The slow, rhythmic notes from the heart monitor resounded in the silence of the hospital room.
A young man laid flat in the patient bed. He was little more than a boy, having reached adulthood just two weeks prior. His eyelids remained closed and motionless. His pale lips hung ajar beneath the oxygen mask. His entire countenance was one of sickly pallor. There wasn't a hint of youthful health in his image.
His mother leaned in from a chair besides the hospital bed. The shadows beneath her eyes spoke of her exhaustion, but there was little room for fatigue in her heartbroken gaze. Her delicate fingers brushed aside his brown, overgrown bangs and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His body was straining itself just to hang on.
The doctors had warned that he only had a handful of days left. His heart had been born defective, and after eighteen years it was failing outright. There was no treatment other than a heart transplant. Unfortunately for the young man, his family had been unable to secure a donation.
A tear fell from the mother's glistening eyes as her son's slate-blue gaze flickered open. She knew that their hours together had fallen away to only a final few.
"Don't be sad Mama," Alexei spoke faintly in Russian through the oxygen mask. "I've had a good life," a brave yet genuine grin came to his lips. "I'm ready to accept the maker's judgment -- whatever form he may take shape in."
Natalya clenched his thin fingers with a forced smile. A shadow of guilt passed through her gaze, as though berating herself on why she could not show the same courage as her son. He was ready to face the end, yet she could not bring herself to let him go.
Alexei wasn't even brought up to be religious. His father was an atheist. His mother was an Orthodox Christian who didn't receive communion for decades. The son ended up delving five different faiths for answers. But as the gilded Eastern Cross standing above his bed and the strand of Buddhist prayer beads encircling his wrist showed, he never did decide on one of them.
"Is... are they..."
"Your Papa left the airport with him nearly an hour ago," Natalya answered her son's feeble question. "They should be here any minute now."
Apart from the family, Alexei had requested to see one other person before departing this world. Bringing someone all the way from Chelyabinsk, Russia to New York wasn't easy. But as it was their son's final wish, the parents did everything they could to fulfill it.
In that moment, Alexei heard the familiar sound of boots striding down the hallway outside. The heavy footsteps came in perfect marching beat, a lingering habit of his father's time in the army. A softer set followed behind, one that followed a surprising similar beat to the ex-military officer.
A broad grin returned to Alexei's lips as he exerted strength in his arms, trying to push himself into a sitting posture.
"What're you doing? Lay down..."
"Please Mama," his eyes pleaded. "I've always wanted to do this."
With a sigh of resignation, Natalya left her chair and began winding a lever beneath the hospital bed. The bedframe's upper half gradually rose into an incline, and soon it resembled an upright lounge chair. Returning to her seat, the mother adjusted her son's pillows, propping his back until he sat almost straight.
Raising his head directly above his heart only increased its burden. But what was a few minutes of life when compared to fulfilling a wish?
The door handle spun, and Alexei's father Nicolai walked in first. Following him was the man who came all the way from the other side of the world. Brown haired and tall, the thirty years old man held the lean musculature of a marathon runner. And just like in the photos, his bright-brown eyes and shaven, chiseled chin formed a visage handsome enough to match any Kremlin honor guard.
Stiffening his arm, Alexei brought it up to his head in a formal military salute.
"Fleet Commander Ataman!" His voice rang louder than it had been in months. "Comms officer Elixeievna reporting!"
For a moment, the man addressed 'Ataman' was caught between surprise and the urge to step forward to make the boy go back to rest. Then, as though struck by realization, he stood straight, stiffened his chest, and saluted back with a grin.
"At ease, Captain," he then added, and at last Alexei lowered his hand.
"I've always wanted to do that," the younger man wore a bright smile despite his coughs, as one of his lifelong desires had been crossed off the list.
The mother looked bewildered. But the father smiled with nostalgia. Nicolai understood, and from the door he beckoned Natalya to join him:
"Let's give them some time alone."
"You wouldn't understand," Nicolai shook him head. "You've never been in the military."
"But neither has he..."
The rest of Natalya's protests grew muffled as Alexei's father dragged her outside. The two young men were left by themselves, who exchanged amused smirks like two same-age boys despite over twelve years of difference.
"You know, you're even younger than in the pictures," 'Ataman' spoke as he spun the chair vacated by Natalya and sat down on it, his chest leaning forward against its back.
"Been too sick to have my growth spurt."
Eighteen or not, Alexei was barely over five feet. The fact he entered puberty particularly late didn't help either.
"And it's been what -- four, five years since we first met?"
"Four years, seven month, give and take a few days." Alexei nodded with a brief cough. "Not that we really knew each other at first. Not until the Siege of C-J6MT after I officially became your second... Do you still remember?"
The younger man put on a mask of concern as he repeated the same cry from years ago:
"Enemies behind... we've been surrounded!"
'Ataman' smirked back like a wolf hunting for dinner.
"Well they cannot escape us now! We shall have ample opportunity to force their surrender!"
"Of course I remember, Lyosha," he used Alexei's diminutive, a name spoken between only the closest of companions. "How could any of us forget? Seventy pilots; three days of fighting without rest. We drove back wave after wave of assaults. In the end half of us fell asleep in our seats. But we did it! We held the line, against almost six-to-one odds whom nobody else thought possible!"
"And in doing so we defended not only the honor of our people, but our own pride," Alexei nodded.
Born to an ex-Soviet diplomat father -- who immigrated to the United States after the Soviet Union's collapse -- Alexei had endured anti-Russian slurs all his life. During his adolescent years when his health still allowed him to attend school, Alexei had been bullied relentlessly by other children for his nation of origin. Classmates would point to him as the 'Red Menace'. They stuck papers to his back and vandalized his textbooks with the word 'Commie' in red crayon. They accused him of being a spy, and told him many times to "go back to your country".
Some even went as far as to claim that his sickness was divine punishment for his godlessness, that his body was rotting from within just like the evil Soviet Empire had.
Alexei thought he could leave all that behind when he joined Red Alliance -- a Russian-speaking player group in the game EVE Online. But hate didn't stop at the boundary between real and virtual space. Torrents of anti-Russian propaganda preceded the start of the Great EVE War and the invasion of Red Alliance territory. The Western European alliances claimed that the Russians were cheaters, alcoholics, and criminals, that many of them held a connection to the Russian mafia. They painted the Russian players as poor wretches who drowned themselves in Vodka, who went as far as selling sisters and daughters as 'Russian brides', just to afford an escape into virtual reality where they dreamed of rebuilding their evil empire.
The Russians in turn never forgot. Even when the opposition made overtures of peace, the Red Alliance leaders would respond: 'No. We remember what you've said. You're going down.'
"So this is the charity group you built," 'Ataman' looked impressed as he examined a photo of thirty-plus people, all standing around a teenage boy in a wheelchair.
"That photo was a year ago. Twice the size now," Alexei answered with pride.
"I take it that EVE had something to do with this?"
"Quite," the younger man's smile turned a little wry. "I still remember how it all started -- in middle school -- when my heart's condition worsened and I couldn't attend school any more. That was when I picked up gaming and joined you all, Grisha."
'Grisha' was the diminuitive of 'Ataman's real name: Grigoriy.
"It really saved me, you know," Alexei's gaze met his partner's brown orbs. "I was unbelievably depressed back then. I never felt like I belonged here during my school years."
"I can imagine," Grigoriy grimaced. "In the land of our Cold War adversaries, right after that bastard Gorbachev destroyed our Motherland. If an American boy moved into my town, I can certainly think of plenty who'd take out their frustration on 'the enemy'."
"It's far worse than you might think."
Alexei sighed. He knew he probably vented this exact topic on at least a dozen previous occasions, but nevertheless Grigoriy listened.
"We Russians are at least naturally skeptical towards government propaganda. We're cynical by culture, enough to realize that our existing knowledge might be false and we're ready to question it. Who knows what falsehoods the state might have put in our heads in their attempt to make the Capitalist West look as awful as possible."
"--Newspapers good only for wrapping our fish!" Grigoriy interjected, and Alexei chuckled at the old, Soviet-era joke.
His smile then vanished.
"But the Americans? It's hard to imagine how politically ignorant some people can be. It doesn't help that their media tells half-truths, sweetened with just enough facts to hide its stuffing of extreme bias: sometimes manipulative, sometimes downright malicious. So when I went to school, they would spew out the most hideous nonsense. Like how the Motherland sent unequipped soldiers to charge the front lines while machine-gunning them from behind -- as if our grandparents could have destroyed the German army by being utter idiots!"
"Enemy at the Gates, the manure of Hollywood -- and they just, eat it whole?"
