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Скрипаль Сергей Владимирович
Lace

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    Перевод Jay Wood

  In principle, Lieutenant Mukhin was not a bad guy. He had quickly lost the especial arrogance of a newly-minted officer two months out of the Academy with immediate orders to Afghanistan. All right, everything in its own time.
  
  Nine soldiers under Sergeant First Class Borisych had already been sweltering out in the field for two months at that point, suffocating in the outpost"s concrete hell, waiting each day for the cool of night. The fortification controlled the road into which fed hidden and open trails tumbling down from the far off rocky saddle of the Hindu Kush. On those trials descended the little caravans from Pakistan, who then went out of their way around the position, since only the completely foolish and the utterly lazy ignored the presence of the Soviets there. The little village not far from the bunker was a minor settlement, where a dozen or so caravaners, or (spit) Muj could gather. It was just a cluster of fifteen little huts connected by a little stone alley. The bunker had a good view of the village, with its handful of people leading a medieval, impoverished life, beaten down by God. Even in better times, wanderers to this place would not have been able to supply themselves with sufficient provisions, obtain new clothes, or find a cool place to rest. Vegetation was sparse, with just a few gnarled and stunted trees, although it was true that on the right hand side of the village coursed a wild, narrow river. Right next to that there had been an actual oasis: sedge and rushes grew thickly along the banks, giving the local inhabitants construction material and rich feed for their little complement of animals. Now the "oasis" was no more. A year and a half ago, foolhardy fighters from the Hasmet-Bai tribe had attacked the block-post, attempting to push through to the road and continue on to join up with Hadji Latif somewhere down around Kandahar. They were not successful, as Soviet fire from the 12.7 mm DShK* heavy machine gun, AKs, and rifle-mounted grenade launchers, forced the handful of spooks into the river, and then burned the entire oasis all to hell, telling the locals and spooks to kiss off. Then came winter, and the reeds had grown high enough to cut to repair thatch roofs or the walls of the animal pens. Even so, the winter was quite difficult for the locals, and for the Soviets as well - in any case, they all burned the reeds in their hearths to stay alive, but they were always worried about firewood. Competing with the locals, the soldiers went into the river and gathered driftwood that didn"t want to ignite, but once it did, gave off much more heat than the rushes.
  
  When spring came, the villagers came to petition the soldiers not to burn the vegetation. At that time, the commander of the post was one Captain Kulakov, who had flown in for a week with the replacements. A solution was found to the liking of both sides. Kulakov gave his blessing to the continued growth of the vegetation, but... if the reeds weren"t cut once they reached one meter in height, they would suffer the same fate as before. The Soviets would no longer compete for the reeds, since the post was going to be supplied with fuel every time the replacements flew in. Village Elder Salim nearly kissed the Captain"s hand in delight.
  
  Now the soldiers watched each morning as the people went to the river to cut the reeds and rushes, ported the bundles back home and started to work on them. One would cut up the juicy reed stalks, scattering them in the trough to feed a couple of sheep. Another would carefully lay more reeds out on the mud wall to dry, intending to use them to repair the buildings. Someone else would weave them like a basket, and yet another villager managed to assemble a wattle fence with them. That fence ran around an enclosure where they kept a few chickens.
  
  Observing the village was both onerous and boring, as was watching the road, which seemed to quickly, and even joyfully clamber down from the mountains. In the distance, on a little flat plateau, the road turned and stretched out into the distance, with a gray, burned dust indifferently rising and unwillingly falling to earth every time someone traversed it.
  
  Borisych was left in command when the previous officer on duty, First Lieutenant Borisov, had flown off on the very same MI-8 on which he had come with the relief contingent. While riding in the helicopter the Lieutenant had come to the realization that he had hepatitis - looking into a mirror he could see the yellow in his eyes and tongue - so he called the regiment (полк) on the radio and received orders to return to HQ, naming Sergeant Borisych the temporary commander.
  
