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“State your name and rank for the record.”

“Major Kassian Dmitrievich Irinarhov.”

***

Kassian rarely wore his dress uniform.

It still fit, though the last time he’d taken it out of the closet was perhaps ten years ago. The wool felt itchy and stiff, and smelled musty; somehow, though, the discomfort prompted him to perch straighter in the hard wooden chair.

Kassian sat in the center of the room like a toy soldier on display, chin tilted up under his formal service cap. Polished buttons gleamed under the harsh sodium light, and his medals lined neat rows on his chest.

On the opposite side of the room, three men regarded Kassian with the somber, piercing gazes of blackbirds on a branch. They wore coats and caps similar to his own, only in dark grey, and without medals or rank insignia.

They were MVD, officers from the ministry of internal affairs, and Kassian Irinarhov knew he was in a lot of trouble.

***

“Your record says that you joined the Red Army in 1939 and fought the Great War.”

“Yes.”

“And during the war, you received training as a sniper.”

“Yes.”

“You have two hundred and twenty-nine confirmed kills.”

“Two hundred and twenty-eight.”

“Excuse me?”

“The actual number is two hundred and twenty-eight. Not two hundred twenty-nine.”

“I see. What is the reason for the discrepancy, Major?”

“One was dead before I shot him.”

“How could you tell?”

“I know when I kill a man.”

***

Dressed identically as they were, and sitting together at the plain table across from him, the men almost looked like a single entity with three heads.

A chimera, Kassian thought.

It was a mythical creature, a beast Kassian had read about in one of the many contraband books he’d managed to secure over the years. This particular book, the Theogony, had been written by a poet named Hesiod and was about the origin of the Greek gods, told as if it were history.

In the book, Hesiod described the chimera as a fearful creature, swift-footed and a terrible; it breathed fire, and had the heads of a goat, a goat, and a lion.

Kassian thought of the oldest of the three officers as the goat. The man was perhaps sixty, with pure white hair and a deeply lined face and whiskered cheeks. He had the papery skin of an old man but startlingly blue eyes. He was the one who asked most of the questions, relentlessly polite.

The second officer had a sharp face and black hair shorn short and severe, the cut of a soldier. He looked to be one of Kassian’s contemporaries, around forty years old, and watched Kassian with a dark, unflinching gaze. Occasionally, he asked brusque, pointed questions to expound on some point his more talkative comrade had not. Kassian thought of him as the dragon.

The third was younger than both, maybe around twenty-five, and had long golden hair that spilled from under his cap and curled untamed, over his collar. He had bright eyes and a restless gaze, but said nothing, merely took notes and studied a sheaf of documents in front of him, one of which looked to be Kassian’s service record. He was the lion.

The MVD officers had introduced themselves earlier, but Kassian had already forgotten their names.

It was a common fault with him. Somehow, names tended to escape his memory like water passing through cupped hands.

It was faces that Kassian never forgot.

***

“What is your current assignment, Major Irinarhov?”

“Sniper, fifth brigade, Spetsnaz GRU, stationed in Blagoveshchensk.”

“And what duties were you assigned in fifth brigade, prior to this hearing?”

“Instruction.”

“Please elaborate, Major.”

“I was assigned to teach sniping to Junior Lieutenant Grigoriy Nasenko.”

“Were you successful in your assignment?”

“Major Irinarhov? Did you hear the question?”

“Yes. Lieutenant Nasenko learned how to be a sniper.”

***

They watched him with predators’ eyes.

Kassian answered their questions as perfunctorily as possible, conscious of the weight of their gazes. He was sure that men cracked under such pressure, quailed under the spotlight of the chimera’s three terrible visages and babbled, admitting to everything and anything the internal affairs officers brought up.

Usually, military hearings were held in-house, and presided over by one’s own commanders, but Lieutenant Nasenko’s family was highly-placed, and had demanded an outside investigation. The MVD officers had been called in to oversee Kassian’s hearing.

Each man had a presence about him, the subtle air of authority and menace that only held by men responsible for the dispensation of other men’s lives.

It was unnerving, but Kassian had seen worse, during the war.

He had done worse, too.

***

“The statement you gave to your squadron commander on September 13, 1963 says you discharged your rifle in error, resulting in the death of Lieutenant Nasenko.”

“Yes.”

“Why, Major?”

“Why?”

“Why did you do it?”

“It was a regrettable and unfortunate accident.”

“I see.”

“Major, have you ever killed anyone in cold blood?”

“I’m a sniper. It’s a requirement of my job.”

***

Kassian saw sniping as an art.

Other snipers, he knew, saw it as a science.

Regardless of the approach, snipers tended to see themselves as part of an elite group, as highly trained as scientists, or as talented as artists. Sometimes both.

And like artists and scientists, snipers had the egos to match their claim to the skill.

Lieutenant Nasenko had been a scientist. By the book. Precise. Distance and drift were series of calculated numbers in his head, not the instinct to lean forward slightly and zero his rifle to the left.

Nasenko had kept a small notebook with him at all times. It was filled with rows of numbers, calculations that Kassian could not even begin to understand. He had learned it all in his initial sniper training, which nowadays apparently had more to do with sitting in a classroom learning mathematics than having a cold gun shoved into freezing hands and being told to shoot.

Although Nasenko had every number in that book memorized, he studied it from time to time nonetheless, as if it was a prayer book. Sometimes he quoted the book aloud to Kassian, smirking when Kassian failed to see the significance in the numeric progressions.

Kassian had known he was entirely the wrong person to teach Nasenko sniping, but that had not deterred his superiors.

“He’s good,” they told him, “but we want you to make him better.”

Privately, Kassian thought the things that Nasenko lacked to become a better sniper had nothing to do with how well he lined up his shots.

***

“How good was he?”

“How good…?”

“How good of a sniper was Lieutenant Nasenko, Major Irinarhov? Was he better than you?”

“No.”

“You seem so certain.”

“Yes.”

“Did he have the potential to be better?”

“From a technical standpoint, perhaps.”

“I see. And how did you get along with him? Were you friends? Good comrades?”

“No. We weren’t friends.”

***

Kassian had found the first one under lying stiff and still in the snow under a pine tree.

She had died instantly, he could tell. He had seen enough bodies to know the difference between people who thrashed and suffered in agony before they died, and people who died when their brain stems were severed by a single bullet.

He’d found the entry point under at the base of her skull, under her glossy black hair. She looked young, Kassian thought. Maybe all of sixteen, with broad, flat features and pupils so dark they looked as black as night.

When he got back to their camp, Nasenko was sitting by the fire, cleaning his rifle with the same meticulous precision he did everything else.

“Why?” Kassian asked.

The fire crackled, shooting sparks that arced into the air, then faded.

Nasenko shrugged, head still bent over his rifle. “They’re ants under an anthill, Major. More than anyone can count. It’s only a little target practice. She won’t be missed.”

“You can’t do that,” Kassian said.

Nasenko had looked up suddenly, and grinned. He looked boyish and winsome, dancing blue eyes in a smoothly handsome face under hair of pale wheat.

For a moment, he reminded Kassian of someone else, but only for a moment.

“I can do anything I want out here, Major Irinarhov. It’s your word against mine. Are you going to report me?”

“No,” Kassian said, slowly. “I’m not going to report you.”

“Good.” Nasenko went back to cleaning his rifle, though after a few moments, he looked up again.

“It was a good shot, though, wasn’t it?” Nasenko asked, grinning.

***

“How many accidents have you had in your career, Major Irinarhov?”

“Not many.”

“How many accidents resulting in the death of a comrade?”

“One, I suppose.”

“You suppose?”

“One.”

“I see. How could a man with your experience and training make that kind of mistake? What happened?”

“We were camped by the border, assigned to watch for any possible troop movements or sniper activity. I had previously become aware that there was an active sniper in the area, but I’d never gotten a good look at him. Lieutenant Nasenko and I had split up to search the area more effectively. I caught sight of the sniper, saw he was targeting someone, and took the shot, thinking Lieutenant Nasenko was in danger. Afterward I realized my mistake.”

“And this sniper you shot, it was actually Lieutenant Nasenko?”

“Yes.”

“But you said he was targeting someone. Who?”

“I don’t know.”

“I see. The Chinese government has made several complaints about recent disappearances of some of their citizens near our border in the area where you and Lieutenant Nasenko were stationed. Do you think these could have been the result of the sniper you saw?”

“Possibly.”

***

The chimera pulled their heads together to talk, conferring quietly, occasionally glancing at Kassian with those piercing gazes, as if sizing him up to eat.

Kassian sat quietly, stone-faced, breathing evenly. He sat up straight but was relaxed, his hands as steady as when they held a gun.

He waited.

It was all part of their tactics, he knew. To unnerve. To make a man wait in uncertainty, to drive him mad with wanting to know what they thought, what they were talking about.

His gaze dropped, going half-lidded.

Kassian’s focus shifted. No longer were the MVD officers the sole point of his attention. He tracked them, peripherally, but turned his mind inward, settling and preparing to wait for as long as it took.

He knew the chimera were trying to rattle him because that was a sniper’s game, too, to outwait one’s prey. To use the passage of time to gain a psychological advantage.

That was one of Nasenko’s failings as a sniper; he’d learned to wait, but he hadn’t learned to embrace it.

One of his failings.

The other, like a deep crack that ran through a piece of crystal, had been a far more ruinous flaw.

***

“Major Irinarhov, at this time do you have anything to you wish to say in your defense?”

“No.”

“Very well. Then it is the finding of this hearing that you are responsible for negligence in the line of duty, and a severe error in judgment that lead to Lieutenant Nasenko’s death. This is not a profession for men who make mistakes, Major. This incident will go on your permanent record and we will recommend demotion and an immediate transfer. That is all.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, Major Irinarhov?”

“Yes?”

“With this on your record, you’ll need to be much more careful in the future.”

“I understand.”

“I’m not sure you do. You might not realize how fortunate, you are. You see, of course, that the penalty for a willful shooting is far more severe than the punishment for negligence. I hope that makes it…clear.”

“It does.”

“Very well, then. You’re dismissed, Major Irinarhov.”
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