“In the matter of Feodor Pushkov, also known as Feodor Serpov or Feodor Oruzheynik, it is the decision of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Profiteering and Corruption that he be stripped of his title and rank and executed.” Lebedev, the head of the troika, peered at Feodor over his glasses and under the sky-blue cap of a Chekist.

Feodor, still wearing his uniform but with the insignia newly torn off, sat in a rude wooden chair in front of the three Cheka members, the most senior of whom was in charge of the entire region. His shoulders were sagged, and he nervously played with worry beads in his hands. “There was a time,” he said wearily, “when you all reported to me as your commissar. Does that mean nothing to you? Does all that I have done for the party and the state mean nothing to you?”

“It has been established to the satisfaction of this extraordinary committee that your actions were undertaken in the context of your role as informer and spy for the Black Army and foreign interventionists,” replied Lebedev, sounding bored. “You yourself said that traitors must be shot without mercy and that terror is the cost of a new utopian state. At least conduct yourself with dignity and hold true to those words.”

“What of Tatyana?” Feodor said. “What of Pyotr?”

Lebedev rolled his eyes. “It has been established to the satisfaction of this extraordinary committee that the woman Tatyana Alexandrovna is under no suspicion. As for the aristocrat Pyotr you mention, the extraordinary committee has sentenced him to death in absentia. But you know as well as I do that there has been no sign of him since the…incident…and that he is presumed dead. We will not waste the bullet to execute a dead man.”

“Very well,” whispered Feodor. “If that is to be my punishment for my sins, so be it.”

He was led away to the execution cells, and the Chekists of the Troika chatted amongst themselves for a time. Lebedev had just been promoted to Feodor’s old post as commissar, and the others were eager to gain his favor and avoid being added to the ever-lengthening execution rolls. Once they left, he turned to the window and his features blurred, revealing the scaly visage and deep-set red slit eyes of Peklenc, the Old God of judgment and the underground.

“Even with so many of us dead, we can make this work,” he said in a soft and serrated voice. “We can use this new order to ensue that those who remain have their fill of blood.”

His gaze wavered, though, as he spied a figure in a window across the courtyard. There, peering silently at him from behind the glass, was Pyotr.

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“It was wiped clean in the space of a few short decades, that which we had spent generations, centuries, millennia, in building. Perun and Veles were cast down, and without the strength of the peoples’ beliefs to sustain them they were unable to respond. Those of us who survived were forced to mime the hateful rituals of the Enemy.” Boris–or was it Triglav?–advanced on Pyotr, his three goat heads leering over the tattered remains of his uniform.

“I don’t understand!” Pyotr cried, brandishing his Obrez pistol. “Why try to make things worse?”

“This is an opportunity. In chaos are always opportunities. When people lose faith, we of the old gods suddenly find our playing field leveled. When people who believe in nothing are in power, we grow stronger.”

“And Feodor…?”

“We need intermediaries as we always have,” said Triglav offhandedly. “Now, since you have proven yourself adaptable, will you join him? The Germans are fleeing, the Bolsheviks are weak and tottering in Petrograd, and we are well-placed to sow chaos and misery and death among those that remain. If you assist us, you will be spared.”

“What kind of god would want to sow misery and death among its own people?”

“Beyond punishment of the people of this land? Simple. We are spirits of this place, and our thirst can only be slaked with blood. For too long have we had to content ourselves with a trickle, and a pious trickle at that. We have worked for many years to undermine the new faith and its defenders, and our efforts are finally about to bear fruit. We haven’t been closer to our return, our rebirth, in a hundred years.”

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The 7.62×39mm round began its life at the Izhevsk Machinebuilding Plant in the Udmurt Republic of the Soviet Union in 1960. Molded and lathed from Kargaly copper and Cherepovets steel with a core of Chelyabinsk lead, it was one of over a million cartridges produced in its batch and intended for transshipment to front-line border troops stationed in East Germany, ready to be fired across the Iron Curtain at NATO forces at a moment’s notice.

