Interlude XII — Seven Decembers
December, nineteen ninety-four, in Helsinki.
White flakes fell in thick sheets, thrown around by the harsh wind. The other kids whined and complained, because their clothes were getting soaked and they could barely see, but she didn’t. Aulikki Häyhä loved the snow.
When it wasn’t snowing so much, she had to watch her steps, careful to follow existing footprints. Her own feet fit neatly into the large pits made by adults, stuffed into shoes too small for her. Her toes were always sore all scrunched together, but it was still better than her feet freezing and falling off. That’s what happened if you let your feet get too cold. Everybody on the street knew that.
”Likki!” shouted another kid down the block. “Seuraa minua!” Follow me!
Likki shook her head. She was still going to be careful. Nobody could track her. Forget that all the other kids gave away the spot all the time, they didn’t understand how important it was to stay out of sight. She was one of the oldest in the group, twelve while most of them were only eight or nine. She had to protect them.
”Likki! Kiirehdi!” came another shout. Hurry! It was much fainter this time. Likki could barely hear him anymore.
The blizzard was coming down thick now. Still, Likki stubbornly kept to her pattern—step into this hole, then into that one, make sure they couldn’t follow her little footsteps. It wasn’t the police they worried about. Everybody knew the police didn’t hate them, but weren’t really on their side either.
Finland was supposedly dealing with the homeless “problem”. Everybody said the new laws were going to make it better. Likki wasn’t so sure, but she wasn’t very good at understanding how laws worked anyway. She never expected anybody to give her anything. Nobody ever had.
A third shout, but Likki couldn’t even tell it was her name anymore. She looked up again, and realized she was lost. The blizzard had gotten so thick, she couldn’t even see the edges of the street anymore. Flakes of snow pounded into her jacket from the wind, sticking in her ripped scarf and plastering her hair. She had to hold her teeth still to keep them from chattering.
She turned. There was no way she was making it home in this—if their sad excuse for a home even survived the blizzard. Likki made her way into the space between the nearest buildings, crunching through the snow. The spot was covered by rooftops, so Likki wasn’t about to get a pile dumped on her head.
The cold wouldn’t leave.
It pressed into her bones, seeping into her blood. Likki was usually good with cold, but this seemed worse. Every limb felt stiff and raw, like it really had frozen. She had to force herself to move. Every step hurt a little bit more.
She didn’t love the snowfall so much anymore in that moment.
In the dark night, with sheets of snow filling the air, Likki huddled up, waiting for the ghosts to come. She was already expecting them to, even though they never had. The ghosts and spirits haunted every street, every dark shadow. She’d heard all about them. Other kids told her she was probably born to them, if she kept seeing them everywhere. It made more sense than her parents just not existing, like she believed. Spirits and ghosts were her real parents, according to all the other street kids.
Likki never saw any, but she acted like she had anyway. If she didn’t, they might think she was pretending they didn’t exist. Everyone knew if you pretended they didn’t exist, that’s when they really got angry.
And now, she was sure, the ghosts were watching her again. Painfully, Likki struggled back to her feet. She walked forward, and each step was a little easier. The movement started to warm her up, get blood flowing again.
A vague memory of a speech from some adult flashed through her mind, about how staying still was the worst thing to do. She could get covered up by flurries or drifts, or just freeze from the cold. Likki had to keep moving and find real shelter, not an alley in the middle of the streets.
She wondered if this was the sort of thing you learned in school. Likki had gone to school for a little while, but then the teachers started wondering who she was and where she came from. She didn’t stick around for them to ask questions she couldn’t answer. She learned enough, and soon after, she was back on the streets again.
Of course kids in schools wouldn’t learn stuff like this, she told herself. Kids in schools got to live in real homes, not makeshift mazes of boxes and crates in back alleys downtown. If they were in a blizzard, they’d just get in their cars and go home, or they could go into a restaurant or a bank or something. People would let them in, with their nice clean clothes and clean faces.
Likki brushed her messy, frozen hair out of her face as best she could. She started marching quicker, even managing to dart between gaps in the alleys and stay out of the blizzard as much as possible. But she was moving out of the city, not further into it. There were more homes and less places to hide this way. She knew the city—she didn’t know this area at all.
Except… further into the city meant further into the blizzard. The storm was moving away from her. If Likki kept going, she’d get out. She’d be in an unfamiliar, possibly dangerous place, but at least she’d be away from the immediate threat.
She kept going.
As she’d hoped, the blizzard died down little by little. Soon enough, she wasn’t getting blown around whenever she had to leave the cover of the walls. She kept going though—partly because she was afraid to stop moving, where the ghosts might come for her, but also because she wanted to see what else was out there. She’d never been this far out of the city before.
Normally, Likki probably would’ve been chased off by now, or maybe picked up by the police. She was afraid of that more than anything. What if they took her away from her home? What would they do with her? Nothing good, she was sure. Everybody knew the police couldn’t be trusted.
A vague scent wafted through the air. Likki smelled something delicious. It reminded her of the soup kitchen downtown, where some kids lined up in the mornings to get food from the nice ladies with silly Santa hats. Likki never did. She didn’t want their food. She could get her own.
Sometimes, though, she had to make do with what was around.
Likki made her way toward the scent. Someone had made fresh bread, or something along those lines. She wasn’t quite sure—in her state, anything fresh smelled good—but she was drawn to it like a flame. Likki had no idea how long she’d been out in the snow at this point, but she knew one thing for sure.
She needed to eat.
The house had a car in the garage. Likki wasn’t sure if they might see her coming or not, so she stole down the other side of their fence. With more than a little pain, she heaved herself over the top. One of her shoes got caught on the wooden post, but Likki managed to tap it before she fell down on the other side, landing in a pile of snow. Her shoe fell down onto her face with a soft thump.
Likki brushed the snow off, trying to ignore the aches in her joints, and put her shoe back on. Her foot was wet now. She’d have to find a way to dry it off before it froze up.
She crouched low and walked toward the house, careful to tip-toe through the little footprints in their backyard. Likki guessed it was a dog, or some other large animal she didn’t know. Maybe they were from haltija who hadn’t gone to help Joulupukki prepare presents this year. The other kids teased her and told her there were no such things, but she knew better. Little creatures like that knew how to hide, just like she’d learned. They just wanted to be left alone.
Besides, the other were dumb for believing in things like peikko. No huge rock men were taking them away from their parents. Their parents abandoned them. Likki knew that. Everybody knew that. They were just too stupid to believe it.
Likki got to the porch, and found one a window that was low enough for her to reach. She pulled out a flat sharp piece of glass, remarkably strong for how brittle it looked, and slid it between the cracks, flipping the lock open. As quietly as she could, Likki crept inside, closing the window before it let out too much heat and woke anyone up.
A TV was quietly droning in the other room. Likki didn’t understand the language they were speaking. Did the people who lived here not come from Finland? One of those other countries people talked about, way far away?
She was curious, but she didn’t want to waste any more time thinking about it, because there was a beautiful half-eaten loaf of Christmas bread lying in front of her on the kitchen counter. She could tell even from a distance, the ruislimppu bread was still warm, and she could smell molasses and cinnamon wafting through the house too. With the heat now trickling through her clothes and the aroma filling her nose, Likki felt like she’d broken into heaven.
Carefully taking off her shoes so they wouldn’t squeak, and to let her feet dry off a bit while she still could, Likki started slicing off pieces of bread. She stuffed as much as she could into her jacket, as well as any other loose bits still lying around the kitchen, and a sharp knife she could definitely use. Once she’d grabbed as much as she could, Likki turned back to the bread and sliced off a fresh piece, and bit down.
Her eyes practically rolled back inside her head. Her lashes fluttered involuntarily. She had to stop herself from trembling. It was incredible.
Likki ate practically half of the loaf before she could stop herself. Nobody came in the room while she dug in, to her relief. The TV kept on droning in the other room. With a half-eaten slice still clamped to her teeth, she crept through the doorway. She needed to know if she could risk resting any longer, or if she needed to be prepared to run.
Not that she wasn’t prepared to run. Likki was always ready to run.
Except for the TV and the crackle of a fire, the house was quiet. As Likki took another few careful, quiet steps, her shoes in her outer jacket pockets so she wouldn’t lose them, she came around to the front side of the couch facing the TV.
