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What Doctor Ivanovich Saw by Ian Tregillis

Author’s Note: “What Doctor Ivanovich Saw” is a standalone story set in the world of the Milkweed Triptych novels: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evil. It takes place during a 20-year gap between the first and second books of that series. It can also be read as a companion piece to an earlier Milkweed story, “What Doctor Gottlieb Saw”, which is set just prior to Bitter Seeds.

#

It was an early Wednesday morning, the day they first tested the psychic woman’s Faraday cage, when Aleksandr Ivanovich Grigoryev lost thirty rubles in a bet with a skeptical Cossack. Ivanovich always remembered it was a Wednesday because that same morning he was summoned to the general-colonel’s office, where the overseer of Arzamas-16 informed him that Dmitrii, his last surviving son, had died fighting valiantly on the Eastern Front. Dmitrii, who had been a cook’s assistant.

But Ivanovich knew nothing of the dispatch from Vladivostok when the sun dawned over the birch forest on that muggy summer morning. His thoughts were on the test, and whether the money he squeezed out of Sapogin would finally be enough to send a package to the front. Dmitrii’s letters wrote poetically of winter-blackened fingertips and blood-gorged summer leeches. He spoke of frostbite and ague with an intimacy better suited to the consideration of a new lover. He needed better gloves, better boots, better everything. It wasn’t right.

Sunrise glinted on the tips of massive Tesla coils and antennae that dwarfed the guard towers along the distant perimeter fence. The fence, and the towers, and the coils, surrounded Arzamas. The coils tapered to needle-sharp points, like copper claws poised to rake the steel-blue sky. Light from the rising sun also grazed the crosses atop the onion domes of the old monastery, and splashed under the eaves of other buildings to gild scrollwork and fretwork.

Arzamas-16 was an architectural anomaly, wholly distinct from any other city within the Soviet Union, even sprawling Paris far to the west. But for a handful of Russian Orthodox buildings, throwbacks to another century, it had been built soon after the war by the forced labor of legions of captured Axis soldiers. Fifteen years had passed since the sleepy monastic village of Sarov became a secret city closed by order of the state. It existed on no map.

The psychic woman, Gretel, was a German captive, too. (Although, unless Ivanovich missed his mark, Gretel and her brother carried as much Roma blood as Teuton. Perhaps even Tatar.) But, unlike those legions of Wehrmacht soldiers had been, she wasn’t expendable. She and the handful of others like her—the ones with the wires penetrating their skulls—never reached the end of their usefulness, never disappeared into Siberia. They were perpetually useful. They were the wellspring. Without them there would be no Arzamas-16.

As the sun rose, so did the humidity. Summer mornings in Sarov smelled of the turbid rivers that swirled together at the tip of a peninsula, the surrounding timber forests, cordite, and gasoline. The winters smelled of darkness, woodsmoke, ice, and liquor.

Sunrise flashed across the gleaming copper mesh of Gretel’s cage. Ivanovich shielded his eyes. A trio, two men and a woman, tromped up the long hill to the test site. The guards lugged a portable field desk and a chair.

“Here they come,” said Sapogin, the Cossack.

He poked the copper mesh with a fingertip the size of a sausage, denting it. He was clearly skeptical that something so flimsy could deflect the ravages of the mighty Tesla coils. The Faraday cage had been built specially for Gretel; she was unique. The army of scientists, engineers, and doctors at Arzamas-16 had made respectable progress reverse-engineering the technology that had powered the Third Reich’s Götterelektrongruppe. They’d even achieved incremental success toward recreating the abilities of the original von Westarp brood.

But Gretel’s power defied analysis. After all these years, Arzamas still had only one seer. And it was determined to keep her power intact. To keep her visions of the future flowing to the Kremlin without interruption. Hence the morning’s test. Rumor had it the Japanese were working on a primitive version of the same human augmentation technology. If that were true, they would eventually think of electromagnetic countermeasures. Hence the Faraday cage.

Sapogin said, “This won’t work.”

Ivanovich counted the bills in his pocket. “Thirty rubles says otherwise.”

Sapogin nodded. “Did you know the Americans have a saying, Ivanovich? ‘A fool and his money are soon parted.’ What do you think of that?”

“I think it might be true,” said the doctor. “The Americans haven’t had money in decades.” Since before their epic Depression started. “But I’ll have yours soon enough. She never misses.”

“Then you’ll wager on a perfect score.”

“I will,” said Ivanovich.

Gretel and her escort topped the rise. Behind them, in the far distance beyond the perimeter fence, a lone automobile crossed the bridge downriver of the Arzamas gate. Beads of sweat shone on the guards’ foreheads. Moisture darkened the collar and underarms of her dress.

“Good morning, Doctor,” she puffed.

Sapogin stared at her. She certainly didn’t look like the Soviet Union’s most valuable secret weapon, this bony little waif in the peasant dress, with olive skin and a few threads of silver in her raven-black hair. Ivanovich put her in her early forties, though nobody knew for certain.

Meanwhile, she looked over the cage. It was a hollow wooden frame, just big enough for a field desk and a woman to sit behind it, wrapped on all six sides in glittering copper mesh.

“I see you’ve been busy,” she said. “Very impressive.”

This was the first time she had laid eyes on the finished cage. But Ivanovich wondered how often she had peered at it with her inner sight. Did it figure in her investigations of the future? Did it further them? And, most importantly, would it make her prescience invulnerable to the predations of EMP?

They knew her power had limitations; she and her brother had been captured trying to flee before the Red Army, after all. Immediately after the deployment of battlefield EMP weapons, in fact. She’d been carrying a battery at the time. Obviously the pulse had shorted it, severing her ability to see the future beyond that moment. Thus blinding her to any course of action that might have won their freedom. Gretel’s prescience was otherwise so formidable that without EMP her capture was inexplicable. (There had been another researcher, almost a decade ago, who had floated a radical alternative. Timoshenko had proposed that Gretel had allowedherself to be captured. But this, of course, was preposterous. Timoshenko had disappeared into the gulag not long after that, a consequence of implying the Kremlin and mighty Red Army were nothing but the dupes of a German peasant girl.)

Ivanovich checked the gauge on the battery he carried. It held a full charge. He hypothesized that the deeper she looked into the future the more it taxed her battery; peering ahead just a few minutes like this barely made a dent. This implied, too, another limitation to the temporal range of her prescience. They couldn’t easily test Ivanovich’s hypothesis with a large reservoir of charge—how long would they have to wait to know if her predictions held?—but they could test it with custom built minibatteries, to see if these restricted her precognition to a few minutes, or even seconds. He jotted this idea in his lab book for further consideration.

The pages of the book brimmed with such ideas. As Arzamas-16’s resident expert on the precog, Ivanovich had spent fifteen years trying to unravel her.

“Let’s begin,” he said, and handed her the battery.

Gretel tucked it into the holster on her waist with the ease of long practice. She fished the long wires from her hair, and plugged them into the battery with a sharp click.

The guards set furniture inside the cage. Gretel sat. Ivanovich handed her five envelopes, five slips of paper, and a pen. She squinted through the copper screen toward where sunlight shone on the windscreen of the lone automobile idling at the Arzamas gate. It was the only machine moving down there; all other heavy machinery—everything that didn’t run on vacuum tubes, and even some of those—had been parked and shielded in anticipation of the morning’s test.

They’d better hurry, thought Ivanovich, or they’ll be caught in the open when we begin this test.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes,” she said.

Ivanovich closed the hatch to the Faraday cage, inspecting the seal to ensure no gaps or discontinuities marred Gretel’s conductive shell. Satisfied that she and her battery were sufficiently protected against electromagnetic fields of all relevant frequencies, he gave the go-ahead. One of the guards waved a semaphore flag to a second team down in the river valley, half a mile away, where Klaus waited with his own escorts. They were too far away to see clearly through the haze without binoculars.

Inside the cage, Gretel sighed. “Poor brother.”

In the valley, Ivanovich knew, Klaus was also sighing.

And connecting his battery.

And invoking what the siblings’ creator had called the Willenskräfte, willing himself intangible until—

—A carousel of St. Elmo’s fire swirled around the science city. A deafening thundercrack shook the earth. Jagged violet bolts of electricity erupted from the Tesla coils along the fence, flickering across the sky and throwing competing shadows against the sunrise. They were bright enough to paint lingering afterimages under the doctor’s eyelids. Lightning danced from tower to tower, casting a chaotic incandescent net over Arzamas. In its wake came the overpowering scent of ozone, caustic and metallic, strong enough to make Ivanovich gag.

The last lingering crackles from the fail-safe towers hadn’t subsided when Sapogin, breathing through his mouth, said, “Begin.”

Gretel took a clean sheet of paper and started to write. Ivanovich lit a cigarette and took a stroll around the hilltop. As he’d feared, the driver had been caught unaware. The car had rolled to a halt against a bridge abutment, body skew-whiff in the roadside ditch at the base of the hill. The driver’s door was open. The crazy bastard was trudging up the hill. Lucky he hadn’t plunged into the Sarovka, whoever he was. Ivanovich wondered why they hadn’t warned the driver about the imminent test.

Gretel finished. Sapogin released her from the Faraday cage. She handed him five sealed envelopes labeled “1” through “5” in her spidery copperplate. Then she sauntered barefoot through the grass, her guards in tow. She paused, bent, plucked a tiny flower.

Ivanovich produced another five envelopes from inside his coat. He had filled them with arbitrary snippets of literature and mathematics before leaving his quarters that morning. They hadn’t left his person.

Sapogin made the comparison. Ivanovich’s first envelope contained the prime factorization of 1,997,001,912. But after opening the corresponding envelope from Gretel, the Cossack tipped his head back and roared with laughter.

“What?” Ivanovich demanded. Sapogin showed him.

The slip read: My Dear Sapogin- I wonder if you’ll share your winnings with me? -G

Sapogin clapped. “Matushka!” Little mother.

Disgusted, Ivanovich pulled a wad of rubles from his pocket and let them flutter to the Cossack’s feet. The larger man plucked them from the ground, still chuckling.

The slip inside Gretel’s second envelope said, simply: I regret your loss, Doctor.

“I would have shared with you, too,” he said, knowing as he said it how petulant it sounded, how unbecoming of one of Arzamas’s senior researchers. How could the cage fail? It was so simple, the physics so well understood.

“Doctor! Doctor Ivanovich!”

It was the driver from the disabled automobile. Ivanovich recognized him; a fellow from the administrative offices. He waved a yellow telegram in one hand as he panted up the hill. Upon reaching the crest, he doubled over to catch his breath. Chest heaving like a bellows in the thick humidity, droplets of spittle dangling from his lips, he tried to say, “There is…for you…”

Sapogin sighed. “Get it out, man.”

The messenger breathed deeply, regained himself. “Telegram for you, sir. From the front.”

#

The messenger was punished for his compassion. Delivering the notice directly to Ivanovich, rather than to the general’s office, earned him a stint working to assist Comrade Lysenko’s special troops. (Sometimes the men and women with wires under their skin needed live targets upon which to practice. Such was life in Sarov.) Thus Ivanovich had to listen for ten minutes to the overseer of Arzamas-16 railing about the messenger’s insubordination before learning that his last remaining son, Dmitrii, was dead.

First Piotr. Then Leonid. And now little Mishka, who’d just turned 20 that spring. Who hadn’t held a rifle since basic training at 17. The army had twice promised him a rotation home, and twice rescinded it. He’d been stationed on the northern tip of Sakhalin Island, the Soviet Union’s unchanging toe-hold within Japan’s sphere of aggression. Or so Ivanovich guessed, based on the few bits of detail in Mishka’s letters not excised by the censors. Every censored sentence, every scrubbed word, was another piece of his sons lost forever. Stolen from him by the Red Army, the Politburo. While all the things Ivanovich was prohibited from telling his own children were pieces of their father stolen by Arzamas.

He emptied a bottle of French red rereading the boys’ letters. An old vintage, from just after the war but before collectivization of the wineries. He’d just opened a second bottle—or was it a third?—when somebody knocked gently on the door to his flat.

Gretel stood in the hallway, flanked as always by two guards. Her wires hung free, her battery harness empty. A paper bag lay on the cracked and pitted concrete by her feet. A pair of improvised twine handles had been taped to the sides.

“Hello, Doctor,” she said. The bag rattled when she lifted it. “I’ve brought you something.”

Ivanovich scowled at the guards. “Why is she out past curfew?”

The taller escort, a skinny lad with a spotted face and a broad Ukrainian accent, shrugged. “She petitioned the general. Said she it was crucial she give you something.”

Gretel frowned. “Won’t you please accept my gift?”

He rolled his eyes, fluttering her bangs with a long sigh of resignation and disgust. He stepped aside. Gretel entered. She set the sack on the table, careful not to nudge the letters strewn about. “How are you feeling?”

Ivanovich’s answer was to take a long swig from his bottle. This was a post-collectivization white, and tasted faintly of bad choices.

“Poor Aleksandr,” she said, and touched his face with fever-hot fingers. Her body, remembered that most Russian part of his soul, the part that could still be clinical in the face of overwhelming grief, ran a few degrees warmer than a mundane person’s. Ivanovich knew that sort of thing about her. He had notebooks full of such trivia.

He felt Gretel’s warmth and wondered if Mishka had felt cold as he died. He wondered how Mishka had died. The telegram didn’t say, and neither did the general.

“You mock me,” said Ivanovich. The words stumbled over his teeth on their way past his lips. The next bunch slipped in a puddle of wine on the way out: “How dare you.”

“Perhaps my gift will lift your spirits.”

She reached into the sack and pulled out a tiny samovar. It was about a third the size of a real samovar, really only suitable for two people. But it was inlaid with enamel, each facet painted with a different Madonna. The handles and rim were polished to a high sheen. A pair of cups hung from clasped hooks; their enamel and polished edges matched that of the samovar, and their rims glinted brightly with the same polished bronze. It was a very fine thing. Finer than anything Ivanovich owned.

“Where did you get that?”

“Sapogin gave me fifteen rubles this morning. I used the money to purchase this from the washerwoman in Building Three.”

Ivanovich knew the washerwoman in Building Three. A man took his comforts where he could in the brutal crucible known as Arzamas.

He snorted. “That cost more than fifteen rubles.”

“We drank tea together. I read the leaves for her.” Gretel frowned. “But she didn’t like what I told her. She gave me the samovar for fifteen rubles and a promise I’d never return.”

He took another swig of wine. “Is this an apology for humiliating me this morning?”

“It’s a gesture in your time of grief. Good night, doctor.”

Gretel moved to open the door. Ivanovich slammed it shut by putting all his weight behind his outstretched arm.

“Did you know? Did you know and not let me warn him?”

“I don’t always like the things I see.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“No,” she said. “But it’s true.”

#

Ivanovich spent the first month after Dmitrii’s death nursing bottles, hangovers, and bitter resentments. There were many of these, especially after the army refused to send Mishka’s body home for burial. But the hangovers became rarer once Ivanovich started making tea in Gretel’s samovar. It saw more use than he liked to admit. It was a very fine thing.

He devoted himself to unraveling the failure of the Faraday cage. He disassembled it screw by screw, copper thread by copper thread. But blinded as he was by alcohol and rage at a world that had taken his children, he didn’t think to have witnesses on hand for the deconstruction. Thus nobody believed him when he deemed the cage flawless.

“Come on, Aleksandr. Just admit there was an open circuit,” they said. “Just admit you failed to account for sufficiently high fields,” they said. And pitied him behind his back.

But inebriated or not, he knew he was right. And so he kept his theorizing to himself. He filled an entire notebook with speculation about electromagnetics and precognition; advanced and retarded potentials; causality, information theory, and wave equations. Mathematically, the equations of electromagnetic wave propagation featured solutions that went both forward and backward in time. Perhaps, he mused, a sufficiently intense electromagnetic pulse could form an inherent temporal barrier to Gretel’s prescience. The battery, and thus the cage, were immaterial. EMP, he concluded, was the precog’s blind spot.

And so the months blurred together, all through the long dark winter, until the following spring. When couriers returned from what until recently had been Japanese territory, carrying several dozen photographs and three chicken eggs.

#

They assembled in the seminar hall of Building One. Smoke coiled from a dozen cigarettes to join the bluish haze near the ceiling. Ivanovich sent gyres eddying across the room when he stumbled past a row of his colleagues, tripping on their shoes and bumping their knees, to snag one of the last empty seats.

General-Colonel Sunyaev, the overseer of Arzamas, delivered the briefing. At his signal, the lights went down and the bright beam from an empty slide projector fought its way to the screen. It turned the tobacco haze into a silvery fog, like a cool moonlit night in the river valley. A bead of sweat stung Ivanovich’s eye. The general motioned with a baton; the slide projector clunked, and then Ivanovich’s eyes had to adjust again because the first slide was very dark. It was a grainy map of Manchuria.

“These photos were taken here,” said the general, nearly piercing the screen with his baton. He pointed to the city of Harbin, in what had been Japanese Manchuria—Manchukuo—until the Red Army’s successful winter offensive. “At the former headquarters of the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army.”

A low murmur rippled through the assembled scientists. “Unit 731,” somebody whispered.

The next clunk stilled the whispers like a gunshot. Ivanovich had to squint and cock his head before he understood what he saw. The photo had been taken inside the remains of a laboratory or hospital ward; there had been a fire, and most of the field of view was blackened and warped. What first appeared to be a heap of charcoal and charred wood on a steel table resolved itself, under the doctor’s trained eye, into a charred corpse.

“The last researchers to evacuate,” said the general, “set fire to the facility to prevent it from falling to our forces. As you see, they were unsuccessful.”

What Ivanovich could see was that they weren’t entirely successful, which wasn’t the same as being entirely unsuccessful. They’d be hard pressed to learn anything from these photos. But the general continued.

“We found several dozen subjects like this one. Manchurians, from the surrounding district, as well as some prisoners of war.”

In other words, Soviet soldiers. Poor bastards unlucky enough to survive combat and fall into the bloody, barbaric hands of the Japanese fanatics.

The general tapped his wand against a knobby lump that might have been a skull. “All of the subjects,” he said, “had these.”

Another clunk; the photo became a split-screen image. The top was the original view of the corpse, but with a red circle around the region the general indicated. The lower panel was a close-up. It showed a trio of fire-tarnished rivets poking from the cracked and blackened skullcap.

This launched another wave of murmurs sloshing around the room. Ivanovich kept his thoughts to himself because they were the same as everyone else’s: surely this was just brutish mutilation. Uncomprehending apery. As a matter of policy, Arzamas-16 and the Great Soviet took it for granted the Japanese were aware of the augmentation technology. The Nazis had even paraded their first few Übermenschen across Germany on a recruitment drive; Red Orchestra operatives had spent weeks on the road to shadow their progress. But it was one thing to know of something, quite another to understand it. Even with all the resources of the U.S.S.R. at their disposal, it was doubtful that the collected minds of Arzamas could have created from scratch the breakthrough that the mad genius von Westarp had achieved on his own. The entire secret city was built around the ALPHA vault, which contained notes and materials scavenged from von Westarp’s farm, and—of course—the special prisoners. What hope had these ancestor-worshipping barbarians?

That’s what the senior researchers had always told themselves. That’s what they had always told their superiors. And they believed it. But the suddenness and urgency of this briefing unnerved Ivanovich. He lit a cigarette to settle his nerves. His smoke joined the rest, casting wispy shadows across the screen.

Clunk, clunk, clunk. More bodies. More laboratory equipment. Something that might have been a very primitive battery. Apery. It had to be.

Clunk. A pile of broken egg shells.

The room fell silent again. Chicken eggs?

Something cold congealed in the pit of Ivanovich’s stomach. He didn’t understand the significance of the eggs. And neither did anybody else; he could tell from the way everybody had suddenly gone quite still. Anomalies meant problems. They meant change.

“We also,” said the general, “found these.”

He called for the lights. The final slide stayed on the screen, though it was easier to study the image when the room was dark. He gestured to a captain, who stood in the corner holding a wooden box. The officer carried it as though it contained a pinless grenade. He set it on the general’s lectern which, Ivanovich saw, also supported a clear glass bowl.

He undid the box’s clasp, and opened it to reveal three eggs nestled within foam and excelsior. The general gently lifted one. He held it aloft and turned it to and fro for all to see: an ordinary chicken egg. Then, as if making an omelet, he cracked it against the lip of the bowl. A golden yellow yolk slopped into the bowl. And something hard clinked against the glass.

The adjutant fished it out and held it in glistening fingers: a coin.

The general broke a second egg. This contained a tiny jade Buddha figurine no larger than the tip of Ivanovich’s pinky. The third egg contained a piece of sandstone carved with elaborate hiragana.

The military men passed the bowl around so that the fine minds of Arzamas-16 could know their failure. A stone, a figurine, and a coin swam within a sulfurous puddle. The eggs, befouled with foreign objects, had begun to turn; it was a long, unrefrigerated journey from Manchuria to here.

Somebody had reached inside those eggs to deposit those objects, and then withdrew, leaving the shells pristine.

Gretel’s brother could have done that. But none of the special troops could demonstrate anything approaching such finesse. Those who shared Klaus’s ability still struggled with breathing. And not sinking into the earth.

That very hour, Arzamas-16 went from a city of science to a city of war. But for Ivanovich, the news of Unit 731 was a revelation. His bitter heart found reason to beat again; the first tendrils of sensation, of emotion, poked through the caul of numbness that had enveloped him since the news of Dmitrii’s death.

It wasn’t a plan—yet—but it was a seed, a notion, and it found fertile ground in Ivanovich’s resentment.

#

After landing on an improvised airstrip just outside Harbin, Ivanovich and five of his Arzamas colleagues filed into an “armored transport”: a city bus with iron plates welded over the wheel wells and windows, leaving only a slit for the driver’s field of view. The Red Army hadn’t yet eliminated the Japanese partisans in the surrounding hills. Snipers felled a handful of careless or unlucky Soviets each day. Perhaps Mishka had died the same way.

It was a long, slow ride to the Epidemic Prevention Department, punctuated with the occasional desultory pop of a gunshot. The bus wove back and forth at a crawl. Sapogin gave Ivanovich a knowing look. “Shell craters,” he said.

And he was right. When they finally emerged from the bus, Ivanovich glimpsed a city nearly leveled by years of combat. Nothing, not even the headquarters of Unit 731, stood intact. Many buildings had been reduced to vast piles of rubble, slag heaps of brick and timber and glass that spilled into each other and the roads. The buildings still standing gaped at the foreign visitors from broken windows like lidless eyes. A flash pulled Ivanovich’s gaze to the roof of a nearby building; sunlight glinting from a pair of binoculars. Hammer and sickle banners hung from windowsills and lamp posts, fluttering listlessly in a breeze that smelled of cordite. The residual tang of high explosives was familiar to anybody who worked at Arzamas.

Ivanovich only had a momentary glance with which to take in the cityscape. The researchers’ escorts ushered them straight from the bus into a concrete-block building. It looked like a bunker. Curlicues of ash and soot streaked walls stippled with a random smattering of bullet holes.

The cat-piss stink of ammonia slammed into Ivanovich’s eyes and sinuses when he jogged inside. Several of the researchers doubled over, rubbing their eyes. Even their escorts, battle-hardened Red Army soldiers and elite mundanes from Arzamas, gasped. Sapogin clutched the doctor’s arm.

“Poison?”

Ivanovich shook his head. Back in Sarov, Building Eight smelled like this. This was the stink of disassembled batteries. Another sign the Japanese had made tremendous strides with the old Reichsbehörde technology. Far beyond anything countenanced by official strategic estimates of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It was a surprise, but one that nourished the seed sprouting in the back of the doctor’s mind.

Two soldiers accompanied each researcher. The trios spread through the building.

“I’d like to see the testing facilities,” said Ivanovich. If they could study the apparatus the Japanese had used for testing their medical subjects, they’d be better able gauge their results and their aims. In particular, the Kremlin demanded to know if the Japanese had made any strides toward a functioning precog.

It was an interesting philosophical or perhaps metaphysical problem. Say there were two Gretels in the world: would they see the same future paths? Or would the decisions of one become an unaccountable random variable for the other?

Ivanovich pondered this while following one of his escorts down a narrow stairwell. The debris littering the stairs tinkled under their boots like broken glass. As they descended, the smell of ammonia receded only to be replaced with a now-familiar sulfurous stink. In the darker corners, their flashlight beams played across the alabaster detritus of broken eggs. Ivanovich detected another scent, too, though it took him a moment to identify it: charred pork. This made a gruesome sense after they found the bodies. As with the slides shown in the briefing, very little remained of the burned test subjects. Many of the remains had curled into the fetal position as the severe heat of a hasty fire contracted muscles and sinews.

Not all of the bodies had surgical rivets in the skull. All of them, however, were tiny. Children taken from the surrounding city?

Ivanovich set his light on a warped shelf, aiming it on a dead child’s skull. Then he opened his notebook and uncapped a pen. He’d just bent down for a closer look at the distribution of rivets when frantic shouting, an explosion, and the chitter of gunfire echoed from upstairs.

Both guards unslung their rifles. One dashed back up to the ground floor, taking the stairs three at a time. The other tossed a pistol to Ivanovich before crouching at the bottom of the stairs to cover the basement approach. Which meant he didn’t see the girl who ghosted through the wall with a half-dozen grenades dangling from her belt. But Ivanovich did.

The Chinese girl couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen. Brainwashed by her captors? Or coerced? Did she still have living family, held somewhere by the Japanese occupiers? Whatever her story, she appraised Ivanovich—the spectacles, the notebook, the shaking grip on his pistol—with a single glance. Her focus went to the guard. The larger threat.

She reached for a grenade.

The seedling notion at the back of Ivanovich’s mind bloomed, exploding into full flower.

Stepping between the ghostly girl and his own bodyguard, Ivanovich shot the soldier in the head. The echoing percussion of the gunshot melded with the cacophony of combat, panic, and ambush from upstairs. He dropped the pistol at the bottom of the stairs.

The girl frowned, hand rested on her belt. She studied Ivanovich again. She rematerialized, panting heavily to catch her breath. Her hand never left the grenade at her belt, but indecision froze her in place. Ivanovich estimated he’d just prolonged his life by at most a few seconds. Which was just enough time to scrawl a message in his notebook.

He tore out the page and held it in the flashlight beam where the girl could see it clearly. She frowned again. She probably couldn’t read Cyrillic. But her masters could. They’d know he wanted to defect.

“Please,” he whispered. “Take this.”

He knelt, laid the note at her toes. She wore sandals. Her feet were filthy. Then he backed away, hands raised in a gesture of supplication.

She took the note, folded it into quarters, tucked it in a pocket. Then another faint shimmer enveloped her body. Her hand went to her belt again. A metal pin tinkled on the concrete floor as she ghosted back through the wall.

“Shit,” said the doctor. He was almost to the top of the stairs when the concussion caught him.

#

Four Arzamas researchers died in the ambush, and most of their guards. Including the man Ivanovich killed. Nobody questioned the doctor’s claim that he’d narrowly escaped the attack that killed his protector; the shrapnel in his arm spoke most eloquently on his behalf. The Japanese had agents still lurking in Harbin, all waiting to ambush the scientists who came to study the irresistible honey pot left behind by Unit 731. Which raised the question of how many they were, and whether they’d strike again.

The surviving members of the Arzamas delegation withdrew to a Red Army forward base outside Harbin. Chaos reigned; the officers were too busy scapegoating each other for the clear failure of intelligence to quickly arrange safe transport back to Sarov. And once they did sort themselves, the Arzamas chain of command proved particularly inefficient in matters of urgent evacuation, even by Soviet standards. The scientists, and Sapogin, grumbled about the colossal fuckup that landed them at the ass-end of the Union, waiting for intangible or invisible assassins to swoop down on them at any moment.

But those were subsidiary concerns. The real issue, the one on everybody’s mind, especially Ivanovich’s, was Gretel. Why hadn’t she warned Arzamas of the attack on its senior scientists? News of the event had been radioed back to Sarov at the speed of light. Even if she’d foreseen arrival of the news just a few hours ahead of time it would have been plenty of time to avert disaster. Ivanovich didn’t know how far her horizon extended on the best days, but surely a mere hour’s precognition lay well within her abilities. She must have known. Or was her power waning?

Some of the grumbling—always conducted just within earshot—casually remembered Ivanovich’s test with the Faraday cage. And how it had failed.

Meanwhile, Ivanovich wondered if anybody had translated his request for asylum. Surely the Japanese would be interested in a senior researcher. Especially an expert on Gretel. Assuming they knew of her. But perhaps they knew of her and didn’t care. Perhaps the easy success of their ambush left them unimpressed with Gretel. Perhaps they wondered about the waning of her prescience, just as the Arzamas delegation did.

All Ivanovich knew was that no ghostly figures came to spirit him away in the night. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere showed no sign of having received his offer; it gave no indication of thinking Ivanovich could be a useful boon to Unit 731’s already impressive and unanticipated work.

Vodka was hard to find in occupied Manchuria. But foul rice wine was bountiful. The Arzamas men spent the evenings immediately after the ambush assiduously determining just how foul the sake could be. The hard-won conclusion found it wasn’t so foul after the first two or three cups. There was little else to do in the evenings but huddle behind a useless protective cordon and wait for rescue. Sake was traditionally served in small cups, and cheap sake was often served hot to hide the flavor. Ivanovich’s samovar proved ideal on both counts.

A Tupolev cargo plane circled the base on the eighth evening after their arrival. The earthquaking thrum of its engines rattled the cups into which Ivanovich and Sapogin were about to decant their first sake experiment of the evening. And it set the Arzamas researchers to sighing: for most, it meant their spectacularly unsuccessful foray into Manchukuo had finally come to an end; for Ivanovich, the arrival of the cargo plane meant his bid to defect had failed. For everybody it meant return to the secret city.

The turboprops spasmed out their last few rotations as the scientists approached the massive transport. The entire tail section hinged upwards to reveal the voluminous cross-section of the plane and a loading ramp. But rather than waving the fleeing scientists aboard—they could have driven aboard with room to skid to a halt—the quartermaster ushered out reinforcements. Ivanovich recognized some of them; mundane troops from Arzamas, accustomed to seeing unnatural things. The special troops weren’t ready for real combat, and wouldn’t be for years.

Next from the Tupolev’s belly came a dozen crates of armaments. Automatic rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, mortars and shells. Even explosives. Quite a few of those, in fact. Several new vehicles came down the ramp as well: real armored transports with bulky cladding welded around the engine compartments. Next came a dozen copper columns topped with silvery bulbs, like metallic mushrooms grown twelve feet tall. Ivanovich recognized EMP generators like those situated along the perimeter of Arzamas-16. After these came a large cube wrapped in rugged copper mesh. This was sturdier than the Faraday cage Ivanovich had designed. The one everybody believed carried a fatal flaw.

And last, like a whale spitting out an Old Testament prophet, the Tupolev belched one final passenger. Flanked as ever by a pair of guards, she sauntered down the loading ramp with a half-smile quirking one corner of her mouth.

“Little mother!” shouted Sapogin.

Gretel said, “Hello, Sapogin.” She laid a hot hand on the doctor’s face. “And hello, dear Ivanovich. It’s been months. Are you feeling better?”

He tried to decipher her smile. Did she know? Did the seer know he’d offered himself to the Japanese?

#

To the Arzamas contingent’s relief, the plane did not depart after offloading its cargo. It was, however, sealed and put under heavy guard. Sapogin opined that somebody somewhere—whether it be Arzamas or the Kremlin—had unrealistic hopes for the next foray into Harbin if they expected the researchers to fill the Tupolev with the spoils of Unit 731. That they hadn’t recalled the researchers and then carpet-bombed Harbin for a week straight indicated a desire to capture some of the Japanese agents, if not the scientists and their equipment. The Arzamas researchers’ opinions were split regarding the wisdom of this.

Arzamas-16 had long believed itself the world’s only credible successor to the old Third Reich technology. Now suddenly it found itself embroiled in an arms race—one that it was losing. There were those who pointed out, quite correctly, that access to Gretel, Klaus, and the others had jump-started the Soviet program in the early 1940s; they argued that a new infusion of living examples was crucial if Arzamas-16 hoped to leapfrog Unit 731. But others countered that the longer the Japanese program went unhindered the more dangerous it would become. Every day spent allowing it to linger like a festering wound was another chance of permanently losing the contest.

Ivanovich fell into the first group, suggesting that captured subjects—or the researchers’ own Japanese counterparts—could reinvigorate the Soviet effort. Though he kept secret his true motivation: eradication of the research efforts within the Co-Prosperity Sphere would seal off his bolt hole and rob him of his chance to leave Arzamas. The Japanese would have no use for his expertise without a sizeable effort capable of supporting it.

The debate was entirely academic, of course. The Union would do whatever it did, and Arzamas would follow.

The new arrivals worked through the night installing the explosive packages into the endcaps of the metallic columns, thus arming the EMP generators. Each of the completed electromagnetic weapons went onto one of the modified transports. The cladding, Ivanovich realized, was shielding for the engine.

Meanwhile, the survivors of the ambush bombarded the new arrivals with questions. But the ranking officer wasn’t forthcoming. He didn’t need to be; the intent behind the deliveries was clear enough. The troops would push into the city, blanketing the area with a series of crippling electromagnetic pulses to disable or kill the Japanese saboteurs along the way, and seize anything of value from the ruined headquarters of Unit 731.

The remaining scientists cared less about logistical details than they wanted to understand why Gretel hadn’t warned of the attack. They nominated Ivanovich for the questioning, in deference to his long experience dealing with her. After all this entire fiasco was, according to the complex calculus of pack dynamics, partially his fault. He brought Sapogin with him.

Though Gretel was a prisoner, she was also the only woman within the Arzamas contingent. They put a cot in the plane for her, where she wouldn’t have to share space with the scientists and soldiers. Gretel’s new quarters smelled of machine oil and kerosene.

Ivanovich’s footsteps echoed through the empty cargo hold. Gretel lay on the cot, reading by the light of an oil lamp set on an upturned cargo crate. The feeble illumination drew long shadows from the aluminum spars that curved along the fuselage like enormous ribs. He thought of the whale again.

She set her poetry down as they approached. “If you’ve come for my help settling a wager,” she said, “I’m afraid I can’t help you.” One slim hand went to the bare connector at the end of her wires. She wore no battery, of course.

“Why are you here?” said Ivanovich.

Gretel sighed. “Our masters feel I’m not properly motivated to assist your efforts. They believe I’ll do better if I share your predicament.” She shrugged. “They have faith in my sense of self-preservation.”

A solid point, thought Ivanovich. She’d guided the Nazis through several major victories early in the war, but when the Reich fell she wasted no time jumping ship to the Soviet effort.

“It was an ambush,” said Sapogin. “You didn’t warn us.”

“Now you sound like General Sunyaev.” Gretel yawned. “It gets tiresome, how many times I’ve had to explain this to others. Even brother.”

Ivanovich asked, “Explain what?”

She stretched, saying, “Simply knowing the future you desire doesn’t ensure a straightforward path to it.”

Ivanovich struggled to decode her body language. Was there anything to decode? A deception? Misdirection? Had she truly foreseen the attack, or was she covering for the limitations of her prescience? They were captured trying to flee, he reminded himself.

Gretel deflected further questioning. “This reunion calls for tea. Do you still have my gift, doctor?”

#

That evening Ivanovich found a note tucked inside his sealed tube of toothpaste. Kill the psychic, it said. Pull her teeth for us, and we will liberate you.

#

The opportunity came sooner than he’d hoped. Two mornings later, before Ivanovich had time for second thoughts and faltering resolve, on a day that dawned under a patchy sky like a moth-eaten wool blanket, the commander of the reinforcements announced the return push into Harbin. But unlike the previous foray this was unquestionably a military rather than scientific expedition. And, as the previous fiasco had demonstrated, a battlefield was no place for fragile and nearsighted scientists. So the researchers had little to do but hustle Gretel into the Faraday cage and then arm themselves, literally and figuratively, for a long and anxious wait. The reinforcements distributed sidearms and a few rifles to the Arzamas researchers, all of whom had at least a rudimentary knowledge of firearms owing to their mandatory military service.

The commander halted the researchers’ effort to wheel Gretel’s Faraday cage back inside the transport. Rather than see her safely tucked away during the operation, his superiors demanded she accompany the return to Harbin. Quite unshakeable, their faith in her self-preservation.

As was her custom, Gretel took everything in stride with perfect sangfroid. All she asked in return for being confined to her coppery box all day were a book and the use of Ivanovich’s samovar. Tea and poetry, she said, together were a panacea for all manner of monotonies. And so she settled in the Faraday cage while the soldiers finalized their preparations.

The utterly useless cage. The others saw it as armor, as protection for the woman who sometimes glimpsed the future. But to Ivanovich it was a package gift-wrapped in glittering copper foil. It would contain his offering to the Japanese, and thus become his escape from the Union that had repaid years of devoted service by taking his sons one after another: Piotr, Leonid, Dmitrii. A gift from the man who understood the German psychic better than anybody at Arzamas-16. Who knew her strengths and weaknesses. Who had translated her blind spot into mathematics.

She’d be blind in Harbin, too, after the soldiers deployed the EMP weapons. But Ivanovich couldn’t prove himself to his would-be liberators if she fell to a Japanese bullet. Gretel had to die by his own action. As Mishka had died by her inaction.

It was trivial to convince his colleagues to detonate an electromagnetic countermeasure at the airstrip. Their fidgeting anxiety did most of Ivanovich’s work for him.

He excused himself from an interminable discussion (the usual lamentations over how cleanly Unit 731 had hidden its obvious successes, along with the attendant speculation about what additional abilities the Japanese might have unleashed from their subjects) and headed for the latrine. He waited until he was around the corner, and alone, before firing his rifle into the air and shrieking, “They’re here!”

Which had the effect of throwing a lit match into the petroleum slurry of the Arzamas contingent’s disquiet. The men who’d spent days on end jumping at shadows, wondering if they’d die at the hands of attackers who could come and go like ghosts, took up the cry. Within moments Ivanovich heard two more gunshots; the power of suggestion was a potent thing indeed. Patchy sunlight scudded across the camp, the shifting shadows fueling a panic that spread through Ivanovich’s erstwhile colleagues. The pop of another gunshot punctuated the shouts and rapid thudding of boots as the camp tried to organize an effective response to unknown, unseen attackers. A soldier nearly trampled Ivanovich when he barreled around the corner.

“There! There!” yelled the doctor, gesticulating at a pile of empty wooden crates. The soldier elbowed him aside en route to intercept the imaginary infiltrator. Ivanovich ran to a spot he’d scouted a day earlier, and leapt into a shallow gully that bordered the north edge of the airstrip. Lying on his stomach, peeking just over the brim of the channel, he had an isolated and unobstructed view of the encampment. And Gretel’s cage.

The bandages on his arm gave him trouble. But Ivanovich managed to bring the rifle to bear and watch through the magnified scope as Sapogin double-checked the seals on the Faraday cage. Finding the conductive shell unbroken, the Cossack nodded a frantic affirmative to the soldiers manning one of the EMP devices. They activated their device and ran for cover. The gleaming metal mushroom emitted a high-pitched whine.

