Chapter 3: Poison
As the ball peen hammer struck a piece of scrap metal, Aelya flinched, feeling the impact in her heart. The metal-on-metal clang reverberated around the cold concrete interior of the former workers’ canteen. It was too similar to the sharp crack of a bullet striking an engine block and reminded her of metal tearing into flesh. Too much time away from combat gave her mind the opening to dwell on these things that gnawed at her.
Ulanova put down the hammer. The short Asian technician was seated at a desk at the front of the room. She called out, “I hereby declare the Workers’ Committee of the 497th Fighter—”
A staff officer seated next to her elbowed her.
Ulanova scowled, but nodded, declaring, “That should be written into the record as the 74th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment.”
The name change not only acknowledged the regiment’s honour and elite status, but also meant higher pay for its personnel.
“I now declare us in session.” Ulanova hammered on the metal once more. “Guards Senior Sergeant Duya Ulanova, armourer, presiding. We are convening to review disciplinary action against Guards Sergeant Yulia Yunevich, Guards Senior Sergeant Olga Yunevich, and Guards Senior Sergeant Aelita Makarova.”
Low afternoon sunlight streamed through drafty windows, throwing the dozen or so technicians, pilots, and staff officers comprising the workers’ committee into silhouette. They formed a semicircle around Aelya and the twin pilots, Yulia and Olga, as they sat on a bench behind a canteen table, their backs against the wall. Yulia stretched out her long legs, her foot tapping furiously against the table leg, the vibrations causing several models of the latest German warplanes to skip along the table’s surface.
Once used to feed the facility’s workers, this damp and musty hall southwest of Astrakhan now served as a makeshift classroom. While its proximity to rail lines and long grassy stretches of countryside made this former fish processing plant workable as a reserve air base, little else about it made sense to Aelya. Beyond the unsuitability of many of its buildings, the odour of rotting fish permeated everything. Technicians had been scouring the compound to find the source of the stench for weeks, to no avail.
Baby, Aelya’s squadron commander, stood to address Ulanova. “Before we begin, Comrade Chairwoman, I’d like to once more raise my objection.” Nicknamed for his chubby build, he was a perfectly adequate fighter pilot, but Aelya had never warmed to him as a commander. He was fickle and frequently condescending to subordinates, while bowing with slimy obsequiousness to higher-ups. With Red and the other senior officers away at a conference, Baby was nominally in charge.
“I think you would all agree that our comrade commander,” Baby continued, “wouldn’t want military command to be undercut by this workers’ committee, no matter how well meaning.”
The regiment’s political officer, Captain Kisel, raised his hand. “Strict military control made sense in those dangerous times before Stalingrad,” the sandy-haired, round-faced captain said in a soft tone. “But now it would be good to remember that such egalitarian assemblies are what make us Soviet. And in my judgment, it would be better for discipline, which is within my purview. I’ve also spoken to my counterpart in our sister regiment, and he has agreed.”
The political control of the regiment had changed, as it had for all the armed forces. No longer were commissars, like Dmitriev, of equal rank and authority to military commanders. The new political officers, called zampolits, were fighting men and women who looked to the education and morale of their comrades in arms.
Ulanova responded, “The committee recognizes and accepts Captain Kisel’s explanation, and we will proceed with the hearing.”
“Excellent.” Kisel winked at the accused pilots as if to say, “I’m one of you, too.” The fact that he flew fighters with them, instead of sitting in an office conniving ways to award himself medals, had endeared him to the troops already. The zampolit even went by the nickname Cricket. How he’d earned that, Aelya had no idea.
Ulanova motioned to begin and read the charges. Aelya and the twins were accused of trying to poison the pilots of the 466th Fighter Regiment, who were also based at the former fish plant.
Olga stood. “Poison? It was just going to give them diarrhea for a bit.”
Cricket let out a sharp laugh but Ulanova shot him a glare. Olga sat down.
It grated on Aelya to be included in these charges. She was getting it from both sides. The twins blamed her for their getting caught, but she had prevented things from escalating out of hand. Aelya knew they had been planning revenge against the 466th for a previous prank. With the women pilots appealing their transfer back to the women’s regiment in Air Defence, priority for training activities was given to the men. That meant a lot of free time to get into trouble.