A woman was at the end of the couch, a book open on her lap. She leaned on one hand, elbow propped up by the couch cushion. Her other hand was buried in the thick brown hair of her daughter, whose head lay on her mother’s lap. Both were fast asleep, wrapped in blankets and seated near the still-crackling fire.
Likki just stared at them for a moment. She wondered what they were watching. The TV looked like it was on the news, but she wasn’t quite sure. They were still talking in another language. If she had to guess, it sounded like English, but Likki didn’t know it very well.
”…Mexican Peso depreciated by another significant margin today, as President Zedillo allowed the currency’s exchange rate to float. Investors are abandoning local markets for foreign ones, particularly after claims by the Zedillo government to not devalue the peso were abandoned two days ago on the twentieth. Experts suggest a continuing downward trend in the value…”
She stopped trying to pay attention. There were graphs and charts and things, but Likki hadn’t really been in school enough to understand what was going on. She knew how numbers worked, and she was pretty good at math, but it didn’t really matter to her. What good was math when she’d never actually have any money?
Likki finished the last piece of bread. She was considering walking behind the couch and sitting closer to the fire, but something about the duo had her stuck in place. Likki felt something, deep inside her, a longing desire to be just like her.
Not like the little girl. Likki didn’t have parents, and she didn’t want them anymore. It had been too long. She wouldn’t accept them even if they did show up. But… watching the woman, seeing a girl curled up next to her, fully trusting in her to keep them both safe and warm and fed…
She wanted that.
The little girl’s eyes fluttered open.
Likki tensed up. If that little girl opened her mouth, Likki would run, as fast as she could. She wasn’t going to disturb this scene, this family.
The little girl didn’t open her mouth. She slowly lifted one hand, and gave Likki a little wave.
Likki very slowly, with dull pain still tracing the joints of her arm, lifted her own hand and waved back.
The girl smiled. She opened her mouth.
Likki bolted. She wasn’t about to wait around for anything the girl might say. She ran for the back window, heedless of the pain, shoving each shoe back onto her feet as she went. The woman had woken up with a start, and Likki heard another voice calling after her, but she was already gone.
She burst out through the window, back into the yard, across the snow—for once, she didn’t bother to follow the existing footsteps—and over the fence. Likki ran back into the city, back to the streets and alleys she knew best.
Finally, just as she was starting to get exhausted again, she slowed down. There was a joulukuusi in a warm-looking corner, sitting in front of a store already closed for the night. It was sheltered from the wind, and nobody else was in sight. Likki could disappear there, since somebody would have to walk between the tree and the wall just to see her. She’d found a perfect place to set up for the night.
Likki took up a spot just behind the tree, out of sight from the street proper, and pulled out another slice of bread. She wasn’t very hungry, but it was still warm, and she wanted as much as she could while it was fresh.
As she ate, Likki looked up at the tree. This was her tree, she decided. She’d get presents under it this year, one way or another. Or maybe, she realized, she’d already gotten them. She’d gotten a new knife, food, and a warm place to sleep that night.
It wasn’t what she wanted though, as Likki wrapped up for the night. She looked up at the sky, where the clouds were drifting away, and found her favorite star. Likki closed her eyes and made a wish, just like she did every year in December. Normally, she wished for simple things, like a better place to sleep or better food. She used to wish for a real home, but she’d stopped expecting that to ever happen.
I want to be like that woman on the couch, wished Aulikki that night, as she opened her eyes again and found the star. I want to have a daughter. I’d keep her safe and warm and full, and I’d never make her sleep on the street. I’d take care of her.
I want to be a mother someday, she wished, as her mind drifted away and she fell asleep, safe in her little spot behind the tree on the streets of Helsinki.
December, nineteen ninety-eight, somewhere in Europe.
They were coming.
She wanted to break free, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good. They’d bring her right back again. Aulikki’s friends had been disappearing one by one—friends might have been too strong a word, actually. She’d call them associates, living companions at best. They watched each other’s backs, but other than that, there was no warmth, only fear. They lived together, and naturally built up some kind of group bond, but it was purely for self-protection.
Every girl in there was afraid when they’d come, and today, they were coming for her. Likki wasn’t sure how she knew it was her turn, but she did.
Likki cursed herself every day for getting taken. She knew she was getting older, knew they’d be keeping an eye out for her. She was exactly the type they always wanted, the best they could sell. In some weird way, she felt pride at that—she was wanted, even if only by some sick men with horrible perversions.
But she’d messed up. She’d been heading home, carefully tracing her steps as always, but she hadn’t checked every street. They were waiting for her. Likki was certain someone else on her street had given her up.
There was no way they could have found the entrance to her newest living space. She was so careful, so meticulous about making sure nobody ever followed her. Only the few other people on her street, normally all trustworthy, could even hint as to where it was hidden. They’d caught her just outside, preparing for the jumps and gaps it took just to get in.
She wondered if anyone would ever find it, on a tiny ledge stuffed between two buildings, high in the air, warmed by the outflow of a building’s ventilation. It even had power. She’d managed to gather a nice collection over the last few years, ever since she’d fled from her original home on the other end of Helsinki. She even had a miniature refrigerator and a cooking stove, leeching off an outlet in the side of the building from a carefully concealed extension cord she’d taken out of a hardware store. It was the perfect little home for her, high above the world where she could watch everyone.
Likki wondered if she should have gone back across the city. It would have been painful, but… maybe she wouldn’t have been taken.
The door banged open. Men walked in, masked in black. The other girls in the room shrank back, but they zeroed in on Likki… exactly as she expected.
She tensed up. They could try, but they weren’t going to take her without a fight.
In her hands behind her back, Likki held the rusty nails she’d pried out of the wall. She clutched them between her knuckles, waiting. The men walked across the room, which suddenly seemed impossibly long and narrow. They kept coming, as a wall filling the whole space, and every step took an eternity. Likki waited, and waited… and waited.
The first man was close enough.
She leapt forward, not a sound escaping her lips, and plunged her fist into his chest. The nails pierced his clothes and sunk deep into his skin.
He tried to shove her away, but she was already moving. Likki withdrew her hand, and to her relief, the nail heads were strong enough that she could pull them out easily. Blood dripped from the ends, but her grip was still tight.
To her surprise, the other men simply laughed. The one she’d stabbed was raging, still making swings at her as if drunk, but the rest simply seemed amused. Likki didn’t really understand, but she didn’t care. As long as none of them got near her, they could laugh all they wanted.
The first man shouted some long string of Estonian she couldn’t quite understand. Something about his companions and being a bunch of assholes, but his accent was too thick for her. The rest of them calmed down, though they obviously weren’t taking their friend seriously. The largest of the group—and therefore the leader, by the usual standards of brutes like them—pointed at Likki.
”Tule meile. Nüüd.” Follow us. Now.
Likki shook her head. She wouldn’t speak aloud to them either. Her hands were still at the ready, nails extended like claws. If anyone came close, she’d take them down.
The first man growled incomprehensibly and rushed her again. Likki ducked under his wild punch and struck again, right in his stomach. The nails raked lines of blood across his skin. He grunted in pain and backed away.
The other men weren’t laughing anymore. They were watching. The man took another swing at Likki, which she dodged yet again. He was a terrible fighter, relying only on strength. Likki could take down a man that stupid any day of the week without breaking a sweat. The nails found their way into his arm this time, as he desperately tried to block. She lost one of them, but still had more than enough nails to spare and keep him at bay.
Something about his tone made Likki look up. The leader had drawn a gun, and was pointing it at one of the cowering girls in the corner. He stared Likki in the eyes. The girl was too afraid to move or fight back, and they both knew it. He didn’t need to say anything. Everybody understood what he was threatening.
But he made one mistake. Likki wasn’t friends with any of these girls.
The man in front of her was still distracted. Likki stepped forward and slammed her knee into his groin. As he dropped low, her fist slammed into his face.
He crumpled, right at the same time the leader fired his gun. Everyone in the room winced at the burst of pressure on their ears. A few of the other girls shrieked.
The cowering girl collapsed, one bullet square in her brain.
Likki didn’t budge a muscle. She didn’t know these other girls. She wasn’t part of this group. She’d only lived on that side of town for a year, and never made any friends, or even anything close to friends. These weren’t her people—if she even had people.
The leader looked surprised at her lack of reaction. He hesitated, then lowered the gun. The other two men from the original group of four were watching the one on the ground bleed out. One of them made a sick joke, and the other made a face. The leader shrugged, and fired the gun again.
