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Authors: Harry Turtledove

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Short Stories

BOOK: Short Stories
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BLACK TULIP

 

Harry Turtledove

 

Harry Turtledove who has taught ancient and medieval history at Cat State  Fullerton, Cal State LA., and UCLA, and has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history has  been called the standard-bearer for alternate history, and that's certainly  true; his amazing novels, including The Guns of the South (American Civil  War), The Great War: American Front (World War I), and the Worldwar tetralogy  (World War II) have transformed, with their bravura storytelling and sheer joy  in detail, our understanding of the term. His short stories are as richly realized as his novels; when Harry first  described what he was going to do with Black Tulip, I knew that I was in for a  ride as good as his novels.

 

 

Sergei's father was a druggist in Tambov, maybe four hundred kilometers south  and east of Moscow. Filling prescriptions looked pretty good to Sergei. You  didn't have to work too hard. You didn't have to think too hard. You could get  your hands on medicines from the West, medicines that really worked, not just  the Soviet crap. And you could rake in plenty on the left from your customers,  because they wanted the stuff that really worked, too. So pharmacy school, then  a soft job till pension time. Sergei had it all figured out. First, though, his hitch in the Red Army. He was a sunny kid when he got  drafted, always looking on the bright side of things. He didn't think they could  possibly ship his ass to Afghanistan. Even after they did, he didn't think they  could possibly ship him to Bamian Province. Life is full of surprises,  even maybe especially for a sunny kid from a provincial town where nothing much  ever happens.

Abdul Satar Ahmedi's father was a druggist, too, in Bulola, a village of no  particular name or fame not far east of the town of Bamian. Satar had also  planned to follow in his father's footsteps, mostly because that was what a good  son did. Sometimes the drugs his father dispensed helped the patient. Sometimes  they didn't. Either way, it was the will of God, the Compassionate, the  Merciful. Satar was twenty he thought he was twenty, though he might have been nineteen or  twenty-one when the godless Russians poured into his country. They seized the  bigger towns and pushed out along the roads from one to another. Bamian was one  of the places where their tanks and personnel carriers and helicopters came to  roost. One of the roads they wanted ran through Bulola. On the day the first truck convoy full of infidel soldiers rumbled through the  village, Satar's father dug up an ancient but carefully greased Enfield rifle.  He thrust it at the younger man, saying, My grandfather fought the British  infidels with this piece. Take it and do to the atheists what they did to the  soldiers of the Queen. Yes, Father, Satar said, as a good son should. Before  long, he carried a Kalashnikov in place of the ancient Enfield. Before long, he  marched with the men of Sayid Jaglan, who had been a major in the Kabul puppet  regime before choosing to fight for God and freedom instead. Being a druggist's  son, he served as a medic. He was too ignorant to make a good medic, but he knew  more than most, so he had to try. He wished he knew more still; he'd had to  watch men die because he didn't know enough. The will of God, yes, of course,  but accepting it came hard.

The dragon? The dragon had lived in the valley for time out of mind before Islam  came to Afghanistan. Most of those centuries, it had slept, as dragons do. But  when it woke oh, when it woke . . .

