by a 7.62 NATO cartridge. The impact was so powerful, it flung him head-first into a pool of oily water. The pain so all-encompassing, he couldn’t even scream. For some reason, instead of abandoning him to his fate, the syndicate brought him back, and he spent the next two months recovering in a hospital. During that time no one ever came to see him, no one talked to him. Doctors came and left without uttering a word. Their faces were obscured by surgical masks. He was forbidden to leave the ward and there was nothing to do there. No television, no books, no music, not even a window to watch the world through. By the time the two months were over, he went almost insane. He even tried to attack the doctors just so they would do something. As a result they started to restrain him.
And that was not going to happen again. Not ever again.
He clenched his fists and run up the remaining floors.
On top of the roof, there was a small shed with various gauges and tools for maintaining antennas. This was the place.
His eyes fixed on it, he jumped over some pipes and opened the door.
There was someone already in there. Some guy. Well, guy. He was perhaps five years older than Katse himself. A wretch with feverish eyes and hollow cheeks of a drug user. He was trying to open the reinforced briefcase.
“Hands off. That belongs to me.” Katse growled, deciding not to reveal his guns just yet.
“Jebao ti mrtvu mater. Found it first.” the junkie snapped back.
“Wanna see you open it then.”
“It looks like there’s somethin’ expensive inside. Open it. Or else.” Junkie sneered, pulling out a switchblade.
“Jebi se, debilu.”
The junkie spat on the floor and charged at him, the tip of the knife aimed at his abdomen. Katse rolled his eyes, dodged, and brought his knee up, hitting his opponent hard in the stomach. The knife fell on the floor. Katse pocketed it.
“Hey… ‘s my knife.” The junkie protested weakly.
Katse looked down at him. That person was so disgusting and useless, it churned his stomach. Acting all tough while being nothing but dogshit. He closed his fingers around his gun and knocked the junkie out with its butt. Then he grabbed the briefcase and retreated back in the safety of the building’s interior.
Making sure he was alone, he slid his index finger over a small, inconspicuous plate and the briefcase opened with a soft click. They were all there, the meds he needed. They were all there, but nothing else. No money, no ammo, no new orders. He sighed and rubbed his arm. The graze was still stinging, but he didn’t think it was bleeding anymore.
He reached the ground floor.
Now there was no reason to hide his gun anymore. He was returning with a big, shiny briefcase. Someone was bound to spot him. His only hope was to run faster than anyone could aim. He bit his lip and scanned the area for any enemies. The street appeared lifeless and boring as usual, nevertheless this time the impression was amplified by last rays of the sun, which shone straight up the road and hit the building of point Victor, where he was hiding behind a pillar. It almost made him believe that the whole world was nothing but a dead sphere of crumbled concrete, garbage, and warped I-beams, suffused by the bleeding sun.
Patting his forehead dry one last time, he ran out from behind the pillar, used the first stair to push off, launched himself in the air, and landed just beyond the very last step. From there on the sprint begun. Wind was howling in his ears and all those destroyed cars lining the street turned into a zoom of colour. He didn’t mind that the nauseating stench of garbage bins, which hadn’t been emptied ever since the start of the war, filled his lungs. On the contrary. He needed more. His chest felt too small; he couldn’t get all the air he needed. He knew he was running very fast. Heard the screeching of concrete gravel under his soles as he turned sharply from left to right. He thought he was running fast enough, but suddenly there was a whizz, and the ground to his right exploded in a cloud of dust.
He changed the direction, holding the briefcase tight under his arm. He noticed few people were watching him from behind the smashed doors and windows of the building and knew that to them his plight was nothing but a temporary distraction from their drab lives.
Another bullet buried itself into the asphalt, making him turn sharply to the right. He was so hot he couldn’t believe. Drops of sweat got into his eyes, making them sting. The bullet wound throbbed like mad.
How long was he going to run like that? It could’ve been barely twenty seconds since he left point Victor, but this moment had the feel of eternity. It seemed as if he was never doing anything else. His whole world was this crimson-tinged wreckage and his fate was to run, run forever.
But one could never outrun a bullet.
The next shot was so close, he felt debris hit his legs.
