A Soviet political prisoner is ordered to use her unique talents to explore a strange scientific phenomenon. It could be a trap…or a way out.
The young woman was short, not quite five feet tall, and very slight, though this was disguised by her over-sized black coat with its white patch on the shoulder, her camp identity “Kh-112” indicated there in fading blue paint. Her pale blonde hair was cut very badly, very short. It looked as if it had been hacked off with a knife, because it had been.
She carried her hat, which was little more than a bundle of stitched-together rags, and her rough padded mittens were thrust through the rope she wore in place of a belt. She had not removed the ragged wraps she wore around her hands for extra warmth, nor taken off her felt boots when she had entered the HQ hut, even though it was much warmer than outside.
It was thirty below zero outside, but the sun was up and the air was still, in camp terms a beautiful winter day. In the distance, the roll call could be heard, the guards counting the prisoners by fives in their teams before they were marched out to the forestry work area.
Two guards had brought the woman in, because that was the rule with this particular prisoner. Tough Siberian men, each twice her size and weight, but even so they kept their distance and held their plaited leather goads ready, and watched the woman as if she was something swift and venomous, to be constantly observed. They did not have their submachine guns or pistols, because that was another rule with this prisoner. She was never allowed to be within a dozen paces of a firearm.
If the guards had dared, they would have shot her and been done with it. But there were a lot of special rules about Kh-112, and one of them was that she be kept ready to be presented to important visitors from Moscow, who could turn up at any time, without notice. No one knew why this was so, or what might happen if she could not be presented, or was visibly injured or evidently maltreated. Which was to say maltreated beyond the usual scarcity of food, rest, warmth, and medicine that was the baseline of camp existence.
Anyone responsible for breaking the special rules would be forced to take the prisoner’s place in the camp. Even worse, there was the likelihood of collective responsibility: they might all be punished. This was not to be risked. All the guards, warders and trusties watched each other’s behavior with Kh-112.
None of the camp warders were in the HQ hut, which was very unusual. An abandoned game of chess, a half-eaten loaf, and a partially chewed sausage indicated they had been there until very recently, warming themselves as usual by the well-stoked stove, and had been unceremoniously kicked out. Not even the warders would leave food behind voluntarily.
Instead of the usual guards, there was only the Major, the disciplinary officer for the women’s side of the camp, who was almost unrecognizable in full uniform, complete with greatcoat, rather than her regular sheepskin coat. She too, had left her pistol behind, the holster flap at her side yawning open. But even her appearance was not the most surprising thing that day.
There was a civilian present. He still wore his thick fur coat and hat despite the heat of the room, evidently a new arrival to eastern Siberia, who did not know true cold. He was fortyish, and bald, and his eyes were weary behind his gold-framed spectacles. He sat on the only chair, looking up at Kh-112, a dossier open on his knees. Her dossier, as indicated by the faded photo pinned to the top corner.
An officer stood near the civilian, presumably of State Security, for no others ever came to the camp. But the shoulder boards on his thick, fur-collared greatcoat were a curious orange, not blue, and his rank insignia were neither of the MVD nor the Red Army. There was a large, leather suitcase by his feet and he held what at first glance looked like a small wooden crate, for oranges or perhaps lemons, but the bottom had been knocked out of it, to make it a cube open on two sides. His holster was not empty, though it was clasped shut.
The civilian spoke, his voice warm and casual, not the sharp bark of a command.
“Comrade Captain Aleksandra Vasilyevna Levchenko.”
The guards and the disciplinary officer exchanged swift, furtive glances. The zeks were never addressed as “comrade”, and most definitely never allowed any of their former ranks or titles. They were known by a letter and a number, that was all.
The young woman did not respond. She stood easily in the centre of the room, completely still, only occasionally blinking. It was hard to tell if she was even breathing.
“Comrade Captain Aleksandra Vasilyevna Levchenko.”
“She doesn’t talk, Comrade Academician,” said the Major. “She has not spoken since she arrived here. At least not to us.”
“Has she lost her wits?” asked the civilian. He sounded anxious, even upset at this possibility.
“No, sir. She simply chooses not to talk.”
“And you allow this?” asked the strange officer.
“Kh-112 is a special prisoner, under a directive from…the office of the General Secretary,” replied the Major, cautiously attributing the order to the office of the Great Man rather than to Stalin himself, just in case some revisionism was in play. Though the original orders bore Stalin’s signature this might be better forgotten. The visitors had arrived with a paper with that same signature, but all it had said was to obey their every instruction. “She does her work, she causes no trouble, we let her be.”
The Major did not mention the few occasions when new or particularly stupid guards had sought to evade the special directives, had not let Kh-112 be, and had suffered for it. But what was three or four deaths, or maybe five, when they had brought it on themselves?
“I see,” replied the civilian, who from the title accorded by the Major was perhaps a doctor, or a scientist of some kind. He addressed the prisoner again.
“Comrade, perhaps you can incline your head to acknowledge that you are in fact Comrade Captain Aleksandra Vasilyevna Levchenko?”
The prisoner nodded once, slowly.
“Parts of your dossier are missing or incomplete,” said the Academician. “Records have been destroyed by criminal elements. Errors have been made, including your arrest and sentence. Those responsible have been punished.”
The prisoner nodded once again, even more slowly.
“We have been looking for you for some time,” continued the civilian. “There is a great service you can do for the Motherland. Even more important than the work you have already done at Stalingrad, and Kursk, and the final battle for Berlin.”
The thinnest of smiles spread on the prisoner’s mouth. Everyone present knew what was what. The State needed her for something, and so her arrest and imprisonment were suddenly mistakes. If she had not been needed there would be no talk of mistakes.
“You will be compensated for your temporary absence,” continued the civilian. By “temporary absence” he meant the four years as a prisoner in the camps, first at Norilsk and now at Kolyma. “Reinstated at your rank, with full back pay.”
He hesitated for a moment.
“But the work you will do…it requires you to communicate. To talk.”
“I talk if there’s a need for it,” said Aleksandra Levchenko, with a shrug. She spoke easily, as if among friends, drinking. “Who does Koba want me to shoot now? Someone else on the Central Committee?”
The Major made a choking noise. The guards’ faces froze as if their expressions could indicate they heard nothing, knew nothing, would remember nothing. Only the Academician and the strange officer acted as if what she said was of no importance, that she should so casually call Comrade Stalin by his nickname and mention shooting members of the Politburo.
“It’s not a shooting job,” said the civilian. “I am…Professor Lev Sergeyevich Termin. This is Science Investigator Ignat Vasilievich Shargei.”
“Not a shooting job?” asked Aleksandra. She walked to the bench near the stove and sat down, ignoring the guards’ nervous starts and the Major’s hand clutching at the flap of her empty holster. She took a small, roughly stitched pouch from the top of her boot, opened it to gather a piece of newsprint and a careful pinch of tobacco, and began to roll a cigarette.
