J. Michael Neal
©2013 Melancholy Donkey Press
The first interrogation began deceptively mildly, though the tools were there for what he knew would come eventually. The floodlight across the table was switched off, the high stool he sat on had no rungs between the legs, the dank cold of the cellars beneath Liteiny Prospekt seeped through the concrete walls. He faced only a slight, bespectacled man in the green uniform of the NKVD. It didn’t fool him. He’d been through the process before.
“You are a fascist spy,” the interrogator said in an even, almost bored tone. “What is your name?”
“Nikolai Vassilevich Antonov,” he replied in an equally untroubled voice.
“You spied for the fascists in exchange for food, which you sold to criminals on the black market.”
He didn’t respond.
“You were found hoarding their rations.” The officer paused and looked at him.
“There were five meals there,” he said to fill the silence.
The last time he’d been a guest of the Chekists, in a room much like this one, it had been different. Survival had been his only concern. Even that had been muted, a base animal instinct, devoid of feeling.
The agent leaned forward and his voice rose. “You made trips to the German lines. There you gave them information about our defenses, and they rewarded you with food.”
“I went out there to kill them. When I did, I took their food and brought it back with me.” For the moment he stuck with the truth. He felt anger returning and tried to suppress it.
“You are lying,” the man in green insisted. He stabbed the air with his finger. “You are a traitor, selling out our country to the invaders.”
He shrugged, his thoughts consumed by plans. The cold wouldn’t be a problem; he’d learned to feign shivering in the camps. Faking sleep deprivation was the hardest trick.
The man calling himself Nikolai Vassilevich Antonov returned to the city that others were calling Leningrad in the late summer of 1941. He and it were no strangers to each other. The city was on its third identity; he had lost track of his own.
Normally he would have waited another two decades to return, but there was nothing normal about that August. He’d been working in an auto factory in Pskov when the Wehrmacht crossed the border. As the panzers chewed through Lithuania something stirred within him, a feeling absent so long he didn’t recognize it at first. The urge to violence it produced was more familiar, but the combination made him uncomfortable, and he fled before the Wehrmacht. Unthinking, he retreated to the closest thing he had to a home.
When he arrived in Leningrad the authorities immediately drafted him to construct fortifications along the north bank of the Neva. Under the orders of Kliment Voroshilov, a mass of civilians dug with picks and shovels ten hours a day. He worked alongside men and women aged from ten into their seventies. He saw them, he even talked to them when it was necessary, but he refused to get to know them. When asked for his name, he replied, “Nikolai,” and said nothing more.
No provision had been made for the workers. They scrounged for food and slept under the open sky, with only the clothes they were wearing when they were conscripted. He watched them suffer, unsurprised by the conditions. He’d dealt with Voroshilov, if only indirectly, several times during the civil war—enough to form a low opinion.
Russia was no stranger to suffering. He’d seen it; he’d inflicted it; he’d experienced it. This time he found himself watching it, from the edges, interested once more in the victims.
His observation did not go unnoticed. A crone glared at him and, with a hiss, made a warding gesture towards him. He returned her gaze evenly as he felt the hex slide off him and resisted an urge to apologize when she flinched. He didn’t see her again.
At the end of the first week of September the Wehrmacht reached the shores of Lake Ladoga, cutting the last land route from Leningrad to the rest of the country. The entrenchments were complete in their haphazard way, but there were few troops to man them. The workers drifted back into the city, expecting that the Germans would overrun them at any moment.
He began his own preparations then. Driven by anger, he would do for sport what he had long done for survival. He found a soldier and traded two days of his bread ration for a wicked knife. Its unique balance became comfortable in his hands, and he imagined the atavistic thrill of picking off the landsers as he hunted them through the streets, a feeling that guns had never matched.
Then the Germans stopped, pulling the panzers south to drive on Moskva and eschewing street fighting inside the besieged city. The first bombers rained death on Leningrad, followed by the artillery as the infantry dug their own positions ringing the city. The nine-hundred-day siege had begun.
Though disappointed that his foes had postponed their assault into his lair, he was patient. He luxuriated in his newfound emotion, letting his hate simmer. So intent was he on his anger that he failed to recognize his danger. Even when the Luftwaffe destroyed the city’s food warehouses—Voroshilov’s refusal to disperse them his final gift to the citizens he was supposed to protect—he waited.
Around him the city fell ill. The inhabitants grew thin as the bread ration fell to two hundred grams a day. Disease stalked the streets, and the cold crept up on the weak and gave them a final push. The howitzers in the suburbs established a daily schedule for their deliveries into the wide boulevards. But above all, the war became one against hunger.
For all his carelessness, it wasn’t until early December that his past caught up with him. He bumped into a gaunt figure as he stepped around the body of an old woman who had collapsed on the way to collect bread. The figure turned and exclaimed, “Fedor, is that you?” The shock of recognition was quickly replaced by fear. He had come home too soon, before all of those who would recognize him had died.
He made no effort to determine which of his cellmates was an informer. He would say nothing his jailors might find interesting. When the short, thick man with tattooed arms asked him what he was in for, he replied simply, “Treason.”
The other, a man who had surely been thin even before the siege, mustered a weak laugh. “That’s what we’re all in for. Haven’t you heard? All crime is treason against the State.”
He rested his head on the thin pillow, locking his hands behind his head. “I am accused of selling secrets to the Germans for food.”
“You look well fed,” the professorial-looking prisoner observed.
“I had German food,” he admitted. “I just killed them for it.”
This produced muttering. “He doesn’t look that tough, Alexander,” the tattooed man said.
When further prodding went unanswered, the professor offered a warning. “You should be friendly to Sergei. You have to sleep with us.”
He stared at the ceiling. Sergei wouldn’t sneak up on him, because he had no need for sleep. He said nothing else, but very gently, the question of why he should care whether they realized he was different nagged at him. Somewhere along the way, staying hidden had become an end rather than a means to . . . something. He was sure there had been something.
The erosion of his survival instincts showed in his failure to dissemble. “Slava,” he replied to the man. There was no emotion in it, but the mere recognition gave him away.
“You look well.” The accusation stung.
He nodded. “I am.”
Vyacheslav Modin smiled. “You must join an old comrade for tea and tell me how you stay so young.”
Common sense urged him to decline, to escape and flee however far it took. “I have no tea, Slava.”
“Then you will have to do with what I can find in my kitchen.” Slava’s tone was friendly, but his eyes narrowed.
Without thinking he fell back into the role of Fedor Koltov. “That will do.”
Slava regarded him for a moment and then turned away. “My flat is three blocks over.” He started walking, and Fedor followed. It was a strain to match Slava’s slow, halting gait.
They didn’t speak as they walked. When they reached the building he watched Slava struggle up the stairs to the fourth floor. At last his companion pushed open a door and revealed a tiny apartment. A small stove rested on the floor of the living room, bedding piled next to it. Fedor settled on the floor as Slava shuffled around the kitchen.
“It is what, twenty years since we were last together?” Slava asked as he returned, bearing small pot. “Don’t worry. I won’t make you look at what I am using to brew tea. I would be ashamed to show you.” He set the pot on the stove and then carefully lit the meager wood within.
“Yes. Before Kronstadt.”
