THE DEVIL’S OWN
By Alex Shalenko
The place was dirty and ran-down, covered in carcasses of rusting iron and concrete that reached out to the grey sky like leprous fingers of fallen giants. Thin veins of decayed power lines were akin to wrinkles on the canvas of snow and clouds, left alone in their magnificent desolation that failed to make impression on two figures observing it with a degree of pragmatic interest.
"You sure this is it?" the one that spoke was a balding, rather stocky man that tried to look like he was still in his early forties. "Doesn’t look like much."
The other one took a few moments to overlook the scenery before answering. "That’s definitely it," he said, surveying the area. "It’s not been used since the early eighties, and when ’91 came about, everyone seemed to have forgotten about this place, but it can’t be anything else."
The man rubbed his hands together, breathing on his fingers to keep them warm. His bearing alone betrayed some military training; the civilian clothes he was wearing seemed rather awkward. The pistol holstered to his belt, on the other hand, looked natural where it was, even if the man was well past the age where one would see active duty.
"Can’t guarantee that it’ll work," the military man said, breaking into a coughing fit.
"What do we have to lose, anyway?" the balding man bitterly laughed. "It is not like anyone else is going to move off their asses or lift a finger."
"Well, we here will have something to say to that, after all."
The military man waved towards the waiting trucks, which began slow, yet steady movement towards the installation’s gate.
September 10, 1941
Mud was everywhere, covering the ground with the dirty brown blanket that refused to solidify, instead splattering all around the besieged city like some kind of tar from the very pits of inferno. In a few moments that passed in between rounds of bombardment and gunfire, Victor Seleznyov tried to remember what this place looked like only a few months ago – before the invasion; even then, he had the hardest time imagining this as a relatively peaceful, prosperous land. There was nothing left but mud, bitter rain, and sounds of artillery shells of Panzergruppe 2 crashing against the haphazard defenses around Kiev.
At first, there seemed to have been some sort of hope that the panzers could be somehow stopped, turned around, sent back west where they spawned. Two months later, this hope has nearly vanished. The Southwestern Front lay in tatters – it was only a matter of time before things unraveled.
Seleznyov ducked behind the shell of a building, hoping that the faint silhouettes in the distance were Soviet, but not harboring much such illusions by this point. There were not going to be any reinforcements – even if there were reserves available, they were being concentrated closer to Moscow. The two other Red Army soldiers taking cover behind the building dropped even closer to the ground.
"Fucking Fritzs," one of them, a young private, muttered. The boy was probably straight out of school, maybe not even eighteen yet, making the words come across rather awkwardly. But then, all lines have been blurred in this war.
A blast sent massive shocks through the remains of the building – a German panzer, no doubt at that. Seleznyov crept even closer to the ground, silently cursing the Fritzs with just about every curse word he knew. From the trenches, he saw several hand grenades fly towards the advancing tanks, a rather futile effort, followed by small arms fire which did little to halt the Germans where they were. There were more shots from the panzers, sending shells of fiery death towards the trenches like bells of apocalypse.
Then, there was a sound reverberating through the air, strange and powerful the likes of which Seleznyov has never heard. Instinctively, he raised his eyes up to the sky, noticing that the other two have done the same. "What the…" the other soldier, an older man who had probably fought in the Civil War started saying before his jaw dropped in silent surprise at the sight above.
There were… things of metal flying through the air at incredible speeds, somewhat like blurred visions of fighter planes, but of a shape unlike any they have ever seen. And they were fast – so fast indeed that even the German advance seemed to have stopped in marvel at the spectacle above.
The spectacle lasted only fractions of a second before it was eclipsed by sound of a dozen explosions that rocked the ground, knocking the Red Army soldiers down. Seleznyov’s vision was blurry; he looked at the other two and realized that they had been similarly afflicted, yet otherwise unharmed. Whatever it was, it was not targeted at them. Could it be… Against his better judgement, he peeked around the corner of shattered building.
There were no tanks left anymore – only a gaping crater, several pieces of twisted metal, and the fire. The fire which engulfed screaming silhouettes of German soldiers as they fell to the ground, one by one, screeching in pain. The few that were not apparently seriously hurt were seen running away from this graveyard that only seconds ago was the tip of a crushing attack.
Seleznyov heard explosions again, this time somewhere further away; pillars of black smoke rose up from the ground in the distance, again and again, in the direction that the Germans were coming from.
"I don’t think that we will have to worry about these Fritzs any time soon," he chuckled, directing his words at no one in particular.
The elder soldier simply nodded; the younger one made an unmistakable gesture of contempt towards the German avant-garde. For once, things were going their way – and the strange planes kept on coming.
September 12, 1941
Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin sat at his desk, browsing through reports of strange sightings in the south. Whatever these things were, he thought, they seemed to be on our side, judging by reports of German Army Group South essentially wiped out; the Army Group Center seemed like it was collapsing, and the number of German soldiers running over to the Red Army lines to surrender was growing by minute. Already large swathes of Soviet territory had been retaken, and with the panic on the German side, it was only a matter of time before not a single invader would be upon the lands of Rodina. Stalin did not believe in divine interventions, but this was something akin to one, and, he thought, he would be a fool not to accept this.
He looked at the window, where Kremlin was seemingly overran by the guards. There were the usual sounds of busy life in the capital, hurried activity in the wake of war – and then, there was something else. A dark shape seemed to have appeared from the sky, issuing a sound that was, for all intents and purposes, utterly barbaric, loud, and overwhelming. Stalin saw a few of the troops on the ground shoot at the shape; some others ran for cover – yet there was no retaliation from the strange vehicle.
What he saw next made him rub his own eyes with disbelief. On the side of the vehicle, there was a clearly marked red star – a mark of the Soviet army, along with markings in Russian letters. Was it connected to the recent strange sightings, Stalin wondered? He had seen helicopters before, but those he had seen were simply flimsy, unreliable prototypes – this here was a vehicle of war, advanced and powerful beyond comprehension. He shuddered at the thought of what would have happened had it been hostile. And how in the world did it manage to get through the anti-aircraft defenses? He saw the helicopter land in the middle of the Kremlin, then went back to where he could not be seen from the outside. Stalin did not like to take his chances – and there was no telling who or what was inside the machine.
Irrationally, he felt anger rising. Stalin hated being upstaged, and usually let no one get away with this. He stopped himself. If this had to do with the sightings, it could have been a godsend. A knock on the door came, not a moment too late.
"What is it?" Stalin managed a more collected, calm tone that to those who knew him indicated signs of the coming storm – or surprise, which could have been just as dangerous to the people that provoked the Soviet leader’s displeasure.
"Iosif Vissarionovich," the guard’s voice betrayed at least a degree of fear, "there is a visitor here to see you." The guard paused, as if gasping for breath. "From that machine."
This was going to be interesting. "Let him in," Stalin made sure that the tone of his voice indicated a clear order, no less.
The door opened, and a visitor walked in, accompanied on all sides by NKVD guards. He was probably of Stalin’s own age, late fifties or thereabout, dressed in somewhat familiar uniform with ranks of distinction that were quite different from those Stalin himself was used to; he was clearly of military bearing. The stranger saluted; it was a familiar gesture, same as that of the Soviet soldiers and officers, strangely at odds with the situation.
If the strange visitor expected Stalin to lose his calm and be shocked into awe, Stalin was determined not to let it happen. After all, he was on his own territory – and despite the obvious power that the man represented, he clearly needed Stalin for something. The ones with the power, he thought, take from the ones without – so what is it that Stalin himself held that provided negotiating leverage? He resolved to find out.
"Would you mind explaining the meaning of this?" Stalin asked in his most calm, reserved manner. There was steel under the velvet which could show itself in the moment he needed it to.
"Well," the stranger spoke, showing no signs of an accent, "this will require some explaining."
September 13, 1941
Adolf Hitler looked at the ultimatum in front of him with disbelief, and not a small share of irritation. Finally, a nervous laugh emanated from his mouth, making Bormann feel rather uneasy.
"The Communist bastards expect us to do WHAT?" he started it in his normal voice, but ended a sentence with a near-scream.
"My Fuhrer," Bormann spoke, managing to stay calm. "This is clearly a Communist provocation. They are trying to buy time before they are crushed for good."
As much as Bormann wanted to believe this, he thought that there was something amiss. The reports coming in from Russia were confused, and very often confusing as well. There were sightings of strange, advanced-looking aircraft that made the best Luftwaffe had look like the Great War biplanes; tanks that mowed through the best panzers as if they were cavalrymen; weapons of untold destructive power that wiped out entire divisions in minutes. But how was this possible? Surely it was just the Communist fanaticism making an impression on some of the greener commanders – for if the Soviets had these weapons, why did they wait so long before using them? It must have been a miscommunication – it must have been.