The man on the ground stopped groaning.
”Sa võitled hästi,” said the leader, with a vaguely impressed look on his face. You fight well.
She wasn’t sure what he was trying to say. The leader gestured his two men away, and asked her to follow. Likki did, cautiously, with the nails still in her hands. They didn’t seem to be taking her anymore, not like they did the other girls. She still had her weapons, for one. It might be a trap, but anything was better than the dark room, with its pale green walls and the fresh corpse on the carpet.
Likki wondered if they were going to clean it up.
They went into another room in the building, much better lit, and with comfortable chairs and blankets. Likki was offered coffee, which she declined, and then hot chocolate, which she cautiously accepted. She drank it one-handed, still on her feet in the corner with the nails held tight in her other.
The leader sat down at a small table and began to explain. They were members of an Estonian organization born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, now looking to expand their operations further west. She’d been picked up and sold to them straight out of Helsinki by the Russians, and she was to be moved out today and put on the market.
Likki shook her head. “Kukaan ei omista minua.” Nobody owns me.
The man nodded. He agreed with her. In fact, he wanted her to be an enforcer for them, rather than working a bed or getting sold to a high-profile client. After seeing her able to take out a much larger man with ease, he was impressed.
She hesitated. She told him she wouldn’t do anything like what the Russians had done to her. No kidnapping girls off the streets. He agreed, again to her surprise. They would use her to protect shipments, retrieve lost items, whatever else needed doing. He felt she’d be far more valuable to them out there, especially since she seemed “cold as the ice on the street outside”.
Likki didn’t agree with him. She knew he thought that because she hadn’t stopped him from killing the other girl, but it wasn’t because she didn’t care. Likki hadn’t protected her because she knew the other girl was dead already. They would have killed her, or she would have been sold off and killed later. Likki had a chance, but the other girl didn’t. Stopping for her sake would simply get them both killed.
If that made her cold, so be it.
She finished her hot chocolate before answering, just in case they were going to take it away. After she agreed, the man escorted her—without touching her, nor letting any of the other men near her—down to an armory. He told her to pick out a weapon, and they’d teach her to use it. Anything that caught her eye was hers, if she worked for them.
Likki browsed, but nothing stuck out. There were pistols, knives, even a sword stuck in a corner. But, at the end of the row, Likki found a wooden rifle. The brown stock reminded her of the tree, the one she’d slept under back home. Carefully, she picked it up off the rack and examined it.
For a moment, she wondered if it was armed, but the man quickly explained it wasn’t. If she wanted to kill him, she’d have to use her nails again. Likki didn’t react, so he continued to explain. The rifle was actually from Finland, which made her feel a little bit better—Finland, in her mind, was far better than Estonia or Russia, or anywhere else they were going to take her. It was called an M/28-30, and it was a little old-fashioned, but it still did its job—it killed people.
She took it off the rack and held it up, like she’d seen in an American show once in an electronics store window. It felt right, pressing into her shoulder, with her eye tracing the lines of the rifle all the way down to the tip of the metal barrel.
”Tämä on minun,” she said, the first words she’d spoken since agreeing to the work, back in the other room. This is mine.
The man raised his eyebrows, but Likki ignored him. No matter what he, or anyone else said, that rifle was hers, and would be forever from that day. She’d take care of it, she’d keep it safe, and she’d use it well. She’d protect it, and in return, it would protect her.
They left shortly after, and got into a truck that pulled away from the compound into the deep snow. Night was already falling, since it was so late in the year. Glancing around, she didn’t see any street signs, or really any sign of where they were in the world. All she knew was that they weren’t in Finland anymore, according to the man driving the truck. Likki looked up out of the window, the rifle across her lap in the back seat, and gazed into the sky.
She found her star, and wished for her, just as she had last year and the year before—that this December would be better than the one before it.
December, two thousand, in Afghanistan.
Their leader was shouting again. Likki ignored him for the most part. She couldn’t understand him anyway. He was speaking whatever language they spoke here—something like Pas-doh, or Pushtu, she hadn’t really been paying much attention to that part of their instructions—ranting about something she didn’t care for.
It didn’t matter. Likki was here to do her job, like she always did. That’s what they paid her for. Only, this time, for whatever reason, she’d been loaned out, along with a few others, to come help the Taliban in Afghanistan. She had no idea what they were doing there, or why the Taliban could possibly need help from a few random enforcers, but it didn’t matter.
As long as she could go home eventually. It was too dry here. She missed the snow.
Finally, they climbed into trucks and set off. They bounced along rough roads, or sometimes no roads at all. One of the trucks at the front of the convoy had a gun mounted in the bed. Hers was toward the back of the small convoy, with the other three members of her team and a translator driving.
Likki was the only girl in the whole group of twenty or so, but she was pretty sure nobody knew she was a girl. Her clothes were loose enough to hide her appearance, and she wore her hair short lately, after a fight where long hair became a serious liability. Between that, the thick clothes, and the face concealment to shield out the dusty wind, Likki didn’t really look any different from her companions.
So long as she never spoke, of course. Not that Likki ever needed to speak on a job. Her rifle spoke plenty.
A village was coming up ahead. Their trucks were starting to spread out, kicking up huge clouds of dust as they encircled the place. Likki was starting to get suspicious. What were they doing out here? This didn’t seem even remotely related to their typical work. She had a vague idea of how the Taliban operated, but how was that even remotely related to her?
Likki leaned forward in her truck bed, dropping her voice so it wouldn’t be overheard by their translator. “What are we doing here?” she asked.
It was standard procedure to avoid using Finnish, Estonian, Russian, or anything that could link back to them while out of their territory. They didn’t do so well with accents, but the leadership insisted, so Likki went along with it. She was picking up languages fast anyway—Finnish and Estonian weren’t very different, and Russian she picked up very quickly after realizing how much she’d need to use it. English was her latest acquisition, and she felt like she already had a pretty good grip on it.
In some small part of her mind, she’d wanted to learn English because she wanted to go to America someday. She’d heard all about America from some of the older members of the organization—how the mighty empire had won and toppled their Union, how everyone there ate like kings and lived in massive homes. She didn’t really believe them, but she still wanted to see it for herself someday, one way or the other.
Her associate shrugged. “We do what he say,” he replied, nodding at the translator. “Orders of boss.”
”He’s not one of us,” said Likki carefully.
The man shrugged again and looked forward, clutching his AK-47 between his legs. Likki leaned back, since she wasn’t going to get a real answer, and examined her rifle. It was getting dusty from all the wind, but cleaning it would be futile in their rush toward the village. The place had been fully encircled now, and two of the trucks—the one with the machine gun and another—were driving into the center now. Her truck followed them in.
”Everyone!” their translator supplied as the apparent leader of the Taliban group stood atop his truck. “Out of your homes right now!”
Two of the men in the lead truck fired their rifles into the sky. Likki winced at the waste of ammunition and the carelessness. Still, she couldn’t deny it was effective.
From every door in the village, people streamed out. Men holding their children, women wrapped up tight, everyone practically stumbling over each other as they hurried out into the open. They all knew there was no point in running or hiding. The little village was surrounded. Trucks were still circling the place, engines roaring and echoing off the hills at the edge of their land. Goats bleated from a pen nearby, terrified.
The Taliban leader grabbed five men, seemingly picking them out of the crowd, but Likki was almost certain he’d chosen at random. They were shoved down onto their knees in front of the well around which the village had been built. Two of them raised their eyes to the sky, murmuring prayers under their breath.
”We are in charge,” said the translator, as the leader of their group began a rant. “We have come to bright together all the peoples of Afghanistan, but you refuse us? The world is against us! Afghans must unite!”
Likki got out of the truck. She leaned against the warm body, gazing at nothing in particular. She felt bored. This was pointless. The villagers weren’t about to start attacking them, and the Taliban were more than well-armed. What was she doing there? What were any of them doing there? Why did they even care about this little village in the middle of nowhere?
”…so they pay the price!” said the translator. Likki looked up, just as two of the Taliban soldiers executed the five men in front of the well.
She winced. The crowd fell on their knees, pleading. People were crying. It all seemed so… so meaningless.
”Have you learned your lesson?”
Likki looked back up at the sky again. One of her team glanced at her, curious, but this was a common thing for her. Everyone knew that the quiet Finnish teenager with the rifle was always obsessed with the stars. It was the middle of the day, of course, so they couldn’t see them yet, but everybody knew she was still looking. None of them ever knew why, of course, nor that it wasn’t the stars—just one in particular.