“You disappeared, Fedor. And then you show up today and nothing about you has changed. You are healthy and well fed. This is a puzzle. They came looking for you, you know. They wanted to arrest you. Instead they arrested Grigory out of spite and frustration. He died somewhere in the east.”
“They found me. I spent three years digging up diamonds along the Arctic Ocean.”
Slava regarded him. “No one emerges from the camps unchanged.”
He shrugged but said nothing.
“And now, Fedor? Where do you find food to remain so hale?”
For the first time in centuries he felt guilt. “I shouldn’t have come,” he replied.
“Are you putting me in danger by being here? Am I in danger of losing all this?” Slava waved at the walls of the nearly bare room. “We were comrades, back when the Revolution meant something.”
“It never meant anything. The meaning was an illusion to fool us. But it is not that.” Fedor spread his hands helplessly. “I have nothing to share.”
“How can you have nothing to share?” Slava rasped. “Look at you.”
“It’s like it was in Novosibirsk,” he tried to explain. “I just am this way.” He stood up, finishing his cup of tea.
“You always were the cold one, Fedor. Did you never care about us?”
“What did you expect?” He felt anger rising. “I’m the one who pulled the trigger. Always.” As if that were cause rather than effect, he thought. He turned towards the door. “I’m leaving.”
“Please bring food,” Slava begged as he left.
He seethed as he stepped onto the street, unsure who he was angry at.
On the second day his interrogation lasted twenty hours. The questions were meaningless, designed to produce a confession rather than to gather information. The bespectacled officer was little more than a haranguing voice hidden in the glare of the floodlight.
By the end his legs ached from dangling loosely off the high stool. As the questioning wore on he let his chin fall to his chest, jerking upright when his interrogator yelled at him to stay awake. He feigned a shiver, remembering an icy lake to summon ghosts of the feeling.
They talked in circles, returning always to the demand that he admit that he was a German spy. He refused to do so.
Two guards beat him with rubber truncheons before they dragged him back to the cell. All it proved was that he had the ability to bruise.
After he left Slava’s flat, he broke into an apartment, one he’d marked as being abandoned. He kicked in the door, leaving it hanging on one hinge. The smell of decay wafted into his nostrils. Even the cold could not obscure the odor of death.
He found the corpse on the bed. Someone had taken the care to wrap it in a white linen sheet. For the body he had no use; it was the shroud he wanted. He unrolled it from the old woman. Her expression was peaceful in death.
It took him less than half an hour to fashion the sheet into a crude hooded smock with his knife. Luck was with him, for the dead woman hadn’t traded her needles and thread for food. It took all his patience to wait through remainder of the short day. Darkness would be his friend.
That night he snuck out of the city, knife concealed in the bundled shroud. No one stopped him to ask his business, for which he was glad. He wouldn’t have known what to tell them.
He stopped briefly to look at a row of burned-out buildings. Craters stood witness to the shelling that had ignited the blaze. He saw it as the residents must have: destruction that deprived them not only of shelter but of wood that might have kept them warm.
Once outside the city, he donned his smock and disappeared into the white countryside. Good fortune produced heavy clouds and a light snowfall that made him almost invisible. Nevertheless, he moved forward carefully. It was after midnight when he slipped through the Red Army’s lines and out into the narrow strip controlled by no one. Their positions were easy to avoid; the troops of 48th Army had barely more to eat than the civilians, and lethargy curtailed their patrolling.
The soldiers of the Wehrmacht were a different story. Warm and well fed even as their comrades before Moscow were being savaged by the winter counteroffensive, the only thing sapping their alertness was the weakness of those facing them. Like the Germans, he was unfatigued and unchilled. He looked over the defenses briefly, noting the trench line well back of the individual foxholes thrust forward as observation posts.
He slipped between two positions fifty meters apart and crept back on one of them from behind. At last he crouched within arm’s reach, listening to its two occupants talk quietly in their unfamiliar Duden Deutsch about their plans once the city fell. He silently slipped the shroud over his head and let it fall behind him, leaving his arms unobstructed.
As they laughed at a crude joke he exploded into motion, his knife opening the throat of the landser to his left before either knew he was there. Hot blood covered his hands as he pivoted. The other’s mouth opened to cry out, but he grabbed his second victim’s jaw with his left hand, shoving three fingers into the open mouth. He ignored the pain as the soldier bit down, strangling the call for help. A quick thrust of the knife through his foe’s uniform blouse and between his ribs ended the struggle.
He grinned as he looked down at the two bodies. He crouched down to avoid notice and rifled through their pockets. He found a half-full pack of cigarettes, which he tucked into his trousers, and a variety of personal items that he left behind. Neither had a sidearm, and he had no use for their Mauser rifles.
And with that he was gone, traversing the open ground like a phantom. Dawn wouldn’t come until almost noon, and by then he would be safely back in the city.
He exulted in his kills, and still the anger filled him.
The guards tossed him into his cell. Neither of his fellow zeks stirred to help him. He groaned. His limbs ached, but he’d successfully protected all of his vital spots from the beating. Pretending weakness, he pushed himself slowly to his hands and knees and crawled to his bunk.
The professor started to talk once he was there. He ignored the noise. Sergei took offense at the lack of response. He did his best to ignore that, too.
A couple of hours later he had to break Sergei’s arm when the thick man swung his pillow at him. It made a wet, cracking sound, and Sergei howled. He caught the pillowcase before it hit the floor and reached into it. He pulled a rock out of the cloth pocket and casually dropped it onto the writhing body. One by one the rest of the stones followed. He kept the pillowcase for himself.
“In the future,” he said amidst the screams, “you should pick your targets more carefully.” No one came to investigate.
He found a basement under a burned-out tenement where he hid the shroud and knife. One corner was open to the sky, and charred rubble lay in heaps on the floor.
The next morning, after washing the blood from his body, he felt an urge to become Fedor once more. He walked along the riverbank for hours. He focused on the figures driven onto the frozen Neva by thirst. Despite bodies and minds weakened by hunger, they attacked the ice with spades, picks, and even fingers blackened by frostbite to mine the water the city’s bombarded pipes could no longer deliver. He watched, trying to summon the sensation of thirst out of distant memory.
As daylight waned he found himself only three streets from Slava’s apartment block. He stopped and lit one of the cigarettes he’d captured. It soothed his nerves, though he preferred the harsh flavor of the cardboard-filtered Russian tobacco. Aware that he was simply making excuses, he decided that he didn’t want to invite himself in empty-handed.
He went back to the front that night, slightly to the west of his previous excursion. Just short of the German lines, he dug a depression in the snow and crawled into it. Before dawn the flakes falling from the sky had covered him, save for a thin slit he kept clear to continue his observation.
Through the six hours of gray daylight he sat motionless except for his restless eyes, mapping out the German positions. He felt the cold in an abstract way, as something that surrounded him without penetrating. His legs fell asleep from the forced stillness, but he did not. By the time the pale sun gave up its efforts and sank below the horizon he had the dugouts and bunkers pinpointed.
Once darkness enveloped him he crawled from his hole. He moved slowly at first, allowing circulation to restart in his limbs. He wormed his way past the first line of outposts towards the line of trenches and then stopped thirty feet short of his goal, waiting for a moment when no one was in sight. When it came he rushed forward into the trench. Just as quickly he scaled the other side and flattened himself into the snow once more.
