Fantastic Metropolis

Minutes of the Last Meeting

Stepan Chapman

“The Tsar has eight million men
with guns and bayonets.
Turn and look at the forest of steel and cannon,
where the Tsar is guarded
by eight million soldiers.
Nothing can happen to the Tsar.”

— Carl Sandburg

On the afternoon of March 16, 1917, midway between Petrograd and the German front, a steam engine made its laborious way through the mountain passes of Latviya.

Icy steel rails cut across a waste of jagged granite. The soot-encrusted engine pulled eleven cars behind it.

In the cab of the engine stood a short barrel-chested man with bristly gray hair and a walrus mustache. His name was Ivan Klosparik. After glancing at his pressure gauges, he returned his gaze to the rails ahead. Ivan was the tsar’s personal engineer, and he took his work seriously.

Ivan was far from his home and his wife. This being wartime, most of Russia’s men were far from home. Ivan had grown up in a tiny oats-and-barley town in the lowlands of Taymyrskiy, half a continent away from these desolate crags. Ivan disliked high altitudes. They made his teeth ache.

Ivan watched the tracks through the plexithane windscreen of the cab. The silver tracks and wooden ties wound their way through bleak diagonals of rock and snowdrift. The engine passed a painted steel pole that served as a distance marker.

Ivan pulled off one of his gloves and keyed the train’s position into the gauge panel. The train system blinked its acknowledgment on the panel’s cathode slate. Ivan shivered and put his glove back on. The wind made a muffled whine. It got in under the cuffs of Ivan’s overalls and chilled his bones.

The train approached a stretch of track that curved to the left. Ivan sat himself on the sill of the open window in the left wall of the cab. He held on to the window frame and leaned into the wind. He ran his eyes along the length of the train as it rounded the curve. Everything appeared to be in order.

Behind the engine rolled the coal car, bearing one passenger, Ivan’s stoker. Behind the coal car came the gunnery car with its armory of antiaircraft rockets and grenade launchers stored inside. The forward gunner’s turret was mounted on its roof. Inside a plexithane bubble, the gunner sat with his hand on the stock of a rotary-mounted Gatling gun. The gunner swiveled restlessly in his chair, scanning the terrain with his binoculars, searching for the slightest sign of ambush or sabotage.

The turret made Ivan feel a little more secure about transporting the tsar and his family through these desolate mountains. But not completely secure. Too many things could go wrong in this world. And the tsar had too many enemies.

The gunnery car pulled the barracks car, quarters for the tsar’s honor guard. The barracks car pulled the wireless car, which bore an elaborate radar dish on its roof.

Fifth came the tsar’s personal coach, a lushly appointed smoking den which was also the mobile headquarters for all of Russia’s armies in the Great War.

Sixth came the coach of Tsarina Alexandra. Then came the recently constructed clinic coach. The clinic coach served as a hospital for the sickly young Tsarevich Alexius and as quarters for the physicians and nurses devoted to his care.

Then came the car for the servants of the imperial family. Then the scullery car. Then the generator car, which supported the rear gun turret. And last the caboose, where Ivan and his stoker slept when they got off duty — and where their relief workers were sleeping now. Since the outbreak of war, all the windows were painted black to discourage snipers.

The train straightened out and crossed a trestle bridge over a gorge. Ivan returned to his station and checked the boiler’s pressure readings. Ivan disliked bridges. It was far too easy to plant bombs in them. But of course the Imperial Intelligence Entelechy would never allow such a thing.

Ivan believed three things as matters of faith. One thing was that the Lord worked in mysterious ways. Another thing was that he would meet his wife in heaven, after they died. The third was that the surveillance abilities of the IIE were utterly infallible. Ivan’s convictions were all that kept him going on days like this.

Ivan took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit one, shielding it from the wind. He surveyed the ragged mountainside to the right of the tracks, and the valley that dropped away to the left. Nothing but rock and snow. The earth might be uninhabited save for this one old steam train.

Ivan glanced over his shoulder at the gunner’s turret. If hostilities did arise, that young man up there would be the first target. And Ivan would be the second.

Ivan told himself to stop worrying. His gastric condition would act up if he wasn’t careful. And if he lost his position and his salary, how would his wife stay alive back in Taymyrskiy? He mustn’t worry so much, and that was that.

Ivan sighed deeply and watched the tracks, savoring his misery.

 

Nicholas II sat on cushions of crimson velvet in an armchair of carved mahogany. He was attempting to read an extremely dull intelligence report in a celluloid binder.

Tactical maps and classified documents were piled on every level surface. From this cork-paneled coach, wherever it roamed, Tsar Nicholas commanded his generals in the field. Some of his generals were battling the German infantry. Others were engaged in an internal war against the conspiracies of traitors.

The socialists were making loud noises about their glorious revolution. And it was widely known that the Zemstva faction within the imperial Duma were funding them. Everything was falling apart. Nicholas’s hold over the Duma. Military discipline behind the lines. Mother Russia herself. The only constant was this endless war against Kaiser Wilhelm.

Nicholas smoked his briar pipe and read the cautious reports of his spies among the Bolsheviks. He should be reading reports on the parliamentary infighting in Moskva. But the posturings of the radicals made better reading. The radicals were all quite mad, but they actually believed in something.

Only madmen would oppose the holy rule of the autocracy. Didn’t they realize how easily the IIE could protect Nicholas from their murderous plots? There was no man or woman anywhere in Russia who could escape from the spying eyes of the IIE. That paper clip might be one of its secret cameras. That fly speck on the spittoon might be one of its microphones. Any flea in any mattress, any weed beside the road, might be a spy for the Entelechy. Naturally, under such conditions, everyone reported to the authorities regarding everyone else as often as possible. That went without saying.

Three generations of the autocracy had sheltered beneath the wing of the IIE’s protection. Who, then, would oppose the tsar? Only madmen.

But Russia was filled with those. Half of the nation was going mad from the bloodshed and the famine. The other half had been mad to start with. Surely the second coming of Christ was at hand.

Nicholas was a bitter jaded man. Part of his mind was always frightened and angry, while the other part remained passive and bored. His stormy side raged inside his head, while his passive side never stopped complaining. Life was too much for Nicholas. Why couldn’t all these ratty little Bolshevik firebrands leave his world alone? Why couldn’t they let it shake to pieces by its own momentum?

Nicholas threw the celluloid binder across the compartment. It bounced off a lacquered screen. Damn reports. Damn everything.

 

In the tsarina’s suite, Alexandra sat on her bed, wearing a green silk dressing gown. The room was filled with embroidered sofas, footstools, armoires, and trunks for her keepsakes. A room out of the nineteenth century. She closed her eyes and wished herself back to her father’s dacha in the country. But the train rumbled under her, and reality intruded.

She was riding a train in the age of high technology and mechanized warfare. She was an aging woman with four children. She had spent her health and her happiness to give the tsar a son. And when the son had come at last, it had been poor Alexius with his hemophilia and his heart murmur. And now all Europe was at war.

This was no century for a woman of refined sensibility.

 

Dr. Ostrokov sat at the steel desk in his private office, forking up a plate of fried calamari and potato noodles. He chewed his food and took a swallow from his last bottle of vodka.

Ostrokov’s brain seemed to be spinning in his skull. He tried to withdraw his attention from the problem of Alexius’s heart. The thirteen-year-old tsarevich was dying by gradual stages of congenital blood disease and cardiac complications. His current condition was comatose but stable. Nature’s way of sedating the terminally ill.

Ostrokov tried to relax. After all, it wasn’t as though he were a folk healer in some Slavic fairy tale. It wasn’t as though he would be boiled in oil if he failed to repair the heart of the young prince. At worst he’d be sent to the German front.

Ostrokov closed his eyes and tried to control his blood pressure. There was only so much that he and his interns and their ultramodern toys could do for the wretched child. The boy’s pulmonary function would never be sound. His gamma gobulin count would never increase. Medical science couldn’t perform miracles.

Alexius was like the damned war. He went on and on, year after year, beyond all endurance, refusing to die. But perhaps he’d emerge from his coma. Perhaps he had suffered no serious brain damage. Or perhaps he was already brain dead.

Dr. Ostrokov felt that his head would explode. He took another swallow from his vodka bottle, screwed on the cap, and returned it to a desk drawer. He decided to look in on Pod and the other microbots. Dealing with the surgical machines always steadied his nerves.

He stepped from his office into a corridor and moved along, holding a handrail, past the nurse’s station. He paused beside the sickroom and peered through a viewing lens. Alexius lay on his back under a white quilt inside an oxygen tent. The boy looked like death. The backwash of blood from the right ventricle had to be corrected, and soon. The valve replacement was scheduled for two p.m. Only an hour away. If Ostrokov and his team didn’t lose the boy today, Alexius might last another season.

Train travel was bad for the tsarevich, but Nicholas insisted on keeping his heir at his side. If pawns of the Grand Duke Michael were to snatch Alexius, then Michael would attempt to seize the throne as regent. Or so Nicholas feared.

But Nicholas was a hopeless paranoid. Alexius would be perfectly safe anywhere in Russia. The IIE made certain of that. For a century now, no tsar nor any member of the dynastic family had been assassinated or deposed or captured. So this clinic coach was a product of mere neurosis. There was no other logical diagnosis.

Yet the orders of a tsar could not be questioned. So Alexius went where his father went. And what could Ostrokov do about it?

Ostrokov entered the surgical cabin. One of the interns was reviewing telemetry files at a data desk. The intern saluted Ostrokov. Ostrokov nodded. Then he stood with his back to the cabin hatch, surveying his domain.

Here was his operating theater, the finest in the land. It resembled the cockpit of a submarine. Perched on racks, high against the walls, cross-connected black boxes aimed their narrowcasting funnels at the sickbed in the next compartment. A pilot’s chair stood on a pedestal — with sensing gloves, leg frames, and a spherical white helmet as big as a pumpkin.

Stuck to the cabin’s blackened windows were schematics of the various microbots now stationed within Alexius’s sickly heart. Here was a slender conical Digger. Here was a cross section of a Gaffer, showing its three stovepipe legs and its long spindly arm. Here was Anchorlegs standing on its suction cup — the largest machine of the eight, a sort of animate toolshed.

And here was a portrait of Pod, the team leader, a small and feeble creature composed mostly of brains and radar. It was Pod that Ostrokov piloted. Sometimes he felt that he became Pod.

All across the battered face of Europe, hospitals were overflowing with broken men and women who’d be lucky to receive morphine, let alone reconstructive surgery. But the hemophiliac tsarevich had his own private microsurgical unit. Scalpels and sutures were useless for cardiac work on Alexius. But with nano-scale technology from China, Ostrokov could operate by remote control.

The surgeon sat down in the pilot’s chair and strapped himself into the proprioception gloves and leg harnesses. The cabin was hot and stuffy. Without proper ventilation, the heat from the coal stove was trapped inside. In China, they could build intelligent devices five molecules thick. In Russia, when a tractor broke down, a peasant would call a priest to sprinkle holy water on its motor.

In Russia, women were used as land mine sweepers. The prime minister of Britain had offered the tsar a shipment of modern metal detectors. “No thank you,” the tsar’s chief of staff replied. “We already have a system in place. We send out parties of excess war widows. The exploded widows give their lives for Mother Russia. And as a collateral benefit, the food shortage is relieved.”

And as for ventilating a train compartment, oh no, that was far too difficult a problem for sluggish Georgian brains.

Ostrokov lowered the chair’s helmet onto his head and fitted the cathode visor to his eyes. He sat for half a minute, listening to the train wheels and preparing himself. Then he kicked a pedal and opened his tight-beam link with Pod.

His auditory nerves were the first to accept the input. A vast hiss engulfed him, like the churning of a river over a waterfall. Then a deafening boom drowned out the hiss. The atrio-ventricular valve was slamming shut.

In the strained and weary fibers of his legs, he could feel the blood tide slowing and reversing. Turbulence yanked him to and fro. This was the systolic backwash that was killing the boy. It went on and on. Time was slower on the inside. Time had to move more slowly for tiny creatures, because they had to move so fast. Only molecules moved faster. Dr. Ostrokov was unbelievably huge and slow, like Alexius’s heartbeat. But the helmet was accelerating his brain, tightening every synapse, to allow him to keep up, for just a few seconds, with Pod and the others.

His eyes began to see through Pod’s radar bowls. Here was the flat roof of Anchorlegs beneath him. Here were Pod’s spindly legs, clutching the roof against the pull of the blood rush. Here, glowing like red coals through the blood plasma, were the navigation beacons on his knees. Out there, looming over him, were the slick corrugated concavities of the auricle.

And there were the three Gaffers, clinging to the muscle wall. Their pincers were anchoring the replacement valve between them. The Gaffers had constructed the smooth white saucer from raw polymers of polyprotonol and felt justifiably proud of it.

Soon the Cutters would cauterize a thousand capillaries and carve loose the leaking flesh valve. There must be no slips, no snags, no hemorrhaging. Each phase must go quickly and cleanly. Simple. Simple as cherry pie. About as simple as threading a strand of egg yolk through the eye of a needle while walking on stilts, blindfolded, while circus clowns shoot water at you from a high-pressure fire hose.

Pod yearned to complete the implant and to escape from this colloidal hellhole. The work was maddening. It wasn’t the work itself so much as the waiting for orders. Already Pod had spent decades inside this patient, centuries, millennia — merely awaiting further orders. Why wouldn’t Ostrokov let them finish the job? Must they all die of old age inside this sickly boy’s chest?

Pod felt Ostrokov looking over his shoulder, also waiting. Pod respected Ostrokov, who’d proved himself a perceptive and level-headed supervisor. Not like those clumsy interns of his, who were far too eager to help.

A great groaning echoed through the heart. As the semilunars squeezed shut, the atrio-ventriculars eased opened. A tide of purple blood poured down from the vena cava, through the auricle and into the ventricle. The noise of the blood wind numbed Ostrokov. His brain was too slow. He ought to be conserving himself for the operation. He had to get out.

Ostrokov kicked the release pedal and gradually returned to his body. Tsarina Alexandra was standing beside his chair. Her hand was resting on his shoulder. The intern had gone away. Ostrokov disengaged himself from the chair, stood up, and bowed. Alexandra stepped into the surgeon’s arms and pressed her cheek against the white linen of his shirt.

“We mustn’t,” Dr. Ostrokov whispered. “Someone will see us.”

“I’m afraid, Jacob.”

“Everyone is afraid.”

“Hold me, Jacob.”

“Not here. Look around you. Your son is dying.”

“My son has been dying since he was born. Kiss me, Jacob.”

“We mustn’t.”

“Ah, but we must,” Alexandra told him, placing her hand over his heart. “The world is ending. And when the world ends, lovers must kiss.”

Jacob held Alexandra and kissed her tenderly. As they kissed, the microcamera concealed in the tsarina’s wedding ring swiveled to observe them. The camera transmitted its image to a buried relay station in Pskov. The relay station boosted the image to Petrograd and the IIE complex.

 

In an artificial cavern a kilometer below the city of Peter the Great, the Imperial Intelligence Entelechy lived its paralyzed life and thought its cybernetic thoughts and looked on while Alexandra kissed the Jewish surgeon.

The IIE observed and mused. Within the huge black egg of its polished obsidian shell, a hundred tons of circuitry hummed with the microvoltages that rippled glimmers of perception through its involuted mass. The stone egg rested at the center of a disk of black pumice under a dome of black chitinite. A swarm of data cables radiated from the disk.

Above the IIE’s cavern, in a monolithic office building, beehives of analysts decrypted radio traffic around the clock. They fed the best data down the cables, to the 999 vesicles of the simul-processing superbrain.

The IIE’s first vesicle gazed upon the tsar, who was smoking his pipe, while its fifth vesicle watched the tsarina. Its eleventh vesicle was peevishly listening to a phone conversation between two of its field agents in Moskva. The tap was loud and clear. Vesicle Eleven could hear every word that Linkroda wheezed at Gorodni, and each of Gorodni’s stoic grunts.

Provost Officer Linkroda of Kirov was complaining to Operative Gorodni concerning the chaos in Linkroda’s district. Gorodni, meanwhile, was pumping Linkroda for inside material on a recent industrial disaster.

GORODNI: Nerve gas? Yesterday you said tear gas. What will it be tomorrow, Linkroda?

LINKRODA: Does the official story matter? Kirov will be uninhabitable for two decades.

GORODNI: Yes, it matters, damn your soul. When the riot mongers are inciting the serfs to revolt, these things matter. To whom besides myself have you spoken the words “nerve gas”?

LINKRODA: Before I answer that, Vaslav, you tell me something. To whom do you report these days?

GORODNI: Provost Officer, let me offer you some advice. A government man does well to keep his eyes turned downward. When his gaze turns upward, his superiors may begin to feel defensive.

LINKRODA: Nonetheless, Vaslav, are you never tempted to boast? Everyone says that you report directly to Citizen Tridd. (Inside the IIE, an alarm went off. Linkroda’s dossier was called up for red-tagging.)

GORODNI: Watch what you say.

LINKRODA: Oh, I beg your pardon. I had no idea that the very mention of the reclusive Tridd was forbidden. In the future I will avoid all reference to the awe-inspiring genius of the secret police. The name of the incomparable Tridd is a name that must only be whispered in the shadows. Still, one hears rumors. Is he truly the tsar’s most trusted advisor? Is he secretly ruling in Nicholas’s place? Only great power can buy such absolute silence. You must tell me, Gorodni. I have to know. You’ve seen him. I know you have. You’ve seen Tridd’s face. Tell me. I don’t matter. I’ll die soon from the gas I swallowed. Tell me about him.

GORODNI: You’re raving. You’re drunk. Tridd is a myth. A Gothic fiction. Your clearance level is higher than mine, Linkroda. If you can’t track him down, then why do you think —

LINKRODA: Ah, but perhaps he found you, Gorodni. Perhaps you’re his. Though I can’t think why he would choose a man who lies as badly as you. Perhaps your failings endear you to him.

GORODNI: God save you, Linkroda. You’re a complete romantic. Do you suppose that you’ll get to the bottom of the wild rumors? Be realistic. We’re all just glorified thugs at our level of the service. People like us don’t get to the bottom of anything. Our job is simply to keep the masses happy. They aren’t happy unless they’re spied on and bullied. It gives them more to complain about.

LINKRODA: You talk like an insurrectionist.

GORODNI: I call things by their names. Go to bed and sober up.

Gorodni hung up the phone. He leaned on his desk, massaged his brow, and smiled. Tridd again. However disgusted Gorodni felt with his career in disinformation, he never tired of hearing about Tridd. Tridd the invincible! Tridd, the psychotic mastermind! Tridd, who preserved the tsar’s crumbling empire by means of sheer brain power. Tridd of the endless rumors. The Slavs were suffering food shortages, fuel shortages, and shortfalls of cannon fodder, but there was never any shortage of rumors.

Gorodni relished the tales of Tridd. He collected them for the IIE. His favorite story described a boy with a freakish head.

Tridd, so they said, had been a child polymath with an eidetic memory and an uncanny grasp of game theory. The child was recruited to the service of the state. At puberty, his skull began to swell. When his head grew bigger than a medicine ball, Tridd had to wear a foam collar, lest the weight of his brain break his neck. As the years progressed, his head grew as big as a hayrick, then as big as a barn.

The secret police commandeered a derelict cathedral for him. Within it they constructed a steel scaffold to support the young man’s skull. As Tridd’s cranium budded off new lobes, the men tore down walls and built annexes to make room.

As his brain enlarged, Tridd’s musculature withered. Unable to breathe without mechanical aid, he was enclosed from the neck down within an iron lung. His shrunken body, mounted in its plexithane cylinder, protruded from one side of an ever-expanding orb of brain and bone. His face, neck, and body became a pitiful parasite, hanging from a living boulder.

Gorodni thought it a very pretty story, this version of Tridd. It was a tempting invitation to paranoia. But true? About as true as Baba Yaga the Witch. And Gorodni was in a position to know this for certain. Why? Because Gorodni had invented Tridd. Tridd was Gorodni’s most successful disinformation campaign. Years ago, as a lowly cipher clerk, he submitted the idea of Tridd to the IIE. The exceptional success of the legend won him promotions. Naturally he was Tridd’s most devoted mythographer.

Gorodni leaned back in his chair and put his feet on his desk. From one corner of the ceiling of his office, a harvestman spider watched him.

From behind the ten eyes of the spider, the IIE’s eleventh vesicle also watched Gorodni and wondered what he was thinking. Perhaps one of the payrolled psychics upstairs in Petrograd would know. V-Eleven couldn’t begin to guess.

V-Eleven switched over to its sensor in Officer Linkroda’s office, an ashtray on a cluttered desk. Linkroda was fat and bald, his shirt untucked. He dialed his phone. V-Eleven traced the call.

Linkroda rang the phone of his daughter, Anya Tamarova Linkroda, at the IIE complex. The cathode slate on her phone announced the source of the call. Anya let the phone ring. Linkroda hung up, frowning. He returned to his typewriter and his disaster report. V-Eleven lost interest in Linkroda and switched over to the pen holder on Anya Tamarova’s desk.

Anya was a salaried psychic observer. She sat in a small cubicle in a large room, surrounded by more than a hundred other licensed sensitives. Facing her desk were monitors for eight remote cameras. Anya sat in a swivel chair, her back straight, her pen poised above her logbook. A plain woman with limp brown hair, in a simple gray dress with a starched white collar. She turned her gaze methodically from one screen to the next.

She stopped at the seventh screen and leaned forward. She began to take notes in shorthand. She was seeing something that only a psychic observer would see. An old woman and a… what? A child? A midget?

They were standing beside a railroad track in the middle of nowhere, about twenty miles south of Petrograd. Anya was watching this place because the tsar would be passing it. The two phantoms just stood there staring south along the track, as if they were waiting for a train.

Anya keyed her screen control to enlarge the central section of the image. The old woman was a typical toothless crone with a mole on her chin and hair growing out of it. She wore a threadbare black dress and a red shawl. But the child or elf or whatever he was… His skin was green. And his nose was nearly half a meter long and tapered to a point. He wore a tailcoat of bright green, a plaid vest, and no shoes. That creature was definitely something from a fairy tale.

Then it came to Anya: So was the old woman. Anya recognized her now. Anya’s pen danced across the pages of the logbook. BABA YAGA. LEGENDARY WITCH. CHILD SNATCHER. CANNIBAL.

The IIE’s eleventh vesicle disconnected itself from the pen holder and floated in a void of utter silence. Perhaps all would be well. Perhaps the war would end soon. Perhaps the IIE could turn back the Huns, if it threw a sufficient quantity of lives into the blast furnace of the battlefields. Perhaps it could forestall the onrushing revolution and win safety for the tsar. Perhaps it could win the chess game for one more year.

But there was one thing the IIE could never do. It could never lift the awful black weight of its depression. And no one would ever love it, the way the tsarina loved Dr. Ostrokov. No one would ever be proud of it, the way Gorodni was proud of Tridd. No one would ever feel curious about it, the way Anya felt about her apparitions. Not even that.

While the IIE’s eleventh vesicle was feeling sorry for itself, its seventy-ninth vesicle was punching up the feed from Spy Cricket #0018320-D.

The mechanical cricket was hanging from an oat stalk beside a deserted dirt road near Cherblinsk. Off to the west, the road crossed a wooden bridge over an ice-choked river. A bony black cow stood in the middle of the bridge and chewed her cud. Nothing besides the cow had used the bridge all day. To the east lay frozen beet fields. The cricket stared vacantly across the fields and used its hind legs to scrape the frost from its plasticene wing casings. Somewhere a dog was yapping.

The cricket heard the whir of steam autos approaching. It clambered onto the tassel of the oat stalk and angled its eyes toward the crest of the road. A low-slung passenger coupe sped into view. A black van pursued it — a police wagon with a rotating beacon on its roof. Eight rubber tires jounced across rutted mud. The van overtook the car and tried to run it off the road. The car accelerated out of harm’s way. The two vehicles raced toward the bridge.

The cricket focused one eye on the autos and angled the other toward the black cow. The cow chewed her cud and stared down at the dirty ice on the river. She never turned her head, never took notice of the noise.

The van and the car were side by side as they crossed the bridge, grinding their fenders together. The car slid over icy planks, tearing down a row of railing posts. Its grille smashed into the black cow. The car and the cow fell from the bridge and down through shattering ice into the frigid murk of the river. The spy cricket heard footsteps running across the ice.

The van skidded to a halt on the far side of the river. Then it turned around, drove back toward the bridge, and parked. A squad of men in khaki uniforms jumped out with rifles slung over their shoulders. They fanned out to surveil the river. The tail end of the car was still sticking up through a hole in the ice. One of the men fired a volley of bullets through it, shattering the windows. There was no sign of movement. A blackbird flew up from some oat grass and soared away. The car sank a little deeper, cracking more ice.

A man in civilian clothes stepped down from the cab of the van — a slight Asiatic man with a thin mustache. He wore a leather jacket and a fur cap with ear flaps. He stamped his feet and squinted at the ice. Citizen Taka had hounded down his quarry, but apparently she’d drowned. This was unfortunate. He’d been instructed to bring the dissident in for questioning.

He walked to the edge of the river. The black cow was visible under the ice, floating on its side, already frozen solid, staring up at Taka from one doleful brown eye. Spy Cricket #0018320-D watched Taka, while Taka looked at the cow, and the cow looked at nothing.

 

Downstream, unseen by Taka’s men, Astra Leonova, agent of the International Workers’ Revolution, crept on her hands and knees across the ice, toward the dead reeds and brown moss on the shore. She crawled in among the reeds, gasping for breath and shaking from the cold. The skirts of her red velvet dress and her fur overcoat had been soaked before she could jump clear of the car.

Astra slid into a hollow and propped her back against a driftwood log. Her dress creaked, stiffening into ice. She fervently hoped that Taka would think her drowned. If she kept herself hidden, and no crickets spotted her, she just might get away alive. But to stay where she was meant frostbite and death. Her breath made white arabesques in the still air, like Chinese dragons with white wings and white claws.

She groped the pockets of her coat, hoping to find her cigarette lighter. She’d left it in the coupe. She did find the silver-plated cigarette case that had been given her by Leon Trotsky. She would’ve preferred the lighter. Her hands and her feet were numb. She fumbled open the cigarette case. Inside it, miraculously still dry, was the cellophane packet that contained her cocaine. What incredible good luck! This would keep Astra awake.

She tore open the packet, dipped in a finger, and poked the finger up a nostril. She repeated the process until the packet was empty. She began to feel warmer.

The sun struck a glare from the river ice. It glittered through rustling rushes. Astra’s legs trembled on mossy mud. The mud resembled a drapery of ochre velvet and olive green damask, painted in the style of Goya.

Citizen Taka scuffled his boots behind her. Astra turned her head.

“Pardon me, Miss Leonova,” said Taka. “We’ve come to arrest you.”

Astra rose to her feet with a stiff dignity. As they walked toward the black van, Taka offered his arm to her. The gesture reminded Astra of a man who had once been her lover — an Irishman named Dunleavy. She wondered what sort of a war Evan Dunleavy was having.

Dr. Dunleavy, as it happened, was not so far away.

 

Dunleavy drove his steam auto along a different rural road near Cherblinsk. He was taking a drive in the country to relax. Dunleavy was under a lot of pressure. He was the head of the tsar’s research effort toward the construction of a trans-uranium warhead.

Dunleavy was on his way to the ruins of an historically significant church. He was an architecture enthusiast when he wasn’t pursuing theoretical physics or designing bombs. His colleagues among the rocket scientists found it droll that such a great mind as his should indulge in such a pedestrian hobby. But he persisted, making rubbings of carved stone facades and collecting books on mythical Russian saints. The eccentric Irishman, they called him.

Dunleavy smiled, steering his auto around a bend. For no good reason, his mind had thrown up the recollection of a woman he’d met years ago at a party in Moskva. Her name was Astra. Astra Leonova, the wild-eyed radical. What a beautiful woman she’d been. But Dunleavy had little interest in romance, and less interest in politics. The great passion of his life was the trans-uranium effect.

He’d been at the University of London, studying particle theory with Marconi, when he’d first read Tesla’s 1909 paper on the radioactive meteor crater in the Tunguska Steppes. Tesla had done a month of field studies then returned to New York, fearing for his health. But Dunleavy did more. In 1910, he traveled to St. Petersburg and petitioned the Imperial Commissariat of Science for the funding for an extended study at the Siberian crater. The Commissariat funded Dunleavy’s project because of one crucial fact: In l909, Kaiser Wilhelm II had initiated a trans-uranium project in Prussia.

Eight long years later, the Kaiser’s physicists were stymied. The documents photographed by the IIE’s houseflies in Berlin told the story. Hoffman was being too doctrinaire on the heavy water question. The German’s inflexibility had killed his chances for a breakthrough. Whereas Dunleavy had delivered the goods.

He knew that he could produce the trans-uranic effect with his implosive device. He knew in his bones that the device would work. It would release the awesome energies of solar fire, here on earth. Someday nuclear fission might serve as the power source for a golden age of universal plenty. A golden age would put the socialists right out of business.

Dunleavy stopped his car beside the open gate of a wrought-iron fence that enclosed a snowbound churchyard. The car’s boiler vented excess steam into the frosty air. Evan climbed to his feet and stretched his back — a tall lanky fair-haired man in a bearskin coat and muddy boots. He walked through the gate, leaving a trail of footprints in the snow. He shaded his eyes and gazed up at the stonework of the church.