"What kind of raving lunatics would ask for unconditional surrender when our forces are just about to wipe them off the face of the earth?" Hitler continued to yell, obviously incensed at the offer. "And the demand to hand over all of the Party leadership?"
Bormann thought that it would be best for him to say nothing. Somehow… the Soviet threats seemed real enough to worry.
"Had von Rundstedt and von Bock been able to advance towards Moscow, we would not have to deal with this nonsense!" Hitler exclaimed again. His hands started shaking for a second, something Bormann pretended not to notice.
Hitler reached into his desk, extracting a small metal nondescript-looking box. With trembling fingers, he opened it, reaching inside and grabbing two pills; he swallowed them as if they were the only thing in the universe that mattered. All was silent for a moment as Hitler closed his eyes, rolling back in the chair. Bormann looked away to hide his disgust.
In a minute, the Fuhrer’s fingers stopped twitching, and he appeared to return to his senses. "There shall be nothing stopping us – not any untermench Slavs. The only peace they will get will be under the Aryan heel."
"Shall I then respond to their so-called request accordingly?" Bormann inquired.
"Don’t bother with it," Hitler laughed in a rather unsettling voice. "Contact the army group commanders, and emphasize that we must get to Moscow and put an end to this charade."
As Bormann saluted and left the room, the thoughts in his head were conflicted. On one hand, the German war machine was invincible – the Poles, the Czechs, the French, and the Russians felt its thrust into their lands, overcoming all opposition as if it were composed of tin soldiers. There had to be some kind of error involved – no way in hell the Soviets were able to inflict the kind of damage the generals reported. On the other hand…
Bormann jumped into a staff car outside of the Reichstag and ordered the soldier behind the wheel to drive him to his residence, about thirty miles away from Berlin.
And in the east, Yaroslav Streltsov and his squadron just received orders to be on standby alert.
September 14, 1941
To say that the last few days were somewhat overwhelming for Victor Seleznyov would have been an understatement. From utter despair of the last stand at Kiev to the feeling of exhilaration as the Germans seemed inexplicably turned back to the forced march that saw them move west, retaking towns and villages one by one, the events were almost miraculous. And yet, here they were, the tanks of unfamiliar and terrifying design, yet with red stars on them; the helicopters that launched straight into the battlefield and hovered above; the fighters that darted through the autumn sky like sleek silver bullets, beautiful in a deadly sort of way – like a cobra, or another graceful, yet lethal predator.
The advance was slow at first, then it turned into a rout of whatever German troops were unlucky enough to stand in the way. The Others, as the Red Army soldiers called the men operating all the strange equipment, they kept mostly to themselves, occasionally congregating with the senior officers to work out plans for the next attack, but very rarely seen socializing with rank and file – Seleznyov was not even sure how many of them there were.
Once, he saw from the distance the effects of something the Others called the "vacuum bomb", wiping out a pocket of particularly stiff German resistance. The devastation wrought upon the invaders was such that only few were found alive – and even those were bleeding as if their organs were being ruptured on the inside. Seleznyov was glad that the Others were on their side – but he was also wondering with morbid curiosity what would have happened had the Others been their enemies.
He walked through the Ukrainian steppe, occasionally stepping over the remains of weapons, uniforms, or ammunition; sometimes, they found bodies of German soldiers abandoned by the enemy as they made haste with their retreat. The nightmare of Kiev seemed behind – but what was to come next?
"A good sight lieutenant, don’t you think so?" the voice from behind made him turn around quickly on an impulse.
Seleznyov did not recognize the speaker; the man was not that much older than him, probably in his early thirties or so. Then, realization hit him. The man was almost certainly one of the Others, if only judging by his uniform, which was somewhat different from those worn by the Red Army officers.
"It’s quite a bit different from what it was like before the war," Seleznyov grimly replied. The man smiled, then got a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He offered Seleznyov one.
"Konstantin Zverev," he introduced himself, offering a handshake.
Seleznyov introduced himself, then reached out for a cigarette. "Haven’t had one in days," he confessed with a guilty smile.
The cigarettes themselves were rather strange, clearly not from this place; the pack had an alternating red-white design on it, with Latin letters presumably spelling out the brand name – "Marlboro". Seleznyov noticed that if the rank insignia of the Others was not too different from their own, Zverev was a Major – actually outranking him.
"You guys have really saved our asses at Kiev," he said, taking a long drag of his cigarette. He winced at the unusual taste of tobacco – far better than the kind of cigarettes he used to smoke before mobilization, he thought.
"Just doing what we had to," Zverev replied. He seemed as if he wanted to say something, but then decided against it.
"If you don’t mind me ask," Seleznyov spoke, against his own better judgement, "but just where in the world did you guys come from?"
The man did not immediately answer, instead looking somewhere far away, towards the sky and over the shadows of the hills in the west.
"I am sorry," Seleznyov added hastily, perhaps with a degree of fear, "you don’t have to answer if you can’t".
Zverev laughed. It was a strange laughter, half-pained, half-humorous. "Don’t worry, I am no politruk. In where I come from, the Party is not watching from behind your back all the time."
"Then where are you from?" Seleznyov resolved to ask.
"Moscow," Zverev replied.
"Are… all of your comrades from Moscow too?"
For some reason, the major seemed to have found it humorous. "Some are… some are not." Something about his tone discouraged Seleznyov from asking more. "Some day," Zverev said, "some day you all will know."
September 15, 1941
The front line was crumbling like stale bread, and there was nothing Heinz Guderian could do. He stood in front of the map, looking at it with his tired eyes, red from constant rubbing and the lack of coffee and sleep, trying to figure out what to do next. Reports kept on piling up, and they all had been the same. All that was clear was that the best Guderian could hope for was to retreat, and save at least some of his army – and this was despite continued insistences from Berlin to press on. Were they all insane there, he wondered?
The decision was difficult, but not unjustifiable; these kind of losses could not be sustained. Worse yet, he had a nagging feeling that the Reds held back; the demonstration of offensive strength since the ill-fated assault on Kiev has convinced him that they had more than enough firepower to smite not only his group, but just about everything on their way to Berlin. Why had they not done so?
"A message for General Guderian," a cry came through. The crowd of lieutenants, junior officers, and other staffers parted, giving way to the messenger who simply dropped the package in front of his commander. Guderian opened it, and began reading.
It was but few seconds before his face turned bone-white and he slid down towards a chair provided by one of the helpful lieutenants. The lieutenant was only able to see the corner of the letter with the words "or will be destroyed" before the general weakly waved.
"Gentlemen," there was little life left in Guderian’s voice, "the Reds are coming. Signal our surrender."
September 16, 1941
At times like these, Yaroslav Streltsov felt like death itself, climbing up into the sky like Phaeton of old – except that he would not be burned by the sun. Instead, he would be the one doing the burning.
Hamlets, villages, and cities of Germany blazed fast below his Tu-160 as he closed in on his target, far beyond the range of measly defenses. Even the primitive German radar was of little consequence; the bomber was virtually invisible even to more sophisticated equipment.
Normally, Streltsov would be worried about flying without fighter escort, but there was nothing Luftwaffe could throw at him that would be able to even match speeds with his plane, let alone do any damage to it. He remembered the stories from his grandfather about the fearsome aces of Luftwaffe, and then silently laughed. Even though his own plane was unarmed save for the bombs, he could penetrate this deep into enemy territory without being challenged; the thought itself was not only comforting, but also a hint at the feeling of invincibility.
For this flight, the plane was outfitted with Kh-555 cruise missiles; the Command has deemed that nuclear warheads were not necessary yet. Only if the Fritzs would not immediately surrender…
This was not exactly fair, but then again, Streltsov grinned, all’s fair in love and war. This was no love affair either – whether this was Germany of 1941 or of 2011, he had little love for either. The former killed millions of his people; the latter… did nothing after Moscow.
He saw small blips on his radar vanish as quickly as they had appeared. The pursuing fighters did not stand as much as a ghost of a chance. And his target was already in sight.
Streltsov slowed down his craft just enough to acquire a lock. Today, the mission was simple – to cause as much damage as possible while leaving some of the worst culprits of the Nazi regime hopefully unharmed. The Command had… different plans for those.
A blinking light indicated to him that lock has been acquired. He did not even have to signal to his weapons officer before seeing the missile salvo reach towards Berlin – and into infinity.
September 16, 1941
The office at Downing Street was full of dignitaries from just about every important nation as the reporters gathered around to find out just what exactly was about to happen. Was it an ever-looming prospect of German invasion, some of the reporters wondered? No, the others speculated, maybe the Americans, ungrateful colonials that they are, have finally remembered the debt they owe to the mother country and decided to join in the fray? Or, some retorted, would it have anything to do with the rumors of unseemly events on the Russian steppes?
