This is a short story I'm working on ATM. C&C welcome.
Chapter One: From Snow to Hearth
Dmitri did not stir. His breath was shallow and irregular, visible against the cold of the outdoors. Snow began to melt beneath his prone body, soaking through his clothes and chilling his flesh. Slowly Dmitri tilted his head to look through the sights of his rifle. The snow crunched as he shifted his weight. From his position atop the bell tower the young man could see the whole of August Square; husks of burned out cars, sparks emanating from broken powerlines and papers being tossed around in the icy wind. The world was unnaturally quiet; no birds took to the skies and no vermin scurried within the allies. Only the sound of the wind could be heard that cold winters day. Despite the silence of the square, Dmitri still did not move. He lay. He waited. He watched.
In the far corner of the square, a hatch opened from beneath the ground, the snow cascading down the dirty metal. From the silence before, even this slight noise sounded like an avalanche to Dmitri. ‘They are here,’ he thought to himself, ‘Just as Quinn had said’. One by one, a small patrol of men appeared from the opening, helping one another out. They were all wearing dark grey overcoats and steel helmets. All were armed. A fell green light came from beneath the hatch, illuminating the soldiers, causing them to appear more sinister than they already were. Six men in all emerged from the underground, the last one closing the hatch behind him; he scraped snow to conceal it with his foot, half-heartedly masking their presence. They milled about in the square for a while, their weapons slung from their shoulders. They slouched about, jostled and joked with one another in a language unidentifiable to Dmitri. He watched as one of the men, perhaps the patrol commander produced a map from a pouch on his hip, and then ordered the others down the street. Dmitri watched each individual scrupulously, searching for the smallest of details to ascertain where the men had come from. What colour was the muck on their boots? What make were their rifles? The whole time, Dmitri did not move a muscle.
The soldiers passed, casually walking rather than patrolling. It wouldn’t have mattered how attentive they were however, Dmitri was too well camouflaged high atop the bell tower. As the men disappeared into the distance, their figures consumed by the wind and snow, Dmitri rose. His legs were stiff due to the cold and because he had not moved them in hours. He became dizzy and lightheaded as blood rushed through his body. He reached out an arm to the railing to steady himself as his vision blackened. The cold metal burned his fingertips like fire. Dmitri paused for a few minutes then reached into his jacket, taking out a notebook and a stub of a pencil. He scribbled down a few notes on what he had seen and descended the crumbling staircase to the square below. Unlike the soldiers he had observed, Dmitri held his rifle in his arms, the butt resting comfortably against his shoulder and the barrel angling towards the dirty grey street. He trudged down a back road and ducked through a hole in a factory wall. He walked for half of an hour, the whole time being cautious to not make any loud noises. He slowly peered around every corner before moving around them and checked the windows of the buildings he passed. Although he had wandered these streets for countless years, Dmitri was always wary.
He stopped at in front of a red door; the paint faded and chipped in places. The two knocks on the door was followed by a small vision slit being opened. A pair of steely blue eyes inspected Dmitri. A number of metallic clicks and scraping sounds heralded the unlocking of the door which swung inwards. Dmitri was greeted by a man clad in black leather clothing, his bald head reflecting the artificial light of the room.
“Welcome back old friend” said Quinn as he embraced Dmitri. “Come on in out of the cold.” He beckoned Dmitri indoors and took his snow covered overcoat off him, hanging it on a hook above a small fire.
Dmitri ran a hand through his jet black hair, partly to scratch at an itch, and partly to share a joke with his bald friend. Quinn saw his gesture.
“Very funny Mr. Comedian” he said dryly. “Come. Take a seat”.
Dmitri gently lent his rifle against the wall and sat down on a crate near to the warming flame. He was careful to make sure his weapon was within an arms-length.
“They are getting slack” he said, his voice deep and methodical. “The soldiers, right where you said they would be.”
“Getting cocky more like it” replied Quinn, handing Dmitri a chipped white mug. “So what observations do you have for me?”
