The streets of Stalingrad are quiet for a few hours, just long enough for the combatants to re-group and, if they can, tend to their wounded with what medicines they have. The dead are left to rot where they lie. The living have enough problems looking after themselves.
The shell of a solitary house still stands amid the wasteland. Surrounded by rubble on all sides, it has attained significance for the combatants beyond its actual strategic or tactical value.
The battleís resumption is marked with the Katyushkaís scream, the hiss of flame-throwers, and the dull crump of mortar fire. The house shakes to another near miss, and inside, Kulik knows the fighting grows nearer. The house judders as if to a body blow. Masonry trickles as a wall implodes, in slow motion at first, then speeding up. Kulik shakes his head to clear it of the ringing of the last explosion, when another shell lands.
Minutes later; still dazed, but partly recovered, he staggers outside, clutching his rifle. The blow to the back of his head takes him by surprise, and he falls to the ground. He is pulled back to his feet, and a young voice says in German, a language he hasnít spoken in years; "walk or die, Ivan, itís your choice. It makes no difference to me." Kulik is surprised even to be offered the choice; both sides routinely torture and murder their captives in this bloodbath.
He clutches at a pocket and is nearly shot by the nervous young German. He is unsure how good his German is, but tries to explain. "Bitte," He spreads hands wide. "My lucky," he struggles for long-forgotten vocabulary, "stick". Slowly, so not to startle the boy, he removes a piece of wood about eight by two centimetres from his pocket. The German shakes his head at this latest example of Russian insanity.
"You Slavs. Crazy as bedbugs."
Kulik nods agreement, slowly. Grins, and tries to look as vacuous as possible. If the lad wants to believe the Teutonic master race drivel, let him. If it keeps him alive, heíll play along. "A piece of my greatest triumph. Or disaster."
"Well, your days of triumph are over. March. Now."
He walks in front of his captor; at least the Wehrmacht, and not the SS have captured him. He may be sent to a transit camp, onto a POW camp hundreds of miles behind German lines. There, if heís lucky, he will spend the rest of the war.
Baikonur Mission Control watched the disaster unfold on the monitors, powerless to intervene.
The Kokushkino Probe was the showcase of the latest Five-Year Plan, and the centenary of The Revolution. It would show the Chinese that while they had more money and people than anyone else, Russia had the brains. And it would fast-track the Direktor into the Soviet Praesidium. He was neither lean nor hungry-looking, but looks could deceive. "His ambition will kill us all yet, you wait and see." Muttered a disgruntled subordinate.
Their monitors showed it all: theyíd put the probe into high Earth orbit. The tiny device inside a disposable heat shield would detach, and re-enter the atmosphere. But without warning, the screens went haywire. One of the cameras stopped transmitting, whilst the other showed the Earth below whirling in and out of view.
There were shouts of dismay. A stunned silence settled over the team as the whirling probe stabilised. The atmosphere rushed past, superheated by whatever had collided with the probe, and which now carried it earthwards, out of control. The screens showed only static, and then went black. The probe was still transmitting; implying the darkness was caused by a physical obstruction.
Further examination of the telemetry confirmed that the probe had landed in Eastern Siberia. The readings showed it was buried. Unfortunately, the emergency recall was inoperative.
Fed by the spring thaw of the Siberian taiga, the Tunguska River roars like an angry giant. The huge barges are laden down with horses, food and surveying equipment. Despite their heavy cargoes, they bobble like corks in the turbulence. Sometimes large stones, even rocks, bounce downstream amidst the spume, striking horses or men at random.
Kulik watches the people of Vanavarta loading the boats. Lost in his own preoccupations, he ignores their shouts and invocations to Ogdy, their barbarous thunder-god. Only when a horse teeters on the edge of the barge, and is in danger of being swept away with its burden, does he rouse himself. "Korsolev! They must take care of the equipment! Itíll take weeks for replacement parts to arrive if theyíre damaged."
Korsolev, a vodka-sodden bear of a man, scowls. "Of course, Comrade Direktor." Korsolev has no idea of what it is to use people, ideas, and concepts, all to further a greater truth. For him, the honorific merely indicates that Kulik is a toady, a licker of arses, good only for politics. The only politics Korsolev knows comes from the bottom of a bottle. "We mustnít worry about the horses, or the men, must we?"
