Ghosts I: grim progress

Yuri Nikolaevich Leschenko remembered the first time he had seen a dragon, as it was the day of his tenth birthday. Irina was well towards her end, and his parents had sent him to play out in the square. The Leschenko’s apartment was small and on the fourteenth floor, in an unnamed street off Serdechnost’ Road. The windows didn’t open, and only a scrap of the square below could be seen from it. When Yuri had been even younger, he had assumed that only the richest of Russians could live in the upper levels, so far away from the street and so close to the bright grey skies. He learned his error after the first winter in the building, when the pipes froze over and the dripping water on the stairs turned to ice. The citizens closer to street level may have had the accumulated weight of a thousand people upon them, but at least they could wash their clothes, or leave their homes without skidding down a flight of stairs.

Tatarskaya Ploshchad was not much of a square, both more diminutive and barren than its lofty title suggested. It was more of a shape defined by its lack of a building rather than the presence of a landmark or significant site. No one that Yuri’s parents had spoken to knew why it had such a grand name. It hadn’t been used for much, ever. No market-stalls had ever been erected there, no statue had ever filled its uncomfortable emptiness. The previous Tsar had apparently burned some early Mechanical heretics here, but they were too fringe and early in that movement’s history to truly be considered martyrs for the cause.

Yuri didn’t care much for the square’s stories or their lack. The odd angles of the sky above, heavy with steel-coloured clouds, could not oppress him. He would play in the absence as best he could. Sometimes he would push the rubbish into heaps, other times kicking down piles he’d assembled. Other times he would construct something, assembling the wood, mortar and old clothes into shapes. He would tell stories amongst the rubble and filth, making scarecrow princes and princesses to act out the plays in his head. They would always end in violence, and he took the puppetmaster’s right to cast his creations down, letting their makeshift limbs splinter upon the cobblestones. He would always return and make them anew, and in so doing allow new variations to the tales.

On this day, his birthday, he was telling the fable of Ivan Tsarevich. It was one of Irina’s favourites and when she had been better, before the consumption, they had acted it out together over the ash-smeared rubbish. She hadn’t played for months now, and Yuri had to settle for one of the strange local boys. Lazar was a Jew, one of the boys from the complex of tenements to the south that formed a vertical ghetto. Yuri didn’t mind him much, even if Lazar would sometimes take over the puppet-games and insert his own narrative over Yuri’s constructions. Yuri would follow the story in his head, adapt it to his needs. There was plenty of time to tell and re-tell the tales; what did it matter if Lazar would add scenes, change characters’ names or motivations? In Lazar’s hands, the crimson rag and bundle of wire that had been the Firebird of Ivan Tsarevich was the prince’s bloodied cloak. Yuri had constructed the young noble on his wolf-steed, but in Lazar’s reckless hands the tale’s hero became a mess of black fabric and half-burned wood wrapped around the lupine hilt of a discarded dagger. The pale boy saw Yuri’s creation not as the prince, but instead one of the tale’s murderous brothers who slew the younger sibling to claim the kingdom from himself. The dirty scarlet cloth was flung into the air, and the dagger-hilt rose and jabbed the sky. The fabric fell down like ragged red leaves onto the ground.

As they played – or as Lazar played, and Yuri watched, for Yuri was always uncomfortable around others, and did not directly engage if he had an opportunity to observe – a grinding noise came drifting across Tartaskaya’s emptiness. Lazar dropped the one-time prince to the broken square and scurried to a gap between the buildings closest to the river. Yuri ambled close behind, his companion’s change in demeanour holding more interest than the machine-sounds.

In the distance, between the gaps of close-built buildings, they could see one of the mighty bridges crossing Moskva’s river. The river wound through the city’s guts. It was sluggish now, but dangerously powerful in the springtime. Yuri knew of a family who lived in the same block as his family who had lost their son to the river’s tide. It was serene but equally dangerous in the winter. Many adults would cross the ice during the night. Not all would make it from the footpath on one bank to the other. In the morning, the holes in the thin pale crust would show where the victims had been taken.

On the bridge, marching toward St Basil’s, were the great machines of The Deathless. The suits – if they could be called that, as they were as much vehicle as they were suit – had men deep inside them, somewhere under the decorative armour, valves and gears. The suits didn’t have a human silhouette; the body flared out and back, with supporting legs and a tail-like extension at the rear that was used to brace the pilot on the ground during artillery fire. The suit’s weaponry was stowed, and the cooling plates that normally surrounded them were concertinaed back like vestigial iron wings. Yuri could imagine where the cannons would appear in a firefight; the collars of The Deathless were studded with gigantic toothed wheels that could ratchet the weapons forward during an encounter. The troops’ metal
suits were dark and seemed to suck in and trap the crisp morning’s light. The only splash of colour was on the shoulder-plate, where the Czar’s seal of a double-headed eagle was picked out in and amber and alabaster. Empire-men, as if there was any doubt.

Yuri had heard his father talk about The Deathless before, with one of the few drinking partners that his mother would allow past their apartment’s threshold. Everyone knew, his father had said, that the Czar looked down on Mechanicals. They were warped and broken inside, but even the mightiest of emperors could not deny they had their uses. Such pilots weren’t likely to be cultists, apparently, not like those who’d been burned in Tatarskaya Ploshchad so many years ago. But they were plugged in like the Mechanicals, somehow connected to all those cogs and metal wires. It was bound to twist you, Yuri’s father had said.
“Like dragons,” Lazar breathed, pointing. His eyes had misted a little.

Lazar and Yuri watched them until the shapes disappeared and the sounds of their march faded into the background hum of Moskva. Lazar absently waved a farewell at Yuri, the games already forgotten to him. Yuri returned to the square, but after seeing myths with his own eyes, the garbage-plays of Tatarskaya Ploshchad seemed small and dirty in comparison. As perhaps they had always been, if he could have seen it.

Yuri began the long climb up to see Irina and his parents. He had learned early to pace himself on those fourteen flights. All the enthusiasm that he felt from seeing the dragon-soldiers had to last that distance. The stairwells were dark and identical, but he knew each by rote. The soldier, Obolenskii, on the second floor, could usually be heard drinking and singing. The Gruzenbergs on the fifth floor, who could keep the entire complex awake with their passionate and regular love-making. Kropotkin on the ninth floor, with his mistuned violin, and the extended network of Finns and Tsygane who occupied the entire tenth and eleventh floors. The twelfth floor had once had a Persian family, who had filled their stairwell with the smell of sweet cinnamon. The family had moved out following some sort of scandal, but the scent lingered in the forbidding whitewash.

When Yuri eventually reached his family’s door, it was open. The apartment was essentially a single room, so he immediately noticed his mother and father who stood together as still as statues. They were only a few inches apart, but Yuri felt a gulf between them, just as now he felt a gulf opening up below him. His father’s face was still, and more aged than Yuri had ever seen it. His mother’s face was turned from him.
“She’s gone, Yuri,” said his father. “She’s left us now.”

Somewhere outside, unseen and unheard within that room, the machines continued their grim progress across the city.

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