Outside, fresh, pure steppe air helped clear Rumantsev’s head. A platoon doing physical training ran past in their undershirts, identical with their shaven heads. Rumantsev came to attention and saluted as the NCO in charge saluted in passing. More than half drunk, he struggled to walk a straight line back to his tent.
Captain Stupin was in the tent, on his back, on his cot while he smoked a papirosa. Rumantsev hung his hat from a nail in the tent pole, took off his Sam Browne belt, and unbuttoned and removed his tunic.
“How did the drinking session with Ignatski go?”
Rumantsev sat on his cot and pulled his boots off. “What a big man his father is in the Ministry of Defense; how he doesn’t deserve to be sent to a shithole outpost like this; all the women he’s fucked; what a shame he missed the war; and on and on.”
He ran his hands through thick, pepper and salt hair and lay down on the cot. “So in addition to being a sot and a good for nothing wastrel, the new CO’s a bore.”
“Of the crashing variety. He did say something odd. Ignatski told me he wants to see Chingiz Khan’s tomb.”
Stupin laughed. “Why not open Lenin’s sarcophagus in Red Square and take him out for a stroll while he’s at it? The Khan’s a god to the locals around here. We’re not supposed to go anywhere near there. It’s strictly forbidden.”
Rumantsev rolled over onto his side. “Breaking the rules landed Ignatski here in Mongolia with the rest of us. He’s a spoiled child of the nomenklatura, the worst drunk I’ve ever seen, and still a general at twenty-four, all because his father knows Poskrebyshev, Stalin’s head clerk.”
“Don’t worry about Ignatski’s fancy over the Khan’s tomb. The way that bastard drinks, it’s a wonder he remembers his own name from day to day.”
“You’re probably right.”
Both men laughed. Stupin stood up and buttoned his tunic. “I’m duty officer tonight. I want to eat before I report.” Stupin put on his belt, sidearm, and cap, about to leave. “You want the flap open, right?”
Stupin left the tent flap open. Rumantsev kept his eyes focused on the triangular patch of outdoors the gap revealed as he waited for sleep.
BBBDDDDAMMMMM BBBBAAAAADDDOOOOWWW BBBBBAAARRROOOM
Explosions racked him. He was in total darkness, unable to see where they came from. Cold, hard cement walls pressed in on him from every side. He could hear the German SS men behind them. They scuttled along like rats in hunt for him.
BBBDDDDAMMMMM BBBBAAAAADDDOOOOWWW BBBBBAAARRROOOM
Walls and ceiling fell in upon him, massive slabs of concrete and rebar, smashed down with all their weight onto his fragile, human body. He struggled to escape, but dirt poured over him, held him down, pinned him until he could only open his mouth to scream for help only to choke on dirt-
Rumantsev lurched upright. He gasped and choked, put his hands to his mouth to clear away the dirt, and again found only his tongue. Although it was dark, he saw the light from a sentry’s hut, smelled cool, outdoor air. Rumantsev’s breathing slowed. He checked his watch. 0420. Forty minutes until reveille.
He went outside in his underwear to do calisthenics and stretch in the predawn dark. Muffled noises came from a two story, prefab barracks as squad leaders roused their men for another day. Rumantsev was early enough to get a lukewarm shower in the officers’ latrine. He shaved by the intermittent, flickering light of a forty-watt bulb, powered by a private on a bicycle.
The bugler strode to the parade ground’s center and played reveille. In a fresh washed and ironed uniform, boots newly blacked, and looking forward to breakfast, Rumantsev quick marched to the officers’ mess hall when an orderly intercepted him.
“Major Rumantsev. The CO wants you at the motor pool.”
Rumantsev went to the Regiment HQ motor pool. Up improbably early, Ignatski leaned against an M5 half track with a DS-39 machine gun mounted over the cab. A private loaded jerrycans onto the bed. Ignatski ate a sausage between a piece of bread.
“There you are. Now the expedition’s complete. We’ll leave as soon as this lazy bastard finishes loading. Have some sausage.”
Rumantsev wolfed down fatty sausage in cellulose skins while the private added water skins, a small tent, canned rations, and other equipment and supplies into the capacious bed. He came to attention and saluted.
“The vehicle is loaded, Comrade General.”
“You can operate this thing, right?”
“Yes, Comrade General.”