However, the powers that be ultimately sent nearly the entire batch to Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East instead, where they were embarked on the Ulyanov, a merchant ship, bound for Haiphong harbor in Vietnam. There, the 7.62×39mm rounds, and the AK-47 rilfes for which they were manufactured, were presented to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a gift from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Transferred on the old French trunk line railroad to marshaling yards near Hanoi, the cartridge was issued to the 622nd Assault Battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army in July of 1967. When the 622nd Assault Battalion was ordered south to support the General Offensive General Uprising in January, the cartridge accompanied the unit’s quartermaster to a rural area near Hue. The quartermaster in turn issued it to a private from Vinh, who loaded it into a spare magazine the day before a scheduled attack.

The attack was a fiasco. The 622nd Assault Battalion was able to rout the ARVN troops occupying a barracks, but their lines were, in turn, infiltrated and destroyed piecemeal by a counterattacking force of ARVN Rangers backed up by American helicopters from Phu Bai Air Base. The private from Vinh was killed defending his commander, who had refused to call for reinforcements in hopes of advancing his career through a great victory. When the fallen soldier’s AK-47 was picked up by an ARVN Ranger as a trophy of war, the cartridge was one of three remaining in its magazine.

The Ranger returned to Hue and later was reassigned to Danang, where he grew disillusioned with the corruption and incompetence he witnessed daily in the ARVN. As a result, he quietly sold his equipment on the black market–the US equipment found its way to North Vietnamese purchasers, while the trophies of war he had accumulated were offered for sale to rear-echelon US personnel hungry for cheap souvenirs to take home. The AK-47, its magazine, and three 7.62×39mm rounds were sold to a cook from Memphis, Tennessee.

When the US troops in Danang were withdrawn beginning in 1973, the cook was able to get his trophies shipped home by paying a small bribe. For the rest of his life, he told stories about how he had “captured” the weapon and ammunition from a VC raiding party, never keeping the details quite consistent enough to feel his friends or family members. Around the time of the federal assault weapons ban in 1994, the ex-cook quietly had the rifle de-militarized and converted into a display piece. The remaining three bullets had their primers and charged removed and were converted into keychains, one for each of the man’s three now-grown sons.

The eldest boy received the 7.62×39mm round that had traveled all the way from Izhevsk. While he never believed his father’s stories of killing its original wielder with a steak knife, he nevertheless regarded it as a lucky charm and half-jokingly credited it with the success of his plumbing supply company in the Memphis exurbs. That luck came to an end in March of 2002, when a Northwest Airlines security checkpoint confiscated the keychain. Despite the owner’s protests, in the post-9/11 airport security hysteria the keychain was never returned.

Instead, it found its way into a storage unit onsite where seized items were kept. As was their wont, the airport baggage handlers often dipped into this stash for items of interest, and the Izhevsk cartridge keychain was picked up by a baggage crew chief in charge of loading and unloading Northwest 757s on the Atlanta route. He was one of the lucky ones who kept his job after Northwest was acquired by Delta in 2010 and the new owners gutted the former Memphis hub.

The round remains there today, dangling from the man’s clipped keychain, with no indication of its long and strange journey.

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“Shit, it’s Orlov,” said Kaminski. Pale from the cold and from the sight of his fellow guard’s mangled body still staining the Siberian snow red with weeping blood.

“Are you going to give me a weapon now, perhaps?” said Maksim, sarcastically. “Or would you prefer for me to take it off your still-warm body, assuming that whatever it is doesn’t tear through the rest of us first?”

“You’ll kill me,” Kaminski snarled–though he didn’t cuff Maksim with his rifle butt as he had before. “As soon as my back is turned.”

“You think I can survive out here, in prison clothes, on my own? You think any of us can?” Maksim snapped. “Arm us, and we can help you against something that makes the Gulag seem like a resort–death.”

“They’ll shoot me for even the thought of arming a prisoner, an enemy of the people,” Kaminski said. “Or worse, throw me in with you.”

“Wouldn’t that be a shame?” said Maksim. “I would suggest that we deal with the problem at hand, the one that tore Orlov’s throat out even when he was as well-armed as you. You can make up any story you want, later, and who are the other guards going to believe? Assuming we can find them again.”

With an exasperated, grudging intake of breath, Kaminski retrieved Orlov’s pistol and his spare magazines. He handed them to Maksim. “Do you know how to use it?” he sneered.

Maksim released the Tokarev’s magazine, checked the chamber for brass, and replaced the bullets. “I was a combat engineer during the siege of Sevastopol,” he said, racking the slide and half-cocking the hammer before putting the safety on. “I know more about how to use this pistol than you do. My unit killed a hundred fascists in the tunnels under the city before we were ordered to lay down arms. Nothing that is out there could possibly carry more horror than that.”

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“It’s a note from the Boss.” The courier needed say nothing more as he handed over the note.

Nervously, Konstantinov and Polzin looked at each other and unfolded the missive.

Konstantinov & Polzin,

Join me in the Kremlin theater tonight for some movies. We’ll be hearing Commissar Bolshakov translate the new Howard Hawks cowboy movie Red River. Bring an appetite, as there will be dinner afterwards. We start at 10 o’clock sharp.

-JS

“Should we go?” Polzin said. “It’ll be well after midnight when the movie is over, and I hear that you get forced to drink Georgian wine at the dinner to make sure you don’t blurt out anything reactionary. The Boss will understand if we send our regrets, won’t he? He was a poet in his youth, surely he understands that, as ‘engineers of the human soul,’ our writing comes first?”

Konstantinov sighed. “You should know better than that. Do you know that the Boss put a stop to a translation of his poem into Russian? Beria had Pasternak–Pasternak!–translating it, and the Boss put the kibosh on it. I hear that he keeps Bukharin’s last note in his desk for sentimental reasons, but that didn’t keep the Boss from having him shot.”

“So if we know what’s good for us, we’ll go.”

“If we know what’s good for us, we’ll be the first ones there and the last ones to leave.”

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“Commander Mikhailov!” It was a runner from Krupin’s force, which had been pressing hard against the remnants of the Japanese 23rd Division.

Oleg Tarasovich Mikhailov swatted him away; he was on the radio with Popov in the divisional headquarters, trying to coordinate ongoing strikes by his tanks with incoming orders from Corps Commander Zhukov. “Yes, yes. Understood. We will press the attack as ordered; I am expecting casualties, but nothing unacceptable. The Japanese surely cannot hold out for much longer.” He placed the mouthpiece down. “What is it?” he snapped at the runner.”

“Sir, I-” the runner ducked at the sound of a wheeling aircraft overhead. Mikhailov remained standing, and watched a group of Japanese fighters–Ki-27s–attempt to strafe the Soviet positions behind the hillock that shielded part of Mikhailov’s command center. There was a distant thud of anti-aircraft pom-pom guns and the fighter broke off. A flight of I-16 “donkeys” rose up to meet the attackers not long afterwards and tore them to shreds, filling the air with contrails and tracer rounds.

“Get up, you lout,” Mikhailov said, kicking at Krupin’s errand boy. “What is so important that it merits wasting my time while we are ejecting what remains of the Japanese aggressors from Mongolia? I told Krupin to report by radio only if he was victorious or dead.”

“The radio has broken, Commander Mikhailov,” the runner said, his head lowered. “Krupin dispatched me to report the capture of a Japanese supply convoy attempting to break out of our encirclement.”

“Good for him,” Mikhailov sniffed. “Distribute whatever booty and supplies they were carrying as a reward to the men and execute any prisoners without strategic value. Was there anything else?”

“Begging your pardon, Commander,” the runner said. “There was one object in the Japanese convoy that…well…” He handed a piece of notebook paper to Mikhailov. The commander’s eyes widened.

“You there!” he shouted at one of his adjutants. “Get me a staff car and a BA-10 armored escort! I am traveling to Krupin’s position immediately! Lagounov’s in charge until I return.”

The arrangements were hastily made, and after a tooth-grindingly bumpy ride along the Mongolian steppe, Mikhailov caught up with the rearmost portion of Krupin’s unit. The area was littered with bodies and smouldering vehicles, with a few Japanese prisoners under heavy Red Army guard. Krupin himself was seated at a commandeered Kwantung Army mess table alongside a disabled Nissan truck which had been towing a bulky armored trailer with a machine gun atop it.

“Show it to me,” Mikhailov barked at Krupin, without even bothering with any pleasantries.

Krupin complied, jumping to his feet and opening a side-mounted door on the captured trailer.

Mikhailov’s eyes widened. “My God…”

Inside was the very thing that had been described in top-secret orders from Corps Commander Zhukov before the Khalkhin Gol counterattack.

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“You selfish, self-important bastard!” Konrad the navigator cried. “You’d put the lives of our entire crew, and their families, in the hands of that…thing? That computer? I refuse to have any part in the dismantling of my bridge!”

“Please, Alik,” Captain Lebedev said. “There’s no need for this.”

“There is!” Konrad roared, stabbing a finger at Berenty. “Surely there is! We’ve put up with this bully for too long, all of us! Now the safety of this ship—of your families—is at risk! Who else will stand up with me?”

Berenty said nothing; there was a curiously neutral expression on his face.

“Step down, you fool,” Lebedev hissed at Konrad.

“No, I will not!” continued Konrad. “I’ve seen enough! Good men turned into lapdogs, just like in the old days, armed men down every corridor, and the stink of fear for everyone. You, Grisha Sergeyevich Berenty, will be the death of everyone aboard.”

“You are correct,” Berenty said, suddenly. He shrugged.

“What?” said Konrad.

Lebedev later theorized that Berenty’s shrug must have been a prearranged signal, for the next moment Korenchkin had unlimbered his AKS and leveled it at Konrad. He snapped off a tight burst of shots, filling the room with a deafening report and an overwhelming stink of gunpowder. Konrad’s chest was reduced to a swamp of frothy blood; the navigator toppled to the floor without a sound.

“No!” Lebedev cried. He rushed to his fallen officer and tried to step the flow of blood with his own crumpled captain’s jacket, but it was too late. Konrad had bled to death and the light had gone out of his eyes after no more than a few seconds.

“Yes, he was correct!” Berenty shouted. “I will indeed be the death of everyone aboard if they do not do as they are told! I will be the death of every traitor, every malcontent, every wrecker the miserable lot of you has to offer! We are engaged in a great work here, and every one of us is expendable to further the cause!”

Thick hands seized the captain’s collar and hauled him upright. “You and your crew will be retained as advisors in case of a temporary malfunction of the Elbrus,” said Berenty. “Unless, of course, any of you feel some solidarity with the late Officer Konrad?”

Burning, seething hatred bubbled at the captain’s temples and threatened to turn his vision red. But with great effort, he restrained himself—it would do no good for anyone if he were to end up like Konrad. “No, colonel,” Lebedev said, almost in a monotone.

“Are you sure of that, captain?” asked Berenty. “You seemed rather emotional a moment ago when your man got his nine grams ten times over.”

“I have never lost a man under my command,” Lebedev said. “I fear for how his rash actions will reflect upon me.”

Berenty grinned. “Worry not, captain! Your own conduct has been exemplary. Get yourself cleaned up.”

“Yes, colonel,” said Lebedev, and he slunk away to his quarters—beaten, but alive. From his window, he saw Mikoyan and Korenchkin fling Konrad’s body into the sea, and bitter, helpless tears burned on his cheeks.

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Institute 22. Conspiracy wonks go nuts over it, saying that it was the Soviet equivalent of Project Blue Book: an official investigation into UFO sightings. The things I’ve heard from hardened nutcases about it…they seem to think that it’s some hidden archive with all the proof they’ve ever wanted about flying goddamn saucers. As if the Russkies were somehow worse at keeping secrets than Uncle Sam or something.

