This may be my last time around. I hope so.
There aren’t many of us left; another go-around or two, and we’ll all be gone and glad of it.
The first couple of times, it felt almost real. The brass on uniforms still sparkled, and the bodies in them, well, you’d never have known. But now, after making copies of copies of copies, we all look pretty shabby. The uniforms are falling apart. The skin of the fascists is pallid, loose, even hanging free in some places: a form of rot. Some come back without arms or legs, lost in a grenade blast or mine explosion. The lucky ones don’t leave anything intact bigger than a finger or toe. They don’t come back.
It’s just as well.
The Red October plant hasn’t changed. Twisted burnt and rusted girders rise from a thick layer of concrete rubble coating the frozen earth. The rest of the city of Stalingrad remains pulverized and lifeless.
Sometimes, the new city is visible, as through a mist.
It fades in and out at intervals. We must have won the war, since Stalingrad has been rebuilt. The fascists would have leveled it and salted the earth. Stalingrad has been renamed for some reason. Stalin, the Vozhd, may have been a brute, but he led us after the fascists attacked. Now, it’s called Volgograd with no red banners waving, no portraits of Stalin or Lenin anymore. The drab shops constantly short of goods are now lit with bright lights, and the windows have colorful displays. Strange names adorn them, some obviously foreign. What is Starbucks?
Communism is forgotten. What we fought for is history.
Odd how that happens. It must have been a month ago; I was on a patrol, darting among the ruins on Solechnaya Street, past the house where Sgt. Pavlov and his squad held off the fascists single-handedly for two months. All is as it was, and then—then, the old faded out, and the new faded in. Pavlov’s house still stood, the old ruins fused with new construction, in some kind of memorial. The Ninth of January Square came alive, crowded with families on outings, shoppers, young lovers strolling, and I got an occasional glimpse of an old, graying man or woman in a shabby coat, wearing a service cap and a jacket festooned with medals.
The families and children and lovers couldn’t see me, but the old ones with the medals and the faraway look—I’m not so sure. I stood in the middle of the square, and a stooped man with wispy gray hair, an unshaven grizzled face, and distant eyes materialized next to me as the newly rebuilt city crept up on me. He looked through me, then he looked at me. His eyes opened wide, and his cane dropped. A middle-aged woman with him, probably his daughter, picked up the cane, but he froze, mute, eyes narrowed, as if searching for a fascist sniper.
Yefremov. I recognized him after a while. I knew him as a young sergeant, leading his platoon back and forth across the Red October plant and at the railway station. He was a brave one but full of good humor and plenty of funny stories about his life on a collective farm near Donestsk. He lived, went on to marry and father children, I gathered, and now, relived his youth, a time when he, and we, never felt more alive. Sure, we had been told to stand to the last man, had suffered from the incompetence of our officers, since Stalin had the good ones shot in ‘37 and ‘38, and even lost a few family members to the chekistsduring those years. But there is no way to explain the brotherhood of young men embarked upon a heroic task, a battle for the very existence of the Rodina. We frontovikishare something special beyond words.
He squinted and tried to form words, his face a question mark.
“It’s me,” I said. “Mikhail Borisovich.”
“It can’t be,” he said. “You’re—”
“No, Arkady Nikolaevich,” I said, softly, to counter the peasant superstitions I remembered from so long ago, that all Russians carry inside. “We’re still here, all of us. Vanya, with his lies about all the women he screwed. Grisha, who saved your life by jumping on the grenade. And Mikravadze, the mad Georgian who looked just like Stalin and said he was a cousin. Remember how he used to fool the officers by pretending to beStalin? If the fritzes hadn’t shot him, the chekistswould have. We’re all here, waiting for you.”
As he faded, a tear rolled down his cheek.
I don’t know if he’ll show up here when he finally dies. Kind of cruel, lying to the poor bastard, but I figured I owed it to him. Maybe he will, and we’ll find some vodka and get drunk like we used to.
By night, he writes science fiction and a few horror stories. His work has appeared in Science Fiction Trails, Electric Spec, and Aoife’s Kiss. ” Salvage Sputnik” was awarded third place in the Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Story Contest in 2009. His story “Not Because They Are Easy,” which appeared in the Rocket Science anthology, was considered for Best Short Story of 2012 by the British Science Fiction Association. His first novel, Magic Man, Gold Dust Woman, and the Dream Machine was released by Musa Publishing in March 2013. He has also recently published Red Planet on amazon kindle.