He ran through the field with the Frohlander rifle secured firmly in his hands. Sweat ran down his brow, a few drops getting into his eyes. The chill of the night bore into his bones, and he could feel his fingers shaking as he reached for the trigger.
The bullet bit into the grass, missing his target's feet by just a few centimetres. Frustrated by his poor marksmanship, he shook the gun, screaming about how old and useless it was. The Frohlander dated back to the Third World War, quickly outdated a matter of years later by improved military technology. It was discarded by the Wehrmacht a few years after the Tokyo Peace Treaty had been signed, but it still served as a popular choice for farmers and hunters. The boy wasn't in any hurry to appreciate that fact.
The gunshot was just one of many that had been discharged over the last few minutes. The young thief sprinted towards a tall building in the distance. The snow crunched underneath his boots and almost cost him his footing, and seeing as the last gunshot had almost hit him he was running at a much faster pace than before. Maybe he would lose the farmer's boy in the building ahead. It was dark, cold, and the hunger continued to tear away at his stomach. A small bright light in the distance tingled his eyes, encouraging him to run faster despite his growing fatigue. His eyes welled up as he closed in on the building.
Time seemed to speed up at that very moment. The gunshot. The scream for help. The cry of pain. It all happened too quickly.
To this day, the boy has never forgotten it.
'My fucking head.'
Georg grabbed his alarm clock and hurled it into the kitchen. He didn't care if he ended up breaking it, he was just relieved that the beeping sensation that tingled his ears was finally gone. He still had his head to worry about. His eyes felt heavy and the back of his head was pounding. It felt as if someone had spent the entire night sitting on top of him.
His legs felt light as he dragged himself into the kitchen. His skull tightened every time he blinked. He didn't even have the energy necessary to fetch himself a bowl of cereal, let alone pick up the shattered remains of his alarm clock. He rested his head on the kitchen counter, right before his phone started to ring. He moved towards the source of the rock song that he had set as his ringtone. He eventually made his way into the bathroom, before encountering a feline that was sleeping in the sink. The cat's sharp green eyes blazed with rage and it hissed at Georg as he opened the door, but he lacked the energy necessary to respond with any sort of fear or anger. He just ignored the animal and reached for the pair of jeans that had been draped over the toilet. He reached into the back pocket and retrieved his phone, relieved that it hadn't suffered any damage over the course of the night.
He tapped the screen. 'Hello?'
'Hey. It's GK.'
'GK?' It took Georg a moment to identify the accent. 'Remember? We swore not to mention full names over the phone.'
'Sorry,' Georg moaned. Grigori seemed to be in good spirits, which only made Georg's hangover just that little bit more laborious.
'Remember anything from last night?'
'Fuck all.' Georg honestly couldn't think of anything. He remembered having a pint of lager in Mike's Bar with Katherine, Grigori and Gabriel, but anything beyond that was just a blur. Even just trying to recall how much he drank hurt his head. 'You're calling me for a reason, aren't you?'
'Yeah. I was wondering if you wanted to get some breakfast?'
'I can barely walk, man.' He reached into his wallet, only to find it to be completely vacant. He almost felt like weeping; he brought one hundred and twenty marks with him to the bar, so he could only begin to imagine how much alcohol he consumed. 'I don't know. I might go back to sleep.'
'Come on! I'll buy!' Grigori briefly recalled the four rounds of Black Monas that Georg bought for them once the alcohol started to take its effect on him. 'After all, you probably don't have much money left, do you?'
'Well, you got that part right.'
Grigori continued to insist on going for breakfast, before concluding that he was going to pick up Georg regardless of whether or not he wanted to go. Georg killed the line and rested on the toilet. He flicked through his inbox, overlooking a few drunken text messages from Gabriel, before coming to a message from Reese.
Sorry, can't make it, enjoy ur night anyway. have one for me. :P
He opened the next one. It was from Krishna.
Can't go. Still working on the shit you brought us. Here's some advice for you: if you can't lift her, then don't kiss her.
LOL. Have fun!
He wanted to laugh, but his mouth felt too dry. The aftertaste of lager, vodka and tequila overwhelmed his taste buds. He stripped himself and jumped into the shower, heavily appreciating the blast of hot water that warmed his skin.
