Chapter 1: The Fallen
Astrakhan, February 28, 1943
An instant from now, the Bf 109 would be the perfect distance from the red dot. Aelita Makarova—Aelya—stared past the aiming reticule, knowing exactly how long she would have to wait. She couldn’t say how many fractions of a second that might be. She just knew.
Her body instinctively counted the number of adrenalin-fuelled heartbeats before she should fire. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. She pressed the triggers.
The enemy fighter didn’t even twitch as she laced it with three thousand grams of armour-piercing bullets and high-explosive shells. It hovered, almost unmoving.
“Stop admiring your shot,” Lara shouted in her ear. “Check your six o’clock!”
Aelya snapped a glance over her right shoulder. Brightly coloured posters exhorting defence of the motherland, chipped and worn logs visible between them. The inside of a bunker. Where did the cockpit go? We must be reviewing gun camera footage, her brain decided.
Her attention flicked forward once more. She was in the cockpit. The German plane was still there. It looked so real, suspended in the air. It still hadn’t moved, even as its propeller spun at full speed.
That’s impossible, she thought, glancing at the control column between her legs. By instinct, she pulled hard and pressed the rudder to break off her attack.
“What are you doing?” Lara asked. “You need to press home the attack, make sure he’s dead.”
That’s not right, Aelya thought. Lara always preached against staying in a straight path for too long and presenting a juicy target to the enemy. She wasn’t like the aces in the regiment. Lara was safe and sensible, and everyone called her Auntie for the way she looked after her charges, especially the other women pilots who’d come to Stalingrad with her. As squadron commander, she’d been a pillar of strength for Aelya, reassuring her even in the worst of times.
The cockpit faded. Blackness surrounded Aelya.
“Look where safe and sensible got me,” said Lara, appearing next to her.
Aelya stared. Like everyone else, Lara had been ground down by Stalingrad. Beneath Lara’s stringy, sweat-matted hair, Aelya thought she could see down to her skull. That was how everyone looked after that cataclysmic battle. But not everyone made it through.
“You’re dead,” Aelya said, finally accepting that she was dreaming.
“I’m missing,” replied Lara. That was a major distinction. Missing meant a potential prisoner of war. A potential prisoner meant a potential traitor. True Soviets didn’t allow themselves to be captured. Aelya remembered: she’d been forced to denounce her former squadron commander, blaming Lara when the regiment had shot down other Soviet planes by mistake.
She searched Lara’s face for the recrimination she thought was sure to be there.
“Would you have done it?” Aelya asked. “Would you have let them destroy my reputation if I had gone missing?” She hadn’t done it lightly. Because Lara had gone missing, her family were refused any benefits and couldn’t even cling to the tenuous belief that she had died a hero.
Lara’s eyes were soft and filled with pity. “It’s your dream. You tell me.”
Aelya felt jolted awake. Her gaze darted around, searching for orientation. She was in a corrugated metal maintenance shed. Icy wind whistled through gaps in the walls. Her crew chief, Zina Borodina, hovered over her as she sat on hard-packed dirt, leaning against a wall.
Zina gently patted her quaking arms. “It was just a nightmare.”
Aelya wiped sweat from her brow, her pulse racing. It had been nearly a month since their regiment pulled out of the line at Stalingrad, to the shores of the Caspian Sea near Astrakhan. The Soviet counterattack, which had destroyed an entire German army in Stalin’s city, churned farther and farther to the west. What Aelya wouldn’t give to be back in the fighting. Resting and refitting at a rear area base, pilots like Aelya no longer had to suppress the jitters that came from flying combat missions, so it should have been easier to sleep. But without the vodka rations that came with combat, Aelya was fighting against nightmares as well.
“I’m sorry to startle you,” said Zina, “but there’s a problem.”
Aelya felt backfooted by her friend’s words. “I’ve got nothing else to do, and you were the one who suggested I could nap here.”
“Not that,” Zina responded. “Remember you told me to watch out for the twins doing anything stupid?”
Aelya rolled her eyes. Sisters Olga and Yulia had also come from the women’s regiment. All three were stuck here in administrative limbo, waiting for word on their appeal against being transferred out of the regiment, clinging by their fingernails to their status as frontline fighter pilots. The last thing any of them needed was to entangle themselves in a prank feud with the other regiment sharing this reserve air base.
Zina continued, “Yeah, I think they’re doing something stupid.”
Aelya was about to ask more but held off. Instead, she said, “I meant for you to go tell someone.”
“Who? All the senior officers are away on conference. Legend?” she said, referring to the regiment’s adjutant. “Or would you prefer Baby?” She smirked as she named Aelya’s squadron commander, the remaining senior officer on base. “Do you really think either of those men should handle this?”
Zina was right. This was something that should be dealt with by the twins’ comrades. But even if Roza, Honeybee, and Stone were around, could they really sort it? Roza was too self-absorbed. Honeybee would try to exploit the situation. And Stone would only escalate matters.
“All right,” Aelya said. “What’s going on?”
This preview of Raven’s Shadow continues in Chapter 2.