Thursday, August 25, 2016

Another New Chapter - Moskau (Alternative History thriller) by G. Zotov

Chapter Three

The Odin Temple
(Aryan St., 46 opposite the Kommandatur)

I had to leave the car at a remote parking lot. Even though I have the clearance, no one’s allowed to park their cars by the walls of the Kommandatur. The place is wallowing in paranoia, they see terrorists everywhere.
I receive a token made of hard cardboard and head for the turnpike. A fat bespectacled middle-aged guy in a brown uniform with an Obergefreiter lapel badges is manning the booth by the barrier. His tongue hanging out from the effort, he’s studying a fresh issue of Völkischer Beobachter plastered with glossy pictures of scantily clad girls. That’s crisis for you. The party press was obliged to adopt the tabloid format in order to survive in the free market.
I knock at the glass of the booth. We've known each other for ages.
“Heiley heil,” he mumbles unceremoniously, turning a page.
I wave a greeting. “Heil to you too.”
I know every inch of the Aryan Street which stretches from Berlin Station all the way up to the Reichstag. I can walk the whole length of it blindfolded. Its sidewalks are lined with the blackened skeletons of tanks fenced off with strap barriers: a reminder of the street fighting of the Twenty-Year War. Half a dozen charred Tigers are grouped together opposite the Luftwaffe Heroes Boulevard like a small herd of droopy-trunked elephants. The walls of the state-of-the-art office buildings touch the rotting ruins of bombed-out houses. Apparently, in Bolshevik times there used to be a monument to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin here. He’s long been removed both from the square and from the school curriculum. He was of African descent, wasn’t he?
Actually, the Ministry of Education did a great job. They banned Tchaikovsky’s music — apparently, the composer was a closet homosexual. They destroyed some of the most popular old movies which had featured Jewish actors, no matter how minor the part.
The center of the boulevard gapes with black holes edged with fire-licked scabs. These are bonfire sites. On weekends, the Aryan Street becomes a scene of multiple book burnings. They confiscate books from the Schwarzkopfs, like they used to do at the Opernplatz in Berlin. The books by Herbert Wells, Vladimir Mayakovski and Jaroslav Hašek squirm as they reduce to ashes.
When I was still a young Führerjugend activist, I brought here a copy of The Three Musketeers that the school janitor had been hiding in his cubicle. I threw it in the fire. Its author Alexander Dumas wasn’t Aryan. There was African blood in his veins too. Have you heard this ripping noise made by burning paper? It sounds like a heart being ripped apart.
In place of the old Pushkin monument, they’ve got Nietzsche standing now. At first, lots of people confused him with Gorky (another banned author) because of his fat moustache. The Führer used to love Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Unfortunately, he didn’t know something that Nietzsche had said, “Germany is a great nation only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins.” Having said that, it’s probably all slander spread by the Shogunet forum trolls. Trust them to write all sorts of sick nonsense.
The government buildings on the Aryan Street are a sorry sight. Most of them are just copies of Berlin’s gloomy edifices. Take a look: the Moskau Ministry of Propaganda and Public Education, perfectly in keeping with Dr. Goebbels’ old office. Gray columns, colorful mosaics depicting young Aryan people flashing white smiles as they applaud National Socialism. A piercing wind invigorates the fluttering Reichskommissariat flags: the scarlet-red banners with a black eagle clenching a wreath of oak leaves. The swastika is long gone. Only souvenir vendors at the Richard Wagner pedestrian zone still sell merchandise featuring Die Hakenkreuz, the “angled cross”. The swastika on the flag was banned soon after the Twenty Year War. Regardless of how much everyone worships the Führer, not all of the Reichskommissariats were happy with his legacy, especially those where constant uprisings of the “Forest Brothers” were the norm.
Next, the dilapidated office of the Labor Front. A long time ago, this trade union organization used to be headed by Robert Ley. Reichsleiter Ley was killed in 1968 by some partisans during his visit to Kiev. They sent him a messenger pigeon carrying a miniature grenade.
A blood-curdling screech of car brakes shakes the air.
“Where do you think you’re going, you motherf- Or, sorry, Priest. My mistake.”
I was so busy staring at the Labor Front windows that I didn’t even notice myself stepping out into the traffic and very nearly being hit by a green Nissan. Nissan, what a funny name. One of those words you can’t help but tweak to make them sound more lewd, if you know what I mean. Nissan, pisspan, that sort of thing. Most of Moskau cars are Japanese. The Mercedes, Opels and Volkswagens are reserved for official missions. Their production just isn’t viable anymore. Even street buses are all Mitsubishis. I won’t even mention the Tokyo-imported pushbikes.
I flash him a benign smile. “It’s all right! Alles in ordnung!”
I didn’t even notice saying it. We use Germanic words and phrases mechanically. Nobody refers to an “ID card” anymore: it’s an ausweis. Russlanders soak up foreign words naturally, me being no exception. Still, I can only think in the local tongue.
I wipe my forehead. The sun is blazing.
Odin’s priests don’t have it easy. Sacrificial rites call for a special uniform: chainmail, a pair of fur-lined high boots, a wolf pelt thrown over your shoulders and a fifteen-pound ritual sword hanging from your belt. It does take some stamina, I tell you.
I can’t walk any faster but I’ve almost arrived at my destination. I walk past a Hashi sushi bar – hashi means chopsticks in Japanese — and there I am, entering Odin’s Temple.
If the truth were known, I’m not a hundred percent happy with my workplace. The building is far too large and ponderous, shaped as a medieval cave with a central grotto and several branching tunnels. Admittedly, it's quite comfortable. There's a hot water source inside: very convenient when one needs to clean blood from swords. By the entrance, there's a sculpture: Tyr the God laying his hand into the mouth of Fenrir the wolf. The year 1947 saw Norse mythology being adopted as the official religion of the Third Reich, in compliance with Reichsführer Himmler’s last will and testament[i]. No one was going to destroy the existing churches or cathedrals: their congregations were free to worship whoever they pleased. But what is the popularity-driving engine these days? Exactly. Publicity. Billions of reichsmarks were channeled into the promotion of new ideas. TV, radio, even the leading movie stars including the-then star Marika Rökk and the publicly repentant Marlene Dietrich. It worked. It took less than ten years for half the Reich’s population to reject their religions and start worshipping at the altars of Greater Germany. A sensation? Not at all. The entire history of humanity is proof of the fact that people find it very easy to denounce their religion, provided the publicity is right. The two thousand years of Christianity had left a bad taste in their mouths. The new version of the same old (or a remake, as they call it in the California Republic) was extremely timely. Everyone was already bored to death with the four riders of the Apocalypse. Now the story of Fenrir the wolf devouring the sun — that was fresh and original. After all, why shouldn’t religion be fun?
I use my magnet key to open the door and barge into the lobby, panting and sweating like a pig. Nobody inside. The black sacrificial goat bleats plaintively. Of course. Trust my assistants to go on vacation. This is Russland, after all. Even a nuclear war won’t stop them from retiring to their summer cottages.
A written prompt shaped as an axe hangs over the altar. I know it by heart:

Monday: Moon’s day
Tuesday: Tiu’s day
Wednesday: Woden’s day
Thursday: Thor’s day
Friday: Freya’s day
Saturday: Saturn’s day
Sunday: Sun’s day

Moskauers aren’t particularly attentive. They still use the old week names, out of habit. But an experienced priest like myself who was interned in Norway and Tibet can’t let his tongue slip.
I walk over to the goat. He stinks and tries to gore me with his horns. He has the right not to like me: he’ll be slaughtered soon.
My to-do list, the one in the altar box, renders me speechless. How am I supposed to find time for all this? The very first item on the list is a funeral. This isn’t what it used to be: do a bit of singing and incense-burning, bury the poor beggar, end of story. Oh, no. It’s not just having to load the stiffs onto disposable plywood Mitsubishi boats to be burned on the Moskva River. It’s the priests’ duty to cut the dead men’s nails! Oh yes. When Ragnarök — the world’s end — comes, the earth will disgorge Naglfar, the ship fashioned entirely from dead people’s nails. The ocean will freeze over and the ship will slide over the ice, taking an army of jötunns — mythical giants — to their last battle. To prevent Ragnarök from happening, dead people’s nails should be cut short: this way Naglfar can’t form, you see. My scissors are always here. What’s a quick manicure? Surely not a big deal.
You really think no one believes it?
Not the Schwarzkopfs, no. They’re either Bolshies or Orthodox Christians or just plain good pagans. But the rest... there’s no zealot like a convert, you know. You won’t believe the extent of it. Old ladies gossip on boulevard benches about the Goddess Angrboda: were her children begotten by Loki or by Thor? The mind boggles.
I walk over to the statue of Rübezahl, the forest sprite and the king of dwarves. A tiny, hunched old man with a large beard. I mustn’t forget to lay a bunch of mushrooms at his feet.
A new bout of pain pierces my head like a red-hot needle.
I clench my teeth. My fingers squeeze the head of a goat lying on the altar. Great gods...
The haze before my eyes refuses to dissolve. I gasp. My mouth fills with blood.
Darkness devours everything around me. Rübezahl explodes in a cascade of tiny little stars.

Vision One. The Black Skies

The wind screams. Icy cold, it reaches under my clothes, its skeletal fingers clenching my throat, constricting my movements. My eyelashes have frozen together. I sniffle, wary of opening my mouth. The wind’s not screaming anymore: it’s howling like a fatally wounded animal, making me colder still.
I scramble through the darkness. There’s not a single light here. The flashes of submachine gun fire slice through the pitch black night.
Human hands poke out of the ice. People stagger through the city, sinking knee deep into the snow. Not people: rambling shadows, lice-ridden, in filthy trench coats. There’s nothing human left about them. Their frost-burned cheeks are wrapped in women’s shawls, their boot legs are stuffed with rags against the cold. Some of them seek warmth by bonfires, wrapping bundles of blankets around themselves.
This is crazy. I turn a corner of a collapsed building. A group of soldiers is swarming around a dead horse. They’re delirious with starvation. One of them has crawled toward the horse’s head and is busy nibbling at its stiff frozen ear. Not a star in the sky. Its blackness merges with that of the earth. They’re one now. There’s not a single house around still intact. Nothing but ruins, their jagged walls like the tooth marks of a mysterious monster.
The earth begins to shake. The starving lunatics duck into the snow, choking on horse meat. An air raid. The howling of bombers adds to the screaming of the wind, growing into a symphony of the Apocalypse. Orange flashes rip through the darkness.
It’s everywhere here.
Each of us knows what they are going to feed on once all the horses are dead and all the cats have been trapped. We’ll feed on each other. Warmth and food: this is what these ragged people hunt for. A tin of canned meat goes for a gold signet ring. Only who might need it here?
Barbed wire-wound stakes are hung with frozen bodies. Nobody buries them. They’re just too many. Those still alive have gotten used to the dead men’s company. I see shell cases scattered amongst the collapsed brickwork. Tank crews are still alive inside their white machines but they have no gas left. The tanks turn their turrets this way and that, unable to move. They're dying like broken-legged mammoths.
I can see a deluded soldier rip his trench coat open baring his chest, yelling at an Oberleutnant. The soldier is young and drunk as a skunk. The Oberleutnant is older, his face covered with stubble, a bloodied bandage on his forehead. The shrapnel scar on his cheek is semicircular.
”Why did they send us here?” the soldier screams. “We’re all gonna die!”
Alcohol is never in short supply. Without it, all wars would have ended before they even started. Facing death is scary. Alcohol dissolves the panicky fear. Not for very long, but still.
He hurls his submachine gun at the Oberleutnant’s feet. His face is distorted.
“This isn’t my country! Let me go! I want to leave!”
The Oberleutnant shakes his head. His pale blue eyes reflect the falling snow. The soldier collapses into a deep drift and struggles to scramble back to his feet, then tries to crawl away.
The officer pulls his right hand out of his trench coat’s pocket. His hand looks so funny in a women’s fingerless mitten. His index and little fingers are black — apparently septic with frostbite.
He clenches the handle of his eight-round Walther and takes aim in the snowstorm, mumbling something through clenched teeth. The soldier has already made it to the trenches.
He fires.
The soldier drops on his back. The helmet flies off his head. His blond hair is covered in blood.
Immediately another shot resonates through the air: the heavy sound of a far-off rifle. An enemy sniper, shooting blindly. The officer’s muzzle flash had betrayed his position.
The Oberleutnant sinks to his knees, drops his Walther and lies down on his side as if to have a nap. It takes the snowstorm but a few seconds to bury the two new corpses.
How strange. Only a moment ago, two men were alive. And now they’re not. Every man who goes to war thinks he’s going to survive. Human history might have been completely war-free had we known that we were going to be killed. Yes, killed.
A new swarm of bombers dives. Explosions. More explosions. And yet more.
I rub my cheeks with snow. I don’t sense the cold. It's frostbite.
I know very well why I’m seeing it all. The dead cities. The dead bodies. The ice desert.
She makes me see it.

[i] In the real world, in 1943 the Reichsführer of the SS Heinrich Himmler prepared a plan to adopt Scandinavian mythology as the country’s official religion. The plan provided for the building of Viking temples as well as the execution of the Pope. However, he never proposed the plan to Hitler.

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