No matter where she ended up in the world, Likki always made sure she could find her star, and knew there was still hope.
Something else was happening, but Likki didn’t feel like looking down. There would be more ranting, maybe a little more killing, and then it’d be over. They’d leave, she’d ask again if she could get out of the country and go back north, and invariably one of them would say no. It had been over a month now, the longest job they’d ever been sent on.
”…and now we have allies from afar!”
”Likki,” murmured the closest of her companions.
She looked down. The translator was looking at her expectantly… as was the speaker in the center of town. She walked forward, rifle in hand, unsure what was about to happen. The man beckoned her forward, looking excited, almost friendly. She resisted the urge to recoil from him.
The man spouted a sentence in Pashto, pointing at the head of the kneeling pair in front of him. Likki had no idea what he’d said, but the meaning was more than clear.
She was to kill this one.
The rifle came up. Likki’s finger curled out over the trigger guard, just outside, ready to strike. She looked down the sight, checking her aim, even though the target was less than a meter away. As her eyes adjusted, Likki caught—only for a moment—the faces of who she was meant to kill.
A young girl, clinging to her mother’s breast, and a sobbing woman’s eyes pleading for her life.
Likki knew it was insane, but for an instant, she saw the face of the girl back in Helsinki, on the couch in her home just before Christmas. She hesitated, her finger hovering over the trigger, and knew they were already suspicious. Likki was the ice-cold killer. This was why they’d wanted her, why they’d sent her in and chosen her to kill this woman.
Under any other circumstances, Likki would kill anyone, without hesitation, without a single emotion crossing her face even as she buried her true feelings deep in her heart. She killed, simple as that, and this should have been no different.
She couldn’t do it.
The man repeated whatever he’d said, a little more urgently.
Likki’s finger curled forward again, but she’d already made up her mind. This was just a show now, just a play she was acting out while she plotted her next move.
No matter what happened, she was going to make sure that little girl survived.
The man asked a third time, and took a step forward—and Likki struck.
She slammed the butt of her rifle into his groin, too fast for him to react. He crumpled. Before anyone else realized what was happening, Likki had turned and fired a round into the gunner on the back of the technical, knocking him out out of the picture as well.
She ran for cover, just as the quickest of the Taliban soldiers were lifting their rifles to retaliate.
Gunfire erupted through the village. People scattered in every direction. Likki dove into the nearest home with a window, rolling across the floor while glass shattered above her. She crawled over the rug and past a water jug. As soon as she’d turned the corner into the kitchen and stood up, a bullet slammed into it.
The jug burst. Water splashed out all over the floor, soaking into the rug, covering her boots. Likki winced, remembering her frozen shoes that night, and twisted around. Her rifle found an easy target—one of the soldiers had rushed into the house after her.
A single pop. He died just as quickly.
Wailing filled the village now, along with so many confused shouts in Pashto, English, and even a little Russian. Likki ran up the staircase onto the second floor of the little home. She knew the soldiers didn’t have grenades. As long as she could keep anyone off the mounted machine gun, they didn’t have anything to flush her out.
She found a perfect alcove, where she could see both the bottom of the staircase and the gun on the technical. A Taliban soldier was just climbing up. She dropped him dead, right on top of the first body still lying in the truck bed.
Engines roared back into the village as the other trucks returned. Likki twisted around and placed another shot into the windshield, but she missed the driver. It still worked, as the driver panicked and twisted the wheel. The truck slammed into a wall, disabled, and with a static target, Likki easily put another two bullets into the men crawling out of crushed cabin.
AK fire peppered her building. Likki’s spot was deep enough that the bullets weren’t penetrating every layer, but the rattle on the wall below was distracting. She had to focus, as she took out another soldier rushing her building.
That made six, out of the twenty who’d come to the village. Or should she count for twenty-three? Were her companions coming to kill her as well? She couldn’t be sure.
It didn’t matter, she realized. Likki was never going back now. If she even made it out of this alive, she was stuck here. They needed the Taliban to transport and guide them. None of her group had a clue where they were.
Likki killed another soldier, someone who thought himself clever by finding a position opposite her in another building on the second floor. The moment he emerged, she put a bullet through his neck. A third soldier tried to get on the technical’s mounted gun, and she dropped him as well.
The engines started to fade. She didn’t hear any more gunfire. Likki waited, holding her position. She didn’t believe them yet, and she knew she’d already found the best spot to defend herself. The village was so bare, and there wasn’t much foliage in the surrounding landscape, just wide rolling hills. Moving would be suicide.
After twenty minutes of quiet, with only the continued wailing of the villagers, someone finally dared to approach her building. Likki took aim, but kept her finger well away from the trigger.
It was the woman she’d been asked to kill.
She took one cautious step forward, gingerly walking over the body sprawled on the floor. Likki wondered if this was her home, by sheer coincidence. The woman took another step, and then another, until she could see Likki’s spot up on the staircase.
The woman said something she couldn’t understand.
”Bezopasnyy?” asked Likki in Russian. Safe? The woman cocked her head slightly. She tried again in Finnish, and the variant in Estonian just in case. “Turvallinen? Turvaline?”
Still, the woman didn’t understand. She looked afraid, but—she hoped—not of Likki. Likki lowered the gun a little, but not so much she couldn’t still shoot if there was a Taliban soldier waiting just out of sight.
”Safe?” she finally tried in English.
The woman’s eyes lit up slightly. She nodded.
”Safe,” she replied.
”You speak English?”
”A little,” she said. “Americans came once. They speak English. I wanted to learn. I go to school and learn English.”
”You speak it good.”
”Well,” she corrected, smiling slightly, but something was wrong. Likki could see it in her eyes.
She lowered her rifle. “Where is she?”
The woman shook her head. “No. Don’t ask. Please.”
The woman led her back out of the building. The men were picking up the guns, piling them in a corner of the village near the crashed truck. Likki saw her three companions being carried away—evidently, the Taliban had expected them to turn as well. A few of their own had died, and every corpse was treated with the utmost care.
The girl was among them.
The woman saw the body and started wailing again. Likki immediately recognized her voice as the one who’d been crying throughout the firefight. She felt pain, an emotional pain she hadn’t recognized in years, and one she’d never wanted to feel again.
A man walked over to Likki cautiously. “You not Russian,” he muttered. “Not them either,” he added, jerking his head at one of the bodies being carried from Likki’s chosen building.
”They come back. They not give up.”
”No,” she agreed. Likki looked at the pile of rifles they were stacking up thoughtfully. She glanced back at the man, but he was already shaking his head.
”Not fighters,” he said, gesturing at the village.
Likki nodded. She was already putting together a plan, positions to set up, places where she could entrench herself. She glanced up at the sky, where night was already starting to fall. Her star was still up there.
She sighed. She wasn’t getting out of Afghanistan anytime soon after all. As Likki got to work, collecting all the weapons and ammunition she could gather, directing some of the villagers to help her get the technical out of sight, and preparing for the inevitable.
Likki found her star, and wished for her again, the same one she made every year now.
She wished that this December would be better than the one before it.
December, two thousand-one, in an unnamed village in Afghanistan.
They’d taken it from her, after a long and grueling war of attrition.
Likki was still alive, to her credit, but she was so low on ammunition and supplies that she didn’t have any hope anymore. Her little camp in the hills near her village was a shell of its former self. The villagers didn’t want much to do with her anymore either. After all, she made their life difficult.
Some of them remembered what she’d tried to do, and encouraged her. The woman had died, though, as had the man she’d spoken to that day. The Taliban came back, more than once, and after the third or fourth try, they finally decided to start killing villagers again.
That was when Likki started using the technical against them.
They never managed to figure out where she’d concealed it. Likki had found a spot which reminded her a great deal of the little nook tucked between buildings back in Helsinki—a gap in the hills where the ground dipped down sharply, almost unnaturally so. She drove the technical up there, and covered it up with netting she’d painted herself to camouflage perfectly into the hills.
When the heavy gun opened up, only the muzzle flashes could give it away, and the Taliban were too busy ducking for cover to spot her.
But it ran out of ammo eventually. She’d been protecting the village for eight months when it went dry. After that, she had to get closer, using her huge supply of AK-47s (and the ammo the Taliban so courteously left behind every time they tried again) and the various trenches and dugouts she’d built.