Over the course of a half hour he covered a short distance to the east, stopping behind the dugout he had targeted. He crouched where he could see through the door into a space warmed by a large stove. Two figures were illuminated inside, but it was only moments before one left. The landser carried a large pot out and disappeared down the trench.
He waited until the porter disappeared around a bend, then leaped silently back into the trench. He drew his knife from beneath the wet fabric of his shroud, which he left on to hide his lack of a uniform. Casually, he strode into the bunker. The cook turned at his entrance, unsuspecting. “Johann, warum sind Sie . . .”
With three quick steps he crossed the floor, and the question ended in a gurgle as he thrust the knife up beneath the man’s chin and into his brain. The body collapsed. He took a moment to savor the sight before crouching to clean his blade on the gray uniform fabric.
He grabbed a sack from the counter. Ignoring the bubbling pot of soup, he examined ration tins set out to the side. They contained lengths of cold sausage, bread, and lumps of fat. He stuffed as many as he could into the bag.
Once it was full he stepped towards the door. He smiled when he saw the Walther automatic hanging from a nail by its trigger guard. It disappeared into the pocket of his trousers. He peered out the door.
When he saw no one, he scrambled out. A flick of his wrist tossed the sack out of the trench in the direction of the city. He levered himself up and over the wall, already reaching out to find his bounty as he rolled into the snow. Once he had secured it, he began the slow journey back between the lines. He remained cautious as he slipped through the Red Army positions.
Hours later he reentered Leningrad. The eastern horizon was gray when he climbed the stairs to Slava’s apartment. He had stashed his camouflage cape and the sack, all but one of the ration tins still inside, behind the cold, unlit furnace in a cellar two blocks away. He knocked on the door.
Slava looked furtive when he opened it. “What do you want?”
He grinned, held up the tin, and cracked it open to allow the other man to glimpse the contents. “I believe the question is, what do you want, comrade?”
A spasm of greed crossed Slava’s face as he opened the door.
“What is your name?”
He had lost track of the number of times he had answered this question. “Nikolai Vassilevich Antonov.”
Somewhere in the glare behind the floodlight a fist slammed down on the table. “You are lying!”
Neither was this the first time that the Chekist had so accused him. And again, he simply repeated himself. “Nikolai Vassilevich Antonov.”
“We have talked to the old man.” The unseen voice was a snarl. “He has told us everything.”
He had expected that would happen. Only stubbornness had kept him insisting on his original answer. That and the lack of a better answer.
“Your name is Fedor Koltov. You and the old man were Trotskyite agents in league with the Germans. You have spied for them for twenty years.”
He was unable to keep his face from twisting into a wry grin. “Do I look old enough to have been a spy twenty years ago?”
The voice continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “During the civil war you assassinated good revolutionaries at the command of your master.”
As always, the Bolshevik ability to twist the truth ever so slightly into absurd falsehoods amused him. “The Whites caught me once,” he answered. “They seemed entirely unaware of my counterrevolutionary nature.”
Sarcasm was wasted on the man. “So you admit that you were such an important agent that even your allies didn’t know your identity.”
He closed his eyes and slumped on the stool, hoping that his frustration would be mistaken for fatigue. He summoned the will to take his situation seriously. “I wasn’t killing good socialists. My activities were confined strictly to the elimination of enemies of the people.”
“Again you lie.” At least the voice had returned to normal volumes. “The old man confessed to everything, how Trotsky used his position to identify our agents among the counterrevolutionaries and sent you to liquidate them. It was all under the cover of supporting the Revolution, but worked to defeat it.”
Suddenly he felt certain that he would never see Slava again, that in fact his old comrade was already dead. His amusement ended and the anger returned. “Trotsky was an asshole,” he said quietly.
“We have established your guilt,” responded the voice. “Now you must confess and name your accomplices.” It spoke in the silky tones of seduction.
He sighed and let his chin drop to his chest again.
He fed Slava. At first it was a physical act, giving the man the small pieces of sausage and bread that his system could handle after months of starvation. It was not entirely successful; Slava vomited the fatty meat and complained of cramps in his stomach.
“It beats starving,” the old man replied when he apologized for causing such discomfort.
He sat with his back to the wall and watched Slava eat. “I am struck by how, after a long absence of nourishment, we must indulge ourselves slowly lest we become sick.”
His companion looked up between bites. “Who are you? I assumed I was exaggerating when we met, that you haven’t changed at all, but I wasn’t. You haven’t just aged well. You haven’t aged. You don’t eat, and yet you are healthy.”
“I eat the same rations you do,” he said.
Slava cocked his head, and a glint of humor reappeared on his face. “No, you don’t.”
“Sure I do. I just eat them before I get here.”
Slava sighed. “You have no ability to get along with people, Fedor, but even you have the courtesy to join your friend for a meal if you are a guest. And now that I think about it, you were always hale even during the worst days of the Revolution. Tell me, did you ever go hungry in the camps?” He emphatically bit down on his sausage.
“Of course. We all starved there.”
“Feh.” Slava swallowed. “You forget that I do understand people. I was always the one who talked us through the guards before you did the killing. And I know you are lying.”
He fell back into silence, struggling to find a response that he found satisfying. Slava allowed him to muster, if not an answer, at least a change of subject.
“What about you? How have you survived two decades of communism?”
Slava smiled, allowing the deflection. “Poorly, I am afraid.” Then he shrugged. “That’s not true. I did as well as any of us until this war. I found a woman.”
“You always found a woman,” he interrupted.
“Not like Tatiana,” Slava said with a laugh. “No one has ever found a woman like her. Of course, love always makes us think that someone is unique, but you would have liked her, I think.”
“That alone would make her quite rare.”
“You misrepresent yourself, Fedor. You’ve always liked people, when you can be bothered to notice them. You just don’t understand them.”
He sighed. “That has not always been true, I’m afraid. And keep talking about yourself, not me.”
“There truly isn’t much to tell. I would give anything to live it all again, for the little things like her smile, or the way she nagged at me to feed the cat. Boring things. I wish for boredom again.”
“You haven’t tried it for long enough, then,” he said, though he smiled as he did. “Where is she now?”
Sorrow creased Slava’s face. “Little bits of her were on the street. Some were in the garden, probably still are. A Stuka killed her.”
“I am sorry.”
“I know you are. There are tears on your face, Fedor. I am glad, for they mean that you care more than you think you do.”
As he stared into the floodlight he almost felt lightheaded, but it wasn’t a physical sensation. He lost all sense of caution. “He wasn’t old, you know.”
The interrogator looked confused. “Who was not old?”
“Slava Modin. The old man you beat a confession out of. He was forty-three.”
“He was a Trotskyite spy.”
The anger mixed with sorrow to make a form of madness, and he laughed. “Slava was the least political Bolshevik I ever met. I might have become a Trotskyite if I’d thought he was any different than the rest of you. But he wasn’t.”
The NKVD man yelled. “You weren’t Bolsheviks.”
He bared his teeth at the glare. “You don’t scare me. How does it feel to be the one that fears?”
