Chapter 2: For the Motherland
Jutting defiantly toward the sky, the upended tail of the Junkers bomber seemed to deny its crashed state.
“I feel like I’m copying over someone’s shoulder in a school exam,” Lieutenant Mark Akhmatov, better known as Stitches, whispered through the side of his mouth.
His fellow pilot, Roza Kulik, stifled a giggle. “Call it extra credit, then,” she said.
The two of them shivered on a patch of snow in Izmailovsky Park, posing in front of the wrecked Junkers Ju 88, feeling on display themselves. The twin-engine bomber was cracked in half, looking as if it had crashed cleanly in the middle of the park.
Stitches was right in a way—it was cheating. Through their photographs, Red Army Soldier magazine would give them credit for someone else’s work. The bomber had been shot down the previous year and collected in the park with so many other war trophies. A triumph frozen in time, transported hundreds of kilometres from where it had fallen.
If only I could be shooting at the real thing, Roza thought. She flexed her fingers, grasping on to an imaginary control column. Her body tingled as she remembered the sensation of fighter combat. It was not a joyous or happy business, yet Roza could only describe the feeling as ecstasy, more intense than anything else she had ever experienced. The feeling passed, as the reality of Colonel Dmitriev’s propaganda show set in.
“This is hardly the only untruth we’ll be a part of,” Roza said quietly.
Dmitriev smiled at them, as if he’d heard. Their former regimental commissar was a newly minted colonel, and now a liaison with the Air Force for SovInformBuro. He ensured that the Air Force steadily supplied of all the State’s propaganda needs, which included arranging this photo shoot. Untruths are his daily currency, Roza thought.
Behind a tripod, the magazine’s photographer, a small, bespectacled man with a thinning brown comb-over, signalled for Roza to remove her pilotka cap. She did so reluctantly, exposing the unbleached roots that had been carefully hidden underneath. Stitches was about to do the same with his peaked officer’s cap, but the photographer shook his head. He leaned forward to look through his viewfinder, then screwed up his face in disappointment. He stepped around the tripod and reached for Roza’s hair. She recoiled reflexively, but held back a retort as Dmitriev glared at her and gave a barely perceptible shake of his head.
“Let your hair down,” the photographer said. “Try to make yourself more feminine.”
“How about me?” asked Stitches. “Should I look more feminine as well?”
“Look heroic, smartass. Hands on hips. Like in a TASS poster.”
The photographer returned to his spot to snap pictures. As soon as Roza untied her bun, the wind whipped her hair in her face. Whatever he was expecting, Roza wasn’t going to give it. She stood, arms crossed, her smile lopsided with a glimpse of gritted teeth.
“This is not working,” the photographer said with a frown. “Let’s try this with just the lieutenant.”
Stitches chuckled at Roza, then shrugged.
Dmitriev pulled her roughly out of frame. “Show a little gratitude, Kulik.”
“For what?” Roza said. “Getting a ride in the Li-2?” The flight back to Moscow had been much better than the alternative: scrambling between three or four trains loaded with a mix of wounded soldiers, refugees, supplies, horse feed, and who knew what else. But she wasn’t about to admit that.
“At least you could have touched up your hair.”
“When have I had time?” She’d managed only token efforts to appease her vanity, the situation made worse because she couldn’t access the beauty supplies Honeybee usually provided. “I’ve had to give talks at factories, meet with random officials from departments I’ve never heard of, and constantly rehearse my story of a blissful Soviet home life for press consumption. I had an easier time looking good at Stalingrad.”
“Go see my secretary at the SovInformBuro office this afternoon.”
“So you’re not hustling me back to the Air Force barracks?”
Dmitriev didn’t say anything, but a sly smile crept across his face as the photographer signalled that they could chat while he checked his equipment.
Stitches exhaled loudly, blowing out icy vapour, and exaggerated a slouching posture as he stamped his feet.
Roza sidled over to him. “At least you get to fly when this is over. All I get is more handshaking, smiling, and waving.”
“I’d gladly trade. This is the first time they’ve let me out of the school at Lyubertsy.” For the past two weeks, Stitches and his wingman had been sent to the higher air combat school outside of the city.
“I miss flying so much,” she said. “What do they have you doing at aces’ school?”
“Oh, it’s all terribly dull. We spent last week putting the new Klimov engines through their paces. They’re nothing special. They top out at just over twelve hundred horsepower,” he said with a wink.
“If that’s what it takes for you to finally catch up with me . . .”
“I’ll take that as an insult,” she said with a smirk.
They turned face to face and laughed. That almost psychic connection they’d forged through combat in the same squadron had kept them alive. Bantering with him now after weeks of dreary propaganda work was like stepping into sunshine from out of a cave.
“I miss this,” Stitches said. He cleared his throat. “Being with the regiment, I mean. Don’t start thinking you’re anything special.”
“Of course not. That’s why I wasn’t invited to Lyubersty.”
She pouted and his eyebrows furrowed as if he was trying to figure out how serious she was about being disappointed. She wasn’t sure herself.
“You should be there with us,” he said. “You’re twice the pilot some of my classmates are. Anyway, the school’s really not anything special. It’s mostly learning to work better with my wingman. The best part is that I’m close by and can see you.”
Roza’s chest tightened. Stitches’s comment reawakened something in her. On the battlefield, his flippant flirtatiousness had just been a form of tension relief, part of their camaraderie. But now, without the threat of enemy fire, it held the promise of something more.
She’d known of this promise ever since she’d heard Stitches would be at this event. It had kept her spirits up through the cold morning. She was pleased to be pursued, as she had been in high school. She remembered Daniil . . . and Pavel. That one hadn’t ended well; she pushed the morbid thought away. This was a game she hadn’t played for a while, and she liked it.
“I guess you must be so good that you don’t need to show up for classes,” she said, her voice dripping with jovial sarcasm. “Win a gold star and now it’s gone to your head.”
Stitches didn’t take the bait. “I’m only here because Dmitriev wanted to use me. Seriously, you should drop this. Come join us at Lyubertsy.”
Roza looked away. “You know that’s not possible.” Photos and meet-and-greets were what the higher-ups wanted her doing, not learning advanced tactics. But Stitches saw her as more than propaganda fodder. She felt guilty for wanting to toy with his emotions a moment ago.
After inserting a new roll of film into his camera, the photographer barked at Roza to try another series of poses, this time against a backdrop of evergreens. His mood soured rapidly as she failed to give him some combination of determined warrior, glamorous femme fatale and maternal caregiver. Exasperated, he complained to Dmitriev. The colonel placated him with promises of better opportunities once Roza cleaned herself up.
“Right, I think we’re done here,” Dmitriev declared, then waved at Stitches. “You can return to Lyubertsy. I’m really happy with how you balance each other in this composition, but you won’t be needed for the rest of the day. Kulik, it’s on to our next appointment.”
“Everything for the motherland,” she said flatly.
Stitches stood in place for a moment; then, as if remembering something, asked, “I’ll have another free day on Sunday. Will you join me for lunch?”
Her lips twisted as she considered this. She really did want to see him. “Propaganda’s tough work. And I have no idea what Dmitriev has got planned, though I suppose it will be around Moscow. Maybe I can get away. I don’t know.” She was so used to keeping a part of herself inaccessible. It was comforting, even, and she didn’t want to let go of the game.
“I know you’ll find a way,” he said, as if completely seeing through her reticence. “How about the Rublev? It’s off Teatral’ny Proyezd.”
“Fancy,” she said, smiling ever so slightly. “I suppose it might be our last chance to see each other.”
“You mean until we’re back at the front.”
Roza tilted an eyebrow. “Always the optimist.”
“Come on. This is you we’re talking about. Orders or no, I’m sure you’ll find a way back to the regiment.”
The supreme confidence he showed in her made her shudder with unfamiliar excitement. It reminded her of getting at the controls of the Yak fighter for the first time.
“How about eleven o’clock?” she said.
“That would be perfect,” he said before kissing her hand in a showy flourish that made her roll her eyes.
Stitches waved as he backed away.
“And Stitches . . .”
“It’s really good to see you. Another comrade from the regiment, I mean.”
Dmitriev tugged her arm. “Right, Comrade. We’re going to be late if we don’t hurry. There’s still a chance to redeem yourself.” He hustled Roza out of the park, and they crunched across the snow-encrusted footpath. On the street, his chauffeur had the door open to his car, provided by SovInformBuro.
Roza plopped down in the rear seat next to Dmitriev. “They want some doll they can dress up and pose. It’s not my fault I couldn’t be that for them.”
Dmitriev wrinkled his nose. “You and your womanly moods. While you were with the regiment, you couldn’t wait to get your dress and makeup on. What’s wrong?”
Sensing an opening, she smiled slyly. “Well, that’s just the thing. I’m not with the regiment.”
“Ah yes, about that . . .” Dmitriev shifted in his seat to face her. “You’re not an ordinary pilot anymore. Going to the front line . . . well, is that really the best use of your time?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re more than a fighter pilot now. You’re a symbol. You need to be seen, so the people can see just what our fighting forces are made of. You can tell the workers how they’re helping in the war effort. Little boys and especially girls can look at you and think, one day, even I can make a difference. But you’re not helping by moping around.”
“If I could see some end point and know I’ll be back in action, then I promise, I’ll be everything you need me to be. But I just . . .” She shook with frustration. “I can’t be here too long. I need to be back in action.”
He placed his hands on her upper arms. It was neither warm nor threatening. “That’s just not possible.”
“But you promised you’d help me get back to the front line.”
“That was before I moved to SovInformBuro. I’m not risking my prize.”
“You won’t have a prize, then. I won’t do it.”
“You’re not that valuable, you know. In fact, I’m giving you a great opportunity. Don’t squander it.” He hefted a leather briefcase from the floor of the car, making a show of rifling through some papers without looking at her, as if he had more important business to tend to. “Face it, your fighting days are over.”
This preview of Raven’s Shadow continues in Chapter 3.