When the Soviet ambassador arrived, the tension was thick enough to be cut with a knife. Ivan Maisky was somewhat of an oddity – a career diplomat with a past that linked him to the Menshevik wing of the Party, yet still untouched by any of Stalin’s purges; the man looked much like the vaunted Russian bear of Siberian wastelands, short yet stocky – made even more ironic by the fact that he was a Pole. The man was formidable, many reporters whispered – and dangerous, for his English was nigh impeccable, and his political acumen was almost certainly of highest grade.
Winston Churchill found this attention on Maisky to be somewhat concerning to say the least. If Maisky resembled a Russian bear, Churchill himself was a very personification of the English Bulldog – a dodged, determined fighter that does not let go, and will fight until the bitter end. Yet, this was one strange fight, and there was little certainty as to who the friend – and who the enemy was.
The bear has ascended the podium; flashes from innumerable cameras filled the room with something very much like an artillery bombardment. Churchill could not help but notice that the gesture of Soviet ambassador that indicated he was about to speak was that of a Roman general about to send troops in the battle – a raised hand, reaching towards the dreary London skies, curved as not to make the man’s stature appear undignified in any way.
"Gentlemen," the ambassador’s voice was every bit fitting with his appearance. "You might have a lot of questions as to the reason for this press conference, and rest assured, they will be answered in due time."
The man’s command of English was excellent; the reporters have alternatively relaxed, or became more wary – for are the ones with the sweetest voices not the most poisonous ones?
"As of today, our forces have scored several major victories over the invading Nazi Germans." The man’s tone did not betray any emotion, but Churchill could swear he could see some kind of a grin shining through his blank expression. "It is our expectation that within several weeks, the only Germans on the Soviet territory are going to be the prisoners of war, helping to rebuild what they have destroyed."
The room erupted in a fury of yells, questions, raised hands, and camera flashes. Sure, Soviet propaganda was not anything new – but this did not seem like mere propaganda. And the rumors coming from the East…
"Moreover," Maisky continued, "a number of German commanders have seen the error of their ways, and decided to join us in liberating their country from the Nazi menace!"
This was the most unexpected turn – the roar of a crowd became deafening.
"Gentlemen, please," the Soviet ambassador spoke calmly. "Your questions will be answered in a few minutes’ time. Right now, I would like to ask Prime Minister Churchill to join me here at the podium."
The news were going to be important; the reporters could smell blood like a pack of hungry sharks. This was going to be the biggest report of many of their careers – and notepads appeared in astounding numbers.
It was Churchill’s turn to speak. "As Ambassador Maisky said, it appears that the war in the East will be over soon. This is why I have accepted an invitation of Premier Stalin to discuss the… recent events," Churchill paused, attempting to sound confident, "in Moscow in three days’ time."
"Also, I am most pleased to report that our allies to the West, the United States of America, have formally joined in the conflict by declaring war on Nazi Germany as of this morning. With our forces united, the danger of Nazism will be wiped off the face of the earth once and for all!"
"Yes?" the Soviet ambassador pointed out to a reporter in the front row.
"Gregory Bone, New York Times," the man introduced himself. "What is to become of Germany after the war is over?"
Churchill was the one to answer. It was a difficult one; time and again he tried to convince himself that the pictures were fabricated – yet somehow, he could not elude the nagging feeling that they were real, just as real as the wooden podium, the flashing lights of the cameras, or the dreary clouds obscuring the Sun.
"Mr. Bone," he said, managing to remain calm, "I shall answer this one, if Ambassador Maisky does not mind."
The Russian nodded, allowing the Prime Minister to continue.
"Recently, we have come upon some very disturbing evidence of certain… Nazi activities in occupied Europe that, if true, are some of the most inhuman, monstrous things I have ever seen. Any regime that is responsible for such actions does not deserve to exist, and must be dismantled at the most base of levels."
Churchill took a deep breath; the pictures and the film the Soviets showed him were… grotesque, for the lack of better word. How could any government, no matter how corrupt, designate all people of a given race for extermination? Subservience, slave labor – the history of the world was full of these. But a "cleansing" of this kind? This was not just demented or sick – this was evil in its purest form.
"The exact specifics of how such dismantling will occur will be decided upon the conference with President Roosevelt and Premier Stalin. However, rest assured that the Nazis will be taken to account for all the crimes they have committed."
As Churchill stood, facing the cameras like a gladiator about to fend off dozens of hungry lions, he could not help but wonder what kind of a hidden agenda the Soviets had – and why did the war turn around in such a sudden, unpredictable manner.
September 16, 1941
The Panzergruppe sped west, further and further towards the point of origin. Behind them were the Soviet guns; ahead of them were the guns of the Germans. Whichever way it ended, Heinz Guderian thought, it was almost certainly a disaster – yet demonstration of the Soviet firepower convinced him that it made more sense to scavenge whatever was left than to simply perish, trying to protect something that was doomed anyway. He had only hoped that the generals further west managed to figure out what was going on for themselves – yet he knew very well such hopes were vain at best. It was better that he makes it to Germany before the Soviets do – for some reason, he had an impression that if that were the case, things of the most unspeakable nature were going to happen.
A panicked return of the once triumphant army group – the end of the drive for lebensraum. What is next, Guderian wondered? And what to do?
September 17, 1941
Death was in the air, on the ground, in the twisted carcasses of buildings and shapeless heaps of junk that were cars, goods, and machinery of every kind only few days ago. There were several bodies laying on the street that the cleanup crews did not get to – mostly civilians, although some of them had tattered remains of the military uniforms on. The dead themselves looked as if they took a beating from the inside of their bodies; their faces were twisted and contorted into shapes that were not even remotely natural. Clearly, it was a very, very painful way to die.
The stone-faced SS troopers escorted the Fuhrer to the armored automobile, holding the man up as he shook uncontrollably, pausing only to take another set of pills. This was supposed to happen to all of Vaterland’s enemies, Hitler thought at disbelief – not in the middle of Berlin. And if the surrender ultimatum did not lie, this was not even close to the Reds’ most destructive weapons – yet clearly this was much more powerful than even the best explosives the Wehrmaht could possibly muster. How in the hell’s name could this be?
"There is no retreat," the Fuhrer managed to utter before being shoved into the car without much ceremony. The words came out as if they really did not belong; a slow stream of drool ran down the side of his face. The car sped up, even as its sole passenger seemed oblivious to everything but the events in his own mind.
September 17, 1941
The city burned like one gigantic funeral pyre under the dome of dust, obscuring everything but the most prominent silhouettes of buildings. Little was left standing; the landmarks that graced more than one postcard were gone, and even the sun itself hid from this shameful sight of slaughter. The hot wind carried particles that were once human flesh and bone, meshing them with the stuff of inanimate objects; the ground itself was an enormous crater, a gaping wound in the bleeding bodice of Mother Earth.
The quiet was eerie in nature; there was nothing making a sound but a few pieces of rubble falling to the ground. He stared at the devastated scenery, only mildly wondering why he was still alive and breathing here, where the concrete burned as if it was dry firewood, yet feeling no pain or physical discomfort. He moved forward, walking as if on thin ice, afraid that it might not be able to bear his weight on the fragile solid ground.
How little was left? He still lived – was it all that mattered? How many times was he here? Inside his chest something burned, shrieking in ungodly terror, clawing its way out; it was not until a few moments that he realized it was a scream. He screamed, a loud sound that cut the silence like a razor blade – yet nothing happened. It was useless – this time, just like those times before.
His hands reached for the ground, feeling the infernal heat yet not suffering damage. Truly it was hell itself – or something as close to it as human imagination could fathom. Dante’s Inferno with shadows for the burnt out bodies of the damned; the lands of Hades – a nightmare made broken flesh, steel, and concrete.
He raised his hands up to the sky and saw the flakes fly off his skin, turning into ashy particles that withered away as if his body was melting. Again, he screamed, but this time it was more like a gasp, a screeching sound that was not quite human in its desperation and rage. "I hate you!" he screeched, rapidly losing coherence; he saw his body turn into a swarm of dust, floating away in the burning wind.
"I hate you all!"
These words were whispered; the sound joined the usual cacophony of the military camp, where some activity went on even at night. Aleksandr Vostrakov opened his eyes and realized the only things surrounding him were the walls of the makeshift barracks. It was night, peaceful, and tranquil – the September night in 1941.
September 18, 1941
It was an innocent-looking piece of white paper filled with plain text, nothing fancy or unusual – in fact, it was probably the most ordinary piece of paper in the entire universe. Yet, Iosif Stalin was looking at it as if it were one of the fabled nuclear bombs, capable of collapsing the buildings of the Kremlin in few seconds and bringing untold devastation to everything around him. He scrolled his finger through the list of names, pausing in obvious surprise at mention of several people he considered to be trustworthy.