  As with everything in life, nothing is so permanent as the temporary, and so a month and a half went by with no new commander appearing. Truth be told, Borisych was not overly troubled by the new responsibilities that had been thrust upon him. He had already served twice on this outpost, so the surroundings were familiar. He observed no new people in the village, and he was kept busy with the provisioning, policing and administration of the post. In order to avoid carelessness in the performance of military duties, on his very first day, Borisych ordered the men to repair the walls where they were crumbling, and to cover the walls with stones wherever bare concrete was peeking out. As a result all the men were kept busy. Two of them kept constant vigil on their entrusted sector, two others rested after their relief: at first they went inside the fortification to try to sleep, but tormented by the oppressive heat, came outside to lend a hand to the construction detail. At first the squad resented Borisych"s direction, but orders are orders, and under Fedyunia"s leadership they began to gather up stones from around the post, looking for the flatter ones, or ones more or less in the shape of a cube, that would require less rough-hewing. After a while they took a liking to the work, began to drag in all sorts of stones, taking the odd ones and mortaring them together either with clay, of which there was an abundance in the river, or, at the corners, with cement that had been left there long ago when the bunker was first constructed - two 50 kilogram bags of it. The cement bags had been left in a corner of the living quarters, and had of course formed a carapace. They had to crack the cement shell like a nut, pour out the dry powder from within, and then chop, pound, and crumble it back into its original state of hard chunks.
  
  Eventually, Borisych even had to make sure that the soldiers assigned to guard detail didn"t take part in the construction work. The soldiers would grudgingly leave their architectural work, wash off with warm water, take the buckets and go to the river, and returning, take up their posts: one on the 12.7 mm DShK that had been emplaced on the crest of the wall, and the other on the opposite side with the 7.62 mm RPK light machine gun.
  
  As soon as they completed the construction project, Borisych called Elder Salim up to the post. Using an interpreter, the Turkmen Durdyev, he negotiated at length with the old man, explaining that the Soviets wanted to take a fair amount of the reeds for their own uses, since they need to repair the awning over the bunker, where there was some shade. The old awning had fallen into disrepair, rotting into dust that rained into collars and into the cooking pots, while the sun beat down through the holes, turning rest into torture. Indeed, the soldiers could not lay down to rest in a place where it seemed as if the oppressive heat would not let up even with the approach of winter. Salim was obstinate, attempting with a naïve cunning get as much out of the situation as he could for himself. At times such as these, pretty much anyone in authority tends to forget that at his back there stand, so to speak, people who have vested him with that authority. Borisych saw right through the Elder"s childish subterfuge. In order to get permission to cut the reeds, he gave the old man two cans of stew, a can of condensed milk, and two kilos of flour. But that was not all. To every inhabitant of the village who could bring two large bundles of reeds, he would give a kilogram of pearl barley, a large quantity of which had been stored in the blockhouse for several months. Only once in a while might one of the soldiers want to add a pinch of it to some other grain while cooking. Salim, though, attempted to be clever by promising that he would bring a huge amount of reeds up to the post himself. But Borisych was implacable, saying that if by sunset Salim could bring all the reeds that the post required, he could have all twenty kilos of grain to himself. How much that would be, Salim did not comprehend until Fedyunia brought out half a bag to show him. At that, Borisych then laid out forty reeds at his feet to show the number of bundles he was going to trade for the grain. The Elder clicked his tongue and went back to the village.
  
  Soon thereafter the villagers appeared at the fort. Fedyunia and Durdyev left to meet them outside of the fortifications. Fedyunia checked each bundle himself. If the Afghan was playing games and not bringing enough, Durdyev, with his slow, viscous tongue, would explain Fedyunia"s objections, and the villager would reluctantly nod, gather up the strewn reeds into a bundle, and run back to the river.
  
  And so the problem of shielding the post from the sun was solved. In the morning, per Borisych"s orders, the two troopers on duty made three trips to the river. The first four buckets of water went to the kitchen for food preparation and washing utensils, the next four for the troops" personal hygiene, and the rest - well, the rest of the water went over the stone covering of the bunker, and then the interior stayed comfortably cool, so that no one wanted to go out at all: they ate there, cleaned their weapons there, smoked there, slept there, and ... well, pretty much all of their daily business was conducted there.
  
  The natives very rarely showed up at the Soviet post, knowing that all around the post lay a minefield. Where and how the mines were laid no one knew, including those who had previously served on the post, since the map had long ago been lost, disappearing into the jungles of HQ paperwork - and no one was in a hurry to ascertain the placement of the mines themselves. It was enough that there was a path on two sides, which were guarded nightly by signal mines.
  
  The only regular guest was a stray dog. The good-for-nothing mutt came to the post any old way, never tripping a mine. This gave Borisych some pause: were there any mines out there in the first place? His doubts were assuaged by an explosion when one of the locals" dogs, an eternally frightened, tail constantly between his legs, hungry, fed by an unknown hand if at all, and belonging to God-knows-whom mutt from down in the village, came tearing for the outpost, drawn by the smell of the soldiers" cooking. The post"s stray cur was at first named Demob**, according to ancient military tradition, but after realizing that there would never be a demobilization for the aboriginals of this place, they renamed him Shaggy. Fedyunia laughed and said that he could in no way be called shaggy, as he was half-bald with mange, so that he looked more like a piece of lace. And so the name Lace stuck.
  
  Lace looked to be about a month and a half old. He had an indistinct, pockmarked coat with patches of gray, black and white. He was a joyful little fellow, never getting upset at the accidental trampling of a paw or tail, throwing himself into the middle of the soldiers" bustle, backing off apologetically when the soldiers snapped at him, and yelping gratefully when they tossed him what he begged for. Then he would disappear until the next morning.
  
  So then ... Lieutenant Mukhin turned out to be a good guy. The chopper came just before nightfall, when the heat of the sun had abated. From the cloud of dust raised by the rotors came a Nordic God of an officer, heading for the bunker. Fedyunia rushed off to meet him, in order to show him the path through the mines. He approached, and looking at the officer"s epaulets with surprise, turned his gaze to the closely-shaven face, yet un-darkened by the harsh sun, and yelled over the rotor noise:
  
  - Comrade Lieutenant, I will take you to the post.
  
  The lieutenant unwillingly bent down and followed the soldier, skirting around the soldiers running for the MI-8. While the soldiers unloaded the provisions, tobacco, and mail, Borisych described the post"s routine to the new commander, while trying to figure out why he seemed so upset.
  
  The chopper lifted into the air, engines groaning under the strain of liftoff, and whirled away into the cool sky, carrying the soldiers" letters.
  
  - Sergeant, why do the soldiers not greet an officer according to regulations? -Mukhin queried in a troubled voice, frowning, while smoking a civilian cigarette.
  
  - Sir, its... - Borisych thought feverishly, now comprehending that the Lieutenant was one of those young, untried warriors not yet tested by fire, in a fresh uniform that not so long ago bore the white stripes of a cadet. - Comrade Lieutenant, we do not usually salute here! - and he hurried, to head off an explosion of indignation from the officer. - Didn"t they tell you that the spooks make it a top priority to hunt down officers?
  
  The Lieutenant drew in a gasp and shivered while his eyes grew wide like a child"s:
  
  - How do they hunt us?
  
  - Well, it"s simple. Now, one of the locals will whisper to someone that they say, so and so, that up at the post there"s a new officer. Very soon that will get all around the mountains. Their snipers are damn good. They select their target, and ... You"d better take those stars*** off of your epaulets, Comrade Lieutenant - Borisych glanced at the officer"s shoulders - our side knows your rank, Sir, and they - he waved his hand in the direction of the village - really don"t have a need to know.
  
  Mukin absently finished his cigarette, decisively took off his tunic and removed the Lieutenant"s stars from the epaulettes, stuck them in its inner pocket, put the jacket back on, and sat down on a case of grenades, extended a pack of Rodopi cigarettes to the sergeant and prepared himself to listen further. Then Borisych leisurely explained the ins and outs of the post, presented each soldier, and related the details of their coexistence with the village.
  
  The Lieutenant did not change anything in the order of the post with the exception of ordering that one unassigned soldier with an AK should accompany the duty soldiers on their water runs. This was ordered because they had heard some indirect information from Intelligence that the spooks might be sending something in their direction. Indeed, Borisych and Fedyunia, and some of the other soldiers, had already guessed that. It was no secret that just before winter the spooks tried to come down out of the bleak and freezing mountains to warm up, rest up, and heal up in the villages of the valleys, or to attempt to join up with the larger band of that self-same Haji Latif. But in spring they would again return to the mountains, with the grand intent of fighting for Islam, falling upon the weaker caravans, carrying off women and sheep from the less well-defended villages, and living pretty much as they pleased. They would get into skirmishes not only with the Soviets, but also with their fellow tribesmen in similar small bands.
  
  With the goal of concealing his identity, Mukhin decided to invite Salim for a meeting, not telling the villager that he was an officer. The whole charade was almost ruined by Durdyev, who translated that the "commandor" was demanding that the remnants of the reeds be cleared from the riverbanks. Dudyrev even went to point his finger at Mukhin, but Borisych, salvaging the situation, lightly tapped the interpreter on the back, and Durdyev moved his shoulder around to point at Borisych.
  
  Salim, as always, began to whine, using his hands to show how short the reeds still were, trying to get as much out of the situation as he could for himself, but he didn"t neglect to steal some glances at the new soldier that he, Salim, had never seen before. Borisych rejected all the Elder"s excuses and gave him two days to clear the reeds, then pointed at the Lieutenant.
  
  - There, you see we have a new soldier? The brought him to us on Satan"s donkey cart - indicating the previous helicopter supply run - big fire. They call him Flamethrower. If you don"t get those reeds cut by tomorrow afternoon, he"ll burn them all!
  
  Salim sniffed, cadged a pack of "Pampir" cigarettes, and left, muttering something unpleasant.
  
  Each morning, Lace appeared at the post, ate breakfast with the soldiers, dozed in the shade, and romped with anyone off duty. He very quickly made friends with the Lieutenant, and always tried to be near him, touching him if he wasn"t already rubbing himself on Mukhin"s legs.
  
  Within the prescribed time the locals cut the reeds, leaving a clear view of the opposite bank. The next day Salim came up to the post.
  
  Borisych and Durdyev listened to the Elder. Mukhin hid himself from the Afghan by going up to the machine gun, so as not to attract the old man"s attention.
  
  Salim once again started his tale of woe, that winter was soon coming, the reeds hadn"t grown as they should, that everything was going to hell: little to eat, and no grain. In short, he proposed a trade. They wanted to exchange woven, reed mats for kerosene and provisions. In principle the mats were not a bad idea, decided Borisych. Winter was indeed coming, and they could be used to insulate the walls of the bunker or to place under bedding.
  
  - All right, bring them - decided Borisych. - We"ll give you a canister of kerosene and a sack of grain!
  
  Salim quickly gathered himself and left, saying that they would trade right away. Something was troubling Borisych, though, pricking him like a needle and making him uneasy.
  
  Mukhin approved of the sergeant"s decision: they needed to cement friendly relations with the local population. In an instant the Afghans appeared, each sporting two bundled mats. Borisych studied them with the binoculars, feeling greatly uneasy. He handed the binoculars to Fedyunia:
  
  - Well, have a look. Is something wrong?
  
  Fedyunia carefully studied the smudged and bearded faces, having absorbed his friend"s unease.
  
  - I don"t know, Borisych. But something"s not right. Call the LT!
  
  Mukhin also looked at the approaching figures for a long time, trying to figure out what danger lurked there. Then he ordered Fedyunia, Durdyev, and two other soldiers to go meet the villagers.
  
  Just as soon as the soldiers exited the compound, heading down to meet the Afghans, Borisych shouted:
  
  - Back! Get Back! Fuck!
  
  At exactly that moment the approaching spooks threw the mats off of their shoulders, uncovering AKs that they began firing at the Soviets. Fedyunia and Durdyev managed to get back into the post. The other two soldiers fell lifelessly into the dust. The soldier at the 12.7 mm was also cut off. He stood up at his full height, a perfect target for an AK silhouetted against the setting sun at his back. Simultaneously with the attack from the village, a sniper on the other side of the post opened at accurate barrage, hitting the soldier on the RPK right in the bridge of the nose, and wounding the soldier on the heavy machine gun with a second shot. That man twisted and fell, hitting his head on the stone floor of the post, his entire body bent, kicking up a think layer of dust from this hell and falling silent, a dark stain of blood spreading from his body in a terrible stream that shone in the light of the giant moon rising over the broken hills.
  
  The spooks boldly ran at their objective. There it is - the outpost! There they are: provisions and ammunition!
  
  Mukhin threw himself at the 12.7 mm and, almost without aiming, squeezed off a burst at the Muj. Borisych grabbed the undamaged RPK off of the wall and rushed to the Lieutenant. Durdyev flopped down in the embrasure, flinched each time the bolt tossed out used brass, jumped with disgust to the side, and pointed the barrel of his AK, simultaneously searching for the attackers in the dark, for the Muj lying in wait. Fedyunia, under the covering fire of the machine gun, twice rushed out of the post to retrieve the bodies of the dead soldiers, and then went back for their rifles, slinging them over his shoulder.
  
  The Lieutenant listened keenly to the activities of the interlopers outside the post. At first the Muj battered them with automatic rifle fire, to which Mukin immediately replied with short bursts from the large caliber machine gun. Then they fell silent. The Muj began to retreat back to the village, but the Lieutenant fired at any sound, inflicting obvious losses on the enemy. In the end they just banded together in force and made a run for it.
  
  In the quiet everyone gathered below. Borisych informed the commander that there were only four left alive. Mukhin made arrangements to defend the perimeter and communicate with the regiment. Fedyunia threw himself at the radio, and sent news of the battle through the crackling of the ether. Help was promised no earlier than the morning, since not only would the chopper have trouble finding a place to land in the dark, being a sitting duck in a firefight, but the armor would also not be able to negotiate the mountain roads to the post in the dark.
  
  They lined the dead up by the wall and covered them with the fallen reed awning. They were not yet back under cover when a mortar salvo issued from the village.
  
  - Fuuuuuuuck! - yelled Borisych. -Everybody down!
  
  The spooks were right on target. Yes, there had been plenty of time to scout out the outpost - for Salim himself. The first salvo crippled the 12.7 mm., that gun that thundered throughout the hills, the heavy weapon that struck fear with just its report, not to mention the deadly stream of bullets flying from its rapacious muzzle. The mighty heavy machine gun tilted like a one legged pirate on its mutilated tripod, and fell below. With a grinding sound the muzzle caught on the wall of the bunker, and the gun fell lifelessly to the ground, the torn-off cover of the receiver crashing with it. That was it! No more long-range weapons on the post. Borysisch let off a long burst with the RPK. Mukin hit him in the side with his fist:
  
  - Cease fire! Save your ammo. You"re not doing shit to them right now. If they come at us, then let them have it...
  
  But the spooks weren"t in a hurry to move on the outpost. Why hurry? They understood very well that there was no help coming to the Soviets. The whole night was ahead. Therefore they methodically raked the post with the mortar, collapsing the walls of the post, driving the defenders into the fortification.
  
  Fedyunia and Borisych gritted their teeth in vexation and dropped to the ground with each salvo. Durdyev moaned on his knees, waving away any attention and muttering something inaudible with each round"s explosion. The Lieutenant looked vacantly at the radio, wondering whether to report in about this disaster. He thought it through and decided anything that might speed help to the living was worth trying.
  
  Just then the mortar barrage died out, and Borisych thrust himself at the entrance to the bunker, looked around at the ruins of the walls, cursed a bit and flitted back.
  
  - Well, Comrade Lieutenant, there"s no place left to defend ourselves but here! - He looked sadly at the mute walls of the refuge that allowed only one way in or out.
  
  Fedyunia grabbed the RPK, slid outside and lay down in the rubble that not long ago had constituted the walls of the post. They heard automatic rifle fire from the village. The spooks tried an attack, but again retreated and re-initiated the mortar barrage.
  
  And so the whole night passed. First an artillery barrage from the mortar. Then a respite and an attack. A short burst from the machine gun. Then a retreat and another barrage. They knew, oh, the spooks knew very well that an attack from the rear or the flank was useless and dangerous, so they did not throw themselves in those directions. They attempted to fall upon the outpost through the narrow path that had recently been cleared of mines by the defenders. Not for nothing had Salim come and gone so frequently, running reconnaissance for those fuckers!
  
  They took turns firing the RPK. After his turn, when Mukhin got ready to throw himself back into the bunker, a mortar round burst not far from him, liberally peppering him with shrapnel. Fortunately, he was wearing his flak jacket and helmet, and the remains of the walls deflected the blast, but the officer"s legs were lacerated; great chunks of meat were ripped out, exposing the bone in places. Mukhin dropped into the room and fell unconscious. Borisych and Fedyunia injected the Lieutenant with a syringe of the synthetic morphine Promedol and wrapped bandages right over top of his pants.
  
  At that point the spooks decided to give up on rushing the outpost, and to do as much harm as they possibly could with the mortar, and only then take the position. Mortar rounds fell one after another, falling on the roof of the bunker, destroying the walls and ceiling. Finally the roof fell in, trapping all four Soviets in the corner farthest from the entrance. Absolute silence fell.
  
  The Lieutenant moaned, still unconscious. Fedyunia and Borisych tried to dig out of the burrow made by the roof and what was left of the walls of the bunker, frantically ripping the nails and skin from their hands, trying to make an exit through the fallen stones and mount a defense. Durdyev was silent. Borisych hailed him:
  
  - Translator, are you alive?
  
   Durdyev whispered that he was still alive and again fell silent, leaning against the wall with a vacant stare.
  
  Fedyunia and Borisych"s efforts to free them from their prison came to naught: there was too heavy a layer of broken wall material pressing down on the roof, which had fortunately not fallen flat, but obliquely, forming a pocket between itself and the wall.
  
  By the sound of the cries of victory coming from the village, Borisych understood that this was the end. But still the hope flickered that it would soon be morning. They had to hang on somehow, until help arrived. He crawled around to each one and ordered them to be silent. Not a sound! Even if they could not defend themselves, they just might make it through, hiding in their hole.
  
  The spooks were close. At first they heard the murmur of a crowd, but then, along with the squeak of boot soles on stone, they could make out individual voices. But then... then the Lieutenant moaned. In the quiet of the pocket, his voice sounded like a drum cadence. Durdyev slid over to Mukhin like a snake. Fedyunia saw, by a ray of light provided by a chink in the fallen stones, that the interpreter was sliding towards the Lieutenant. He grabbed the Turkmen"s hand as the interpreter slid a long, wide kindjal towards the throat of the officer.
  
  - He"s going to give us all away, - whispered Durdyev, spitting - we need to finish him off. Who will know? - he raged as Fedyunia pressed him down. He was scared to death.
  
  Fedyunia ripped the kindjal out of the translator"s unresisting fist, grasped Durdyev"s throat with the fingers of his left hand, and pressed his lips to the Turkmen"s ear:
  
  - Quiet, you little shit! I"ll kill you myself. Shut up...
  