Yes, this was certainly worth seeing. The men who’d carved this facade had truly believed in their God. Men like that no longer walked the earth. Dunleavy thought of entering the church to rummage through the wreckage of the pews for shards of stained glass. Then he walked toward the graveyard beside the church’s western gallery. He stepped over a low wall of river rocks and took a walk among the yellowed weeds and the headstones.

Eshmahkies crossed his mind. Eshmahkies were goblins of Slavonic folklore, reputed to be fond of graveyards and empty crossroads. Eshmahkies were dangerous. They could put you to sleep with their magic and bite your nose off. Eshmahkies were the tooth fairies of frostbite. The only useful thing about them was that if you could trick one of them into trimming his fingernails, he was then obliged to work as your serf until his nails grew back.

Dunleavy pondered his own personal eshmahkie, trans-uranic fission. He had tucked this sleeping fire into ten gleaming warheads atop ten of the tsar’s missiles. But the risk of even testing the new weapon was enormous. The IIE’s modeling of a nuclear detonation showed a significant chance that the explosion would ignite the earth’s atmospheric hydrogen and burn the whole planet to a crisp.

Surely the tsar would give Dunleavy more time for study. Surely the tsar would refrain from playing Russian roulette with the life of every living thing that crept or swam or flew. Yes, Nicholas was fighting a desperate war. Yes, he was said to be a weak and impulsive man, haunted by the failures of his life, like most men. But surely he feared God sufficiently to refrain from a premature test blast. Surely he wasn’t insane.

No, nothing was sure. When Dunleavy considered the eshmahkie he’d invented, he could only wonder. Could he trick it into trimming its fingernails? Or would it bite off his nose?

Dunleavy stared at the bare branches of the trees. All that tangled complexity. He pulled his coat tighter around his shoulders. He walked back toward his car, profoundly depressed, depressed as only an Irishman or a Russian could be. He scratched his nose.

As the fingertip of his kidskin glove rubbed his nose, Epidermal Mite #011847-B scrambled to the sheltering pit of a sebaceous gland. The mite crouched there until the hand went away. Then it crept back to skin level and crouched there, blinking in the sunlight. It adjusted its iris settings and resumed its transmission.

The IIE was bored to tears with the mute perambulations of the gloomy physicist. It switched its 283rd vesicle to a different sensor.

 

Roughly half a kilometer west of the Riga-to-Petrograd railway track, Mikhail Bakunin sat on an empty crate and focused his binoculars on the ballast mound under the tracks. He was a burly man with long black hair, wearing a leather greatcoat and a woolen cap. He was sitting in a camouflaged foxhole, among other foxholes that were occupied by the men of his anarchist cadre. The mountain wind moaned through the crate. Bakunin whistled through his teeth.

The satchel charges were still in place. If the contacts didn’t freeze, and if the attack went as planned, the tsar’s train would never reach Petrograd. And if Bakunin’s key agent was successful with her task, then the tsar would be a dead man within the hour. If, if, if. Bakunin pulled a handkerchief from a coat pocket and blew his nose.

As the saboteur blew his nose, the tiny red eyes of Spy Flea #44382-G were staring at the back of his neck. Somewhere behind those eyes, the 665th vesicle of the IIE watched every move Bakunin made.

 

The cardiac surgery in Alexius was finally underway. The boy lay in his sickbed under a white quilt, as usual. The tsarina sat in the observer’s booth. Nicholas had declined to attend.

Dr. Ostrokov sat in the telemetry chair, sweating like a pig. Two interns sat at banks of consoles and watched the boy’s vital signs wriggle across oscilloscope screens.

Inside Alexius, Pod and Ostrokov had become indistinguishable. He was living in an undersea cavern within the chest of a giant.

The three Gaffers had lowered the polyprotonol valve into position above the faulty valve of flesh. The three Cutters had completed their oval incision through the transverse septum. They had severed the final muscle fibrils and cauterized the last arteriole with their laser lamps. Now the Cutters were stationed in nooks they’d carved for themselves in the valve tissue, holding the valve in place, ready to release it.

When they let go, the diastolic blood surge would flush the leaky valve into the ventricle, with the Cutters inside it. The Gaffers would lower the artificial valve and glue it into place. Down in the ventricle, the Cutters would anchor the excised valve and slice it into bits for the lymphocytes to gobble. Then Pod would declare the operation a success.

Pod waited and listened. The systole thundered on. The plasma turbulence boiling up from the incision shook the Gaffers on their stovepipe legs. The turbulence tugged at the white saucer in the Gaffers’ pincers. The valve cusps sprang open.

Pod tight-beamed the Cutters: “Do it!”

The rushing of the blood tide was a keening banshee to his sonar. He pressed himself tight against Anchorlegs’s back. The Cutters retracted their arms. The flesh valve dropped away and left a gaping hole in the septum. The Gaffers swayed on their tripods in the whirling blood maelstrom. Pod spoke to the Gaffers: “Lower away.”

The Gaffers lowered the white oval toward the rim of the chasm. As the gap narrowed, the plasma suction got meaner and more erratic.

“Keep it level. Hold back, Number Three. Resume now, Three. Steady on. Almost there. Three, you’re off-center. Widen your tripod. That’s better.”

An awful black blob of congealed blood, microns across, careened from the vena cava. A clinging mass of jelly buried Gaffer Three. A direct hit.

A clot, thought Pod. This is all we need.

“Don’t move!” Pod called out to G-3. “Hold onto the valve! Maintain your footing. Nobody move. I’m coming. I’ll dig you out.”

Pod climbed down the side of Anchorlegs and scurried awkwardly toward G-3 across the wall of the auricle, on his six match-stick legs. Too late. The clot was bigger than G-3, and the drag of its surface area was too much for Three’s suction feet. Three lurched forward, crashed against the valve, and was swept down the hole.

“Let go!” Pod screamed at Three as it disappeared. “Let go of the valve!”

No use. Three was down in the ventricle. It hung from the rim of the valve, swinging wildly on its twisted arm.

“Help!” it bleated.

G-1 and G-2 lost control of the valve. Three’s pincer dragged it sideways into the hole. It jammed there, gouging trenches into the carefully excavated septum, mangling the hemophiliac tissue. Pod crept as near as he dared to the brink of the incision.

“Let go!” he called down the hole. No use. Surely the tsarevich would die.

But maybe not. What if Pod cut Three’s arm from its pincer? Pod could see the pincer stubbornly clinging to the saucer. Pod’s clipper was strong enough to sever the joint. But could he reach that far over the rim of the hole?

Pod was a cumbersome top-heavy thing, like a fat black tick. But if he moved his suction cups right up to the edge…if he unfolded all six sections of his clipper armature…if he could just keep his footing long enough…

Pod’s feet began to slide. The wound swallowed him.

As he tumbled into the ventricle, he grabbed Three’s arm. The drag of the two robots pulled the valve even deeper into the two bleeding ruts in the boy’s heart.

But only for a moment. Pod applied his clipper to the nearest arm joint and snapped it. Three went spinning toward the semilunar valve and the pulmonary artery beyond. Pod tumbled after Three.

The artery forked and forked again. Pod lost wireless contact with his team, as he was carried out of range of Anchorlegs’s relay station. Back at the surgical site, G-1 and G-2 were on their own. Pod had a more immediate problem.