"Are you absolutely sure, General?" he asked, more a formality than anything else. "This is not the best time for this kind of thing."
"Comrade Stalin," the figure behind him spoke, "these are the people who, given half a chance, will stab us all in the back. Young, old – no matter. These are traitors."
Truth be told, Stalin cared very little for signing an effective death warrant for many more people, and for much lesser transgression – to him, however, there was a nagging question of what these future Russians’ motives might really be. Could it be that they are simply attempting to remove the strongest pillars that are holding his regime together?
But why would they want to take out a ten year old kid, among the others? This just did not add up – unless this Gorbachev really did grow up to become the traitor the Others said he was. And Khruschev and Beria… The former, true, had something of a maverick quality to him, a trait Stalin considered dangerous, yet useful when applied correctly. The latter, on the other hand, was little more than an executioner, Stalin’s own personal bloodhound with little imagination or any other redeeming qualities – save for loyalty to his master. Or was it all a farce, an attempt to make himself indispensable while secretly plotting against him? Stalin did not display any emotion, but he felt white-hot rage rising, pounding his temples from the inside with cyclone of anger.
Slowly, Stalin took his emotions under control; there was still much work to be done. How could he trust the Others over his own men? It was the one dilemma that he had a hard time reconciling with reality. And if the Others were just as surprised as he was at the American declaration of war against Germany, did it mean that, maybe – just maybe, they did not know it all either?
No matter, Stalin thought as he placed his signature on the paper, condemning those unfortunate ones whose only crime was what they would have done in that distant future. The dead will be dead, some way or the other – what difference does it make if their hour comes a few decades earlier?
He still had a "peace conference" to get ready for.
September 18, 1941
"Is there something you are not telling me, Frank?" Churchill leaned back in his chair, puffing quietly on an expensive Cuban cigar. The two of them were on first-name basis by now, but it still annoyed Roosevelt somewhat to be called simply Frank – no Franklin, not even that strange American habit of creating nicknames out of people’s initials.
The American President was the very picture of a benevolent elderly uncle in his wheelchair, covered with plaid even within the rather warm confines of the Downing Street residence – the kind of a man that one would expect to sit by the fireplace, telling tall stories to children with his favorite dog laying by his feet on a cold winter night. Quintessentially American, Churchill thought – and much more dangerous because of that, like a fat cat that reveals at the last moment to a hapless mouse that he is neither fat nor slow. The sleeping giant, a metaphor sank into the Prime Minister’s mind.
"Let’s just say that we obtained… certain intelligence," Roosevelt picked the words carefully, "that leads us to believe the situation in Russia may not be what it seems at first glance."
"Anything to do with the reports of German army just… disintegrating?" Churchill asked.
Roosevelt did not say anything, staring at somewhere by the window – calculating something, Churchill realized. Finally, it appears that the American president made a decision.
"Winston," he drew the words out as if he was about to break some sort of an unpleasant revelation, "it appears that the Reds are up to something in Europe. They seem to possess the weapons that could not have logically been made in Russia – for all that they talk about their Five Year Plans, there is no way any nation would have allowed an invader two months of free reign in their breadbasket provinces before hitting them back. Not like this – and I think we might have found out the reason why."
"I am listening," said Churchill, intrigued.
"We have a reason to believe that the Soviets are planning nothing less than a total world domination."
Churchill smiled at first, beginning to laugh, then grew silent all of a sudden. "This sounds like a plot of, what you call them in America…" he searched his memory for the right word, "comic book?"
"And moreover," Roosevelt continued, "we believe they have help of very peculiar kind."
"Don’t talk riddles with me, Frank," Churchill snarled, at once reminiscent of a proud, stout English bulldog. "Just get to the point."
"What would you say if I told you that the Reds got some help out of this world? Or, more specifically, from the future?"
Now, Churchill was stunned. "If I did not know you better, I would have thought you are taking me for a fool, or have gone utterly insane."
"We cannot let them have Europe," Roosevelt spoke, and for the first time Churchill found a hint of fear in his voice. "This is how I was able to get the Congress to declare war – after showing them the film. If what I had seen comes to pass…"
The two leaders sat in their chairs silently for a minute, each coming to realizations of just what they might be facing.
"It shall not pass," Churchill said. "It shall not."
September 19, 1941
"Do you think they suspect it?" General Valeri Kasyanov asked, pacing around in the small room full of twenty first century gear; computers lined up the walls, while the doors were reinforced with materials only conceptualized during the Great Patriotic War.
There were about a dozen people in the room, all of the twenty first century; all of the Others’ top commanders were here. Kasyanov thought it a necessary risk – despite Stalin’s fearsome reputation in the history books, there were things he did not know – did not need to know, at least not just yet.
A younger man with colonel’s insignia stepped up to the large drawing board set on one of the walls. "Almost certainly," he said with a wolfish smile. "Neither one of them are fools, and with what leaked through, they should have a decent idea as to what is going on."
"As long as they believe what we want them to believe…" this voice belonged to a young woman, a captain by rank – not a bad looking one either, Kasyanov thought, with shoulder-length auburn hair and face that almost came out of a glamorous commercial.
"However, Ksenia," the younger officer spoke, sounding much like a teacher chastising an unruly student, "we did not quite expect the American entry into the war so soon either."
"What difference does it make, Victor?" – it was Ksenia’s turn to speak.
"We expected their entry to be much delayed from our history, giving us just enough time to do something about this antiquated industry," Victor said. "Now, their industrial power matters more than it would have had they done what we expected them to. Our hand has been forced, and not in a direction we would’ve liked."
"Colonel," now it was Kasyanov speaking, "what are the chances the Americans will be able to actually participate in the European theater?"
Victor rubbed his chin, as if caressing a nonexistent beard, thinking and evaluating.
"Right now, very minimal – but they have good numbers, and the element of surprise that cost the Germans the war will not be there. Besides, if they manage to land, I expect the top Nazis to try to surrender to them rather than to us; it means their ranks could grow by day."
"What do you propose then, a preemptive strike?" Ksenia’s tone was somewhat sardonic in nature, even if Kasyanov chose to overlook that. "With all our technological superiority, we simply don’t have the numbers or the infrastructure to support a prolonged offensive. Fifty thousand soldiers might be a good number, but we need millions, not thousands. And it will be a few years before the industry is up to the task, and enough locals are trained in modern warfare."
Kasyanov thought about it for a minute. "We are negotiating from position of strength; right now, we need to keep the Brits and the Americans out of Europe. If we manage to do that, we should have a much greater industrial base to work with – just let them produce the slightly improved forties’ gear there, and have all the real manufacturing in Siberia. And with no forward bases, the Brits and the Yanks will have a very hard time even if they do develop something little more advances."
"Then our window of opportunity is relatively short," Victor interjected. "The more we wait, the more are the chances that they will figure something out, or manage to get a foothold in France or in the Low Countries. Remember, the whole point of this offensive now is to take Europe with as little damage as possible – sure, we could turn it into a glass wasteland, but what for?"
"We may have little choice," cautioned Ksenia.
"Not yet," said Victor. "I have little love for them, especially after what they did after Moscow, but to subject anyone to this kind of fate is… sickening."
"Then how do we bring it to close quickly, without nukes?" asked Kasyanov. He was the general in charge; as much as his staffers’ ideas made sense – or not, it was up to him to make a decision. He needed all the information he could get.
"The civil war in Germany will only get us so far," Ksenia said. "We need something more."
"Do you think we can impress Roosevelt and Churchill enough for them to leave us alone for that time?" asked Victor.
"It’s possible," said Kasyanov thoughtfully, "but given that Roosevelt’s reaction had already been not what we predicted, I wouldn’t put my money on it.What are we going to do about Stalin, that is the real question."
Victor rubbed his chin again; it seemed like a habitual movement.
"We need him, at least for the course of negotiations," he said in a voice that defied questioning. It was the truth; all three knew that. "Coming from anyone but him, our demands would look ridiculous – with him, not only it is expected, but chances are he will be able to talk them into accepting most of them."
"What is he going to do then, show them some nuke footage?" Kasyanov asked. "Just doesn’t seem like it is going to impress them in any way other than how much it can blow up in a moment."
"To be honest, they would be served best with a heavily edited version of ‘The Day After’," Ksenia interjected. "As long as they believe it to be the real events, they should be scared out of their minds."
"How much do they know by now?" asked Kasyanov.