Sergei looked out over the Afghan countryside and shook his head in slow wonder.  He'd been raised in country as flat as if it were ironed. The Bulola perimeter  wasn't anything like that. The valley in which this miserable village sat was  high enough to make his heart pound when he moved quickly. And the mountains  went up from there, dun and gray and red and jagged and here and there streaked  with snow. When he remarked on how different the landscape looked, his squadmates in the  trench laughed at him. Screw the scenery, Vladimir said. Fucking Intourist  didn't bring you here. Keep your eye peeled for dukhi. You may not see them, but  sure as shit they see you. Ghosts, Sergei repeated, and shook his head again. We shouldn't have started  calling them that. Why not? Vladimir was a few months older than he, and endlessly cynical. You  usually don't see 'em till it's too damn late. But they're real. They're alive, Sergei protested. They're trying to make us  into ghosts. A noise. None of them knew what had made it. The instant they heard it, their  AK's all lifted a few centimeters. Then they identified the distant, growing  rumble in the air for what it was. Bumblebee, Fyodor said. He had the best  ears of any of them, and he liked to hear himself talk. But he was right. Sergei  spotted the speck in the sky. I like having helicopter gunships around, he said. They make me think my  life-insurance policy's paid up. Not even Vladimir argued with that. The Mi-24 roared past overhead, red stars bright against camouflage paint. Then,  like a dog coming to point, it stopped and hovered. It didn't look like a  bumblebee to Sergei. It put him in mind of a polliwog, like the ones he'd see in  the creeks outside of Tambov in the springtime. Come to think of it, they were  camouflage-colored, too, to keep fish and birds from eating them. But the gunship had a sting any bee would have envied. It let loose .with the  rocket pods it carried under its stubby wings, and with the four-barrel Gatling  in its nose. Even from a couple of kilometers away, the noise was terrific. So  was the fireworks display. The Soviet soldiers whooped and cheered. Explosions  pocked the mountainside. Fire and smoke leaped upward. Deadly as a shark,  ponderous as a whale, the Mi-24 heeled in the air and went on its way. Some bandits there, with a little luck, Sergei said. Pilot must've spotted  something juicy. Or thought he did, Vladimir answered. Liable just to be mountain-goat tartare  now. Watch the villagers, Fyodor said. They'll let us know if that bumblebee  really stung anything. You're smart, Sergei said admiringly. If I was fucking smart, would I fucking be here? Fyodor returned, and his  squadmates laughed. He added, I've been here too fucking long, that's all. I  know all kinds of things I never wanted to find out. Sergei turned and looked back over his shoulder. The men in the village were  staring at the shattered mountainside and muttering among themselves in their  incomprehensible language. In their turbans and robes some white, some mud  brown they looked oddly alike to him. They all had long hawk faces and wore  beards. Some of the beards were black, some gray, a very few white. That was his  chief clue they'd been stamped from the mold at different times. Women? Sergei shook his head. He'd never seen a woman's face here. Bulola wasn't  the sort of village where women shed their veils in conformance to the  revolutionary sentiments of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. It was  the sort of place when women thought letting you see a nose was as bad as  letting you see a pussy. Places like this, girls who went to coed schools got  murdered when they came home. It hadn't happened right here he didn't think  Bulola had ever had coed schools but it had happened in the countryside. He gauged the mutters. He couldn't understand them, but he could make guesses  from the tone. I think we hit 'em a pretty good lick, he said. Vladimir nodded. I think you're right. Another ten billion more, and we've won  the fucking war. Or maybe twenty billion. Who the fuck knows?

Satar huddled in a little hole he'd scraped in the dirt behind a big reddish  boulder. He made himself as small as he could, to give the flying bullets and  chunks of shrapnel the least chance of tearing his tender flesh. If it is God's  will, it is God's will, he thought. But if it wasn't God's will, he didn't want  to make things any easier for the infidels than he had to. Under him, the ground quivered as if in pain as another salvo of Soviet rockets  slammed home. Satar hated helicopter gunships with a fierce and bitter passion.  He had nothing but contempt for the Afghan soldiers who fought on the side of  the atheists. Some Russian ground soldiers were stupid as sheep, and as helpless  outside their tanks and personnel carriers as a turtle outside its shell. Others  were very good, as good as any mujahideen. You never could tell. Sometimes you  got a nasty surprise instead of giving one. But helicopters . . . What he hated most about helicopters was that he couldn't  hit back. They hung in the air and dealt out death, and all you could do if they  spotted you was take it. Oh, every once in a while the mujahideen got lucky with  a heavy machine gun or an RPG-7 and knocked down one of Shaitan's machines, but  only once in a while. Satar had heard the Americans were going to start sending Stinger antiaircraft  missiles up to the mujahideen from Pakistan. The Americans were infidels, too,  of course, but they hated the Russians. The enemy of my enemy... In world  politics as in tribal feuds, the enemy of one's enemy was a handy fellow to  know. And the Stinger was supposed to be very good. At the moment, though, Satar and his band were getting stung, not stinging. The  gunship seemed to have all the ammunition in the world. Hadn't it been hovering  above them for hours, hurling hellfire down on their heads? Another explosion, and somebody not far away started screaming. Satar cursed the  Soviets and his comrade, for that meant he couldn't huddle in the shelter of the  boulder anymore. Grabbing his sad little medicine kit, he scrambled toward the  wounded mujahid. The man clutched his leg and moaned. Blood darkened the wool of  his robe. Easy, Abdul Rahim, easy, Satar said. I have morphine, to take away the pain.