He had to follow the tramlines and reach the end of this long street. Although the buildings on both sides looked inviting, they were nothing but death traps. This place was the territory of Serbs, and though he could take on two or three people, eventually he would be outnumbered and made to pay for each life he took. He wouldn’t fare much better in Bosnian territories. After all, everyone was his enemy. Those shady bastards with boredom in their eyes were no different than that asshole with the rifle. The whole world was divided between those who watched from the sidelines and those, willing to slaughter everyone for their gain and pleasure. It was just like Sousai had said. Wretched humanity.
He reached one of the farthermost sections of the road. It was filled with mountains of garbage and the occasional dead body. If he would get past it, he’d be safe. He stopped thinking about how he hated the whole humankind and concentrated solely on running.
The ground in front of his exploded.
Reacting purely on instinct, he dodged to the left. Instead of firm ground, he stepped on something soft and squishy. There was no way of stopping the centrifugal force.
The blood his heart pumped turned cold.
He saw the ground and the pile of rotten oranges approach in slow motion, but he couldn’t make his body respond in time.
I hope all of you fucks die as well.
He fell hard on his shoulder and curled in a ball, expecting the last bullet. A moment passed, but the bullet never came. He sat up. The sky above him was purple. The heat started to make way for evening cool. Breeze begun to blow. Few of the lamps connected to generators for street safety lit up and he saw a glint at point Victor. The rifle pointed at him was positioned in such an angle, where seeing the glint should’ve been impossible. In other words, the sniper was taunting him. He never wanted to kill him. This was all just a game.
All fear and anger disappeared from the boy’s heart. He stood up and glared at the sniper. Then he picked up the baseball cap which fell off his head and put it back. He looked around. The place was empty, save for one soldier half-hidden behind the lamp-post. He had a machine gun, but it was lowered, and he was smoking a cigarette.
Katse walked away. There were no other bullets. The sky turned indigo by the time he reached his burrow. He put the briefcase on his bed, slid his finger across it and took his meds. Then he opened his mattress and pulled something out.
He wanted this day to be over already. He wanted to go underground to the small water reservoir he himself had built and have a bath, as even his nose registered the foul-smelling cloud which surrounded him. He wanted to finish his bottle of warm vodka, hidden next to his pills, and then go to bed. But first things first.
As he was careful to take the darkest route possible, no one saw him and if they did, nobody tried to stop him. He didn’t even need to see it. The stench told him he was back in that place. He unwrapped the bundle.
For a moment he remembered the St. Louis Academy. Tea parties with other girls. Reading scary stories under the covers. Boxes of chocolate and vases of flowers, picked in the meadows by the whispering woods. The smell of fresh laundry. Praise of teachers. Shiny, waxed floorboards, fine lace, gleaming bath tubs. Was the world he was in right now really real? Was he real? Perhaps he was just a dream the other him at academy had after eating too much blue cheese before going to bed. The same adults, who promised him… well, her, actually, a bright future couldn’t be the same adults who fired their weapons at him.
This is so insane… he thought to himself, went down on his right knee, aimed in the general direction of the sniper’s location and pulled the trigger. There was a deafening bang, instantly followed by an equally loud hiss. The recoil toppled him over and lying on his back, he realised the moon is almost full. He picked himself up and not stopping to observe the fire and the destruction his missile caused, he grabbed the empty launcher and retreated back into shadows. It was getting late. He yawned, but told himself to man up. It would still be a while before he could go and have 24hour sleep-marathon. The next day he planned to go to the market. He needed ammunition and he had a bag full of machine guns he stole to use as currency. Perhaps, if he was lucky, his ‘business partners’ would point him in the direction of some apples. For the last several months he didn’t eat anything but stale bread, cans of spam or goulash. He started to notice symptoms of hypovitaminosis on himself. He was getting tired too fast, his back kept aching, wounds healed too slowly. Not good.
But he couldn’t go to the market while smelling like a pig.
He got back to the basement and returned to his apartment, guided mostly by the sense of touch. It was too dark to see anything. Back at his place he grabbed several candles and a bar of soap. The vat in one of the basement rooms was full to about three quarters. He lit the candles, placed them around on some empty boxes, and pushed away the bundle of pipes, which transferred rainwater from several downspouts through the window into this room.
He took his clothes off and climbed into the vat, pinching his nose and fully immersing himself into the lukewarm water. It felt glorious after the long period of stifling heat. He wondered what it would be like, if the whole world was swept away by another flood. The thought was quite appealing.