Dmitri reached for his notebook and squinted down at his own terrible handwriting, trying to decipher his findings from before. In reading, he spoke slowly, halting at the longer words.
“Six men – semi automatic rifles – grey coats – four unshaven” He paused. “And I think they had a green sludge on their boots.”
“Always difficult to write when your fingers are frozen isn’t it?” joked Quinn.
Dmitri smiled and sipped at his brew.
“Not bad for your first solo observation. I assume that you took these notes some time after the incident though, based on your writing?”
“How could you even know that?” responded Dmitri, sounding slightly offended at his mentor’s criticism.
“You’re notes are too vague. If you write what you see when it happens, you will not have to rely on your memory.”
“I was trying to remain still” reasoned Dmitri. “I was trying to be unseen.”
Quinn quietly chuckled, his body heaving up and down. He had always laughed with his whole body. “You are not painting on a massive canvas my boy, simply writing in a notebook. Now, finish your tea and we’ll head back to Central.”
Dmitri nodded. He swirled the mug and downed its contents, then took up his rifle and stood. Although he was a tall man, Dmitri was dwarfed by Quinn who stood a full head taller than him. “OK then, let’s go.”
Quinn took his weapon, handed Dmitri his coat back and finally extinguished the fire before heading to the door.
The wind had picked up during their time indoors; the temperature had dropped yet again. Quinn reached into his pocket and took out a black fur cap placing it on top of his scarred head. The two men walked down the side of the street, weapons at the ready. Dmitri walked behind his teacher, leaving a few metres between them. ‘Too close,’ Quinn had once said, ‘and one spray of gunfire will see us both painting the snow with blood.’ That image had always stuck with Dmitri; the crimson stain of blood against the stark white snow.
They walked for hours, stopping every now and then to search an old building. Quinn never told Dmitri what they were looking for, so he just stood guard at the door or windows while the older man rummaged through files. They did not talk much throughout their travels. Not much needed to be said. The silence between two friends is different to the silence of being alone. They ate a small meal of dry biscuits and spread late in the afternoon. Dmitri had always found it difficult to judge the time, as the constant veil of dirty grey clouds had obscured the sky since before he could remember.
It was dusk by the time the two men reached the perimeter of Central. Dmitri had only been there a few times, so its humble appearance still confused him. Quinn never tired of the look on his students face upon arriving at the headquarters; a mix of relief and slight disappointment. He would chuckle inwardly, yet Dmitri could see his amusement, the man’s large frame heaving up and down in a silent show of laughter. The pair walked past a number of barbed wire roadblocks, being funnelled down towards a small concrete bunker, nestled between larger, older buildings. Several dugouts surrounded the bunker, and a single watchtower stood in front.
“Shoulder your weapon and put your hands on your head” instructed Quinn, quietly.
“I’ve been here before” said Dmitri. “I know the routine.”
“Sorry” apologised Quinn. “I keep forgetting you’re not a kid anymore.”
Dmitri grinned, but tried to hide his happiness from his mentor. He had been under Quinn’s tutelage since he was fifteen, and had become a new man during the six years of training.
A spotlight flashed on, panning to illuminate the returning men. They both slung their weapons over their shoulders and raised their hands towards the bleak sky.
“Who goes there?” called out the guard in the watchtower.
“I’ll give you a hint” replied Quinn, and took off his fur cap.
“Ahhhhh Quinn you bald bastard, come on in!”
The spotlight was shut off, leaving Dmitri trying to adjust his eyes to the gloomy nightfall.
Although Quinn had been joking towards the guard, Dmitri saw no humour in his eyes. The two advanced towards the bunker, under the escort of the guard.
“Where are you two returning from?”
Dmitri spoke up. “August Square.”
The guard raised his eyebrows quizzically. “So not that far away at all. Hmph. We’ve had people streaming in all week from places like the Depot and even the Spire. Something strange is afoot, you mark my words. I’ve never seen so many people coming back to Central at once.”
“Well I’m just here to report our findings. Nothing more” said Quinn dismissively.
