Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Another New Chapter - Moskau by G. Zotov

Chapter Four. The Trigger Agent

Keiser movie theater, 1923 Revolution St.

Pavel's RV took the seat to the left of him, as previously arranged. He fidgeted in his place, laying a trayful of popcorn and two paper cups of Coca Cola in his lap. Even the United States’ defeat in the war with Japan had failed to diminish the drink’s popularity.
“H-h-hi,” he whispered, stuttering, without turning his head.
“Hi,” Pavel replied. “Thanks for coming. Long time no see. This calls for a drink.”
The other man studied the dark theater and grinned. They sat in the back row: the “kissing seats”. The house was nearly empty. The feature hadn’t yet started. Pre-trailers and commercials ran non-stop: predictably Japanese, like the one for Godzilla yogurt. The air conditioning wasn’t working. The air smelled of dust and sweaty human bodies.
“W-h-hat would you l-l-like, a sch-sch-schnapps?”
“Oh, do me a favor. Bad enough that all these idiots drink coffee these days instead of tea. As if that would turn them into Germans. Pour me some pepper vodka, would you? I know you always have some on you.”
The other man bared his teeth in a grin. He set his tray onto the empty seat next to his and reached behind his jacket collar, feeling for a flask.
Pavel couldn’t help thinking that this was the first time he was seeing him in plain clothes. Obersturmführer Jean-Pierre Carpe from the special Gestapo science division seemed never to shed his blue lab coat. Admittedly, a scientist’s attire didn’t suit him. Burly with a shaven head and huge fists, he rather resembled a comic-book monster out of the Universum Film flicks. What else could have been born out of a liaison between a Ukrainian peasant girl and an officer of the French SS division Charlemagne? The result was truly explosive.
Looking at him, Pavel couldn't help thinking of a banned book he'd read as a child: about some guy called Gulliver, a clumsy but good-natured giant. Back at school, they used to read hand-written copies of it under their desks, choking with laughter, while the teacher was looking the other way. Not so long ago, the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Education had released a new version of the book and made it into a movie. The main character had received a new name: Arnold, after some guy called Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian butcher who'd risen to fame having starred in three films by cult director Leni Riefenstahl, including her Triumph of the Will: The Sequel. Polls showed that 70% of the population wanted to see Arnold as the new Führer. The new motion picture Arnold's Travels became a mega box office hit the moment it had been released.
Pavel took a swig from the helpfully offered paper cup. The pepper vodka scorched his palate.
“W-w-what do you want t-to know?” Jean-Pierre hunched over the flask. “Thi-thi-this is weird. They p-pulled you out of Hong Kong w-w-without telling you anything. V-v-very st-range.”
Pavel paused, waiting. The lights began to dim. The feature began.
“You think I don’t know it’s weird?” he said calmly. “I had an excellent deal going. I was about to meet the local yakuza boss. And just as I was going to give my contact a ring, I receive a message to my e-funk. A minute later, I was emailed an economy class ticket for a Moscow flight. What was I supposed to do? I took a taxi and went directly to the airport. All I know is that the Gestapo want to show me a picture of some sort. Not a photo: a drawing. A portrait. They didn’t even bother to say whether it was of a man or a woman. They want me to locate that person.”
He took a large gulp of his drink. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never had such a ludicrous job in my life. But the money they offered... you can buy the moon with it. Or the sun. Or the earth, even. Money’s no object. And the main thing is, once I've completed the job, they've promised never to bother me again. You know what’s funny about it? I still haven’t seen the picture. Still waiting for my clearance. I haven’t been back in the Reich for quite a while. Their bureaucracy has only gotten worse. The Gestapo is inundated by its paperwork. Very soon they’ll make you fill in a form every time you want to take a dump.”
Jean-Pierre took a large swig of his drink and began crunching on popcorn. “You kn-n-now, don’t you, that we’ve n-n-never had th-th-this conversation.”
“Absolutely. I’ve never seen you. I’ve no idea who you are. These seats are sure to be bugged. The office might have tabs on this place, anyway. But I don’t think it’s got anything to do with us. I’m pretty sure that the Gestapo are just as clueless about the person in the picture as I am. Otherwise they wouldn’t have needed to get the Triumvirate to issue the order."
“The Tri-tri-triumvirate was only re-re-recently p-p-put in the picture,” Jean-Pierre pointed out. “Our d-d-department received the research material two years ago f-f-from the Main Security Office. That was wh-wh-when the v-v-very first cases began to occur. But a month ago they conducted an ex... experiment near Novgorod. Wanna know what h-h-happened? Three lab workers ended up in a m-m-mental fa... facility. One more d-d-disappeared into th-th-thin air. I th-thought it just couldn’t get any w-w-worse. But t-t-trust me, the w-w-worst is ye-ye-yet to come.”
He stopped, then launched the remaining vodka down his throat. “That's better,” he said in a clear voice without a trace of stuttering. “You can’t imagine how many times I went to the speech therapist. But this is the only thing that helps. And you have to agree I can't drink vodka four times a day at work."
“Why not? Oh yeah, I see. Your French blood won’t take it.”
The Obersturmführer ignored the quip. They’d been friends long enough — ever since their Berlin days where both had been part of the MG Project — to indulge in occasional familiarity. It was during that experiment that Carpe had begun to stutter.
The theater’s sound system assaulted their ears with rousing music.
“I’d venture a guess that the contamination might have started earlier. Probably, right after the end of the Twenty-Year War,” Jean-Pierre crunched on the last of his popcorn. “The Moskau office had no idea. The local Kommandaturs... they must have ignored the phenomenon at first. And once they couldn’t do so any longer, they did their level best to keep it under wraps. You know what they’re like in Russland: hoping that if you pretend there is no problem, it’ll just sort of go away by itself. Well, it didn’t. The phenomenon became more and more widespread. Concealing it became dangerous. The Main Security Office began receiving the first classified reports. They got the Gestapo involved who put together a secret research group to look into it. They enrolled me — as much as my clearance allowed. This was something, I tell you...”
“Wait,” Pavel whispered. “What contamination are you talking about?”
“That’s exactly what I’m going to tell you now. Point by point."
Groping couples in the darkness paid no attention to the two alcoholics boozing in the back row. Moskau’s government encouraged a healthy lifestyle. The city was hung with Aryans Don’t Drink in the Morning posters (featuring the omnipresent Schwarzenegger). That only applied to hard alcohol, though. Beer had been proclaimed part of the national heritage and a symbol of the 1923 Revolution[i] and received the status of “Aryan nectar”. Smoking too had been banned.[ii] SS patrols from the Health Service checked all nacht clubs and fined them a thousand reichsmarks for every cigarette they found. They'd tried to ban alcohol too in the 1980s during the Twenty-Year War. Initially, the Triumvirate demanded a mandatory death sentence for both the sale and consumption of schnapps. Twenty-four hours later, the order had been revoked. Someone must have explained to them that they couldn’t just sentence virtually all of the country’s population to death.
The theater screen rattled with advancing tanks.
The Reich Union loved making war films: trench dramas, comedies like The Good Soldier Ivan and epic battle scenes. Nobody cared about their box office performance: patriotic propaganda was key. If one wanted to lay his or her greedy mitts on a wagonful of dough, all one had to do was submit a query to the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Education and pitch to them their idea for yet another movie about the Great Battle.
Hundreds of such half-baked flicks had come out even though no one really bothered to watch them. As an example, The Sea Lion — a film about the Wehrmacht’s successful invasion of Britain on May 11 1942 — had been shot in two parts and cost fifty million yen. Its entire audience consisted of five hundred: the director, the acting crew and all their numerous relatives. Filmmakers could get away with all sorts of goofs which were fobbed off as the “author’s vision”. And if one of the Völkischer Beobachter venom-spitting critics dared to question the merits of the dubious masterpiece, Shogunet trolls would start a rumor that the critic was in fact a Mischling: a half-breed unable to appreciate the Aryan film creator’s artistic bent.
Pavel, however, wasn’t interested in the movie in the slightest. He was too busy listening.
Very busy.
A couple of times the left corner of his mouth twitched. Those who’d known him for a long time might have realized he was quite agitated. He reached for a handkerchief and began to mechanically wipe the paper cup clean.
“Are you sure?” he touched Jean-Pierre’s arm, stopping his soliloquy. An admittedly inane question, but he had no one else to ask.
Carpe gave a calm nod. “Absolutely. Otherwise they wouldn’t have summoned you. We’ve wasted a lot of time looking for the source of all the problems but now we think we've located it. We've set up a radioelectronic trap at the testing grounds near Novgorod. It registered an unclear reddish outline on their radars. Survivors offer confused accounts but they’ve managed to approach it within arm’s reach. This unidentified object seemed to exude inordinate amounts of energy. It was almost leaking radiation. Which leads our experts to conclude that this object must have triggered the contamination."
He turned to Pavel. "That’s why the Triumvirate has summoned you to solve the problem. They don’t know what it is. Whether it’s a god, a ghost or a human being — we need to get to the root of this evil. I dread to think what might happen if this lasts for another six months or so. Are they going to show you the drawing? This is excellent. I’ve never seen it myself. I’m waiting already a month for the proper clearance, pushing pencils in the meantime. You’re right: the Gestapo has gone paper mad."
Pavel produced his e-funk and marked something down in its Notebook. “This is crazy,” he admitted. “For a moment I thought it might be the entire Gestapo staff gone loony, and not those three researcher idiots in the mental facility.”
Jean-Pierre grinned. “That’s what I thought at first. Before I saw it with my own eyes. You’ve no idea. N-n-never mi-mi-mind.”
His stutter was back just as abruptly as it had left him.
“If you say so,” Pavel agreed. “In any case, I’m going to talk to one of the eyewitnesses. Thankfully, my rank still allows me to do that. The drawing is all good and well but I’d like to hear the description of this so-called ghost straight from the horse’s mouth. And I want to do it before the Triumvirate and the Security chief approve my clearance. When I’m back at the hotel, I’ll email the Gestapo. Then I’ll sleep through the night. The gods know I need it.”
“Th-th-thanks for t-t-taking the precautions,” Jean-Pierre whispered. “There’s no one h-h-here who can re... recognize you.”
Without saying goodbye or waiting till the feature was over, he rose and walked out first, using his phone’s screen to light the way. The theater door slammed. Pavel cast a sad glance at his watch.