Likki had a lot of time on her hands.
The villagers provided her food and water, and a couple even talked to her occasionally, but for the most part, she was a ghost. To Likki, it was deeply ironic—she’d become one of those she’d always feared, a specter looming out of the shadows and the secret places, striking where one least expected.
She never gave anyone in the village her name. Likki feared that if her name started spreading, the Obštšak might come back for her. They’d always considered her valuable, sending her on some of their most difficult tasks—and worse, she knew things. Likki had intimate knowledge of their inner workings, gained painstakingly over the years. She knew they’d want her back.
Likki was never going back.
By October, she was running low on everything, and the villagers weren’t very happy with her either. The Taliban, recognizing how hard it was to take her little village, had opted just to cut the whole place off. None of the kids were going to school anymore, they weren’t trading with anyone. The whole place was isolated and lonely.
She wondered why that was a problem. They certainly seemed self-sufficient.
It didn’t matter, Around the end of the month, the Taliban came back. Likki wasn’t caught off-guard, but she just didn’t have enough left to use. She was down to the last few magazines for the AKs, along with a couple hundred shots for her own rifle. Likki dreaded when she had to switch to those. She’d always been planning to save her rifle for an escape, possibly across the border. The technical still had gas, since she hadn’t moved it in months. If she could get the engine started, she could run.
But she’d promised the girl and her mother. Even though they were both dead, she was going to protect this village.
Her old clothes had started to fall apart. One of the villagers graciously gave her a black outfit, long and flowing. They’d long-since realized she was a woman, despite her initial appearance, and it seemed to set a few of them on-edge.
Likki didn’t care, as long as she could keep protecting them.
But she couldn’t.
The village was claimed, and the Taliban added it to their collection. Likki was forced to stay in hiding, and though a few of the villagers managed to sneak her food every week, Likki knew it couldn’t last.
December began, and Likki was on the verge of giving up. She barely had anything left. Rifle and an AK strapped to her back underneath the black outfit and ammunition in her pack, Likki went down to the village. She intended to get as much food as she could before setting off, avoiding the Taliban patrols and the police as much as possible.
It didn’t work out as she intended.
She’d made it into the village when the engines started to roar. Likki looked around, expecting to see the usual complement of Taliban trucks—until she remembered they were already in the village. These weren’t pickup engines either, these were louder.
A loud thump echoed off the hillside. Canisters landed at the edge of the village, billowing white smoke. Taliban soldiers turned to engage, but they were shredded down by precise rifle fire. As Likki ran inside the nearest building and up the stairs, the engines started to get louder.
She reached the top and found a perch, a set of wooden poles extending out over the side of the building with a blanket draped over time. Likki laid down on top, rifle within arm’s reach but still concealed, watching the soldiers roll in.
As she watched their movements—organized, efficient, brutally effective—Likki mentally revised her assessment of the Taliban men she’d always been fighting. Those weren’t soldiers. These were soldiers. They wore tan uniforms, rolling in on humvees, with teams working in tandem to quickly clear buildings. A few were shouting in Pashto, instructing the locals to take cover.
Likki hadn’t learned much Pashto yet, but she recognized that phrase.
The soldiers swept through the village. Likki kept her rifle out of sight, afraid they might shoot if she seemed to be armed. She didn’t look like any of the Taliban soldiers—of course she didn’t, she was female—but she still knew how trigger-happy people could get under pressure. Better to stay low on her little perch, black clothes against the black sheet she’d laid down on, and wait for the sweep to finish, for the soldiers to leave her village again.
Someone shouted an order in English.
Likki hesitated. If they were speaking English… were these Americans?
Another shout in English. Her ears were ringing from the gunfire—she’d forgotten her earplugs, and hadn’t thought to put them in while she was still crouched out of sight. She couldn’t understand them yet, but it was definitely English.
The wailing started up again, just as it had every time a firefight broke out in the village. They hated it. They just wanted to live in peace. Likki knew some of them blamed her staying around as the reason they weren’t left alone. She also knew that if she left, they’d be bothered more, and besides—she didn’t have anywhere else to go.
She waited. The gunfire began to die down. American soldiers were shouting more orders—and she was sure they were American now, they kept saying it over and over—telling Taliban soldiers to surrender, asking the locals to help, taking control. Likki listened close, trying to pick out a leader, gather any information she might need.
The door to her building banged open. Likki was up above the second floor. She peered through the cracks of her perch, watching the soldiers clear the home. They moved up through the stairs smoothly, clearing the left, right, everything.
One of them looked up.
Likki made a split-second decision and didn’t move. She let her rifle sit out of sight. She didn’t grab it.
It saved her life.
The soldier shouted at her in Pashto—either to get down or to hide, she wasn’t sure.
”I speak—” Likki said, then immediately coughed. A huge cloud of dust had wafted past, filling her throat. She cleared it and tried again. “English.”
The soldier hesitated. “What’s your name?”
She hesitated. If her name got out…
He lowered his rifle a little. “You ain’t Afghani, are ya?”
”No. I’m not.”
”Huh.” He let his rifle swing on its strap, raising his hands in a peaceful gesture. “How’d you get all the way out here?“
”It’s a long story.” She glanced around. “Is the village secure?”
”Yeah, all green.” He shrugged, a weird grin on his face. “You know what you look like?”
”A rook. You look like a rook perched up there.”
”…I don’t know that word.”
He screwed up his face a bit, like he was thinking hard. “It’s a bird. Black bird with a pale white face stickin’ out. Just like your pale-ass face.” The soldier shrugged again. “Fuck it, I’m no goddamn poet. You comin’ down or what?”
”…I have a rifle.”
”If I come down, I will be armed. Please tell your men not to shoot.”
”…Ain’t my men.” He frowned. “I gotta take any weapons I find. Nobody armed while we’re here.”
”I will not surrender my weapon to anyone. I am not a threat to you.”
The soldier shook his head. “This is above my damn pay-grade. I’m gonna call an officer, okay? He’ll make the call.” He twisted one of his shoulders forward and clicked a button on his radio. “Yo, LT. Buildin’ six, got a non-local who won’t come out. Can you get in here? Over.”
”I copy, Corporal. On my way.”
They waited in silence, Likki’s hand still prepared to snatch her rifle up in an instant. The soldier was glancing around the room uneasily, his hand clenching around the grip of his own rifle every few seconds. He was still coming down off the adrenaline rush. Likki recognized it from her old days of working with men like him.
This man was more professional, but he was the same as the rest. A heated warrior, a fighter, a passionate killer. He would become enraged, infuriated, frustrated, distracted, and any number of other emotions. This man was just like all the others.
The lieutenant arrived, in the same uniform, but with a few extra radio antennae and other equipment. “What’s going on?”
”Got a woman up there. She ain’t local, speaks English better ‘n you LT. She says she’s armed and won’t give it up.”
His commanding officer looked up. His eyes were soft blue—almost baby-like. Likki remembered them distinctly for many years later. He did not seem like a soldier, even though she saw him fight and kill as viciously as any of the others many times.
”Hello…” He trailed off, glancing at his man.
”Rook,” the corporal supplied with a shrug.
”…Rook,” said the lieutenant, looking back up at her. “Where are you from?”
”Finland,” Likki replied honestly. She believed it a safer choice, in case they quizzed her, and it wasn’t so unique as to trail back to her old employers very easily. After all, they weren’t from Finland.
”Finland?” blurted the corporal.
The lieutenant shot him a look to shut him up. “And what are you doing out here?”
”Protecting this village.”
”Sir,” said another voice. A third man had just walked in, with even more radio equipment stacked on his shoulders. “Talked to one of the locals. We found out why this village held out so long. Wasn’t rebels or nothing. They said they had a ghost protecting them.”
The lieutenant stared at him, dumbfounded—then, in unison, all three looked up at her.
”You held off the Taliban, solo, for ten months?” asked the lieutenant.
She hesitated. She didn’t want to answer, of course, and there was no chance she was about to tell them the truth… but if she said nothing, she wouldn’t get to leave.
And that was the goal, now. Likki wanted them to take her with them. This village was either going to be held by the Taliban or the Americans. It would never be peaceful again, and even if it were, Likki didn’t belong here. She longed for the cold, for snow, for home. The Americans were her best chance to get there.
”I’m trying to go home,” she answered, a truth she could share.
They glanced at each other, obviously dumbfounded.