He didn’t hunt often enough to feed Slava every day, but it became a ritual they practiced several times a week as the calendar turned to 1942. He would bring a ration tin and hand it over at the door. Slava would invite him in, and they would sit and talk while the widower ate. It wasn’t enough for Slava to put weight back on, but he hoped it was enough that his friend was at least fighting hunger to a draw.
One day in early February, Slava ate for a few minutes and then set aside half of the bread and all of the butter from the ration tin. As he settled on the pile of blankets he slept under, he asked, “Are you an agent of God, Fedor?”
“God? What happened to your Bolshevik atheism?”
“It died when they marched across the ice to Kronstadt. You were right to flee then. Tell me, Fedor, what do we do when God is dead and then atheism follows him into the grave?”
“You are wrong. God is not dead. People only think that because He hates us.”
“That would explain a lot about the world,” Fedor answered. “Still, it seems likelier that there is no God and we are responsible for the shit we swim in.”
“Oh, we are responsible for our shit,” he said. “But God is there. Or at least there is something there that calls itself God and responds to our prayers.”
“I cannot believe that. I prayed often as a boy and nothing ever responded.”
He laughed. “Slava, you are too nice. God didn’t want to answer your prayers.”
“That is horrible!”
He shrugged. “The world is a horrible place. But trust me, if you call upon God properly, he will respond, no matter how much we all come to regret it.”
“What do you mean?” Slava whispered.
“There is magic in the world,” he said. “Dark, ugly sorcery that calls upon the power of God. But, in the end, those who use it would never be able to distinguish it from the workings of the fallen Lucifer.”
“How do we live in such a world?” There was horror in Slava’s eyes.
“The same way we always have. We muddle through and we suffer.”
Slava gesticulated with a vigor that showed his recovering strength. “You don’t suffer. The rest of us do, but you, never. You are impervious to all of the trials of being human. So are you angel or demon?”
“Neither,” he said. “I think I have suffered. Not like you, no. You are correct. I do not experience hunger or cold or fatigue. I admit, my trial as we dug diamonds out of the rectum of Siberia was to hide that such hardships were foreign to me.”
“You call that suffering?”
“No. Not that, precisely. Not there. In the camps it was easier not to know anyone. I never had to watch a friend be beaten by the guards and keep myself from responding. I never had to watch anyone I liked succumb to the cold wind blowing through the hut. I never had to worry about some gang of zeks stealing my food, for why did I care?”
He held up his hand as Slava tried to interrupt. “But tell me truly, comrade. Was I your friend when we fought against the Whites? You counted on me in a fight, but you never trusted me with your loves. For me the cold was on the inside.”
“Were you lonely?”
He sighed. “I am old. I was many people before I was Fedor Ivanovich Koltov. I pursued the Grande Armée through the snow, killing Frenchmen with the same ruthlessness I displayed in the Red Terror.”
“None of that tells me who you are. You are not Fedor, but who?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Guards in green uniforms beat him again, and he had to drag himself onto his bunk once they had dragged him back to his cell. He was alone for a time while NKVD dealt with his fellow prisoners. He stretched his bruised limbs, determined to be prepared when they returned.
As he flexed his leg, he realized that he had lost his patience. Where he had once spent four patient years waiting out his stay in the gulag, he now wanted to get out and do something. His plans were inchoate, violence without a target. He knew only that he needed to do something.
Alexander was the first to join him. The professor walked into the cell under his own power, but his stride was unsteady. The man leaned against the bunk, too weary to climb to his upper berth. “I need to sleep.”
He stood up and helped lift the professor into his bed.
“How are you so strong?” Alexander mumbled as he rolled onto his side.
“Clean living and a positive Bolshevik attitude,” he answered.
“That’s shit.” And then the professor was asleep.
He waited on his own bed for a half hour before Sergei arrived. The man’s arm was in a crude cast, and even an untrained eye could see that it was unlikely to heal properly. With a glare, Sergei retreated to his own bed against the other wall.
He made no pretense to fatigue. Sergei’s stare did not perturb him. He arose and began light calisthenics to relieve the aches in his body. Already his preternatural constitution had reduced the pain.
He was done pretending.
He hunted three or so times per week. Food was harder for him to find than victims. The isolated foxholes he could assault in comparative safety rarely contained more rations than a snack.
In mid-January he watched a position and noted complacency in its sole occupant. He snuck up close, almost crawling into the entrenchment before making his move. Knife in hand, he waited for the soldier’s back to be turned. When it happened, he jumped in. He clapped one hand over the German’s mouth and held the blade to his throat.
“Do not move,” he said in German. The soldier tensed but didn’t struggle. “I will ask you some questions. Answer them and thou mayest survive. Shouldst thou shout or make as to flee, I will kill you. Understood?”
The German did his best to nod. “I won’t cause any trouble. I swear.”
He relaxed but didn’t move the blade. “I have need of your rations. Hast thou any here?” It had been centuries since he spoke German, and he couldn’t mimic the modern style.
“No. Not until morning, back at the company bivouac.”
He swore quietly in Russian. “Then where . . .”
“Wait,” the German said. “If you need food, I can go get you some.”
“Go get some? Art thou not on sentry duty?”
He felt the German start to nod but stop at the blade’s pressure on his throat. “No one will care. Shit, they sent me out here by myself, didn’t they?”
“Why should I believe this?”
“I’m on your side,” his captive insisted. “Really. I was a communist until they outlawed the party. I’m just a conscript.”
“Thinkst thou that I will believe that?”
“I have no idea whether you’ll believe it. It’s just true.”
He took a deep breath and released his grip. “I will still kill thee if thou attractest attention.”
“Don’t worry. I believe you.” The German moved to the other side of the foxhole. “You’re the ghost killer.”
“What is thy name?”
“Christian. Private Christian Schröder.” He rubbed at his throat.
“From where dost thou hail?” The gloom kept him from getting a very good look at the German’s face. Schröder was a large man, but he couldn’t get a good read on whether to trust him.
“If I let thee go, what canst thou bring back?”
He saw the man’s body release some of its tension. “I can probably get four or five days of cold rations. Nothing hot.”
That suited his needs. “How long?”
“Probably a half hour. Maybe an hour.”
He made a quick decision. “All right. I will wait for you here.”
The German started to stand up. “I can go?”
As soon as Schröder was out of sight, he rolled out of the foxhole. He found a spot about thirty meters away and carefully obscured his tracks in the snow. Even on this clear night under the stars, he would be almost invisible. From there, he observed and pondered his folly.
About forty-five minutes later a lone figure emerged from the darkness and walked over to the foxhole. The soldier looked around nervously when he found it empty. He waited until he was sure the figure was Schröder before he approached quietly. The German settled into the entrenchment and didn’t see him until he dropped in.
“Shit, you scared me,” Schröder whispered hoarsely.
“I hope thy sergeant does not try to sneak up on thee.”
Schröder shrugged. “It’s so fucking cold I don’t care if someone does manage to kill me. Hell has to be warmer than this.”
“Thou shouldst not have too much confidence in that.”
“I suppose not.” Schröder sighed. “I scrounged up five days’ worth of rations. That’s all I could find. We’re not getting all of the food we’re supposed to, either.” He looked down. “It’s bad in there, isn’t it?”
“The fascists are happy. They’re glad you are starving to death.”
