MIDNIGHT'S PATH, PART ONE
"Is this seat taken?"
Lavrenti Sarychin's high forebrow furrowed as he looked up, and the edges of the papers stacked in his lap crinkled in his moist grasp.
"No," Sarychin said slowly, as if he regretted the seat's availability, as Valery Sokolov certainly did. He lowered himself slowly beside Sarychin, cursing his luck. If only Sokolov hadn't let himself be delayed by that brown haired secretary. Now he was stuck at the far end of the front row with the Buzzard.
Sarychin hunched his shoulders up around his ears as he returned to pick at his documents. Sokolov was a large man, and Sarychin shifted to the edge of his seat, away from the massive presence of his fellow officer.
The noisy crowd of men was seated in a tight array of metal chairs at the far end of the cavernous hangar beyond the parked helicopters. Their voices echoed through the oily air and off the curved roof while the technicians hustled about, setting up lights around the podium.
Sokolov glanced at his watch and shook his head. Ten minutes had passed, too slowly. To have the ailing Marshall Volkov deliver a congratulatory address was an unusual honor for the newly graduated officers of the Ryazan Higher Airborne School, but he wished their commander woud hurry up. Looking back over his shoulder, Sokolov saw the amused looks of his comrades. They took unnecessary joy in his seating predicament.
"How did the examination go?" Sokolov asked after the twentieth minute ticked away.
"Eh, what's that?" Sarychin said. The man moved sluggishly, lifted his drooping eyes which had been fixed wholly on the held papers. "Well, I'm here aren't I? A second lieutenant in the Desantnik, commissioned just like you. You and the rest couldn't grind me down, you bastards."
Sokolov showed his teeth, the smile of a predator faced with difficult prey. "We all serve the Soviet Union, even bootlickers like you."
Sarychin hissed through the front gap in his teeth. "Choose your words carefully, comrade. Airborne's only the beginning for me, a necessary trial I had to endure. My orders came through today. I've been transferred out of this hellhole. It's the black beret for me, not the blue. Don't worry, though. I'll remember all my old 'friends' in the VDV if we ever cross paths again."
"Let's hope we don't," said Sokolov with the flat tone of finality and turned his broad shoulders away. So Sarychin was going to be a Chekist. The choice was appropriate; Sarychin had been always been the first to slack off, and the first to step forward with a tale to the drill sergeants – until the entire squad had beaten Sarychin senseless in the bunkroom as an object lesson.
But somehow the man had persisted through the difficult training at the Airborne School, a mystery to Sokolov who had strenuously made Sarychin's existence a living hell.. The family connections the man had bragged about had finally come through, the transfer was a fast track to the murky intrigues of the KGB.
Well, the 138th Parachute Regiment would be better off without the Buzzard, Sokolov decided with satisfaction.
There was a loud burst of static from the microphones at the podium. The lights dimmed. Sokolov looked to the stage for the usual pomp of the honor guard, but instead of another dreary bootlicker like Sarychin, she appeared.
She came through the side door, opposite of where Sokolov was sitting, dressed in the uniform of the Young Pioneers. The blue skirt flared as the white stockinged legs swung up with locked knee and then down with balletic precision into the concrete flooring. The long red scarf bounced in unison with the astounding cascade of golden hair under the tilted blue beret.
Perhaps if there had been a childish energy in her movements, or at least precocious mimicry, the onlooking soldiers would have glanced away with the mild amusement of cynicysm and returned to their discussions. But the girl moved with the gravity of the number one sentry at Lenin's Tomb. By the time she reached the podium, the eyes of the entire audience were fixed upon her.
The girl spun about by the blood red flag of the Soviet Union to face the gathered men. The black polished shoes snapped against the floor, like a whipcrack in the still air of the hangar. The right hand, palm down, whipped up to her head, not quite touching the right temple.
Sokolov's mouth hung open as something primal, something older than the flaccid political dogma of the party seeped through his nervous system. She was looking right at him with blue eyes so deep they drove right through him.
The way the light framed the girl's raised face, the way the mane of hair flared out like a halo, this was Mother Motherland herself, reborn, as he had seen her as a child. Rising in all her glory from the heights above Volgograd with concrete sword outstretched against all enemies.
Without conscious thought Sokolov rose to his feet. Ramrod straight, he snapped a salute back in response.
Alongside and behind him, the newly minted officers of the Air Assault Forces of the Union of Socialist Social Republics to a man followed his example- all but Sarychin. With a start and a muttered exclamation, Sarychin sprung to his feet, the note of single discord trailing the united whole as he pushed back his metal chair with a screech.
The Soviet anthem thundered over the PA system. Marshall Volkov with an entourage of heavily braided officers toddled out the side door where moments before the girl had appeared. The Marshall caught her eye as he passed and offered her a slight smile. Something in her faced softened as the much older man passed.
"Who the hell's the little cunt?" hissed Sarychin.
You piece of shit, thought Sokolov, still unable to take his eyes away from the goddess who demanded his sole attention. In that moment he found himself intensely hating Sarychin beyond all reason, beyond even the vile behavior that had earned Sarychin the hatred of his entire class. All she had to do was focus those beautiful eyes upon him only, tilt the chin in shared understanding, and Sokolov would rip the Buzzard limb from limb for such an insult.
