Signal for the Crack of Dawn
rating: +26+x

Afghanistan, 1985

23:47

Sergei Vasiliev sat at his post, on the outskirts of the tiny village that some time ago had been occupied and turned into a Soviet base. The night had been quiet, the Mujahideen guerillas focusing their efforts on other, more strategic outposts for several weeks.

But for all the relative peace and quiet, it was hard to forget that they were at war. The fact the base had been ignored by the guerilla forces had turned it into an unofficial hub: meetings between local base commanders, convoys moving through, and even some murmurs of a mysterious project from high command. This had ironically led to the village being even more fortified than it had ever been before the period of peace.

Alexi from the motor pool had even sworn that he overheard rumors of a tank battalion being assigned to defend, but since Alexi had also sworn that he met the Wandering Jew, Sergei was skeptical. Still, it wouldn’t be remiss to have something interesting happen.

The most notable event in the past week had been the feral herd of sheep that had eaten Dimitri’s hat.

Sergei idly pondered this situation, swinging his searchlight over the road lazily. The landscape had not changed since the last time he had done this, the same bushes, trees, and rocks that decorated the steppes of Afghanistan. What had changed, however, was the addition of a man, standing in the middle of the road, clutching a black box close to his chest, stumbling towards the base. Sergei’s hands leapt to his gun.

“Freeze!” Sergei cried, brandishing his AK-74 towards the man. The unknown muttered something, and continued to stagger towards Sergei, arms clutching the box ever tighter. “Freeze!” Sergei shouted once more, thrusting his gun towards the interloper as if to spear him through.

“Russian, I’m Russian!” the man stated, coughing out the words. He collapsed forward, the box in his arms spilling outwards and skidding to a halt about 2 metres away. As Sergei cautiously approached, he saw the distinctive wear of a Spetznaz paratrooper, burnt and torn all over. The man’s face was bloody and burned as well, but his eyes were alive and active, watching Sergei as he made his way towards their owner.

“The case! Check the case for damage before me.” The man suddenly barked, his voice raspy but strong as ever. “If the case is cracked you must run, tell your commander to abandon the base.” The man coughed again, harder than before. “What are you standing around for, check the case!”

“Why should I believe you? You show up here out of nowhere, and begin giving me orders? How do I know you are not a spy?” Sergei prided himself on being of a paranoid nature. Something about this whole situation was suspect, and he was already hesitant to take orders from an unknown, albeit probably Soviet, actor.

“Did you not hear me? If the case is cracked and you do not evacuate your lives are all going to end! I am not long for this world, allow me one thing and check that case!” The desperation seemed earnest, at least. Sergei edged towards the case, never taking his eyes off the man. When he reached the case, he crouched down slowly, holding his gun with one hand while feeling around the case with his other.

There was no damage aside from some superficial scratches, as far as he could tell. The box had a label taped to it, proudly proclaiming that it was the property of the GRU, Division-P. Sergei stood. The man’s story certainly seemed more legitimate, now. Though he had never heard of Division-P.

“It’s not damaged.”

“Take the box to your commander. Tell him that it must be defended. Tell him to tell his superiors.” The man smiled grimly, his face ashen. “Thank you.”

The man suddenly collapsed into his clothes, his flesh turning to dust before Sergei’s eyes. A wind picked up, scattering the remains into the cool Afghanistan air. The night had suddenly gotten interesting. And, as he walked towards the base, cursing himself for ever asking anything of this cruel universe, far above Sergei’s paygrade.

2:33

“The man, according to the documents in his clothes, was GRU agent Anton Fyodorovych. Obviously, we do not know why he was here or what he was doing. We also do not understand the reasons he apparently turned to ash.”

Base Commander Mikhail Aksakov had gathered his lieutenants after Sergei had informed him, with some convincing, of the situation. Sergei was out of his depth, unofficially. Officially, as the one who had contacted Fyodorovych, Sergei was now the resident expert on paranormal phenomena. Such was bureaucracy.

“As for the case, we have elected not to open it for the time being. It is currently secured in the armory. No one is to touch it.” Aksakov was obviously skeptical about the powers of the case (as was Sergei), but the consensus had been to let it lie. Better they let the GRU handle it. “I’ve had word sent to my commanders. We should hear from them shortly about what to do. Not a word of this leaves the room. Dismissed.”

Sergei was relieved. He would probably be debriefed by the GRU, but for now he was in the clear. The interesting part of the evening was thankfully over, and hopefully would not raise its ugly head again. He started prepping his gear to return to his post. Dimitri had been roped into covering for Sergei, and now he owed Dimitri four favors. Such was life.

“Sir, we could not relay the message to command. We suspect sabotage.” In Sergei’s distraction, he had missed one of the radio operators entering the room. The news did not bode well. In the best-case scenario, it was just broken, in the worst, the Mujahideen had infiltrators in the base and were prepping for assault. The latter possibility seemed more likely, as the lights in the room suddenly went out as Sergei opened his mouth to ask for orders.

“Everyone on alert! Intruders in the base!” Aksakov immediately began barking out orders. Sergei rushed out the door, rifle in hand. The night refused to return to being uneventful, it seemed.

It also seemed far more hostile than before, as he stalked the streets of the former village. The headquarters was right in the center of the base, and search teams were to begin sweeping radially outward from the center. Sergei was currently trying to find his group. Safety in numbers, after all.

The sharp bark of gunfire snapped Sergei’s head around. He rushed through the narrow alleys, paranoia creeping on him with every window and building he passed. A fighter could appear from anywhere within. Screaming had started as well. Sergei hoped it wasn’t anyone he knew.