Aleksandra was, or at least had been, a killer. A sniper first and foremost, though not only that. Her official tally was 190 confirmed kills, though she had certainly killed many more people. The Germans at Stalingrad had called her Todesgeist, the Death Ghost, for her ability to reach impossible firing and ambush positions, squirming through rubble and ruin, climbing up chimneys and factory ducting, progressing along sewers too small for humans to pass, dragging her rifle behind her. Or sometimes just taking a knife, and picking off sentries one by one…
Professor Termin looked at the Major and jerked his head.
“You may leave us. Take those two with you.”
“Comrade Academician, are you—”
“If she wants to kill us, I doubt you or they could do anything about it,” said Termin wearily. He looked directly at Aleksandra, taking off his glasses so she could see his eyes clearly. “But I think you would do better to leave with us, don’t you, Comrade Captain?”
“I don’t know,” said Aleksandra thoughtfully. “If it’s not a shooting job, what is it? And have you anything to drink?”
Termin waited as the Major and the guards left. The officer with the strange rank of Science Investigator knelt down and opened the suitcase. He took out the bottle of vodka that rested on the pile of uniform clothes inside and tossed it over to Aleksandra. She caught it easily and smiled. A real smile this time, as she glanced at the label.
“The good stuff. And I thought Comrade Stalin had finally decided to have me shot.”
“As I said, there was an error—”
“Spare me,” spat Aleksandra. She laid her newly rolled cigarette carefully down on the bench next to her, drew the cork from the bottle with her teeth, and took a deep draught, rolling the vodka around in her mouth, her eyes half-closed in deep satisfaction. But only half-closed. Termin and Shargei noted the brilliance of those lidded eyes, still watching them, alert to their every movement.
Aleksandra set the bottle down, used the toe of her boot to swing open the stove door and lit a stick of kindling from the box at the side to ignite her cigarette.
“It is…a question of access,” said Termin. “Tell me, you have been here some time. You do not seem greatly debilitated by the…uh…environment, but are you still able to perform your contortions?”
Aleksandra took up the bottle and had another swig of vodka, ignoring his question.
“Are you?” asked Termin again.
“Perhaps,” said Aleksandra. “That box represents the dimension of whatever I need to get through?”
She made her mouth strangely, almost obscenely, quadrilateral and blew a smoke square rather than a ring, and then another through the first. “A cube about thirty centimetres a side?”
“Thirty-one point one five centimetres,” said Shargei, lifting the open-ended box like a prize exhibit, though he did not stop watching the strange smoke square drift across the room.
“Why should I do this job for you?” said Aleksandra softly, almost to herself.
Termin scratched his nose and looked at the floor. Shargei put down the box. Aleksandra watched him. She held the bottle negligently, but she could smash it on the stove in a second, slash both men’s throats…and she wasn’t fooled by Shargei’s “Science Investigator” title.
Shargei didn’t unbutton his holster, as she’d thought he might be stupid enough to do, to threaten her directly. Instead, he reached inside his coat and removed a small buff envelope. He held it out to Aleksandra. She put the bottle down again, took another puff of her cigarette, licked her fingers to pinch it out, returned the stub to her boot-top, and then took the envelope.
There were four photographs inside. Head shots, but not Lubyanka or camp portraits.
Aleksandra’s father and mother, her older sister, and younger brother. They looked older than when she had last seen them, but not visibly hurt, injured, or terrified.
“They are not in camps, they are not prisoners, they continue to live their lives,” said Shargei. He smiled, but his eyes were cold. Whatever his shoulder boards proclaimed, Aleksandra knew him for what he was, and she received his unspoken threat as to what would happen to her family if Aleksandra did not agree to do whatever it was Shargei and Termin wanted her to do. It was the old lever, thrust into position once again. Ever reliable, to move the world, or just one person.
“Do I come back here after?” asked Aleksandra. “To finish my tenner?”
She had been sentenced to ten years in the camps, but knew it was unlikely she would ever be released. Everyone got ten or twenty-five years, but the former was notional, it simply meant “at least ten” and anyone who got twenty-five knew it was effectively a death sentence.
“Who knows?” answered Shargei. “Maybe not. And while you do the job for us, you’ll have special treatment. And your family, too.”
Again, there was an unspoken threat in his words. “And your family” echoed in Aleksandra’s mind. She had heard the phrase before from Security Service officers.
Aleksandra slid the photographs back in the envelope, and the envelope up her sleeve. This was how it worked. She could kill these two, but even if she escaped direct retribution herself, her loved ones would pay for it. Just as Aleksandra could have escaped the camp, in summer at least. But she was kept here, by fear. Not for herself, but by what would happen to her family in retribution for anything she did.
There was no escape. Little hope, save that if she could continue living, anything might happen. Like the story of Nasreddin and the Sultan’s horse. Stalin might die. Aleksandra might die. Maybe she would even be set free.
“So thirty-one point one five centimetres,” she said. “Put the box over by the wall.”
Shargei placed the box as instructed.
“Stand over by the other wall. You too, Professor.”
Aleksandra went to the door and lowered the bar. The hut had only one window, small and high up, the glass grimy with smoke. But weak sunshine streamed through it, little tainted by the grime, putting the light from the hanging lantern to shame.
“Don’t get excited,” said Aleksandra. “This is serious work, and I don’t like gawping men.”
A tiny knife fashioned from a piece of saw-blade, utterly forbidden in the camp and previously unseen, flashed in her hand. She made a groin-high cutting motion, before the knife vanished again.
“Understood,” said Termin.
Aleksandra undid her rope belt, took off her coat, jerkin, felt vest, smock and undershirt, padded trousers, and drawers and laid them in a careful heap. There was no fat on her anywhere, even the little she once had long dissipated by the lack of food in the camps. Naked, she was incredibly wiry and muscular, but also somehow otherworldly, or elfin.
“It would be better if I had my rifle to drag behind me,” she said, lying down on her stomach, facing the open end of the crate.
“You won’t need a rifle,” said Termin.
“I’m used to it,” replied Aleksandra. “It helps me, psychologically.”
This wasn’t true. But it might lead to her getting a rifle.
She eased forward, putting her head into the box, and at the same time, smoothly and easily dislocated both her shoulders. She continued to move, undulating like a snake, and within seconds was through the box and out the other side. Her arms moved back into position with only the faintest audible click, and she stood up, flexing her fingers. She poked out her tongue and picked up the tiny knife she’d held there, though neither Termin nor Shargei had seen her put it in her mouth.
“Well? Do I pass?”
“Yes, yes indeed,” said Termin. “Wonderful! Even better than…”
His voice trailed off.
Aleksandra cocked her head to one side. The tiny knife moved through her hand as if it had a life of its own, rolling over and around each finger, and back again.
“Better than who?”
“You’ll be told more as required,” said Shargei. “We must go. Your uniform is in the suitcase.”
He slid the suitcase towards her with a grunt.
“Other clothes. Everything you need.”
“I want a pistol,” said Aleksandra. “It goes with the uniform, no?”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Shargei. “Get dressed.”
She quickly dressed in the clean clothes from the suitcase. Her uniform tunic was pressed, laid down in tissue paper, and even had her Hero of the Soviet Union, Order of Lenin and campaign ribbons. But there was no chocolate brown leather holster for a Tokarev TT-33, as there should have been. “Where are we going, by the way? Somewhere warm, I hope?”
