48 Hours a Day
Chapter 61 - The Mannerheim Line Welcomes You
Chapter 61: The Mannerheim Line Welcomes You III
Many a time, one’s plans could never catch to the constant changes life would throw at them. Zhang Heng had to wait for the gunshots to stop before returning to where the first gunshot was fired. Doing that lowered his risk of getting killed significantly.
Unfortunately, something unexpected happened. The first batch of Soviet conscripts had returned, a lot earlier than he initially expected!
It was pointless to complain and wallow in regret right now, and all he could do was to crouch as low as possible and run for his life. There was no time to wait. He bolted!
At the sign of the slightest movement, the soldiers quickly spotted him! It was in times like these that one had to appreciate the perks of the Soviet army. Considering they had all been given bright khaki uniforms, hence, standing out like golden scarecrows on the snow-covered land. Having large targets painted on their bodies by default, it was hard for enemies not to notice them. Hence, the fatality rate of the Soviets was alarmingly high.
With his back turned, Zhang Heng somehow knew that the troops had their guns loaded. Luckily, the rigorous marathon training finally paid off, where he managed to keep a good distance between him and the soldiers while he ran. There were also tall trees all around him. Though he could hear guns being fired at him, the shots missed him, mostly going astray and landing far away.
Still, Zhang Heng would not dare to let his guard down. He kept running until his stamina was almost depleted. Having to lean on a tree to catch some breath, he knew that by now, he should be safe. The soldiers wouldn’t have any stamina left after the long fights they had been through before this. If they wanted to see another day before dying of fatigue, they would be smart not to pursue him for this period.
Immediately, Zhang Heng took the opportunity to check out the canvas backpack that he just acquired. There were personal hygiene items, a spare foot wrap, utensils, and a few packs of MRE. Foot wraps were unique to the Soviet army, regularly used to keep the soldier warm and reduce friction on the feet. As for the MRE, it seemed like their staple was black bread. Thankfully for him, dehydrated sausage and a packet of red tea came inserted as well.
He then came across two cans of beef, and a lighter, a delightful discovery as these items were a rarity in the USSR. Their industry infamously prowess lagged far behind other more developed nations. When Zhang Heng thought of the two dead bodies that he saw earlier, he remembered that they both wore different attire.
One of the dead Soviets lacked the distinct five red stars on his sleeve, which could mean this canvas backpack should have belonged to an officer. Unfortunately, bullets discriminated against no soul on the battlefield. Even more so, the high-ranking officers, usually becoming the primary target of enemies. There were at least three to four bullet holes riddling the officer’s face. It seemed that someone wanted to make damn sure that he was truly dead. As Zhang Heng frisked him, he tried his best not to stare directly at the officer’s bloody face.
Despite his close brush with death, he was rather pleased with his yield today. At least, he could now protect himself from the brutal cold of the Siberian tundra and keep his stomach filled.
His attention soon turned to the pistol in his hand. China’s notoriously draconian gun control laws had enabled only a few from elite professions to set their hands on a real firearm. Most of the regular public only got their ideas of guns from the movies. Zhang Heng was no exception, having no idea what model of gun he was holding. All he knew was this gun was a revolver, and there were seven chambers in a revolving barrel. It had been shot two times, still containing five bullets.
It was at that time that Zhang Heng realized that he left too quickly earlier. He had taken the gun but had wholly forgotten the extra ammo. However, having five bullets was definitely better than none. The movies clearly showed the actors pulling triggers and coolly reloading their rounds, but never once their inner workings. Of course, the real deal here was way more complicated than a prop pea-shooter. After fumbling with it for a while, he still could not figure out how to remove the two spent shells from the chamber. He had to put it away for now.
After taking in a few sips of water, his stamina recovered, and he was refreshed. Having regained some strength, he quickly left the place, worried that the spirits of the dead soldiers would come back to haunt him.
He continued walking into the deeper parts of the forest, only stopping after the sky had turned dark. At the very least, he knew that he was no longer in danger.
Vision at night was a challenge; it was almost impossible to make anything out clearly. Since the forest was unfamiliar to the Soviets, it was almost certain now that they wouldn’t continue their pursuit of him. Besides, they risked getting ambushed by Finnish guerillas who had overrun the surrounding borders. With his mind put at ease, Zhang Heng finally stopped moving forward and decided that it was time to fix his hunger.
He opened up his backpack, and out came the black bread. Having its origins in Germany, the recipe was then spread on to Eastern Europe and subsequently to Russia. For name’s sake only, the bread itself was actually not black, it’s color caused by the overbaking process unique to it.
Never underestimate the prowess of such basic food. During the height of the Second World War, German and Soviet troops primarily relied on it for survival. According to war records, this humble meal saved at least 4 million people from starvation in the USSR and had kept the war going for at least 10 million German troops. As for its taste, it had a unique touch to it.
Zhang Heng used his knife to cut a slice, trying it out. Immediately, a light saltiness with a tinge of sour hit his tongue. It came with a rough texture, much like burnt toast making it really hard for Zhang Heng to swallow. Thankfully, Zhang Heng had experienced extreme hunger before while he was venturing on the lone island. With war taken out of the equation, his current circumstance was actually a lot better than last time.
Only one thing troubled him, though. He was unable to build a campfire to warm himself up. Not that he did not know how to do it, for even without the lighter in his backpack, he had the capability of building a campfire with only the things around him. His concern mainly focussed on attracting any enemies, knowing that the fire would burn far and bright into the dark of night. Unfamiliar with his surroundings, he knew nothing of where the Soviet and Finnish troops were placed and wanted to take no chances.
Zhang Heng had no idea where his enemies might come from. He also didn’t know where the skirmishes constantly broke out between those troops, only hanging on the hope that he wouldn’t end up in the crossfire. It was at that moment that he realized how cruel reality could be. Struggling to stay alive, all alone in the forest and in a time of war, was no easy feat.
Luckily, he still had his trump card, and that was his Shadow Moment. Turning into shadow-form for three minutes could save his life during a life-threatening moment. Unfortunately, he could only use it two times, which was why he was sparing in its usage.
Unable to bear the cold, he attempted to look for a spot that could shield him from the freezing winds. Covered by the military jacket, he tried to sleep. Throughout the entire night, he was rudely awakened by the chill at least three times. The winter of 1939 in Finland was brutal, ranked among the top 10 harshest winters the entire human history had seen. Without fire, saying that it would be a challenge to stay alive was an understatement.
If it were not for the Soviet goatskin military jacket, Zhang Heng knew that the extreme blizzard would eventually freeze him to death. After a long, frigid night, Zhang Heng finally saw the sun rising. With his frostbitten hands trembling, he picked a few twigs and used the lighter, fumbling around a few times before he got a flame. His hands were stiff and unresponsive. He had left half a kettle of water in front of him before he slept. Now, the water was completely frozen.
Zhang Heng had no choice but to place the kettle as close as possible, the fire to melt the ice. In the meantime, he took the sausage from his backpack and roasted it over the flames. Ten minutes later, everything that he set out to do had been done. He then stood up and used the ice around him to extinguish the flames, making sure to stub out all the cinders.
Putting a fire out in these places was surely more straightforward than starting it up. At the same time, he ate the sausage that was just ready. It didn’t taste as bad as he initially expected, probably because he paired it with the black bread. Who knew what it was made of. One thing for sure, it was meat but wasn’t pork, beef, or lamb. Still, it was edible.
As he ate, Zhang Heng wasted no time and planned his next move though, after long and hard deliberation, he was still unable to come up with anything to make his current circumstance better.