“They will come to regret it,” he replied. “Russia will never surrender, and we will match you atrocity for atrocity.”
Schröder flinched. “Impossible.”
He took the offered food. “I fought in the civil war. Thou hast done nothing worse to us than we have done to ourselves.”
“If that’s so, then it truly is Hell.”
“It is a shame that thou wilt not see this city in its glory. And that thou wilt not meet its people in better times.”
“Where are you from?”
“Is that why you talk like a character in the Nibelungenlied?”
“It has been a long time since I last spoke German.”
Schröder didn’t press. “If you want more food, I can bring some tomorrow.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I am still alive because I do not come to the same place a second time.”
“I don’t know your name.”
He smiled wolfishly. “Just call me the Ghost.”
“We call you Blut im Nacht.”
Without looking back, he rolled out of the foxhole and into the snow.
“Who are you?” the voice insisted.
Yesterday’s bruises were fading from his naked body. “That’s an interesting question. I’m trying to answer it for myself.” The hurt would take a new form today. Already sharp pain radiated from the alligator clips attached to his genitals.
“What is your name?”
“Do you mean the name I was born with, the name I think I’d like to be known as, or the . . .”
There was a whirring sound, and he howled as electricity jolted through his penis.
“What is your name?”
This new form of torture shook his confidence. He yelled, “Nikolai Vassilevich Antonov.”
There was a momentary pause. “You are lying.”
“What of it?” He shouted in hopes of regaining his equilibrium.
“Where are you from?”
In a surge of madness he tried to provoke his questioner. “St. Petersburg.”
The electricity coursed through him again.
The voice remained smooth and calm. “I will get the answers,” it said. He stared into the light. “How old are you?”
“Older than you can imagine.” He braced himself for the inevitable response and jerked as the current jolted him again.
The voice became soft, seductive. “You will tell us the truth.”
He watched a muscle spasm in his groin and said nothing.
“What is your name?” the voice insisted.
“Ivan.” He slumped in relief as he said it.
“Truly?” The voice sounded pleased.
“Where are you from, Ivan?”
“Palestine,” he whispered.
He screamed again and wondered if he should pretend after all.
As the weeks passed, he learned to relax when he was with Slava. His fingers stopped coming to rest on the hilt of his knife. It wasn’t just that he enjoyed Slava’s company. When he was there, he stopped thinking of people as targets.
One day in February, when Slava was no longer in danger of vomiting up the food he offered, he asked, “What happened to the Revolution?”
“What do you mean?” Slava asked quietly.
“We had such purpose when we started. We were going to create the classless society where each gave according to their abilities and all received according to their needs. How did we end up with this?”
“People happened to it. As you said, we created our own shit.”
“Do you know why I left you? Can you guess what it was that I couldn’t face that March when they ordered us onto the ice?”
“Tell me.” The meager daylight had departed, and he couldn’t see his companion’s face.
“I wasn’t scared of the commissars. I couldn’t let you see me cry as I did.”
“You wouldn’t have been the only one. Many of us cried. The Revolution died for me, too.”
He loosed a strangled laugh. “Now it is you trying to fool me, Slava. You had seen the folly long before that. It made me angry, the way you mocked the ideals I fought for. I see now that the anger was because somewhere deep in here,” he said, pounding his chest, “I knew you were right.”
“It is not that simple, Fedor. I mocked and suspected that we were founding nothing more than a new imperialism, but it wasn’t until Kronstadt that I truly knew it in that same place. Mockery was misplaced hope. When Tukhachevsky killed it, I fell silent.”
He stared into the darkness. “I have always been a killer. First when I was fourteen. They chose me to become what I am because I was good at it. They liked that I did it without hesitation. Without conscience. They were pious men who wanted a tool that would kill without needing a cause.
“The last war was the first time I was unhappy killing. Something had happened to me. No, someone had happened to me. For the first time in my life I entertained the thought that killing might be wrong.” He realized that his hands held the knife, squeezing the hilt.
“I was serving with the Northern Front, killing Germans, when I first heard the Bolsheviks. At first I derided the soviet they set up in my company. My mockery was a last remnant of amorality, but what they said touched something within me.”
He didn’t need Slava this time to notice his tears in the dark. He felt them on his cheeks. “I was still a killer. I still am one. That is what I am. But the Revolution promised that there was a purpose to it. At long last Lenin offered a meaning for my violence that I wanted to accept. I could never believe that God would deliver paradise, but we could create one. I had a cause.”
He drew up his knees and rested his forehead on them. “They gave me purpose, and then they stole it back.”
The next day the guards rousted him from his cell and took him to an unfamiliar chamber. For the first time, he was nervous. The electricity had almost broken him the day before. He dreaded a repeat.
He sat on what might have been the same wooden stool, but the floodlight was absent. A new figure entered the dank interrogation cell, and the epaulets on the green uniform caught his attention. Someone had decided that he merited the attention of a full NKVD colonel.
The officer threw a folder of paperwork onto the table, and its contents scattered across the surface. “Let us dispense with all of this. I don’t believe anything in it. My colleagues didn’t even ask the right questions, did they?”
He looked at the officer without speaking. His legs swung loosely, having nowhere to gain purchase on the stool.
The colonel sighed. “They thought it was important to establish who you are. You and I know that the important question is, ‘What are you?’ Don’t you agree that that is a much more interesting question?”
He shrugged. “It isn’t all that interesting.”
“On the contrary.” The interrogator’s calm tone did little to hide an implicit threat of violence. “You are very good at shivering even though you don’t feel the cold. Clearly you have studied how to act fatigued from sleep deprivation. Very impressive. If I hadn’t been behind that mirror yesterday, who knows what might have happened?”
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to be so confusing.”
“Of course not. You just wanted them to draw the wrong conclusions.” The colonel came around the table in order to look down at him. His height was impressive, almost equal to his girth. “There are ways to torture one such as you, you know, quite aside from sheer physical pain. What is it you fear?”
“Not very much anymore.”
“How about death? Most of you do.”
It was his turn to sigh. “Most of who? I have no idea what you are talking about.”
The colonel looked him in the eyes for a moment, waiting in vain for a flinch. Then he backed off. “I’m going to interpret that charitably, as you exercising the discretion that all of us who are a part of the mythical world are supposed to show. I will tell you what you are, so that you may dispense with that reticence. There are no recordings being made.
“You are of the Once Dead. You were killed in a gruesome ritual that fused your soul to your body. Three days later you rose from the grave. You are not undead. All of your biological processes still function impeccably. You just don’t need to maintain them with water, food, oxygen, sleep, or warmth. You soul provides all the fuel your body needs, right up until the point when something manages to deliver trauma sufficient to overwhelm all of the defenses it provides you.
“Have I described you correctly?”
He regarded his interrogator with an even stare. “Almost,” he said. “You only got one thing wrong. I never feared death. It was Hell I was afraid of. I didn’t care how long I lived, just that my soul would be destroyed when I die.”
His captor laughed. “So you believe that the soul is destroyed when you die?”
“That’s what I was told. I have no idea what I believe now.”
“I, of course, am a good communist and believe that there is no such thing as a soul or God.” The colonel smiled. “If I did, though, I’d be skeptical.”