A corpulent Unteroffizier usheress — an old-age Russian babushka complete with floral headscarf — watched Jean-Pierre disinterestedly as he walked out. Normal, she thought. Not many moviegoers can sit through a war epic.
When Pavel followed, she turned pale and brought a hand to her mouth, but couldn’t produce a sound. She felt a sudden urge to do something she hadn’t done for many years — something she couldn’t even remember how to do.
She wanted to make the sign of the cross.

[i] By “the 1923 Revolution” the narrator means the Beer Hall Putsch — a Nazi coup attempt in Bavaria in 1923.

[ii] The Third Reich is considered the first country in the world that began a government-supported anti-smoking campaign.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Another New Chapter - Moskau (Alternative History thriller) by G. Zotov

Chapter Three

The Odin Temple
(Aryan St., 46 opposite the Kommandatur)

I had to leave the car at a remote parking lot. Even though I have the clearance, no one’s allowed to park their cars by the walls of the Kommandatur. The place is wallowing in paranoia, they see terrorists everywhere.
I receive a token made of hard cardboard and head for the turnpike. A fat bespectacled middle-aged guy in a brown uniform with an Obergefreiter lapel badges is manning the booth by the barrier. His tongue hanging out from the effort, he’s studying a fresh issue of Völkischer Beobachter plastered with glossy pictures of scantily clad girls. That’s crisis for you. The party press was obliged to adopt the tabloid format in order to survive in the free market.
I knock at the glass of the booth. We've known each other for ages.
“Heiley heil,” he mumbles unceremoniously, turning a page.
I wave a greeting. “Heil to you too.”
I know every inch of the Aryan Street which stretches from Berlin Station all the way up to the Reichstag. I can walk the whole length of it blindfolded. Its sidewalks are lined with the blackened skeletons of tanks fenced off with strap barriers: a reminder of the street fighting of the Twenty-Year War. Half a dozen charred Tigers are grouped together opposite the Luftwaffe Heroes Boulevard like a small herd of droopy-trunked elephants. The walls of the state-of-the-art office buildings touch the rotting ruins of bombed-out houses. Apparently, in Bolshevik times there used to be a monument to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin here. He’s long been removed both from the square and from the school curriculum. He was of African descent, wasn’t he?
Actually, the Ministry of Education did a great job. They banned Tchaikovsky’s music — apparently, the composer was a closet homosexual. They destroyed some of the most popular old movies which had featured Jewish actors, no matter how minor the part.
The center of the boulevard gapes with black holes edged with fire-licked scabs. These are bonfire sites. On weekends, the Aryan Street becomes a scene of multiple book burnings. They confiscate books from the Schwarzkopfs, like they used to do at the Opernplatz in Berlin. The books by Herbert Wells, Vladimir Mayakovski and Jaroslav Hašek squirm as they reduce to ashes.
When I was still a young Führerjugend activist, I brought here a copy of The Three Musketeers that the school janitor had been hiding in his cubicle. I threw it in the fire. Its author Alexander Dumas wasn’t Aryan. There was African blood in his veins too. Have you heard this ripping noise made by burning paper? It sounds like a heart being ripped apart.
In place of the old Pushkin monument, they’ve got Nietzsche standing now. At first, lots of people confused him with Gorky (another banned author) because of his fat moustache. The Führer used to love Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Unfortunately, he didn’t know something that Nietzsche had said, “Germany is a great nation only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins.” Having said that, it’s probably all slander spread by the Shogunet forum trolls. Trust them to write all sorts of sick nonsense.
The government buildings on the Aryan Street are a sorry sight. Most of them are just copies of Berlin’s gloomy edifices. Take a look: the Moskau Ministry of Propaganda and Public Education, perfectly in keeping with Dr. Goebbels’ old office. Gray columns, colorful mosaics depicting young Aryan people flashing white smiles as they applaud National Socialism. A piercing wind invigorates the fluttering Reichskommissariat flags: the scarlet-red banners with a black eagle clenching a wreath of oak leaves. The swastika is long gone. Only souvenir vendors at the Richard Wagner pedestrian zone still sell merchandise featuring Die Hakenkreuz, the “angled cross”. The swastika on the flag was banned soon after the Twenty Year War. Regardless of how much everyone worships the Führer, not all of the Reichskommissariats were happy with his legacy, especially those where constant uprisings of the “Forest Brothers” were the norm.
Next, the dilapidated office of the Labor Front. A long time ago, this trade union organization used to be headed by Robert Ley. Reichsleiter Ley was killed in 1968 by some partisans during his visit to Kiev. They sent him a messenger pigeon carrying a miniature grenade.
A blood-curdling screech of car brakes shakes the air.
“Where do you think you’re going, you motherf- Or, sorry, Priest. My mistake.”
I was so busy staring at the Labor Front windows that I didn’t even notice myself stepping out into the traffic and very nearly being hit by a green Nissan. Nissan, what a funny name. One of those words you can’t help but tweak to make them sound more lewd, if you know what I mean. Nissan, pisspan, that sort of thing. Most of Moskau cars are Japanese. The Mercedes, Opels and Volkswagens are reserved for official missions. Their production just isn’t viable anymore. Even street buses are all Mitsubishis. I won’t even mention the Tokyo-imported pushbikes.
I flash him a benign smile. “It’s all right! Alles in ordnung!”
I didn’t even notice saying it. We use Germanic words and phrases mechanically. Nobody refers to an “ID card” anymore: it’s an ausweis. Russlanders soak up foreign words naturally, me being no exception. Still, I can only think in the local tongue.
I wipe my forehead. The sun is blazing.
Odin’s priests don’t have it easy. Sacrificial rites call for a special uniform: chainmail, a pair of fur-lined high boots, a wolf pelt thrown over your shoulders and a fifteen-pound ritual sword hanging from your belt. It does take some stamina, I tell you.
I can’t walk any faster but I’ve almost arrived at my destination. I walk past a Hashi sushi bar – hashi means chopsticks in Japanese — and there I am, entering Odin’s Temple.
If the truth were known, I’m not a hundred percent happy with my workplace. The building is far too large and ponderous, shaped as a medieval cave with a central grotto and several branching tunnels. Admittedly, it's quite comfortable. There's a hot water source inside: very convenient when one needs to clean blood from swords. By the entrance, there's a sculpture: Tyr the God laying his hand into the mouth of Fenrir the wolf. The year 1947 saw Norse mythology being adopted as the official religion of the Third Reich, in compliance with Reichsführer Himmler’s last will and testament[i]. No one was going to destroy the existing churches or cathedrals: their congregations were free to worship whoever they pleased. But what is the popularity-driving engine these days? Exactly. Publicity. Billions of reichsmarks were channeled into the promotion of new ideas. TV, radio, even the leading movie stars including the-then star Marika Rökk and the publicly repentant Marlene Dietrich. It worked. It took less than ten years for half the Reich’s population to reject their religions and start worshipping at the altars of Greater Germany. A sensation? Not at all. The entire history of humanity is proof of the fact that people find it very easy to denounce their religion, provided the publicity is right. The two thousand years of Christianity had left a bad taste in their mouths. The new version of the same old (or a remake, as they call it in the California Republic) was extremely timely. Everyone was already bored to death with the four riders of the Apocalypse. Now the story of Fenrir the wolf devouring the sun — that was fresh and original. After all, why shouldn’t religion be fun?
I use my magnet key to open the door and barge into the lobby, panting and sweating like a pig. Nobody inside. The black sacrificial goat bleats plaintively. Of course. Trust my assistants to go on vacation. This is Russland, after all. Even a nuclear war won’t stop them from retiring to their summer cottages.
A written prompt shaped as an axe hangs over the altar. I know it by heart:

Monday: Moon’s day
Tuesday: Tiu’s day
Wednesday: Woden’s day
Thursday: Thor’s day
Friday: Freya’s day
Saturday: Saturn’s day
Sunday: Sun’s day

Moskauers aren’t particularly attentive. They still use the old week names, out of habit. But an experienced priest like myself who was interned in Norway and Tibet can’t let his tongue slip.
I walk over to the goat. He stinks and tries to gore me with his horns. He has the right not to like me: he’ll be slaughtered soon.
My to-do list, the one in the altar box, renders me speechless. How am I supposed to find time for all this? The very first item on the list is a funeral. This isn’t what it used to be: do a bit of singing and incense-burning, bury the poor beggar, end of story. Oh, no. It’s not just having to load the stiffs onto disposable plywood Mitsubishi boats to be burned on the Moskva River. It’s the priests’ duty to cut the dead men’s nails! Oh yes. When Ragnarök — the world’s end — comes, the earth will disgorge Naglfar, the ship fashioned entirely from dead people’s nails. The ocean will freeze over and the ship will slide over the ice, taking an army of jötunns — mythical giants — to their last battle. To prevent Ragnarök from happening, dead people’s nails should be cut short: this way Naglfar can’t form, you see. My scissors are always here. What’s a quick manicure? Surely not a big deal.
You really think no one believes it?
Not the Schwarzkopfs, no. They’re either Bolshies or Orthodox Christians or just plain good pagans. But the rest... there’s no zealot like a convert, you know. You won’t believe the extent of it. Old ladies gossip on boulevard benches about the Goddess Angrboda: were her children begotten by Loki or by Thor? The mind boggles.
I walk over to the statue of Rübezahl, the forest sprite and the king of dwarves. A tiny, hunched old man with a large beard. I mustn’t forget to lay a bunch of mushrooms at his feet.
A new bout of pain pierces my head like a red-hot needle.
I clench my teeth. My fingers squeeze the head of a goat lying on the altar. Great gods...
The haze before my eyes refuses to dissolve. I gasp. My mouth fills with blood.
Darkness devours everything around me. Rübezahl explodes in a cascade of tiny little stars.

