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Dusk in Kalevia: Chapter 2

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #007 back issue.

The moon had set hours ago and the rail yard was black as pitch when the boy, Martin, followed his four companions over the ridge. They paused at the crest, waiting for a subtle sign to pass between them before pressing on down the slope. Martin was relieved to hear they made no sound, save for the whispered crush of frost underfoot; their movements were darting and skittish as they crept forward, hunched almost double, occasionally stopping to raise their heads like wild animals testing the air for a predator’s scent. He felt like part of a herd of deer moving single file, loath to leave the periphery of the pine forest into open danger.

They reached the fence by the tracks and hunkered down beside it. One of them, a stringy man with spectacles, produced a pair of wire cutters from his canvas rucksack and went to work, severing the links with rhythmic precision. Martin chewed his knuckles as the snaps of metal echoed in the still air, but there was no cry from within, no notice taken of their labors. The cabin on the hill remained dark–the soldiers stationed there, asleep. Far off, by the main depot, a lone guard walked back and forth under the single floodlight, seemingly making his rounds less out of diligence than in a desire to keep warm. Martin watched him with bated breath, but the guard continued his pacing.

In no time at all, they’d opened a hole in the fence large enough to squeeze through. The de-facto leader of the group–a tall, broad-shouldered man known as Klaus–placed a hand on the nearest shoulder and nodded in appreciation.

“Let’s go,” he said in his hushed baritone.

One of the twins came forward with a large satchel, which he handled slowly and gingerly. His brother watched, eyes wide in the darkness, as the bespectacled man opened it and removed a spool of fuse. Martin could barely make out his furtive movements, but he couldn’t miss the sickly sweet smell of nitroglycerin that wafted from the bag.

Preparations complete, the bespectacled man slipped through the fence and was gone. Klaus quickly gave the twins instructions to remain and flash the signal if they saw anyone approaching. Martin hung back until Klaus handed him a penlight and pulled him in the direction of the hole.

“You, too, Martin. Hold this so he can see what he’s doing.”

Unable to risk lighting their way, they stumbled slowly through the yard, tripping on mounds and gravel, past the looming black shapes of clapboard buildings. Martin could barely make out the silhouette of the depot up ahead, where the army trains stopped for supplies on the way north to the prisons. He thought about the bounty contained within those walls; he wished they had the time to grab a few guns to round out their pitiful munitions. He knew it was better no one have them if the other option was Communist control, but it seemed a bit of a waste, really.

They found their way to the back of the building, shielded from the eyes of the patrolling guard, before the demolition man opened his bag once more and carefully withdrew a large bundle. Martin turned on his tiny light, revealing a pack of rods about the size of his forearm, wrapped in brown paper. The expert pushed his glasses up his nose and got down to business.

The warehouse was situated on a cinder block foundation, slightly raised to avoid the swampy mud of the spring thaw. Properly concealed beneath the floor, the dynamite would do enough damage to destroy most of what was contained within. Martin tried to hold his hand steady as he made the plant. Klaus stared off into the darkness, sweeping the yard with his sentinel gaze. He stiffened.

“Hold on. Look.”

From back at the fence, a tiny pinpoint winked frantically. Danger, danger.

Bright light flashed over them. There stood the night guard, his jaw slack in disbelief.

No one moved. Martin could see the shine of the man’s wide, puzzled eyes, his face lit from below by the reflected glow of his torch beam. The fool had missed the crucial moment to shout for help.

He went for his rifle. Klaus sprang at him like a panther, clamping a hand over his face and yanking him around the corner into blackness.

There was the sound of a brief struggle and a small, stifled cry. A long pause left Martin and the demolition man trembling with anxiety, hands gripping fuse and blasting cap. Then Klaus rushed around the side of the building, panting, eyes wild.

His large hands were wet with blood. As he bent over them, Martin could smell it thick on his clothes–a rusty, bestial funk. He tried not to gag as he swallowed the salty saliva that flooded his mouth.