"Like honeycakes," Alexei shook his head in disbelief. "I was still in school when that released on video. I remember some of the boys' reactions. Even when I tell them recollections from my own grandfather --who was there at Stalingrad-- they refused to believe me. Claimed I was the one 'brainwashed' by Soviet propaganda. Idiot pots calling kettle."
"No wonder you were so fervent during those first days of the war."
Alexei could only offer a wry grin in return. Just like in the Great Patriotic War -- the Russian name for World War II -- Red Alliance found themselves ill prepared for the start of the Great EVE War. The Red Fleet suffered a string of disastrous defeats and was decimated in just a few weeks. Morale collapsed like a deck of cards and its players began to desert.
By the third month of the war, the organization which once held hundreds was down to just seventy pilots. But these final seventy, which included Alexei and Grigoriy, refused to surrender. They refused to just abandon their self-respect and leave.
They swore an oath: that they would recover their territory and take revenge.
They stayed behind enemy lines, and launched a guerrilla war of resistance in an online, virtual game.
They harassed the invaders' supply lines, laid ambushes for hostile patrols, and assaulted lone enemy outposts. They fought through hundreds of skirmishes, and slowly organized themselves into the finest and most tightly-knit fighting force in EVE Online.
...And that, was how their saga began.
They became the legendary Death Squadron, named after their leader 'UAxDeath'. They went on to fight the epic Siege of C-J6MT, winning despite overwhelming odds and inspiring an entire generation of players.
It was their Siege of Leningrad, their Battle of Moscow. It was the pivotal moment, when the Russians found a new rallying cry and returned in numbers, when the entire war turned for the first time.
It also laid the foundation for the birth of the now infamous RedSwarm Federation: a combination between the Russian Red Alliance and the American Goonswarm Federation. The coalition was sealed by an American diplomat-spy whose day job was in the US State Department, who had watched the battle unfold and decided that there was no greater allies than the relentless Russians.
"Red Alliance gave me a place to be myself," Alexei beamed with nostalgia as he thought of the war and its battles, when he defied his parents and woke up at godforsaken hours to fight shoulder-to-shoulder alongside his brothers.
It may have taken years off his life, but it had been worth it. To go into battle knowing, for certain, that every one of your companions spoke with their truest sincerity, that every one of them would gladly watch each others' backs.
Alexei couldn't help but think of that one line coined by the game's community, the one line that both of them felt in their hearts during the countless hours they spent in virtual space:
"EVE is real."
It doesn't matter if it was just a virtue game or if they all flew in digital starships. The struggles they went through. The battles they fought in. The camaraderie they built to share. They might not compare to the mountains of Afganistan where his father fell wounded, or the rubble of Stalingrad that his grandfather once fought through.
But they were nevertheless real.
His father understood. His grandfather would have understood.
"But RedSwarm..." Alexei thought aloud. "When we fought the Great EVE War alongside our American comrades... that was when I truly accepted myself."
"You did grow up in America," Grigoriy patted the younger man on the shoulder in understanding. "Doesn't matter where we are, it's always better to feel that the society we live in accepts us for whom we are. And there was no place better to unravel stereotypes and truly learn about one another, than fighting side-by-side through a great war."
Alexei smiled back as he nodded. Grisha always was a good listener, a dispenser of mature advice as well. It was why Alexei looked up to the older man all these years.
"Doesn't it make you wonder though?" The younger partner added. "If our grandparents had fought with the Americans and British on the same battlefields, instead of coming from two different directions, then maybe the whole Cold War could have been avoided."
"Perhaps." Grigoriy took a moment to contemplate. Then, with a chuckle: "you were always the philosophical one. I still remember how people in our group called you a 'dreamer'."
"I call it 'wisdom'."
Alexei lit a toothy smile, which prompted Grisha to bark:
"Hey now! Don't be going 'old man' on me! I'm the senior here!"
The two of them laughed.
"But that's why, after the Great EVE War, I decided to work with my doctors to start up a charity organization." Alexei paused as he looked down at the photo that Grisha still held, their conversation going full circle at last. "If a fulfilling online life could give confidence and purpose to a homebound boy like me, then why can't it benefit other sick children in the same manner? If shared experiences in virtual space could bring Russians and Americans together in our post-Cold War atmosphere, then why can't it bridge our divisions in the real world?"
Grigoriy grinned, certainly at the former. He didn't look entirely convinced by the latter. But even then, his brown gaze revealed that at least a portion of him would like to believe it.
"That part of you," he pointed his finger. "Definitely speaks American influence."
There wasn't any actual accusation or condescension in his voice, so Alexei only feigned outrage in return:
"Hey! That doesn't make me any less Russian!"
Grigoriy laughed. "Of course not, Lyosha. Of course not."
Hours of conversation passed in what seemed the blink of an eye. Before long, the two were eating food from a nearby restaurant which Natalya brought back.
Alexei always did have a craving for Italian cuisine. His Milanese Ossobuco wasn't exactly takeout food, but the veal remained juicy and succulent as his knife cut slices off it.
"You know, when Lyosha and I first met, I thought he was a girl," Grigoriy described to Alexei's mother. "I mean -- his handle name, his avatar, even his voice."
"I can't help it that I'm a late bloomer," Alexei pouted.
His gaze did betray a wistful light, although Grisha wasn't keen enough to notice. His mother did though, but she had always misunderstood what it truly meant.
"What can I say?" Natalya tilted her head as she grinned at her son. "He's always been the delicate type."
Grigoriy laughed at Alexei's retort, its tone of annoyance no longer faked this time.
"I've never asked, but what made you pick 'Elixeievna'?"
The older man's question was eager and frank. There wasn't a trace of teasing. Nevertheless the pale Alexei looked away with a faint blush.
"It's from a story I obsessed over as a child..."
Grisha's eyebrows shot up with interest. "Which one? I'm not familiar with the name."
Alexei's lips moved but no sound came out.
It was his mother who ended up spilling the beans:
"Tsaritsa Elizabeth Alexeievna, the wife of Alexander I of Russia."
"The conqueror of Napoleon?" Grigoriy asked. History wasn't his best subject.
Alexei finally nodded, and with a soft, bittersweet tone he began:
"Cupid and Psyche -- that's what Catherine the Great and her court called them. They were soulmates who met as children, and thought the world of one another. But Elizabeth was too gentle for the intrigues of the royal court, too serene to maintain a grip on her husband's passionate yet tormented heart. Their marriage was strained for many years, and only in the final years of their lives was their love rekindled to find solace in one another."
"It's quite a romantic tale," his mother smiled.
Alexei knew that his mother always thought he had a childish crush on the historical empress. She could not have been more wrong.
"And I can't even call it 'too American' this time," Grigoriy half-joked.
"You're not a romantic, are you?" Alexei prodded as his smile faltered.
He already knew the answer. After all, they've been together for years, even if they had never physically met until today.
"Not really," Grisha replied as he lowered his fork and put aside his food, as though to show just how serious he took the topic.
"I do believe in love. But I think that 'romance' -- or at least the modern concept of it -- is greatly overrated. Leo Tolstoy captured it best in Anna Karenina. Passion and romantic idealism ruins lives. It's best we be realistic about our relationships."
Don't I know it...
Alexei thought as he felt his heart cringe. The constant, physical pain that he grew accustomed to escalated as his emotions bubbled in displeasure.
In the end, Alexei only had one regret. He regretted the roll of dice made at his conception. He regretted that he never even had an opportunity to fulfill his fondest wish.
If I could with honor change the circumstances of my life, I would do it with pleasure, his thoughts echoed the words once written by Tsar Alexander I, and marvelled at how fitting it was.
Alexei never told his family what it was. Only that it was the reason behind his final request.
This... was as close as he would ever come to fulfilling it.
On that night, after a series of heart convulsions led to a brief cardiac arrest, Alexei Nikolayevich Voronkov slipped into a coma.
Upon the insistent of his parents, he was taken off life support the next day. After all, Alexei's heart had been steadily failing for years. There was no reason to torment it in the end.
He lived for only 6,590 days, less than a quarter of the average life expectancy in the United States.
------ * * * ------
Lucina Chandrabha Arrius -- though everyone in her life these days called her 'Luna' -- rubbed her eyes before opening them.
So that was how I died, she thought.
She was eighteen years of age now. For a Samaran, that meant she was undergoing the period of 'Recollection': when she would recover fragments of her past lives.
...Or past life, which seemed to be her case.
There were many things she did not yet understand. The terms 'Russian' and 'American' seem to describe the cultural and/or national identities of another world, something that Alexei held a strong attachment for. But what was a 'Cold War'?