Three things were on his agenda. One, get the cat back to Mrs Norman. Two, sneak by the landlord and avoid being lectured over unpaid rent. Three, meet up with Grigori outside and get the hell out of there.
His head still ached, but the warm shower definitely eased it, even if the hot water did run out after five minutes. He made his way to Mrs Norman's apartment and returned her cat. She thanked him in French and offered him a glass of wine. Georg almost felt like grabbing the bottle and throwing it on the ground, he just detested the sight of alcohol so much at that stage.
The elevator beeped and slid open, revealing the ground floor. This was undeniably the most attractive part of the entire building, since the landlord probably put the bulk of his budget into cleaning this whole room. He could see Grigori's car across the street, easily identifiable by the layers of dirt stuck to it. Right next to it was a shiny EnviroMobil car, well maintained and quite expensive by the looks of it.
'Shit!' Georg jumped behind the wall to his right and peeked at the man who surfaced from the vehicle. It was his landlord, and Georg's emptied wallet was bound to get him into trouble, let alone his unpaid rent.
He was just about to back away into the elevator, before the landlord walked away from his vehicle and started to converse with someone. A man who looked roughly the same age as him—and was probably just as stinking rich. Georg used the situation to his advantage and sprinted out the glass door. He slowed to a jog, and had to keep an eye on the road in order to avoid coming into contact with traffic. A few cars sped by and Georg used the buzzing of the electric engines to muffle his footsteps. He opened up Grigori's car, taking a moment to retch at how rock hard the clumps of dirt felt in his hands, before he threw himself inside and slammed the door.
'Georg, what's up?'
'For the love of God, drive!'
Grigori started up the car and steered it off the pavement. Georg locked eyes with the landlord as they skidded away, whose eyes expanded with pure rage as he eventually realised who was in the car. Georg could hear him screaming at him about his rent, before the wails of anger gradually subsided as they drove away from the apartment buildings.
Grigori nudged his comrade on the shoulder. 'Who the fuck was that?'
'Fuck me,' he gasped. 'I thought the police were after you or something.'
'They'd be a lot easier to evade, anyway.'
Grigori giggled to himself nonchalantly, almost colliding with the car ahead of them. He overtook the vehicle and drove on towards the Lac Bleu shopping centre. Much to his chagrin the traffic in the vicinity was heavy, ruining what could have been a fresh start to the morning. Georg didn't pass any remarks, since the long wait gave him a chance to rest his head.
Or at least until the car jerked again, forcing his head against the dashboard.
'Stupid bitch,' Grigori growled, blaring the horn.
Georg stroked his forehead while he observed what Grigori was yelling at. A young woman and her child, both dressed in grey and brown rags, were walking across the street, oblivious to the vehicles that were zooming past them. She finally made her way across, joining up with the lines of civilians that were walking up and down the pavement. Grigori was still cursing at her.
'You can calm down now,' Georg muttered.
'I mean, seriously, how stupid do you have to fucking be?' He knocked on the window and pointed at her, and she responded with a wave, mistaking Grigori's aggression as an act of kindness. The one thing that caught his eye was her face. Her cheekbones were protruding to the point of where the bones looked like they were about to rip through her flesh, made worse by the patches of filth that covered her mouth. The child she had with her seemed to be suffering from tunnel vision, gazing ahead of him as if he was in some sort of trance. 'Bitch must be on drugs or something'.
By that logic they all must have been. The civilians marched through the streets without a care in the world. None of them had stopped to answer a cellphone, to converse with an old friend, or even to have a quick browse through the shop windows. They just strolled by one another with her eyes fastened to the ground. Not even the shine of the warm summer sun added any excitement or atmosphere to the area. All it really did was just highlight how dull everything was. The greyed out buildings, the gentle humming of the electric cars, the occasional cries of a disgruntled child. Georg just wanted to go home, but he couldn't afford to walk all the way back with such a powerful hangover.
Several minutes went by without any further conversation. The peak of the shopping centre's glass architecture could be seen in the distance, but they were still several minutes away from their destination judging by the several rows of traffic that prevented them from progressing. Grigori glanced at Georg, surprised that the man was still awake. The headache was so gruesome that the poor fellow couldn't even fall asleep. 'Man, last night was hectic.'