The guard turned around, heading back towards the watchtower.
“Well welcome back” he called as he returned to his post.
Dmitri and Quinn reached the solid bulkhead of a door to the bunker. Rivets and metal plates adorned it like a collage of wartime memorabilia. Quinn pounded his fist against the entrance. The cold emotionless gaze of security cameras followed his every movement. Dmitri stared straight down them, as if trying to see the man on the other side. A klaxon sounded once, announcing the unlocking of the great door, which opened inwards. They were greeted by two further guards who held up a hand for them to come no closer. Quinn reached down the front of his shirt and protruded his dog-tags; Dmitri did likewise. The guards nodded after a short inspection and verification. Quinn and Dmitri stored their weapons in metal lockers, off to the side of the entrance. Their jackets were hung on a hand carved coat rack. ‘Very civilised,’ thought Dmitri ‘For times like these.’
“Come on. We’re late” said Quinn, his head cocking to one side to point at the clock on the wall. They walked through the bunker, twisting and turning through the labyrinth of concrete until they reached the centre of the building. There was neither grand hall nor office to be found there, simply a small hatch.
“Down we go my boy”. Quinn opened it up and climbed down into the warm glow beneath. He was shortly followed by Dmitri.
When the two reached the bottom of the ladder, they were thrust into a world of noise and light. Men and women talked, children played and ran, musicians performed to small groups from atop crate. The sound of hammering could be heard and flashes could be seen from people welding. Small fires were roasting meat in stalls and the ever present hum of the ceiling lights could be heard during the rare moments of quiet. Central was more than a mere military headquarters, but a home to many, a community. The stands of vendors were arranged into streets, with handmade signs visible in the crossroads. Growers Lane, Smiths Street, Medical Avenue and many more unoriginal titles designated the different areas of the underground town. The roof was high off the ground so that the crowded settlement did not feel claustrophobic; it was spacious. Dmitri was scouring the crowd for a certain face when he heard Quinn’s voice.
“We must make our way to the barracks. You will have time to see her. I promise.”
Dmitri blushed, but yet again tried to pretend he had no emotional reaction.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Liar.” Quinn smiled. “I know about Tahli.”
The young man’s face turned an even brighter shade of red as he pushed past Quinn.
“I thought you said we were running late” he hastily replied.
Quinn burst out laughing.
They made their way through the town of Central, pushing deeper and deeper into the subterranean colony. The further they went, the less people they saw. The middle of the town belonged to the armed forces, the houses there were reserved for the commanders of the factions soldiers. Barracks and small arms training facilities were also there, fenced off from the rest of the civilians. Dmitri felt a sense of pride, as not many people his age were willing to sign up to the service. He was among an elite cadre of respected men and women, fighting for the protection of their families and friends. As the two approached the gates to the headquarters, they had to yet again produce their dog-tags and sign documents. ‘Such bureaucracy’ thought Dmitri, although he did not know the full meaning of the word; it just sounded to him like the type of sarcastic comment Quinn would make. Despite the age gap, the two had become brothers; Dmitri as an eager twenty-one year old, ready to prove his worth and Quinn the jovial yet venerable forty-something year old. Dmitri thought it rude to enquire into his actual age; it was difficult to judge by looks. ‘If he had any hair, it must be greying’ thought Dmitri.
The command room was spacious and extravagant, with hangings and statues lining the walls. Quinn led with Dmitri following a few paces behind.
They stopped in front of a beautifully carved oaken door, the Commanders office.
“Smarten yourself up lad” Quinn had instructed.
Dmitri acknowledged the order with a nod. The tall young man had a slight frame and dark hair. His deep blue eyes ruthlessly inspected every inch of his dark grey clothing. He smoothed out a wrinkle with long slender fingers and tucked in his shirt. Then he drew back his shoulders and stood to his full height. Despite his best efforts to increase his size, however, Quinn still loomed over him. The burly mans stocky build and huge arms made him look almost super-human. He was a little more relaxed than Dmitri, knocking on the door and then folding his arms. The door opened silently, the well oiled hinges showing the status of its owner. Commander Jantine stood in the doorway in a straight backed posture. Dmitri and Quinn both saluted.