“I’ll find out eventually, I guess.”
“Indeed. I have more immediate questions for you, though. We’ll get back to the food. More importantly, who is your master? Who pulls your strings?”
“No one,” he replied.
“Someone created you. Someone owns you.”
The colonel frowned. “You are lying to me. We have the records of all of the magi who could have performed the ritual. All of the Once Dead they created are accounted for.”
“How far back did you look?”
The Chekist looked puzzled for a moment. “Are you saying . . .” He paused. “How old are you?”
He smiled back at the colonel. “That’s the important question you should have asked.”
The secret policeman almost shouted. “How old?”
“Seven hundred and sixty-two years.”
One morning, as February turned to March, a thin youth stepped in front of him on his return from the front.
“What have you got in the bag?”
He could sense two more of them behind him. “Go home,” he replied quietly.
“Give us the bag, then.” The boy’s face was gaunt with desperation. “We’ll let you go.”
He set the bag on the ground at his feet. “You’ve picked the wrong target tonight. Go home.”
“You look well fed.”
“That should be your cue that I’m the wrong target.”
“Just give us the food.”
Over the youth’s voice, he felt as much as heard movement at his back and twisted to his left. The knife came to hand without thought as he grabbed the wrist of an assailant wielding a small blade. A quick slash of steel opened the boy’s abdomen, and he fell.
He pivoted to face the third attacker. Distantly, he observed the child’s slow reactions and recognized someone with no experience in street fights. As the boy struggled to make a decision, he thrust out of his crouch. His knife missed everything vital, instead scoring a line across his target’s ribs. The novice thug’s morale shattered, and he fled. Combat reverie broken, he hooked his foot in the sack’s strap and turned back to the child who had first accosted him.
The boy had not moved in the few seconds the fight had lasted. He saw fear in the young eyes and paralysis in the limbs. Anger flooded back into him.
“What is your name, boy?” he growled.
The youth’s throat contracted as he swallowed. “Anatoli,” he stammered.
“How old are you, Anatoli?” He knelt to clean the bayonet on the jacket of the assailant noisily dying from his stomach wound.
“Where are your parents?”
“My mother is dead.” Fear had drained out of Anatoli’s voice, leaving only steady emptiness. “My father is in the army.” That meant dead, most likely, or captured by the fascists.
“You aren’t good at this.”
“No, sir.” The boy’s agreement was flat with shock.
“Have you killed anyone?”
“No.” Anatoli began to shake. “I’m hungry.”
He relaxed and slipped the knife back inside his shirt. “I have food in the bag. Come with me and I will feed you.”
The boy stared at him as he started to walk.
“Just let me have them.”
He could see the boy’s veneer of confidence cracking.
“I want the company. I’m not going to give you the food for free. You have to talk to me.”
“Lonely?” The sneer was back quickly.
“Yes. When you’re as old as I am you’ll understand.”
“I won’t fuck you.”
He shrugged. “That’s okay. I probably wouldn’t remember how anyway.”
They walked to the cellar where he hid the rations he collected. He could see Anatoli shivering in the cold.
When they got there he lit a large candle. “Sit.” He indicated a pile of rags, the closest thing to a comfortable resting spot in the space.
The youth watched him suspiciously as he dug one of the ration boxes out of his sack. He opened it and tore off a hunk of the black bread within, leaving the sausage for later. He held it out, and Anatoli grabbed it.
The boy tore into the bread. He let Anatoli eat until it was gone, then asked, “Do you get good marks in school?”
Anatoli stared at him. “Who cares?” he answered at last.
“I do, or I wouldn’t have asked.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The boy sounded truly indifferent. The silence extended for minutes. He began to wonder what he’d been hoping to accomplish before Anatoli’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Why me?”
He laughed. “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, really. I’m surprised I didn’t just kill all of you. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. ”
“So why didn’t you?” the boy asked in a sullen tone.
“I don’t know. I was surprised when I just wounded your friend. Pulling a blow like that could get me killed.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“When you didn’t have sense enough to run, that’s when I decided to feed you.”
“Do you think you’re going to protect me?” Anatoli asked.
“It’s more that I think I need you. I have a very long lifetime of things to atone for.”
“You want to get into heaven.”
He laughed. “It’s far too late for that. No, I’m just tired of having no horizon beyond living tomorrow just like I lived today.”
“May I have some more food?”
“Sure.” He opened the ration box and gave Anatoli the rest of the bread and a piece of the sausage. The boy devoured them as rapidly as before.
He watched the boy lick the last of the grease off his fingers. “You can sleep there if you want.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t sleep.”
Anatoli didn’t react to that. “So what are you going to do?”
“I’ll undoubtedly sit around and think. Maybe walk around the block a few times.”
“That sounds exciting.”
“Why do you think I wanted company so badly?”
Anatoli said nothing as he blew out the candle.
The Chekist stared at him. “Truly?”
He shrugged. “I was born on November fourth, 1179. The ritual making me Once Dead was performed in 1204.”
“No one in Russia knew that ritual then.”
“That may be. There were several individuals in Acre who did, though.”
The colonel’s breath hissed through his teeth. “Acre? In the Holy Land?”
He smirked. “I thought you didn’t believe in holiness.”
“It is a figure of speech. Are you Russian? Originally?”
“No. I was a Brother of the Teutonic Order. German.”
“That is a dangerous thing to be these days.”
“I’ve lived in Russia far longer than you have.”
“As a spy?” The accusatory edge had returned to the interrogator’s voice.
“As a survivor.”
“What did you survive?”
“Everything. I’m seven centuries old.”
“So what happened to your master?”
The colonel sighed. “Of what?”
“You seem to be enjoying drawing this out an awful lot for someone in your position.”
He smiled. “It’s pretty funny, in context.”
“What is funny?”
“You haven’t asked me when he died, or where.”
The colonel rose to the bait. “When did he die?”
“April fifth, 1242. He drowned in Lake Peipus.”
The secret policeman started. “The Battle of the Ice?”
“That’s what’s funny. I’ve kept it a secret for so long, and the first time I tell someone is almost exactly seven centuries later. We even have the Germans invading again.”
“How did you escape?”
“Escape? I fell through the ice with him.”
“And you swam to shore?”
“Eventually. It took a while, though. Not only was I wearing armor, my horse settled on top of me. I couldn’t even start getting out of my mail until the animal decayed enough for me to move.”
“How long were you down there?”
“I had to wait for my horse to rot, and you have no idea how hard it is to get out of armor by yourself when you’re half buried in mud. I measured progress a millimeter at a time and thanked God for rust.”
“I stole some clothes and started wandering. Pretty much any job you can name, I did it for a while. I found that I liked Russia, so I stayed. And I’ve fought for her against Mongols, Lithuanians, Turks, Poles, Swedes, Saxons, Prussians, Austrians, Frenchmen, Bulgars, and various Central Asian tribesmen. Never the English, though. The Crimean War passed me by.”
“I was fighting the Germans until you arrested me.”
The colonel brushed that aside. “You were a soldier.”
He shrugged. “Among other things. I mostly just think of myself as a killer, though.”
“And these other things?” The NKVD officer struggled to retake control of the conversation.
“I worked in the steel foundry from 1936 until the invasion.”
“Pretending to be a good proletarian.”
“Pretending?” He sneered. “I am a good proletarian. My father may have been a Junker eight hundred years ago, but I’ve worked with my hands many multiples of however long you’ve been alive.”
“We cannot escape our class origins.”
“Fuck your mother. I was a Bolshevik when you were in diapers.”
“It was Petrograd then.”
“I should go look for your Party file.”
He sneered again. “You should have spent more time reading your predecessor’s transcripts. I told more of the truth than you think. Go find my records, and you’ll see an exemplary record right up until I was ordered to help murder the Kronstadt sailors. That’s when I deserted the Red Army.”
“You admit to a capital crime?”
The anger flooded through him. “Sure. You don’t care what I did with the Red Army. You couldn’t give a fuck if I got up on this table and invoked Trotsky as my god. You’re going to have me killed because my master died without having the decency to kill me himself, or at least arranging for someone else to pick up my leash.”
The colonel flashed a smile. “I’m not going to kill you. I’m planning to make you mine.”
The next morning he took the boy with him to Slava’s apartment. It took the promise of more food to keep him from running away. Anatoli avidly watched him pull two ration boxes out of their hiding space, and he resolved to move his cache somewhere else.
His old comrade stared at him as the pair entered. “You have a new sidekick, Fedor.”
“I found him on the street,” he replied.
Slava regarded the scowling youth. “Does he bite?”
He waited to see if Anatoli responded. When the silence extended, he replied, “Only bread. So far.”
“What do you want me to do?” Slava asked.
“Keep an eye on him. Keep him safe.”
Anatoli returned Slava’s gaze. He couldn’t see the boy’s face to gauge his expression.
“I don’t think he wants your help. Mine either.”
He laughed. “No, he just wants my food.”
Slava turned to him and squinted skeptically. “I will do what I can.”
He handed the two tins of food to Slava. “Maybe someday we won’t have to speak of him as if he isn’t here.”
“Do not expect miracles, my friend.” Nevertheless, Slava smiled at them both.
He laughed derisively. “You’ll find that I’ve learned a few tricks along the way. I didn’t spend all my time cutting trees and forging steel.”
The NKVD man ignored him and gestured with his right hand. There was a brief flare of light around his prisoner. “I like this cell. It has all of my special preparations.”
“A summoning circle. I assume that a ritual of binding is next.”
He stood up, stretching his legs. “Very well. This should be entertaining.”
The colonel gestured again. “I need you quiet so I can concentrate.”
He felt power slide around him and fell silent.
His captor opened a panel in one wall and extracted five short, fat candles, a stole, and an obsidian knife. He laid them out on the table and murmured in Greek. After placing the stole around his shoulders, he took up the first candle. A pass of his hand over it and flame caught on the wick. He let it go on the border where the light had flared. It floated four feet off the ground.
His captor repeated the procedure with the other candles until they hovered around him, marking the edge of the circle. He watched the proceedings, amused. The colonel started a low chant in a language far older than Greek.
The hairs on his forearms stood on end as eldritch power flowed through the circle. He watched, silent, through the hour-long ritual. It came to a crescendo as the colonel picked up the knife and drew it across his own palm. Blood welled out, and the policeman touched it to each candle in turn. Light flared, surrounding him with a shimmering hemisphere of golden incandescence.
He waited until the last of the flames flared red and then stepped effortlessly through the circle. The power set his shirt to smoldering, but he ignored the pain, pausing a beat to watch the expression of shock that crossed the sorcerer’s face. He grinned as the colonel’s fingers went slack and the knife slid free from his grip. He caught it before it hit the floor.
The streams of power twisted around the room, seeking a new target. The colonel screamed as they found him and radiance flowed into his body. He collapsed to the floor, writhing in pain.
The Once Dead watched for a moment and then squatted next to the stricken man. He drew the knife blade across his own palm and held his hand up near the colonel’s face. Crimson blood welled up as he asked, “Do you know what will happen if I let any of this pass your lips?”
The policeman’s eyes reflected comprehension even though he was unable to speak through the agony. He man watched him impassively. “I guess you do.” He watched for a few minutes before turning to the various accoutrements of magic.
He took each of the candles in turn, blew them out, and set them back on the table. He ignored the choking sounds behind him. He made sure that everything else was neatly arranged before he started twirling the knife in his hand.
Only then did he return his attention to the uniformed man squirming on the floor. He squatted next to the magus. “A binding ritual is a remarkable thing. I’ve had cause to research them. When you try to usurp another’s will, the spell you create is almost a living thing. If it is thwarted in taking over its intended target, it might not fade away. If it has the strength, it will find someone else to work upon. Often it turns on the one who cast it. I’ve heard that that produces a particularly painful feedback.”
The only reply was a keening whine.
They arrested him two days after he took in Anatoli. It was a clumsy operation. Two policemen approached him on the street, neither with weapons drawn. Their nervousness betrayed their intentions.
He considered killing them and fleeing. Perhaps the knife wouldn’t have sufficed in broad daylight, but he’d taken to carrying the Walther on him after finding a new hiding place for his food cache. Then he thought of the repercussions for Slava if he did so and instead allowed them to take him into custody. They didn’t bother to tell him what the arrest was for.
The two officers didn’t even search him. It wasn’t until he was inside the NKVD headquarters on Liteiny Prospekt that his weaponry was discovered. When they pulled the pistol from his coat the proceedings became far more energetic. Amid shouting he was pushed against the wall. One of the officers punched him twice in the back of the head, and then someone kicked his legs out from under him.
“Put him in with the cannibals,” a sergeant ordered as he was dragged towards the cells.
When the door slammed shut and his head stopped ringing, he almost laughed. His supposedly terrifying new cellmates turned out to be a gaunt, miserable-looking family. Three children huddled around their parents. All five stared at him with terrified eyes.
He sat in the corner farthest from them. He offered his best attempt at a friendly smile, but it made no impression. He listened to their pathetic mewling and closed his eyes. He’d been here before. Not this cell, but one just down the hall.
He was patient. For now.
The cell door was locked. He sighed and started to search the screaming colonel for keys. He smiled at the thought that any who happened to overhear would think that he was the one crying out in pain.
When his search came up empty he stood up, intending to call for a guard in the colonel’s voice. From there it would be one knife stroke and then a race to escape the prison before anyone could stop him.
Before he opened his mouth, though, a new thought occurred to him. He returned to crouch next to his interrogator. A look into the dark eyes told him that he had the man’s attention even through the agony.
He felt a twinge of guilt, but a surge of pleasure at the colonel’s agony prevailed. “You really want to ask me how I walked through your circle, don’t you?” He paused briefly. “Do you know what netherdone is?” He shrugged when the colonel didn’t respond. “It’s more colloquially known as angelshit, though it doesn’t really have anything to do with angels or shit. It’s a mineral. Very rare. In fact, the only known source of it is northeast of here. Way northeast. Go to Arkhangelsk and then keep walking for a month or so.” He would release the Chekist from his pain, he reasoned. Eventually.
“I wandered for almost two centuries before I learned about it. I’m afraid that I burned the book that mentioned it. I’m sure the monks were distressed when they found the ashes.”
A long gurgle interrupted him.
