Chapter 1:

The Drake clan and their black sheep

The Heir of The Drakes - Chronicles of The Drakes Vol. 1

"I'm bleeding to death," thought Ruslan. "I'm really out of luck this time."

His right shoulder and side burned and ached like hell, but he couldn't feel his right arm. He wanted to check his condition, but his right eye saw only darkness, and his left eye perceived everything behind a rippling crimson veil. His body did not respond.

He heard detonations, but very muffled. His head was spinning. A sense of drowsiness began to take over his muddled mind and a cold sensation began to numb him, even in the blazing desert sun.

He felt someone tugging at him, as if he were being lifted. And suddenly there was darkness.

Out of the darkness came a memory.


17 years before...

- Father, who are those men?

The 10-year-old boy on his father's shoulders was amazed at the din of cheers and cheering from the crowd that thronged both sides of the Thames River Bridge, as he pointed inquisitively towards the parade of servicemen, passing by on their march to the harbour, to embark for their various destinations.

Sir William Drake, glancing sidelong at his scion, answered him.

- They are soldiers, Ruslan. They are the protectors of the nation and our people.

Young Ruslan's eyes and mouth widened in a gesture of extreme admiration.

- The protectors of all the people here? - he asked again. - Even you, Dad? And Mom? And Jack and Cathe?

William looked to his right, smiling at his wife Marion, who was holding their youngest son Jonathan, and their eldest daughter Catherine. They smiled back.

- It's not just us, or the people who are here today," his mother told Ruslan. - They protect all the people of Albion.

Ruslan, gawking at his mother, looked back at the soldiers with a gleam of admiration in his eyes.


The sun dazzled Ruslan, who felt as if he was being carried away. He wanted to check on the rest of his soldiers, but he didn't have the strength to focus his eyes, let alone turn his head. He felt a searing pain in his right shoulder and the right side of his head. Corporal Pembroke looked at him and spoke to him, but he could not make out his words. He felt his hand on his left arm, as if trying to encourage him. Suddenly the world began to spin around him, and everything went black again.


9 years earlier...

- I won't allow it! - Ruslan had never seen his father so upset. - I won't let you throw your life away!

- It's my decision! - Ruslan shouted back.

Lady Marion tried to mediate between her husband and son, while her eldest daughter Cathe comforted her younger brother Jack, who was crying at the family quarrel.

- I want to serve a greater purpose! To protect people, don't you understand? - Ruslan was furious, but his voice was as steady as a rock, as determined as he was determined.

- Please calm down and talk about it calmly! - urged Marion Drake.

- If you want to help, do it by improving the quality of people's lives, you have great potential as an AutoLimb technician. Help in that way, from our company, in R&D," said William to his son.

- Father, since I was a child, I have only one dream. To protect people. I can't just sit in a lab knowing I could do more," Ruslan replied.

William couldn't be proud of his son's selflessness, but it was his duty to see that he had the best life possible. What kind of a father would he be if he let him join the army? He could be killed or worse. No, he had to stop him. Even if he ended up losing his relationship with his son, he had to save him from himself.

- If you enlist, don't even think about coming back, because you'll be out of this family! - William howled in a fit of rage.

- William don't...! - Marion tried to intervene.

- So be it then... - Ruslan replied, and turning his back on his family he walked out the door, which closed behind him with a calmness that made a greater impact than any slamming door.

William Drake was stunned. He regretted that outburst more than anything else in his life. He looked at his wife, Marion, who returned his gaze with tears of despair in her eyes. His son Jack's cries echoed in the hallway of the house, interrupted only occasionally by the comforting words of his daughter Catherine, who kept trying to calm him.


When Ruslan looked up again, the stars covered the sky. His men were still marching, even in the dark and cold. He wanted to order them to stop and rest, but he could not speak, he could barely feel any of his muscles. He barely managed to turn his head a little and saw Corporal Perry being carried beside him on a stretcher, her right leg had disappeared above the knee. Corporal Pembroke reappeared beside him.

- Hang in there, Captain Drake, you hang in there - Pembroke's encouragement reassured him.

He tried to answer him, but his voice wouldn't come out, his throat was completely dry. Corporal Pembroke took out his canteen and gave him a few sips of water, as if he had read his mind. When he had drunk, Ruslan tried to speak again, but only a trickle of his voice came out.

- ... situation report, corp... - the syllables couldn't quite make it out of his throat.

- Not very good, Captain," Pembroke replied, "But we'll make it. I promise you that. You hold on. Now save your strength.

Ruslan's vision blurred again, and he lost consciousness.


9 years earlier, Army training barracks, London.

- All right, you scum, stand at attention! - howled the drill sergeant. - I said, stand, you bunch of morons! Even a baboon would be more capable than you!

All the recruits lined up, facing forward. They all had their mats at their feet in front of them. All except Ruslan, who in the end had taken nothing from the Drake estate. But he wasn't discouraged, he wanted to help people, and this was the path he had chosen.

- I'm Drill Sergeant Doyle! - the sergeant continued his welcoming harangue: "When you address me, it will be as 'sergeant', not 'sir', I work for a living, is that clear?!

- Yes, sergeant! - shouted all the recruits in chorus.

- Well, if you can put three words together, you might even be good for something other than shitting your pants! - Doyle replied.

The sergeant reviewed all the recruits as he introduced himself. Occasionally he would stop in front of one of them and berate them or ask them a question.

- Your name, recruit! - he urged the man next to Ruslan.

- Malcolm Oliver, sergeant! - the recruit replied.

- And where are you from, recruit Oliver?!

- From Summerville, sergeant!

- Man, have we got a country bumpkin here! Are you tired of ploughing fields or fucking goats? Which is it, soldier?!

Malcolm didn't know what to answer, just stared at the sergeant with wild eyes as his mind tried to work out what to say.

- Are you the village idiot?!

- No, sergeant!

- Then answer me, damn it, don't waste my time!

- I've had enough of both, Sergeant! - Oliver blurted out in desperation and without knowing what he was saying.

Several recruits burst out laughing, but Sergeant Doyle glared at them.

- Are you amused by recruit Oliver's hobbies?! Well, you're going to love mine! And it's to fuck the pricks who laugh without permission! All of you who laughed! Get down on the floor and do push-ups! And don't make me tell you who you are one by one, or you'll regret it!

Everyone who had been laughing got down on the floor without hesitation, it seemed that no one in that group was going to test Doyle's patience. The sergeant continued his review walk and when he stopped in front of Ruslan he had to look up. Between his large stature of over six feet and his white hair, Ruslan stood out from the rest of the recruits.

- What are you, a fucking lighthouse with that height and that lantern hair?!

- Yes, if that's what you need, Sergeant! - Ruslan replied nonchalantly.

- That's a good one, what's your name and where are you from, recruit!

- Ruslan Drake, from London, my sergeant!

- A Drake, eh?! What's a little lord like you doing joining the army?! You were too useless for your daddy to put you in?!

- I want to protect the people, sergeant!

- Well, you're in the wrong place! You come here to kill people!!! Not to protect them!!!!

- Sometimes you must make sacrifices to protect what's important, Sergeant!

Ruslan looked down into Doyle's eyes. He looked back at him and was puzzled to see not a trace of doubt in Private Drake's gaze.

- Looks like you're serious, we'll see if you've got what it takes!


A jolt forced Ruslan to regain consciousness, albeit barely. The men carrying his stretcher looked exhausted. They should stop for a rest - how long had they been on the march? A day? Two? Although the sun was beating down flat and they had covered him with a blanket, he was quite cold. The unit's medic appeared at his side to examine him. He said something to the stretcher-bearers, and they lightened their pace. His agitation subsided until he lost consciousness again.


Nine years ago, after three weeks of training...

That morning Ruslan had been called to the training commander's office. When he arrived, there were several muffled voices in the room, he knocked on the door and waited.

- Come in! - said the vinegary voice of Sergeant Doyle.

Ruslan entered, squared his shoulders and saluted.

- Private Ruslan Drake reporting for duty, Sergeant, - said Ruslan to Doyle.

- At ease, recruit, - Doyle replied, - Major McIntire would like a word with you. Don't make me look bad, understood?.

Then, without waiting for his reply, Doyle left the office and closed the door behind him.

Major McIntire and another man looked at Ruslan curiously, as if they were sizing him up.

- Recruit Drake, - McIntire addressed him cordially, - may I present Major Irvine, Commanding Officer of Her Majesty's Army Officer Academy.

- Sir, - Ruslan squared his shoulders again, and saluted properly.

- At ease, recruit, - said Irvine, - Sergeant Doyle has brought your situation to the attention of the commandant, and he, in turn, has contacted me. You seem to be an unusual recruit, Private Drake.

- Sir? - Ruslan asked in complete surprise.

- Sergeant Doyle is not a man given to admiration, Private Drake, - said McIntire, - hence my surprise when he submitted a request for you to be assigned to officer training academy.

Ruslan was perplexed. Doyle was always hammering him in training and was always on the lookout for any mistakes he made. While this may have improved Ruslan's training, it didn't seem worthy of such a recommendation.

- Do you find that hard to believe, recruit? - Irvine interjected.

- Yes, sir, I make a lot of mistakes, I don't understand why Sergeant Doyle would recommend someone so clumsy and unprepared, sir.

- Let me tell you why, Drake, - said McIntire, - While it's true you make mistakes, you only make them once, and you certainly make far fewer than other recruits. Your marks in theory classes are exceptional. Your marks in the practical tests have broken all the records of this training camp and are so impressive, that no one believes that they could have been made by someone with only 3 weeks of training.

- Basically, Private Drake, Sergeant Doyle has brought you to our attention because he's seen a diamond in the rough, a white whale or a unicorn if you like, - said Irvine, - I didn't think it was such a big deal either until I saw your target practice this morning. You're a remarkable man, soldier. And we can't afford to let your potential go to waste in a long career in the infantry, working your way up to non-commissioned officer based on combat merit. I want you at the officer academy as soon as possible. It's time to hone your skills and see if Doyle is right about you.

- Sir? - Ruslan looked lost, his head was spinning, and he couldn't quite believe what was happening.

McIntire handed him a folded piece of paper. Unfolding it, he saw that it was a transfer order, already signed and stamped.

- Congratulations on your promotion, Ensign Drake, - said McIntire, - You are hereby ordered to collect your belongings and report to the drill yard for transfer to Her Majesty's Army Officer Academy by Major Irvine. I wish you well in your new posting.

- Thank you, sir, - Ruslan squared his shoulders and saluted with absolute perfection. He turned and walked out the door with a firm step.

Once out of the office he went to his barracks, packed his rucksack and paused for a moment to consider his situation. Sergeant Doyle brought him out of his musings. Ruslan was a little startled when he saw him as he turned to go to the barracks door.

- Sergeant Doyle, - said Ruslan, and setting his duffel on the floor, he squared his shoulders and saluted, - I promise not to disappoint your expectations, Sergeant.

Doyle returned the salute with meridian perfection.

- Sir, I wish you the best of luck in your new posting, - Doyle said with the greatest of respect, - I look forward to seeing what a great officer you will become, sir. I have no doubt you will put the army in good stead.

Coming from Doyle, those words were more than flattering, they seemed prophetic. Before Ruslan could react, Doyle grabbed his pack.

- I'll walk with you, sir, - he said evenly.

Ruslan nodded and walked to the barracks exit with Doyle trailing behind him. Once outside another surprise awaited him before he left.

- Congratulations on your promotion, sir!!!!

The shout of congratulations startled him. All his fellow recruits were standing and saluting in perfect formation.

- Three cheers for Ensign Drake!!!!! - shouted recruit Oliver, who had become group leader a week ago, he seemed to be fitting in well in the army.

- Hip hip, hooray!!! Hip hip, hooray!!! Hip hip, hooray!!!!! - they all chorused.

Ruslan, overwhelmed, nodded, squared his shoulders and saluted them. Once everyone had broken ranks, they opened a corridor for him. Ruslan walked forward, Doyle at his back, and pulled his cap down so no one could see the glazed gleam in his eyes. He was an officer now, he had to live up to the expectations of all those who had helped him follow his dream.


London 8 years ago...

Ruslan had finished his studies at officer training academy, he and his mates were going to celebrate their graduation and their new postings by drinking a few pints in a canteen owned by the family of one of his classmates.

- To the best graduating class, the army has ever produced! Cheers!!!! - Lieutenant Malcolm Hitch raised his mug as he shouted the toast.

- Cheers! - chorused his classmates, at last the full 20 graduates had turned it from a brief celebration into a full-fledged party.

- Sit down before you fall flat on your face, Mal, - Ruslan advised him.

- Come on, we've already graduated, you don't have to keep up appearances Ruslan, - replied Hitch.

- Just loosen up a bit, - said Ensign Yates.

- You're asking too much of him, - said Carmine, - You're talking to Ruslan "The Perfectionist" Drake. There's no way he's losing control.

- Haha, yeah, he's the honour graduate after all," said Hitch, "He must keep up appearances.

- I can relax too, if I want to, - said Ruslan, and raising his mug, he downed it in one gulp.

- Well, look at the laureate, he can drink and everything, - joked Carmine.

- If there's a record to beat, this guy will keep going for it, won't you Ruslan? - Yates patted him on the shoulder knowingly.

Everyone burst out laughing. Ruslan felt he had found a second family in the army. These were his brothers, and they would all support each other to the end.

Ruslan woke up again, weak, but lucid. He remembered that party after graduating from the academy. His brothers. Hitch had fallen in his first operation as an officer in combat in North Africa, blown up by a mortar, they couldn't even send something for his family to bury. Yates died two years later. A sniper shot several officers in the desert, Yates was one of them, he was only 20 years old. Carmine survived a little longer, until his luck ran out at the start of the war in Sudan. He never even made it to base camp. His troop transport was hit by an enemy tank. He was blown up. And the rest of his graduating class had not fared too well either. Of the 20 officers who graduated with him, only five were left alive, as far as he knew, and he didn't know if he would finally run out of luck and join the casualty list. His right shoulder burned again, and so did his face. His company paramedic, Rourke, approached him.

- Don't worry, Captain Drake, you'll make it. I'm going to give you another bag of saline and a mild sedative for the pain.

Ruslan felt the needle in his left arm. The pain subsided and the darkness returned.


3 days earlier. Sudan desert

The war in Sudan had escalated. Ruslan had survived for two years in that hell. He and his company, the 26th Infantry, had fought and won many skirmishes, but still the war did not seem to be ending any time soon. The Turks continued to press across the desert towards the headquarters of Albion's forces. Neither the Albion soldiers nor their allies, the fierce desert nomads, could stop the Ottoman advance. Ruslan had been ordered to cover the desert crossing of a fuel convoy for Allied tanks. A three-day journey across the rugged desert, always in open field, covered only by the occasional dune. Ruslan had a bad feeling since they had left the base with the tankers, and they were still two days away from their destination. Plus, they would be out of radio communication range for at least another 36 hours.

Suddenly, high up on a dune, Ruslan caught a fleeting glimpse of a flash. He barely had time to make out what was happening and shout to his men to get down on the ground. It was a sniper. But he wasn't hunting for officers. He had shot the driver of the first transport in the convoy, to block its advance.

- Everybody ready for combat!!! Riflemen aim for the top of the dune southeast of our position! Machine gunners prepare to make covering fire sweeps for the advancing transports! Drivers advance as fast as you can, we will cover your escape! When you are closer to HQ, radio for reinforcements! - the order came through loud and clear thanks to Ruslan's booming voice.

All his men knew what to do. The soldiers of the 26th jumped out of the troop transport trucks onto the ground and began firing. As the transports were plodding along, covered only by a couple of light jeeps with three men each.

From over the dune enemy soldiers began to emerge in large numbers. It was not a single sniper. It was an entire infantry regiment. Ruslan ordered the operators of the only two machine guns at their disposal to commence covering fire. The enemy fire was not long in coming, and the sniper was still harassing them from the crest of the dune, completely under cover.

The fighting was becoming fierce even as it had just begun, Ruslan's subordinates falling under fire as they had to cover the retreating tankers. The sniper fired again, and Sergeant Newton fell to within half a metre of Ruslan, he turned and opened fire on the sniper's parapet, luck or desperation took its toll on his aim, no bullets felled the shooter behind the dune.

- Captain Drake, we're being decimated!!!!

- Captain, what do we do?!

- Captain, I've been hit! Help!!!!!

The cries of the men and women under his command, whether of despair, panic or pain, hammered in his ears.

- Machine guns, continuous fire on the enemy infantry, force them to retreat behind that dune!!!!

Without giving him time to finish shouting his order, the machine-gun operators focused their sights on the enemy infantry platoons. They swept every wave or group significant enough to be a tactically viable target with fire and lead. The Turkish infantry began to waver, and they began to beat a retreat towards the dune where the sniper was stationed. Some of Ruslan's soldiers tried to chase them, but the sniper made them desist after taking down three of them.

Suddenly a mechanical clang began to be heard closer and closer. It was a sound that every soldier and infantry officer knew and feared. Ruslan's fears were realised as a mass of steel, bristling with guns, emerged from behind the dune that sheltered the enemy. It was a heavy tank.

- Enemy tank!!! Break formation!!!! Spread out so as not to give them an easy target!

The order came too late, one of the machine gun posts ended up as a smoking crater when it was hit by an enemy shell. The second machine gun post met the same fate with the next detonation. Its men ran in disarray.

The tank soon lost interest in the survivors of the 26th and began to advance towards the fuel transports. The two escort jeeps were blown up in the blink of an eye. The burning wreckage of one of them fell on a tanker transport, blowing it to smithereens.

The wounded screamed, the fire crackled, and above it all rose the metal clanking of the armoured beast.

A tanker was trapped in the sand. Its wheels skidded, sinking deeper and deeper into the unstable ground. The grimace of terror on the driver's face was etched on Ruslan's retinas, and as he saw the tank begin to turn and head towards the vehicle, he unconsciously ran towards it to rescue it.

Several of Ruslan's subordinates, including Corporal Perry and Sergeant Sterling, followed him. But they did not reach their objective. A mere ten metres from the transport, Ruslan saw that the tank already had it in its sights. He stopped his run and shouted a final, unfinished command.

- Get out of the way!!!! Everybody down!!!!!

The explosion turned the fuel tank into a giant grenade. The shrapnel shot out with such force that a fragment of the tanker split Sergeant Sterling in half at the waist. Corporal Perry was hit in the leg, severing it just above the knee, falling flat on her face as she lost her footing. A large, serrated-edged fragment advanced towards Ruslan like a projectile at high speed. Ruslan felt an impact on his right shoulder, and a searing, lacerating pain, the shrapnel ripped through armour, cloth, skin, muscle and bone. The impact threw him backwards to the ground, several metres away. His first thought was for his soldiers, had they made it to safety? He had to confirm that. He tried to get to his feet, but he couldn't feel his right arm. His head was spinning, and his shoulder was still burning like hell. As he finally sat up, leaning on his left arm, a second piece of shrapnel entered his field of vision, smaller than the first one but still with a lot of momentum, it hit the right side of his face, causing him to almost lose consciousness and blackening the vision in his right eye. The impact threw his head against the ground with such force that he felt his head sink into the sandy ground until the back of his neck hit the surface. He tried to focus his vision, but his right eye saw only black, and a red veil completely covered the vision of his left eye. He felt his strength leave him. His mind was beginning to cloud. Suddenly he felt himself being pulled. He heard muffled voices, as if in the distance.

- Retreat!!! Let's get the captain out of here! Help the wounded!

Ruslan became dizzy again, and lost consciousness.

Ruslan regained consciousness and focused the vision on his left eye. Above him was not the blue sky, but a tent. He was lying down - was he on a stretcher in the field hospital? He remembered that he had been wounded, but not much more. He noticed a needle stuck in his left arm, and when he looked, he saw that a needle had been connected to him from a bottle of blood for transfusions and another of saline. His head was spinning, he tried to sit up, but he couldn't support himself on either arm, he still had no feeling in his right arm except for his shoulder, which was throbbing faintly, he must have been given painkillers, that explained why he was having so much trouble thinking. He turned his head and saw stretchers and wounded around him with medics going from stretcher to stretcher to attend to them. He saw Corporal Perry on a stretcher next to his own. The stump of his thigh, completely bandaged, was still bleeding a little so it had reddened the bandages. He was also receiving a transfusion. Then Ruslan began to realise his situation. He, too, needed a transfusion. He tried again to move his right arm, but he still couldn't feel it, and his black right eye prevented him from seeing what condition he was in as long as he was still lying down, and he couldn't move his left arm because of the needle that had been put in for the transfusion. Desperation was beginning to take its toll on his numb mind, and he tried with all his might to sit up to check his condition. A nearby paramedic rushed to him.

- Captain Drake, sir, don't move, you might start bleeding again.

- How are my men, doctor? - Ruslan asked, his subordinates always had to come first, his responsibility as an officer dictated it.

- I regret to say that there have been few survivors. Of the 100 men in your company, only 24 have made it back to camp. Of those 24, 4 have died of their wounds in the field hospital, and 11 are still here, wounded, 3 of them seriously. You are one of these 3.

- What happened to me?

- You were hit by shrapnel from a tanker truck that exploded under the impact of a shell fired by an enemy tank. Do you remember?

- Vaguely, my mind is a bit scrambled.

- That's because of the hit you took to the head. It gave you a concussion.

- And I can't feel my right arm.

- I'd better have the medical commander explain the situation to you.

The medic's expression told him everything he needed to know. He wasn't going to come out of it unscathed. This time his luck had run out, though not entirely, for at least he had survived. A while later the commander in charge of the field hospital came to see him.

- Good morning Captain Drake, this is Major Huxley of the medical corps.

- Good morning, sir, - Ruslan tried to sit up, but remembered that he couldn't salute with his right arm.

- Don't try to move, - urged the doctor, - In your condition you need as much rest as possible.

- And what is that condition, sir?

- Captain, this is not easy to say, so if you need a moment, interrupt me when you think it's necessary.

It was very bad; no senior officer would say that otherwise. He was fearing the worst.

- Captain Drake, according to witnesses to the incident, you were hit twice by shrapnel at high speed, and the injuries you suffer are proof of this. It appears that the second hit was to the right side of your face, which has given you a concussion, so you are finding it difficult to focus your mind, especially if we add the effect of the painkillers, we have administered to you. Your right eye was affected. The eyeball exploded due to the impact, and we had to remove the debris. The shrapnel fragment opened a gash in the right side of your face from your forehead to the jaw. You will notice that you can no longer measure depth, it is due to the lack of binocular vision.

Ruslan knew it was bad, but he didn't think he would lose his eye.

- As for the other impact you received. It was on the right shoulder.

- Yes, it hurts, and I can't feel anything in my right arm, is it serious? Will I be able to use it again?

- Captain, - the medical commander's gaze chilled Ruslan's blood, - I'm sorry to say that you've lost your right arm. The shrapnel impact was so brutal that it severed your arm at the right shoulder joint.

Ruslan felt a blow to his heart. He found it hard to breathe. His head was spinning. He tried to sit up again, he had to check that his arm was still there, but his blind right eye wouldn't let him. He felt the commander's hand on his chest preventing him from standing up. He tried to feel his right shoulder with his left hand, which caused the needle to come out of his arm, the commander called for help from several medics to hold Ruslan down. When his left hand reached what was left of his right shoulder, Ruslan went limp, which the medics used as an opportunity to put the needle back in his remaining arm. Ruslan wanted to scream in despair but was unable to get a single sound out of his vocal cords.

- Calm down Captain, you can't move in your condition! You might start bleeding again and then you would surely die.

Ruslan lay limp on the stretcher. He had no strength left.

- It's already a miracle that you survived, not only the amputation of your arm, but the three-day journey across the desert on a stretcher. You are very lucky.

- Yes, very lucky indeed, Doctor, - Ruslan's tone was monotone, like that of a lifeless automaton.

- You'd better get some rest, Captain. The commanding officer will see you tomorrow. Just rest.

Ruslan stared at the canvas ceiling of the tent. He had completely lost hope, as well as his right arm and eye.

2 years ago, Port of Bristol

Ruslan was waiting in the harbour to embark for his next posting, his company, the 26th Infantry would be deployed to Sudan to assist in the fight against the Turks. While he knew each and every man and woman in the company, it would be the first time he had commanded them in combat. After the death of Captain Hastings, the command decided to promote Ruslan from lieutenant to captain and put him in charge of the 26th.

As they waited, the soldiers played cards and gambled, chatted or wrote to their families before departing.

A familiar voice caught Ruslan's attention. Turning around, he saw his mother and brothers waving to him as they approached.

- Mother, there was no need for you to come all the way to Bristol. I told you in the last letter.

- And did you think I was going to let my son go halfway around the world to war without even coming to see him? - Marion Drake looked at her son, until he looked away in embarrassment.

- No, I suppose not, - Ruslan said and smiled back at his mother.

- You'll be careful, won't you? - his sister Cathe, though only five years older than Ruslan, looked even more worried than their mother.

- Don't worry, sis', I'm sure he'll come back full of stripes and decorations like last time - his little brother Jack, who had just turned 18, gave him an affectionate punch on the arm. - I can always brag about a brother like you.

- I hope there won't be any new rumours when I get back, - Ruslan replied.

The ship's siren called for boarding and the officers began to organise their men, who gathered their gear ready for the voyage.

Ruslan hugged his brothers and then turned to his mother.

- Father is still angry, isn't he?

- You know you and your father are as stubborn as mules when you get something into your heads.

- Yes, that's where I've come out on his side of the family.

- But even so, he's always asking me about you. And he has always been proud of your efforts and achievements.

- I know, - Ruslan replied wistfully. His mother had kept in touch with him, despite his father's opinion on the matter, for the past seven years.

- He couldn't come today because he had to go to the army command to meet with the commander-in-chief of the medical evaluation service, General Abernathy. The military is still demanding access to Drake Industries' AutoLimb technology, - his mother explained.

- They're not going to convince him that easily, even with a general, - Ruslan replied. - Father will never allow military use of his inventions.

- I know you'll be in danger, and I can't stop you, - said his mother, changing the subject. - But promise me one thing, that you will return safely. And when you get back, I promise that your father will be there to welcome you too. Even if I have to drag him, - his mother's determination was evident, Ruslan almost pitied his father's fate if he tried to contradict her.

- I'll be back in one piece, I promise.

Ruslan gave his mother one last hug, she kissed him on the cheek and wished him good luck. He turned and moved towards his company to take them aboard. He did not turn to say goodbye one last time, it would be too hard, and many of his soldiers were not so lucky. He had to be firm, to return as he had promised.

At present, a field hospital at Albion HQ in Sudan.

- Captain Drake.