A rush of air in front of him. Sergei let loose a hail of bullets. To his surprise, he hit something. A man in black clothing appearing out of thin air, knife falling out of his hand as he collapsed. The body hit the ground, leaking blood onto the Afghan soil. Sergei didn’t take the time to inspect it. He ran onwards, shooting at anything that moved and quite a few that didn’t, his fear overwhelming his sense.

Suddenly, he halted. This was the place the first shots were fired. It was obvious from the bloodbath that had taken place.

The ground was littered with corpses, bloody and torn. At least three people, judging by the assortment of parts littering the ground. Dimitri was there, eyes glassy as he laid against a wall. Strange burns covered his face, almost treelike. Sergei lifted his hand and shut the eyes of his friend. That was one favor, he figured. Wretched smells reached Sergei’s nose, no longer suppressed by the initial rush of adrenaline. Blood, and gunpowder, and something else that Sergei couldn’t identify at first. Something sharp, and unfamiliar.

Ozone.

Fire coursed down Sergei’s spine. The greatest pain imaginable to him, increased hundredfold. It was over as soon as it began but he was collapsed on the ground as it was done. He didn’t remember falling. A fuzzy figure stepped into his field of view, in the same black uniform as the man Sergei had killed. He was speaking into a radio, in English. Sergei tried to push himself off the ground and realized that he couldn’t feel his right arm.

Sergei struggled to his knees. The man who had electrocuted him was engrossed in his conversation and wouldn’t notice if someone sunk a knife in his back. Sergei obliged him of this lapse in judgement and proceeded to do just that.

Releasing the cadaver, Sergei shook his head, trying to maintain his faculties. He was tired, his right arm barely worked, and he could hear more of his comrades being struck down by the intruding force. Sergei staggered towards the armory. The case was almost certainly the target of these forces, if their abilities and timing was any indication. Sergei needed a weapon he could wield with one hand. The pistol on the hip of the man he had just killed would have to do. An American revolver, fully loaded. Sergei supposed his luck was turning around. Reloading a gun with one hand was not something he was willing to do under pressure.

The streets were oddly peaceful now. Every so often he would see the body of a comrade, or one of the mysterious intruders. It may not have been as hopeless as it originally had seemed, but the streets were still empty of life, of those that could help or hinder him. The haven from the Mujahideen had become a mausoleum. Sergei made his way down the narrow paths between houses, constantly on watch for anything that could indicate another invisible foe.

The armory was a squat building that had originally been storage for grain, situated close nearby the headquarters. The thick walls made it ideal for holding the precious ammunition and weapons of the forces stationed at the base, as well as the case. It also made it very dangerous to assault. Sergei crept up alongside a short wall, keeping his silhouette low. From the flashlights visible through the barred windows, at least 2 people were in the building.

Sergei hoped that he wouldn’t be shooting friendlies when he entered.

The question was answered as a large snap rang out from inside the armory, followed by screams. Ozone filled the air again as the soldiers inside the building suffered the same fate as Dimitri. Sergei rushed towards the building, revolver in hand.

Bursting through the door, Sergei did not hesitate to pull the trigger six times.

He managed to land a couple hits, but this individual was tougher than his allies. The intruder approached, bleeding from wounds in his arms and legs. Electricity coursed across his fingertips, and he began to fade from view as whatever mechanism made the attackers invisible activated. Sergei did not let him get the chance, closing the distance and stabbing forward with his knife. The gambit paid off, as the mysterious marauder stumbled in dodging the strike, returning to full visibility. Sergei refused to waste the opportunity, following with a series of strikes. It appeared that whatever uniform this assailant was wearing was more knife resistant than the last ones.

Sergei’s target was not thrown off for too long, throwing a flurry of strikes with their fists, sparks flying across their knuckles. The quick shots of the punches preventing any significant charge from building, but what electricity was there lanced through Sergei. The pain was nothing but a reminder that he was still alive. Otherwise the dance was crude, and effective. Sergei unleashed a retort of slashes, catching the mask of the assailant. The fabric was not immune to cuts, and the strike left a deep gash along the cheek, into the flesh. Excellent.

Sergei changed his strategy, aiming for the neck and face over the less effective center of mass. His dance partner noticed and poured new vigour into his assault. The tempo increased, each absorbing or dodging hits until they could land the final strike.

Sergei won the bout, piercing the jugular with one quick thrust. His opponent fell to his knees. Blood poured from the throat as the lifeless body slumped sideways

The armory was empty now, again. The bodies in the room were too burnt to be identified, though one had an epaulet of a captain on what remained of the uniform. There was a strange symbol carved into the dirt, perhaps by the attacker. Maybe he was an occultist, who knew? Sergei paid it almost no mind.

The case had sat on the shelf, untouched. It appeared that it was not what the assailants had been searching for. Sergei stared at the offending object. He had put so much work to reach it and it had sat here, mocking him the entire time.

Sergei decided he would look in the case to show the smug box who it was dealing with.

As he pushed off the clasps, he felt something course through him. Power. Whispers of secret strength, of his hearts desire if only he carried through. Something interesting, then. He threw off the lid.

Energy coursed through him, accompanied by honeyed words telling him exactly what he had now: the ability to exact revenge for what had happened here today. To finish his favors to Dimitri.

He was just about to use this newfound power to find who had massacred his comrades and make them pay when the world suddenly lit up and all was dawn.

The light scoured away what remained of the soviet base, and Sergei with it.


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