She had seen dreams of Alexei playing this 'EVE Online' before, piloting his favorite vessel -- what he called an 'black ops battleship'. However, what she did not comprehend was how different their worlds must be for a ship to glide through the void, which was then emulated on a flat, crystalline screen that one could, somehow, fight wars in.
A remarkable civilization, she had to admire. They could resolve their differences through wars that no longer killed.
If only her world had been the same, her life would not be the way it was today.
Luna stifled an involuntarily yawn beneath her palm. She rubbed her eyes again and blinked away her tears.
The first rays of sunlight had began to stream in through the attic windows. It was time to begin another day's work.
Looking across the room, Luna sighed as she noticed her roommate, Alisa, still fast asleep. As the junior maid of the household, Alisa was supposed to get up first and then wake Luna.
Give her a few more, She stopped herself from calling out. The fairly new girl had only a day to recover from her recent cold.
Pulling herself out of bed, Luna rinsed her face thoroughly with the metal basin of water she filled last night. After drying herself off with a towel, she pulled off the long chemise that she wore to bed and began putting on her maid outfit. Her legs extended through the midsection first, then she pulled the black and white dress up to her shoulders. Her arms went into their respective, puffy sleeves, before she began pulling on the cords lacing her lower back.
It wasn't a corset. Those were only for upper class women who didn't have to work. But the dress did pull tight enough to hug her slim waist.
Luna scowled as her fingers slipped twice. It was hard to do it properly when the cord knotted halfway up her back. This was where Alisa was supposed to help.
Bet I didn't have... this trouble... in my last life.
After all, mens' clothes were so much more straightforward. Actually, men's everything was always more straightforward. If Luna had been born a male like Alexei, she might not be stuck where she was now...
Guess I received 'my' wish, her lips formed a faint scowl. But why did 'I' wish for it again?
It took her several minutes to tie and knot the cords, followed by closing the buttons on her upper back. She then tightened the decorative ribbons wrapped around her upper arms, before pulling on her white gloves.
Her outfit wasn't exactly the standard issue. The expensive violet ribbons alone marked her unusual status in the household. In some ways she was higher than the other servants. In other ways she was lower than everybody.
Moving to the windows, Luna saw that the sun's glow was only just above the horizon. The tiny moon that was her namesake could still be seen orbiting the gaseous, indigo giant which dominated the sky.
There was just enough light to reflect off her handheld mirror. She brushed the wavy, silver-white hair that was the reason behind her name. She spent a quarter hour grooming it every night, but the mornings only offered enough time to tidy it.
It's about time, she thought before crying out:
"Alisa! Rise and shine! The sun is up!"
The mousey girl, barely sixteen years of age, grumbled in her bed. Luna watched her toss and turn before finally yanking away her covers.
"Come on. I've already let you sleep extra. You'll be late if you delay any longer!"
The brunette slowly raised her head with a massive yawn.
"...Just once, I'd like to get a full night's sleep."
"You're in the wrong occupation for that. Try housewife."
Luna sent the casual reply as she sat back down. She lifted her skirt before pulling a white stocking up each leg, plus the matching garters to hold them there. Her fingers laced a pair of heeled boots around her small feet next, and all that remained was her apron and hairband.
"If I could get married to someone nice, I would have already..."
Alisa was still grumbling as Luna finished dressing and strode to the door.
"How are you always so accepting of it?"
Luna stopped just as she was about to depress the door handle. An uneasy feeling spread from her heart, before being beaten back by a sobering alliance of self-discipline and resignation.
"Because I don't have a choice," the soft voice that escaped her lips was little more than a whisper. Then, firmer and louder: "Better to accept a decent job for what it is."
And with that final comment, she pushed open the door and departed for her day.
See the rest of the series here.
- The story of Red Alliance and the Siege of C-J6MT is real. VileRat, who was killed in the 2012 Benghazi attack, negotiated the treaty between the American Goonswarm Federation and Russian Red Alliance to form RedSwarm Federation, one of the belligerents of the 2006-2007 Great Eve War (documented by EVE historian Andrew Groen in his book Empires of EVE I). Many anti-Russian statements which contributed to this conflict were pulled straight out of the book. UAxDeath is also a real character. Ataman and Elixeievna are not, for obvious reasons.
- 'Ataman' is the Imperial Russian rank for supreme commander of the Cossack army.