“Hush. It takes a long time for that to be fatal. If no one finds you, it will probably be thirst that kills you. I plan to offer you a way out long before that, but I really hate Iron Feliks’s bully boys, so you can suffer for a bit. I’ve been at this for a long time and you’ll see in a moment that you’re the perfect person to hear this story.
“So I went there. Even I got cold in that wind, I’ll have you know. I collected as much of that brown dust as I could carry. Then I started eating it. Very slowly, mind you. Angelshit is extremely toxic in amounts greater than a couple of grains. It has an interesting property, though. It disrupts sorcery. If you mix it into a steel alloy you can forge a sword that will cut through any ward ever raised. If you ingest enough of it, you become immune to all magic.”
Air whistled through the colonel’s throat as he breathed, but he had stopped emitting any other noise.
“That won’t work for most people, of course. Even slowly increasing the dose, it took about a hundred and fifty years for my tissues to become sufficiently saturated with the residue for me to be confident that I was safe. To be honest, I was a bit afraid that the stuff would kill me, seeing as how it was a sorcerous ritual that kept me from aging. It was worth the risk, though, and I guess it isn’t magic keeping me alive.
“The netherdone just sits there, protecting me perpetually. That’s fortunate, because the tsars dug a bauxite mine in the only place you could get it. So it’s all been smelted into oblivion. There won’t ever be anyone else like me.
“You really should have just killed me.” He reached down and rolled the colonel onto his back. “Now, I personally can’t perform any sorcery whatsoever. I couldn’t even before the angelshit. As I said, though, I learned a few things along the way.
“You have two alternatives at this point. I can leave you like that and see if I can break out of here. It’s a pity that you’re too fat for your uniform to be at all useful to me. So I’ll probably get captured or killed in the attempt. Of course, that would leave you where you are now. Someone will rescue you at some point. Maybe they’ll call someone else who can cast ritual magic, and they’ll take pity on you and release you. Or maybe you’ll just end up in a hospital, and they’ll give you food and water, not knowing that you’re fully conscious and in agony. You could live like this for decades, probably.
“That was my original plan, actually. I enjoyed the idea that you’d be in agony forever.” He shook his head. The idea still held its appeal.
“You can thank Slava that I came up with a better plan. Better for you and better for me. He civilized me, made me think like a social person and not just an animal.”
He straightened his legs enough to kick the colonel in the ribs. “Don’t think that means that I don’t hate you. You stole my idealism from me. Not you personally, of course. Men like you. The soulless men grown fat on the ashes of the Revolution. I wanted to make the world a better place for everyone. You burned that fire out of me.”
He laughed as bitterness flowed out of him. “Slava was a cynic. He laughed at my idealism. He said that we would never make the world into paradise, that we could only change ourselves and hope that those around us would notice and decide to change.”
“So thank him when you get to Hell that I thought to do this. I can tell you how to absorb the spell and stop the feedback. The catch is that it means surrendering your will. Accept me as your master, and you can be free of the pain.”
He took a deep breath and released the revulsion he felt at his enjoyment of the man’s torment. To feel schadenfreude was human, he decided, even in extreme cases.
“I don’t want much from you. Just the paperwork for a new identity. After that, you’ll be free to go on. Do we have a deal?”
The colonel forced a harsh hiss through his teeth. He did his best to nod at the same time.
“Zdorovo. Now here’s what you need to do.”
Three hours later he looked at his new identity card. He’d been pleasantly surprised at how little time it had taken to create. It should help him to hide in this modern world where it was harder to become someone new. And Colonel Rybalko had conveniently placed his birth in the Minsk oblast, now inaccessible to the Soviet authorities.
“Ivan Zubov,” he said in a pleased voice. “This is my favorite name. Do you know why?”
“No, sir,” his servant replied. They were alone on the street outside the NKVD fortress.
“This was my name for twenty years in the middle of the last century. The only time in my life I found someone I loved. We were happy together. That was probably the only time I truly enjoyed my life. So far.” He smiled indulgently at Rybalko. “I’m going to try to do better at that going forward.”
“I’ve spent hundreds of years pretending that I have no identity. That I’m no one. I did my best to think of myself as not having a name. Can you imagine that?”
Ivan sighed. “I know. You just want me to leave, so you can pretend that I don’t exist and so you can go back to your own existence. I will, don’t worry. I just have a few more orders for you. And maybe I’ll make you listen to a few more stories. The new me likes to talk.”
Rybalko looked at him hopefully.
“First, you are going to find the boy, Anatoli. Pull him out of wherever he is and take care of him.”
“You realize, sir, that he’s the one that betrayed you to us.”
Ivan smiled. “Of course. The timing made that obvious. No matter. This is a tough way to grow up. You’re going to be his father. You’ll even adopt him. Treat him like your own son and give him all of the advantages of being the son of a colonel.”
Rybalko made a face. “Yes, sir.”
“The other thing you’re going to do is to become a better person. I don’t know. I’ve never tried giving this sort of order, and I won’t be around to reinforce it, but it should stick. Just be nicer to people. Follow the law, both its spirit and its letter. Don’t think only of yourself all the time. I’m going to try that. You will too.”
“Yes, sir.” The colonel spoke with little sincerity. “I’ll do my best.”
Ivan clapped him on the shoulder. “I hope so, I really do. Because I can’t order you to be happy in the rest of your life, but I think that would give you the best shot. I owe you enough that I hope you can be happy.”
The colonel looked at him dubiously.
“No, really. It isn’t just that you got me these papers. It was the opportunity, don’t you see? I can’t remember the last time I managed to solve a serious problem without killing someone. It was refreshing. No, more than that. It was exhilarating.”
Rybalko looked at him. “And what are you going to do now, sir?”
“I’m going far away. That should help make you happy.” He looked up into the rising sun. “I shouldn’t have come back to this city. That was a mistake. I’ve decided I don’t like Leningrad, and I think I’ll avoid it until it’s called St. Petersburg again. In the meantime, I’m going to walk across Lake Ilmen and out of this siege. Then I’m going to find some recruiting office and join the army. I’ll kill Germans in a more officially approved manner. I’ll make some real comrades this time. And if I survive this war, I’ll see what comes next.”
“That’s it?” Rybalko sounded skeptical.
“No.” Ivan turned and took the collar of Rybalko’s tunic between his thumb and forefinger. A light tug was all he needed to emphasize supremacy. “You will never use your position to track me down. In fact, if you come across information that you even suspect hints at my existence or location, you will ignore it.
“And when you find ways to circumvent any of the other commands I’ve given you, you will remember that so long as I am alive, I will be tracking you.”
“If I find that you have not obeyed me, I will demonstrate what I have learned about inflicting pain. Do you know what the Greeks meant with the original idea of civilization?”
“The art of living in cities,” the colonel said flatly.
“Yes,” Ivan agreed cheerfully. “Nothing about being kind or forgiving. Never forget that part of me would enjoy making an incision in your belly and forcing you to watch as I pull your intestines out and wind them around a stick. Do we understand each other?”
“Good.” Ivan clapped him on the shoulder. “Maybe the forces of good will win you over.”
“Maybe.” Rybalko sounded morose.
Ivan smiled at him and then turned to the west. He began walking out of the city, toward the frozen lake.