He scrubbed himself several times and got out, unplugging the vat and letting its contents spill out on the ground. With the bundle of smelly clothes under one wet arm he returned up to his floor, opened the balcony door and sat out on a crate, sipping vodka and letting the night breeze dry him off. He didn’t have any towels. The single one he had was destroyed when he was shot in February. The bullet went straight through, but the wound bled profoundly for quite a while, making the stitching process pretty tedious and uncomfortable. But such was life.
He stretched his back. It was time to take meds. He swallowed two pills and washed them down with another gulp of vodka. The alcohol spread through his system, warming him up, making him drowsy. He put on an oversized t-shirt, curled up in his bed, and fell asleep with the reassuring hardness of the pillow-covered gun against his cheek.
The sun was already up when he woke up. He slept through the whole night and got a decent rest. Rubbing his eyes, he remembered about the market trip he had planned for today and frowned. He didn’t feel very well in the presence of so many people. The heat was, if possible, even worse than the day before. Clouds begun to gather on the horizon. The air pressure was high and so was the humidity. He concluded that there would be rain later on. Possibly even a thunderstorm. Nevertheless the clock kept ticking and he had no time to spare to brood about the weather. There were preparations he needed to make.
He started to dress, but not into his usual shorts and t-shirt combo. This time he put on a long, black skirt and a somewhat tattered blouse. He combed his hair into two braids and kept those unruly strands out of his face with a couple of hairclips.
These precautions weren’t taken to keep his identity a secret, but rather to disguise his actual gender. Recently there have been many attacks aimed against Bosnian boys, who could take arms against the invaders. Some were even shot in broad daylight. He himself had witnessed two such instances in spring. By assuming the identity of the weaker gender he was, paradoxically, protected from such fate. Besides, there might’ve been some witnesses to yesterday’s trouble. If the Serbs thought that he was his sister, they would just take him away for questioning rather than killing him on spot. Even then his trip was not without a risk. After all, he was going to the market on his own, without anyone to look after him. In this place that meant only one thing. That he was an orphan without any protection or power.
Checking his appearance in the cracked mirror, he grabbed the goods he had for sale. He intended to visit a darker part of the market and sell or barter the weapons he had stolen from the men he had killed. If he was really lucky and put his charm into play, he might even get a bar of chocolate. All weapons were neatly placed in the bag and covered by a colourful scarf and an empty purse. In the eyes of the public he’d be nothing but one of the many street urchins. His skills at disguising himself were as good as usual. He could pass off as a girl without any problems, just like he could easily make the whole St. Louis campus wonder about the identity of that blond boy. After all that he swallowed another dose of pills and went on his way.
The bag was heavy, but it was manageable. He crawled through the basement and blinked at the glaring sun. It would still be a while before clouds would swallow it up and wash this whole hellhole with a much-needed shower. That was something he looked forward to.
The journey, though a short one, was getting progressively more and more tedious. The heat and the weight of his cargo were starting to wear him out. The ground felt hot against his feet. He also worried about his clothes. The blouse was a short-sleeved one and he had to make sure his sleeve wouldn’t reveal the wound underneath. He was starting to regret the amount of weapons he took. If only the air wasn’t so hot. It made him more and more dizzy. He had nothing to cover his head with and big drops of sweat rolled down his forehead.
“Oy, girlie.” A voice came from right beside him.
He stopped and surveyed his surroundings to find out how big was the trouble he found himself in this time.
He was surrounded by six soldiers.
“Yes?” he asked in a timid voice, tightening his grip on the bag.
“Girlie, you’re comin’ with us.” The soldiers came closer.
He had nowhere to run. There were concrete blocks, raised as barricades and covered with nasty words, everywhere around him. He could either run forward or back where he came from, and without any cover at all, he’d most likely end up with a bullet between his shoulder blades.
“I’m sorry, mister, but I have to go to the market.”
The soldier approached him and pulled out a huge knife. Grinning, he put the tip against Katse’s lower lip and slid it down his chin, trailing his throat until he rested it on the boy’s chest.
“You have a brother, girlie?”
“Of course you do. And he caused us quite a lot of trouble. That little rat is quite the thorn in our side… say, little red riding hood. What’cha have in your little basket?”
It’s all over. Katse thought to himself as the soldier’s hand grabbed the scarf and tugged, revealing the contents. Katse let go of the bag, pulled his own knife from under his skirt, slashed and jumped back. The soldier grasped his slashed arm and snarled like a wolf. At that point Katse had forgotten all about the other soldiers.
