Evgeny slouched before a computer screen inside a trailer that smelled of hot solder and dog piss. Between him and the screen, his weapons officer for the last three months lay with her head on her paws. She cast a baleful eye on Evgeny as he tore open a package of Chicken and Rice Plov.
“Dogs eat dog food.” Evgeny shoveled in a mouthful of rice. It needed salt. And pepper. And cyanide, because Putin’s Grave was he sick of plov. He made it halfway through the meal before his stomach started to churn.
The UAV posting was supposed to be safe. A favor called in by his grandfather to protect his only grandson from the war. It will be close to the front, Grandfather had told him, but not too close. Grandfather hadn’t told him of the nightmares from watching so many lives snuffed out of existence.
Yana licked her chops, detecting his hesitation.
“Fine. Have it.” He set the plov before her. “Hope it gives you the runs, too.”
She devoured it in three precise licks.
* * *
Evgeny, and the other technicians like him, maintained the fleet of computer-operated UAVs. They worked close enough to the front to keep latency low between the real-time flight control computers and the aircraft, but far enough away that the technicians (and especially the expensive computers) were not in direct danger. Yana, and the guard dogs like her, were trained to ensure that while the technicians fixed the computers, Command made the decisions.
The screen in the trailer showed a cabin in the Ossetian Mountains with a wisp of smoke snaking from its chimney. A tethered horse moved in and out of sight under a stand of swaying pines. Evgeny watched from the perspective of an eagle if an eagle flew at five thousand meters.
The latest person of interest emerged from the cabin, a rifle over his shoulder, and saddled his horse. The computer locked a targeting reticle on him as he mounted his horse.
Evgeny sent a message on his tablet, alerting Command that the target was moving. Yana’s tail flicked idly as she watched him check the UAV’s diagnostics.
Command responded a few minutes later: Accessing disposition matrix. Wait and observe the target.
He waited. He observed. The target dismounted and took a poorly aimed shot at a deer as skinny as he was. The deer spooked, unharmed. The target continued on his way.
Evgeny tracked him to a church on the edge of town where the houses gave way to the mountain’s slope. A few dozen horses were tethered outside, swatting flies with their tails. A fence behind the building, barely visible from the high angle, enclosed a playground with swings and a slide and running children.
The reticle grew larger, encompassing the entire church. Icons flashed, turning from red to yellow as the computer armed its weapons and the UAV went into attack mode. A high-pitched tone warbled from the speakers, alerting Evgeny to move away from the console and Yana that it was time for guard duty.
Man. Church. Playground. Visions of carnage danced through Evgeny’s imagination. He furiously punched a message into his tablet, requesting an override.
Weapon detected, Command replied. Maintaining kinetic action.
The missiles turned from yellow to green. Fully armed, target locked, awaiting only the final launch code to be relayed from Command through the trailer’s computers.
Terrorists set bombs. Terrorists murdered civilians. They didn’t go hunting on the way to church.
Sweat beaded on Evgeny’s palms, hot as freshly spilled blood. He couldn’t sit and watch. Not again. A few keystrokes could disarm the missiles; orders be damned. He just needed a second at the command console.
Yana stood, her hackles rising. The damn dog could read his mind.
“Move it,” Evgeny warned, then edged forward.
Yana growled. She didn’t have three heads or a serpent’s tail, but she was about as likely to leave her post as the Volga was to flow backward.
Evgeny considered charging the command console and executing a manual override, but he wasn’t sure his fingers would work with forty kilos of dog attached to his throat. He hurried to his foot locker, five meters behind his chair.
The trailer contained a single weapon: Grandfather’s ancient Nagant revolver. Just in case, Grandfather had said. Evgeny’s hands shook as he loaded the cylinder.
Yana didn’t move a centimeter.
Her growl rose in pitch, almost to a whine. She knew what the revolver represented. Too smart for her own good. Evgeny raised the pistol and aimed with shaking hands. If he pulled the trigger, his tour would be finished. If he didn’t kill her, he’d be finished, too.
“Don’t make me do this.”
Yana bared her teeth.
Two hundred kilometers south, the kids at the church kept playing.
Evgeny squeezed the trigger. The revolver roared. He squeezed again. A third time. Fourfivesixseven until it clicked on an empty chamber. Multiple impacts scarred the command console and its computer rack. The screen flashed crimson, the reticle deformed.
GUIDANCE ERROR. GUIDANCE ERROR.
The children played on, oblivious. Yana huddled before the console, unharmed.
Evgeny let the revolver slip from his fist. His ears were on fire. The gun hit the floor soundlessly.
Command would come for him, and not even Grandfather would be able to protect him. Evgeny shoved open the door and sat on the asphalt outside the trailer. They would lock him up. Probably throw away the key. And what, it would be worse than the trailer and its rancid plov? Worse than murdering more kids for having the wrong parents?
Yana padded out and lay down beside him, tongue lolling out as if she hadn’t a care in the world as long as he wasn’t near the console when the warning alarm sounded. Evgeny scratched her behind the ears. Her tail beat a slow rhythm against his hip.
Grandfather had been wrong. The war had found him and claimed him, after all.