“Quinn Varren, here with the reports for August Square sir. This is Dmitri Sarmire” he added when Jantine eyed the younger man with a questioning look.
“Come in gentlemen” said the Commander slowly, with a voice that sounded like a shard of ice scraping down metal.
They waited until Jantine had been seated behind his huge desk before sitting themselves.
“So boys” asked the Commander as he lit an expensive looking cigarette, “What news do you have for me?”
“Well sir, myself and Ranger Sarmire here have been operating around the August Square region in the past few days” said Quinn.
Dmitri stifled a smile at the title Ranger; he had not yet been deemed worthy by the military, but Quinn’s approval was the only thing that really mattered.
Quinn continued, “We identified a number of operating areas and forward bases for the enemy troops, with the buildings here, here and here being occupied.” He pointed at the city map on the table. “Furthermore, we identified an entry point from the underground right into the centre of the square and Ranger Sarmire did make an interesting discovery.”
The Commander took a drag on his cigarette. A momentary silence filled the room, as did an idle tendril of smoke. Quinn glared at Dmitri, goading him into talking. The young man thought that he would have to simply remain silent for the meeting; he was wrong. His voice was quiet at first, uncertain and tentative.
“Well sir, myself and Qui-I mean Ranger Varren noticed that the soldiers that came out of the underground had green sludge on their boots.”
Quinn spoke. “The boy is modest sir. This was his discovery.”
Dmitri did not understand the significance of the sludge, but he knew it had to be important due to Commander Jantine’s reaction. He raised one eyebrow and stopped his hand before the cigarette could reach his dry lips.
“Well done son” he said.
“Thankyou sir” replied Dmitri, still confused.
Jantine continued talking, as if he had not heard the boy’s response. “This is brilliant. That means that those bloody Separatist bastards must have come either here or here.” Again, the map was referred to, this time subterranean routes were indicated.
“Brilliant work you two. For this you will be greatly rewarded.”
Dmitri and Quinn rose.
“I’ll have your payment send through this evening. Until then though, please help yourself to a few of these.” The Commander held out a pack of his finest cigarettes. Quinn took half a dozen, where Dmitri only took the one; he did not partake but he did not want to seem rude.
“Thankyou sir” the two men said. They saluted again and performed a smart parade-ground turn and left the room.
“Why was he so happy?” enquired Dmitri.
“Don't worry lad” said Quinn, “I’ll explain later. Don't you want to see Tahli?”
His face lit up and he ran off towards the exit of the headquarters.
“I’ll meet you back here tonight” he called over his shoulder.
Dmitri jogged through the towns centre, dodging and weaving past the people crowding the streets. Sweet aromas filled his nostrils as he passed a bakers stall; a splash of colour caught his eye at a florists, many different flowers were blooming beneath the UV lights. Dmitri thought of buying some, but he had no money with him, and he doubted that the florist would accept a cigarette in trade regardless of how luxurious it was. ‘A living plant for one that is already dead’ he thought to himself. He chuckled at the irony; and was somewhat proud of his own sophisticated joke. “Shame no one was around to hear it” he mumbled.
His pace slowed after a few minutes. He was close to Tahli’s home now, and his previous feelings of excitement were replaced with fear. Dmitri had experienced his fair share of fear, on patrols the fear of being discovered by the enemy was ever present; for him though, this fear was far more real, and more dangerous. He thought about what he would say to her, running over dozens of potential scripts in his head. His hands began shaking, showing his nerves. Dmitri quickly put them in his pockets, out of few. His fingers stumbled upon the cigarette from before, which he took out. He twirled it between his digits, giving himself something else to focus on.
Dmitri rounded a street corner and found himself looking at a familiar door. He stood in front of it for what seemed an eternity, practising what he would say when Tahli opened the door.