They got in the cab with Rumantsev in the middle. The private started the engine. The half track drove out of the motor pool, onto the road, and through the main gates. Sentries presented arms as the M5 passed. Ignatski gave a desultory salute. Once outside the post, the M5 initially made good time over the green, fairly level steppe. They traveled over a roadless, trackless grassland, unmarked by any sign of humanity beyond a few nomads’ yurts in the distance. Timofeev simply set a north, northwest course as directed by Ignatski’s compass. He avoided water and kept a sharp eye out for balkas, sudden, steep ravines.
“What’s your name, Private?” Rumantsev said.
“Timofeev, Comrade Major.”
“Let me know when you get tired and I’ll spell you.”
Timofeev smiled. “Thank you, Comrade Major.”
Ignatski took out a pack of foreign cigarettes from his tunic. Dunhills, Stalin’s brand. He tapped one out and lit it with a gold lighter, also foreign.
“Roll down the window, Timofeev.”
“Does the smoke bother you, Rumantsev?”
“No, Comrade General. I just like fresh air.”
“I’ve noticed you always make sure you’re near an open window or door. It’s a strange habit. Does it have something to do with Stalingrad?”
“I don’t know, Comrade General.”
“Christ, Timofeev, you drive like a frightened old woman. We’ll never get there at this rate.”
“Yes, Comrade General. I’ll try to drive more quickly.”
The ground was firm enough for the belts to gain purchase, but they tended to slip if Timofeev went much over fifty kilometers an hour. Obstacles had to be circumvented, large balkas, occasional hills. The half track ground across the steppe, a tiny, camouflaged, mechanized dot on an infinite circle of green topped by an equally vast blue dome faintly streaked with pencil thin white clouds. Rumantsev watched the red fuel gauge needle quickly tilt downward toward “E.”
“We should refuel, Comrade General.”
“How far have we come?”
“On a straight line, a hundred kilometers, Comrade General.”
“It’s almost noon. I obviously should have picked a better driver than you, Private.”
“I can drive the next leg, Comrade General. We’ll make better time. Timofeev, pull over. Let’s get this American beast refueled.”
Timofeev stopped the half-track. They got out. Ignatski stretched his legs and smoked while Rumantsev and Timofeev unloaded jerrycans. Timofeev put a siphon in the hatch. They emptied a dozen jerrycans into the capacious fuel tank.
“Leave those empty jerrycans behind. We’ll make better speed with less weight.”
“That’s bad security, Comrade General.”
Ignatski laughed. “Rumantsev, we’re not at war anymore. What are you so concerned about?”
Rumantsev pointed to the empty jerrycans. “If any locals see that, they’ll know we’re outside our area of operations. They’ll report us.”
Ignatski pulled a large silver flask from his tunic and drank. “A fine pair of comrades. Timofeev drives like an old woman and you worry like one. Never mind the jerrycans. If you’re done refueling, let’s go. Timofeev can sit in the bed. There should be room now with those jerrycans gone.”
“Yes, Comrade General.”
With considerably more experience on the steppe, Rumantsev proved more aggressive than Timofeev. He drove the M5 hard, pushed the half track through boggy marshes, shallow creeks, and steadily more difficult terrain. Dark, massive gray clouds loomed ahead on the northern horizon, clouds that resolved into rugged mountains as they drew nearer.
“There’s where we want to go. Those mountains there.”
“Yes, Comrade General. We should make camp soon. Driving on the steppe at night isn’t advisable.”
Ignatski had drunk steadily from his flask during the trip. “Pull over then.”
“Yes, Comrade General.”
Rumantsev stopped the M5. Timofeev got out and set up the small tent with Rumantsev’s help. Ignatski slept on a blanket on the ground. Timofeev and Rumantsev refueled the half-track. Twilight gently descended. The blue dome faded to gray. A fire wasn’t possible on the woodless steppe. Rumantsev lit a kerosene lantern. Timofeev opened cans of boiled beef and cut slices from a large loaf of black bread. They also had tinned herring and apples. They sat on a blanket and ate. Ignatski awoke and joined them.
“Give me a tin of that beef. I’m starving. Bread too.”
Once he was full, Ignatski had Timofeev fetch him a bottle of vodka from the bed. He drank while Rumantsev peeled an apple with his field knife.
“You don’t know it, Timofeev, but you’re sitting next to a real hero. Awarded the Red Star and the Order of Lenin. One of the iron men that held Stalingrad.”