  Borisych took one more Promedol syringe and injected the Lieutenant, covering the officer"s mouth with his palm. The Lieutenant dropped his head onto Borisych"s knee and fell silent.
  
  The spooks strolled around the wrecked outpost, rummaging through the ruins, pulling the shoes and clothes off of corpses, shooting at the rubble. They could see to their disappointment that there was not much in the way of booty.
  
  Fedyunia held still, pressing his face to the crack. Right in front of him he could see the toes of a spook"s boots. Then a pair of knees appeared, and after that, the muzzle of an AK was thrust into the crack between the stones. Fedyunia just managed to throw himself back, silently tumbling to the floor, as bullets whizzed by with a fearful noise, striking the wall. Thankfully, the crack did not give the muzzle room to move in either direction, so no one was harmed. Recovering a little from his fright, Fedyunia cocked his ear:
  
  -Borisych, someone"s on our roof!
  
  -What"s that? - whispered Borisych, who was holding down the stupefied Durdyev with his entire body.
  
  -You hear? Someone is digging at the stones, - just as quietly whispered Fedyunia. Durdyev fainted with fright.
  
  Indeed, the noise of cast-off stones was emanating from the other end of the blockage. They froze, holding their breath. Suddenly Fedyunia breathed a sigh of relief:
  
  - Fuck! It"s Lace!
  
  Exactly. From the just-opened aperture, the mutt, flinging his big ears and head in victory, shaking the dust off of himself, threw himself at Mukhin, rubbed himself on his boots, and bounded up to lick him on the nose.
  
  - Quiet, quiet! - muttered Borisych, pulling a crust out of his pocket and giving it to the dog. The mutt sniffed his thanks and began to gnaw at the treat.
  
  Fedyunia again crawled up to the crack through which they"d just been shot at. He could clearly hear the voice of Salim, melancholy and disappointed.
  
  - There you are, you old bitch - hissed Fedyunia - you wanted to get rich, you bastard!
  
  The spooks circled the ruins a few more times, gathering up all the weapons and anything that might have even the slightest value, and began to take off, realizing that any minute that the Soviet reinforcements were going to arrive.
  
  The Lieutenant jerked his legs in his medicated stupor, kicking Lace. The dog squealed, preparing to yelp with indignation. But Fedyunia, anticipating his vocal protest, fell on the dog. He grabbed Lace"s jaw and brought the long, sharp blade of the kindjal across the throat of the mutt. Lace"s whole body shivered, his paws curled up, and his flanks gently drew inward.
  
  In half an hour the village came under fire from attack helicopters. While running for the hills, the column of spooks was battered by the cannons of the air assault, tossing the victors from the path, breaking and mangling their bodies. Who knows? Maybe a few of them managed to survive. In the dust that flew up it was hard to make anything out. In an hour the armor appeared over the hilltops. Half a platoon occupied the outpost, while the rest cleared out the village.
  
  The prisoners, freed from their hole, sat on the walls. Mukhin rested his head on Borisych"s knees, trying to figure out what had happened through a fog of pain and narcotics. Borisych, wounded by a round that had ricocheted off of the wall, scowled and rubbed his bloody, wounded shoulder, which had already been bandaged. Durdyev stood on his knees and howled quietly. But Fedyunia rubbed his palm over and over the blood-soaked body of the dead dog, and uncharacteristic tears cleared wide paths down his filthy cheeks.
  
  * I"ve tried to translate into American vernacular as well as possible, with the exception of calibers: 12.7 mm is exactly .50 caliber, and 7.62 mm is .30 caliber, but since the US military uses the SI system, I have not translated those into English units. Most of you who care about military fiction already know those conversions.
  
  * The Russian name was Dembel", which is indeed soldier slang for (honorable) discharge, in the parlance of the American military. Discharge, however, bears lots of medical connotations (especially for a mangy mutt), that the Russian word does not carry.
  
  ** All Russian officer-grade rank insignia (not just general-officer grade) involve stars of varying placement and sizes.

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