Kulik ignores his sarcasm. "Most of the horses will end up mosquito fodder. And the men know the risks."
As Korsolev roars curses in the local tongue, Kulik surveys the struggling Tunguski. Just a few weeks ago he felt only contempt for these descendants of the long-gone Mongol hordes, but concealed it so he could use their local knowledge, and their recollections of the Event. Now heís more tolerant. Not that he admits such a thing to himself: it would be an admission that heís faltering in his quest. His empty pieties about The People are for two purposes only - to keep him out of the camps, and to get him here, now. The People, of course, can only mean Russians. The idea that even Irina, with her bubbling giggle, copper skin and slant eyes, might be one of The People, is unthinkable. The nearest he can come to admitting his feelings is that she has been useful. Concentrate on what is important, the voices whisper. He looks up, and sees Irina watching him. She smiles briefly, and goes back to watching the loading of the barges. For a few moments the voices are less overwhelming, and he is back in the world of men.
A second sun shines briefly in the dawn sky over Siberia, as a vast fireball races from south to north, bending trees in its wake. Moments later, the ground shakes.
In the trading station of Vanavara, to the south of the impact site, Semenov, a Tungus, raises his axe to hoop a cask when suddenly the sky to the north splits in two, lit by a flash that thirty-seven years later would look very familiar to the inhabitants of Hiroshima. He gapes, as high above the forest the northern sky becomes a wall of fire. He flinches, feeling a blast of heat, as if his shirt has caught fire. He plucks at his shirt, as if to tear it off and throw it away, but at that moment there is a bang in the sky, and an almighty crash. He is thrown to the ground over 20 feet away where merciful unconsciousness welcomes him.
Here the river plummets over a forty-foot waterfall, and they have to unload the barges. It is so cold the horsesí scream when they fall into the water. In the distance, the hills beyond the river Khushno are blanketed in a mantle of snow. Around them the devastation is intense: trees almost a metre thick, sheared off at the top, their tops flung many metres.
Where they have offloaded their provisions, some of the men are already sinking slowly into the swampy ground. This is not a good place to stay: they need to make camp in a more sheltered spot, before the night-time temperature plummets. Korsolev staggers toward him, face twisted by anger. Before he can say anything, Kulik cuts off his complaints.
"We need to find shelter in the next two hours. Send Ilya and one of the Tunguski to the North, and Axel and one of the others East. Meanwhile, weíll start loading up the horses."
"Thereís a limit to what they can carry!" Korsolev shouts, but before he can resume, Kulik interrupts.
"Thatís why weíll have to carry some. Each of the men will load up their backpacks until they are full, but only with essentials. The surveying equipment comes with us, but we may have to leave some of it here."
"But itíll sink-"
"Of course. Thatís why we will carry as much as possible."
Korsolev has been outflanked, his laziness at war with his greed. He likes his stomach, and if he wants to eat, he will have to work for it by carrying the food. As it should be Kulik thinks, we have no room for passengers.
Kulik feels that if he said the sun rose in the east, Korsolev would argue that it didnít, purely because it was Kulik that had said it. Itís just one of those things he thinks. He and Korsolev are simply two people who cannot stand each other, and he brings Korsolevís natural fractiousness to the fore. Kulik is better at hiding his feelings, so restrains himself. He wishes the Institute had not insisted on the man. As they have, he must make the best of it.
They clamber through the forest, and Kulik surveys the burnt trees, turns to one of the Tunguski. "You know, a quarter of a century ago, I studied forestry in Leningrad. I was never very good at it." He laughs. "Whoíd have thought that Iíd return to it? I thought Iíd left it far, far behind."
"You never leave the past behind, Comrade Doktor. You carry the ghosts of the past with you wherever you go." He grins "why do you think old men are so often bent double?"
Kulik laughs, stumbles on a tree root, but manages to stay on his feet.