The medical commander was back, and this time he was accompanied by General Greyson, the commanding officer of the Albion forces in Sudanese territory.

- I see you've been well beaten this time, son, - the general's voice was deep with a thick Welsh accent.

Ruslan didn't reply, just gave him an angry glare. The medical commander refrained from saying anything.

- Son, - Greyson continued. - Given your situation, and that of some of your men, I regret to say that the war is over for you. It has been ordered that you be evacuated back to Albion. You will be embarked on a hospital ship at dawn tomorrow. You are all to be thanked for your service.

- I understand sir - Ruslan's voice sounded like a scratch on slate.

He was finished. He was sinking, and he couldn't find a handhold to hold on to, and even if he did, he didn't think he could hold on with one arm.

The officers departed, leaving him in self-pity and despair.

- Hey, Captain Drake, how are you?

Corporal Perry's voice brought him out of his thoughts. Corporal Constance Perry, she was a great NCO and a better soldier, albeit a young one. She had barely turned 23, but she had already earned a promotion to sergeant that the command had never quite confirmed, even though Ruslan had asked for it several times. Her somewhat sarcastic humour, her liberal personality and her tendency to speak her mind regardless of the consequences did not please their superiors in the chain of command, but Ruslan liked her precisely because of her straightforward and outspoken manner.

- That's a question I should ask Perry, don't you think? - said Ruslan, who had tried to use his usual officer's tone, but had sounded tired and broken.

He was finding it hard to keep his composure after the terrible news about his condition.

- I'm fine, but my leg itches even though I don't have it anymore, it's a pain in the ass to itch and not be able to scratch it.

- A lady shouldn't say such things, Corporal.

- When I see one, I'll remind her, sir. There are only soldiers here.

Ruslan tried to smile, but it came out only as a faint grimace, a pale imitation of a real smile.

- You know, it's a miracle we made it this far alive, - Perry continued. - I talked to Rourke yesterday, he says he still doesn't understand how you survived such injuries. We all thought you were a tough guy, Captain, but it looks like you're even tougher than that. Some soldiers are starting to call you "the immortal of the desert".

- What can I do, I've always been stubborn by nature, - Ruslan replied gloomily. - I thought it was a virtue, but it may have been my worst fault.

- Why is that?

- I don't think I should tell you, corporal. Yes, I seem to remember seeing something in the officer's manual about not showing weakness and doubt to a subordinate. You know how jealous they are of the structure of the chain of command.

- You're saying that because of the skirmish in the desert, aren't you?

Sometimes Perry's intuition was scary, if she'd been signed up for officer training school there was no doubt she'd have been assigned to espionage and intelligence.

- I've told you before, Corporal, this doesn't work down the ranks.

- You know, Captain? Surely if it wasn't for you, a lot more of our people would have died.

- Are you trying to cheer me up, Perry? - Ruslan snapped sarcastically.

- No, I'm trying to tell you that, despite everything, we made it out of there alive and yes, we mourn the deaths of our comrades; but we also owe it to them to go on living to honour their sacrifice.

Ruslan was silent, thoughtful, Perry's words had struck a chord within him. He had to think about his situation. Maybe there was still a future, even if it wasn't the one he had planned. The next morning Ruslan, the survivors of his company, and many more wounded than he wanted to count, would board a hospital ship that would take them back to Albion. The voyage would take at least three weeks, plenty of time to get his head together.

Meanwhile, in the command centre, General Greyson passed a report to his communications officer.

- A priority message to London, the list of combat casualties from the last operation," said the general, adding. - Have a copy passed to General Abernathy of the Medical Evaluation Corps.

- Understood, sir, - the technical officer replied and set about relaying the message.

Something caught his attention in the text he was telegraphing. The first name on the list did not follow the rank order of the other officers. The name, Ruslan Drake; rank, captain; it was listed first and underlined for emphasis. The communications officer turned to ask, but on second thoughts, he got back to work. His job, he thought, was to transcribe, not correct, messages from his superiors.