“It’s good to see you again Tahli” he said under his breath. It’s been a long time and I’ve missed you.” He wished he had bought those flowers for her. His uniform was again checked, but with more dedication than was showed in the headquarters. He combed back his hair with his fingers and straightened his shirt. He still twirled the cigarette unconsciously in his left hand. He took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
The wait was excruciating, Dmitri’s mind thinking of every possible outcome of the encounter, all of them negative. ‘What if she is with someone else? What if she doesn’t recognise me? Is this the right house? Didn’t she move? Her father better not open the door. Oh please let don’t let her father open the door.’
Luckily for Dmitri it was Tahli who answered his knocking. Her face lit up when she recognised him. She was, by anyone’s standards, absolutely beautiful, her short black hair framing a delicate face. Her smile was subtle compared to the joy visible in her encapsulating green eyes.
Before Dmitri could speak, Tahli had already dashed forward and embraced him. She was short and slender, her eyelashes fluttered against Dmitri’s cheek.
He tried to say what he had practised so many times, but the shock of seeing Tahli again destroyed all of his best laid plans. His speech dissolved into a simple “Hello”.
Dmitri let go of Tahli; her body seemed fragile. Tahli saw the cigarette in Dmitri’s hand and then looked him in the eye. She didn’t need to say a word, her eyes said it all.
“Oh that!” Dmitri nervously laughed and threw the cigarette over his shoulder. “A gift from the Commander.”
“So you smoke now.” Dmitri had hoped that Tahli’s first words to him would have been more compassionate, but then he thought of his own.
The nervous young man tried to explain what had happened. He fell over his own words, trying to say them all at once. Nothing that he said made any sense whatsoever.
Tahli smiled. “Don't worry. I was joking” she said.
She leaned in and kissed him gently on the cheek. Dmitri was not expecting the show of affection.
“Come on inside” she continued. She took Dmitri’s hand and lad him through the door, closing it behind her.
The house was small, like all civilian homes. It was warm and inviting, with the glow of lamps and a candle or two illuminating stacks of books piled on the table. There was a kettle on the boil, with an aromatic tea inside. Dmitri looked around the room, searching for other signs of life.
“Don't worry,” said Tahli. “Mother and Father won’t be back for another few hours. You’re safe for now.”
Dmitri didn’t relish the idea of the return of Tahli’s parents. They never approved of him, as his life as a Ranger saw him leaving the safety of Central for weeks and even months at a time. ‘If you do not want to stay in the city’ Mr Dovitch had told him on one occasion, ‘Then you obviously do not want to be with my daughter.’
The man was stubborn and straight forward, fearful of the new and untried. He was a man of tradition, and tradition dictated that man and woman should live together under one roof.
“Do you want something to eat?” asked Tahli.
“Why yes indeed Miss Dovitch” replied Dmitri, putting on what he believed to be an upper class voice.
She chuckled. “You can cut the act” she said “Mister Sarmire” putting on a similar accent.
There was silence in the room, apart from the clink of plates and mugs. Dmitri wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. He drummed his fingers on the armchair, searching for something to say.
Tahli returned with a plate of rolls and a few slices of cheese, along with the teapot from earlier. She placed them on the table, balancing the tray on top of her books.
“Please, help yourself.”
They ate in silence for a time, until Dmitri noticed the black handle of a revolver protruding from amongst the pile. He reached for it, toppling the books.
“Where did you get this?” he asked. He inspected the metalwork and the wooden stock. “This is an old model, must have cost a fortune.”
Tahli’s eyes shot down, she slowly began to pick up the books. Her regular enthusiasm and vibrant personality was replaced with a more melancholic one.
“It belonged to my grandfather” she explained. “He used to live in a surface town. Dangerous place to be at his age, well, at anyone’s age really. When he moved down here to Central, he taught me that we should take control of our own future, not have it shaped around us. He gave it to me just before he died. My parents don’t know about it.”
“I’m sorry” said Dmitri. He reached out a hand and squeezed her arm.
MORE TO FOLLOW: OVER