“Is he…?” Martin’s voice slipped out in a shameful squeak.

Klaus grabbed him roughly with a gory hand and stared down at him. Martin suffered there a moment, cold sweat prickling in his armpits, before Klaus turned from him with a snort and began wiping down his hunting knife.

“Hurry.”

The demolition man inserted the cap into the tidy bundle of brown paper. He made his retreat, running the fuse wire behind him as he went. Klaus followed and Martin joined him, jogging close by his leader’s side.

Listening to Klaus’s heavy breath in the dark, Martin found himself wanting to break away and run, cursing himself for ever wanting to be a part of this.

They slid back through the hole in the fence and into the drainage ditch, where they joined the twins. They had already set up the blasting machine–it was simply a matter of connecting the wires.

“You do the honors,” said Klaus.

The twins pushed the handle home.

A momentary stillness, the painful clarity of billions of stars above them–and then a volcano of wood and dirt and fire, tossed aloft as though by the gnarled hands of the earth itself.

The initial detonation had barely begun when the shells inside the depot caught, amplifying the blast. Martin’s world was filled with flames, bright and angry, as the explosion obliterated the depot. The blast scattered the depot’s charred remains in all directions, amid twisted railroad ties and tree limbs torn apart in dynamite fury.

It was more dramatic than any of them had hoped for. Martin crouched in the icy ditch, mouth agape at the destructive masterpiece they had wrought.

It took a heartbeat for the shock wave to follow. A hot, booming wind beat the breath from his lungs, pressing him down into the frozen grass with eyes full of grit and tears.

As the thunder faded, Martin coughed and sat up. He looked into the pale, wide-eyed faces of the other men frozen in the light of the Milky Way. He didn’t dare speak. The solemn look that passed between them said all there was to be said.

We’ve done it. There’s no going back.

Ears muffled and ringing in the aftermath of the great explosion, Martin followed Klaus’s gesture to move quickly. He was the last bomber to quit the scene of the crime, stealing down the ditch to leap into the shadows of the forest. He faintly heard the wail of an alarm from the mangled guard cabin fading as he ran into the winter woods.

**

Demyan Chernyshev hurried across the courtyard toward the steps of the State Council Building, the hem of his black overcoat dancing around his knees in the frigid wind. The mid-morning dawn crept down the columns of the towering façade. Immense and forbidding, the place had been built to cow those who stood upon its threshold, but he had faced grander halls throughout history, and it was not the wall of marble before him that chilled his spirits. He strode purposefully across the flagstones, scattering a flock of foraging pigeons into the air, his mind hazy and dissatisfied with the world.

He hadn’t slept. He could feel the mechanisms of his flesh struggling to compensate, the blood pounding in his temples as it tried to wash away the ache and bleary confusion of the long night. What the messenger raven had told him had kept him up through the long hours of the early morning, sipping from a shot glass at his bedside table while he pored over star charts. His opposite number was finally here.

At first, the news had left him giddy. Practically shivering in anticipation, he had felt the bloodlust of a hound after quarry, the longing of a waiting lover. He had tossed and turned upon his mattress before finally giving up on sleep and pacing the room, his breath rasping in the dark. The euphoria hadn’t lasted, and in time he sobered to lie staring at the ceiling. Initially blinded by his sharp need for a worthy foe, he had forgotten the storm that had begun to brew on the horizon, dark and full of fury. When his phone rung with news about the bombing, it merely confirmed his suspicions.

The arrival of an Angel of Light could only mean one thing: war was coming to Kalevia.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Demyan had known. Of course he had known. It was clear that once again he had chosen his destination with damnable accuracy. Hoping for a brief respite, he’d gone to ground in Kalevia, losing himself in the long and melancholy winters–but as always, fate compelled him onward to the next battlefield, the bellwether of disaster.

Demyan realized with mild surprise that while lost in thought, he had reached the base of the steps and begun to climb. He licked his lips and forced himself to focus, the lingering taste of vodka still in on his tongue. Upon reaching the top, he turned and stood for a time, tall and still as a statue.

Before him stretched clean pavement, peppered with little gray doves and furbished with a few sickly trees imprisoned in a neat cement corral. A sculpture of a man in angular bronze brandished aloft a hammer and sickle. Beyond the aseptic yard, its stone walls warming with pale sunlight, he caught a glimpse of the crenelated towers of the old castle on the river, their purpose mirrored by the modern watchtowers surrounding him. Seen this way, the buildings of the Governmental Seat were part of a modern day citadel–an affirmation of the cyclical spin of history. Buildings proclaiming the strength and power of a new republic did nothing so much as remind one of the old.

A harsh caw echoed across the square; Demyan noticed a raven perched on one of the guard towers. It was mostly likely a member of his network with a bit of information it couldn’t wait to share. He gave a nod in its direction, and sure enough, the bird flapped over to his shoulder and casually began to groom its wing. Annoyed, Demyan shrank back into the shadow of a column, willing himself to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Kalevia_Chap2_Illus

“I thought I told you not to come to me in public,” he hissed at the raven.

The bird tilted its head and stared at him with one round eye. A group of politicians walked by, chatting amongst themselves. If they registered the sight of Demyan talking to the large black bird, they showed no sign of it.

“Got plenty news, yeah?” the bird protested.

“Hurry up. I’ve got a briefing in twenty minutes.”

“Big news, big. Guy you were asking for–saw guy getting outta car over State Security.”

Now Demyan was awake. His heart began to kick up a fuss in his chest that he hoped wasn’t externally audible.

“Are you sure?” Demyan whispered, affecting skepticism.

The bird let out a little croak, as though to express its indignation at Demyan’s lack of faith.

“Damn,” Demyan marveled, shaking his head. This was too easy. “I’ll be over there as soon as I can.”

“You deal with it, yeah?” the raven said. He shook his wings and flew off.

Demyan clicked his tongue in frustration. He wanted nothing more than to rush over to headquarters, but he knew he couldn’t bow out of this one–he had a meeting with the Chairman, after all. His mark would have to wait.

He entered through double doors into the solemn hush of the main corridor. Despite the bustle of activity, the place had the feel of a library; sedate groups of suited men wandered the halls, conversing in whispers and stifled coughs. Emotionless guards in pressed gray uniforms stood at intervals along the walls, their eyes focused in the middle distance.

Demyan was occasionally struck by the urge to get inside those guards’ heads–twist their minds with fear until they were unable to maintain their impassive watch–but he restrained himself. There wasn’t much point in needlessly attacking one’s allies, after all. Demyan was practical; using his abilities for that sort of sadistic trick seemed a deplorable waste.

At the front desk, another gray young man requested his ID. He puzzled over the CCCP seal that accompanied the emblem of the Kalevian Bear.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the youth, turning the card over in his hands. “I haven’t seen one like this before.”

“You must be new, comrade. I’m State Security–you don’t need to overthink it.”

“Just a moment, let me check.”

“Go on, then. I have a meeting with Chairman Uusitalo.”

Demyan tapped his finger on the desk impatiently. He didn’t have time for this. Perhaps the lad needed a little push.

“Hey,” he said. The guard looked up quizzically, and Demyan slipped inside his eyes, looking to prod a weakness that would shake him into action. It only took an instant for the guard’s face to betray his thoughts, crumbling in a shudder of sickly panic.

He could see it clearly: demotion and ignominy, relinquishing himself to a life sorting mail down in the filing rooms. They would all laugh at him, wouldn’t they? They would say “Poor boy–guess you couldn’t handle it, after all. Such a pity, we thought you were bright. When did you become such a failure?”

“You don’t want to cause any trouble now, do you?” said Demyan, shaking his head in mock sympathy.