“You have my respect and admiration, Comrade Major.”
“Thank you, Timofeev.”
“How many weeks did you hold out in that building, you and your comrades?”
“Six and some change.”
“Fascinating. And the Germans could only finish you by blowing the place to bits with 88-millimeter guns firing point blank. And even then you survived, the only one. I tell you, Timofeev, there’s no one like Rumantsev in the whole Red Army. How many days was it before they found you?”
“Three. I was lucky the dogs smelled me. I was too weak to shout.”
“An amazing story. I wished I’d been there.” He yawned, finished the bottle, and threw it onto the steppe.
“Oh, well, nothing valuable in regrets. I’m going to bed. We’ll start early tomorrow. I want to find that tomb.”
Ignatski went into the tent. His snores rent the air. Rumantsev retrieved Ignatski’s bottle. Timofeev put it in a muslin bag with the other trash.
“Put out the lantern.”
“Yes, Comrade Major.”
They stood in darkness so black it was nearly tangible, the only light from the Milky Way’s myriad stars.
“You’ve had a long day, Timofeev. Go sleep in the cab. I’ll take the first watch.”
“Thank you, Comrade Major. And thank you, sir, for being so kind to me.”
Timofeev left. A north wind rustled the long grass, with a hint of Arctic chill. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and paced to stay alert. A fox yipped nearby. Rumantsev waited until he was past exhaustion before he asked Timofeev to relieve him. He slept in the cab with both doors wide open, drifted into a black pit of oblivion without nightmares.
Ignatski shook him awake well before dawn. “Come on. I said we’d make an early start. Let’s wash up and go.”
They shaved, wiped their boots, and brushed their uniforms before they left. Rumantsev drove. They breakfasted inside the cab on bread, hard cheese, and apples. The terrain grew steadily more rugged. Flat steppe gave way to forested hills and valleys. They ascended steadily upward, toward the highest peaks, no further than eighty kilometers away.
Slender trees were decorated with yarn mandalas, bright colors long faded by wind and rain. Long ribbons in various colors were strung from other trees’ branches.
“This must mean we’re on the right track.”
“The locals put those up. They mean we’re trespassing. We should turn back, Comrade General.”
“Shut up, Rumantsev. I don’t care if you’re a war hero. You’re acting like a woman now. We’re going to find the Khan’s tomb.”
“Yes, Comrade General.”
Ignatski lit his first cigarette of the day and opened his first bottle of vodka. The M5 descended a thickly wooded hill. At its base a swift creek ran, at least four meters broad. Rumantsev stopped the half-track.
“No, Comrade General. We can ford this if it’s not too deep. Let me check first.”
“Well then, get on with it.”
Rumantsev got out of the half track and stepped into the creek. The water only reached his boot tops. Rumantsev had waded halfway across when he saw the riders on the opposite bank. They rode sturdy Mongolian ponies. Strangely attired in long, tasseled leather cassocks, horned helmets and demon masks, they carried large, round drums. They beat on the drums and shouted.
A rapid burst of fire overhead. The Mongolians turned their horses, scattered, and rode into the forest. Ignatski stood behind the DS-39, grinning broadly. Rumantsev’s face went red.
“That was a stupid fucking thing to do. They’re sure to report us now. I told you they take this seriously. Not even Poskrebyshev can help you. We’re fucked beyond hope.”
“I’ll remember you said that when we return to the post. Now finish fording the creek so we can find the tomb.”
The creek proved shallow throughout. Rumantsev stomped onto the opposite bank, boots and pants soaking. He waved for Timofeev to come on. He put the M5 into first and cautiously forded the creek. Ignatski cursed him every meter of the way. Timofeev stopped to let Rumantsev get inside. Ignatski grudgingly sat in the middle.
“Hurry up, Timofeev. Let’s get away from here,” Rumantsev said.
Timofeev drove as fast as the rough terrain would allow. Rumantsev pulled off his boots and dumped out water. They ascended at close to a forty-five degree angle. The rough, pebbly terrain helped the belts maintain traction. Ignatski stayed coldly silent, with occasional sidelong, poisonous glances at Rumantsev. He drank more vodka.
After three hours, the forest gave way to raw rock. They were high above the steppe now, at least three kilometers. A mountain peak loomed above them, a red, raw crag, cracked and faceted by the aeons. A small plateau abutted the summit. A mound stood on the plateau; massive stones piled into a conical barrow.
