A FOREST OUTSIDE STOCKHOLM – 3AM
The American Zalozhniy was digging. Close by were two other holes.
He stopped digging with the spade, bent down and scraped at the ground with his hand. After a few moments of digging he lifted a battered leather briefcase out of the ground.
Nearby the spade toppled over. He glanced at it.
He opened the briefcase, revealing an old-fashioned vacuum flask. He quickly stuffed the flask back in the briefcase.
The spade gently lifted into the air behind him.
He froze, then quickly drew his pistol as he spun.
Suddenly the gun leapt out of his hand as if hurled by an invisible force.
He attempted to lower his light intensification goggles but was seized and lifted into the air, struggling. He was hard thrown to the ground from fifteen feet up. Three figures loom out of the darkness as he began to move. The spade slammed into his throat from a great height and with tremendous force.
Heike, Franzeska and Simon Thaler step out of the shadows as he lay on the ground, almost decapitated, but attempting to rise. Thaler stepped forward, a dagger in his hand – it looked like an SS dagger but with a modernised design and unfamiliar insignia. He stabbed it into the soldier’s thigh, releasing a fountain of bright blood from the femoral artery. The Zalozhniy stiffened, dead. Franzeska picked up the Albedo.
The Empty Quarter
With the sun dipping toward the western horizon, the team finished loading the supplies into the 4×4s. Somerset called them all together, spreading a large topographic map over the fine sand. It was heavily annotated with Arabic names, but in terms of geographic features, it might as well have been a sheet of graph paper. Rosario looked up and cast his eye over the golden, undulating dunes, which stretched to every visible horizon.
“I can see why they call it the Empty Quarter,” he quipped. No one laughed. It wasn’t the first joke they’d made along those lines and the team’s mood had been soured by the relentless desert sun. Beirut had been hot. Baghdad had been parched. Both now seemed like luxury spa resorts compared to the arid desolation here. And this was only the tamed and civilised edge of the Rub’ al Khali.
“Don’t be fooled,” Somerset warned. “This desert has plenty of unpleasant surprises. One good thing our route is fairly simple. We’re continuing South South East. Patrick and I will lead, you two follow. Give us a little distance in case we stop suddenly, but not so far that we’ll lose you if you fall behind. Just remember: keep your eyes on where you’re going. This hell hole might look empty, but there are plenty of rocks, gullies, steep inclines, even cliffs. You do not want to wreck the vehicle. Not out here.”
They finished packing and Rosario climbed into the driver’s seat. As Katya made to join him in the cab, she paused with one hand on the sidebar, her foot perched on the running board. She pulled her shemagh back to look into the desert sky as the sun vanished. She had never seen stars like this, not even when she would sleep out on the training school roof, deep in the Sayan mountains. These were not mere dots: the cloudless air seethed with the chaotic glow of a thousand, thousand points of silver light, clustered in such density that they formed milky stains above the pitch black dunes. She watched transfixed, convinced she could perceive the very earth itself spinning through the fathomless gulf. There was no God up there, she thought, but maybe there were other things, looking back.
The spell was broken by the sound of Somerset gunning his 4×4 forwards in a billow of dislodged sand. She quickly swung herself in next to Rosario.
True to Somerset’s word, the journey was monotonously hypnotic. The off-road vehicles lurched as they hit each new dune and crested each mountain of sand, adding discomfort to the boredom. All Katya and Rosario could see was the red glow of the lead vehicle’s rear lights and the occasional dark flash of some impossibly hardy desert scrub as it whipped past in the gloom. She could not even make out the stars under the cloud of sand.
Slowly, achingly slowly, the land began to change, from the stationary waves of fine sand to broad, flat mosaics of rough pebbles. Katya had taken over driving an hour before and, as Rosario watched from the corner of his eye, she reached down beside her and retrieved a canteen. His nostrils caught the sharp scent of alcohol. He looked around at her, worry creasing his brown eyes. She caught his movement and looked back at him, then down at the canteen and back to the windscreen. She did not look guilty – she was far too disciplined for that – but somehow he perceived the guilt all the same.
“Katya, we need to talk about that,” Rosario said, trying as hard as he could not to sound like a scolding parent. “You have vodka in there, right?”
“Just to keep me going,” she said, eyes fixed on the vehicle ahead. “Forget it."
“You’re drinking too much.”
“Worried the police will pull us over?” She goaded, though there was no humour in her voice.
“I’m worried you’ll get us killed.” His statement lingered in the air between them.
Seconds passed, then finally she spoke, her voice quiet and subdued. “Maybe I’d be better off dead.” She barked a short laugh, “Just joking Rosy, it just helps, sometimes. Helps me forget. Keep on moving.”
