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Winner of the 1999 Bram Stoker Award for Best Anthology.
When I casually contacted Kim Newman by E-mail to ask if he had anything he'd be interested in showing me for 999, he politely wrote back, almost instantly, that most of what he was working on these days was in a longer length than what I seemed to be looking for. When I gently persisted, asking him to show me something longer, I almost instantly received the following tale, about American "invaders" in Communist Russia, by return E-mail.
I was flabbergasted at how good it was -- not because Kim Newman, the vampire-expert author of Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron, wrote it, since I already knew that be's quietly and systematically become one of the best writers in the field, but because I just couldn't believe that something so wonderful could instantly appear on my computer screen just because I asked for it. Ask and ye shall receive, indeed!
Kim Newman is also known as a sometime actor, film critic, and broadcaster; more of his fictive magic can be found in such work as Bad Dreams, The Night Mayor, and, with Eugene Byrne, Back in the USSA.
At the railway station in Borodino, Evgeny Chirkov was separated from his unit. As the locomotive slowed, he hopped from their carriage to the platform, under orders to secure, at any price, cigarettes and chocolate. Another unknown crisis intervened and the steamdriven antique never truly stopped. Tripping over his rifle, he was unable to reach the outstretched hands of his comrades. The rest of the unit,jammed halfway through windows or hanging out of doors, laughed and waved. A jet of steam from a train passing the other way put salt on his tail, and he dodged, tripping again. Sergeant Trauberg found the pratfall hilarious, forgetting he had pressed a thousand rubles on the private. Chirkov ran and ran but the locomotive gained speed.
When he emerged from the canopied platform, seconds after the last carriage, white sky poured down. Looking at the black-shingled trackbed, he saw a flattened outline in what was once a uniform, wrists and ankles wired together, neck against a gleaming rail, head long gone under sharp wheels. The method, known as "making sleepers," was favored along railway lines. Away from stations, twenty or thirty were dealt with at one time. Without heads, Amerikans did no harm.
Legs boiled from steam, face and hands frozen from winter, he wandered through the station. The cavernous space was subdivided by sandbags. Families huddled like pioneers expecting an attack by Red Indians, luggage drawn about in a circle, last bullets saved for women and children. Chirkov spat mentally; America had invaded his imagination, just as his political officers warned. Some refugees were coming from Moscow, others fleeing to the city. There was no rule. A wall-sized poster of the New First Secretary was disfigured with a blotch, red gone to black. The splash of dried blood suggested something had been finished against the wall. There were Amerikans in Borodino. Seventy miles from Moscow, the station was a museum to resisted invasions. Plaques, statues and paintings honored the victories of 1812 and 1944. A poster listed those local officials executed after being implicated in the latest counter-revolution. The air was tangy with ash, a reminder of past scorched earth policies. There were big fires nearby. An army unit was on duty, but no one knew anything about a time-table. An officer told him to queue and wait. More trains were coming from Moscow than going to, which meant the capital would eventually have none left.
He ventured out of the station. The snow cleared from the forecourt was banked a dozen yards away. Sunlight glared off muddy white. It was colder and brighter than he was used to in the Ukraine. A trio of Chinese-featured soldiers, a continent away from home, offered to share cigarettes and tried to practice Russian on him. He understood they were from Amgu; from the highest point in that port, you could see Japan. He asked if they knew where he could find an official. As they chirruped among themselves in an alien tongue, Chirkov saw his first Amerikan. Emerging from between snow banks and limping towards the guard post, the dead man looked as if he might actually be an American. Barefoot, he waded spastically through slush, jeans legs shredded over thin shins. His shirt was a bright picture of a parrot in a jungle. Sunglasses hung around his neck on a thin string. Chirkov made the Amerikan's presence known to the guards. Fascinated, he watched the dead man walk. With every step, the Amerikan crackled: there were deep, ice-threaded rifts in his skin. He was slow and brittle and blind, crystal eyes frozen open, arms stiff by his sides.
Cautiously, the corporal circled around and rammed his rifle-butt into a knee. The guards were under orders not to waste ammunition; there was a shortage. Bone cracked and the Amerikan went down like a devotee before an icon. The corporal prodded a colorful back with his boot-toe and pushed the Amerikan onto his face. As he wriggled, ice shards worked through his flesh. Chirkov had assumed the dead would stink but this one was frozen and odorless. The skin was pink and unperished, the rips in it red and glittery. An arm reached out for the corporal and something snapped in the shoulder. The corporal's boot pinned the Amerikan to the concrete. One of his comrades produced a foot-long spike and worked the point into the back of the dead man's skull. Scalp flaked around the dimple. The other guard took an iron mallet from his belt and struck a professional blow.999. Copyright © by Al Sarrantonio. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted January 8, 2003