CHAPTER 1

February 4, 2000, Katyr-Yurt, Chechnya

Denichen Khamid smiled as he held the phone to his ear. In his mind he could see them as clearly as if he were sitting in his old family sitting room. His mother, Amiina, would have on one of her many layered, colored skirts; the fire would be high and her cheeks rosy from its heat. He could almost smell the wood smoke, fried onions and tobacco.

Laila, his beautiful wife, would be smiling as she struggled to hold Timur on her lap, waiting respectfully for Amiina to finish with her introductions so she could have her own private words with him. In the background, he heard his son squeal and then laugh; his eyes welled up, the pain of the separation magnified by the familiar sounds of his former home.

‘You will be rich and famous Deni, once you have top marks from the England’s Bridge University.’ Her voice cracked slightly with what he guessed was pride.

Denichen laughed softly at his mother’s pronunciation. ‘Cambridge, mama… and no, I won’t be rich, but… comfortable. I look forward to you all being with me soon.’

‘Smartest young man in all of Cambridge, then.’ She laughed.

Denichen knew he had done well in his final exams, and expected to top his year in applied physics. Already several research facilities had been sounding him out and their offers were very generous. He would easily be able to afford to have all three of them move from the small Chechen village and come live with him. One of the firms had even told him they would arrange permanent residency for his family — no easy thing in these distrustful times.

‘Put Laila on now please, mama.’

The old woman groaned and Denichen pictured the phone being traded for his well-fed four-year-old son. His wife’s soft voice came on the line, slightly muffled as he imagined her hand cupped over the receiver and her back half turned away to avoid the critical gaze of his still over-protective mother.

‘I miss you, my love,’ Laila whispered. ‘Timur has drawn a picture of you… in a rocket. He thinks you are a space scientist now.’

He swallowed a lump in his throat as he imagined his son’s small fingers with the few colored pencils they had scratching on the paper, the tip of his tongue sticking out to the side in concentration.

‘Soon, zaichek, soon.’ It was his secret term for her and meant his little rabbit. Denichen was alone in his room, but still he whispered his words. ‘I miss you terribly, both of you… and tell Timur I will hang his picture in my living room.’

His mood turned a little more serious. ‘Are you and Timur well? Is the war staying away?’ Calling it a war was very flattering for the Chechens. More David and Goliath, where David has only one arm. He had tried to follow events from England and had heard that the fighting was still centered in and around the capital, Grozny — only twenty miles to the northeast, and far too close for his liking.

‘Yes, yes, do not worry. Life is good and quiet for us. Maybe a little too quiet for Timur.’ She made a small noise, and then there was a brief pause as though she was remembering something. ‘Um, there was this one thing… ’

He frowned as he listened.

‘Some Chechen fighters passed through the town just this morning. Most making their way to the mountains. It was strange — the Russians allowed them to travel without trouble. They never do that. Perhaps the conflict is over for us now, Deni.’

He was confused — the Russians always stopped the Chechen fighters, if not to kill them, then at least to capture or disarm them. It had been that way since 1994 — even in ceasefires, the distrust and bloodshed continued. He waited for her to go on.

‘It’s all quiet now and the town is getting ready for bed — like Timur should be. First he wants to speak to you. He just —’

‘Mama, lights. Look see.’ He heard his son’s excited voice, and then came the creaking of a chair as his wife must have gotten to her feet.

‘Deni — you should see. There’s a falling star — I’ll make a wish for you. Wait, there’s more.’

Denichen heard his mother in the background. ‘Tell Deni, the Bagapshes next door can see it too — they’ve come out into their front yard to look. It’s very bright.’

His wife spoke again. ‘It’s beautiful Deni. It’s a good luck sign.’ She went on but sounded slightly confused. ‘Strange, there’s more of them now and they’re so bright…’

Denichen pressed the phone harder to his ear. A feeling of unease churned in his gut. Get away from the windows.

A deep thump and then a banshee howl burst from the receiver, causing him to wince and pull the phone away from his ear. He immediately jammed it back against the side of his head.

‘Laila? Laila, please answer…’

There was nothing but a crackling of static. He hung up and quickly redialed, and then again and again…

* * *

Denichen had read the transcript from the European Court of Human Rights again and again, hoping to draw something from the words that simply would never be there. Russia had been held responsible for the civilian deaths in Katyr-Yurt during a secret operation codenamed Red Sky. Like every other time he looked at the lengthy document of facts, he had been left feeling sick and angry.

The twenty-seven vacuum bombs went off, as designed, when they were several dozen feet from the ground. Just like the others, the bomb over his mother’s house would have exploded with a ferocious pressure front of fuel and oxidant that traveled outward at two miles per second and quickly reached temperatures of five thousand degrees. The Bagapshes and anyone else caught in the open would have ceased to exist in an instant.

The blast’s next effect gave the bomb its name — the explosion pulling all the oxygen from the atmosphere. The effect on living creatures that had managed to shelter from the initial furnace was devastating. Soft tissue organs like the eyes, eardrums and even lungs were ruptured or torn out. There was never a need for a second attack.

The evidence gathered for the courts was compelling. Still, no action had ever been taken.

At least not yet.

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