'I can tell,' Georg groaned. 'Got any water on you?'
'No, sorry. If I knew you were going to be this bad then I would have brought some with me.'
'Ah, I'll survive.'
'All those Black Monas, man. Then you and Gabriel started dancing on the tables. Mike flipped at me. It took three bouncers to drag you off those tables.'
Georg struggled to remember, but all he could think of was the amount of vomit he launched into the bathroom when he got home. He sniggered. 'Fuck, was I really that bad?'
Grigori laughed along, reminding Georg of some of last night's antics, ranging from exchanging clothes with Gabriel to trying to hook up with the ugliest women you could find in Europe.
Another few minutes of silence. Grigori hated these kinds of awkward conversations. He tried to bring up some small talk regarding the weather, Katherine and current events, before he gave up and just switched on the radio. He tuned to the news channel and listened in. It was all spoken in German, a language that he could hardly understand, but it gave him something to listen to while he waited for the traffic jam to ease.
The Eastern Federation's Ambassador to Germany will be meeting with the Führer and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in order to discuss what the Soviet media has donned the "Zamyn-Üüd massacre." Five Soviet Union and sixteen Eastern Federation soldiers were killed in a firefight that took place near the border leading into mainland China. The population of Zamyn-Üüd has since been evacuated by the Soviet Armed Forces following a string of protests that took place in Beijing and the Federation's capital, Nanjing. The Federation's military officials have claimed that Soviet troops opened fire upon Federation troops without provocation. General Morozov has denied the allegations in a recent press conference with the Soviet Council of Ministers.
A gruff voice started to speak in Russian. Had it not been for the German translator overlapping the audio, Grigori might have been able to understand what was being said. He looked at Georg. He was still resting his head, seemingly paying no attention to the news report. That was the crux of growing up in Belarus; nationwide disgust against the regime still persisted, meaning that most schools in Eastern Europe neglected their German classes. As such, Grigori found it hard to adapt to life in France ever since he left the Belarusian People's Resistance six years ago. Most Belarusian schools still had English in their curriculum, since they did get the occasional tourist from the UCN's wealthiest nations. Grigori was forced to seek Russian lessons in his spare time, given his inane desire to return to his ancestors' home country.
'Our men did not open fire upon the Federation's troops. We have security footage and eyewitnesses to confirm that the first shots were discharged from the Federation's side of the border.
Over seventy million people died during the Second World War. Then, over fifty million people perished during the Third World War, half of whom were consumed by nuclear weapons, and now the Federation are here causing trouble and costing us the lives of good men, supposedly unaware of the consequences that could befall their actions. The last global conflict lasted a mere two years, and much of Eastern Europe and Western Asia was levelled as a result. If these oppressive superpowers continue to blindly accuse us for their own errors, then the men who have been lost over the last few weeks will merely be the first lines of casualties in a new global war.'
'You listening to that?'
'Yeah,' Georg groaned, licking his charred lips. 'They're talking about the Zamyn-Üüd massacre.'
'Fuck, that was some serious shit.' He hoped that the Federation soldiers died slowly. He didn't believe for a second that the Soviets fired first. 'It's going to lead to another damn war at the rate things are going.'
'I'm more concerned about what happens over here.'
'If the Federation invades, Europe will probably join in. I mean, they have trade agreements and everything, and our government has long yearned to usurp the Soviet Union. It'll be hell on Earth.'
'I think we're already in hell,' Georg mumbled, while continuing to watch the local populace go about their daily business. Grigori looked on and shook his head, disappointed by the fact that Georg's point was undoubtedly a very solid one.
He tapped the dashboard in frustration after being cut off by a jeep to his left. As they progressed, Grigori eventually identified the perpetrator behind the traffic jam. 'Well, look at what we have here.'
The main road leading to the shopping centre had been blocked off. Red holographic text overlooked the mob of vehicles trying to get by. It stated that the road was closed off and that shoppers had to use the road leading up to the car park. Georg peered out the window, only to see several squads of armed policemen guarding the blockade. They bore a distinctive blue crest on their arms. Georg recognised them from previous encounters. 'Special Forces,' Georg muttered.
'No, they're police. Counter terrorism unit by the looks of it.'
'They well armed?'
He nodded slowly as he observed their equipment. Flashbangs, RFGs, shotguns, kevlar, armoured helmets. They even had a mobile turret in the background. Only a well funded group of terrorists could even hope to get by such a well reinforced checkpoint. 'Very well armed.'
Grigori sighed and slammed the dashboard. 'I guess that means we have to take a detour.'
'You have Gilbert Legard to thank for that,' Georg said, eyeing up the clobbered remains of a post office near the blockade. Several police officers and detectives scoured the place, attempting to pinpoint the origin of the attackers. They were scanning the area for fingerprints, hair, blood and various other pieces of potentially incriminating evidence. Unfortunately for them, the interior of the building had been scorched beyond belief. Aside from the bodies they pillaged from the premises, it seemed that they didn't have much to go on, which would undoubtedly lead to a bad day for them at the office. 'It looks like they didn't get close enough to the shopping centre.' He looked to his left, seeing several traces of broken windows and kicked in doors. Bullet holes and burn marks covered the walls. 'Still, looks like they did a bit of damage.'
Grigori rolled his eyes as he turned into a nearby alleyway. 'Most of Gilbert's men are amateurs. I mean, they're better than the average rebel you see nowadays, but you'd need a thousand of them to take on a hundred Nazis.' He shrugged at the police officer who was staring him down as he accelerated towards the next line of traffic. 'Not very even odds, eh?'
'Most certainly not.'
Another awkward moment of silence. They were stuck behind more cars and were showing no sign of getting near the shopping centre any time soon. He looked at Georg and hit him on the arm. 'Hey, what was up with you yesterday?'
Georg didn't think it would have been noticeable. He had always been good at concealing his emotions, but yesterday's events shocked him. 'I was just left a little bit shaken. It's to be expected.'
Grigori shrugged. He thought back to the moment when he reunited with Georg. There was the Lieutenant Colonel who brutally murdered two of his men, a memory that incited all sorts of burning rage in his mind. But then there was the British soldier, the one that Georg seemed to know. 'What was his name again? John Mullin, was it?'
Georg found it hard to breath at that stage. Just hearing that man's name made him feel like regurgitating again. 'What about him?'
'You seemed to be awfully frantic about him being shot.' He leaned against the wheel and stared at Georg, not willing to allow him to back out of this little interrogation. 'Care to explain why?'
'He was British. He had kindness in his eyes as well. He didn't deserve to die like that.'
'So, what would have been better? Being blown up by a grenade?'
'Look, he was different from the rest.'
Grigori slammed the dashboard again. Georg couldn't help but notice that he was making a habit out of that, which probably explained the meagre state that his car was in. 'He was the enemy, Georg! For God's sake, you can't have sympathy for a damn Nazi!'
'He was different from the rest! Alright? He didn't deserve such a-'
'Why? Because he was a foreigner? Well in that case we should spare the French, the Swiss, the Spanish, the Italians, the Austrians, the Danish-'
Georg raised his hand and told Grigori to give it a rest. He kept his eyes on the policemen and the civilians patrolling the streets, but he kept watch on Grigori through the corner of his eye. The man kept looking in his direction, intermittently looking back at the road in order to keep an eye on traffic. Grigori wanted to say something and the tension was irritating Georg. 'Say what you want to say.'
Diarrhoea of the mouth, just like how Gabriel would act in such a circumstance. 'Your nationality makes no difference. If you fight for the enemy, then you die for the enemy. Feeling sorry for them will affect your mind, cloud your judgement, mess with your thoughts. You understand?'
Georg didn't respond. He kept his eyes on the street to his left.
'That's how mistakes will happen. Now I know you're young and bit naive, so-'
'Wait wait wait,' Georg interrupted. 'What does my youth have to do with anything?'
'Well, I'm in my thirties now.' The blatant age gap made him smile as he spoke, but Georg didn't seem too keen to join in on the joke. 'I've spent half of my life learning how to shoot Nazis. Y'know? Belarus and Ukraine are just as bad off as the people here, so-'
'What's your point?'
'My point is that I've made mistakes and-'
'So, having a conscience is a mistake, is that it?'