”This is the weirdest fuckin’ hearts and minds mission I ever been on,” muttered the radio man.
”Well, she’s technically the mission, ain’t she?” said the corporal. “We wanted to know why this fuckin’ place of all places held out so long. She’s it. Can’t we pay her back for all that?”
”I have to call this in,” said the lieutenant. “Jameson, with me.”
The two left, leaving Likki with just the corporal again. He leaned against the wall and pulled out a cigarette, lighting up. After taking a drag, he offered it to Likki. She shook her head—she’d tried cigarettes once, a few years ago, but they only made her feel sick. The corporal shrugged and leaned back again, taking another deep drag.
”So, Rook,” he asked casually. “How the fuck do you hold a village on your own for ten months agains the whole goddamn Taliban?”
He chuckled. “Damn straight. But seriously?”
Likki hesitated. She genuinely considered telling him—but an instant later, she saw something. A woman was sprinting down the road into the village, completely covered up. Likki knew everyone in her village.
This woman wasn’t one of them.
The Americans had started moving toward her. The villagers knew better, and started to shout warnings, but the Americans didn’t understand them. Likki had to act.
She grabbed her rifle. The corporal started to react, but Likki had already taken the shot.
The bullet struck right in the running woman’s chest. An instant later, she exploded.
Americans dove for cover. The corporal ducked inside their building, though he was quite safe. Shrapnel peppered the walls near the explosion, but to Likki’s relief, no one had gotten significantly wounded—American or villager. She’d protected them all, once last time.
She carefully set her rifle back down again, hoping she hadn’t just ruined her chances to leave.
”The runner was a suicide bomber, LT. Not sure who took the shot, over.”
The corporal glanced up at her. Likki nodded.
He grabbed his radio. “LT, come in.”
”Go ahead, corporal.”
”Rook got her.”
”..Say again, Corporal Gearhardt?”
The corporal grinned. “Tell my sergeant we got one more in our humvee tonight. No fuckin’ way are we leavin’ without her.” He glanced up at Likki, now—as she would be known for years to come—Rook. “Come on down. Bring that rifle and whatever else you got.”
Likki started to move, cautiously at first, but the corporal seemed genuine. He smiled again, offering an arm to help her down from the perch with rifle still in hand.
”You’re with us now.”
For an instant, Likki believed him. As she climbed down, casting aside the thick black clothes for her old garments and following the young corporal back into his humvee, Likki looked to the sky again. It was getting darker now, and the stars were just barely beginning to shine in the sky. She found her star once again, and wished for her, just as she had the previous year.
She wished that this December would be better than the one before it.
December, two thousand-ten, somewhere in Afghanistan.
She leaned in on the rifle, watching down the polished wooden rail and the metal barrel, waiting.
They’d been waiting for hours, but Rook could keep going even longer. This was their specialty. Viper was right next to her, as he had been through nearly her whole time in Afghanistan. After the first painful year, they’d happened upon each other in that nameless village. Pure chance brought them together.
The village didn’t exist anymore. It had vanished sometime in the last eight years. Rook wondered occasionally what had happened, but that sort of intelligence never made it down to their rank. She adjusted her position just slightly, freeing up a cramp that had begun to form.
”Movement,” Viper murmured. “Three-fifty-two, thirteen minutes. Seven hundred meters.”
She adjusted. There was a faint speck all the way out there in the hills, barely visible to the naked eye. Rook’s eyes were far better than normal, according to the doctor back at the FOB. She saw things without a scope some soldiers had trouble seeing with every electronic enhancement in the bag. Between her uncanny eye and her deadly aim, she’d cleared the marksman’s exam with one of the highest scores ever seen—and all with a non-standard rifle.
They let her keep the old M/28-30, the very same rifle she’d once pulled out of an Obštšak armory when she was sixteen, though she did have to modify it to allow for long range and other specialized sights as needed. She hadn’t known her old employers were called that at the time—in fact, she wasn’t sure they were called that at the time—but it had been so long now. Rook wondered if they still remembered her. She doubted any of them were still looking for her, at any rate.
Many times, over the years, she’d considered telling Viper her real name. She knew his, obviously—she’d learned it the day she met him. But Viper just called her Rook, or Tess in private. Everyone did. When she’d finally gotten cleared to join the Marines, after a long painstaking process spearheaded by Viper and his lieutenant, she’d put down the name ‘Tessa Hunter’, taking the first name from the cover of a magazine nearby. Even the officer taking her paperwork rolled his eyes, but it didn’t matter.
Nobody cared, because everybody knew who she was, and everyone knew she was worth having on their side.
”Firing.” Rook pulled the trigger. Her rifle cracked.
Viper called it a second later. “Adjust down one.”
”Firing,” said Rook again. She dropped her aim a notch and pulled the trigger.
”On target. He’s done.”
Rook let out her breath and relaxed slightly. Viper rolled over and began to pack up. She glanced over at him.
”Are we leaving?”
”Yeah.” He shrugged. “Well, five minutes anyway. They’re dropping this post. Everyone out.”
She raised an eyebrow. “We just took this position a week ago.”
Viper rolled his eyes. “And now brass thinks we gotta go somewhere else. You know how this shit goes.”
Rook sighed. “Ä lintu varrai laulaa, sen syövät kissat.”
”And what’s that one mean?”
”Impatience will get us all killed.”
She started packing up nonetheless. She might be an official soldier now, but she wasn’t technically a citizen of the United States. She existed in a strange half-state, belonging to no one beyond her squad, and perhaps Finland in some long-lost way. If they chose to leave her, Rook would certainly be abandoned again, left in the Afghan wilderness to fend for herself once more.
She wasn’t going through that again.
”No shit.” Viper rubbed at his arm, scratching an itch inside the sling. Still, they’d held the position, and scared off any attempt at a Taliban approach for days at this rate. “You good?”
”I am ready.”
They climbed out from their perch in the rocks, down the steep rear slope and out of sight of any Taliban-occupied territory. Down below, Rook could already see soldiers taking down the OP. They looked frustrated, even from this far away. As she’d said, they’d only just taken this position, and already, they were abandoning it.
No one understood why. She hated it, they hated it, everyone hated it.
It was beginning to feel like she was trapped again, even though she enjoyed more freedom than she had in nearly sixteen years, when she was still a girl on the streets in Helsinki. She still had to take orders from men she did not respect, whose intelligence and expertise she doubted, and whose professionalism was lacking at best.
Her fellow soldiers were far better, but they too were trapped by the chain of command, stuck at the end of nowhere. Rook’s only relief was that she’d been assigned to an independent position—a scout-sniper pair with Viper, where they could operate in peace, without direct orders passed on by frustrated lieutenants and sergeants as much in the dark as they were.
Well, not without any orders, but far less than she used to receive.
When Aulikki had first followed Corporal Stefen Gearhardt and the rest of the Americans back to their forward operating base, she was first greeted with outright suspicion. They wouldn’t let her in the base until a very long and angry meeting between the lieutenant and the base commander finally gave her access. She walked forward, and was asked for her rifle—prompting another long debate.
Finally, they gave her a place to stay in the corner of one tent section. Viper came to visit her often—though he hadn’t chosen his own callsign yet at the time—keeping her up to date with what was going on, as well as any news on a ride out of the country.
None ever came. After a full year stuck at the FOB, Likki saw the writing on the walls. She went to the lieutenant and asked if she could join them on their next mission. After all, she still had her rifle, and she still practiced every day at their range, scrounging spare ammo where she could. She was a better shot than anyone in the entire base. The lieutenant accepted—all of his men had heard the story of the village ghost, the rook who’d fought off the Taliban all on her own for nearly a year. She rode out on their very next mission.
Two years later, she joined the Marines, in that same unit. The lieutenant had been promoted away, but the rest were still good men, and Corporal Gearhardt was still right there alongside her, through every single mission.
She wasn’t sure why they’d bonded. Perhaps it was pure chance. She didn’t believe in fate. Nonetheless, she and Stefen became a tight-bonded duo, inseparable. They weren’t close by anyone else’s standards, but both of them understood how unique their friendship was—and how far they would go to protect one another.
It wasn’t the same as how she felt about the girl, or the village, or back in Helsinki. Rook didn’t feel as though she was responsible for Viper. They were partners, equals. He protected her as much as she did him. Even with his dead arm, lost to shrapnel a few years back, she would trust no one else with her life. They’d saved each other more times than she could count over the past eight years.