Victor sat down at the corner of the table, pausing before answering. "Roosevelt… he has some incomplete ideas, a few useless pieces of just-for-show technology, and an impression that our takeover of Europe is imminent – it just happens so that he did the exact opposite of what we wanted him to do. Churchill would only know what Roosevelt does at best, probably not even that."
"So it seems that playing on their fears got us an opposite reaction," Kasyanov mused. "Then it seems that doing more of it can force them to act rashly and without proper planning."
"This makes perfect sense now!" exclaimed Victor. "Fear’s eyes are big, and the more they fear, the more they are expected to do something stupid. So, essentially, we scare them, scare them to the point of debilitation."
"Exactly," Kasyanov smiled. "The only thing worse than a stupid man is the smart man who was scared stupid."
Now, Ksenia smiled. "Oh, it will be easy, too," she said, and now her voice acquired a quality of melodious sound, something akin to a dozen little crystal bells ringing in the wind.
"Lieutenant," she pointed to one of the staffers. "Invite Comrade Stalin in."
September 19th, 1941
It was almost nine o’clock in the evening before the festivities have somewhat calmed down, and leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union could actually sit down and talk about matters at hand. The relative opulence inside the Kremlin appeared to overcompensate for the rushed nature of this conference; the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt accepted their invitations was a small miracle to begin with.
Churchill prided himself on ability to discern the smallest details in the overall fabric of things, trying to decide which ones to manipulate to achieve the desired outcome when the odds were not in his favor – but here, the entire scenery moved on a completely different plane than the one he was used to; strange, albeit not incomprehensibly so devices were installed in different parts of the hall, providing illustrious lightning for the entire affair, while what looked like television sets hung up in the corners, providing updates from the front line by the minute. Was it a further proof of Roosevelt’s information, he wondered?
On more than one occasion he noticed a rather nondescript-looking younger man in colonel’s insignia come up to Stalin and whisper something in his ear, as if giving updates on some kind of event occurring elsewhere; it was incomprehensible to think of Stalin being guided by someone else, for the man had a reputation of not only a ruthless autocrat, but a master negotiator in his own right. Something just was not right… Churchill wondered if Stalin would claim that these subtle yet obvious technological wonders were results of some experiments in the depths of Siberia, where nothing could be verified with any kind of certainty. At any rate, the Soviet leader had an advantage in terms of information, something Churchill was very uncomfortable with.
Stalin’s voice thundered through the small conference room, where the leaders were able to talk freely without much regard for the otherwise prerequisite diplomatic etiquette. Although the man himself did make his greetings in passable, albeit heavily accented English, he used the interpreter for most of the conference, giving in to the suggestion that his command of the language was far from perfect.
"It will be a matter of relatively short time," he spoke, puffing on his pipe, "before Germany capitulates." His tone left nothing to uncertainty – this was a voice of a cat playing with the mouse, knowing that the mouse has no chance of escaping. Stalin knew what was going to happen, and was merely placing the decided facts in front of Churchill and Roosevelt.
"Already the German people are rising up against the Nazi regime," he continued with a very obvious glee, "and it is only a matter of weeks, months at the most before the new German Socialist Republic will be in actual, as well as theoretical control."
"German Socialist Republic?" Churchill’s voice betrayed a certain amount of curiosity. This was something he has not heard about before.
"You might be aware that we have entered some… very fruitful discussions with General Guderian, as well as a number of other German leaders," Stalin answered. "After we have presented certain… evidence" – he paused, emphasizing the word, "on criminal deeds of the current regime, they have agreed to renounce their support of it, and to lead their nation in the transitional period."
"But what of the Wehrmacht troops occupying Europe?" Roosevelt asked. "Surely they will not surrender easily. For all intents and purposes, you are plunging Germany into civil war!"
"That is… fairly inconsequential," Stalin replied. "Once the top Nazi brass are in our hands to stand trial, the rest will lay down their arms. And even then, would you rather have them rampage on someone else’s territory?"
The looks of confusion on the Prime Minister and the President’s faces were his only answer. They knew something, he realized, but not much.
"The real question is not how to end the war – it will be over before the year’s over. It is what to do after it is over."
September 20, 1941
The army waded through the mud, slowly but surely advancing east past the ravaged Ukrainian countryside, burnt fields, and occasional remnants of the German war machinery left lying useless and rusting in the wake of retreat. Sometimes they caught German deserters attempting to terrorize the villagers into giving up their scarce supplies of food – most of these were shot, although a few were retained for hard manual labor. Early in the morning, they came upon burnt remnant of the synagogue, its entire congregation, men, women, and even the smallest of children, slaughtered inside. Although the soldiers for the most part did not have any special fondness for the Jews, this was just too brutal, too inhuman – these people did not deserve it, they thought; from there on, no German deserter was left alive.
Seleznyov rode in a staff vehicle alongside Zverev, a small privilege of being transferred to the command staff – or at least whatever passed for it on this expedition. It just stopped raining, and the vehicle – an armored transport of sorts, called "BTR-90" by the Others, was leaving rather noticeable trails in the mud. Although this was clearly a transport by design, its armor along appeared to be quite a bit stronger than that of most tanks Seleznyov has ever seen; he wondered if this vehicle could go head to head with the best of the German panzers – and defeat them.
They were smoking cigarettes inside the utilitarian dark cabin, where only small traces of light from the cracked windows lit up the insides of the vehicle. The air was damp with moisture, and the smell of sweat and unwashed bodies was somewhat overwhelming – a tradeoff for relative comfort of the vehicle, yet something Seleznyov was used to on this campaign. It seemed a bit strange to him that Zverev appeared a bit uncomfortable in the surroundings, as if the kind of campaigns he was used to were rather different.
He took out a wallet, staring at a picture of a young woman therein; a careful observation revealed that she was at least six months pregnant. "Your wife?" Zverev asked, apparently trying to start up a conversation.
"Yes," Seleznyov’s demeanor grew more stern; the thought caused him much discomfort. "I wonder if she and the baby are well…" he mused out loud.
"Your daughter should be just fine," Zverev replied all of a sudden.
"My… daughter?" Seleznyov was shaken. How did this man know anything about his child? Seleznyov himself had no idea what the child’s gender was going to be; where did this man come from?
"Just how in the hell do you know this?" – Seleznyov yelled, making the driver of the BTR turn around in surprise. "Just who the fuck are you?"
For a minute, Zverev was silent, further incensing Seleznyov; "Answer me now!" Seleznyov yelled again, this time grabbing Zverev by the collar of his uniform.
It was but a short fraction of a second before Seleznyov realized that he was laying on the floor, staring at the face of Zverev above him; the man did not seem to have broken a sweat.
"Get up," Zverev said, "and sit down."
Something about what he said held a definite authority that Seleznyov obeyed without even thinking of questioning.
"Liudmila Seleznyova will be born on November 2nd, 1941. In 1969, she will get married to a civil engineer, and have three children, born in 1971, 1974, and 1979."
Zverev grew silent. It was obvious he did not like what he was going to say next.
"She never got to know her father, who died in 1941 while defending Kiev."
"But…" Seleznyov’s voice was trembling with shock and uncertainty, "I am still alive? Am I?"
"Now you are," said Zverev. "Had we not arrived, you would not have been."
"That still does not answer my question on how you would know such details about the child that is not even born yet," Seleznyov had a resigned air about him. "Had my child achieved something of importance in that future?"
Then, the realization dawned upon him. "And… are you then…"
"Your grandson," Zverev replied.
September 21, 1941
It was a map of Europe with dotted lines in place of national and territorial borders, displayed on a computer screen before the Soviet leader and his allies from the future; there were marks all over the place, indicating placement of armies, division strengths, and various other statistics meaningless to most but the most ardent of military observers. It seemed that the red-colored units and cities had been almost at the very borders of the Soviet Union – the "pre-war" borders, Stalin thought with a wry smile. Green colored units – Guderian’s Germans, advanced rather far towards their homeland, helped by occasional Red Army units.
He noticed what seemed like a pocket of resistance around Minsk and raised a questioning look to General Kasyanov. "No need to worry, Comrade," the future general’s reply spoke of confidence as he shrugged away any doubt. "Cut off from their support bases, the Fritzs will not hold out for much longer."
Stalin’s eyes narrowed. He examined the strategic situation again, noticing a bulge of enemy controlled territory in the Baltic. "How are we going to fix that?" he demanded.
"Can’t use the nukes," Kasyanov said, "too close to the important areas on our territory. Don’t want to let the rest know that we have surface-to-surface missiles either – it’ll spook them. But we can do a Dresden on them again."
"Dresden?" Stalin asked. "Is it something from your time?"
"Not quite," said Kasyanov. "In 1944 of our history, Dresden was bombed into ruins by the Yanks and the Brits; here, we will do the same to Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Whatever resistance remains, I’m sure the…" he tried to find a diplomatically correct word to use, "modern-day forces could handle."