After waking her, Zina had told Aelya that Dr. Krupenya discovered certain medications missing, presumed stolen. Putting two and two together, Aelya raced to catch up to Olga and Yulia as they were about to lace the 466th’s soup with a drug meant to purge the digestive system. Unfortunately, while they argued, the bottle dropped and shattered, catching the attention of an officer from the 466th.
“Do the accused have anything to say?” asked Ulanova.
Beforehand, Aelya and the other two agreed on a united front, and that Aelya would speak for them.
“We admit that we’ve done wrong. But we did so to defend the honour of the regiment. A couple of days earlier, while Olga and Yulia were in the bathhouse, some members of the 466th stole their clothes and threw them into a pond. They were forced to parade naked in the snow across the whole compound to get to shelter.”
Most grating of all had been the fact that the men of their own regiment, their supposed brothers in arms, were more amused than angry and had done nothing to help. Even now, Yulia turned bright red as a few of the men quietly tittered. Olga looked plaintively at the women of the committee. Perhaps gender solidarity would help them, but Aelya didn’t want to resort to appealing to that. Weren’t they all supposed to be equals?
Zina, sitting as one of the committee, raised her hand. “Is it true you tried to stop the others from taking such rash action?” As crew chief, she always made sure Aelya’s fighter was in top shape, and even now she was trying to protect her.
Aelya wavered. Agreeing to face the charges together with the twins had been easy at the time. They were all part of Sparrow Squadron, three of the six surviving women who had flown down to fight at Stalingrad last autumn. They needed to support each other. But now, with the immediate threat of punishment looming, Aelya worried about being removed from frontline duty permanently.
That was why she’d been so keen to keep the sisters out of trouble. With the other women pilots—Roza, Honeybee, and Stone— all away, it rested with the three of them to cling to the beachhead they had made for women to fight in a frontline fighter regiment. Every day, she’d been hoping the appeals of their regiment’s commander, Red, might reverse the Air Force’s decision, or that they might simply get lost in the VVS’s bureaucracy. Her uncertainty had lingered, twisting in the pit of her stomach for the past month.
There was also the threat to her new Communist Party membership. Whereas Olga and Yulia were still only candidates, Aelya had been welcomed because they’d confirmed she had killed a German. That counted more than knowledge of and dedication to Communist thought. Although membership no longer held any allure for her, Aelya wasn’t blind to the privilege and protection it provided, however minimal.
She composed herself, tamping down any temptations to cut the twins loose. She remembered what Roza had shared with her during the worst days at Stalingrad: all they had to keep them going was each other.
“I was aware of the plans and take full responsibility for my complicity in our actions, which again, I stress were for the highest of intentions, to defend the honour of the regiment.”
With no other questions, Ulanova excused the three accused pilots. They filed into a corridor outside, observed by a guard, while the committee deliberated.
Olga huffed and paced. “I can’t believe we have to sit through this humiliation, on top of everything else.”
“It’s better than going through military discipline,” said Aelya. “I think we have a chance.”
“If we weren’t women, they would have just laughed everything off. Sometimes I think we’d be better off in Air Defence, back with a women’s regiment.”
“There shouldn’t be women’s or men’s regiments. We’ve fought for the right to be here. But sometimes, as my mother says, we have to bear a greater burden, if only to prove how much better we are.”
Olga shot her a nasty look, then whispered to her sister, who so far had just stared at the wall. Then they were called back in.
They stood to attention as Ulanova announced the committee’s decision. “Because the accused acknowledged their responsibility and caused no actual harm, the committee has decided that their Party membership and candidacies should not be affected, nor their status as active duty personnel of the VVS. Cricket, er, our comrade zampolit, has suggested absolution through good works, and we agree. The accused will perform five days of hard labour.”
Aelya sighed, breathing freely for the first time since the hearing began. They were still part of the regiment, for now. Olga patted her on the back. Zina was the first to come over and embrace them.
As they filed out, Baby put his arms around Aelya’s and Olga’s shoulders. “See, I told you it would just be a matter of boys being boys. Or in this case, girls being girls.” He slapped Olga on the butt and practically skipped out of the room.
This preview of Raven’s Shadow concludes with Chapter 4.