”I dunno about you,” muttered Viper as he climbed into the passenger seat of their scout car. He always rode and operated the radio, while Rook drove. Their vehicle was smaller than most of the humvees around them, built specially to get around faster and over much rougher terrain. “But I’m gettin’ pretty sick of this damn country.”
”I have been wanting to leave since the day I arrived,” Rook reminded him, a touch annoyed. She had infinite patience in the field, but when conversing with Viper in their own vehicle, she did draw a few lines. “And I have been here longer than you have.”
”So why the fuck are we stickin’ around?”
”I am still waiting for you to answer that question.”
Viper snorted. “Fair enough. Here’s my answer: I got a ticket out of this shitshow.”
Rook didn’t respond right away. She wasn’t sure if she believed him. She’d now spent nearly half of her life in this country, and most of it fighting amongst American soldiers. Memories of her home were a distant dream, the vague desire for America a fleeting fantasy. Did she dare let such hopes resurface from the depths she’d buried them?
”Well say somethin’, Tess.”
Rook slowly shook her head, being careful to keep them on the road following the next cloud of dust ahead—the next humvee in their convoy, which she noted with relief had its gunner properly aligned to cover his sector. She glanced at him, and saw it in his face. He was serious.
”Yes,” she said finally.
”My answer is yes.”
”I didn’ ask you anythin’ yet.”
”You were about to.”
Viper grinned. “Want to get out of here?”
”As I said. Yes.”
Rook kept them on track following the vehicle in front. For all the world to see, she hadn’t reacted in the slightest. This was her greatest skill in the field—she never faltered in the moment. When she needed to turn her emotions off, they were off.
Inside, she was elated.
”When?” she asked, not taking her eyes off the road.
”Soon as we set up at the next FOB, I got us an exit. Remember Lieutenant Wynn?”
”Your first commander,” she replied.
He raised an eyebrow. “Yours too, you know.”
She didn’t answer. Of course he had not been her first commander, but Viper would never learn her history.
”Anyway, Wynn got you a ticket out. You’re on a flight leavin’ tomorrow, and I’m along for the ride. Guess they want me to escort you,” he added with a roll of his eyes.
”You would not survive a day escorting me.”
”Fuck, I probably wouldn’t survive ten minutes.”
”…An hour, perhaps.”
Viper snorted. “Anyway. We’re flying out west.”
Rook hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to ask. Viper wasn’t aware of her long-standing desire to visit America, but at the same time, he had to know she never wanted to stay in Afghanistan. As the FOB finally came into view, she couldn’t wait any longer.
”…America?” she asked, breaking her patience for one of the first times in her life.
”Huh?” Viper shook his head. “Nah. Close, though. We’re goin’ to the U.K. I got a friend there. He’ll hook us up with a place to stay, cash, whatever we need.” Viper shrugged. “He’s a rich motherfucker, but he’s one of the good ones.”
”….That cool?” asked Viper uneasily. “I mean, I know you’re from Finland. We could try to get you back there, if you got family or somethin’ you’re tryin’ to fin—”
”I will come with you.”
”…You good, Tess?”
”Mettä antaa, mitä mettäl on,” she replied. The forest gives what the forest has.
”…And that one means…”
Rook didn’t answer him. After a few minutes, Viper turned back to face the road. A radio call came in for a check-in anyway, and he answered it. They rode in silence the rest of the way into the FOB. All the while, Rook reminded herself not to expect anything more than what she had found for herself.
America would be the same as all the others, she knew. She had been disappointed in every new place she went. The U.K. would follow the pattern, but at least she was traveling with someone she trusted—even enjoyed, to a degree. Every December had not been better. Some had been worse, some had been much worse, but none had ever truly improved.
Rook took to it as she did everything else: she endured. This was another year since the first, fourteen years ago—the year she had stopped being a child, the year her life had come crashing to a halt.
Every year, she looked up to her star and wished for a better December, and this was no different. Every year, the most significant events of her life happened in December, and every year, she feared her memories. She focused on the future, on the next one, always looking forward—because to look back was a fate worse than death itself.
Likki looked up to the sky, as she sat outside their tent in the FOB and watched the stars above. She found her star, and she made a wish for her—that this December would be better than the previous one.
December, nineteen ninety-six, in Helsinki.
Aulikki Häyhä stumbled down the street, barely able to keep the bundle in her arms. She was following the gaps in the snow, though of course, she had no idea if it even mattered anymore. What more could happen to her, what worse things could be done?
She’d made it, little by little, painstakingly sneaking through the streets in the dead of night. Who knew what monsters lurked in the shadows—or worse, in the daylight? Likki didn’t just fear the ghosts and the spirits anymore, she feared everything. There were monsters among men, just as there were amongst the dead. Likki had known them all year now, and she had feared them.
She fled from them.
Fear pulsed in her heart with every step. She knew what she was doing ran against every instinct in her body, but how could she possibly turn back? She couldn’t live like this. Not… not with her.
Likki kept moving, forcing her legs forward, though her body struggled against her. Her mind had to overcome every nerve, every muscle, forcefully taking control like a puppeteer fighting the tangled strings of their puppets. Likki took another step, and then another. The snow crunched under her feet.
She realized she hadn’t stepped in the footprints like she was supposed to. Another burst of fear shot through her. Likki looked over her shoulder, half-expected to see someone behind her… anyone.
Nobody was there.
She found a new burst of energy and ran—sprinted through the snow. It seemed like another blizzard might be coming, or maybe that was just how Likki felt. Her cheeks were frozen solid, and she’d lost her scarf somewhere in her rush to get away.
A clock showed eleven thirty-five. It was almost New Year’s. Almost January.
Almost a full week since it happened.
She couldn’t go into the new year like this. Likki couldn’t stand it. She didn’t know what she was thinking. How could anyone in her state, in her condition, in the life she led and the world she belonged to—how could anyone do something like this?
The building was only a few steps further ahead. Her teeth chattered inside her skull. Chills ran up and down every inch of her fingers, but Likki only wrapped them more tightly around the bundle held tight in her arms. She could make it. She had to make it. Even if she died tomorrow, if she never accomplished anything else in her life, this would be enough.
She couldn’t move her hands up high enough to press the bell. They were too frozen. She had to tap it with her forehead. Ice chipped off and stuck to her forehead, dripping down into her eyes. She had to blink it away just to see clearly.
Someone was moving inside.
Likki felt the urge to bolt. Her body screamed at her not to do it. She couldn’t. She mustn’t. This was a mistake.
Her mind fought back, and in the end, the conflict forced her hand.
Light flooded the street, blinding Likki. She stumbled backward, and nearly fell over. Only a last-minute adjustment saved her, and saved the bundle in her arms from spilling out into the slush on the sidewalk. Likki pressed forward, into the arms of the angel outlined in the warm light.
”En ymmärrä.” I don’t understand.
Likki shook her head. She pressed forward again, holding the bundle up into the light, pressing it into the woman’s arms.
”Ota se,” she whispered. Take it.
”Ota hänet,” said Likki, a little bit louder. “Ota hänet!”
The woman started to unwrap the bundle. Her eyes widened.
A faint cry filled the space between them. The snow absorbed the sound, so it didn’t echo very far. No one else would know what was happening. No one else would know what Aulikki Häyhä had done.
No one except herself.
Likki’s heart was ripped out of her as she let go of the bundle. The woman lurched slightly at the sudden weight. Her eyes were welling up, and the tears felt like they might freeze right off her face. Everything hurt, and not just physically. Likki had never known such pain, not in all the fourteen years she’d been alive.
And now there was a new life, one she’d given birth to—not by choice, but there she was all the same. A girl, someone she’d brought into the world, and who she was abandoning only seven days later.
If she ever looked at the girl’s face again, Likki knew she wouldn’t be able to walk away.
Likki turned and started to flee. The woman called after her, and Likki almost made it… but she hesitated. The woman hadn’t asked for her to stop, or to turn around, or anything like that. All she’d asked was a simple question, the easiest question in the world.
”Mikä hänen nimensä on?” What is her name?
Likki looked up at the sky, and found the star—the one she’d been watching as she gave birth seven days ago on Christmas Day, alone, afraid, waiting for the ghosts to come, or the men, or anyone who might hurt her and her daughter. That star had gotten her through the night.
”Esteri,” she murmured, just loud enough for the woman to hear. “Hänen nimensä on Esteri.”
The woman started to say something else, but Likki couldn’t stay any longer. She needed to leave, as fast as she could on her frozen legs and frail body. The cold and dark streets were where she belonged. Her daughter would be better off without her, in the warmth, in the light. She’d grow strong, she’d have a good life, and Likki would stay far away.
As Likki considered going home, she realized she couldn’t go back. That place wasn’t hers anymore. Nowhere was hers. She had to keep moving, had to get out of this half of the city, maybe even the city entirely. She would always be afraid here—afraid of the men, afraid of the ghosts, afraid of her daughter.
Somehow, against every protesting joint in her body, Likki ran. She fled across the city in the dead of night, as the new year ticked over and December ended. Likki decided right then, as the new year began, she would never be afraid again. Something clicked in her mind, some mechanism she had never felt before.
Her whole body seemed to get colder in that moment, her mind frozen solid as she kept moving.
Fear evaporated away, like steam from snow when it was dropped onto a fire.
Likki found a new burst of life, something inside herself to ward away the cold. It wasn’t warmth, exactly. It was control. It was a power she hadn’t known before. Likki took a more confident step, and another one after that.
She looked back up at the star. Likki couldn’t ever look at her daughter’s face, but… that star would be enough. That was her star.
She made a new wish that year. Aulikki Häyhä would make that same wish every single year, even as she crossed continents and ended up in the strangest of situations and most dangerous of circumstances. Always, on a night in that coldest of months when her memories surged back the strongest, Likki would gaze up at the sky, and wish for her daughter’s sake.
Every December, Likki looked up at the sky, found her daughter’s star, and made a wish for her—that Esteri’s December would be better than the one before.
December, two thousand eighteen, in Rallsburg.
Natalie had been asleep for at least an hour now. Riley—or was it Rook, or Tessa, or Likki, or one of a half-dozen names she’d used while working for Malton—leaned against the wall, polishing her rifle in silence.
She didn’t expect any more movement that night. The attack had been repelled, and Brian Hendricks was likely sleeping inside the library, still waiting for his daughter to appear. His men were scattered to the winds, and even the National Guard had given up their search for the night, though they were still casting a net wide around the entire region to catch anyone they could.
The Olympic Forest was finally quiet.
Riley watched Natalie carefully, and she wondered. The girl was thirteen as of this year… Riley remembered all too well what her life had been like at thirteen. If their fates took the same path, Natalie would have the worst experience of her life soon, and everything would change forever, even more than the young girl already believed. Her life could become far more painful and broken than it was.
She wouldn’t let that happen. Riley already saw too much of herself in the girl. There would not be another Aulikki Häyhä.
Natalie was asleep, well covered, and out of sight from the surrounding region. The walls were thick enough to prevent any sudden attacks of the natural variety. As for magic… Riley still didn’t want to use it if she could avoid it. Besides, if Natalie’s exertion was anything to go by, there wasn’t a chance Riley could repel any mystical assault that might come their way.
She got up and climbed back down the half-burned staircase into the bookshop. Scattered pages still fluttered around occasionally as wind drifted into the room. The wolf lifted its head as Riley entered, eyeing her suspiciously. Riley waited, stock still, and eventually the wolf laid back down again, ignoring her.
Riley walked into the back room. She’d noticed a secret room she’d never been aware of before, though of course, she hadn’t exactly had the chance to examine Boris’ shop during her original reconnaissance of the town. The wiley old man had kept a close eye on her in both personas she’d adopted, and she was certain he’d known it was her in disguise. Riley wasn’t easily spotted by most, but Boris was an expert, as the whole world had learned.
His back room had supplies. Not much, after the fires and the magnetic storm, and some were damaged beyond repair, but there was still a good supply. She started to gather what she might need, mostly medical supplies, a few surgical tools.
”What are you doing?”
Riley spun around, rifle in her hands immediately.
There wasn’t anyone there.
The voice spoke a second time, somehow behind her again. “This isn’t yours.”
Riley shook her head, lowering her rifle. She turned, much more slowly, and found Grey-eyes leaning against the far cabinet. The witch wore a scarf and a thicker jacket than usual, and she’d changed her t-shirt to something else, but other than that, it was the same casual look she always adopted.
”Hello, harmaa noita,” she murmured. Hello, grey witch.
Grey-eyes frowned. “Do you really want to call me that?”
”Is it not what you are?”
”I mean…” Grey-eyes shuffled uneasily. “Your boss is the one who attacked me, and now you’re acting like there’s nothing wrong here.”
Riley shook her head. “He was never my boss.”
”Kukaan ei omista minua.” Nobody owns me.
Grey-eyes took a second, cocking her head to the side just slightly. Riley guessed she was casting a spell, some sort of magic which let her understand and speak any language. She fully expected the witch to be able to understand her, no matter what language she spoke, so she used the language of her heart—that which she found the most strength in, the most control.
”So if nobody owns you…” she asked quietly, “why did you do all those things for him?”
”I did not do them for him.”
”For Stefen, then?”
Riley was a little surprised to hear her call him by his name—it wasn’t unknown, but most of Rallsburg had always referred to him by his callsign anyway, as he preferred. Still, she shook her head. “For someone else.”
”…I can tell when you’re lying, you know,” she said, frowning a little. “You’re not totally lying, but it’s still… I don’t know.”
”Why must you know?”
Grey-eyes trailed off. She fidgeted a little, and Riley was reminded of just how young and inexperienced this woman with unimaginable power probably was. Now that they all understood the Gods weren’t truly otherworldly, merely humans who’d awakened like the rest of them, Grey-eyes seemed like an overwhelmed child.
”I did it for no one,” said Riley finally. “I did it for myself.”
”To stay alive,” she answered honestly. “Because I’m not brave enough yet.”
Grey-eyes hesitated again, even more confused. Riley knew she understood just fine, and whatever magic Grey-eyes wielded confirmed the truth of her words, but still, Riley had only introduced more questions. Finally, just as Riley was thinking to start collecting again, Grey-eyes spoke up.
”Who are you?”
Riley shook her head. “I will not lie to you, grey witch, but neither will I offer up my life to you. Do as you will, but know this—I will protect them, even if it means facing against you.”
Riley didn’t answer, but in her head, their faces flashed through her mind.
Lani. Viper. Natalie.
The faceless daughter I left behind. Esteri.
Grey-eyes disappeared a moment later. Riley assumed she was off to awaken another individual, probably someone who had waited until the night’s activity died down. She briefly wondered what Grey-eyes did during times like this, when no one was being awakened and everyone was focused on some major event.
Perhaps she talks to people like me. Broken people. Maybe she intends to fix them.
Riley knew no one else could fix her. Even a goddess had her limits, and magic was no tool to fix what was broken inside Riley—inside Aulikki Häyhä.
When she was done with Boris’ store room, Riley examined the rest of the small store. Satisfied, she went back upstairs, where Natalie was still fast asleep. Her mountain lion had come up to join her, taking up a guard while Riley had been away. As she returned, he shot her a look, and Riley got the distinct impression he was annoyed she’d left her alone.
Riley carefully shook her head, and the mountain lion relented. He curled back up next to the girl, lending his warmth to her, keeping her company through the night.
Maybe that’s her escape. She has others. She has her friends, she has her pets. She will not break as I broke.
She laid back down in her position, set her rifle back into its spot, and settled in. The vibrating alarm on her watch was set for an hour and a half. She would take short naps, checking for an update every so often, while she relied upon the wolf, the cat, and the hawk to keep them safe. A wolf and a cat were far better at sensing an intruder, even above her.
Likki gazed up at the stars one more time before she went to sleep. They were more vivid this December than she had seen in years—too many years spent in the thick lights of military bases, or the city illumination of London.
The last time the stars shone so clearly, Likki had been back in her village in Afghanistan, preparing to protect a whole group of people from an invading force who believed they were in the right, who had the force of God on their side and were coming to right their wrongs, by any means necessary.
Tonight, she protected a single girl, but Likki would not fail this time.
Esteri’s star shone in the sky. Likki made her wish, the earliest she had ever made it—only fifty minutes into the month of December, but still, it seemed fitting. She closed her eyes and went to sleep, in the quiet whispering Olympic Forest, further away from her home than she’d ever been.
She wished, as she had done every year since she’d abandoned Esteri on the doorstep of an orphanage in Helsinki twenty-two years ago, that her daughter would have a better December than the previous one.