Vision One. The Black Skies

The wind screams. Icy cold, it reaches under my clothes, its skeletal fingers clenching my throat, constricting my movements. My eyelashes have frozen together. I sniffle, wary of opening my mouth. The wind’s not screaming anymore: it’s howling like a fatally wounded animal, making me colder still.
I scramble through the darkness. There’s not a single light here. The flashes of submachine gun fire slice through the pitch black night.
Human hands poke out of the ice. People stagger through the city, sinking knee deep into the snow. Not people: rambling shadows, lice-ridden, in filthy trench coats. There’s nothing human left about them. Their frost-burned cheeks are wrapped in women’s shawls, their boot legs are stuffed with rags against the cold. Some of them seek warmth by bonfires, wrapping bundles of blankets around themselves.
This is crazy. I turn a corner of a collapsed building. A group of soldiers is swarming around a dead horse. They’re delirious with starvation. One of them has crawled toward the horse’s head and is busy nibbling at its stiff frozen ear. Not a star in the sky. Its blackness merges with that of the earth. They’re one now. There’s not a single house around still intact. Nothing but ruins, their jagged walls like the tooth marks of a mysterious monster.
The earth begins to shake. The starving lunatics duck into the snow, choking on horse meat. An air raid. The howling of bombers adds to the screaming of the wind, growing into a symphony of the Apocalypse. Orange flashes rip through the darkness.
It’s everywhere here.
Each of us knows what they are going to feed on once all the horses are dead and all the cats have been trapped. We’ll feed on each other. Warmth and food: this is what these ragged people hunt for. A tin of canned meat goes for a gold signet ring. Only who might need it here?
Barbed wire-wound stakes are hung with frozen bodies. Nobody buries them. They’re just too many. Those still alive have gotten used to the dead men’s company. I see shell cases scattered amongst the collapsed brickwork. Tank crews are still alive inside their white machines but they have no gas left. The tanks turn their turrets this way and that, unable to move. They're dying like broken-legged mammoths.
I can see a deluded soldier rip his trench coat open baring his chest, yelling at an Oberleutnant. The soldier is young and drunk as a skunk. The Oberleutnant is older, his face covered with stubble, a bloodied bandage on his forehead. The shrapnel scar on his cheek is semicircular.
”Why did they send us here?” the soldier screams. “We’re all gonna die!”
Alcohol is never in short supply. Without it, all wars would have ended before they even started. Facing death is scary. Alcohol dissolves the panicky fear. Not for very long, but still.
He hurls his submachine gun at the Oberleutnant’s feet. His face is distorted.
“This isn’t my country! Let me go! I want to leave!”
The Oberleutnant shakes his head. His pale blue eyes reflect the falling snow. The soldier collapses into a deep drift and struggles to scramble back to his feet, then tries to crawl away.
The officer pulls his right hand out of his trench coat’s pocket. His hand looks so funny in a women’s fingerless mitten. His index and little fingers are black — apparently septic with frostbite.
He clenches the handle of his eight-round Walther and takes aim in the snowstorm, mumbling something through clenched teeth. The soldier has already made it to the trenches.
He fires.
The soldier drops on his back. The helmet flies off his head. His blond hair is covered in blood.
Immediately another shot resonates through the air: the heavy sound of a far-off rifle. An enemy sniper, shooting blindly. The officer’s muzzle flash had betrayed his position.
The Oberleutnant sinks to his knees, drops his Walther and lies down on his side as if to have a nap. It takes the snowstorm but a few seconds to bury the two new corpses.
How strange. Only a moment ago, two men were alive. And now they’re not. Every man who goes to war thinks he’s going to survive. Human history might have been completely war-free had we known that we were going to be killed. Yes, killed.
A new swarm of bombers dives. Explosions. More explosions. And yet more.
I rub my cheeks with snow. I don’t sense the cold. It's frostbite.
I know very well why I’m seeing it all. The dead cities. The dead bodies. The ice desert.
She makes me see it.

[i] In the real world, in 1943 the Reichsführer of the SS Heinrich Himmler prepared a plan to adopt Scandinavian mythology as the country’s official religion. The plan provided for the building of Viking temples as well as the execution of the Pope. However, he never proposed the plan to Hitler.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

New chapter - Moskau by G. Zotov (The Alternative History thriller)

Chapter Two

Moskau, Sakura Hotel
A sixth floor office, three hours later.

From a classified audio transcript,

“I’m highly disappointed in you, Itiro san,” a male voice said bitterly.
“And so am I, Onoda san. Allow me to write a poem on the subject, followed by my performing seppuku. I will be very careful in ripping my belly; I won’t soil the floors. I’ve brought a waterproof cloak and twenty feet of plastic film specifically for the purpose.”
“And what am I supposed to do with your body? Cut it into pieces and burn them in the fireplace? Thank you very much! As far as I know, you and your wife received two million yen for the job. The imperial Kommandatur in Hong Kong made sure you boarded the plane without being checked. No, don’t start. I’ve heard all your excuses. But somehow I doubt they’ll convince the others.”
A heavy sigh. “I understand. What am I looking at?”
“Nothing good, really. The Mikado Bank account where you placed the money has been frozen. Your family isn’t getting it until the job is complete. Excuse my being so blatant, Itiro san, but how much time have you got left until your meeting with Amaterasu, the solar goddess?”
The other voice paused. “About a week, according to the doctors. I appreciate your concern.”
An expiring cigarette hissed against the ashtray. “In this case, I have the displeasure to state that you have seven days to complete your mission. In any case, the government will pay for your funeral. Out of pure respect of your past services, Itiro san.”
“I do not deserve a single crumb of respect, Onoda san.”
“Excellent. In this case, try to retrieve it, as well as your money. This is the only way to secure adequate living standards for your children. I’ll make sure that you have everything you need this week, including reichsmarks. The reichsmark isn’t as stable as the yen, but at least you can use this Monopoly money all over Europe — both in Moskau and in the Reichskommissariats of Norway, Ukraine and Netherlands. Italy is the only country now not accepting the reichsmark. They prefer their hand-soiled liras. What a joke of a nation! They still exploit the bygone glory of Cesar's legions while in fact they struggled to conquer those barefoot Abyssinian savages. War just isn’t their thing. They should stay at home and eat spaghetti. All those weekly Hello Duce! TV shows! Romano Mussolini is just as eccentric as his father was. He’s eighty, for crissakes, and he’s prancing around like a college student. All that drunken sax playing of his at the Axis countries summit; his courting the ancient Sophie Loren... the man is a joke. You should rent an apartment by the day. Hotels are crawling with Gestapo agents. You know, don’t you, that this so-called empire of theirs is a rather loose structure? It’s not a single state but some sort of hostile competing Reichskommissariats. Even their capital is alternating. Last year it was Amsterdam. This year it’s Moskau.”
“I thank you, Onoda san. The diamonds of your thoughts enrich the poverty of my mind.”
A lighter clicked. “I swear by the Mikado, you won’t find it easy. Yes, you do speak a bit of Russisch, that was part of your profession... still, theory and practice aren’t the same thing. The Russlanders are a very peculiar nation. They’re terribly xenophobic — but they love all things foreign, especially with some well-targeted promotion. You know, don’t you, that Japanese food is extremely popular in Moskau? In less than ten years it has become a sensation."
The other man coughed. “Please accept my admiration for your work, Onoda san. I always found it strange that the Third Reich eats nothing but sushi, considering them a national Japanese dish and the ultimate in health foods. If this is the work of the promotional department at the Mikado’s court, they deserve being immortalized. Turning Japanese cat food into the local jetset hors-d’oeuvres!”
“Oh, yes! Thanks to this idea, the Nippon koku has no problem getting rid of raw fish leftovers. As for the rest, it’s all the same. Did you notice the abundance of blond people in Moskau?”
The voice paused again. “I did. Everybody’s either blond or a redhead. Not a single dark-haired person.”
“Exactly. Itiro san, this is something you need to understand. In Moskau, being Aryan is considered cool. The Führer’s initial doctrine considered the inhabitants of Russland as an inferior nation of untermenschen, as they called them. Substandard people. But closer to September 1945 the Reich's generals realized they weren’t going to defeat the guerrilla movement. Which was when the opposite idea prevailed. Reluctantly they recognized the Russlanders as an Aryan nation which allowed them to recruit them into the SS. Moreover, the Berlin racial department officially recognized all Slavs as Aryans, including the Bulgarians. Everyone but the Poles, that is. From that moment, Russland women started receiving alimony for the children born from German soldiers[i]. It’s been half a century since. The European nations have all cross-bred: it’s a true melting pot here. These days you’d be hard pressed to guess the origins of anyone. But here, Aryans are obliged to dye their hair blond. It’s not a trend even. More of a necessity.”
“You don’t want to say there’re no dark-haired Russlanders left, do you, Onoda san?”
“Oh, yes. Plenty of those around. But they either wear wigs of shave their heads. Those who have the guts to be seen with their natural hair are called the Schwarzkopfs — Black Heads. It’s the slang word for dissidents. I told you already that Russland is a very peculiar area. It eagerly soaks up any foreign filth — but by the same token, it resists any foreign invaders. The guerrilla movement is still going strong all over the Reichskommissariat of Moskau. They control entire areas in the Urals, in St. Petersburg suburbs and around Yekaterinodar. You won’t want to go picnicking in the woods, oh no! Even in Moskau, Resistance is quite active. Two months ago they killed the city’s Oberkommandant Gruppenführer von Travinsky.
“This is crazy," the other voice burst out coughing. "Overzealous fanatics.”
“You would think so, wouldn't you? But this is simply a local tradition. The Russlanders have lots of habits they inherited from the Mongols. Corruption, for one. An Oriental love of creature comforts. Sucking up to the authorities. Cronyism. And with all this, they resisted the Yoke for two hundred years until the Golden Horde gave up and left them well alone. The Russlanders’ ties with the Germans are much stronger than you might think. They were ruled by Kaiserins, Empresses of German blood, like Katharina I and Katharina II who is also known as Catherine the Great, the best queen in Russland’s history. Every Kaiser of Russland starting with Peter the Great married a German princess. The very first Royal Russian dynasty was the Rurik, descendants of Danish princes. They were followed by the Mongols followed by the Germans. After the Bolsheviks had seized power, Jews came — followed by the Georgians followed by the Germans again. Basically, Russland has always been controlled by a foreign power. So there’ll always be some who hate it. Unfortunately, neither the government of Russland nor the Schwarzkopfs have noticed that the Wehrmacht is long gone. They’re at war with themselves.”
“How can I express my gratitude to you, Onoda san? All this is highly informative.”
“Don’t mention it. What a shame that Amaterasu is in such a hurry to summon you. You won’t have time to get a feeling for Russland. I’ve been working here for ten years already. You can’t imagine some things I’ve seen — even in the Siberian cities of Uradziosutoku and Habarosito which are thriving in the Mikado’s care. You can make the locals take Japanese names but they’ll still drink moonshine instead of sake!”
The other voice trembled. “How truly awful...”
“I haven’t told you half of it. No one wants to study Japanese. Women are the only ones who agree to wear geta sandals and kimonos. No one makes rock gardens over here. They prefer to dig the ground up and grow those wretched cucumbers, of all things! The only things that took were yakitori and right-hand drive cars. Oh, they love them in Uradziosutoku! This is something they won’t let you take away from them! I completely agree with the Mikado’s position: in order to ensure our empire’s world leadership we do need natural resources. And still sometimes I wish that our acquisitions didn’t go beyond taking the second half of Karafuto Island.”
“I completely agree with you, Onoda san.”
“Sorry for keeping you so long, my dear Itiro san. Here, take these reichsmarks," the voice said, accompanied by the rustle of paper notes. "I’ll give you the address in a minute. Go to the first street kiosk and buy yourself an oxygen mask and a Geiger counter. Do you have the Hong Kong equipment with you? Excellent. But be careful. Don’t use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“If you don’t mind me asking..." the other voice shook with anxiety, "could you issue me a handgun, please?”
“You don’t need it. Whatever you do, you can’t shoot him.”

[i] In March 1943 Adolf Hamann, the commandant of Orel — the Russian city occupied by the Germans — issued this little-known order about “alimony payments to children born of Wehrmacht fathers”. The reason for the Slavs’ recognition as Aryan was simple: Germany needed to replenish its troops after its Stalingrad losses.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Moskau - for Alternative History genre readers

Part One

The King of Dwarves

Valhalla, the Gods await me,
Open wide Thy gates, embrace me,
Great hall of the battle slain
With swords in hand!

Manowar, Gates of Valhalla 



“You don’t think all those things really exist, surely?”
She smiles — not a grin but a small smile, just baring her little white teeth as if she's about to sink them into you. Her eyes glisten; her fingers clench the stem of her wine glass. Women love to argue. Not because they want to get to the truth but out of cheer stubbornness: they hate to admit defeat. I bet she feels aroused at moments like these.
I take a theatrical pause, pretending her question has caught me unprepared. The black curtain embossed with a runic pattern quivers in the little current of air from the aircon. The silence is absolute. The closed windows don’t let through the groaning of cars stuck in the traffic jams. The candles flicker like wolves’ eyes in the dimmed light.
You might mistake my room for a hunter’s abode. Wherever you look, its walls are lined with the twisted horns of wild ox and deer skulls bleached with time. The dinner table rests on a bear hide of a deliberately crude tanning. A boulder I brought from the Norwegian marshes sits at the center of the room. It’s a gorgeous item: a monolith chunk of granite.
“Absolutely,” I reply calmly. “I don't doubt it for one single moment.”
She sips red wine from her glass. Her cheeks begin to glow. She’s about to launch an offensive.
“Very well... I agree, to a point,” she says. “Let’s presume that our planet was formed in place of the primordial chasm of Ginnungagap that used to divide the two realms of ice and fire. For millennia the two kingdoms drifted toward each other until they finally united, producing the athletic giant Ymir and Audumbla the cow. Personally, I tend not to agree with what was supposed to happen next but... I might just suspend my disbelief that much. The first man and woman emerged from Ymir's sweat while his two legs copulated with each other, giving birth to a son, which was how the ice giants were born into the Earth’s stormy night. I’m not laughing at you, oh no. If our historians still argue over the intricacies of the Great Battle, who would take it upon themselves to claim the knowledge of what happened a million years ago? How did humanity come about? Did it emerge from the ocean, drop from the sky or crawl out of underground tunnels? All this is guesswork.”
She sets her glass down. Flirtatiously she rearranges a feathery strand of hair. “But as for the rest... you’ll excuse me if I interrogate you extensively,” she continues. “Let’s examine it all in every detail. So, high in the sky we have the hovering Asgard, the heavenly dwelling of the gods, which is perfectly normal. All cultures place their gods up high. The Christians billet their God among the clouds; the Greek gods used to dwell on top of Mount Olympus, and the Hinduist God Shani actually impersonates the planet of Saturn, or all places. Deities are obliged to live in cloudland: if they dwelled amongst us, they'd lose their wits within a week. Now let’s make an effort and imagine one of Asgard’s buildings — namely, Valhalla. Odin’s banquet hall, a place of unending orgies of bingeing and lovemaking. There, dead soldiers gorge nightly on the meat of Sæhrímnir the boar and drink themselves senseless on the mead produced by the udder of Heiðrún the goat. And once they’ve eaten, the dead enjoy the services of beautiful maidens. Five hundred and forty doors — and a roof thatched with gold shields supported by a colonnade of spears. You have to agree that an unwashed medieval Viking warrior must have taken this idea of heaven quite for granted in the wilds of their fiords. But what about us? Us, living in our cynical age of e-funks and the world wide Shogunet network? Us who can’t watch television without our 3D goggles? We can’t even shift our backsides without being assisted by a machine! The office rat responsible for the invention of remote controls must have made a fortune! Do you still think that the Vikings’ heaven is any good for the men of today? Well, I don’t. You, just you personally — do you believe in Valhalla?”
I reach for a slice of pork and chew on it, slowly and neatly. The wheat beer in a misted glass cheers my eye; I watch it weep. I don’t drink wine. I don’t consider it patriotic. She? Well, she... she can do whatever she wants. It’s all peanuts compared to what she’s already done.
“I’d rather believe in Valhalla than in the Biblical heaven,” I answer in a syrupy voice just when she’s about to lose her patience. “It’s much better organized. Every person in the Reichskommissariat, from babies to old women, has a military rank. This is perfectly logical, considering that only an Einherjar can enter Valhalla: a warrior who has died in combat, sword still in hand. Admittedly these rules can sometime have the most funny consequences. Even bus conductors are considered a military unit and have their own system of ranks. A bakery manager receives the rank of a Subaltern Baked of Products and wears special black collar insignia shaped as ears of wheat. Even gynecologists have been made into a Sonderkommando unit complete with a coat of arms depicting a naked Valkyrie revealing her heart in her hands.”
“This is something I could never understand,” she interrupts me. “Why heart?”
“What else should she reveal?” I reply meekly.
She turns red, pretending to play with her wine.
“Everyone wants to go to heaven. This is a prerequisite for our existence,” I press the napkin to my lips. “Behave, and you’ll be rewarded. Valhalla makes it so much simpler. No need to fast and pray. All you need to do is kill and die in battle. This isn’t just what the Vikings think. Muslims believe this too. Or are you uncomfortable about Heiðrún the goat? She doesn’t need to be there after all. I’m quite prepared to allow the existence of a modified version of Valhalla. In this day and age it can be refurbished and turned into anything. Even a sushi bar.”
She empties her glass in one gulp. The twinkle in her eyes expires. “In any case, the Führer isn’t in Valhalla!” she enunciates. “If he's anywhere, then he’s in hell!”
Unhurriedly I dunk the meat into sweet mustard and drag it around my plate. “Our whole life is hell,” I explain with a polite smile. “And the only way to escape it is by dying. If our priests are to be believed, the Führer is busy enjoying Sæhrímnir steaks even as we speak. I know, I know. He didn’t die sword in hand. But what difference does it make? At the moment, the Führer is a trademark, not the nation’s leader. His pictures on mobile phones, lighters and condoms — all this is a marketing ploy. No one’s going to sacrifice their lives for him these days. They might do so if the price is right, provided it’s in yen. Or even Reichsmarks. Alas! All these office rats are unlikely to ever see Valhalla.”
I give the wurstsalat its due: the good old combination of sausages, potatoes and a dash of mayonnaise. I increasingly get the impression that there’s something perverse about our dinner — indecent even. Still I like it. And so, I believe, does she. The Führer? It’s not so simple, either. Even the wisest of our priests admit it, those who were interned in Norwegian caves. The Führer died on October 20 1942 during a parade at the Nibelung Square celebrating the first anniversary of his armies’ victorious entry into the capital of Russland. A lone terrorist driving a truckful of explosives smashed it into the stands by the walls of the Kremlin. Instead of a sword, the Führer was holding a small stack of paper as he delivered one of his fiery speeches. Within a split second, the entire upper echelon of the Third Reich disintegrated in the blast. There wasn’t as much as a single molecule left of them. The Führer took a fast train to Valhalla in the company of Himmler, Bormann, Muller, Goebbels and Goering. I remember a little blond guy in the Higher Theological College ask simple-heartedly, “Do office workers like Reichsleiter Bormann go to Valhalla too?” They kicked the kid out of school on the spot. From what I heard, he became a street sausage vendor.
“Had I not believed in Valhalla, I’d have never become Odin's priest,” I continue, looking her in the eye. “Spirituality is unpopular there days. It’s easier to put the Führer’s portraits on lighters — Japanese tourists buy them like they’re going out of style. Or get a job at the Institute for the Research of Aryan Origins, that’s something quite popular with girls your age. You spend five years as a hermit at the Mount Kailash archeological digs in Tibet searching for the first Aryan sites. Barley cakes, yak butter tea and tons of enlightment. But personally, I wholeheartedly believe in Viking rituals — and not just because they make part of the Reich’s official religion. Go see Trondheim, it’s no less impressive than Jerusalem. The goat is nothing, after all. Not when you think of all Christianity’s goofs.”
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t even look my way. She must have taken offence. How are you supposed to talk about anything with the Schwarzkopfs? They're not open to discussion. The moment you say something that contradicts their point of view, they sulk and pout their lips.
The girl reaches for the remote she’s so passionately condemned just a moment ago and thoughtlessly clicks the TV on.
A commercial break. Whenever you switch it on, it’s always advertisements.
Konnichiwa! Want to be sure you’re part of the master race?” a juicy kimono-clad blonde inquires from the screen. “Our Sony computers know if you’re an Aryan. They require a DNA sample to boot up. Our Sakura Operating System is now available in Russisch.”
Unfortunately, the only two things the Reich is good at making are sausages and missiles. All the rest is made in Japan. White goods, brown goods, fountain pens even. The Nippon koku is so popular that every Fräulein[i] worth her salt has had an eyelid job to give her gaze an Asian slant. Japanese food is everywhere. You get served wasabi even with your beer and sausages. Outdoor advertising has more fancy Japanese characters than normal Gothic letters. Slowly and smoothly, the Reich is being devoured by the Teikoku — the Empire. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we began addressing the Führer as the Mikado!
I sense it’s time to break the silence. “You need some rest. Allow me to accompany you.”
She lays the napkin on the table.
We head for the bedroom. A black color scheme. The wallpaper pattern is that of crossed battleaxes. The interior designer sought inspiration in Viking caves. Well, admittedly he succeeded. I can even sense a whiff of dampness in the air — but most likely, I have the aircon to thank for that. The girl doesn’t like it here, I know. The Schwarzkopfs don’t appreciate living in style. Well, I’m sorry. She has no choice.
I tactfully turn away from the king-size bed while she removes her dress and dons pajamas. I’m sure she wants me to turn round; but I can control myself.
“Good night,” she whispers listlessly and slides under the quilt.
“Sleep tight,” I say as I cuff her wrist to the headrest.
She doesn’t react. Her eyelashes are lowered.
“You need to understand,” I heave a sad sigh. “This is for your own good.”
Quietly I close the door, lock it and place the key in my pocket. A camera eye glows in the room. I may not be there but I can see everything my prisoner is up to. I’m not talking about masturbation. Whenever this happens, I switch off the monitor — you can’t even imagine what a woman can do with only one free hand — and listen to her groans in the speakers. Sometimes I get the impression that she does it not so much for her own pleasure but in order to seduce me. Which woman would refuse to spend a night with a priest — even a pagan priest? At first, when her two shoulder wounds were still raw, the girl tried to free herself but only managed to scrape her handcuffed wrist. Now she’s okay but still I shouldn’t be too lax. She’s wrapped herself in the quilt — asleep, hopefully.
Excellent. I have terrible vertigo.
It takes me a quarter of an hour to heat up the Norse boulder with red-hot embers. It’s so hot I feel like a kitchen cook. I reach for the knife. Its steel is cool against my skin. I ran it across the flat of my hand. Blood drips onto the granite, sizzling and bubbling, streaking the runes brown. My nostrils quiver, taking in the pungent smell of a slaughterhouse.
Pain enters my head. My skin prickles with electric discharges. My eyes fill with white flashes. I can see something but I can’t quite make out what it is. Just some spine-chilling outlines.
It’s all right. I have these fits sometimes. It’ll be over in a couple of minutes.


 Chapter One

The airspace of Russland, near the city of Sochi

Pavel didn’t know what to do with himself. The old Junkers airliner on a LuftStern flight from Hong Kong to Moskau was packed solid and shuddered in the air like a streetcar. The threadbare economy class seats; the stomach-wrenching stench of microwaved meals; the air hostesses with martyr’s smiles on their faces, their unyielding legs swollen from long hours of flight... he’d seen it all on his business trips.
He leafed through a magazine, then listened to the music in his earphones. Doing nothing for ten hours on end could be really exhausting. He couldn’t sleep: the seat was too hard and uncomfortable.
Come to think of it, this time he was really unlucky with his seat.
He’d got to sit in the middle. The window seat (to his left) and the one by the aisle (to his right) were taken by two elderly Japanese. An old man and an old lady. Both wearing those panama hats so beloved by Japanese tourists worldwide, floral-pattern shirts and matching pants. For some reason, they reminded him of two lapdogs, useless and goofy. Plus the cameras, of course. They had even taken a picture of themselves in the plane's bathroom.
The old boy absent-mindedly opened a colorful leaflet and peered at its title through his glasses,

Visit Lake Baikal, gem of the Reich!

Tourism operations to Moskau had shrunk 50% over the last couple of years, and so had the reichsmark in comparison to the yen. Japanese tourists were the only hope the Kommissariat had left. Where else was it supposed to get the money from? Industry was on its last legs. St. Petersburg (or should we call it Peterstadt now?) was flooded every summer with groups from the Nippon koku, complete with their panama hats. Tourist guides were run off their feet taking them from Salvador Dali’s statue of the Führer all the way to Peterhof and street markets offering swastika-decorated Easter eggs. No one really cared that Operation Barbarossa of July 22 1940 had initially intended to raze St. Petersburg to the ground. There had even been some sort of blueprint detailing the whole procedure. Never mind St. Petersburg! The same Operation Barbarossa had planned to flood Moscow and turn it into a water reserve. They’d had some sick imagination, really. No one would admit this but in fact it felt like half the Führer’s entourage had been high on LSD.
The Japanese guy turned the page to the next picture. Palm trees and seaside. A girl in a swimsuit stood on a sandy beach, cocktail in hand.
He turned to Pavel."Sumimasen," he grinned, baring a mouthful of teeth. “Excuse me. Do you speak Russisch?"
At any other time Pavel might have pretended not to understand the question. Still, the flight to Moskau was going to be a long one. What difference would it make anyway, if you were stuck in a confined space at thirty thousand feet with two old farts for company? Even they were a Godsend to while away the time.
He smiled. “Konnichiwa, Sensei. How can I help you?”
The old boy pointed at the girl on the picture, burying his fingernail in her ample chest. “Excuse me,” he said, butchering the language. “My wife and I will be staying two days in Moscow. And after that we’d like to go to the seaside. I can’t decide on a destination. Is the city of Sochi (he pronounced it as Soci) good?”
The plane hit a turbulent patch. The passengers clenched their armrests. Soci! Pavel chuckled to himself. This guy knows what he wants. Very well, then...
He pressed an armrest button. His seat slid backwards.
“If the truth were known, Sochi isn’t a place I’d recommend,” he said with a deadpan face, glancing at the old man. “It’s part of the Caucasus Reichskommissariat. That area suffered a lot during the Twenty-Year War. Service is rubbish. Hotels are refurbished barracks. The sea is still full of drifting mines. Kidnappings of tourists are not uncommon. The local tribesmen often leave their mountains to ambush tourist buses and blow up funiculars. And food is too expensive for what it is. Even corn ears sold by beach vendors — former members of SS Turkic legions — might cost you a good hundred reichsmarks apiece.”
The old man nodded. Apparently, he hadn’t understood half of it. Still, Pavel wasn’t going to switch to German. From his experience, few of the Nippon koku’s denizens knew any Hochdeutsch.
He cast a sideways glance at the booklet. The blue sea, the palm trees, the cocktail glasses and the girl, laughing out loud, in her Peenemünde swimsuit. This was a paste-up if ever he’d seen one.

...Once again, the stench of burning filled his nostrils. Pavel saw the dead cities; the black skeletons of the buildings. The smoke drifted low over rivers overflowing with dead bodies. Oh, yes. He still remembered it all.
By the summer 1984, when the Reich’s flags were finally flying over the Urals’ defenses as well as both African and South American jungles, the ruling elite of Greater Germany had split. Nobody wanted to acquiesce. The SS wanted to have control over the oil wells, the Wehrmacht wanted to lay its hands on the diamond fields while the Gestapo claimed the U-mines. That would have made any history scholar laugh. Money and luxury: this was every empire’s undoing. The hordes of Genghis Khan had crossed the continent from the Chinese steppes to the spires of Polish churches, but the Mongols’ imperium had crumbled to nothing. When a warrior is loaded with gold like a donkey, why would he go into battle? All he can dream of is wine and female affections. Similarly, the Reich’s military elite had mutated, becoming a financial oligarchy. All of them had joined in the carving up of world resources, even the Navy’s Chief Karl Dönitz in his wheelchair, shaking with old age. It was a miracle that the Twenty-Year War hadn’t ended in nuclear attacks: the Reich had tested its first A-bomb already in 1944 on the island of Peenemünde. Unfortunately, the air raids had seriously damaged the nuclear power stations. The air there was still buzzing with radiation and Geiger counters were just as commonplace as aircons.
The old guy just wouldn’t give it a rest. “I wonder if fishing is good in Soci?”
Pavel didn’t hear him. The roaring of the plane’s turbines had nothing to do with it. He was far away, reminiscing.
The Twenty-Year War had flattened each and every one of the Reichskommissariats: East, Ukraine, Caucasus and Turkestan. Some cities had been luckier than others, emerging relatively unscathed. But Moskau, Kiev and Minsk had turned into battlegrounds. The Reich was devouring itself from the inside while the Nippon koku was getting richer, offering loans to both sides. And what was the result? The empire’s economy was on its last legs. Moskau alone was still braving it out while in the Caucasus, from what he’d heard, local highlanders were swapping lynx pelts for butter. Japan, however, had ballooned like bread dough, its skyscrapers bayoneting the sky, their walls covered in neon signs. Not just in Tokyo but also in Shanghai, Manila and Sydney. The post-war accord had granted Japan half the world. They’d received China and Australia, clipped off Alaska, Seattle and Nevada, and invaded Russland’s Far East and Siberia. Oil, gold and gas — the Japs had jumped at their chance then and they had it all now. In 1970s, the Emperor Hirohito had issued a decree gifting Lake Baikal to the Reich. Moskau girls had wrapped themselves in kimonos; all you could see on TV was manga and anime. This was the real enslavement of the planet, creepy and inconspicuous — no need for tanks or airplanes, only fashion statements. Now the Nippon koku was brimming with money while the only thing the Reich still produced was weapons.
But who were they supposed to sell them to if the world was already conquered?
“Fishing?” Pavel resurfaced from his musings. “Plenty of fish there, Sensei. The lake’s seething with them. Take my advice: forget the fishing rod. A machine gun is the thing. Did you watch TV last week? About that mutant shark that attacked a speedboat near Adler, just next to Sochi? Lots of victims that day. And the killer crabs... too much radiation, you see.”
The two tourists’ panama hats rustled as they exchanged anxious whispers. The fact that they had to lean over him to do so didn’t seem to bother them. They hadn’t even thought of asking him to swap places. He watched their wrinkled faces: they looked like two Shar-Pei dogs sniffing each other. Oh, well. They were the master race. As simple as that.
Arigato gozaimasu,” the old man finally managed. “Thank you very much for your help, Sir.”
His wife nodded enthusiastically. It didn’t look as if she’d understood what the conversation had been about. She sneezed and reached into her handbag — apparently, to get a handkerchief. She rummaged through it, rattling its contents, but never produced anything. Her husband exploded in a bout of dry coughing and pressed a hand to his mouth.
Old age ailments! Now they would start taking pills by the handful. Time to bid his Auf Wiedersehen.
“You’re very welcome,” he sighed. “Excuse me, may I squeeze past?”
He walked down the aisle. It felt like being stuck inside a giant bee: a buzzing in your head, a stuffed feeling in your ears. The economy class bathroom was as comfortable as a coffin. He'd have liked to know how porn actors managed to make out in places like these. It was too small for two guinea pigs to fornicate.
The tap produced a weak trickle of hot water. Pavel splashed some onto his face puffy from lack of sleep. He glanced into the mirror and cringed. Not the best version of him. On the other hand, how are you supposed to look like when you live, eat and sleep your job while the top office is too stingy to afford a business class seat for their expert? Sunken cheeks, receding temples, a hooked hawk nose and eyes transparent like jelly. Pavel still remembered what he used to look like while a little kid. He'd never been beauty pageant material, and as for his height... never mind. The Führer had made short men popular. All things considered, not too bad.
Pavel reached into his pocket for a disposable razor and gave himself a good shave.
When he returned to his place, the plane was descending. A viscous lump of nausea blocked his throat. The Japanese’s seats were empty. They were off on some business of their own.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts,” the metallic voice of the air hostess resounded throughout the cabin. “Our flight will land in half an hour. The weather is fine. The air temperature is 95 degrees. According to the local weather report, radiation levels are within safe limits. No need to wear face masks on leaving the airport.”
Pavel didn’t look in the window. He was fed up with cookie-cutter views.
Two men awaited him on the ground. Despite the heat, they were wearing gray raincoats.
“Welcome to Moskau, Sturmbannführer,” the first of them clicked his heels.
The other one reached out to take Pavel’s suitcase. Pavel didn’t mind.
“Once again, our apologies for having to summon you all the way from Hong Kong,” the first one continued. “It must have been a long flight. You need to get some sleep. We’ll take you to the hotel.”
Pavel shook his head. “Oh, no. Plenty of time at night to do that. Let’s go directly to the Gestapo.”

A middle-aged air hostess — a peroxide blonde with the LuftStern logo on her beret — sprang to attention, watching the three men climb into an executive-class Opel Admiral. She struggled to suppress the desire to shoot her arm out in the party salute. The Sieg Heil! had been abolished as the result of the Twenty-Year War. Together with the party, that is.

[i] Fräulein: young lady (German)

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