Quickly, then, in the name of God, Abdul Rahim got out between moans. It is  broken; I am sure of it. Cursing softly, Satar fumbled in the kit for a syringe. What did a druggist's  son know of setting broken bones? Satar knew far more than he had; experience  made a harsh teacher, but a good one. He looked around for sticks to use as  splints and cursed again. Where on a bare stone mountainside would he find such  sticks? He was just taking the cover from the needle when a wet slapping sound came from  Abdul Rahim. The mujahid's cries suddenly stopped. When Satar turned back toward  him, he knew what he would find, and he did. One of the bullets from the  gunship's Gatling had struck home. Abdul Rahim's eyes still stared up at the  sky, but they were forever blind now. A martyr who falls in the holy war against the infidel is sure of Paradise,  Satar thought. He grabbed the dead man's Kalashnikov and his banana clips before  scuttling back into shelter. At last, after what seemed like forever, the helicopter gunship roared away.  Satar waited for the order that would send the mujahideen roaring down on the  Shuravi the Soviets in his home village. But Sayid Jaglan's captain called, We  have taken too much hurt. We will fall back now and strike them another time. Satar cursed again, but in his belly, in his stones, he knew the captain was  wise. The Russians down there would surely be alert and waiting. My father, I  will return, Satar thought as he turned away from Bulola. And when I do, the  village will be freed.

The dragon dreamt. Even that was out of the ordinary; in its agelong sleep, it  was rarely aware or alert enough to dream. It saw, or thought it saw, men with  swords, men with spears. One of them, from out of the west, was a little blond  fellow in a gilded corselet and crested helm. The dragon made as if to call out  to him, for in him it recognized its match: like knows like. But the little man did not answer the call as one coming in friendship should.  Instead, he drew his sword and plunged it into the dragon's flank. It hurt much  more than anything in a dream had any business doing. The dragon shifted  restlessly. After a while, the pain eased, but the dragon's sleep wasn't so deep  as it had been. It dreamt no more, not then, but dreams lay not so far above the  surface of that slumber.

Under Sergei's feet, the ground quivered. A pebble leaped out of the side of the  entrenchment and bounced off his boot. What was that? he said. The stinking  dukhi set off a charge somewhere? His sergeant laughed, showing steel teeth. Krikor was an Armenian. With his long  face and big nose and black hair and eyes, he looked more like the dukhi himself  than like a Russian. That wasn't the ghosts, he said. That was an earthquake.  Just a little one, thank God. An earthquake? That hadn't even crossed Sergei's mind. He, too  laughed nervously. Don't have those in Tambov you'd better believe it. They do down in the Caucasus, Sergeant Krikor said. Big ones are real  bastards, too. Yerevan'll get hit one of these days. Half of it'll fall down,  too mark my words. All the builders cheat like maniacs, the fuckers. Too much  sand in the concrete, not enough steel rebar. Easier to pocket the difference,  you know? He made as if to count bills and put them in his wallet. It's like that everywhere, Sergei said. 'I serve the Soviet Union!' He put  a sardonic spin on the phrase that had probably meant something in the days when  his grandfather was young. Sergeant Krikor's heavy eyebrows came down and together in a frown. Yeah, but  who gives a shit in Tambov? So buildings fall apart faster than they ought to.  So what? But if an earthquake hits a big one, I mean they don't just fall apart.  They fall down. I guess. Sergei wasn't about to argue with the sergeant. Krikor was a  conscript like him, but a conscript near the end of his term, not near the  beginning. That, even more than his rank, made the Armenian one of the top dogs.  Changing the subject, Sergei said, We hit the bandits pretty hard earlier  today. He tried to forget Vladimir's comment. Ten billion times more? Twenty  billion? Bozhemoi! Krikor frowned again, in a subtly different way. Listen, kid, do you still  believe all the internationalist crap they fed you before they shipped your  worthless ass here to Afghan? He gave the country its universal name among the  soldiers of the Red Army. Well . . . no, Sergei said. They went on and on about the revolutionary unity  of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the friendship to the Soviet  Union of the Afghan people and everybody who's been here more than twenty  minutes knows the PDPA's got more factions than it has members, and they all  hate each other's guts, and all the Afghans hate Russians. Good. You're not an idiot not quite an idiot, I mean. Sergeant Krikor murmured  something in a language that wasn't Russian: Shuravi! Shuravi! Marg, marg,  marg! For a moment, Sergei thought that was Armenian. Then he realized he'd heard it  here in Afghanistan a couple-three times. What's it mean? he asked. 'Soviets! Soviets! Death, death, death!' Krikor translated with somber  relish. He waited for Sergei to take that in, then went on, So I really don't  give a shit about how hard we hit the ghosts, you know what I mean? All I want  to do is get my time in and get back to the world in one piece, all right? Long  as I don't fly home in a black tulip, that's all I care about. Makes sense to me, Sergei agreed quickly. He didn't want to fly out of Kabul  in one of the planes that carried corpses back to the USSR, either. Okay, kid. Krikor thumped him on the shoulder, hard enough to stagger him.  Keep your head down, keep your eyes open, and help your buddies. Odds are,  we'll both get through. The ground shook again, but not so hard this time.

BOOK: Short Stories
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