"Then why wouldn’t we do the same number on Minsk?" Stalin’s tone was almost accusatory. He clearly expected action, and he expected it quickly.
"But, you, see, Minsk is one of our cities," if Kasyanov was appalled, he let only a small fraction of it show. "In the time I came from, the Belarussians were perhaps one of the few people that stood with us. The Balts, they were the traitors all along."
"Comrade General," now, Stalin was the Man of Steel of his adopted surname, "revolution lives on through the blood of the martyrs. And the people of Minsk will be the latest martyrs of revolution. Do you understand?"
Slowly, Kasyanov nodded. "If you excuse me," he made his way past Stalin, and towards the command post, leaving the Soviet leader in front of the map of rapidly changing future.
September 21, 1941
"Ultimately, the German aggression has been defeated," Stalin said, reclining in the rocking chair and facing Roosevelt and Churchill. "I have a word that the last of the German invaders will be expelled from Soviet land within no more than several days, and even those that are still resisting know that their days are numbered."
"That still does not excuse your interference beyond your natural borders," Churchill barked back.
Stalin’s eyes narrowed, pupils growing smaller in anger, yet with an exercise of will he managed to contain his emotions. He was a negotiator, a leader – and he sensed the same qualities in both men opposing him. There was a good chance this was a bluff.
"As I said," Stalin continued, making it look as if nothing had happened, "Germany’s days are numbered. It is not even a question of who gets there first – the Red Army will be parading through Berlin before the end of October, and Marshal Guderian has express orders to hold ground if attacked from the West."
Marshal Guderian? How did this happen, Churchill wondered.
"Therefore, let us get straight to what we want," Stalin said bluntly.
"What makes you think that you will be unopposed in this?" Roosevelt asked all of a sudden. The man was almost completely wheelchair-bound, yet there was a certain resolute energy emanating from his rather frail figure. Stalin realized that Roosevelt was, in all likelihood, the more dangerous of the two – especially because he had a slight, albeit warped idea as to what was going on.
"This," Stalin motioned to a translator, who turned on a large, advanced television set. He motioned the aide to play the recording within.
For a few minutes there was nothing but silence. Then, Roosevelt spoke.
"What… in the name of hell was that?"
"What you have just witnessed is a detonation of a relatively low-power nuclear device," Stalin said, grinning and displaying a row of predatory teeth. "What it cannot convey is that the place of detonation will be left uninhabitable for decades, if not centuries; the water will be poisonous; the air will cause people and animals to fall sick – and any that remain would succumb to tumors, cancers, and a variety of other ailments."
Stalin paused, catching his breath in obvious satisfaction. "In effect, once this weapon is used on the city, the city is gone for good."
Roosevelt started saying something, but was curtly interrupted by the Soviet leader. "Mister Roosevelt," Stalin’s voice was stern, this time going into heavily accented English to make a point, "do not entertain any illusions about the Manhattan Project. The weapons we possess are thousands of times more powerful than the measly atomics your scientists are working on – and our nuclear arsenal is large enough to turn the entire continent into the glass pavement."
Roosevelt seemed to be less incensed at a threat than at the idea that Stalin, of all people, knew about the project that even the highest of government officials in Washington had no clue about. "And I know about the pact you made with the people from the future," he spoke, not losing composure. "Don’t think your secrets are hidden from all."
"Knowledge, my friend, is not power," Stalin reclined again, lighting up his pipe. "Power alone is what power is – and I have that. The Others have that – and they are with me, and with the Soviet Union."
"Here are my terms," said Stalin. "You can accede to them voluntarily – or you will have no one to blame but yourselves when in our next meeting this will not be enough. What do you say?"
October 14, 1941
General Kasyanov looked over reports, satisfied with the progress the Red Army under the guidance of his men was making. Warsaw held for about a week before the German commander asked for surrender; the Baltic states were essentially a ravaged wasteland where cruise missiles, even with only conventional weaponry, leveled most of the cities and destroyed whatever authority was still in place after the fact. A thrust towards Prague was imminent, and there was a plan to put Romania out of the war with a show of force.
The Germans battled each other in Prussia, although the news there were less encouraging – if not for the aerial support provided by the Russian bombardment, Guderian’s army would have almost certainly been routed. Kasyanov noted to himself that once Germany was secured, the new government would require a lot of support, for quite some time. Italy, on the other hand, was still an issue to be dealt with.
"Victor," he motioned to a staff officer, "what is going on with the Italians?"
"Our intelligence reports that Mussolini is thinking about switching sides," the officer replied with a poorly hidden grin. "From what we know of him, he would do almost anything to stay in power – this could be very useful."
"The snake that he is," Kasyanov smiled. "We can certainly spin this to our advantage."
"Is there something in particular you are concerned about?" Victor inquired.
"How did you know?" said Kasyanov.
"After Minsk," Victor replied, "things haven’t been quite the same around here. So, if I may ask… what are we to do?"
Kasyanov straightened up in the chair. "We came here to give Mother Russia that one advantage that she never had in our history. To keep her strong, powerful, and above the rest of the world; to destroy her enemies before they were born, let alone had a chance to strike. To keep her intact and entire through the worst of the trials that fate may throw at her."
"Are you then concerned that Stalin does not see past his own nose?"
"That is a part of it," Kasyanov conceded.
"And the other part?"
"The other part is what to do next," the general sighed. "I am afraid that once Stalin gets his empire ‘from sea to sea’ he will try to pull something tricky."
"Once he gets that," Victor agreed, "he will have no need for us and our divisions."
Both were silent for a long moment. Then, Victor spoke.
"Then, it would matter little if he does not have the infrastructure to support our technology – his scientists should be able to come up with something at least a decade more advanced than the rest of the world just by studying our equipment. There is only one solution."
"You mean…" Kasyanov raised a brow.
"Just what you are thinking," Victor said. "It doesn’t give me much pleasure, but the man must be stopped before he does more damage."
"We can either put one of the prominent generals in power, or…" Victor paused, collecting his thoughts and gathering courage to suggest the next thing, "or we can take it ourselves."
The two men grew silent again, studying the map. Yet it was obvious that both were submerged deep in their own thoughts.
November 12, 1941
This was a very different peace conference from the one that took place in Moscow slightly over a month ago – this time, it was the Soviet Union dictating terms to defeated Germany, teetering Italy, and a number of technically independent, yet practically subjugated states. A large palace on the outskirts of Vienna teemed with soldiers, journalists from all over the world, diplomats, and the usual hangers-on that tend to flock to these events like moth to the flame; the Nazi flags adorning it had been hastily torn down, making space for new German tricolors, Soviet reds with hammer-and-sickle motif, and British Union Jacks. Few places had Stars and Stripes covering up the blemishes of war, however, the American role in this conference was minimal at best; today, it was all about the victorious Red Army.
Iosif Stalin was a man obviously enjoying his triumph, gloating over the German generals whose demeanor alone could tell an impartial observer of the outcome of the war. Pipe in the corner of the mouth, moustache twirled just the way he wanted, he was the very picture of benevolent Uncle Joe, as the Western press called him – except that this was a man who could turn to unimaginable fury with next to no notice.
"See him gloat," a Russian officer, virtually indistinguishable from those around him whispered to his colleague, an attractive, if not quite happy-looking young woman.
"Are you sure this is a good time, Victor?" she inquired.
"It is as good a time as any," he whispered back. "We need him to get the negotiations finished."
"I hope Kasyanov’s men in Moscow are up to task," she said quietly. "The last thing we need is some idiot screwing up everything we’ve worked so long for."
"Ksenia, they need us to succeed just as much as we need them to," Victor mused. "And we will not fail."
She grimly nodded, as if reassuring herself more than anyone else. "We will not fail."
November 13, 1941
Nondescript men of obvious military bearing ran through the streets of Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities of the Soviet Union, spreading through the ranks of the Red Army, the factories and administrative centers behind the front lines. As in unison, boots rapped their rhythm on the pavement, on the expensive wooden floors, on the ground, and on the grass throughout the entire expanse of the nation; fingers pulled triggers; hands crushed weak defenseless necks.
A tired-looking journalist; a commissar; the NKVD man – they all fell down, never to rise up again. A higher-up in the ranks of the party found himself crushed under the hood of the car; crawling out, pleading for help only to stare up the barrel of a gun. It was the last thing he saw.
An officer dining with a few aides was surprised by an intrusion of black-masked men with guns; before he had a chance to protest it or inquire of the meaning of it all, he was gone, followed by his dinner companions. A fat, nearly bald bureaucrat never made it home, dragged into a Moscow alleyway by two tall, muscular men; he was found later in the morning with his throat sliced, and his wallet still laying on the ground, the attackers obviously not interested in the contents.
