That night birthed a new day as we wound our way towards the nature reserve. Our boats averaged about fifteen knots on the straights but Syr Darya meanders so much that by the following night we’d only covered the hundred and fifty miles up to Baikonur, about half way to Barsakelmes. We hadn’t run into any trouble, but we did pass several cargo and domestic vessels, thanks be to Jesus none of them appeared to take any interest in us. Everyone lay flat on the decks as we passed anyone, afloat or ashore, but once we cleared them my men were looking down their sights the following moment. We were safer on the boat than on land but we weren’t about to start getting lazy.
The actual starkness of the landscape was itself beautiful. By day we had seen lush greenery growing on the banks of Syr Darya and desert beyond that. It was like something from a dream; the line between life and void sand was all too tangible – right in from of our eyes. As darkness fell that night I stayed in the wheelhouse until around midnight when we needed to refuel.
“According to this map there’ll be a divergence ahead, Kegs. Take it so we can stop and fill her up. It’ll join back up with the main flow further on.”
“Once we get there stop wherever suits and go back on deck. Grab Glynn and get the two drums emptied into the tank. You know where it is?”
“Good. Be quick about it. There’s a pump pre-set, just connect it and work the lever, I checked it earlier. Get it done and let’s get back on our way.”
And so Kegs stopped and began to execute my orders. As I sat alone in the wheelhouse, the night and the river drifting by outside, I looked ahead. We were lucky to have got as far as we had and if we got to the nature reserve without getting into a fight then we’d be doing damn well. Once we got there we could sail across it, march the four or five days to Beyneu and then on to the Caspian. But before we got there we would need to travel a further hundred and fifty miles up Syr Darya.
There was one thing that bothered me though. I intended to stay at the reserve for a day or two to stock up on supplies of food and water, but the animals that lived there were protected creatures. Now, I’d have my men eat what they must to survive, but I had qualms of conscious. In the business of killing as we are, almost in spite of it in fact, I had always had an aversion to hurting animals. To me, their free nature has come to represent a piece of me I lost a long time ago. If I was being honest I’d say it was something I sold to The Service.
“Sir. We’re ready.”
“Have at it, Glynn.”
And on we moved in silence. Glynn didn’t say a word. He’d cleaned the blood off of his face but there was still a considerable stain on his uniform. Hardened killer or not, he still looked off so I just sat with him. Both of us respected each other, nothing needed to be said. I knew something had got to him, he knew I knew and neither of us wanted or needed to verbalise the fact. Sometimes, just spending time with a person is enough. Sometimes, not talking about something is just what the doctor ordered. God knows I’d been there myself. By the time it started getting bright on the second day we were winding through the narrow passes and too tight turns that Mother Nature had long since carved into that arid land. It was a miracle any water ran through there in the first place. And so we sailed on, ducking everyone we saw.
“Can I ask you something personal, Sir?” he droned.
“What the fuck is that, Glynn? You know you can!”
“Sir. How young was your youngest kill, Sir?”
“I see. That what’s been in your head?”
“Sir. Yes, Sir. Just a kid, Sir.”
“It doesn’t matter. Whatever you might think, you had to do it. You had to get these two boats and nothing, not a teenager or a little old lady was to get in your way.”
“I know, Sir. I just, you know…” he paused.
“I do, that’s why I’m telling you now. It doesn’t matter. It’s not even about following orders, it’s about saving lives. It’s about taking care of your brothers. And it’s about getting the job done, no matter what. We’d likely be dead if you hadn’t done what needed doing.”
“I didn’t mean to kill him though, Sir. I clocked him with the butt if my rifle and must have caught him wrong. He just crumpled. I knew it straight away I’d killed him.”
“You’ve killed before though, right?”
“Of course I have, Sir.”
“So what’s the problem? He was the enemy.”
“That’s the thing. I rolled him over and the look on his face, Sir. It was fucking wrong. It was just wrong!”
“I know, Glynn. Keep your focus regardless. We need you. I need you. Don’t go flipping out on us here.”
“Keep your fucking shit together, Soldier. You’re one of my best!”
“You fucking hear me, Solider?!”
“SIR, YES, SIR!
“Good. Now eyes forward. We’re past the halfway mark, keep her straight and keep your eyes peeled. We could run into anybody at any time. Those Shining Light Fucks not least of which!”
“I won’t let you down, Sir.”
“Good. I’ll drink to that,” I smiled, holding up my tea.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey