“Turtledove is the standard-bearer for alternate history.”—USA Today
The novels of Harry Turtledove show history balancing on single moments: One act of folly. One poor decision. One moment of rage. In this astounding new series, the unthinkable has come to pass. The Cold War turns hot—and the United States and the Soviet Union unleash their nuclear arsenals upon each other. Millions die. Millions more are displaced. Germans battle side by side with Americans, Polish freedom fighters next to Russian fascists. The genie is out of the bottle. And there’s no telling what fresh hell will come next.
At the heart of Fallout are Harry Truman and Josef Stalin. Even as Joe McCarthy rises in power, the U.S. president is focused elsewhere, planning to cut off the head of the Soviet threat by taking out Stalin. It’s a daring gambit, but the Soviets have one of their own. Meanwhile, Europe’s weak sisters, France and Italy, seem poised to choose the winning side, while China threatens to overrun Korea. With Great Britain ravaged and swaths of America in ruins, leaders are running out of options. When the United States drops another series of bombs to slow the Russian advance in Europe, Stalin strikes back—with horrifying results.
These staggering events unfold through the eyes of a sprawling cast of characters: a Holocaust survivor in a displaced persons camp in Washington; the wife of a bomber pilot and her five-year-old daughter starting a new existence; a savage Soviet fighter waging war by his own rules; a British pub owner falling in love with an American pilot. In the masterly hands of Harry Turtledove, this epic chronicle of war becomes a story of human struggle. As the armies of the world implode, the next chapter will be written by the survivors—those willing to rise up for an uncertain future.
Praise for Fallout
“Turtledove proves, yet again, that he is the best when it comes to rewriting history!”—Suspense Magazine
“Turtledove, the master of alternate history, has done well again.”—Shelf Awareness
“No one writes alternate-history novels quite like Turtledove. . . . Expect epic political stakes as well as personal and heartfelt stories of war.”—BookTrib
About the Author
Harry Turtledove is the award-winning author of the alternate-history works The Man with the Iron Heart, The Guns of the South, and How Few Remain (winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Novel); the Hot War books: Bombs Away, Fallout, and Armistice; the War That Came Early novels: Hitler’s War, West and East, The Big Switch, Coup d’Etat, Two Fronts, and Last Orders; the Worldwar saga: In the Balance, Tilting the Balance, Upsetting the Balance, and Striking the Balance; the Colonization books: Second Contact, Down to Earth, and Aftershocks; the Great War epics: American Front, Walk in Hell, and Breakthroughs; the American Empire novels: Blood and Iron, The Center Cannot Hold, and Victorious Opposition; and the Settling Accounts series: Return Engagement, Drive to the East, The Grapple, and In at the Death. Turtledove is married to fellow novelist Laura Frankos. They have three daughters—Alison, Rachel, and Rebecca—and two granddaughters, Cordelia Turtledove Katayanagi and Phoebe Quinn Turtledove Katayanagi.
Read an Excerpt
Turtledove / FALLOUT
It was a bright, warm, sticky day in Washington, D.C. Summer wasn’t here yet, but it was less than two weeks away. President Harry Truman turned his swivel chair away from the desk in the Oval Office. For the moment, all the urgent papers demanding his attention could damn well shut up and wait. The green of the White House lawn seemed far more appealing.
Three or four robins hopped across the neatly mown grass. Every so often, one would pause and cock its head to one side, as if listening. Maybe the birds were doing just that. Pretty soon, one of them pecked at something. It straightened with a fat earthworm wrapped around its beak. The worm didn’t want to get eaten. It wiggled and clung. The robin swallowed it anyway, then went back to hunting.
“Go get ’em, boy,” Truman said softly. “Maybe you’ll catch Joe McCarthy next. I can hope, anyhow.”
The robins didn’t know when they were well off. Here in Washington, they didn’t need to worry—too much—about getting blown to hell and gone by an atom bomb. Lord only knew how many robins the Russians had just incinerated in Paris.
Of course, robins in Europe weren’t the same birds as the ones here. Truman had seen that as an artillery officer in the First World War and then again when he met with Stalin and Attlee at Potsdam, outside of Berlin. Robins over there were smaller than the American ones, and had redder breasts. He supposed the local ones had got their name by reminding colonists of the birds back home.
But, when you got right down to it, what the French robins looked like didn’t matter. The A-bomb didn’t care. It blew them up any which way. It blew up a hell of a lot of French people, too.
When the telephone rang, Truman spun the chair back toward his desk. He picked up the handset. “Yes?”
“Mr. President . . .” Rose Conway, his private secretary, needed a moment before she could go on: “Mr. President, I have a call for you from Charles de Gaulle.”
“Jumping Jehosaphat!” Truman said, and meant it most sincerely. He couldn’t stand de Gaulle, and was sure it was mutual. At the end of the last war, French and American troops had almost started shooting at each other when the French tried to occupy northwestern Italy. De Gaulle had been running France then, and Truman had cut off American aid to him.
These days, de Gaulle was out of French politics—or he had been. Damn shame, Truman thought unkindly. If he’d been in politics, he’d likely have been in Paris, and the bomb could have fried him along with all the poor, harmless little robins.
Here he was, though, unfried and on the telephone. And since he was . . . “Go ahead and put him through, Rose. I’d better find out what he’s got to say.”
“Yes, Mr. President. One moment,” she said. Truman heard some clicks and pops. Then Rose Conway told someone, “The President is on the line, sir.”
“Thank you.” Charles de Gaulle spoke fluent if nasal English. But he sounded as if he were calling from the Cave of the Winds. The connection was terrible. Well, most of France’s phone service would have been centered in or routed through Paris. De Gaulle might have been lucky to get through at all. The Frenchman said, “Are you there, President Truman?”
“I am, General, yes,” Truman answered. “Where exactly are you, sir?”
“I am in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, about two hundred kilometers southeast of martyred Paris.” Or maybe de Gaulle said murdered Paris. Both were true enough—all too true, in fact.
Two hundred kilometers was just over a hundred twenty miles. Truman remembered that from his days as a battery commander. He’d hardly had to worry about the metric system since. “Glad to hear you’re safe,” he said, thinking what a liar politics had turned him into.
“I am safe, yes, but my beloved country has had the heart torn out of her.” De Gaulle seemed matter-of-fact, which made what he said all the more melodramatic.
“That is tragic, General, but it’s not as if America hasn’t taken plenty of hard knocks, too,” Truman said.
“Seattle. Denver. Hollywood. Such places.” Charles de Gaulle’s scorn was palpable. “This is Paris, Mr. President!”
In lieu of Screw you, buddy, and the horse you rode in on, which was the first thing that sprang to mind, Truman said, “Well, the United States is hitting the goddamn Russians harder than they’re hitting the Free World.”
“All the Russian hovels added together do not approach equaling Paris.” De Gaulle’s contempt was plenty big enough to enfold the USSR as well as the USA.
Instead of calling him on it, Truman tried a different tack: “Why exactly are you calling me, General? You haven’t been part of the French government for five years now. Or are you again?”
“In a manner of speaking, I am, yes,” de Gaulle replied. “You will understand that the explosion eliminated large portions of the country’s administration. Certain individuals have approached me to head a Committee of National Salvation. I could not refuse la belle France in her hour of need, and so I have assumed that position for the purpose of restoring order.”
“I . . . see,” Truman said slowly. It made a certain amount of sense. De Gaulle was a national hero for leading the Free French during the war and for putting France back on her feet once England and the USA chased the Nazis out of the country (with, yes, some help from those Free French).
But both Churchill and FDR had despised him (by all accounts, that was mutual). Harry Truman didn’t agree with all of Roosevelt’s opinions, but about de Gaulle he thought his predecessor had got it spot-on. He hadn’t been a bit sorry when the tall, proud, touchy Frenchman left politics for his little village in the middle of nowhere to write his memoirs.
If de Gaulle was back, though, Truman would have to deal with him. The Red Army wasn’t far from the French border. In spite of everything America and Britain (and the French, and the West Germans) could do, it was getting closer by the day. If de Gaulle cut his own deal with Stalin, a free Western Europe would be just a memory, even if American A-bombs flattened most of the Soviet Union.
And so he needed to keep the new boss of this French committee at least partway happy. De Gaulle understood he needed to do that, of course, understood it and exploited it. Trying to hide a sigh, Truman asked, “What do you need from the United States, General? Whatever it is, if we can get it to you, it’s yours.”
“For this I thank you, Mr. President. I have always known how generous a people Americans are.” De Gaulle could be gracious when he felt like it. The one drawback to that was, he didn’t feel like it very often. “Medical supplies of all sorts are urgently needed, naturally. And if you have experts on the effects of what you call fallout and how to mitigate those effects, that, too, would be of great value to us.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Truman promised. Both sides had fused most of their A-bombs to burst high in the air. That spread destruction more widely and also cut down on the amount of radioactive crud that blew downwind after the blast. But the Paris strike was a low-altitude, hit-and-run raid. The A-bomb had gone off at ground level or very close to it. And now the French would have to clean up the mess . . . if they could.
“Has the fallout reached, uh, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises?” Truman asked, with a certain amount of pride that he’d remembered the name of the place and brought it out pretty well for a Yank.
“The Geiger counters say it has, yes, but not to any serious degree. This place lies in the direction of the prevailing winds,” de Gaulle said. “Closer to Paris, you will understand, the situation is more dire. We have many cases of radiation sickness.”
“That’s nasty stuff. Horrible stuff. We’ll send you doctors who have some experience with it, yes.” Truman didn’t tell de Gaulle that nothing the doctors tried seemed to do much good. You watched and you waited and you kept people as clean and comfortable as you could, and either they got better or they didn’t. But then, de Gaulle might well already know that. Paris wasn’t the first French city to have had hellfire visited on it, just the biggest. And the war still showed no signs of ending.
Boris Gribkov, Vladimir Zorin, and Leonid Tsederbaum joined the queue in front of the field kitchen near Munich. The bomber pilot, copilot, and navigator carried tin mess kits the Red Army men holding this part of what had been West Germany gave them.
Nose twitching, Zorin said, “I smell shchi.”
“That’ll fill us up,” Gribkov said. With shchi, you started with cabbage, as you did with beets for borscht. Then you threw anything else you happened to have into the pot along with it. You let it simmer till it all got done, and then you ate it.
That was how Red Army—and Red Air Force—field kitchens turned it out, anyway, in enormous sheet-metal tureens. No doubt fancy cooks fixed it with more subtlety. Gribkov cared not a kopek for subtlety. Filling his belly was the only thing he worried about.
A Red Army noncom saw his blues and his officer’s shoulder boards and started to step out of line. “Go ahead, Comrade,” he said.
“No, no, no,” Boris answered. “We won’t starve to death before we get up there. Keep your place.”
“You’re the guys who gave it to the froggies, aren’t you?” the sergeant said.
“Well, some of them,” Gribkov told him. The Tu-4 that he flew had a crew of eleven.
“Good,” the noncom said. “You ought to drop a bomb on these German pussies, too. Blast ’em all to the devil so nobody has to worry about ’em any more. You ask me, every one of ’em’s still a Nazi under the skin.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Zorin said. Gribkov wouldn’t have, either. By everything he’d heard, German troops still fought the Red Army as fanatically as they had when Hitler called the shots.
He glanced over at Leonid Tsederbaum. The Zhid looked back, his handsome, swarthy face showing nothing. If anybody hated Germans and Nazis even worse than a Russian, you had to figure a Jew would. But Tsederbaum didn’t say anything that would show he did.
As a matter of fact, Tsederbaum hadn’t said one whole hell of a lot since he guided the Tu-4 back from the attack on Paris. He’d already made it plain that he didn’t like dropping atom bombs on famous, important cities. Boris Gribkov didn’t like it worth a damn, either. Liking it had nothing to do with the price of vodka.
Your superior told you to do something. You saluted. You said I serve the Soviet Union! And you went out and did it or you died trying. If you screwed it up, your superior gave it to you in the neck. If he didn’t, somebody would give it to him. How else could anyone run a military? The Germans, the enemy whose example the Russians knew best, had the same kind of rules.
All the same, Boris kept sneaking glances at Tsederbaum as men with mess kits shuffled toward those bubbling, fragrant cauldrons. The navigator had never been one of your talky guys. When he did open his yap, what came out of it was dryly ironic more often than not. But yeah, he’d been even quieter than usual lately.
When Gribkov reached the shchi, the chubby-cheeked corporal with the ladle—who ever heard of a skinny cook?—beamed at him. “Here you go, sir!” he said, and dug deep into the pot for the good stuff at the bottom. He did the same for Zorin and Tsederbaum. Gribkov didn’t think he was a hero, but he didn’t mind getting treated like one.
That sergeant who wanted to bomb the Germans waved the flyers to a commandeered bus bench. Then he and the rest of the Red Army men politely left them alone. They were heroes to the ground-pounders, enough so that Gribkov wished he felt more like a hero to himself.
He dug into the shchi. “Not half bad,” he said. “I do wonder what the meat is, though.”
“You mean whether it’d neigh or bark or meow?” Zorin chuckled, for all the world as if he were joking.
“As long as I don’t see the critter it came from, I’m not going to worry about it,” Boris said. “I just wonder, that’s all.”
“Curiosity killed the cat—which is why it’s in the shchi.” By the way Zorin shoveled in the soup, he didn’t worry about it, either.
The crack, though, was more one Gribkov would have expected from Tsederbaum. When he stole another look at the Jew, Tsederbaum caught him doing it. Raising his spoon in mock salute, the navigator said, “The condemned man ate a hearty meal.”
Nobody’d condemned them. They’d won medals for bombing America and then making it back to the rodina. Boris pulled a small metal flask off his belt. “Here,” he said. “I’ve got some vodka. That’s good for whatever’s bothering you.”
Leonid Tsederbaum’s smile called him a Russian, or possibly a small, stupid child. As if humoring such a child, the Zhid took a knock. But he said, “There’s not enough vodka in the world to fix what ails me.”
“How do you know? How much have you drunk?” Zorin asked. Tsederbaum’s chuckle was on the dutiful side. Boris Gribkov, who drank himself before passing the flask to Zorin, thought it was a good question. Sometimes if you got smashed out of your skull, whatever you’d been chewing on didn’t seem so bad in the light of the morning-after hangover.
In a day or two, the crew would fly the Tu-4 back to the Soviet Union. Chances were they’d pick up another gong for their tunic fronts. And then somebody would tell them what to do next, and they’d do it—or die trying.
They slept on pews in a gutted church. With enough blankets cocooning you, it wasn’t so bad. At least you had room to stretch out. At some point in the middle of the night, Tsederbaum got up and headed outside. “Sorry to bother you,” he whispered to Gribkov, who sleepily raised his head.
Heading for the latrine, Boris thought. He wondered if he ought to do the same. Instead, he yawned and submerged in slumber again.
Then somebody shook him awake. It was predawn twilight. Even in the gray gloom, he could see how pale Vladimir Zorin looked. “What is it?” Gribkov asked. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be good.
But it was worse than he’d dreamt. “That stupid fucking kike!” Zorin sounded furious. “He went and blew his goddamn head off!”
“Bozhemoi!” Gribkov untangled himself and scrambled to his feet. “I knew something was eating him, but I never imagined—”
“Who would? Who in his right mind would, I mean?” the copilot said.
Boris pulled on his boots. “Take me to him.”
“Come on.” Zorin led him out just past the stinking trenches where Soviet fighting men eased themselves. There lay Leonid Abramovich Tsederbaum. He’d put the business end of his Tokarev automatic in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The back of his once-so-clever head was a red, ruined mess. Flies had already started buzzing around it.
Going through his pockets, Gribkov found a note. He recognized Tsederbaum’s precise script at once. All it said was Men a hundred years from now will know what I have done. Let them also know I did not do it willingly. Maybe then they will not spit whenever they say my name.
He showed Zorin the note. Then he fumbled in his own pockets till he found a matchbook. He lit a match and touched it to the edge of the paper. He held it till it scorched his fingers, then dropped it and let it burn itself out. Once it did, he kicked at the ashes till nothing discernible was left.
“Good job,” the copilot said. “Now they won’t be able to go after his family.”
“Right,” Gribkov said tightly. The world would never know just why Leonid Tsederbaum had killed himself. Boris wished he didn’t know. Better not to start thinking about things like that. You only got into trouble when you did. He had to keep flying. He wondered how he’d manage.
First Lieutenant Cade Curtis wondered where the devil he was. Oh, he knew in a general sense: he was in Korea, and in the southern part of it. He even knew in some detail—he was south of the town of Chongju, which lay southeast of Seoul. The Americans (if you wanted to get fancy about it, the United Nations forces, but most of them were Americans) and the Republic of Korea had been attacking “in the direction of Chongju” for quite a while now. They hadn’t got there yet, and didn’t seem likely to any time soon.
When Curtis got to Korea in the fall of 1950 as a newly minted shavetail straight out of ROTC, it was the most important fight in the world. He’d been part—a tiny part, but part nonetheless—of General MacArthur’s triumphant drive to the Yalu River. That drive was going to take care of North Korea and Kim Il-sung once and for all.
It was going to, but it didn’t. Winter and the Red Chinese made sure of that. The UN forces—there were Englishmen and Turks along with the Americans—had reached the Chosin Reservoir, near the Yalu. Then the mercury dove somewhere south of twenty below, and Mao’s band of merry men drove south across the Yalu.
MacArthur hadn’t figured they would. It was one of the nastiest surprises in the history of surprises, especially if you happened to be on the receiving end, as Cade was. He’d got lucky. He’d slipped through the Red Chinese net, one of a handful who did. The Reds destroyed three or four divisions trying to retreat to safety at the port of Hungnam.
Because they did, Truman dropped A-bombs on several Manchurian cities to fubar their logistics. Because he dropped them on Red China, Stalin dropped them on the USA’s European allies. Because Stalin did that . . . the Free World and the Communists had been climbing the ladder of devastation one rung at a time ever since.
Those Manchurian cities, and several in the Soviet Far East, glowed in the dark now. So did ports on the American West Coast from Seattle all the way down to Los Angeles. Both sides had trouble getting men and weapons into Korea these days. Both sides had trouble caring, too—the big fight now was in Europe.
But the war here, the little war that had touched off the bigger one, ground on with whatever was at hand and whatever Truman and Mao and Stalin could spare. The outside world forgot it? You hurt just as much if you got maimed in a fight nobody back home gave a damn about, and you were just as dead if you got killed in that kind of fight.
Cade walked along the trench, here somewhere south of Chongju. Dust scuffed up under his boots. When he noticed, he could smell his own stink, and the stink of his fellow dogfaces. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d bathed. If the wind blew down from the north, he could smell the different but no more pleasant stinks of the Red Chinese and North Koreans. And the stench of death was always in the air. It was sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but it never went away.
To get it out of his nose, he lit a Camel. He hadn’t smoked at all before he got here. Of course, he’d been just nineteen. He sure smoked now. Like so many other soldiers, he hardly knew what to do without a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.
He ground the match out under his bootheel. The smoke did let him forget about the other charming aromas for a little while. And it made him more alert and relaxed him at the same time—for a little while. Pretty soon, he’d fire up another one to get the same effect all over again.
In the meantime, he cautiously stuck his head up out of the trench to make sure the Reds weren’t up to anything. He looked around for a couple of seconds, then ducked down again. A few seconds after that, a rifle bullet cracked past, not far enough above where he’d just been. If he’d shown himself for much longer, that sniper might have put a round through the bridge of his nose.
“Anything cookin’ out there, Lieutenant?” asked Sergeant Lou Klein. He was old enough to be Cade’s father. An Army lifer, he’d fought in North Africa and Italy the last time around. He could have run the company at least as well as Cade did. They both knew it. Since the days of Hammurabi, one of the many things veteran sergeants were for was riding herd on eager young officers.
After this long in Korea, Cade might still have been young, but he was eager no more. He shook his head. “All seemed pretty quiet.”
“Good.” Klein hedged that by adding, “Unless they’re cooking up something sneaky, anyway.”
“They don’t seem to try cute stuff a whole lot,” Cade said. “When they fight, they just get in there and slug.”
“That’s on account of most of ’em carry pieces like yours.” Klein pointed at Cade’s PPSh submachine gun, a Russian weapon he liked much better than the M-1 carbine American officers were supposed to carry. The sergeant went on, “Hard to get fancy when you can’t hit anything out past a coupla hundred yards.”
“Yeah, but when they get in close—” Cade didn’t go on, or need to. An awful lot of combat took place at ranges where the PPSh and its older cousin the PPD were world-beaters. They sprayed a lot of bullets at anything that looked dangerous, they hardly ever jammed, and they were easy to strip and clean. What more could you want?
“Hey, they ain’t tryin’ to kill me right this minute. I won’t worry about it till they do,” Klein said.
That attitude was wonderful—if you could manage it. Cade had always been a worrier. He fretted over what would happen next, what might happen next, what could possibly happen next. The sergeant didn’t. Whatever happened, he tried to deal with it as it came up. He was still here, still breathing, still fighting. His way worked as well for him as Cade’s for him, and he probably had lower blood pressure.
But he wouldn’t be promoted to officer’s rank if he lived to be ninety. Cade didn’t have much chance of making general if he stayed in the Army. Few without a West Point class ring scaled that mountain. But major, light colonel, maybe even bird colonel wouldn’t be unreachable. Men at those ranks needed to care about possibilities, not just take things as they came.
Off in the distance, an American machine gun spat a burst at the Communist lines. The Red Chinese didn’t have so many machine guns. They had plenty of rifles, though, and plenty of men to shoot them. They shot back. Firing picked up on both sides.
Klein swore under his breath. “Somebody’s been eating his spinach, so he thinks he’s fucking Popeye,” he said. “If it’s quiet where you’re at, why do you want to go poke it with a stick?”
“Beats me.” Cade was far more willing to let lying dogs sleep than he had been when he got here.
Not everybody was. The hothead disease afflicted guys on both sides. They figured Uncle Sam or Chairman Mao had gone to the trouble of issuing them a rifle or a PPSh and the ammo to go with it, so the least they could do was start shooting as soon as they got the chance—or imagined they did.
Somebody on the American side of the rusty barbed wire started screaming and wouldn’t stop. The noise was horrible, terrible, dreadful, whatever was worse than those. It was the noise a dog makes after a car smashes it, when it’s dead but hasn’t finished dying yet. Sometimes a kind human will cut a dog’s throat when it’s hurt like that, or bash in its head with a brick.
Cade wished somebody would bash in that poor GI’s head with a brick. The man’s shrieks made him want to stuff his fingers into his ears till his fingertips met between them. The awful cries just wouldn’t stop.
“Sorry bastard,” Klein said, which only went to show how useless words were at times like that.
“Yeah.” Cade’s nod felt every bit as inadequate. General Sherman had known what he was talking about, even if he was a damnyankee (Cade grew up in Tennessee). War was hell.
Vasili Yasevich looked around the hamlet of Smidovich with unbridled curiosity and amazement. It was a tiny little place compared to Harbin, where he’d lived his whole life up till now. Before the Americans dropped an atom bomb on it, Harbin had held three quarters of a million people. No more than three or four thousand lived here.
But that wasn’t what was amazing about the place. What was amazing was that everybody here looked like him. In Harbin, he’d been part of a tiny, dwindling Russian minority drowning in a rising tide of Chinese. The past few years, he’d used Mandarin far more often than his birthspeech.
Here, though, everybody—well, everybody male—grew a thick beard. Everybody’s skin was pink or swarthy, not golden. Some people had black hair. Some people, not just about everyone. Some people had brown hair, some straw-colored like Vasili’s, some even red. There were brown eyes and blue ones and green. Everybody had a big, strong-bridged nose.
For the first time in his life, then, Vasili didn’t look like a foreigner—a round-eyed devil, as the Chinese so charmingly put it. You couldn’t tell by looking that he hadn’t been born and raised here.
Which was funny, only the joke was on him. No matter what he looked like, he’d never felt so alone, so different, so foreign, in all his life.
He’d been a baby when his father and mother brought him to Harbin after the Reds won the Russian Civil War against the Whites. They’d lived through the Japanese occupation, when Manchuria turned into Manchukuo. Japan and the USSR stayed neutral through the Second World War, which suited them both. Japan worried about China and America, while Stalin was in the fight of his life against Hitler.
Then Hitler shot himself, the Germans gave up, and Stalin finally turned on the Japanese. After smashing the Nazis flat, the battle-hardened Red Army found them easy meat. Soviet tanks roared through Harbin, bound for Korea and other points south.
And the NKVD followed the troops. The Chekists didn’t care that the scores they were settling were a quarter of a century old. They had their lists, and they used them. Uncounted thousands of Harbin’s Russians disappeared, either into the gulags or into shallow, unmarked graves.
Vasili’s parents hadn’t waited for the midnight bang on the door. His old man was a druggist, and knew what to take. They died almost as soon as the poison hit their stomachs.
For reasons known only to them, the Soviet secret police hadn’t bothered with Vasili. He’d stayed in Harbin, doing carpentry and bricklaying and compounding medicines on the side . . . till he fell foul of a Chinese big shot when he wouldn’t sell him opium. Mao’s camps were just as delightful as Stalin’s. So Vasili ran away.
He trudged toward the town hall near the center of Smidovich. He had no Soviet papers, but he was in the process of getting them. Normally, the MGB—the NKVD by a new set of initials—would have jugged or shot any Russian it caught without proper documents. But these weren’t normal times. Atomic fire had fallen on Khabarovsk, not far east of Smidovich. Even the secret police recognized that people might have escaped from the city on the Amur without waiting to gather their paperwork.
Although Vasili hadn’t, he might have. The Chekists seemed willing to believe he had. A couple of the ones he’d dealt with even seemed like halfway decent human beings. He wondered what they were doing working for the MGB. Then again, Smidovich wasn’t the kind of place where hotshots were employed.
“Good day, Vasili Andreyevich,” one of those functionaries said when Yasevich walked into the building, which looked like nothing so much as an overgrown log cabin.
“Good day, Gleb Ivanovich,” Vasili replied. No, he’d never expected to be on familiar terms with an MGB man.
Gleb Ivanovich Sukhanov waved toward a samovar bubbling on a corner table. “Fix yourself a glass of tea. Then we’ll talk.”
“Spasibo.” Vasili did. He was used to drinking tea from a handleless cup and without sugar, Chinese-style. But he remembered how his folks had done things when he was small and they still clung to Russian ways as tightly as they could. He brought the tea over to Sukhanov’s table and sat down in the chair on the opposite side. The MGB man’s chair was padded; the one people who saw him used was of plain wood. One way or another, the Reds let you know who ran things.
Sukhanov pulled a manila folder off a pile. “So let me see,” he said. “You tell me your flat was on Karl Marxa Street near Lenin Square.”
“That’s right.” Vasili hoped it was. What Soviet city wouldn’t have a street named for the founder of Communism and a square named for the founder of the USSR?
Frowning a little, Sukhanov said, “It’s a wonder you survived. The bomb went off right above the square, I am told.”
“I wasn’t home when it went off, sir.” Vasili tried to sound faintly embarrassed. He did have his backup story ready.
But Gleb Sukhanov’s frown deepened. “Don’t call me sir. I’m just a comrade like everybody else.”
“Sorry, Comrade Sukhanov.” Vasili cursed himself for his slip. He might speak Russian, but he didn’t speak Soviet Russian. The exiles in Harbin kept gospodin and gospozha, sir and madam. In the USSR, those were counterrevolutionary. Everybody was a tovarishch, a comrade. Even the written language looked funny to Vasili—the Reds had simplified the alphabet, getting rid of several characters.
“Hmp,” the MGB man said. “Where exactly were you, then?”
“Comrade”—Vasili did his best to look shamefaced— “I was coming back from visiting a woman on the edge of town. A building shielded me from the worst of the flash and the blast, or I wouldn’t be talking with you now.”
He could talk with conviction about what happened when an A-bomb went off. He’d been working near Pingfan, outside of Harbin, when the Americans hit the Chinese city. However much he wished he didn’t, he knew what happened at a time like that.
“You should have kept your identity card with you,” Sukhanov said severely.
“Have a heart, Gleb Ivanovich,” Vasili said. “She was somebody’s wife, but she wasn’t mine. I wanted to keep everything as quiet as I could. How was I supposed to know the Yankee sons of bitches would choose that particular night to murder people?”
“ ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ ” Sukhanov sounded like a man quoting something, but Vasili had no idea what. He must have looked puzzled. The MGB functionary let out a self-conscious chuckle and said, “Now I know I’ve worked in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast too long.”
Vasili had had Jews for friends in Harbin, though times got harder for them after the Japanese seized the city. Here in Smidovich, some of the shop signs were in Yiddish instead of or along with Russian. It made less sense to him than Chinese would have: he read that language less well than he spoke it, but he could manage.
He could manage a chuckle of his own for the Chekist, too. He wanted Gleb Sukhanov to like him. If Sukhanov did, maybe he’d quit asking so damn many questions and making Vasili tell so many lies. If anyone who really did live in a block of flats near Lenin Square on Karl Marxa showed up in Smidovich, he was screwed.
For now, though, he was golden. Sukhanov signed an official-looking document, stamped it in red ink with a hammer-and-sickle rubber stamp, and slid it across the table. “Here is a temporary identity card,” he said. “Keep your nose clean while you’re in these parts and everything will be fine. If you cause trouble . . .” He let that hang.
“I’m no troublemaker, Comrade,” Vasili said. He even meant it. Why not? He had a place here, and he didn’t any more in China. Now he was a Russian among Russians. What would come of that?
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