“A little warmer than here,” replied Termin. “Still Siberia. Some five thousand kilometres west. But we have an aeroplane.”
Shargei put the shackles on her himself, wrists and ankles. He didn’t bother to make them tight.
“I know you can get out of these,” he said, leaning close. “Don’t. Remember what you have to lose.”
“I remember,” said Aleksandra quietly. “I remember.”
She slept on the aircraft, a new type she had not seen before. It was called an Antonov AN-2 and they only had to land six times to refuel, every stop at strange little airfields in the middle of nowhere, staffed by skeleton crews of orange-tabbed soldiers manning basic facilities. The last two refuellings were at night, the aircraft guided in to land by lines of flares and truck headlights.
Somewhere along the way the flight crew changed as well. The only passengers were Aleksandra, Termin, Shargei and four silent soldiers, who sat at the back of the passenger cabin and paid Aleksandra no attention, only coming fully alive at each stop, where they paced out at the cardinal points of the compass and stood on guard. Looking outward, not in.
Soon after dawn, Aleksandra peered through the small, round window by her seat, watching the forest beneath. Pine, spruce and larch, as far as the eye could see. The taiga, which she knew well, though better in its more western reaches, towards Karelia. She had not been to Siberia before the camps.
But as the aircraft droned on, the forest suddenly disappeared. There was a demarcation line ahead, beyond it lay a wasteland of dead trees entirely stripped of their branches. From high above they looked like toothpicks stuck in pale ash. The destroyed area stretched for kilometres ahead and to either side, a vast swathe of desolation.
“What happened here?” asked Aleksandra. “The American bomb?”
She knew about the atomic bombings of Japan, though she had already been in her first camp at the time. Arrested, tried, and transported between June 10 and June 12, 1945, immediately after she had completed her last mission on Comrade Stalin’s personal orders, in Moscow. But prisoners arriving after her had talked about the end of the Japanese War, about the American A-bombs.
“No,” replied Termin, shaking his head. “The devastation is much older, from 1908. There are various theories. The most popular is that it was a very large meteorite.”
The aircraft shuddered and nosed forward.
“We are landing here?”
“Near the lake. Lake Cheko. You see the landing strip, and the camp?”
“Another camp,” said Aleksandra sourly. She could pick it out, a rectangle of huts, a perimeter fence, the beaten ground around it where the trees had been bulldozed away, caterpillar track scars still visible in sweeping curves. That was a good sign, for it meant no zeks were involved in the tree-clearing labour. There were no guard towers, either. This was not a prison camp. Or not one of the usual ones.
“You will be treated well here,” said Termin. “Your own hut, exclusively yours. There is a bathhouse, excellent food, the baker in particular is a genius. He was at the Hotel Metropol for years. We have vodka, wine from Abrau-Dyurso, even caviar at times!”
“All dependent on good behaviour,” added Shargei.
The aeroplane sank lower. Aleksandra continued to look through the window, examining the camp and the surrounding area, looking for landmarks, roads, other signs of habitation. Anything that might be useful when the time came to escape.
“What is that enormous construction at the far end of the camp?” she asked suddenly. “Like a very long rabbit hutch…many rabbit hutches joined in lines…a maze? Some folly, an amusement?”
“No,” said Termin. “It is not a folly. It is a model, of sorts. We call it the Replica. It is a representation of a network of narrow tunnels, made on a one-to-one scale, as best we can gauge.”
“Ah,” said Aleksandra. “It is extensive.”
“The main line is one thousand, four hundred and eleven metres long,” said Termin, enthusiastically. She had not seen him so energised. Whatever this was, he was deeply invested in it. “As you can see, not at all in a straight line. There are six branch lines, accounting for another nine hundred and eight metres, collectively. You cannot see all the twists and turns from up here, but there are many. Vertical and horizontal.”
“What is it a replica of, exactly?”
“You will be informed at the appropriate time,” interrupted Shargei.
“What is it made from? It is a strangely uniform colour.”
“Welded steel, painted grey,” said Termin. “The interior is lined with five millimetre cork. This attempts to mimic a small amount of flex in the Original.”
Aleksandra frowned. This “replica” was a very, very expensive construction. And what was this reference to an “Original”?
“What is the ‘Original’ and what is it made from?”
Termin began to answer, but stopped at a movement from Shargei, who spoke instead.
“We will be landing in a few minutes. I will take your shackles off.”
Aleksandra raised her hands and the shackles fell into her lap. She lifted her legs and her ankle chains fell to the floor. She’d slipped her hands out while Shargei and Termin were sleeping, picked the locks on the ankle manacles with the wire she kept in her hair and closed them again, unlocked.
Termin looked impressed.
“These small rebellions can be tolerated,” said Shargei, his voice even and conversational, his eyes as dead as ever. “But no more. You know what is at stake. Do not overplay your hand, or overestimate your usefulness.”
Close up, the Replica was even stranger than it had looked from the air. Aleksandra stood on a short stepladder to look into the entrance point of the cork-lined 31.15 cm square tunnel, which was raised up a metre from ground level. From there it ran straight for only two or three metres, then made a sharp left turn of some one hundred degrees or so, carried on for several metres more, then corkscrewed down three turns, always maintaining that basic dimension of a 31.15 cm cube.
She climbed down and followed the tunnel along the outside. After the corkscrew there was another straight horizontal section, longer this time, then more turns, to left and right and up and down, and then something different. A larger chamber, from which the “main” tunnel continued a little offset to the right, but there was also another branch going off sharply left.
“This is Junction A,” said Shargei. Termin had disappeared into what Aleksandra assumed was the HQ hut or equivalent. “It is a cube 249.2 centimetres on each side. Four times the dimension of the basic tunnel. There are three more junctions like this: B, V, and G. Plus a total of four smaller junctions: O, P, R, and S which are only twice the dimension of the tunnel. Insofar as we have mapped inside the Original.”
“Mapped inside,” said Aleksandra. “How? By whom?”
Shargei didn’t answer her question. He asked one instead.
“Can you move through this tunnel?”
“Of course,” scoffed Aleksandra. “It is a little…roomier…than some of the sewers at Stalingrad. And not so long.”
“Show me,” said Shargei. “To Junction A, and then return. As fast as you can.”
He pushed back the sleeve of his greatcoat, and folded back the top of his glove, to reveal a gold Rolex. Undoubtedly the former property of a zek, or someone who never made it as far as a camp.
“It’s cold,” said Aleksandra, looking over to the twisting tunnels of the Replica. “Colder inside that steel, cork lining or not.”
“Don’t linger then,” said Shargei.
“I need grease. A thick layer on my torso. For the cold, not for slipperiness. Bear grease is best.”
Shargei nodded, gestured to one of the guards, who held out a large canister. It had a handwritten label “good grease”.
Aleksandra took the canister, forcing herself to glance away from the label. She recognised the handwriting, and had felt her heart leap, but she hoped that this had not shown on her face. Allowing someone like Shargei information was always a bad idea.
“I will need blankets, hot tea, and vodka as soon as I come out,” she said. “Or better, a sauna. And I’ll still need the tea and the vodka.”
“We have a sauna. It will be ready.”
“Tell your soldiers to turn around,” said Aleksandra. “Remember what I said about gawping.”
She didn’t actually care, but it was a way to exert control over the guards. Even the smallest victories could accumulate, become larger ones. If the guards got used to obeying her requests, it could become habit.
Shargei gestured, and the guards faced outward. Termin turned to the side, and looked at the ground. Shargei kept watching Aleksandra as she stripped quickly, opened the jar and slathered herself from knees to elbows with bear grease, afterwards wiping the stuff off her hands on the rocky ground, gritting them up.
It was cold, but nothing like the far eastern cold. Maybe only five or eight degrees below freezing.
“You said quickly,” she said, standing by the stepladder. “How quickly?”
“Sixteen minutes to get to Junction A and return,” said Shargei. “Or you are of no use to us. Slap the side when you reach the Junction, so I know you are there.”
He looked at his watch, waiting for the second hand on the smaller, inset dial to sweep around to the top, and said “Start now.”
Aleksandra did not rush. She climbed into the entrance, dislocating her right shoulder as she did so, undulating forward and pushing with her feet. The cork lining actually slowed her progress a little at first – she was unused to it – but soon she moved more swiftly, pausing to dislocate her left shoulder before the first turn.
She’d expected total darkness in the tunnel, but there was light. There were tiny pinholes drilled through the steel, which had been set with coloured glass, allowing the sunlight to enter. At first it was red, then a bit further on it changed to an orange hue, and then yellow.
Like a snake or an eel, she wriggled around the corkscrew turns. They were difficult, not like anything she had gone through before, but she did not allow herself any doubt. Her mind was thinking through the bigger situation, as she automatically twisted and writhed and edged forward.
What was the point of this place? What could it possibly be replicating? It made no sense as a sewer, or a building conduit. But it had to be something like that, some secret way in to a secure place, somewhere they wanted Aleksandra to infiltrate.
But Professor Termin had said it was not a shooting job. She was inclined to believe him, he seemed an innocent. A foolish innocent, unaware he too would undoubtedly be consumed by the beast he served. She would not trust Shargei’s word in any matter.
She slithered on, around and down and up, the cork-lined walls tight around her, but never so tight she could not go on. It would be harder to go backwards, but not impossible, and she presumed she would be able to turn around in the Junction A space. The size of the junctions wasn’t like anything she could think of either. Surge chambers in a stormwater drain? But the drain would not twist and turn as this tunnel was doing. Not that it mattered what the Replica was mimicking. She had no choice.
Go on. Try to stay alive.
Maybe something would change.
Stalin might die. Aleksandra might die. The Americans might drop lots of their new bombs…
Aleksandra popped out of the tunnel into the larger box that was Junction A, clicking her shoulders back in so she could use her arms to lower herself to the floor. The pinholes here had been set with blue glass, and there were more of them, so she could see clearly.
She slapped the walls on the left and right, hard. Even deadened by the cork, the sound echoed through the chamber and the tunnels, and would be clearly audible outside. A few seconds later she heard an answering knock, presumably from Shargei, the harsher sound of a pistol butt or something similar on the exterior steel.
Aleksandra looked back up at the tunnel where she’d come in, and saw there was something written on the cork just under the exit hole. In blood, with a forefinger, she guessed, though it was surprisingly neat.
It said “V.N.N.” and “Shargei is a cocksucking liar”.
“I knew that already,” whispered Aleksandra, smiling as she hoisted herself up and into the tunnel again, moving swiftly, because the cold was leeching her strength and suppleness, making it harder to do everything. Shargei might be a cocksucking liar, but he’d spoken truthfully about not lingering.
Aleksandra thought about “V.N.N.” as she squirmed towards real sunlight and the promised sauna, vodka and tea.
The initials had to mean Vladimir Nikolayevich Novitski. He was the master, the chief instructor in contortion and gymnastics at the Moscow Circus School where Aleksandra had trained from the age of six in 1933, until they were both swept up into the Red Army in late 1941. She’d only seen him once since then, very briefly, learning he’d been assigned to a tank unit, and seen lots of action. Small, extremely flexible people were useful in tanks. Aleksandra had almost become a T-34 driver herself, until her extreme natural ability for shooting people from very far away had been noticed.
It made sense that Vladimir Nikolayevich was the one who had mapped out the Original, whatever this Replica duplicated. But if so, where was he? If they had the master, why bring in the student?
Aleksandra had an unpleasant premonition she knew the reason. But she pushed it down, like so many other such forebodings. If you expected terrible things to have already happened to those you love, it was less of a blow when you found your expectations met…or horrifically exceeded.
She emerged from the Replica into bright sunlight, but it delivered little warmth. One of the women guards handed her a thick blanket, which she wrapped around herself, as she stepped into her felt boots. Her clothes were already tied up in a bundle, carried by another guard.
“Fourteen minutes,” said Shargei, folding his glove back over the Rolex and pulling down his greatcoat sleeve. “Sufficient. Escort Comrade Captain Levchenko to the sauna. She is to be issued vodka, one litre bottle.”
“And hot tea,” said Aleksandra. She had to grit her teeth to stop them chattering. The shivers she could control better, though her knuckles gripping the blanket ends were blue.
“The babushka who tends the sauna will get you tea,” said Shargei dismissively. “You are off duty until tomorrow, Levchenko. You will be shown your quarters, and the mess hall. I do not think I need to remind you why you are here and the consequences of any…foolishness. But should you forget, I tell you now: there is nothing living, no refuge within sixty kilometres of this place and unlike the camps you know, we have dogs. German dogs, in fact. Very unpleasant dogs, they are still Nazis I think. We have a dozen of them in the kennels. You understand?”
Aleksandra nodded. She understood. Any attempt to escape would end in failure. At least any attempt by land. Perhaps if she could commandeer an aircraft, make the pilot fly south…but to where? And as always, her family would pay. She could not live if the price was their death.
Escape was not possible. Not for her.
“Sauna,” grunted Aleksandra.
On the way to the sauna, trudging between unmarked huts, Aleksandra asked the guard where the infirmary was located.
He did not answer, but his inadvertent glance indicated the direction.
“The infirmary?” prompted Aleksandra again.
The male guard who was carrying her clothes still did not reply. After ten or twenty seconds, the woman guard cleared her throat.
“We are not to talk to you unless necessary. What do you need? We will fetch it for you.”
“Aspirin,” said Aleksandra, though she didn’t actually need anything. The aches and pains were simply a reminder she was still alive.
The guard nodded.
They plodded on in silence, towards a large hut where gouts of steam emanating from one chimney and smoke from another indicated the sauna. The guards led her to the door, and handed her over to an unsmiling babushka, a crone with a decayed orchard of a face rather than the apple-cheeked, smiling grandam of the colourful children’s books of Aleksandra’s distant, now seemingly almost fantastical childhood.
The babushka accepted Aleksandra’s clothes and jerked her head.
“We will take you to your quarters afterwards,” said the woman guard. “Don’t wander around.”
“Vodka,” said Aleksandra. “Tea.”
“I will bring it. Go in,” muttered the babushka.
Three hours later, the guards carried an apparently completely drunk Aleksandra from the sauna to her assigned hut, wrapped in several thick off-white towels she refused to let go, along with the empty vodka bottle. They didn’t know most of its contents had gone down the drain. The babushka grumbled along behind carrying a bundle of Aleksandra’s clothes, both old and new.
Aleksandra counted the paces between the bathhouse and her own hut, and noted the direction from the sun and shadows. The guards put her down on a bed, a proper bed with a sprung mattress – and the hut was warm from the iron stove in the corner – flung some blankets over her and left, locking the door behind them.
Aleksandra opened her eyes after a while, inspected the room, and went to sleep. She had always been able to tell herself when to wake up, a skill honed during the war, so six hours later her eyes flashed open. It was dark in the hut, save for a thin band of light coming through the gap in the curtained window from the arc lights that illuminated the walkways between the buildings and the perimeter.
She let her eyes adjust for a minute, then crept out of the bed. There was a lidded chamberpot under it, which she used. Then she spent the next little while crawling around and examining the floorboards by touch. Finding several that were beginning to rot, she got out her saw-blade knife and worked at them, until she could lever up several boards and make a gap wide enough to slide through.
Cold air blew in viciously through the hole, but she ignored it, poking her head down and feeling the space under the hut. The building was raised up on four bricks, a sufficient space for her to slide under and get out.
She put the floorboards back and applied the knife to the white towels, cutting head holes in two of them. After a few minutes she had made a makeshift smock, and cut a number of strips to use as a belt and for head, foot and hand wrappings. In the snow outside, the makeshift white clothing would serve as camouflage.
Shortly thereafter, the Todesgeist of Stalingrad was loose in the camp.
As she’d expected given the lack of other prisoners, it was very quiet and there were no active patrols between the buildings, not even sentries pacing in frozen endurance outside any particular locations. She didn’t doubt the perimeter was guarded, and that the German dogs existed, but they were clearly not routinely let loose to roam. Only to pursue, when necessary.
It didn’t take her long to find the infirmary. It was the first large building in the direction the guard had glanced, and it was brightly lit. Aleksandra listened outside the door for a little while, then eased it open and crept into the vestibule. Crouched against the empty snow boot rack, she listened again, before easing open the inner door to look inside. A nurse was asleep in his chair, head down on the desk in front of him. Beyond the desk were six hospital beds in two rows of three.
Five beds were empty, the sixth was not.
Aleksandra crept close to the nurse, and sniffed. He smelt even more vodka-soaked than she did. One drawer in the desk was half open and, sure enough, there was a vodka bottle in it, with only a faint sheen of the spirit remaining inside.
She considered whether to kill him and stage it as an accident – maybe a drunken attempt to urinate outside in the snow gone wrong – but decided against it. She was a killer, sure enough, but only when it was absolutely necessary. For too long she had let the State determine whom she should kill, whether ordered by a superior officer or as at the last, by Stalin himself, the embodiment of all authority. Since she’d been in the camps Aleksandra had only killed when her survival depended upon it.
There was a slight movement in the sixth bed. She left the nurse and crossed the room, silent as ever. But not silent enough, it seemed. The heavily bandaged but curiously small figure in the bed spoke through the jagged hole of the cloth on its face, like some Egyptian mummy come to life. Aleksandra smelt burned flesh, the stench familiar from Stalingrad and many other places, the burned-out tanks of both sides in the long fight towards Berlin…
The voice was a faint, cracked whisper, but Aleksandra knew who was in the bed.
“Yes, Vova,” she whispered, holding back a sob. She hadn’t cried for years, but now tears were close and had to be forced back. “How did you know—”
“I knew they’d bring you,” whispered Vladimir. “And who else would creep in here after midnight?”
In many ways, Vladimir had been Aleksandra’s second father. She had not seen him since a chance, brief meeting in East Prussia in late 1944.
“What have they done to you?”
The bandage-wrapped figure made a slight move, almost a shrug, and growled at the pain.
“This I did to myself,” he whispered. His voice rose and fell as he spoke through terrible pain. “Though I admit they gave me the opportunity. Listen.”
Aleksandra sat on the side of the bed, but was careful not to touch him or move the single gauze sheet that was laid across his bandaged body. His foreshortened body, because his legs had been amputated above the knee.
She knew the slightest touch would be agonizing for him, and turned her head aside so even her breath could not fall upon him.
“I had hoped I would…if not see you…speak to you before I die,” whispered Vladimir.
Aleksandra moved, just a little closer, but before she could say anything, he continued.
“Listen. They do not really know what has happened to me. The burns are only part of it. But you, my little Sashenka, you must use what I have learned.”
“Use?” whispered Aleksandra.
“Listen. Have you seen the Replica? Been in it?”
“It was built based upon my exploration of what they call the Original. But I didn’t tell them everything. You can—”
“I can do nothing but what I am instructed,” said Aleksandra. “Shargei warned me. Again. If I do not comply, it is my parents they will punish, and Konstantin and Marie—”
She stopped. Vladimir was making a noise that was partway between an excruciating cough and a sob.
“What? What is it? Is there medicine I can—”
“No, no,” husked Vladimir. “I am sorry, so sorry, Sashenka. Your parents and the children…they are already dead.”
“But the photographs,” said Aleksandra slowly. “Shargei showed me…they are older, but…”
Her voice trailed away. They both knew what could be done to make photographs show what was wanted, not what was true. They sat in silence for a minute, before Aleksandra spoke again, her whispered voice like a knife slowly run along a sharpening steel.
“You are sure of this?”
“Yes,” groaned Vladimir. “It was only the day after…after you were taken. Boris Ivanovich Russov saw it done…from his attic window, he could look into the courtyard…he told me…I wrote to you, but…”
“Yes. I will kill them. All of them. All of them. Shargei first. And Stalin too.”
“Sashenka, Sashenka…you cannot kill them all…and to kill…like them…is to be…like them.”
He took a rasping breath to gather strength.
“There is a…better…better way. Listen.”
Aleksandra bent close enough that she could feel the faint waft of his breath as he whispered, the awful stench of his burned flesh so strong in her nose and throat. He spoke with both difficulty and urgency, as if he had waited almost too long to impart the information he wanted to share. He made her repeat what he had told her, to be sure it was fixed in her mind. Then he sighed. Aleksandra was afraid he had died in that moment, till he took in another raspingly slow, painful breath.
“Aleksandra. There is something more…I ask you…you must help me to…to make my escape.”
“You have the…extra inch of height…and my knowledge. You will make it. I should not…have turned back. It would have been…been better to…die inside than here.”
“Sssh,” soothed Aleksandra. “Where is…ah!”
She spotted the drug cabinet, walked to it, and picked the lock in less than a minute.
The first vial of morphine seemed to hardly affect Vladimir at all. She injected another, into his neck. His breathing grew more ragged, and he made a rhythmic, slow sound in his throat like a drain unblocking.
The third vial did the job. Aleksandra waited by his side until she was absolutely sure he was dead, and then took the empty vials and the metal syringe and put them on the desk by the nurse’s hand. Waking from his alcoholic stupor the man might think he had somehow administered the overdose, and would be frightened enough to hide the evidence. Or he would be found like this, and blamed. Either way worked for Aleksandra.
Back in her hut, she slowly burned the towels in the iron stove, then went to bed. But she did not sleep. She lay there, thinking, going over what Vladimir had told her. Remembering the directions, the technical suggestions, the timing.
And she thought of her family, dead for so long. The day after she had been arrested. All that time…Aleksandra had always feared they had been executed or sent to the camps, but she had forced the suspicion aside. Their continued existence in the everyday world had been something to live for.
A treasured delusion.
There was no commotion in the camp the next morning. No obvious signs that Vladimir had been found dead, or that he had been there at all. Guards came for Aleksandra, escorted her to breakfast, escorted her to the Replica where Termin was waiting by himself, without Shargei. She was given a skin-tight suit to keep her warm – Termin said it was the kind that divers wore – made from a rubber-like fabric that was not rubber. Someone had removed the main label, but there was printing inside the leg that said it was made in America.
Aleksandra was sent into the strange cork-lined steel tunnel again, encouraged to go as far as she could, to go as fast as she could, to remember the intersections and turns and risers and down-shafts.
Shargei was there when she came back out. Neither he nor Termin explained anything, nor would they answer any of her questions about the Replica, or the Original it modeled, or anything else.
Not that Aleksandra needed them answered. Vladimir had given her the key points, at least as he understood them. Which was likely more than either Shargei or Termin knew. After all, they had never been inside the Original.
Then there was the sauna again, but only a half-bottle of vodka, and dinner served in her hut. Aleksandra left the floorboards in place, and did not creep out for nocturnal roaming.
This was the pattern of her days, for a week. Practice in the Replica. Recover from practice. That was all.
On the morning of the seventh day, the guards escorted her a different way through the camp, to the northern side she had not seen. There was another, internal compound there, a small area surrounded by concertina wire three coils deep and stacked six coils high on special pickets. It had a double gate, manned by four guards. There was an odd, wooden tower in the middle of this compound, a rectangular edifice like a tall, very narrow church, with a high-peaked roof. Or perhaps a bizarre, over-sized grandfather clock case.
Shargei and Termin were waiting outside the door to this thin building, which on closer inspection reminded Aleksandra very much of a four-storey outhouse. It wasn’t big enough to fit more than a couple of people inside, standing up. The door had an enormous bolt on it, and a very large padlock, an American Lockwood which Aleksandra knew she could not easily pick. Not that she needed to, since Shargei had already put the key in the padlock, though he had yet to turn it.
“We are sending you into the Original today,” said Shargei. “The entrance lies behind this door. I remind you that the existence of this…anomaly…is most secret and is not to be discussed, even with others at this camp.”
“Anomaly?” asked Aleksandra. She kept her face still, revealing nothing of what she knew, or suspected, or feared.
“It is a tunnel, of sorts,” said Termin enthusiastically. “An inter-dimensional tunnel.”
“Show me,” said Aleksandra.
Shargei looked at his watch.
“In two minutes,” he said. “We must wait for the orange light phase.”
“We don’t understand the nature of the tunnel, or its composition,” Termin rushed along, waving his hands. “Its walls are coherent energy that behaves as mass or imitates it, yet it has additional characteristics, visible states, indicated by light. It cycles through these states from red to violet, the spectrum visible to the human eye, which is doubtless no coincidence. But the red state at the beginning is very dangerous, a lethal form of…of radiation, as is the violet at the end—”
“The sixteen-minute deadline in the Replica,” said Aleksandra. “That relates to this cycle? And the junctions are safe?”
Shargei smiled coldly.
“No,” he said. “The junctions are not safe. But the rate of progress necessary to get from the entrance to what we believe is an exit to another world requires you to reach Junction A in sixteen minutes from the end of the Red phase, during the Orange period. The phases inside the Original are each of twenty minutes’ duration, or to be exact, nineteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds. You must get to the known exit at the end of the tunnel within thirty-five minutes, make an investigation of no longer than ten minutes and return within thirty-five minutes, before the Violet phase begins. From the times you have managed in the Replica, this should be achievable for you.”
“What’s at this other exit?” asked Aleksandra.
“Another world!” exclaimed Termin, throwing his hands up in excitement. “Think of that!”
“How do you know?”
“The operative who mapped the Original saw a sky and felt the breeze from the other exit, though he could not manage to climb out into it. You did, in the Replica.”
“What if I can’t get back?” asked Aleksandra. “I might get killed by something in this ‘other world’. Or what if I’m too slow and the Violet phase – whatever that is – gets me.”
“If you allow that to happen, then your family will suffer the consequences,” said Shargei. “But if you do well, they will prosper. It is your—”
Aleksandra pivoted on her heel and sliced the throat of the closest guard with her saw-blade knife, blood spraying in a high arc across Termin. As the guard clutched at his throat, gargling, she snatched his PPSh-41 submachine gun, cocked it and fired one swift, sweeping burst, killing the other three guards. She swung the weapon back on Shargei as he scrabbled at his pistol holster and emptied the drum into his head, catapulting him against the door of the narrow building. He rebounded off it and slid to the ground, essentially decapitated.
Termin made a pathetic, mewling noise.
Aleksandra ignored him. She threw down the PPSh-41 and picked up her knife, tucking it back behind her ear. She turned the key in the padlock, snapped it open and slipped it out of the catch.
Behind her, a siren sounded, a call to action. Quicker than she’d thought. Gunshots must not be as common here as in other camps. It was followed a moment later by distant shouts, and the baying of dogs.
Termin continued his strange mewling noise.
“Shut up!” barked Aleksandra. “I’m not going to kill you.”
The Academician choked, coughed and managed to splutter out, “Why? They will kill your family—”
“They’re already dead,” said Aleksandra bleakly. “Yours too, probably. Is it safe to open?”
Termin looked at his watch and nodded.
She opened the door, blinking at the bizarre sight of a tunnel made of luminous orange…orange air…suspended in the air at head height, extending through the back of the building as if the wooden wall didn’t exist. Though she knew from the Replica the tunnel only extended several metres before turning, it looked as if it went on forever, straight as a die.
She dragged Shargei’s body over, took off his Rolex and strapped it on her ankle, then stood on his chest, to make it easier to haul herself up into the tunnel entrance.
The shouting was getting closer, and the sound of the dogs.
“Y-y-ou’re…g-g-oing through?” stuttered Termin.
“Obviously,” said Aleksandra. She pushed up on her toes and threw herself up and into the tunnel, at the same time slipping her left arm out of its socket so she would not get stuck.
“If you come back, and tell me…tell us…I think…I think…you’d be forgiven,” shouted Termin, his voice desperate. “I’m sure!”
His voice was drowned out by a sudden growling and barking and Termin’s voice rose an octave.
“No! No! Not me! It was her—”
Aleksandra undulated easily forward. The sides of the tunnel did flex under her skin, a little, and felt like nothing she had ever moved through before. Not cloth, or timber, or metal. The description of “velvet” was close, but still not right. And there was a faint sensation, like static electricity, a mild discomfort where her skin touched the tunnel.
The sweeping left turn was no problem. Aleksandra didn’t even need to dislocate her right shoulder. The corkscrew turns were a challenge, but no more difficult than in the Replica, though she was glad of the daily back bends and contortion rolls she had done at the camp, keeping her spine supple.
The right and immediate left turn was difficult. Even with both shoulders dislocated, Aleksandra felt herself beginning to stick and slow down. The weird orange surface wasn’t the same as the cork-lined steel. For a moment she felt a tinge of panic, but she forced it away and managed to continue on, to Junction A and beyond.
She couldn’t help thinking about what Vladimir had said the Red or the Violet light could do. He had only been a few seconds too slow, his lower body still in the Original as he struggled to get out. But that had been enough. His legs had been cooked from the bones outward, requiring immediate amputation, and his upper body – even though out of the tunnel – had suffered something similar to the flash burns they both knew from the war.
Aleksandra forced those thoughts away, to concentrate on her progress. From Junction A it was easy going for a while, until she came to a series of very close right-angle turns that required her to bend at maximum extension from neck and waist, in opposite directions.
Halfway through, Aleksandra got stuck.
She couldn’t move forward or back, she needed just a few millimetres more behind her shoulders and under her hips, and that space wasn’t there.
The panic came back, and again she forced it away. She thought about the other things Vladimir had told her, and simply waited, slowing her breathing, letting her mind and body relax.
After a long minute, perhaps two, the deep, solid light all around her suddenly changed from orange to yellow, and the sensation of static electricity disappeared. The tunnel was suddenly warm now, the luminous, otherworldly surfaces felt like a stone floor warmed by summer sun.
There was also now more flex in the tunnel. The material gave way far more than in the Orange phase, much more than the thick cork lining of the Replica.
But even with the extra flex, Aleksandra only managed to wriggle and writhe forward five or six centimetres before she ran into the section where the tunnel ahead turned back on itself. It had been almost impossible in the Replica, and she had gouged the cork lining there. It would be actually impossible here unless something else Vladimir told her was true.
“Oh Vova,” whispered Aleksandra, and though she had not believed in God for many years, she uttered a short prayer that her mentor had not confused the extraordinary reality of the Original with morphine hallucinations.
She pushed her face into the side of the tunnel, hard into the yielding surface of yellow light, until her nose was crushed flat and her mouth was buried in whatever mysterious material the tunnel was made from.
It shouldn’t have been possible to breathe, but she believed Vladimir and tried anyway, and cool air came whistling through her just-open mouth, even though it was pressed tight against what seemed to be a solid wall.
With her face and body pushed into the side, Aleksandra had just enough additional working room to squeeze around the three close right angles, with every segment of her backbone seeming to move independently to urge her forward, like a worm’s concentric rings.
She moved faster after the triple bend, remembering what was ahead from the Replica. The tunnel, at least in its current state and without the extra difficult turns, was easier than the cork and cold steel, and Aleksandra felt she was ahead of the deadline, moving well.
Then the light changed again, to green, and she paused, struck by the change. She could no longer press her face or any part of herself into the tunnel sides, which had become much more rigid. Worse than that, it felt like the walls were intruding into her flesh, a multitude of tiny little needles touching her skin, pressing against it without actually drawing blood.
Aleksandra grimaced and pushed on. She’d gone a metre or so when she realised she could feel the rasp of those needles everywhere, not just on her exposed skin, but also through her American diving suit.
Vladimir had not mentioned this. Aleksandra touched her forehead to the tunnel surface. The strange material looked completely smooth, but she felt the prickles. She pushed her head harder, but the sensation didn’t change and there were no other effects. If they were real needles, they would have gone into her, drawn blood.
“It doesn’t matter,” muttered Aleksandra to herself. “Not important. That’s why Vladimir didn’t speak of it. He had such little time.”
She didn’t notice that the many small scratches she’d sustained from the Replica slowly disappeared, the green light washing them away as if they had never been. The puckered scar from where the rival German sniper’s bullet had grazed her left arm also vanished. She felt the itch as it happened, but ignored it, and of course could not look to see what had caused it.
At Junction B, Aleksandra rested for two minutes, as measured by Shargei’s watch, while she clicked her joints back in and massaged her tendons and muscles. She figured she had time, since she only had to get to the exit and get out.
Not go back. She was never going back.
There was a bad moment when it was time to go forward. Her mental map from the Replica faded out of her mind as she looked at the three tunnels that continued on from the junction, only discernable because the green light was different in those places, less intense, indicating a tunnel opening. For several seconds she couldn’t recall which was the one she should take. Then it came back to her in a rush, and she stretched up and slithered into the correct tunnel, dropping one shoulder back, pushing off with her legs and feet and toes at maximum extension.
The light turned a light, sky-ish blue as she reached Junction G and slid out into the relatively open space, arms outstretched. She saw the bones of her hands through her flesh, like an x-ray, but her skeleton was limned in dark, fuzzy blue as if the bones had been sketched in crayon. Vladimir had told her about this part, to not be bothered, but she still could not help but stare at the second finger of her left hand, able now to see where it had been broken and though set straight, the bone had thickened in a knot, like a gall in a tree.
It was only a few seconds lost, she thought, as she tore her gaze away and looked for the next tunnel entrance. It was easier to find in the blue light, the edges seemed more defined. Aleksandra found the right one, then shut her eyes for a moment, remembering the Replica, to make absolutely sure she had identified it correctly.
When she opened her eyes again, she had the sensation that she had somehow lost time. She shook her head, and raised her ankle to look at Shargei’s Rolex, ignoring the view of the bones in her feet. But the watch didn’t make sense. The numerals had changed to symbols she didn’t know, the shorter hour hand had a bifurcated end like a snake’s tongue, and the smaller inset dial with the second hand had become a wheel of several dashes, all blue in the current light, which was turning slowly to create an illusion of continuous, wavy lines.
Aleksandra blinked again, and looked away. The watch was no use, but the light was still pale blue. Not yet the darker blue that Termin called indigo, so she had at least twenty minutes. She inserted herself into the correct tunnel, this one almost at floor level, and pushed on.
But she had somehow lost time. Slithering up the corkscrew turns that led to the small junction S, the light changed to indigo. Tilting her chin to her chest to look back along her body, Aleksandra could no longer see the bones in her hands where they trailed behind her at the end of her dislocated arms.
She remembered Vladimir’s warning about this last survivable stage of light.
“Indigo is the worst,” he’d whispered, with such difficulty. “It brings memories. You must not dwell on them. You must not stop.”
Even as she recalled those words, she saw him vividly. Not burned and reduced in his hospital bed, but in his prime, at the school, roaring encouragement to a group of children making a human pyramid.
“Higher, higher, come on! A pyramid doesn’t end with three on top, two more up, and then Aleksandra you go on top like the star on the New Year tree in the House of Unions!”
Aleksandra smiled, a smile that relaxed her whole face, till she felt she was that child again, clambering up to stretch high on the human pyramid and they were all so proud, all twenty-eight of them and Vladimir beaming—
“Do not stop!”
She blinked. She had stopped, lost in memory. For how long? She pushed on again, scraping her head against the tunnel, hard, using the pain to banish the memories that were rising up. Happy memories, ones she had long since let go, since it only weakened her to recall them. The past was gone.
The light was still indigo. Aleksandra wriggled hard, using up energy faster than she normally would. She had no idea how much time she had lost.
The tunnel ahead bifurcated into two passages. She slithered into the left one, sure this was correct. But it ended almost immediately and she had to back out and take the right side, and now she was panicking. The light was indigo, but for how long? Soon the searing heat would come and she would be cooked from the inside out…
The tunnel turned left and ended. Aleksandra cried out and began to back again, but stopped. This was what was supposed to be here, it was right, then left…and up.
She slid forward, rotated herself inside the tunnel, ignoring the pain of scraped sides and aching joints.
High above, the light was not the glowing indigo of the tunnel walls – there was a tiny patch of softer blue, four or five metres above.
The distant sky of some far-off world.
Memory pressed at her again. Another sky, the sky above the steppe, the week she was sent back to get a medal, far behind the front line. Riding in the back of a truck, the canopy down, looking up at that endless sky. Happy to still be alive, and the world so big, and herself so small beneath it—
Aleksandra screamed, using the sound to push the memories away. She tilted her head up and began to inch up the shaft, forcing one arm back into place so she could work the shoulder. Slowly, ever so slowly, she rose up, centimeter by centimeter.
Memories assaulted her. Flashes of childhood derring-do; the secret feast during recruit training; the meeting with Stalin that had seemed such an honour at first…vivid memories that were so distracting, so real she almost felt she could step into them, escape into her own mind—
“No, no, no,” growled Aleksandra. That was not escape. She had seen people do that so many times. Give up and retreat inside their own heads, abandoning their bodies, always dying soon.
That was surrender.
She would not surrender.
Groaning, she kept squeezing herself up the shaft. The patch of blue sky grew closer and closer and then her working arm reached up, she got two fingers over the impossible edge of nothingness, made them into a hook, and pulled herself that fraction more to get a full handhold, all four fingers.
Sudden cold bit her hand.
Her fingers were outside.
Using all her strength, she hauled herself up and out – and fell, like a cork popped from a bottle.
The exit she had climbed up opened down.
Instinct and training, all those years of circus school, took over. She rolled on impact, steadied herself, looked up.
For a moment, she saw the indigo tunnel, a strange contrast of different blue to the sky beyond it. Then it disappeared, as if it had never existed.
The Original, whatever the hell it was, only went one way.
Aleksandra looked back down from the sky. The memories no longer thronged in her mind, threatening to overwhelm her. She simply felt exhausted, and stupid, unable to take in what she was seeing.
Broken, splintered trees stretched as far as she could see in all directions.
A familiar landscape.
The dead forest of Tunguska.
It was not another world. It was the same terrible, old world.
She had not escaped.
A dog barked nearby. Aleksandra’s hand flashed to the knife behind her ear, but she did not lift it out. After a second, she let go, leaving the blade where it was.
Better to be killed by dogs than be taken back alive.
She dropped to her knees, and bent her head, shutting her eyes.
“I do not believe in you, God,” whispered Aleksandra. “Not in heaven, or hell, except the hells we have made ourselves. But maybe I am wrong. Perhaps I will see Vladimir again, and my parents, and Konstantin and Marie, and all the others…”
She heard the dog come closer, but it had stopped barking.
The world was quiet, save for the faint whistle of the wind in the splintered trees. Then footsteps. Heavy boots. One person.
“Kill me,” said Aleksandra loudly. “I am not going back.”
“Why would I do that?”
Aleksandra opened one eye.
“I saw you fall from the sky,” said an old woman. She spoke Russian, but with an accent unfamiliar to Aleksandra. She was dressed in reindeer hide, had a wolfskin hat on her head, and cradled a rifle in her arms as familiarly as she might a baby. An older Mosin-Nagant, from the first German war. Her dog was at her side. Not a German dog at all, but a Borzoi, a good Russian dog. The woman gestured, and the dog lay flat, disappointed it had not found a wolf.
“Are you a spirit?”
“No,” replied Aleksandra. “How close are we to the camp?”
“What camp?” asked the woman.
“The camp,” said Aleksandra. She repeated the words dully. “The camp.”
“Are you sure you are not a spirit? My children tell me not to hunt wolves here, because of spirits. But I have never seen a spirit before, and because no one else comes to hunt, there are many wolves.”
“I am not a spirit,” said Aleksandra. “I am a zek. Shoot me please, before the guards come. You might even get a reward.”
The old woman scratched her forehead, right in the middle, under the protruding snout of her wolf’s head hat.
“What is a zek? What guards? There is no one else here. I told you. No one comes here. Only me. It is a long walk from anywhere, many days. Maybe not for you, falling from the sky—”
“Days,” interrupted Aleksandra. “Years.”
She opened both eyes, wide, and stared about her. The forest looked the same, but that would be true of any time since the initial explosion, it would be true for decades to come, maybe longer…
“What year is this?”
The old woman shrugged.
“Forty-eight, forty-nine, I don’t know…”
Aleksandra’s brow furrowed. Not the future, or the past?
“Does Comrade Stalin still rule us all?”
“Who’s that?” asked the old woman. “And why do you keep saying ‘Comrade’? No one talks like that. I think you must be a spirit.”
Aleksandra stared at her, and then glanced at the sun. She felt its warmth, strong and beautiful, heat she had not felt for many months. The artificial heat in the Original did not count. It was not the same. This was the real warmth, but…
“Yes. It’s summer.”
“There is no Stalin.”
“Never heard of him.”
“The Central Committee?”
“What is that?”
“Are there camps?”
“Hunting camps, you mean?”
“No, no, for prisoners.”
“Not since the Czar went away to England, oh, years ago now. All that stuff, the secret police, camps. None of that in the Republic. People wouldn’t stand for it. Not nowadays.”
“People wouldn’t stand for it,” repeated Aleksandra. Tears started in her eyes. It was so long since she had cried, the tears felt very strange. Drops of water sliding down her face, but not from rain. “People wouldn’t stand for it.”
She laughed, and cried, and stood on her hands and walked on them in a circle around the wolf hunter.
The old woman muttered something about a spirit again, but she smiled, a toothless smile.
“I’ve escaped!” cried Aleksandra. “I have escaped!”
She flipped upright, hugged the hunter and kissed her on both papery, sun-scorched cheeks.
“Escaped from what?” asked the old woman, looking up at the endless sky.
“Another world, grandmother,” said Aleksandra, wiping her eyes. “Another world.”
“Dislocation Space” copyright © 2019 by Garth Nix
Art copyright © 2019 by Mark Smith