The heat incinerates herds of reindeer and chars tens of thousands of evergreens across hundreds of square miles. In the city of Krasnoyarets, the roar of the atmospheric shockwave hits first, followed by the crash of the impact, which causes buildings to shake as if struck themselves. In the offices of the local newspaper, people look up anxiously, and one man throws himself to the ground in terror, as the building judders again to two more fearful blows. The interval between them is filled with an underground roar as if a number of trains are simultaneously crossing points. Men dust themselves down, more for reassurance than for any practical purpose. One, braver than the others, goes to the shattered window, and peers out. Outside, men and horses are getting to their feet with expressions from the dazed, to those screaming the end of the world is nigh. Five or six minutes later comes a sound like artillery fire: 50 to 60 bangs, becoming gradually fainter, follow at short and almost regular intervals. A minute or so after that six more distant but quite distinct bangs resound and the ground trembles. By this time popular opinion has changed from the end of the world to a Chinese invasion.
Even in the Siberian City of Irkutsk, a thousand miles to the south, seismographs quiver in reaction.
For days after the explosion the sky retains an eerie orange glow. As far away as Western Europe, people are able to read newspapers at night without a lamp. But in the years that follow, the remoteness of the site deters investigations.
She comes to him in the darkness, as he walks around the edge of the village. He has been here amongst the Tunguski a week, and he seems to see her everywhere. Last year, when they visited with the first expedition, he didnít notice her, though she was almost certainly amongst the villagers. Her arrival, like any other strangers, would have been cause for comment. Now, every time he looks up, she is watching him.
"Hello." In the darkness her voice is deep, pitched low so they will not be overheard. He is almost giddy; it has been so long since he has been this close to a woman. He had thought of unwashed bodies as unpleasant, but her musky smell excites him, the heat of her tangible.
He dares not ask himself what this young girl, still a teenager, can want with a forty-five-year-old, so nearsighted his glasses need to be thick as beer-bottle bottoms to be able to see, with six inches of beard hiding his face. He would rather not know. If it is the thrill of the exotic, so be it. Whatever the reason, their time must be short, terminated by his need to be travelling as soon as possible, as soon as he can persuade the Tunguski to trust him, and reveal what happened here twenty years ago.
Indeed, she gives him the opening he has been searching for with these close-mouthed, fear-ridden peasants. She is one of the few who will talk openly of what happened here before; who is not frightened of the Wrath of Ogdy. Gradually, seeing that she is not struck down, the others begin to talk.
Once Kulik has gained as much information as he thinks possible, and has negotiated guides among the braver villagers, they begin to make their preparations. He tries to ignore any feelings he might have for Irina, but nonetheless the emotion he feels most is guilt that he must refuse her pleadings to accompany them. On their last night in Vanavarta, their lovemaking is frantic, her cries loud enough to be heard outside the cabin the villagers have allocated as a guesthouse.
The next morning his bed is empty, though her presence lingers. He gets a mixture of looks, envy from his own men and the villagers, and from others fierce disapproval; that he not only enters sacred ground, but defiles their women as well.
Theyíd planned to send the probe back to Kokushkino, to watch Leninís triumphant return to Kazan University in 1888, and his subsequent move to Samara. Theyíd have liked to send a live observer back, but living tissue quickly dissolved, though inanimate objects seemed unaffected, so only a remote probe could be sent. Because of the huge energy involved, even with fusion power, real-time transmission was impossible. They planned instead to send compressed highlights back.
To avoid re-creating The Big Bang at the receiving end, and causing the senderís end to implode, they had to send the probe from vacuum to vacuum, so the probe was lifted into orbit, to re-enter atmosphere in 1888.
The technology wasnít particularly elegant, but Russians had always been less interested in pinpoint accuracy than overall results.
But the probe had re-emerged fully twenty years short of target, and landed where any peasant could lay their grubby hands on the thing. It was worrying that the records showed no trace of such an impact, but the Direktor insisted that was the because of the remoteness of the area.
This wasnít in the remit. They had to get that probe back.
The roofs of Tartu are white with the first frost of the Estonian Autumn. But the side effect of the clear skies goes unnoticed by Leonid. Instead, the eleven-year-old patiently watches the night sky above. The Bolides, the combination of asteroids, comets and meteorites, are prominent tonight. To the south is the comet that will be named after the American Frank Carnelian, to the east a meteor shower.
