... stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a novel, a 50,000 word novel, in one month. I've taken the challenge, but I've cheated. You see, I'm already 20,000 words into my paranormal action (yeah, I made-up/invented) the genre novel set in the World at War
universe. Nevertheless, I hope to finish it before November 30th. This excerpt is, in fact, a reasonable representation of the novel. It's part nut-n-bolt military, part... well, you'll see.
Private Aleksei Nikitin of the 87th Motor Rifle Regiment knew Lansamen had been a lesson. Not the sweet type that Mrs. Olga, his secondary school teacher with the large breasts, had taught him on a pile of warm coats in the darkened cloakroom, but the hard kind. The kind his brother, Pyotr, who was beheaded three years ago in Afghanistan, was fond of.
The worst of his brotherly lessons had been when Pyotr had caught him stealing money from his dresser drawer. They were a poor family, living in a run-down apartment in the center of Stalingrad. What the Americans would call the inner city. The building was filthy, paint peeled from the hall walls, and garbage was only taken away at random intervals. The rats were plentiful, large, and unafraid of the two-legged inhabitants.
Both his parents worked. His Papa at the ancient tractor factory, and his Mother at the textile mill, sewing blue jeans that his family couldn’t afford to buy. Pyotr, then fifteen, sold newspapers in front of the Isaakievsky Cathedral, saving the pitiful rubles he earned in the top drawer of his dresser. Sometimes Aleksei would help Pyotr. Sometimes—in fact, many times—Pyotr wouldn’t pay him. One such time Aleksei, raided the top drawer, seeking the money he was owed. He was only seven, and small. The dresser was old, and tall, and he needed to precariously balance on his tip-toes, hook his hand into the drawer and fish for the rubbles. He found and pocketed them, but somehow Pyotr knew. Back then Pyotr seemed to know everything. Not so much so when his BMP was ambushed by Mujahideen in the Panjshir Valley and he was captured, then he knew nothing, or at least not enough to convince his captors to keep him alive. But when Pyotr was fifteen he knew everything, at least in the eyes of his seven-year old little brother.
So Pyotr found out, but said nothing to his brother. Neither did he pay him the next time Aleksei help sell papers, or the next. He was, as they say, forcing Aleksei’s hand. When the hand was ultimately forced, he snuck to the dresser -snuck because he shared a room with Pyotr, and didn’t want to wake his slumbering brother. At the dresser he rose onto his tiptoes, carefully and quietly pulled the drawer, and hooked his hand inside. The pain¾accompanied by the sharp crack of a rattrap snapping on his fingers¾was as intense as it was sudden. He stumbled back from the dresser, tripped and fell on his bottom, clawing at the rattrap with is good hand, blinded by tears and the searing, throbbing agony that seconds before had been his hand.
His brother sat up in the bed, laughing, pointing. “Looks like I caught another rat in my trap.” Aleksei didn’t care what his brother said, didn’t hear what his brother said. He only cared about freeing his throbbing fingers from the trap, the tight, excruciatingly painful, trap. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t see, and the trap was slick with… slick with what? It was then that he realized he had heard his brother. Heard him very well. Another rat. “Pyotr, turn on the light,” he screamed at his brother.
The laughing suddenly stopped. Pyotr answered, his voice chilling. “Why certainly, my little brother. My little thief. I’ll be glad to turn on the light.”
The beside lamp clicked and a pool of light illuminated Pyotr’s wickedly grinning face, spread over the threadbare bedcovers, and onto Aleksei. Then Aleksei saw the reason for the slickness. The trap’s last victim resided there still, caught between Aleksei’s already blackening fingers, its stomach split, entrails mixing with blood to grease the rattrap and Aleksei’s fingers, it’s beady, black eyes looking as if they would pop out of the narrow, rat skull. He fainted then and remembered nothing of his parents rushing into the room, summoned by his screams, his mother freeing his shattered hand, his Father beating Pyotr. He didn’t remember that, but he would never forget the trap or the eviscerated rat, its eyes bulging, its intestines glistening between his mangled fingers. His fingers were mangled still. Not horrifically, but they certainly weren’t straight, but Aleksei had learned to cope, which was more than could be said for the townsfolk of Lansamen. Again, the thought swept through his mind, Lansamen was a lesson.
Days after the battle had swept through the Eisenbach Gap, a company of Bundeswehr troops continued hold out in Lansamen. Surrounded and under constant attack from the 87th Motor Rifle Regimen--of which Aleksei was a part… a very, very small part, but a part nonetheless--the West Germans continued to fight. Unbeknownst to Aleksei, Lansamen drew first the corps, then the army, and then finally the front commander’s attention. If every bypassed town in West Germany fought with the fanaticism shown by the Bundeswehr in Lansamen, the entire offensive would grind to a halt as more and more troops were peeled from the front to subdue the resistance in the Lansamens of West Germany. The West Germans were to be taught a lesson and the chalkboard was Lansamen.
Aleksei wasn’t privy to these discussions, but two days ago he began hearing rumors that something was afoot. Yesterday his regiment had pulled back from the small town. At first Aleksei believed they were to be relieved by another formation, and that they would be sent to the rear to rest and refit. Morale was high that morning, but a refit was not to be. The regiment, as far as Aleksei could tell, broke contact with the enemy in the small town, but only pulled back two or three kilometers, maintaining a loose ring around the city. He could still see the town’s cluster of shops, houses, and the three, taller office building--Aleksei guessed they were six or seven stories high, he hadn’t really counted--if he walked to the edge of the woods where his company was bivouacked. The good news was that Aleksei’s company was pulled back into regimental reserve. They were allowed to sleep, and were fed hot meals straight from the field kitchens. Hot meals that were actually hot; not chilled by the kilometer trek to the front line. That afternoon the lesson began.
A battery of odd-looking rocket launchers pulled into a small clearing a couple of hundred meters from Aleksei’s platoon. He had seen BM-27 launchers many times, so many times that the squat trucks and bundled launching tubes ceased to interest him, but these were different. Sleek, with housed launchers, mounted on a tank chassis, and freshly-painted, or at least recently-washed, the tracked launchers gray-green camouflage starkly contrasted with the very plain, and very muddy, dark green T-62 tanks and BTR-60s of Aleksei’s regiment. And security? Normally the closest infantry provided security for a contingent of artillery, but these futuristic-looking weapons had their own security detachment. Hard-nosed men armed with stubby submachine guns, and bad attitudes. Aleksei and his friends left them alone after the guards gruffly rebuffed several attempts at conversation. But word leaked out. Word always leaks out. The launchers fired a new type of missile. Not nuclear, but thermobaric. He didn’t know what that meant. He wouldn’t need to wait long to find out.
Shortly after Aleksei’s platoon finished their lunch of black bread and sausage, the launchers fired. The sound was like nothing Aleksei had ever heard. No, perhaps it was similar to the bottle rockets he and his young friends would fire on Army Day, but only in the way that watching a toy train in the window of the old Upper Trading Rows in Moscow is similar to standing a meter from the tracks when the Stalingrad-Moscow train blasted by. Each launcher shot tens of rockets, and each rocket whooshed away with the sound of a Mig-29 on full afterburner. The ground shook, trees were blown leafless by the backwash, and even at a distance of two-hundred meters Aleksei’s eyes wept, the tears sucked from the ducts by the pressure drop precipitated by the rockets launch. Their flight was short. It was only two or three kilometers to the village. Their impact was catastrophic.
Aleksei didn’t know how many rockets were fired. Sixty? One hundred and sixty? But they all dove into the unfortunate town within in a split second of each other. First there was an immense cloud of dust, then the crack-boom, and then the mushroom, the billowing, red mushroom. Almost nuclear, but they had been told it wasn’t nuclear. Right? And it wasn’t. The mushroom was no where near what Aleksei supposed a nuclear detonation’s mushroom must look like. Either way, he doubted that anyone in the town lived to measure the difference, but he was wrong.
Thermobaric explosives use the oxygen from the surrounding air to fuel their detonation, sucking it into the fireball like a five-hundred-meter tall demon with a voracious appetite for destruction, flattening everything within its kill radius, which in this case was quiet large. Aleksei didn’t know that. He only knew that the rockets struck the town, the mushroom cloud, billowed toward the heavens, and then evaporated, leaving little but a burning shell of what had been a German town. There was no sign of life. He wasn’t surprised; he knew nothing could have lived through that, but he was wrong.
Men, women, children, and Bundeswehr soldiers with MG-3 machine guns and Pz-44 anti-tank rockets lived. Well-emplaced Marder fighting vehicles and Leopard I tanks lived. Not many. The destruction wrought by the Thermobaric warheads was cataclysmic. But here and there the people, the defenders, lived. And the German’s will to fight still lived. Once again, the 87th Motor Rifle attacked. The attack was short, vicious, and repulsed. Aleksei thanked God—whatever god watched over war, whatever god took sides in a war—that his company wasn’t involved. The lesson wasn’t over. During the short, vicious, and repulsed attack Aleksei and his comrades watched the rocket troops reload the launchers. These rockets were different than those the launchers had fired as his sausage was digesting. These rockets had green bands painted behind the warhead. Aleksei didn’t need rumors to know what that meant, didn’t need to ask the hard-nose guards. Green bands meant gas. Aleksei guessed nerve. He guessed right.
A few minutes after the last of the regiment’s attackers withdrew the launchers fired. If Aleksei had thought about it, he would have realized that the speed of the 87th’s withdrawal necessitated leaving Russian wounded on the battlefield, but he had learned to specifically not think about those things.
The rockets flew.
Aleksei knew a little about nerve gas. All Soviet troops knew a little about nerve gas, the Red Army expected to use chemical warfare when it fought and understood that their enemies might retaliate in kind. First off, it wasn’t a gas. It was a liquid, and needed to be converted to aerosol to effectively saturate an area.
The rockets didn’t dive into Lansamen this time. Each detonated over the doomed town, a small exploding charge ripping open the cell of VX nerve gas and converting it into a cloud of death. Viewed from the edge of his woods, a safe three kilometers from Lansamen, the hundreds of popping, not exploding exactly, but popping, rockets formed a man-made cloud of smoky dispersal charge residue and VX vapor, which looked a bit like a morning mist.
But it wasn’t a morning mist. Aleksei knew what would happen when that vapor reached the ground. It would kill. There was no prolonged illness, and very little time to inject the only cure, Atropine Sulphate. As the mist fell on Lansamen everyone it touched would feel a tightness in their chest, their nose would begin to run, and then they would have difficulty breathing. Severe difficulty, as if an unseen villain had pulled a plastic bag over their head. Then the victim would defecate, fall to the ground, convulse and die. It no doubt began happening before the cloud of smoke from the explosive charges cleared, and it ended, at least for most of the inhabitants and defenders within a minute or two. For most, because unlike other nerve agents, VX was a persistent nerve agent, meaning the oily vapor would linger on the rubble that was once Lansamen, killing anyone and anything that touched it, exterminating all life.
There was no resistance to the second attack. For that Aleksei was glad, because it was his company, clad in their Nuclear-Chemical-Biological, abbreviated NBC, suits that lead the attack. But it really wasn’t an attack. It was a survey, a hunt, an exploration, but not an attack, and that was fine with Aleksei. No machine gun chattered as they approached the village, no assault rifle burped its death. There was nothing. Once again, as Aleksei crunched through the rubble that had been a town, his comrade Private Petrov Ketasarin beside him. Aleksei thought, Lansamen was a lesson.
This was the third street his squad had searched. They had not found a living being. They were past looking for resistance, beyond looking for survivors; they were looking for life, any life. Of course they still maintained discipline. Discipline meant life, and amidst the death of war, life was everything. But, as the extent of the devastation became more apparent, and the likelihood of resistance less, the company had divided into platoons, and then squads, and then two-man teams as they surveyed the rubble that had once been a town. The quiet was surreal, the devastation complete. Not a building was untouched, desk-sized chunks of concrete lay in the street, at times the rubble was thick enough to block the passage of the company’s BTR-70 transports and the supporting tanks. Skeletal walls hinted at structures that had been buildings but two hours previously. Although the absence of life was profound, the presence of death was subtle. What the Thermobaric warheads hadn’t killed, the VX had, either when the cloud descended on the city, or afterwards. VX was persistent after all. To touch with one’s bare hand, a piece of metal on which lay the thin sheen of VX was to die. Still there was little sign of the dying. A hand protruding from a pile of rubble, the green cuff and coarse material obviously belonging to a Bundeswehr uniform, a woman, glimpsed through a basement window, sprawled on the unfinished floor, her dress soaked in a puddle of surrounding urine—VX caused its victims to lose bowel control— these were the only signs of Lansamen’s former occupants. Until street number four.
Street number four had no doubt been a typical suburban lane eight days ago. No doubt they were pretty houses, not large—although they would have been enormous compared to his parent’s slum dwelling—but comfortable, with bright yellow flowers in the front yard. Aleksei could still see some of those, where yards remained. Yes, pretty eight days ago, but now no more than a jumbled collection of used construction materials. The houses had been flattened, some as if stepped on by a malevolent giant, others were just as flat, but looked as if the same giant had grown tired of stepping on houses and had pushed them sideways instead, and just to keep things interesting, the giant had taken a couple of cars, wadded them up and tossed them into the street, lighting them on fire for good measure. The street was a complete, lifeless ruin. At least that was what Aleksei thought, but he was wrong. Three rubbled houses into the block Aleksei saw them. A man, well, but casually, dressed—spotless, at least as far as Aleksei could tell, light-blue sports shirt, and clean blue jeans with sandy brown hair and a clean-shaven, ruggedly handsome face. The man was sitting on the doorstep of house number four. It was one of those houses that the giant had decided to push over sideways, and it leaned at a crazy angle, an almost flat angle, a very precarious angle, right behind the man.
The man was no more than five meters from Aleksei, and that surprised him. In fact, it surprised him very much. He had looked at the house a moment before and no one had been there. Could have sworn he had looked a moment before. Didn’t matter now. Now there was a man, but even the man didn’t surprise him as much as the leash the man held. It was a standard leash that you might use to walk your medium-sized dog in Gorky park—pink, and very clean, like the man. So, in hindsight—which he would only have about 90 seconds worth remaining—it wasn’t the leash, but the animal tethered to it that surprised, shocked would be a better word, him. The animal was a woman. At least he thought she was a woman, her dark hair was wildly matted, her face almost blackened with soot, her body unclothed. She was sobbing hard, the sobs muffled because as she sobbed, she ate, ate ravenously, and her food appeared to be, Aleksei had to look twice… her food appeared to be her arm. She was holding her meal by the wrist, bending it at the elbow, and tearing the meat from her own forearm. Aleksei felt the vomit rise in the back of his throat.
“My God,” gasped Private Petrov Ketasarin beside him.
“Hey,” barked Aleksei, raising his AK-74 to his shoulder. The clean man looked at him, unhurriedly, and his eyes froze Aleksei. They weren’t eyes, at least not like any eyes that he had ever seen. They were swirling, black, bottomless, pits. Aleksei looked at those pits and saw the emptiness of good, the complete lack of light.
“And now your right eye, Alice.” The man with the black eyes said. His voice was sweet, the sweetest thing that Aleksei had ever heard, he would have killed, killed himself, just to hear it again, but he wouldn’t need to.
Alice, heretofore known as the dirty, tangled-haired, naked girl who was splitting time between sobs and bites of her forearm, wailed louder still, yet obediently lifted her had to her eye, hooked a finger, and dug. It only took a second, and the eye popped with a bit of a wet, sucking sound. Alice screamed as the eyeball fell onto the step, she covered the socket with her good hand.
“No, Alice,” the man said, his eyes never leaving Aleksei’s. “You need to eat the eyeball, Alice.” And she did. Sobbing wildly, she picked up the gooey, bloody orb, and smashed it into her mouth. The vomit, which had pre-staged in the back of Aleksei’s mouth came on up, filling the NBC mask. Clogging the breathing ports, and breaking the spell, whatever the spell the man had held over Aleksei. He ripped the mask off, willing to risk death by nerve agent over suffocating in his own vomit, raised his AK-74 and pulled the trigger. At least that was what he meant to do, but the man was looking at him again, and his finger wouldn’t obey. It was then that he saw the rat, poking its pointy nose from beneath the steps, its beady eyes glaring balefully at him. But, Aleksei saw as the rat came out from beneath the steps, it wasn’t just a rat, it was a rat disfigured , horribly disfigured, by the rat trap that had snapped shut on it, breaking its back. But still the rat advanced on him, it’s body bent double, blood smearing the trap, brains leaking from its skull, and then there was another, and another, and another, soon there twenty, no thirty, no, and then uncountable numbers of broken-back rats and an equal number of traps, scurrying from beneath the house, swarming toward Aleksei.
He wanted to run, would have run, but the man’s eyes held him in place, and still the rats came, they were covering his boots, swarming on his legs, he didn’t know how rats, with broken backs, attached to rat traps could move, let alone crawl up his legs but they could, and they were biting, gnawing chewing through his cloths, into to his flesh, gnawing, gnawing, killing, bleeding, hurting him just like the trap in his brother’s drawer had hurt him but only much worse. And these were the rats from that drawer. The rat that had smeared his paining fingers with blood. That rat and all his friends, relatives, acquaintances, and all their traps.
“And now I need you to stop your heart.” The man’s voice was sweetness itself, an island of calm in the sea of chaos and pain that was enveloping his body. Stop his heart? Why yes, he could stop his heart for this nice, sweet man. He didn’t know that he knew how, but he did, his brain had always known how, deep in its subconscious, in its primal regions, and Aleksei knew, somehow knew, that that’s where this man was from… some primal region. The pain was unbearable now, and the man’s voice so sweet. Aleksei’s brain gave the command. His heart stopped, and his now lifeless body dropped.
Private Petrov Ketasarin was past quivering, sobbing, or crying out for help. The man from nowhere, the self-devouring woman, and now Private Aleksei Nikitin, his friend since the first day of training, dropped beside him. Dropped for no reason, no shot, no signs of nerve agent, nothing. Aleksei tore off his mask, stood for a moment and then dropped. It was too much. Petrov turned to run, but not really, his eyes caught the man’s before he could really turn. Those warm, black eyes.
“Put the rifle under your chin, my son.”
Such sweetness, such kindness.
“Pull the trigger.”