His location sensor put him in a secondary pulmonary now. If he couldn’t snag the endothelium soon, he’d wind up blocking an arteriole. Either way, he was out of the action. He’d have to wait for the autopsy team to retrieve him.

Just then he sailed past G-3. It was jammed headfirst into the arterial tunica, kicking its suction cups, with its broken arm trailing down the artery and flapping in the current. This was Pod’s chance. He grappled onto Three’s arm again. It held him in place like a rappelling rope, as the rapids rushed past him. Pod anchored himself to the vessel and sighed with relief.

Then there was nothing left to do but wait. Pod shut down his radar and tested his battery. It was low. But his resonator was still pulling ultrasound from the hummer in the tsarevich’s bed. So in time his battery would recharge. He scanned the radio bands and tuned in the voice of a human. The human was announcing the war news at a rate of roughly one word per second. Meaningless. Incomprehensible. As for Alexius, the prognosis was grim. The procedure had blown up in their faces. Well, these things happened.

 

A kilometer north along the tracks, Mikhail Bakunin watched the train’s approach through his binoculars. He was crouching in his camouflaged trench, where he’d have a good view of the detonations.

He shoved down a plunger handle. A hundred meters ahead of the locomotive, the bedrock under the track ballast exploded into a flurry of dust and rubble.

Ivan Klosparik braced himself and yanked up on the red rubber handle of the brake lever. As the lever lodged in its safety bracket, brake shoes shrieked against the spinning of flanged wheels. The train slowed to a crawl and stopped. The blast crater and twisted rails were still twenty meters distant from the engine’s cowcatcher. Ivan crossed himself.

 

In the surgical cabin, the helmet-accelerated Dr. Ostrokov roused himself from his telemetry trance just long enough to kick a foot pedal. He visualized Anchorlegs. It hadn’t any arms, but its transmitter was stronger than Pod’s.

“Come in, Anchorlegs.”

A raspy baritone voice came on the channel. “Is that you, Dr. Ostrokov? Pod is gone.” Two more voices broke in. “What are we to do, Doctor?” “Yes, Doctor, what shall we do?”

“Stay calm. The bleeding is greater than anticipated, but you Gaffers have a lot of mono-foam in your tanks. We’ll drag the valve sideways, clear of the hole. Then we’ll slide it back into position. Later we’ll seal off the bleeding. The bleeding can wait. Stay calm. We can still make this work.”

Ten milliseconds later, the valve slid into its proper position. A hundred milliseconds after that, the bleeding was completely stanched.

“It’s like a miracle, Doctor.” “We really beat the odds, didn’t we?” “Doctor? Do you copy? Dr. Ostrokov? Do you read?”

“I’m still here,” said Ostrokov. “I think I’m here.”

Those were the last words he ever spoke. And no human heard them. Strapped in his chair, he began to quiver from head to toe. When the interns pulled him free, he went into a grand mal epileptic seizure on the floor of the surgical cabin. He died of suffocation. He had swallowed his tongue.

 

Ivan hung his upper body out of the engine and glared at the track that lay behind the train. Back at the control box, he shifted the drive chain into reverse and pulled down the brake lever. The flywheels engaged their rods, and the train rolled backward.

Bakunin depressed another plunger. A second charge detonated behind the train. Ivan slammed on the brakes again. The train squealed to a halt, trapped like a rat. The wind howled down the mountain pass.

Ivan had expected the second explosion. Now he waited for the assault. The traitors must be planning to take the tsar alive. Otherwise they’d have simply derailed the train. But Ivan wasn’t the tsar, so he’d soon be dead. It was a misfortune for Ivan, and a sad thing for his wife. But if duty required that he die, he’d go down fighting.

A bullet whizzed past the roof of the locomotive. Then came the distant report of a rifle from the high ground to the east. Ivan sat down on the iron grate of the cab’s floor. His stoker jumped into the cab from the coal car and hunkered down beside him. Ivan lit a cigarette for the two of them.

From atop the gunnery car, the forward turret gunner returned fire. Bakunin’s men responded with rifles from the east and the west. The plexithane bubble repelled the flying slugs, but as it did, it cracked. Now the riflemen would aim for the crack. This could go on all day. But then the night would fall.

 

Alexandra rushed into Alexius’s sickroom and knelt at the bedside of her comatose son, while bullets whistled past outside the coach. A line of blood ran down from the corner of the boy’s mouth. Alexandra pushed aside the oxygen tent and pressed her silken handkerchief to his jaw. With all the jolting of the train, Alexius had bitten his tongue. Why had the train stopped? And why all the gunfire? Some sort of a drill?

Alexandra turned to the window of the surgical cabin. The intern at the bank of monitors was shouting in a strangulated voice. Where was Jacob? Soldiers were running through the passageway.

A rifle slug tore through the car, shattering two windows. Alexandra threw herself across her son, as if her body could shield him. Icy mountain air flooded the sickroom. The return fire from the two Gatling guns was deafening. The tsarina gathered the boy’s quilt around him and lifted him from the bed. She dragged him to a corner of the car and sat on the floor, holding him on her lap.

The interns shot a syringe of barbiturate into Ostrokov’s corpse. Above their heads, the boots of one of Bakunin’s men hammered on the roof of the coach. The man charged the rear gun turret. A hail of bullets sent him skidding in the opposite direction. His body fell with a dull thump onto a coupling.

More attackers appeared from behind boulders and rushed at the train down slopes of loose scree. The tsar’s soldiers ran to and fro along the roofs of the train, repelling boarders with their sidearms. The anarchists’ punctured bodies littered the stones, in serf’s tunics and ragged boots, bleeding to death.

Ivan Klosparik had killed a few of them with his pistol. Now the coal shoveler was dead, shot through the belly and hanging in Ivan’s arms like a sack of potatoes. A puddle of blood edged up against the firebox and hissed.

The situation was hopeless. Ivan was next. The master computer in Petrograd must have fallen asleep. It would probably deploy half the armored might of Russia. But too late to save Nicholas. Too late to save Ivan. So much for the infallibility of the IIE.

 

All across Latviya, the teletypes were chattering. From Pskov to Ludoni, from Luga to Vyra, word of the emergency was relayed.

Under Petrograd, the IIE watched in horror and could hardly believe what it saw. It saw the interns as they tried to resuscitate the dead doctor. It saw the tsarina clutching her son in a corner of the sickroom. It looked down the barrels of the Gatling guns and watched the anarchists as they fell, clutching their riddled guts.

How could this be happening? The IIE’s 665th vesicle had been specifically assigned to track surveillance. Why hadn’t it alerted the other vesicles? And why had it erased itself? What madness had possessed it?

The IIE no longer felt sad or weary. Now it was furious. But how could it intervene? Bakunin had outmaneuvered it. He’d caught the train far from reinforcements. The nearest town was Vishniy, more than ten kilometers away. What was available in Vishniy? The IIE speed-scanned its vehicular lists. A fire engine, a tractor for snow removal, and a hand-pumped railroad maintenance wagon. Useless.

All that the IIE could do was to launch a massive force of jet blimps and stilt tanks from the bases under the Neva River delta. Equally useless. But the IIE transmitted the orders anyway.

It could only hope that Bakunin would delay the tsar’s assassination. Either way, the IIE would lop off Bakunin’s hands, douse him with gasoline, and roast him in a public square. And after the socialist beast’s claws were pulled, the IIE would go after its head, Vladimir Lenin, and crush his skull in a vice.