“Now you’ve done it, ya little whore. We had orders to bring you in one piece, but I guess we can have some fun before that.”
He undid the safety on his rifle, but Katse was faster. The boy knew that there was no way he could run away. He had no other choice but to fight. Jumping off the ground like a cat, he hurled himself at the man, his knife readied. The opponent blocked the strike with his gun, but Katse jumped, using the knife, propped against the barrel, to propel himself up in the air and plant his knee right in the soldier’s face. Blood spurted out. He landed on all four, but in that moment he was hit hard in the side. Falling down, he rolled away from the perceived danger and jumped up only go get kicked hard in the stomach. He felt a wave of pain and nausea, however in spite of that he got up and lurched himself forward again, head-butting the man and kicking him in the groin. Then he was kicked again, this time right in the nerve point on his thigh, which disabled his leg.
The more hits he received, the wilder and more desperate were his counter-attacks. In the end, after he was blinded by his own blood, he started to slash around with his clawed fingers. He yelped out as something hard hit both of his shins simultaneously and he fell to the ground. There he had no protection against the ferocious blows which bruised his ribs and tore his skin.
Fucking humankind. He thought to himself until a kick in the head finally put him out of the misery.
When he came to, the first thing he realised was that he felt actually quite comfortable. His memory was intact. He knew perfectly well he was beaten within an inch of his life. And yet, he felt none of it. Quite the contrary. It was a bit like floating on a warm, soft cloud. The feeling was so nice, it sent of a dozen alarms in his brain. After all, every time he started to feel good, something bad happened and the better he felt, the worse were the consequences. He could only wonder in horror what would be the price for softness and snug warmth, which were miles away from the obnoxious heat from before. And there was the sound of rain. A nice, relaxing sound.
He tried to crawl away from those nice sensations as inconspicuously as possible, without giving a single thought to the possibility that someone might be watching him.
“So, the sleeping beauty is awake.” A man’s voice greeted him.
He opened his eyes.
He found himself in what appeared to be a basement room refurbished as an apartment. There were pictures on the wall, a carpet, a sofa, a bed he was currently lying on. And a tall man with short, dirty blond hair. His camouflage pants and khaki shirt were clean and ironed and he was barefoot. Between his fingers was a cigarette.
Katse licked his dry lips and tried to speak.
“’m… still alive…”
“Yup, even though it was a close call. I told those idiots to bring you over in one piece. You must be pretty tough to survive that. What’s your name, lil’ kitty? My name’s Slobodan. Everyone here calls me just ‘Chief Sloba’. Feel free to do so as well. Slobodan means ‘a free man’. I think it’s quite fitting for someone like me. So who are you?”
“… don’t have a name.”
“You don’t have a name? How so? Everyone has one.”
“There was no one to name me.”
“Well, that’s just sad. Okay then, I’ll call you Vladimir. You know what does that mean? It means ‘the ruler of all world’. A great name, isn’t it? That’s the feeling I got by watching you. By the way, it was thanks to me that you are still alive and it is thanks to me that you don’t feel much pain. Or at least I hope you don’t. Doped you up with morphine, you see. I kept the dose low. So tell me, Volodiya, how old are you?”
“Fourteen, I think.”
“Fuck. Fourteen. Damn this fucken’ war. Want something to drink?”
“Heh. Vodka, he said… vodka it is, then.”
While Sloba was pouring vodka in two glasses and throwing in some ice and lemons, Katse sat up and quickly checked his body for any broken bones. He was beaten black and blue, but his arms and legs were okay, though he wasn’t entirely sure about the ribs. That put him somewhat more at ease. But he had no weapons and both doors of this room were closed. They were sturdy and reinforced by steel bands and he would bet they were locked. Windows were out of the question. Much too narrow, much too high.
“Here. Sure you can handle it?” Sloba asked as he handed him the glass.
Katse glared at him and downed half of it without even blinking.
“For having such a pretty face, you sure are resourceful. Here I thought you were living with your sister, but colour me surprised, you were a boy all along. Not that it really bothers me. I’m a soldier after all. Can’t be too picky and you are very pretty after all.”
“Do you want to fuck me or what?”
“Well, not quite. Come live with me, Volodiya.”
“…what?” Katse tilted his head to the side.
“Come live with me. I won’t hurt you. You’ll have a comfortable life here. I’m in charge of the units in this area, you know. So what do you say?”
“Why? Not enough widows for you to rape?”
“Contrary to the popular belief, not all of us enjoy rape. I myself prefer them willing. The girls and I were always able to find a… a mutually beneficial agreement.”
“So why do you want to live with me instead of striking a deal?” Katse asked after he snorted in his vodka.
“This situation’s been dragging on for too long now. I’m tired of it. It’s too ugly. I guess I need something beautiful in my life.”
“What if I say ‘no’?”
“Then I’ll just keep these.” Sloba answered immediately as if he expected this reaction, and tossed a box of pills in the air. His box of pills.
“Give them back. Where did you get them? ” Katse immediately lunged for them, however his legs refused to move the way he wanted them to. He managed to make a couple of steps and then he collapsed, sprawling unceremoniously on the floor. Slobodan didn’t move a finger, opting to watch with an amused little smile on his lips.
“I found your little hidey-hole. Clever, I must say, but not enough. All I needed to do was ask around.”
“Just some brats.”
“Those bastards…” Katse’s voice shook with anger. His closed fists trembled. It was their fault that he ended up in here. It was their fault that he got into this situation. Surely it was even their fault that the soldiers were waiting for him on his way to the market. After all, all Slobodan needed to do was to ask around. Those children. Those children.
“You wanna kill them? Be my guest. Stay with me and you’ll get a rifle and unlimited supply of ammo.”
“Do you have no shame? I’m a boy, you perv.”
The older man sipped on his vodka and sniggered. Then he grabbed the boy by the front of the oversized shirt, lifted him up singlehandedly, and threw him back on the bed. Heaving a sigh, he pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it, taking a long puff.
“Let me tell you one thing. Ever since I came here all I’ve seen were streets, washed with blood. People backstabbing each other. Men, renouncing their wives just because they have been raped by our soldiers. There’s trash rotting on the streets, buildings get shelled and everything just keeps on falling apart. I thought it would be best if we just burned this fucking piece of shit land down, but then I saw you. When you got up after getting shot at by Petrović that debil glupi, with the sun setting behind you. Your hair looked like it was made of fire. I never saw anything as beautiful in my whole life. And then you returned to fire that Igla; the look in your eyes. So very detached from all the filth around. The look of a ruler. I knew I had to have you no matter what the cost. Everyone needs something beautiful in their heart.”
“You’re fucked up.”
“Well, guess what. So are you.”
“You’re that guy who was watching me, aren’t you?”
“Should’ve noticed earlier.”
Katse bit his lip, wondering how was it that he found himself in these situations, but suddenly he realized. It was people. The other people. Misery always found its way to him through other people. No one ever meant well. Even aunt Katarina had an agenda of her own. The other people were wolves in the guise of sheep, putting up a nice front and waiting for the first sign of weakness so they could devour him whole. They eliminated everyone who deviated from their norm, no matter how little. The clever ones, the taciturn ones, the kind ones, disabled, shy, poor. In the eyes of society, none of those deserved to live in peace. In the eyes of the society, which in itself consisted of the clever, of the taciturn, of the kind, disabled, shy; of the poor ones.
Sloba took the boy’s silence as hesitation. He left the cigarette in the ashtray, gulped down the rest of his vodka and sat on the bed, leaning above what he thought of as his belonging. He moved even closer, putting his lips to the boy’s ear and whispering softly.
“You know you won’t be able to survive on your own in here. I don’t know who you are, but I do know that you’re not local. I don’t know who brought you here. Who drops off those briefcases for you, but obviously that person has no good intentions. Otherwise they wouldn’t send you to a place like this. All alone without any allies, you’ll become a wild animal sooner or later. But this human body is what limits you. You’ll never be really free. Ever. And you know it. Stay with me and I’ll give you fangs and more importantly, I’ll give you fowl. ”
His words got through Katse’s confusion and their meaning sent chills down the boy’s spine. He knew that this man was right. Righter than he thought he was.
“You’ll stay here, won’t you? So let’s seal the contract with a kiss. Open your mouth.”
Katse waited a bit. Men like these were always the weakest when they thought they were the strongest. Then he grabbed his empty glass and swished it. His hand hit the table and the glass shattered, but he didn’t stop and stabbed Slobodan’s jugular. Everything happened so quickly, the man didn’t even know what happened. Katse watched him as he, with horror in his face, stumbled around the room, blood spraying everywhere, until he fell on his knees like a shot deer.
“But Slobodan, I was never one of you humans. I should’ve never mixed with the rest of you. I don’t need allies or lovers or friends. And just like contracts can be sealed with a kiss, so can be a betrayal … ha ha ha. ”
He laughed quietly, his face a pale mask. He laughed, but his eyes remained completely impassive and void of all feelings.
“I’m sorry, Slobodan. If I were a human, I might’ve considered. No… actually, I think I did consider for a moment, but I know how futile it would be. Now you see what happens when a soldier such as yourself starts to get all fuzzy with someone.”
He watched Slobodan until his eyes turned glassy. Then he grabbed a backpack and stuffed it with his pills, drank another shot of vodka and fastened several belts and holsters with handguns around his waist. He was still wearing only the shirt which was long enough to almost reach his knees, but he didn’t let this bother him at all. The last things he took were a Dragunov sniper rifle and a khaki raincoat.
He met a couple of soldiers on his way from the basement, but he shot them before they could even pull their own guns out. He didn’t worry about reinforcements. The morphine was making him feel like there was nothing to worry about. The disconcert he felt upon hearing Slobodan’s words was long gone and forgotten. He left the building and walked back to his place, which has been ransacked during his absence. Fortunately no one stayed behind to secure it, so he didn’t have to waste any more bullets.
He went out on the balcony. Those brats were still out. They were hiding in a nearby building, frowning at the weather and sharing another fag. He grasped the railing. A vague pulse of pain made him look down. His hand was completely covered in blood. He remembered that when he slammed the glass against the table, some of the shards pierced his own skin and flesh as well, but due to the drug he didn’t feel much of it. Even now it wasn’t much of a hindrance. He stuck it out in the rain to wash it, splashed it with his last vodka, and wrapped it in bandages.
Then he grabbed the rifle, loaded it and propped the muzzle against the railing, aiming at one of the girl’s heads. He meant to shoot them all. There were ten rounds in the magazine. Ten rounds of pure hate and disgust he felt towards them. Then an odd sound came to his ears. Laughter. He was laughing. When he touched his lips, he felt smile under the tips of his fingers. He was happy. Yes, he was so very happy. All those pathetic little worms were deep down below him and all he had to do to get rid of them was to pull the trigger. There was no need to hide. No need to be afraid. No need to run away. They were nothing but sheep, which forgot their place; and he was more than happy to show it to them.
Especially to those brats.
Just thinking about how it would feel to see their faces, covered by the blood of their comrades, the knowledge in them that they were going to be next, made him more drunk than any alcohol in the world.
Savouring the feeling while laughing to his heart’s content, he slowly pushed the trigger.
And then his radio crackled to life.
He gave it a look of pure confusion and went to answer it.
“0017584/370, prepare to RTB.”
“… return to base? ...but..”
“You shall be withdrawn in fifteen minutes local time. Collect all your personal belongings, go to the roof and switch on your homing beacon.”
“That’s an order. Your only agenda is the one of Galactor. Everything else is meaningless. Everything else must be purged. Do you understand that, or must we take more time to teach you that?”
“No, sir, I understand. I apologize, sir.”
“Very well. Just remember. One more protest and you shall be sent to the detention centre. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sir, we are. I will await your arrival.”
The other end went silent without a warning.
He returned to the balcony. The children were still sitting there as if nothing happened. They would go unpunished. Everyone here would go unpunished.
Everything was so meaningless.
He collected all his pills, his ID, the homing beacon, and, after a moment of hesitation, the bayonet of the Slobodan’s Dragunov rifle. Then he emptied the bottle of vodka on the bed, pulled out some plastic explosives from their hiding place under the linoleum, set the timer on fifteen minutes and went up to the roof. He completely forgot the raincoat, so he stood there still wearing only that shirt and the many, many holsters, waiting for his pick-up to arrive.
Everyone needs something beautiful in their heart.
Those words returned to him and he looked at his injured hand, clutching the bayonet. His bandages were already soaked with blood. Apparently the wounds were deeper than he thought. Yet he still didn’t feel any pain.
Something beautiful in his heart.
The composition looked so pretty. The white of the bandages, the red of blood, the grey of steel. The sound of rain.
Once again he found himself smiling.
Perhaps this stay wasn’t so meaningless after all.
Perhaps he did, indeed, find something beautiful in his heart.