Ignatski slapped a knee and laughed. “There, you women. That’s Chingiz Khan’s kurgan. I told you we’d find it. Do you still want to turn back, Rumantsev?”
“You’ve made a real discovery, Comrade General.”
Ignatski beamed, previous resentment apparently forgotten. “I know. That’s why I brought a Leica, so I have evidence.”
He pulled out a slender German camera and took multiple snaps as the half track drove onto the plateau. Timofeev stopped the M5 near the kurgan.
“Stay here, Timofeev. Get out, Rumantsev. Let’s have a look.”
The officers got out of the cab. Rumantsev stretched his legs while they walked around the kurgan. The walls were formed of crudely hewn, huge megaliths, black with age. Long, thin, yellow blades of grass grew between the gaps. Ribbons and elaborate yarn mandalas covered the stones like the trees below, only fresh, new.
“This looks like the likeliest spot. Have Timofeev bring the half-track here.”
Rumantsev waved for Timofeev to come on. The M5 trundled over. Ignatski waved his arms. “Line the half track up with this stone here. The smallest one.”
When Timofeev had the M5 where Ignatski wanted it, he signaled for Timofeev to stop the engine. In the ensuing silence, the wind’s rush through the mountains amplified to loud, piercing moans, like mourning human voices.
“All right, Rumantsev. Here’s your chance to redeem yourself. Get that stone down. No questions. No arguments. Just get it down.”
Ignatski could break Rumantsev to private or do even worse, denounce him as a traitor and spy and have him sent to a Siberian prison camp.
“Timofeev. Help me with the winch.”
They pulled the cable free from the drum and pulled it out to the kurgan. Young and nimble, Timofeev removed his boots and footcloths and scampered up to the monolith’s top with the cable clipped to his belt. When he neared the top, he unclipped the cable, looped it around the monolith, and attached the clip to the cable.
“Pull on the loop. Make sure it’s secure,” Rumantsev shouted.
Timofeev pulled down hard on the loop.
“All right. Start the winch.”
“Give Timofeev a chance to get down. We’ll need him, Comrade General.”
“If you say so.”
Timofeev scuttled down the megalith, dropped the last ten feet, and hit the ground running. Rumantsev turned on the winch when he was well clear. Tons of weight, set in place for a millennia and a half, stubbornly refused to give way.
“Damn it, Rumantsev. Pull it down.”
Rumantsev stopped the winch. Rather than apply continuous pressure, he goosed the throttle, multiple bouts of pressure applied and released.
There was a crack, a loud, resonance like something vital ripped apart, a rib torn from a living being. Small pebbles and gravel tumbled from the monolith’s crest. A horrible groan. The megalith shifted from its socket and toppled to the ground. The stone hit with so much force a towering cloud of dust enveloped the plateau.
“Good man,” Ignatski coughed through his kerchief.
Gradually the dust settled. The megalith lay broken, in its place a gap like a pulled tooth, a void of blackness without light. Ignatski took more pictures. Timofeev untied the loop and rewound the cable.
“I’m sure to be elected to the Academy of Sciences. Stalin himself will shake my hand. Let’s go inside. Timofeev. Get two lanterns.”
Timofeev brought lanterns from the bed. He lit the filaments, lowered the glass bulbs, and fed kerosene until each lamp glowed brightly even in daylight.
“I’ll be first-”
Ignatski paused to give Rumantsev a sidelong glance, a cat playing with a mouse.
“No. The honor belongs to you, Rumantsev. You’re the one who opened the kurgan. The hero of Stalingrad.” Ignatski handed a lantern to Rumantsev. He bowed and gestured toward the gap.
“Certainly, Comrade General. Just let me give Timofeev orders about refueling.”
“Go on then. Hurry.”
Rumantsev beckoned for Timofeev to follow him behind the bed where Ignatski couldn’t see them.
“The moment we enter the kurgan, Timofeev, start the half-track and leave. Drive back to the post. Tell them we died inside the kurgan because that’s what happened.”
“Comrade Major. I can’t abandon you.”
“You have to. It’s your only chance. Swear you’ll do this.”
Timofeev took Rumantsev’s hand. “I swear, Comrade Major.”
“Good man. Now start rearranging the jerrycans in the bed, like you’re getting ready to refuel. Once we enter the kurgan, leave. Understood?”
“Clearly, Comrade Major.”
Rumantsev returned to Ignatski while Timofeev rummaged around in the bed. He picked up his lantern. “That should keep him busy while we’re inside. Are you ready, Comrade General?”
Ignatski gave Rumantsev a quizzical look. “So going inside the kurgan, dark and enclosed as it is, that doesn’t make you nervous, Rumantsev?”
He laughed. “As if I’d give you that satisfaction.”
Rumantsev held the lantern high and stepped through the gap. Dust from powdered stone choked his nose and mouth. His heart slammed into overdrive. Ignatski stumbled in and almost knocked Rumantsev down.
“So what have you found?”
“Nothing so far.” Rumantsev put his kerchief to his face. He forced himself to breathe slowly and regularly and held the lantern high. Beyond the lanterns’ faint light, nothing but darkness.
A rumble outside, a grind of gears as the engine noise slowly diminished.
“What’s Timofeev up to? He’s not leaving, is he?”
“I told him to find a level spot to refuel.”
Sudden scents, fine perfumes, myrrh and frankincense.
“I don’t know, Comrade General.”
Brilliant flashes of light, streams of red tipped gold streaked by pink and purple sparks. They transmigrated from the kurgan’s dusty confines to a boundless, phantasmal steppe. Rich, phosphorescent grasslands extended far as the eye could see. They teemed with game, gazelles, wild sheep, boar, ibex, and musk deer. A sunless dome of palest blue glimmered brightly above, but without heat.
An embroidered, red silk pavilion stood before them, with a white cotton canopy. Beneath the canopy, a round faced, smiling man sat on a gold throne, softened by furs and velvet cushions. He wore a winged silk cap and fine robes of cloth of gold. The pavilion was flanked by armed guards and kneeling concubines in their serried ranks.
“Visitors. It is well. It’s been long since anyone sought my company. By the rules of the steppe, I must extend hospitality. What do you seek from me?”
He hadn’t spoken and yet they understood. Ignatski answered.
“Why, glory, of course. Undying fame. Here, let me get a picture.” Ignatski pulled out his Leica only to have it crumble to dust in his hand. The Khan pointed to Rumantsev.
“And you, warrior? For I see the mark upon you. What do you seek?”
Rumantsev shrugged. “An end.”
He laughed, a terrible, hollow moan, a rictus of morbid delight at bloodshed, terror, the sack of cities, women and children’s wails, pyramids of skulls, and the thrill of riding at the head of hundreds of thousands of savage warriors, dedicated to war, rapine, and slaughter.
“Then sit and feast with me. Take your ease.”
Thoughtlessly, automatically, Rumantsev sat on a cushion by the throne, the place of honor on the right. He removed his cap, unfastened his Sam Browne belt, and unbuttoned his collar. Maidservants brought him dumplings, a young goat cooked with stones in its stomach, and fermented mare’s milk.
“But what about me? I’m a General. I outrank Rumantsev quite a bit. What about the glory I wanted? And you owe me for a camera.”
“Give him the glory he deserves.”
Two burly warriors came up to Ignatski and clapped their hands to his shoulders. They shoved Ignatski to his knees where they held him with an iron grip.
“What are you doing? Let me go? I’m a General. My father’s-”
Another man stepped forward. He carried long iron tongs that held a white hot crucible filled with molten metal that glowed like the sun.
Ignatski’s eyes went wide. “No. No. You can’t do that. No.”
He tried to escape the warriors’ grip, twisted and writhed like one mad, but the phantom Mongols held him close while they laughed at his plight. The tongs were held over Ignatski. Molten gold poured over his head, formed a cap that fried his brain in its pan.
The warriors released Ignatski. He fell, dead and damned forever.
The Khan raised his skull goblet in a toast to his guest. Rumantsev gazed around him. The horizon extended to infinity as did the light blue dome above. With Ignatski gone, the atmosphere was peaceful and calm, as became a banquet. He knew happiness, relief. The nightmares could never find him here.
For Rumantsev had escaped into the Beyond.
About the Author
Mark Mellon is a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. His short fiction has recently appeared in Lovecraftiana, Horror Sleaze Trash, and Into The Ruins. Four novels and over sixty short stories have been published in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Denmark. A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Medal for F/SF. A website featuring his writing can be found at www.mellonwritesagain.com.