The guard’s face paled to the color of his jacket. “No,” he mumbled. “No, comrade. Please, by all means, proceed.”

Demyan stalked off down the hall, the fleeting glow of the young guard’s stolen confidence washing over him like a jolt of opiates in his veins.

Like a warm light in the chest, a wavering candle, the hope of humans beckoned to him. Once he touched it, however, it was devoured in his shadow, leaving room for all the dark fears to come surging in. He trafficked in darkness–exchanged light for shadow. Darkness got things done.

He turned one corner and the next, following the familiar route toward the Chairman’s office. The carpet underfoot became thick red plush, and dark wood lined the walls. An aide at her desk rose to greet him.

“Wait here a moment, Comrade Chernyshev,” she said, as she led him into an anteroom. “I’ll let His Excellency know you’re here.”

The furnishings within, while not lavish, were a subtle nod to the power held by the office. Demyan stepped onto thick rugs woven with traditional Nordic designs, surrounded by pre-war, antique chairs that some old artisan must have spent days carving. Two huge mirrors in carved wood frames hung facing each other, making the room seem larger than it truly was. Demyan caught the faint and inexplicable scent of pipe smoke and old books wafting on the warm air.

He watched himself in the twin mirrors–an army at attention, stretching off into infinity. As far as bodies went, he found this one an especially pleasing incarnation. A proud man stared back at him, straight-backed and thin, dark hair swept back from his forehead. High cheekbones and epicanthic eyes whispered tales of the steppe, a Russian bloodline woven with a history of Asiatic migration. It was a beautiful body that would have looked equally at home astride a shaggy dun horse or seated behind an office desk. He shifted and turned it, watching his duplicates mimic the motions.

He liked this body. With any luck, he’d be able to keep it for a while yet.

The door swung open violently. The Minister of State Security marched in, followed by the harried aide, her arms burdened with a stack of manila folders from headquarters. Demyan, in his embarrassment, shot out a mental spike that should have stopped them both in their tracks. The aide let out a soft whimper and nearly dropped the dossiers.

“Ah, I see Chernyshev is already here!” said the Minister. “How are you today, my Russian friend?” He flashed a perfunctory smile at Demyan, a hint of white canines behind thin, pale lips.

“Fine, fine,” Demyan intoned. “And yourself, Comrade Kuoppala?”

The man made Demyan sick. Behind that long, clean-cut policeman’s face, there was something broken, something perverse. Every time Demyan tried to probe into Kuoppala’s thoughts in search of secret anxieties, he was met with a thick wall of hostility–an arrogant, searing rancor directed toward his person–that it forced Demyan to shrink back in disgust. In his experience, hatred born from fear was common, but the dispassionate distaste with which Minister Kuoppala seemed to view the world–that was an anomaly.

Every wall has a flaw, however. Demyan would find that crack. And then, oh, then…

“Shall we?” asked Demyan, and opened the great oak doors.

The Chairman of Kalevia’s Communist Party was standing quietly with his back to them, stroking his beard and gazing out the enormous window of his office. Bathed in the glow of the morning sun, motes of dust floating in the air around him, he looked almost frail, humbled by the scale of his surroundings. He looked a far cry from the glorious leader who addressed cheering crowds at the military parades and whose stern visage regularly graced the front page of the newspaper. For a moment, he appeared before them just a sad-eyed man, tired, past his prime, and lost deep in thought.

Demyan cleared his throat.

The Chairman straightened, becoming once more the image of command. He looked at them, his eyes hard with disappointment.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, a hint of genteel apology in his tone. “I was just watching the birds.”

As though on cue, the shadows of flying doves cut the sunbeam and played across the wall.

Demyan tensed. Were they being watched?

“The others should be meeting us in the briefing room,” Demyan suggested, eager to move to a more secure location. After all, his angel was here in Kalevia–and one could never be too careful with doves.

Proceed to Chapter 2, page 2–>