'So, as time goes on I will eventually lose my ability to sympathise? My ability to see that brutally murdering innocent people is taking things a bit too far?'
Grigori slammed his fist against the window. 'Georg, for God's sake!' It retreated from the glass surface it struck, leaving behind a scattered patch of blood. Grigori briefly nursed his wound using a napkin.
Georg was appalled by Grigori's anger. Even the occupants of the car next to his looked on in confusion. Grigori rubbed his head and took a deep breath, before he apologised and tried to continue in a more civil fashion. 'Reese told me about your involvement with the gunships.'
'Oh great,' Georg groaned. Reese ordered him to keep his mouth shut about it, yet he felt the need to tell Grigori Khruschev of all people. 'Nice going, Brooks.'
'Those kind of mistakes stem from one's inability to fight correctly. I'd say when you met that John Mullins fellow, it affected your ability to think, didn't it? When you grabbed that engineer and caved his head in, you didn't think about the potential consequences of leaving him unattended, did you?' He tapped the side of his head and leaned in on Georg. 'That's what the human mind can do. Even the slightest mental burden can screw you over.'
'And I assume that you know from experience, then?' Georg was looking for just about any reason to take himself out of the spotlight. He felt like a young child being disciplined by a parent over a smashed vase. He felt that he was being lectured over absolutely nothing at all. Shifting all the blame onto him wasn't going to get him anywhere, aside from being just a few steps closer to pulling out a gun and ending his own miserable life.
'Of course I do! I was young once!'
'Again, youth has nothing to do with it.'
'Oh, but it has plenty to do with it. You aren't used to this sort of thing. You're accustomed to hitting people when they aren't looking. But, in these times you need to get used to picking up a gun and killing those who stand in your way. Backstabbing isn't the only way to fight.'
'Yeah, well I've managed to get by. I don't need your advice.'
'And then what? Be killed?'
'Well if that's the case, then why the fuck do you care?'
He recalled his close call with the fake ID card, Sergeant Keller's unexpected arrival in the control car, alongside the gunships that blew Gabriel out of the sky. Georg didn't need to be called naive. He knew what went on in the field of battle. He may have preferred the stealthy approach, but he's seen enough people suffer over the years he spent away from Austria. 'What if I do feel sorry for the enemy every now and then? What if I do slip up and make mistakes? What if I do put my life in danger? Why would you care?'
'Because I-' Grigori rested his head on the wheel. 'Because I want to look out for you. I don't want you getting killed.'
Georg lost all control. He burst into laughter, slapping his knees in an attempt to withstand the hilarity. The nagging feeling in his chest eventually subsided and he finally managed to catch his breath, before he turned back to Grigori. 'Well then, my friend,' he beamed. He patted him on the shoulder and squeezed it tightly. 'If I need any parental advice, I'll be sure to ask my actual parents. You catch my drift?'
'Look, I know I'm not your father. Lord knows that I'm still too young for that kind of role, but I just-'
'Then stop pretending that you are,' Georg shouted, pressing his hands against Grigori to frighten him into submission. He jumped back into his seat and continued to observe the scenery outside, bobbing his eyes back and forth towards his distorted comrade.
Grigori didn't know how to respond. Instead, he ran his fingers across the cracked touchscreen next to the wheel and unlocked Georg's door. 'Well, if you really feel that way,' he said, waiting for the passenger door to click. 'The door is there, feel free to leave.'
Georg tapped the screen and locked the doors. He told Grigori to drive on and to forget about the conversation they were having. He still had the drilling pain in his head to deal with, so the last thing he needed was to have any additional weight on his shoulders.
The traffic started to move along into the car park, and Grigori spent a good five minutes searching for a spot. He decided to risk parking in a disabled zone, under the impression that the traffic warden wouldn't notice it over the hundreds of other vehicles in the vicinity. He grabbed his wallet and disembarked, gently stroking a photo of Katherine he had stored away in his pocket. Georg stepped out and slammed his door shut, noting how creaky it sounded. 'That could do with a bit of oil.'
'You could do with getting a driver's licence.'
'Why is it that every time we talk, you always find some way to criticise me?'
Grigori fumbled the photo back into his pocket, before he took forty marks from his wallet and nodded at the shopping centre. 'Look, let's just get some breakfast.'