Ivanovich swung his rifle back toward the cage. The commotion hadn’t touched Gretel, who sipped her tea as calmly as though she were the general-colonel’s dinner guest back in Sarov. She drank like a British aristocrat with pinky finger extended. Still intent on her poetry, Gretel frowned as if uncomfortable. Grabbing the edge with her free hand, she shifted her weight and scooted the chair a couple of inches to the right. She did it all so gently, so gracefully, no tea slopped over the rim of her cup. The EMP weapon hit a warbling crescendo. She turned a page.

Indigo light strobed the encampment. A thundercrack blanketed the camp with the metallic scent of ozone. Two more flashes followed in quick succession, emanating from other corners around the perimeter of the camp. Had there been any Japanese augmentees within the camp, the blasts surely would have overpowered and shorted their batteries. In moments, when no attackers rematerialized, the others would realize there had been no attack.

Ivanovich drew a breath, held it. He centered the rifle sight’s reticle on her forehead, midway between the braids dangling from either side of her head. His finger tightened on the trigger.

Three things happened at once.

Gretel lifted the teacup to her lips.

A cloud moved past the sun.

Sunlight glinted from the polished brim of the cup straight into the magnified scope on Ivanovich’s rifle, eliciting a flare of pain in his eye and causing him to flinch as he pulled the trigger.

He missed by less than an inch. The bullet threaded her hair, sent one braid whipping like an angry snake. She turned another page in her book, apparently unconcerned by the shot that had punctured the copper screen and very nearly her skull.

“Damnation!”

Ivanovich’s sweat-slick fingers slipped from the bolt lever when he tried to eject the empty cartridge. The bandages gave him trouble again, the shrapnel wounds in his arm preventing him from managing a single fluid motion. A hot brass cylinder pinged across the stones at Ivanovich’s feet. He brought the rifle to bear again. Gretel hadn’t moved. Sapogin nearly ripped the Faraday cage’s door from its hinges in his haste to pull her to safety. Ivanovich fired again just as the Cossack leapt upon her. The back of his head ejected a puff of red as they went down in a heap.

Still the bolt mechanism resisted Ivanovich. His injury and a rising sense of panic made him clumsy. He’d just managed to eject the empty cartridge—it went spinning, glittering in the patchy sunlight—when the soldiers found him. They showed admirable restraint, beating him merely into malleability rather than unconsciousness. His toes etched tiny furrows in the dirt when they dragged him out of the gully.

Gretel stood outside the Faraday cage, sighing. The dented samovar lay on the metal floor alongside dead Sapogin, tea dripping from the bullet hole in one while blood trickled from a hole in the other.

She pointed at the ruined urn. “What a pity, Doctor. Now you’ll have nothing by which to remember me.”

#

The Arzamas contingent loaded the Tupolev and took flight for Sarov within the hour. It took little coercion before Ivanovich admitted, en route, to his tentative and brief collusion with the Japanese. The unanticipated sophistication of Unit 731’s human experimentation program, plus the successful subornation of a senior Arzamas researcher, topped with the hair’s breadth failure of the attempt to assassinate Gretel together tipped the Union’s hand and curtailed the push to capture living examples of the Japanese Götterelektron technology. The Politburo deemed existence of a parallel program unacceptably dangerous. After all, it offered Arzamas staff members the hope of leaving, the dream of escaping the crucible.

Thus it wasn’t long before radio reception in the Siberian camps—limited and tightly controlled at the best of times—became impossible. Electromagnetic disturbances ricocheted from the ionosphere to cripple telegraphs, appliances, and power lines all the way from the sweaty Philippines to the sere Mongolian steppes, from western China to the south Pacific islands. Rumors of the outside world trickled slowly into the camps to percolate among Ivanovich’s fellow dissidents. But they did, eventually, which is how he came to discover that long banished Timoshenko numbered among his colleagues.

In explaining the cause of the radio interference, Ivanovich shared his story with his fellow former Arzamas researcher. He did so expecting commiseration, a shared cursing of capricious fate. But Timoshenko—once a freshly scrubbed and bright burning candle, now hirsute and half mad—said, “I was wrong. We’re all fools. And you, Ivanovich, are our king. Our puppet king.”

His laughter reminded Ivanovich of Sapogin, and the way he’d chortle when he won a bet. But Ivanovich didn’t want to think of the man he’d killed. Nor did he wish to confront the uncomfortable truth lurking in Timoshenko’s words. Thus the doctor broke his hands against the younger man’s face. But it did nothing to deter Ivanovich’s predecessor in disgrace. Timoshenko merely chuckled past his bloodied lips, saying, “One must conclude she didn’t care for the future of Unit 731. And I thought I’d never learn why she chose to come east.”

He stopped laughing then, instead wincing as he probed at a chipped tooth with his tongue. When next he spoke, the look in his eyes had gone from a madman’s mirth to cold clarity. Ivanovich didn’t like it.

“Did you ever learn how your son died?”

Ivanovich didn’t speak to Timoshenko after that, and never again shared the story of his exile.

His hands healed slowly. But the bandages protected them from mosquitoes and leeches while a dedicated wing of the Soviet Air Forces spent the summer carpeting occupied Manchuria with combined EMP/high explosive ordinance. Ivanovich came to know the ravages of frostbite the following winter while a reinvigorated eastern offensive pounded every location on the Pacific Rim even vaguely suspected of a connection to Unit 731.

The days were growing longer, though an icy sheen still coated the swamps and rivers, when a parcel arrived from an undisclosed location far to the west. Packages were virtually unheard of in the gulag, rarer even than commuted sentences. It was addressed to Dr. Aleksandr Ivanovich Grigoryev, and though it had of course been opened and examined, the contents were intact. It contained a samovar, not quite as nice as the old one, and a note:

In appreciation for your assistance. -G

Location

Address:

P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

Fax: