Friday, February 28, 2014

Fiction Friday: The Mirrors of Chelyabinsk

The Fiction index!

When Mikhaíl Nikolaievich Arkhipov first arrived at Chelyabinsk, it was with a certain nausea brewing in his stomach. The town was a tiny nothingness in the dark of Near Siberia, a few poorly defined dirt tracks that crossed one another in front of the rotting shell of Chelya Fortress. He'd been forced to get off the train half a hundred versts back, for that was the nearest station. From there he'd hired a coach, which followed the road of crushed gravel as far as it could, then dove over farms and countryside towards Chelyabinsk. Mikhaíl's presence in the town was something of a prodigy. The imperial government didn't care much about Chelya these days. The threats of banditry were over, and there hadn't been rumors of rebellion in fifty years. Those dark nights had belonged to the distant past, to a generation now too old to care if the hand of Imperial Russia spread out over their land, too crooked and riddled with ague, pox, and time itself to raise their guns in rebellion against the Tsar. There was no reason for officials to come to Chelyabinsk, then, at all. Except Mikhaíl had come. Autocrat Nicholas, Emperor of Russia, left nothing to chance. His brother Aleksandr had been implacable as Tsar; Chelyabinsk had, for a brief time, been a circus of activity as those imprisoned in the failed Decembrist Revolt were shipped ever northward into the wilds of Siberia.

Nikolaievich felt as though he must void his stomach into the snow. This filthy lane of hovels and its attendant versts of snow-covered farms were to be his commission, the reward for his years of service to the imperial government. The fortress which he was sent to command was a decrepit ruin. There were no signs of any soldiers within—no lights, no fires burning, and none of the easy camaraderie of men stationed in the back of beyond. He had hoped to find coffee at least, but none of the serfs in the town were likely to have it. It was a luxury that only city-dwellers and soldiers were like to have, and there seemed to be no soldiers here. Before he stepped from the hack, he opened the large logbook he had been provided. Yes, there were fifty names there where he thought they should be. Yet there was no possible way the fortress contained fifty men. He could see from here, even peering through thick veils of falling snow, that the barracks' roof was caved in and many of the walls partly pulled down. Probably the serfs had started attacking the brickwork once the place was abandoned to make it into walls for their fields.

He hauled his luggage from the coach with the help of the driver. "Where can I go to stay?" he shouted against the wind. His gut was rebelling, threatening to spill into his mouth. What had he ever done to deserve this post?

"I don't know," the driver bawled back, "I don't know this town. No one comes here!"

"I am the first," Mikhaíl said.

The driver nodded. "Yes," he confirmed, "the first. Goodbye."

So there he was, alone in the snow, with his cases like standing stones all around him slowly gathering a dusting. He cursed the Tsar and the luck that had sent him here. Where would he go? Certainly not into Chelya Fortress to freeze to death in some dank cellar. The serfs would simply have to put him up. After all, he was an Imperial Officer; they couldn't very well refuse.

The first door was answered by a glowering woodsman the size of a horse. His brow beetled at seeing Mikhaíl's uniform, and his lip curled back in something like a sneer when his eyes alighted on the pistol and sabre in his belt. "I must find the Intendant of Chelya Fortress," Mikhaíl said. "And suitable lodgings for the night."

"The Intendant," the ogre repeated back to him. His beard alone could have covered an ox with ease. He said no more and the two men stared at each other. Mikhaíl felt the stirring of anger in his breast, comingled with fear. He wasn't going to be cowed by an idiotic peasant on his first assignment, no matter how huge the man was.

He gripped the hilt of his sabre firmly and threw back his shoulders. "If you cannot tell me where he is, I demand you step aside at once and offer me the shelter of your home—as is your duty."

"My duty," said the man. Perhaps he was slow, Mikhaíl thought. Perhaps he had been kicked in the head by an ass. "My duty to whom?"

This beggared belief. Mikhaíl put as much fire into his gaze as he could, pushed forward so he was nose-to-chest with the giant. "Your duty to the Tsar of Russia, you swine! Now stand aside and let me in or I shall be forced to thrash you. I have a flogging whip in my effects. Do you wish to see its use?" He snarled.

The titan shrugged. "If you say so," he said, and then turned to bellow into the house. "OKSANA! We have a guest by order of the Tsar! Prepare him a bed and some food. You would like some food? Good."

He was lead into the filthy domicile of this churlish behemoth and suddenly hugged tight by the warmth that permeated the house. There was a fire blazing in the hearth, throwing shadows every which way. The interior of the house seemed ghastly bright, more so even than coming in from the dark could account for. It took a moment for Mikhaíl to realize what he was seeing: light reflected in crazy patterns off three huge silvered mirrors hanging on the far wall. He frowned. Where had peasants gotten such things? But he hardly had time to consider it before the giant guided him to a table where he was served a simple peasant fare for his dinner.

As he ate, he began to realize that there were other oddities about the house as well. There seemed to be, upon every shelf and surface, little brick-a-brack. Small trinkets that were nothing in and of themselves, but upon examination and close study turned out to be... buttons. Brass buttons. And there a buckle. Oh, and over there what was unmistakably a powder horn. He had the dark suspicion, suddenly, seize him that the soldiers who were meant to be garrisoning the fort had abandoned their posts and now lived as farm-folk amongst the peasants. Discovering their secret would surely be grounds for murder—who would know that the poor stupid Intendant Nikolaievich had disappeared? It would take six months or more for Moscow to begin to wonder, and by then he would lie in some deeply dug grave in the wilderness. No one would even be able to find his body. Such was Siberia! So he kept his mouth shut and his suspicions to himself.

He was given the loft to sleep in, the giant and his crabbed little woman taking up by the fire. He had a blanket, and a mound of hay to sleep upon, and that was good enough for now. His suitcases were downstairs by the door, but he kept his pistol primed and nearby and his sword hugged tight to his chest. He drifted off with the hot burn of serf's vodka spreading a pleasant warmth through his stomach, his arms, his head. He just had time enough to think that they probably hadn't paid the proper vodka excise on their alcohol before he drifted off.

When he woke, it was to a strangely disorienting sight. He had no idea where he was for a moment, and terror thrummed in his every limb. He remembered in a rush and soon he was able to match the fantastic angles and dim corners of the now-darkened house with the brilliant room he had entered earlier that night. The fire had burned down to evil looking embers, glowing with a faint throb of ruddy life. He leaned over the edge of the loft to find that his hosts were nowhere to be seen. His own face leered back at him from the mirror hanging in the center of the wall and he pulled back.

It was then that he heard the voices, which must have been the cause of his waking. They were whispering: a man and a woman. Too faint to make out what they were saying, the sound of their exhalations was like the long nails of feeble old man too ancient to cut them scrabbling on wood. He pressed his ear against the boards beneath him, but only managed to dampen the sound. He cast around him and saw a small gap in the floor by his feet through which a tiny gleaming eye of red light could be seen. He carefully crawled to it, attentive to make no sounds lest he rouse his hosts to his own presence.

"We will do what we have always done," Oksana was saying. "We will let it be handled by the others."

He heard the giant huff. "I am tired, woman. Tired of all this pretending. Why do we not tell him at once, and let him make his own decision? If someone had given me the choice—"

"Then what? You would have drowned yourself? You lack the courage."

"The soldiers, the soldiers had swords and guns. I could have shot myself, back then. That would have been a mercy. Now there is—" he stopped. There was a noise, a faint slithering sound, from the area of the room near the hearth. Mikhaíl pressed his eye to the hole to see crooked little Oksana shy away from her giant of a husband and the huge man staring grim-faced. The slithering came again, so Mikhaíl backed from the hole and wriggled his way to the edge of the loft a second time.

What he saw arrested him completely and set his entire body in convulsive jitters, small involuntary movements that made no sound, but still clasped and unclasped his muscles in a horror show of tension. His skin was covered with silvery sweat, ice cold as it poured from him. For he saw the surface of the center mirror begin to shift and move of its own accord. There were, reflected in it, three men and two women, all staring into the room with hideous intensity. Their eyes seemed like they could bore through wood, stone, soft and malleable flesh. What peasant sorcery was this? For though they stood reflected in the room, the room was empty.

The worst sight, the most horrible, was the image of his own reflection. For though he was looking at the mirror, the reflection of his own face was looking back at him. It had the same terrified expression, but it was staring soulfully into him. Then, as he watched, his face frozen in terror, he saw a hideous smile come over the face in the mirror, and it winked at him. He screamed and fell from the loft into a tumble below.

A second waking. He was cold, though the room was well-lit by the fire. He was surrounded by soldiers in their uniforms, all murmuring quietly to each other. He shot up. "Where is the mirror? Where are those serfs?"

"Intendant," said a man with a fine mustache and a well-trimmed beard. "Please, don't be agitated. It won't help anything."

"Won't help?" he asked. "Won't help?" He got to his feet. "Why the hell is it so cold?" The men exchanged bleak glances. "What is it, you damn deserters?"

"Deserters!" exclaimed the man who'd spoken. He wore little spectacles as well, Mikhaíl saw. "No, no, no, you misunderstand. We cannot desert. We can't go anywhere, Intendant."

"Well, answer me this: where did those peasants get their cursed mirror from? It's got some kind of damned power!" Another look between the men.

"They took it from Chelya, sir. We had several of them. You see, one day some of the men started acting... strange. I couldn't determine what had caused the lapse. They failed to show up for drills and then their comrades began to speak of unsettling changes that had come over them. Changes that had no explanation. They began to prefer different foods. They seemed not to know the details of intimate relationships they had, only days before, been having with peasant girls. They were... just... different."

"Bohze moi," Mikhaíl breathed, "You're Intendant Dmitrievich."

The man nodded. "I'm sorry you were sent to find out what happened to me."

"I was?"

Dmitrievich looked uncertain for the first time since Mikhaíl had awoken. "I thought so. Doesn't the capital wonder where we are... what we're doing? Why we've made no formal reports?"

"But you have," Mikhaíl argued. "Just last week in Moscow you—"

He blinked. Behind Dmitrievich he saw the mirrors on the peasant's wall. It was reflecting the room well enough, but none of the soldiers were in it. In the reflection, he was sitting at a chair and... eating. And on either side were Oksana and the giant. "What..." he murmured. Warmth, the only true warmth in the room, seemed to flow from the frame of the mirror. He pushed Dmitrievich aside and walked towards it. His hands outspread, he placed them on the glass, which felt like living flesh. From the other room, the room in the mirror, he saw himself turn to look. He gazed into his own eyes and knew, with vomitous horror, that the thing looking back was not him.

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