He almost forgets to breathe, so enthralled is he by the beauty above- it almost makes him want to cry. Fascinated by the meteor shower, he doesnít hear footsteps behind him, until too late: the horizon spins, the world whirls, and he is hanging upside down.
"Ha!" His brother hisses. "Our little as-tron-o-mer is busy tonight. Have the men in the moon come to visit?" A giggle indicates his sisters are around, not a good sign.
"Put me down, Alex, Iím not hurting you." Fury lends him strength, or maybe his brother grows bored, for he wriggles loose, bumping his head as he falls. His bedroom light casts an eerie, dim glow across the rooftop tableau. When he looks up, Sacha and Irina sit on the window ledge of his bedroom. Damn, he thinks, I really must get a lock. Alexei, his elder brother, is two years older than he, but big for his age, unlike Ďthe runtí as theyíve dubbed Leonid. The girls are twins, two years younger than Leo, but they always side with Alexei.
Now Alexei has that look again, gloating over an excited flush. The last time he had that look was when he smashed Leoís glasses, then claimed Leo himself had done it, and tried to blame him. To the humiliation was added injustice. Now Alex has the telescope and is dangling it over the edge, then pulling it back, before dangling it again.
"Do you want your toy, Leo? Are you going to tell on me again, like a dirty little spy?" He turns to the girls, whose look of greedy anticipation looks ominous. "Shall we let him have it, or shall we drop it?"
"Drop it!" Sacha (or is it Elizabeth?) hisses. "And drop him after it. Maybe his friends from up there will save him." Perhaps his inability to tell them apart sparks their hate. The twins need to establish their differences, from clothes through hair to behaviour. Elizabeth is sometimes marginally nicer to him than Irina, but it is whim, of being different from Sacha that drives her, rather than any innate kindness.
"Shall we drop it, Leo?" Alexeiís voice is all honey now, which means heís already decided. Leo can think of nothing else, can look at nothing but the swinging arm, now over the edge, now not, now over the edge again. He functions without thinking, and is aware of nothing but his brotherís arm, unaware of his own hand closing on the telescope case. Then his other arm swings up and smashes into the side of Alexeiís head, the element of surprise knocking big brother flying, and Leo dives across catching the telescope, the air driven from his body as he crashes into the rail around the rooftop, and nearly topples over.
The last sounds he hears are the girlís screams. Later, he will be beaten, his telescope confiscated. But Alex avoids him from then on. And for the first time, that iron will of his has surfaced. Later, it will be spoken of as either dedication or fanaticism, but that is a long way away.
Every day for weeks they have quartered the forest. It is clear that the treetops point like the spokes of a wheel, away from an epicentre in the middle of the swampy devastation. The men work from dawn to dusk, hacking their way through the scorched wreckage of the forest, savaged by incessant attacks from clouds of mosquitoes, by the end of the day too exhausted to do anything except eat, and collapse into their makeshift beds.
Korsolev complains incessantly, but his is a lone voice. The men fall into two categories. The outsiders are here for glory rather than money, for the most part. They are here because Kulikís drive has inspired them. There is still a limit to their devotion, and he tries not to reach this limit. Although no one will get rich on their pay, the Tunguski, by contrast, are here for as long as their greed outweighs their fear. To shut him up, Korsolev is put in charge of the cooking, and his complaints about his workload are replaced by complaints about his boredom.
The days wear on with no sign of success, and Kulik starts to feel a terrible pressure building, the fear of failure. The men start to look at him oddly. Some make the sign of the evil eye. Finally, infuriated, he tackles Ilya, his assistant.
"Why do they look at me so?"
Ilya is visibly uncomfortable with the questioning. When Kulik presses him, he hesitates.
"Come on man, whatís wrong?"
"The men say you are possessed, sir. I donít want to offend you, but yesterday, I saw you rocking backwards and forwards."
Oh shit. Itís started again. "Nonsense, man. I was singing. Here, you!" He summons another Tungus. "Is this what I was doing?" He sings very softly, rocking in time to the song.
The Tungus nods, anxious about being dragged into this.
"Are the Tunguski the only men allowed to sing? Is it forbidden for me to?"
"No, sir. Of course not." The Tungus looks relieved at the prosaic explanation.