I’ve been to their archive in Moscow, and I can assure you that it’s not like that at all. UFOs are pretty tangential to the whole thing, the real purpose of which was to watch the skies for advanced or experimental Western spyplanes or drones. With between four and five million troops in the Army alone, that was a lot of eyes. No wonder we had such a hard time getting anything short of a satellite or SR-71 over them.

But for anyone with the fortitude and knowledge of nomenklatura Russian terms, there are a few sightings, no more then 5-10%, that lack official explanations. And there are reams of papers, written by someone with an overactive imagination or too much exposure to officially banned Western pulp sci-fi (or both) about the supposed, potential, or imagine effect of unknown technology on Soviet military hardware. There are also papers declaring the whole thing a waste of time and money.

Just like we did.

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The partisan leader Artyom Ramanchuk was, to put it mildly, a legend. A printer’s assistant before the Great Patriotic War, he had taken up arms after a Nazi Einsatzgruppe had slashed through his village, executing his boss (a Jew) and his father-in-law (a commissar).

From late 1941, he’d forged a disparate group of Belorussians into a potent fighting force. They blew up railway lines, sabotaged Nazi supply convoys, and established broad “liberated” fiefs far behind the front lines, places where the invaders would only travel in great numbers and in direst need. Ramanchuk even founded a number of partisan collective farms in forest clearings and other unoccupied lands to provide food and meat for his growing force.

Always a dedicated student of Lenin and the Revolution, Ramanchuk used what spare time he had studying Marxist theory. Using his experience as a printer, he made and distributed several underground books in which he detailed a new form of collective farming based on the Jewish kibbutz and ways in which the Soviet government could adapt its large and unwieldy structure to become more responsive to the needs of its people.

Those books proved to be his undoing. When his area of operations in the Byelorussian SSR was overrun by Red Army troops in 1944, Ramanchuk expected his force of nearly 10,000 partisans to join them. After all, they had aided Operation Bagration considerably through behind-enemy-lines actions. Instead, the NKVD rounded Ramanchuk and his officers into a Minsk stockyard under the pretense of taking a snapshot.

The ranking commissar read a note declaring the men anti-Soviet reactionaries, and they were gunned down to a man by a heavy machine gun nest concealed, appropriately, in a nearby slaughterhouse. The remaining partisans and their families, including Ramanchuk’s common law wife Darja Maysenia and his daughter Tatsiana, were shipped to Siberia.

On June 16, 1984, strange lights were seen over the distant and isolated farming settlement of Saraa in the Mongolian People’s Republic, as reported by a group of Soviet troops on exercises in the nearby mountains. The central government in Ulaan Bataar reported that their sole link with the isolated community, a telex line, had been cut off.

Concerned–the hills had been a refuge for pro-Buddhist rebels during the collectivization of the country in the 1930s–the governor of Ömnögovi Province asked the Soviets to investigate and to garrison Saraa temporarily. The troops found nothing amiss, and settled down for what they thought would be a leisurely occupation–a furlough from their intense training and expected combat deployment to Afghanistan.

Within a month, nearly all of the 250 men who had been stationed there were dead.

The first deaths occurred when army rations ran out and the Soviets began eating local foods. Dozens died instantly or in the following hours due to what the regimental medic described as an “intense allergic reaction.” Puzzled, the Soviet commander rounded up locals on suspicion of poisoning his men, but no evidence could be found.

Eventually, despite generous gifts of food from the locals, the other Soviets began exhibiting signs of acute malnutrition and starvation. For some reason, only their army rations seemed to have any nutritive effect at all; Merchants from relatively nearby communities and Saraa citizens returning from trips suffered the same fate. The locals and the provincial government in Dalanzadgad could not explain why.

Eventually, the Soviet commander pulled his troops out and recommended a full quarantine to deal with a suspected bioagent. Scientists from the Vozrozhdeniya Island biological weapons unit, in full NBC containment gear, found nothing. The only effects they noted were a number of odd quirks: nearly all the residents had become left-handed, for instance.

Eventually, the quarantine was made permanent, and it survived democratization. Until a group of missionaries arrived in Saraa nearly 25 years later, no Mongolian or foreigner entered or left the village.