The scramble orders flew from the obsidian egg, out through shielded cables to the control towers and command bunkers that ringed Petrograd. On the shore of the Gulf of Finland, scores of aircraft hangers cranked open their roofs. A fleet of hydrogen-propelled dirigibles rose into the sky and skimmed away, bearing south at full throttle.

Adding futility to overreaction, the IIE deployed an entire division of stilt tanks. From their garages on the banks of the Neva, the tanks galloped east. Their copper-plated hoofs thundered across the poorer districts of Petrograd, trampling flat the make-shift shelters in their path. A hundred strong, the tank pilots rode to the aid of their tsar.

The pilots formed a narrow phalanx on the plain outside the city. They wheeled to the south and rode their tanks along the railroad tracks that wound into the mountains. Their hoofs crushed rocks and flattened sections of the track as they raced to the tsar’s rescue. But too late, the IIE feared. Too late.

The IIE’s rage deflated. The stone egg moaned in its subterranean cavern. The shame of its failure was killing it. Perhaps Russians built their machines to fall apart. Perhaps the IIE itself was no different from some rusted-out tractor. Perhaps even the holy dynasty of the tsars was just a defective machine like all the others.

The IIE reviewed its channels of sensoria. Here was Nicholas in his study, trying to muster up some reaction. Here was Alexandra, slumped in her corner in shock, ignored by the soldiers as they rushed to and fro. Here was the tsarevich, slumped in her lap, his head against her breasts. Starvation statistics. Troop placements. The trans-uranium bomb project. Loyalty files of E. Dunleavy and A. Leonova. Various committee reports.

The Second Sub-Committee For the Evaluation of Budgeting Considerations Connected With the Kiev Municipal Sewer Question was called to order by the Chair. Role was taken, and a quorum was confirmed. The minutes of the last meeting were read and approved by a voice vote.

There was nothing to hold the IIE’s interest. Just the usual litany of disasters.

 

Sitting at her desk, directly above the obsidian egg, watched constantly by her pen holder, Anya Linkroda knew exactly why Vesicle 665 had betrayed the IIE and then destroyed itself.

The IIE’s primary logic circuits were immune to any cyber-infection, but not to Anya’s mind. Anya’s mind could play all sorts of games with the Entelechy’s sanity and could cover its tracks all the while. The IIE had no defense against psychic attack from such a strong sender as Anya.

And it had no reason to suspect that Anya was a sender. No senders were allowed near the data complex. But Anya’s father had schooled her from infancy to conceal her gift. She had been registered with the secret police as a passive psychic, a specialist in clairvoyance and premonition.

So no one knew who was secretly driving the IIE toward suicide. No one, that is, besides her father and Bakunin. And the IIE was deteriorating fast. She could feel it collapsing from within. Anya had accomplished her task. Think of it. Drab unassuming punctilious little Anya Tamarova. Bakunin would be pleased with her.

 

The IIE stared at the blank face of the comatose Alexius. The boy sprawled like a pale marble statue across his mother’s lap. Nothing in the image moved or changed. Crescendos of boredom swept over the IIE, but some perversity in it prevented it from turning aside. Nothing was happening. The IIE felt that it was driving itself insane.

It was unfortunate for the IIE that it couldn’t perceive entities of the Other World, the way Anya could. If its cameras could have seen into the noosphere, it would have witnessed the lively conversation that overlaid the unmoving tableau of mother and child. It would have seen Baba Yaga the Witch standing beside the tsarina — Baba Yaga, the whiskery crone who bakes children in her oven for meat pies. It would also have seen a little green man in a three-piece suit who was sitting with his legs crossed, on top of Alexius’s chest.

 

Baba Yaga was all smiles today. She was chatting with her pet eshmahkie, Mr. Gogol. She felt happy because she was anticipating a fine big dinner — a dinner of massive proportions.

“Let’s eat him now,” Baba Yaga suggested. “Why not? You can have the liver. I’ll be gobbling down that tender young heart. And spitting out the plastic. Come on! Let’s. It will take Alexandra’s mind off her troubles.”

“Soon,” crooned the eshmahkie. “Wait for nightfall. You’ll have more than you can eat at one sitting.”

“Impossible,” snapped Baba Yaga, licking her chops.

“I’m right, and you know it,” said Mr. Gogol. “Nicholas wants to convene the Last Meeting. Only the Irishman can stop it. And he won’t. He’s too curious to see what his precious bomb will do.”

“I want to eat the boy,” Baba Yaga insisted. “Right now! And a bite of his mama’s pretty tits. I want to eat all of them. I don’t even care if I throw up.”

“Soon,” sang the eshmahkie. “Very soon.”

 

Not far away, Nicholas sat on a Persian rug with his back against a mahogany chair. He was speaking by wireless directly to the IIE. He was shouting into the microphone, which disrupted the clarity of the transmission. But the IIE heard and understood.

The nuclear bomb was to be launched immediately into the stratosphere over the Urals and detonated. Only the new bomb could demonstrate to the insurrectionists that Nicholas was still the autocrat of Russia, and that he would preserve his holy dynasty by any means necessary.

“These treacherous scum must be shown the facts in large print. The sight of a nuclear fireball will teach them to tremble before me. And the Huns as well! They’ll see it too!”

The IIE’s primary vesicle said Yes Sir and Of Course Sir and I Understand Sir. Meanwhile its fifth vesicle radiophoned the switchboard of the secret installation at Cherblinsk. The switchboard patched V-Five through to General Bulgakov, who received his orders like a soldier and rang off.

Bulgakov phoned the dacha which served as quarters for Dr. Dunleavy. The dacha switched the call to a cellular handset in Dunleavy’s steam auto. Dunleavy answered on the second buzz.

“Dunleavy, this is Bulgakov. Come to the control tower at once. The tsar has ordered the launching of a trans-uranium missile.”

“But we haven’t — ”

“I know all that, Doctor. Meet me at the tower. Immediately.

Dunleavy turned his auto around. His heart was pounding. Instead of following his orders, he stalled for time by driving to the airfield. He needed to make a personal inspection of the missile before it went up. He would only be delayed a few minutes. Then he’d proceed to the control tower and count down the launch.

The missile called Oven was being moved to its firing pad by a carrier module. The carrier looked like a gray metal tarantula laboring along with a silver tower on its back. Oven was the tower, and its minaret was the experimental bomb. The other nine nuclear missiles were peeking from slots in their silos. Dunleavy climbed from his auto and approached the ferro-concrete pad of the launch dish. He squinted up at Oven and shouted into the wind.

“Oven! Are you ready for this?”

“Am being as ready as ever will,” Oven called down in its bad Russian. “About the hydrogen not to worry, Doctor. Entire atmosphere to ignite is the chemically impossible. No problem!”

Dunleavy turned back to his auto. He hoped that Oven was right. If not, the tsar was to blame. Dunleavy had warned him.

As Dunleavy was climbing into his auto, a prison wagon sped across the asphalt of the airfield and parked nearby. Citizen Taka, chief of security for the base, climbed from the cab with two of his goons. Dunleavy and Taka cordially detested one another. The Asian saluted the Irishman, then addressed him.

“I saw your auto, and I thought that I might ask you a question. We have captured a saboteur who was attempting to cut her way through the electrical fence. According to our records, she seems to be an acquaintance of yours. Perhaps you can identify her. Would you mind having a look?”

“I’m pressed for time,” Dunleavy answered. “If the woman is a spy, then kill her. I have to go.”

One of the goons dragged Astra Leonova from the back of the van. Her hair was stiff with blood. Her dress was soaked, as if they’d hauled her from a river. She faced Dunleavy and met his eyes.