But Sokolov regained control over himself with an almost physical effort. The girl stood motionless by the flag, and the fit of rage passed. Looking around, Sokolove noticed he was not the only one who had been affected. Men quickly wiped brows and shuffled their feet.
"That must be Marshal Volkov's granddaughter," he said.
The tall girl with the long blond hair pulled back was still seated on the grass by the inside curve of the track, slowly pulling off her sweat pants one leg at a time. Her eyes focused intently on the starter as he fumbled with the starting pistol.
The athletes milled about. A small girl wearing a blue Romanian jersey burst into short sprint and then pranced back to the starting line, kicking her heels. The other leggy runners walked onto the track and shook out their limbs.
"Runners, take your lanes!" shouted the starter.
Seven of the the athletes took up their positions in the assigned lanes, the Romanian runner was in the first spot. Next to her, the second lane was empty.
From his post just beyond the track, Captain Konev wondered just what the fiery Sofiya was planning. None of the coaches had noticed the odd behavior.
The starter raised the gun into the air. "Runners, get set!"
The flat crack, a puff of smoke burst into the air. The Romanian girl had her head down and was quick off the line, arms and legs pumping. But Sofiya had stepped into the first lane before the runner could react.
The Romanian went sprawling with a screech. A second shot rang out. All the runners trotted to a halt. Sofiya stood calmly in the track and shrugged. Konev admired the look that blossomed over her face as the officials and coaches swarmed about. She even managed to bring both hands up to her mouth as if contrite. Konev knew better.
Five minutes later after a shouting match between the coaches and officials and a warning given to Sofiya, all the runners lined up and the gun went off.
The Romanian took an immediate ten meter lead coming off the curve. The other runners clumped together with Sofiya loping along on the outside of the group.
Konev, bemused, leaned up against the outer fence, curious in spite of himself to see how the race would play out.
The Romanian churned through the first lap. The bell rang. Within moments, the string of runners rumbled by in pursuit of the leader. Sofiya held off the shoulder of the second runner. She was a head taller than all the other female athletes.
With two hundred meters to go, Konev understood why he had heard somone refer to the Romanian as the Hummingbird. The small girl's legs were a blur as she rounded the corner and into the final stretch.
But Sofiya was on the move. She bridged the gap between the nearest runner and the leader without any visible effort. The Romanian must have heard the approaching footsteps because panic began to tie up her arms and head.
Ten meters. The two were now side by side, elbows colliding. Sofiya's expression was serenely relaxed as she crossed the line without bothering to lean. The Romanian girl made a final effort and dived across the finishline in Sofiya's wake. For her efforts the Romanian went face first into the cinder track again.
Sofiya saved her smile until she was off the track, but it slid off as she saw Konev.
Her greeting was direct, as piercing as her eyes. "Was it quick?"
"Yes," said Captain Konev, taking off his hat. "Your grandfather, Marshal Volkov – hero of the Soviet Union died in his beloved garden this morning. I found him with a rose in his hand. I've come to take you home."
"I have no home." Sofiya bent to pick up the gym bag. "Gromyko made it quite clear the summer house would be his when Grampapa died. I cannot go to Kiev either. My uncle has no room in his heart for me. I remind him too much of my father."
Konev cleared his throat. She was taking the news without any visible emotion. He was afraid of what was to follow.
"What about the Sports Club?" he offered. "With your abilities, the system will take care of you. You have all the talent and ability to go as far as the Olympics."
"So much so I'm accused of using drugs all the time," said Sofiya sharply. Her head was down and she was rummaging about the large sports bag hanging from her shoulder.
"Oh, is that what the business with the Romanian was about?" asked Konev. "I felt like I was watching a cat toy with a mouse."
"I had to do more than beat the Hummingbird," said Sofiya. "I had to humiliate and break her, as she's tried to do to me with her foul little mouth. This afternoon her downfall was my goal. I have no interest in athletics at all."
She pulled out of the bag a pair of track spikes. The shoes made a lazy arc into a nearby garbage can.
"Don't do this, Sonya," said Konev. "There's nothing for you in the military, nothing at all. No matter your performance, no matter your ability, when the time for promotions comes you'll find your father's shadow to be a visible presence forever on your shoulder. Do you really want to waste away in some provincial posting in Siberia?"
Sofiya loosened her golden hair.
"All my ancestors have served Russia," she said. "Am I to be less than them? Wasn't I first in my DOSAAF class to achieve the award of a Voroshilov Sharpshooter? Wasn't I first in academics among my peers in the Komsomol? When the boys faltered in the parachute training for the Ossoaviakhim, wasn't I first off the jump tower?"
"Yes," said Konev. "But..."
"I won't race again," said Sofiya, "but I'll show them talent. I'll be the next sniper queen just like Lyudmilla. I could go to the Army and get a commission of at least a warrant officer if I shoot for the ZSKA sports team. I won't do clerical work, or be some general's toy."
"Then it's the army," Konev sighed, but then her saw her face.
The tears were streaming down her cheek but her voice was steady. "No, not the army. Take me to Ryazan. I'm old enough to volunteer. Like my Papa, like my Grampapa - It's the Airborne or nothing."
Konev knew better than to waste his words arguing with the granddaughter of Marshall Volkov. He followed Sofiya to the car.