He nodded. “We’ve all done, faced things that are hard to comprehend, even harder to understand. Things that have challenged our beliefs. Even Somerset. But we have survived, overcome. We are all still here.”
“You never met Sergei, did you? Or Rudek.” she said, eyes focussed on the darkness in front.
“No, I didn’t. They were important people to you. For their memory then, would they want you to do this?”
“You don’t know what they wanted.” she snapped.
Rosario sighed inwardly, he needed another tack. “No. But my point stands, we are here and alive, your drinking is not good for you and not good for the team. I want to help you.”
“We’re not a team! Somerset fucks off whenever it gets tough because helping others is a weakness, Patrick’s been got at by god knows who, Sergei’s dead and we’ve known you all of two weeks! Get out of my head!”
“We are a team! Look at what we achieved in Vienna, in Beirut, in Baghdad. You and Somerset covering each others backs in the museum. Patrick and me working on the silversmithing. Somerset with me and the, thing, situation in Beirut. We all work well together. And you care about the team, I know you do. And they care about you. You don’t want them to get hurt because of your actions, do you?”
She didn’t respond. Damn it, Rosario thought, a step too far. He waited a minute, hands steepled in front of his face.
“Listen-,” he said gently, turning in his seat to look her directly in the eye.
He stopped. Her face was a mask of pain, her jaw quivered as she fought to maintain control. “I shouldn’t care about the team. I don’t care. I didn’t want to hurt them. But it’s too late,” she managed to whisper.
Inside the dark, curtained box at San Domenico Maggiore he had listened to people through the grill, on the edge of confessing terrible sins. Building courage and then releasing in a rush or just talking it out one simple word at a time, releasing their internal torture, sharing. She gave off the same signs, desperate to share the burden, despite her instincts and training.
“What have you done? You can tell me,” he spoke softly, reassuringly. His professional voice.
“I had to do it, I’m not proud of it. But anyone else should have done it too. It’s what we’re paid to do. It’s our job,” she said. Her words were confident in the justification, but her voice betrayed her.
“You need to tell me what you have done first.”
She swallowed. The 4×4 bounced hard, then settled down. She took a deep breath and unconsciously rubbed her inner elbow.
“I told Dorjiev the location of the Albedo.”
“Caro padre celeste …” Rosario exhaled. He fought to martial his building panic. “That’s … that’s not good.”
She looked at him, tears inching slowly down her pale face.
“We never got Dorjiev out of your head, did we?” he asked.
Her jaw tightened. “Yes, you did, he left, but he has powers. They would be so useful!”
Rosario leaned back in his chair, stunned. Everything they’d been working towards seemed to have been pulled out from under him. Without the Albedo, they were effectively back at square one. His gaze drifted out of the windscreen to the dark outlines of the desert around him. At least they were still on track to the Nigredo, he thought. There just might be a way out. He watched with detached interest as a patch of dark crept towards them as the 4×4 cruised ever forwards. Their headlights failed to pierce it, as though the desert was just falling away into space…
His eyes shifted wildly to Katya. She was staring off into the distance, unaware of the impending crash. He lunged for the steering wheel, yanking down hard to the right. The 4×4 lurched round, its momentum carrying the heavy chassis almost onto two wheels and slewing the back around, tearing rubble from the baked earth. The suspension groaned as one wheel dropped sharply, before coming to a jarring halt.
The equipment in the back crashed into the vehicle’s side, then slid towards the rear door. Rosario was thrown hard against his seatbelt, forcing the air out of his lungs in a gasp. Katya’s shoulder banged into the driver side window so hard she thought the glass would crack.
She turned on Rosario angrily, but he gestured out her window as he fought to recover his breath. She could just make out the deep, black gulley cutting across the desert floor, its lip just inches from where she sat. As the billowing sand diffused their headlight beams she could just make out the bottom of the narrow chasm, some ten feet straight down and strewn with wind-worn boulders. Somerset and Patrick’s brake lights flared in the distance ahead. Then the lead vehicle began to turn back towards them.
“That was close,” Rosario said, an edge of hysteria in his normally calm voice.
“My fault. Sorry.” Katya said, she took a deep breath in. “I’m sorry about a lot of things at the moment.”
Rosario could not think of a reply, so he stayed silent while he unbuckled himself and leaned into the back to check the equipment. It had rearranged itself spectacularly, but nothing was obvious broken.
“No harm done,” he said as he lowered himself back into his seat, his normal composure returning.
She knew that he wasn’t talking about their near crash. Nor was he being completely honest. “If Somerset found out…” she began.
“… he’ll kill you,” he finished. “Believe me, I know,”
“I could talk… No, fuck.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. He held out his hand. “You know what, I think I’ll share some of that vodka with, if you don’t mind?”
A small smile cut through her pain as she handed him the canteen.