His heart went out to her. But Astra had loved her crazy politics more than him. And Dunleavy had loved particle physics more than life itself. So they had gone their separate ways. And here she stood, on a wind-swept airfield, today of all days. Evan hardened his heart and started his auto.

“I don’t know her,” he told Citizen Taka. “Never saw her before.”

At that moment alarm sirens wailed from the four corners of the launch site.

“Am about this terribly sorry,” shouted Oven. “But have received overriding ignition an order. Must go now.”

The jet stream from the rocket engines burned Astra and the four men to ashes and melted their vehicles to slag.

The launch trajectory was perfect.

In the Other World, Baba Yaga cackled, and Mr. Gogol played his flute.

 

Ivan Klosparik sat against one wall of his engine cab. Dread lay heavy on his heart. Wave after wave of Bakuninists were assaulting the train. The sky was growing dark.

Ivan saw two black boots standing beside him. He looked up, not even trying to raise his pistol. Mikhail Bakunin was in the cab with him. Bakunin aimed his sidearm and blew off the top of Ivan’s skull. Klosparik slumped onto his side on the iron grate.

Bakunin turned and walked toward the coal car. His men had secured the gunnery car. In the barracks car, they’d piled the bodies of the soldiers like coats piled in a closet. Bakunin crossed coupling after coupling and kicked open door after door, ignoring the respectful nods from his men.

At last he came to the sickroom. There he found Nicholas and two more of the royal family under guard. Nicholas turned on Bakunin, shouting in tones of outrage, although his voice shook with fear.

“You have no right!” he declaimed. “I am the tsar!”

“So much the worse for you.”

Bakunin stuck his gun barrel under the tsar’s nose and blew Nicholas’s brains out. Blood and brains spattered Alexandra and her son like a light summer rain. Mikhail bowed to the tsarina with mock solemnity.

Two of his men laughed. Alexandra spat on the floor.

 

The top of Ivan Klosparik’s skull was shot away. But Klosparik was made of sturdy peasant stuff. He refused to die. He thought that he wouldn’t bleed so much, if he could manage to stand up. This made no sense, but Ivan chose to believe it anyway.

His hands clawed at the slick steel of the control box. One hand found the brake level and dragged it down. Ivan hung from the lever and tried to haul himself to his feet. His arms trembled. Then the life went out of him, and he fell in a heap. As he lay dead, the train began to roll slowly forward.

Bakunin felt the coach sliding under his boots. He ran from the sickroom. His men snatched up their rifles and hurried after him. Alexandra held perfectly still.

Alexius turned his head and focused his eyes on the face of his mother.

“Mama?” he said. “Mama? Did they fix my heart?”

Then he couldn’t make out her face anymore. A strange white light was shining into the car through the smashed windows, and even through the windows that were painted black. It was brighter than any light Alexius had ever seen.

The coach lurched. Alexandra held Alexius tight against her chest. Beneath her, metal wheels were screeching against the tracks.

The train picked up a little speed, just as the fail-safe brakes were activating. The locomotive came to the bomb crater and derailed. The coal car pushed it off the embankment. It slid down the side of the gorge, dragging the rest of the train behind it. Bending steel groaned like the end of the world. Shouting anarchists jumped from the couplings. The clinic coach, servant’s car, scullery car, generator car, and caboose went snaking down the side of the gorge.

At the bottom of the gorge, Ivan’s locomotive splayed sideways across a granite outcrop. The boiler blew. Bearing shoes, frame trunnions, draw-bar pins, sand pipes, throttle racks, reach sockets, and wash-out plugs went hurtling in all directions.

A strange white light breathed gently on the falling train. The steel glowed as red as burning coals. The light breathed gently on the corpse of the tsar, and on the sick boy and his mother, and on Bakunin and his men. It blew them all into a fine red mist.

 

After the mountains came Petrograd. Like a magical wind from the heart of the sun, the strange light transformed the city into a tornado of whirling wood splinters and glass flecks.

Anya Linkroda stood up from her chair. She felt as if an electric shock had gone through her. Petrograd was burning out there. Some of the psychics around her were weeping. Bakunin hadn’t warned her about anything like this.

The flesh evaporated from Anya’s bones. As her bones became a spray of ashes, the IIE suddenly realized how cruelly she had played with it. Then it felt its coolant systems failing. The great black egg was dying. Dying felt pleasant. This must be how humans felt as they fell asleep.

 

In Moskva, in a cellar under the Kremlin, Officer Linkroda was torturing Operative Gorodni, using a samovar of scalding coffee, a screwdriver, and pliers. Linkroda was hoping to extract information concerning the mysterious Citizen Tridd. Gorodni’s hands were held by two carpenter’s vices, and Linkroda was working feverishly on his scalp with the jaws of the pliers.

“Where do they keep Tridd?” Linkroda demanded.

Gorodni couldn’t stop laughing. Tridd was certainly a convincing tale. And this was Gorodni’s reward. He had lied too convincingly.

As Gorodni’s mind struggled to tear itself away from the pain, it showed Gorodni a vision of poor Tridd. Tridd’s skull loomed in its scaffolding, bigger than a whale. Tridd’s shriveled body hung from one side of it like a pale ugly grub inside a test tube.

A vibrant white light pierced the windowless cellar. Linkroda dropped his pliers.

Gorodni kept his mind on the pale grub with Tridd’s face. It writhed in agony, lashing itself to and fro, faster and faster. It smashed its plexithane cylinder to pieces against the skull and sent the pieces flying. It twisted loose from the skull and fell free. But it never hit the floor.

Linkroda and Gorodni rode away from the Moskva Kremlin, on the back of a crimson wind.

 

The hydrogen in the stratosphere above Russia caught fire. It roasted Mother Russia alive. A crackling concrescence of hydrogen and oxygen towered over Eurasia like the Firebird of legend. Then the blaze spread. It burned down Germany and Greece and Arabia and Mongolia. It burned down India and Burma and China and Japan.

The oceans hydrolyzed, releasing more hydrogen and more oxygen, to fuel the rising flames. The elements of water and air conspired with the solar fire, to roast all Earthly flesh.

Tides of red mist swept the globe and bled into the vacuum. Earth turned as black as a cinder and as dead as her moon. Tiny robots tumbled in the currents of combustion, wondering what could possibly have gone wrong. Scarlet winds blew through the filing cabinets of the Kremlin. All of the dossiers crumbled to ashes. Human history ended, that day in March of 1917.

Perhaps in an age yet to come, the great-great-grandchildren of Pod and Anchorlegs would tell their children long involved fairy tales about the mighty tsar Nicholas and the clever Citizen Tridd. Or about the romance between Dr. Dunleavy and Astra Leonova. But the humans had told their final story. The tsar had resigned.

 

Now the stars of the heavens are falling to earth like snow. Baba Yaga and Mr. Gogol are dancing a minuet amidst the fireworks.

Jesus and his younger brother, Lucifer, stand atop the embers of the planetary bonfire. They embrace in tears. They begin to dance a waltz.

My story has ended. There are no more engineers or tsarinas. No more spies or physicists. No more heart surgeons or hemophiliacs or bears or ballerinas. There’s no one left to tell lies about.

In a matter of minutes, hydrogen and oxygen have concluded their final meeting.


“Minutes of the Last Meeting” has been printed twice, first in Leviathan 2 in 1998, then in Stepan Chapman’s story collection Dossier in 2001.

Copyright © 1998 by Stepan Chapman.