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автора "Marc Cameron"
Field of Fire
The dimly lit basement held nothing but conscripts and sad stories, none of which Junior Lieutenant Andre Bukin wanted to hear. Corporal Popovich knew this full well, and still the bony soldier beckoned Bukin to his flickering video monitor. Bordering on skeletal, he was one of twenty-four paste-white faces around the walls of the quiet room. As officer of the watch and a recent graduate of the Budyonny Military Academy in St. Petersburg, Bukin was absolutely certain he was smarter, stronger, and imminently better than any of the other two dozen men and women around him slouching in front of computer screens. He was a stern-looking man, with jet-black hair slicked backward like a young Joseph Stalin. A heavy brow and strong jaw added weight to his brooding manner and made him perfect for the job of overseer. His superiors saw his potential, and he took enormous pride in that.
Every soul Bukin supervised had been drafted into the Army for the term of a single year. Some were nearing the end of their service, but most were at the halfway point. It was called service, but was it really if served at the point of a sword? When their year was done, these minions would flee like prisoners paroled. No one expected much of them, and they gave no more than was expected.
Around the chilly room, computer fans hummed and keyboards clicked. In the rare event that any of the soldiers spoke, they did so in churchlike whispers. It was no secret that most kept a mobile phone resting on a thigh and hidden below the desk, content to play games and chat with friends on ICQ. For the most part, the conscripts watched their monitors, and Bukin watched them. It was all so mundanely perfect, the consistent work from which careers were made — until the idiot corporal raised his bony arm.
Nestor Popovich was a skeletal thing, barely out of his teens, with a shaved head that bore the many knots and scars of
“There is something in the river, Lieutenant,” he whispered, when Bukin was close enough, dipping his scarred head toward the image on his screen. “Frozen, I think… but it is too early in the season…” Popovich rolled his chair back from the long metal counter with a squeak, giving Bukin room for a better vantage point. The boy looked up with obscenely naïve eyes.
Bukin studied the screen for a long moment, leaning in, then back, then in again. His breath quickened as it dawned on him what he was seeing. He toggled the keyboard to enlarge the image. He had to make certain his eyes were not playing tricks.
“Dead fish,” Bukin gasped, taking an instinctive step backward, distancing himself from the screen if not the situation. The horrific images from the satellite feed flickered against his slack jaw. He hooked a finger in the constricting collar of his uniform shirt, a futile attempt to get more air, and thought of how insane it was that a river of dead fish was about to cost him his career — or worse.
“Fish?” Popovich said, a little too loudly for Bukin’s rapidly fraying nerves.
His head swimming, Bukin had to lean forward and rest his hands on the long counter to stay upright. It put the men elbow to shoulder, and he turned his head to stare at the corporal, seething inside. It was protocol to summon a superior in such instances, but Bukin hated him for it.
It was unlikely that the ignorant boy had any idea what he was even seeing, but the lieutenant knew too well. The events unfolding in real time on his screen sent audible waves of nausea gurgling through his bowels. Sweat trickled down his forehead and disappeared into the thick brow that formed a single, unbroken line overhanging his face.
The enlarged image on Popovich’s screen showed thousands of bloated white bellies in the otherwise dark oxbows of an Arctic river, forming a shockingly pale raft against the green tundra and gray mountains.
The corporal pointed toward the images of crosshatched streets and drab concrete buildings that made up the Siberian port village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea.
“This is Providenya,” he said.
Bukin shot a furtive glance around the dimly lit room as if Popovich had just divulged a state secret. No one looked up.
Bukin turned back quickly to lock eyes with the skinny conscript, narrowing his eyes in the unspoken but universal look from a superior officer that said,
Popovich shrank back, rolling his chair closer to his workstation. He clicked the computer mouse to overlay a map on the satellite image, zooming in more and bringing the river into sharper focus. Both men stared, their mouths hanging open.
Lieutenant Bukin thought it an apt description of the situation. He gnawed at the inside of his cheek, his mind spinning through the possibilities. A die-off near Providenya could mean only one thing.
The flight path of
Bukin knew differently. From here on, discretion was not only a matter of state security; his life depended on it.
Corporal Popovich, still oblivious to the gravity of the situation, glanced up at his superior.
“There are so many, sir” he said. “What could have killed them?”
Bukin put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, trying to sound like a father figure though he was no more than a few years older. “You must watch your words on this.”
“With respect,” the corporal said, “such a massive die-off will be difficult to conceal.” The boy’s hand shot to his open mouth. “Lieutenant, look!”
Bukin watched the screen in horror as a small skiff carrying six men moved upriver from the mouth of the bay. The man seated at the bow stood as they neared the fish, teetered there for a moment, then fell overboard, floundering in the water, apparently unable to swim. A moment later the others in the boat began to thrash wildly. Two more fell into the river. The remaining three lay sprawled on the deck of the boat, motionless. With no one to steer it, the skiff arced gracefully through the water to run itself up on a gravel bank mere feet from the drifting raft of bloated fish.
Bukin blotted the sweat from his hands on the front of his uniform trousers and placed them palms down on the countertop. A sudden flush of panic washed over him when he saw the glowing red clock below the video monitor. Standing bolt upright, he snatched a small notepad from the pocket of his tunic and ran a trembling finger down the list of times and numbers he’d taped to the back.
He found what he needed and grabbed up a black handset beside the monitor and dialed the number from the back of his notebook. Bukin hated the corporal for following protocol — and shortly, another officer would feel the same way about him.
He had ninety-one minutes until a U.S. Lacrosse satellite made its first of two daily flights over Providenya. When it did, the Americans were sure to see the river.
Still hopelessly oblivious, Popovich used the computer mouse to move around the image, studying the old MIG 17 base.
“My girlfriend is Chukchi Eskimo,” The corporal whistled under his breath. “She tells me crazy stories of Providenya. The townspeople do not speak of it much, but there are many secret things that go on there.”
Junior Lieutenant Bukin held up his hand to quiet the idiot corporal, then cupped his hand around the telephone receiver to explain the situation in frenzied whispers. If the other conscripts noticed, or cared about what was going on, they didn’t show it. The officer on the other end of the line explained in no uncertain terms how he wanted Bukin to proceed.
“Now?” the junior lieutenant whispered. “Here?”
The officer held firm with his order.
“Yes, Captain,” Bukin said, feeling his future prospects drain away. “I understand. I will do so immediately.” He replaced the receiver, trying to remain nonchalant as his hand dropped to the Makarov pistol on his belt an ...