"No, Comrade." He corrects the man gently, clapping him on the arm. "Good man. You must teach me some Tunguski songs." The man grins, relieved, and bobs his head. Iíll have to be more careful.
Ever since the Japanese bullet came within a whisker of ending his life, Kulik has had these curious feelings of dislocation and apathy. Sometimes he thinks he hears voices whispering. He has enough knowledge to fear the possibilities, and tells himself that if he can worry about madness, then he must be sane.
The bullet caused no permanant damage, the doctors tell him. But the head wound is serious enough that it will be some time before he can go back to killing Japanese. The hospital is comfortable enough, he thinks, and a few weeks here will be more pleasant than surviving winter in the countryside. He tells no one of the voices. That is the sure way to the kind of hospital from which there is no discharge.
They finally find the swampy crater, a green ring in the middle of the devastation, the peat marsh blasted into a nightmare landscape. The ground has heaved from the spot in giant waves, and there are dozens of peculiar holes, each several metres deep, ranging in diameter from three to fifteen metres. Tonight he will record his triumph in the journal, but only half. He dare not write of the voices, for that way lies disgrace and a one-way visit to Uncle Josephís camps.
The young geologist sitting in the Irkutsk Peopleís Library is reading through the reports; they bore him to tears. This isnít what he wants to do. What he wants to do is to get back to his room at the boarding house, and read his dog-eared copy of ĎThe War of the Worldsí. But he must work. So, compromising, he riffles through some old newspapers, looking for articles on mining, when he chances on something from thirteen years before. Thinking about the book, and for some reason remembering Alex and the telescope, the reports of the blast set his pulse racing. Maybe, just maybe, the voices whisper, Wells was right. Out of such small things, are obsessions born.
They lie together under the deerskins. He no longer notices their pungency after his weeks amongst the Tunguski.
"Was this why you chose me?" He strokes her stomach, but while he teases, he feels a kernel of fear beneath. Heís scared to hear the truth about why she chose him.
"I knew you were the one the travellers waited for. They told me in my dreams."
He leans over her, resting on one elbow.
She continues; "All my life I dreamt. I never told anyone. Especially the priests." She stares at him. "A madwoman, they would call me. Or a woman possessed. It depends only on your religion, the Church, or the old gods. Now we have an end to religion. I hope the Party, with their pursuit of truth and science, will be more tolerant." She watches him intently, waiting for his reaction.
He smiles, draws her to him, and kisses her. "I am sure the Party will be more interested in truth than superstition". It was a fine speech, and he wonders how often sheíd rehearsed it. But he wonít write it down. It is uncomfortably close to home. Best to be sure. Best to be safe.
It is the first terrible autumn after the revolution, when famine stalks the land. Now a second Horseman of the Apocalypse joins that of civil war, and soon they have a third, as with the inevitability of an avalanche, sickness sweeps behind the famine. Fortunately, they no longer fight the Germans. Their war wonít be as well remembered as the Western Front will be, but it has been even worse, with mass battles killing hundreds of thousands. Inevitably, a shell had Kulikís name on it.
He has lain in the hospital for months, the voices ever louder, more insistent. At times it sounds almost as if they bicker. At long last he is discharged, and afterwards, he keeps his condition, his gift, his curse, for it is all of these, to himself. Still, some of his behaviour must appear odd, for every so often he gets a certain look from his comrades. It merely makes him more determined to keep it a secret.
They have dug for weeks, each channel deeper than the last. The workmen all wear snowshoes to stop them sinking into the marshy water. It is becoming like the excavations for the Panama Canal, ton after ton of peat piled up onto the sides of the swamp, and the channels cutting into the surface of it. The workforce are stricken with dysentery, and scurvy from their appalling diet. But still they dig, driven on by Kulik.
Korsolev of course, is the exception, and even he cannot break Kulikís resolve. But he tries. "The men need rest."
"They will get rest, when we have drained the crater."
"They need rest, now. Not later, when you have worked them to death-"
"You know, Comrade Korsolev." With that emphasis, and the tone of Kulikís voice, Korsolev suddenly looks worried. "Many years ago, before the Revolution, I spent time in prison. Do you know why?"
"For revolutionary activities, Comrade Doktor? If so, a noble sacrifice."
"They said it was for revolutionary activities, but you could say it was because I didnít know when to keep my mouth shut. Or how to recognise the precise nature of a situation. Itís very important to understand the true nature of a situation, isnít it Comrade Korsolev?"
The big man looks anxious, realising he has crossed an unseen line. Good. It wonít hurt him to think that the old apparatchik still has a backbone. And teeth.
"Do continue to appraise me of the menís morale, and their thoughts." Kulikís smile is all teeth. "At the appropriate time, of course, and in the appropriate manner."
A second probe had to be launched. The Direktor identified a suitable subject to assist the recall. "Great-Grandpa always talked about the family eccentric," His shoulders and great stomach shook with laughter. "So a little more oddity wonít be noticed. A nano-probe to sting and enter should do it. Weíll tap into his optical and audio networks, and swap suggestions and feedback."
"That sounds like mind control." The technician tempered the criticism with the mildest tone that he could manage.
"Weíre only suggesting the subject goes to Siberia and triggers the recall." The Direktor was still stung. "He doesnít have to do it." They all noticed the way he depersonalised the subject, like many who experiment or torture. "Itíll be better than sitting in the sanatorium." He shrugged. "A little fresh air does one good. In fact, weíll send two probes. The second may be redundant, but a fail-safe is always useful."
It is the end of summer, and the expedition is to return to Moscow. Kulik and Irina lie in bed. "I have something for you," Irina whispers, and rummages in her clothes.
He unwraps the paper. "A babushka," he says, opening the gaudily painted wooden doll, to reveal another within, and yet another. It has probably cost her a monthís wages.
"You realise icons are banned?" He glares at her, to hide his feelings. Lovely, foolish girl.
"Itís only a toy!" Sheís shocked by his reaction, and starts to cry.
"It could get you sent to the camps," He says gently, then holds her, stroking her forehead, wiping her tears away.
"No." She snorts, wipes her nose and eyes. "I must tell you something." She pauses, takes a breath. "Iím pregnant."
He swallows. "Youíre sure? I mean-"
"Iím sure. Iím as regular as the sunrise. But not this time. Itís been three months." She blurts. "Take me with you!"
"Irina, I canít. You know why. For your sake as well-"
"- I know: Iíd be homesick, Iíd hate it, and so on. But I hate it here. You know what they call me? Kulikís Whore."
"Iíll be back next year. Now weíve found the site, the Institute will definitely fund another expedition. As long as we donít embarrass them."
"You mean as long as I donít. You donít have to marry me. Just take me with you, thatís all I ask. Please, Leo."
"Iíll be back next spring. Wait for me till then."
He is just a way out of here for her, he tells himself. He stares stonily ahead, ignoring her pleading, and she gathers her clothes and leaves.
That autumn, as Kulik prepares his presentation to the Institute, Irina marries a Tungus. Grigory is born early the next year. Heís blond and looks nothing like the Tunguski.
Conditions in the camp are appalling. The menís intake is less than a thousand calories a day, and they work from daybreak to nightfall. Those who falter are shot. The bunks are infested with ticks and lice, which inevitably, transmit Rickettsia.
Kulik soon develops the fever and headaches that denote the onset of typhus fever. When the dark rash appears on the prisonersí skins, the guards close the room, locking the prisoners inside, regardless of whether or not they are infectious already.
A shout goes up: as they continue to dig, some of the men use long poles to check the depth. They hit something much harder than the surrounding area. As they prod it with the poles it is clear it is an object -- even their objective. They will soon know. The men resume their efforts, despite their fatigue.
At last they reach the bottom of the swamp, and find the mysterious object at the epicentre of the disturbance. Kulik gropes, and just for a moment he thinks he feels metal. Then the world falters, and itís as if he teeters on the very brink of an abyss. Then the feeling is gone; he clutches his prize.
Kulik stands alone, the voices silenced. He feels old and such a fool. The men look at him, and he has nothing to say. Theyíve followed him all this way, and for what? A tree-stump. Even Korsolev feels a stab of pity for the old fool.
Later, he goes back to the stump, and breaks a piece off: to remind him, when he gets too complacent. It does not last, of course: within a few days, he is back to his old self, planning, driven. "I was simply looking in the wrong place." He says. He will be back next year. And the next. If necessary, every year until he finds it. After a while, the voices return, though they are slightly different, less comprehensible.
The squeezed transmissions from the twentieth century were given only cursory attention after the recovery protocol was activated. Worryingly, although the signal from the probe had ceased, the probe itself hadnít reappeared. The Direktor tried not to think about the implications of that.
A slate fog had descended, and the technicians peered out anxiously. The observer on the Kulik monitor called. "Look at this!" He was clearly anxious. "I think you should have a look, Comrade Direktor. To quote Soyuz 13, ĎBaikonur, we have a problem.í" He flashed an anxious grin.
"Suppress your dramatic urges, Mishkin. What is it?" The fat man asked querulously, and played with the old, battered babushka on his desk.
"Kulik fought in the Great Patriotic War in Tokyo, against the Amerikansi-Nipponese axis." Mishkin pointed to the monitor. "Thatís Stalingrad. I recognise Potemkin Prospekt. See that tank? Thatís German insignia. But what the hell were the Germans doing in Russia in 1942? We should have been alongside them in Paris or London." He checked the monitor. "It was only three years after Onedin and Stalin annexed Poland."
"Shit, if Moscow see thisÖ" The fat man paused, weighing the implications of what they were watching. "We must be watching a parallel timeline. Where the Union of European Socialist Republics was never established." He shuddered at the thought of being accused of revisionism.
"Less than a decade after the communists won the German elections?" Mishkin protested. "What could have gone so wrong?"
"Maybe if Grand-papa hadnít survived that flu outbreak," The fat manís eyes are wide with fear. "Or maybe it was the Tungus Whoreís boy." He shrugged. "It could have been anything; it isnít relevant. Itís what happens here, not there, that counts."
"Doktor Kulik." Another man called. "Are you sure itís a parallel timeline?" His laugh crackled with hysteria. "You fool, look outside." The fog had closed in so much, that they couldnít see anything. They all had the impression there was nothing to be seen.
"That probe hasnít recorded history," Another gasped. "Itís changed it, and written us out of it in the process."
The room seemed to hang in the void. After a while, their voices faded to a whisper, then their bodies. Finally, there was only the great fat bulk of Kulik, then nothing.
He leads the battered rabble off the barges, and onto the landing stage at Vanavarta. He can barely find the energy to lift his feet, but somehow he keeps going, until, as they round the corner, he sees a familiar figure ahead, and stops, a rare window of lucidity opening for him.
He stands in the street, and watches Irina meet another man, holding a young baby in her arms. The smile she gives the man is wan, but the one she gives the child isnít - itís radiant. You can never go back, thinks Kulik. Heís deluded himself, thinking she would have waited this length of time, with no future. He walks away, goes back to the results of the latest aerial search.
The window slams shut. This time, he promises the voices, this time. Iím coming.
Kulik lies in his own blood and faeces, the cacophony of voices in his head fading. The door opens, and Grigory, aged eight, stands there.
"Dada, are you ill?" The boy never spoke to him while he was alive, but now Kulik wants to weep with joy. He called him father! Next to him stands Alexei, killed in the last war, and Sacha, long dead of the Spanish flu. He doesnít ask how they can possibly be here. In his exhausted state it doesnít matter. Behind them stand curious figures, no more than a metre tall. Even though they are partially obscured, standing in shadow, Kulik can see their enlarged crania.
"I think Iím dying, Grigory. Will you give Dada a hug?"
"Weíve come to take you with us, Leo." Says Alexei.
"Iím not religious." Kulik protests. "I donít believe in heaven."
"Who says anything about religion? Maybe your little green men are behind it all." Alexei winks. "Maybe youíre just hallucinating- or youíve gone mad. Religion or science - sanity or insanity? Take your pick. Does it really matter?"
Kulik rises from his bed. He looks around, at the dead and dying bodies on the beds. Including his own, still holding his lucky piece of wood.
He walks toward the waiting group.
Colin Harvey's last appearance was in the January issue with
'Powerhouse'. He has just finished a novel which he is hawking to any
publisher interested and willing to pay, and is currently working on
Another Showcase, and anthology which should be on-line by the time
you read this at www.geocities.com/colin_harvey/AnotherShowcase.html
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