East, in a makeshift Siberian settlement, a tearful, frightened family of four was forced into the staff car by men in military fatigues; in Moscow, a general received the news from the men in combat boots and bulletproof vests. In far-off Vienna, a diplomat enjoying a late-night sojourn with an attractive young secretary realized that the problems he had breathing were not due to a filling meal earlier.
Silencers blocked sounds of numerous guns firing almost in unison across the expanse of the continent; poison did its wordless, thankless, yet necessary job at several dozen tables. A married colonel looking for a one-night stand in Prague was greeted instead by more of the masked men with unfamiliar weapons, who stopped his attempts at running with a salvo of minigun fire; an aspiring would-be politician met the same end in Stalingrad.
Death spread like ripples throughout Europe and Asia, and one man was at the center of it all. General Kasyanov was clearly enjoying the handiwork of his men – not the process, but the result. An operation of such coordination was unprecedented, and had it not been for the best of the best that came through time, helped by the latest in twenty first century equipment and training, it would not have been possible. He truly pitied the fact that it would almost certainly never make it to the history books – but it did not need to. All was for one purpose, and that purpose was clear.
To make Russia great again.
A signal on his communication line attracted his attention. He slapped his hands together in greedy anticipation when he realized where the transmission was coming from.
November 13, 1941
In his private chambers, Stalin was still a rather imposing figure, even despite his relatively small stature. The man’s voice still thundered through the expansive room stuffed with fineries of every kind, and a moderate Georgian accent to his Russian was somehow all the more menacing, even if the man’s mood was jovial. With a steady hand he poured some more wine, both for himself, and for his companion.
This time, Ksenia looked far from somber. Her dress was somewhat of a compromise between fashions of the day and those of the twenty first century, letting her long hair run down the shoulders while exposing much of the shapely legs. Her makeup was flawless, bringing out her large hazel eyes, perfectly shaped nose, and lips that almost did not need much lipstick. It was a different woman from the one seen during the day – not an officer, but a seductress.
She took a sip of her wine, noticing that, whatever Stalin’s faults may be, his taste in alcohol was excellent; it was some of the best Georgian, sweet but strong, aged just to perfection. The most powerful man in the world deserved no less.
"Some music?" Stalin asked.
She nodded her consent, and the Soviet leader got up to turn on a vinyl player, filling the room with sounds of soft jazz.
"I must admit, Ksenia, you are a most interesting person," Stalin said.
"And you, Iosif Vissarionovich," she laughed, and it was like a ring of a hundred bells in the still of the night air, "are quite different from what I have imagined."
"You must understand, my dear," the Soviet leader’s voice was amiable, indicating a certain level of intoxication, "all the things they have ascribed to me in those history books, they were all for the Soviet Union, all for our people. And do your history books not say that we have emerged out of the war much stronger, even in that dark future you are from?"
"I meant," she was a vixen again, "even after that many years, many Russians still consider you a great man – and it is just strange to be in a company of one."
"Please, please," Stalin laughed. "A man is only as great as the struggle he leads."
"Your struggle is noble," she replied, "even if often misunderstood or reviled."
Stalin was visibly pleased. He was one of the men, she realized, that basked in the light of power and greatness, and that enjoyed the moment in the limelight, even if his pride would never have him admit that.
"Shall we dance?" she smiled suggestively, getting up from the chair, and reaching out her hand towards Stalin.
The man got up, albeit with some difficulty, touching Ksenia’s hand and then grabbing on to it, holding on to her as they moved slowly about the room.
He leaned towards her ear. "Please, just call me Iosif."
She laughed again, planting a quick kiss on his cheek as the dance continued.
Stalin seemed to be slowly losing his balance, and Ksenia had to lead the slow dance – more of a rhythmic walk, really, rather than anything else, just to make sure they did not run into various objects that filled the quarters. She found it more and more difficult; although the man himself was not a burly giant the propaganda would have led one to believe, the years of ruling from an office have bent him out of shape somewhat; with a certain distaste she noticed that up close, Stalin was at the very least somewhat overweight.
She stumbled right by the ornate, albeit spacious couch, finding the Soviet leader’s weight leaning on her too much to keep her balance; fortunately, the couch was just there to break her fall and to ensure she landed in a position that at very least looked comfortable. It was only then that she realized that the weight of the man was still with her, and Stalin’s lips found her own. She felt his breath on her face, on her neck, the famous mustache providing an unpleasant sensation. His hand reached down her dress, touching the body below.
Ksenia’s own hand went towards Stalin’s neck, as if gently caressing and accepting his rough bumpkin courtship; then, she felt his body go limp all of a sudden. She rolled him onto the couch, standing up, as if to get away from the drunken Georgian.
He still breathed, albeit much more laboriously. She fixed her dress, as if the act could wipe out the memory of those hands touching her body, then looked at the ring on her finger. A small, almost invisible needle stuck out of the ring.
Ksenia saw surprise in the man’s eyes, and answered the silent question. "Neurotoxin."
"Not sure if they have these around this time – not like it matters." She smiled, showing the pearly whites of her teeth.
"But… why?" the Soviet leader was effectively paralyzed, and only through a major effort of will he managed to squeeze the words out. Ksenia was surprised that he was still able to talk – despite her inherent dislike of the man, she felt at least a measure of respect, if not admiration for this act of defiance.
"In about three minutes, you will be dead," she answered coldly, "seemingly from a heart attack. This will be all the world will know, and it is for the best."
"Our country, our Russia does not need leaders who kill more Russians than the enemies of Russia. We shall only stand united, and as long as you live, there will always be division."
She went back to the coffee table and poured herself some more wine. "Russia will dominate the world," she said, "whether you like it or not, and whether it stays communist or if the entire idea goes back to the history books, where it belongs."
Stalin gasped for air. It was obvious the toxin was acting faster than she had anticipated.
"We need all of our people to accomplish this, and you were in the way." She took a long drink. "Pig." The last word had an air of personal hatred to it.
"P-p-p-ig?" Stalin was barely audible now. If anger could kill, his would have burned the room to a crisp worse than one of the atomic weapons – but it was obvious he was taking his last breath, or was not far from it.
She laughed. "So dies the great Stalin." Then, she raised a glass as she saw life drift away from the Georgian’s eyes. "To Russia!"
November 14, 1941
It was a small, otherwise nondescript room that would not have been any different from dozens of other such rooms inside the Kremlin Wall, had it not been for somewhat haphazard mess of twenty-first century technology renovating it as the Others’ command center. Now, it was filled with people – all of them of the future, except for one.
Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov was somewhat agitated, general Kasyanov noticed, even with the allowance for being the only man of his time in here. The news must travel fast, he thought. No matter… there were more important things to look into, and to talk about.
Once the noise has settled down somewhat, the Soviet general was the first to speak. "General Kasyanov," his voice was almost a yell by most standards, yet for Zhukov, it was merely a normal tone he used with either his subordinates, or as a show of bravado, "if there is a meaning in this conference, I demand to know of it now."
"All in due time, Georgi Konstantinovich, all in due time," Kasyanov’s smile was almost disarming if not for the context.
"Just because you brought the war to an end so quickly," Zhukov fumed, "does not give you an authority to command over us. We may not have all the fancy future gear of yours, but we are still Russians. Where is Comrade Stalin?"
Kasyanov seemed to have weathered the explosion with little more than a smile, the same expression so friendly and welcoming on the outside, yet cold and calculating in its very essence. He examined Zhukov’s face, looking for signs of weakness, and noticing that the Soviet general seemed to have relented. So it was going to be not as much a battle of wills, he thought, as it was going to be a battle of deceptions. And maybe, just maybe, Zhukov was more of a politician than he let on.
"Georgi Konstantinovich," he thought it might be a good idea to at least maintain the cordial face, "this is the big reason we wanted to talk to you."
Kasyanov noticed subtle signs of Zhukov calculating and evaluating what this might mean; the man was way too silent for comfort. Nevertheless, the future Russian continued.
"I will not beat around the bush with this, Comrade Zhukov. As of about two hours ago, we have received a message from Vienna regarding Comrade Stalin’s…" Kasyanov paused, as if trying to find the term that would both hint at the magnitude of the situation and at the same time intentionally understate its significance, "whereabouts."
The pause and the silence that followed it were not intentional, yet Kasyanov thought that these felt like a moment out of a second-rate Hollywood thriller. Who is afraid of the big bad wolf? Those who are in his immediate presence, an answer came back to him almost instantly. He was the wolf – but the man opposite him was no sheep.
"Is this some sort of a test?" Zhukov asked brazenly. Kasyanov mentally smiled; the man was known for assaulting inconvenient topics and presenting his opinion whether or not his nominal superiors wanted him to.
"Comrade Zhukov, I understand that after the purges you have every right to question what you hear." Kasyanov noticed the visible flinch in Zhukov’s face – it was obviously a topic the Soviet general did not want to think much about. Yet, Zhukov showed little surprise that Kasyanov knew about what happened in ’37 and ’38 – could it be that the knowledge was much more widespread amongst the ranks than was believed?
"But Comrade Stalin is…" Kasyanov hated feeling like a cheesy James Bond villain, "no longer with us."
The shock of the news took a second to sink in. But then, did Zhukov think it was a provocation of some kind? Everything was possible…
Finally, the man seemed to have taken a chance. "How did it happen?"
"From what our operatives reported," Kasyanov said, "Comrade Stalin has retired early to his rooms, where his heart gave out." The less information, the better, he thought.
"How can I be sure that you are telling the truth, and this is not a part of some plot to get me to say something you can interpret to your liking?" Zhukov asked. Kasyanov noticed with some appreciation that despite the grave seriousness of the matter, the Soviet general has remained calm and collected.
"Look around you, Georgi Konstantinovich," Kasyanov made a gesture circling the room full of the Others. "This room is impenetrable to any listening technology that exists in your time, and the only people here are those who have committed their lives to the glory of Russia."
Zhukov must have noticed something odd; even if the man did not say anything, the slight change in his facial expression did. Kasyanov noted that Zhukov appeared more amused than anything else.
"So, Russia is it, eh?" Zhukov’s smile was cold, and his voice carried more sarcasm in it than anything else. "No Soviet Union?"
"No, general," Kasyanov tried to put as much grave urgency into his tone as he could. "Russia."
"Now it makes sense," Zhukov mused. "But you still did not answer the question as to why I am here."
"With Stalin gone," Kasyanov said, "the nation needs new leadership. Not the butchers like Beria or Malenkov, weaklings like Khrushev, or second-stringers like Bulganin. No, Georgi Konstantinovich, we need a kind of man that can hold the nation in line, who is known and trusted by the people and the army – and the kind that believes in the same ideals we believe in."
"I presume you are saying that I am the man that you are looking for." This was not as much a question as statement of a fact.
"To put it short, yes," said Kasyanov bluntly.
"And what guarantee do I have that I will not suffer the same fate as Stalin?" Zhukov parried back.
"Who said anything about Comrade Stalin’s passing being anything but natural?" Kasyanov thought Zhukov to be a bit too smart to fall for this one, but he had to try.
"You know it, I know it, whether or not you say it," said Zhukov. "Now, what if I were to refuse?"
"Comrade Zhukov," now, Kasyanov was much sterner, "once you walked into this room, there was no turning back. And what we are offering to you is the position of the most powerful man in the world."
"Powerful, as in your lapdog?" now, Zhukov was bitter. "Stalin, for all his faults, was no one’s lapdog, and he paid the price for it. Why do you expect that I would be any different?"
"We do not," Kasyanov replied. "But unlike Stalin, you are not a self-obsessed maniac."
"And what if I say no?"
This, realized Kasyanov, was a man who wanted to be tempted – and the question implied readiness to answer. Although he almost certainly knew what the answer was going to be, he understood the need for the game to continue.
"Georgi Konstantinovich, do you really want me to believe that you have never thought about what it would be like to be the man in Stalin’s chair, to be the one making decisions affecting the fate of nations? Have you ever thought about the things you could have done better, or have not done at all, were you, not him, the man in charge?"
The answer was silence. At first, Kasyanov was somewhat surprised; it was only then that he realized that the answer has been in Zhukov’s head all along. The Soviet general had a good idea as to what the meeting was going to be about, and almost certainly made up his mind before even walking through the doors.
Now, Zhukov spoke with a curious measure of confidence. "Look at me now; selling my soul to the devil’s own."
"So, I take it the answer is yes?" inquired Kasyanov – a formality more than anything else.
"I would be a fool not to," said Zhukov, now the Premier of the Soviet Union and, at least theoretically, the most powerful man on the planet.
January 2, 1942
To anyone else, the second of January would have been a good excuse to show up to work late, blaming hangover and enormous quantities of spirits consumed over the previous two days; to Marshal Georgi Zhukov, holder of the newly announced position of the Premier Minister of the Soviet Union, it was barely any kind of a respite. With a look of hopelessness he surveyed mountains of paperwork covering the desk in a newly refurbished office that belonged to his predecessor only a few months ago. Even with all of the advanced technology of the Others, paperwork was still a scourge of the nation – seemingly nothing could get done without it being approved, verified, signed, stamped, and sent to at least half a dozen of different bureaucrats before any action could be taken. Zhukov absolutely hated this aspect of his position, even if he did relish some of its more obvious advantages.
He looked with some distrust at the computer sitting in the corner of his desk. The thing was certainly convenient; although something the Others called Internet was apparently not quite ready yet, Zhukov’s Moscow office spotted a very convenient network connecting it to another dozen or so offices across the great city, where construction proceeded at an ever-increasing pace.
When Zhukov expressed his concerns about the Western spies stealing the equipment, Kasyanov simply dismissed the notion with a diminutive gesture. "Try as they might," the Other said, "getting their hands on an optical cable will not make them build atomics overnight. And with or without our interference, they will have atomics soon."
Then, Zhukov stared into the snowy Moscow night, able to count at least some of the brighter stars in the frozen sky, pondering on his thoughts and on his strange relationship with the people to whom he owed his position. No, he decided, "owed" was not a right word. After all, the Russian soldiers from the future were not that different from him, or from hundreds of other soldiers he served with. He thought of the dark future they came from, and paradoxically, the thought filled him with hope more than with anything else.
These people witnessed the prolonged, painful fall of the Soviet Union and short ascendancy of Russia that was over so briefly, wounded time and again by the enemies from both within and without; even then, the hope was not lost – it merely transformed itself to come to the rescue of the Motherland in its darkest hour. Now, the hope lived again, the hope not to make the same mistakes that plagued the men who would have occupied this same office Zhukov was in had things gone differently.
Light of the stars reflected upon the snow, somehow still overshadowing the picture of the great city around him; it was as if the devil’s own summoned their own heaven from below, now here to stay. They were two of a kind, Zhukov realized – him and these people from the future, holding no ideologies and not even malice – just the desire to see their nation, regardless of its name or the ruler, great. They were the kind of soldiers he would have wanted to have under his command at Khalkin Gol, or at numerous other engagements he had participated in; faithful, brave, and loyal unto death. This was the one thing Stalin never understood; their loyalty was to Russia, just like Zhukov’s own – not to the utopian vision, or to the ruler of Moscow. And whatever the future held, Russia was here to stay.
Sure, there were still things to deal with. The heavy industry, Stalin’s pride and joy after so many years spent forcing the unwilling builders to create it, was all of a sudden obsolete; new industry had to be built and rebuilt, just so that old and obsolete factories could create newer, less obsolete, but still dated by twenty-first century standards ones. Only then the Achilles’ Heel could be made into strength, for there were less than sixty thousand soldiers from 2011, and their weapons, their numbers, and their equipment were all limited. The numbers had to be increased; the weapons built; the puppet governments across Europe had to be set up.
In the East, Japan was still proud and undefeated, no doubt hesitating from what would have been an attack on Pearl Harbor after the news of war in Europe; in China, Mao Tsetung and his cohorts were still wrecking havoc, while in Italy, Mussolini was doing his best to convince the Russian diplomats that he was "thoroughly deceived" by Hitler and had no complicity in some of the latter’s worst crimes. Zhukov smiled; he knew all about what the Italian knew, and what he did not. It was going to be a matter for the later time.
More worrying was the matter of de Gaulle and his French making a case for restoration of their state. Occupying France was well within the means of the Red Army, however, Zhukov knew all too well that it might be that one last straw that would overstretch the Great Russian Bear. The term itself was ironic, a Western conception of Russia and its people. Soon it will be very different, the Premier smiled; this new high-tech Russia of the future was going to be a shock of surprise to those who once wrote it off as a backwards giant whose only strength was the numbers of its people.
Then, there were the Americans, the British, and the other, smaller states, like the vultures waiting just outside the door, hoping for the sign of weakness; and the would-be allies some of whom, Zhukov knew, were already making plans for the future conflict, the war of a different kind. There were the Others, mysterious yet for some reason Zhukov felt more of a kinship with them than with the other Soviet generals of his own time.
But the true Others – not people of different time, but those of the different world, different nation, different ideology - were waiting in the wings, and Zhukov was determined not to see them triumph – like they did in the world that his future allies came from.
Copyright © Alex Shalenko 2006