By Sean Patrick Hazlett
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
2230 Hours, 11 November 1927, Moscow, Russia
It wasn’t every day that a man had to audition for his life. Stalin did not suffer fools, but it was how Stalin dealt with them that terrified Dr. Leonid Kulik. But a jolt of pain in Kulik’s chest reminded him of far greater terrors and harsher masters.
Kulik had rehearsed his speech for hours as his train had barreled along the Trans-Siberian Railway. He’d labored to get every word right. But no matter how much he’d practiced, he couldn’t imagine any sane person believing his story, let alone the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
Shivering in his black woolen greatcoat and sheepskin papaha, a bespectacled Kulik huddled before Lenin’s wooden mausoleum beneath the crenelated Kremlin Wall. A chill, howling wind whirled thick snowflakes around him while he waited in the dark for his tardy host.
Yuri Golikov approached Red Square from the Senatskaya Gate. His footsteps crunched on the icy snow. His unkempt greatcoat rippled in the cold gale. Golikov’s off-kilter ushanka, ruddy cheeks and vodka-laced breath gave Kulik a good idea why the lanky Party official was late. Kulik rolled his eyes in silent protest.
Chiding Golikov for his unprofessionalism would be unwise. Kulik suspected the man was an OGPU agent. One could never be sure these days. One wrong word or ill-considered phrase earned many a bullet in the head and a shallow, unmarked grave.
An unsteady Golikov guided Kulik past the Kremlin Necropolis and through the Senatskaya Tower Gate. From there, he directed Kulik toward the domed Senate Palace’s private entrance. Once inside, Golikov ushered Kulik to the Catherine Hall rotunda.
A foul smelling cloud of mundungus hit Kulik’s nostrils. He coughed and then entered the chamber. Tobacco smoke stinging his eyes, Kulik struggled to take in the dome-shaped hall’s grandeur. Marble colonnades lined the chamber’s edge at equal intervals. Between the columns, windows on the dome’s far side offered a stunning view of the Senate Palace’s inner courtyard. Sculptured bas-reliefs adorned the wall’s remaining surfaces. A ring-shaped, polished marble conference table dominated the room's center. At the far end of the rotunda, Stalin puffed on a black iron pipe. He sat pouring over a swollen stack of documents, holding court over his cabal of senior Party and military officials.
Golikov nudged Kulik, rousing the mineralogist out of a scared stupor. Seeing Stalin in person felt so surreal that Kulik had lost his tongue. Stalin’s pockmarked skin surprised Kulik, especially in contrast to the man’s unblemished images on Soviet propaganda posters.
Stalin glanced up and raised an eyebrow. He removed his pipe. His stern gaze regarded Kulik as if he were gauging the man’s worth. Or maybe Stalin was deciding whether to crush an insect. Kulik couldn’t tell. But if Stalin only knew what Kulik was, the dictator would destroy him.
Stalin glowered at Golikov.
“Comrade Stalin, this is Dr. Leonid Kulik, chief curator of the Leningrad Museum’s meteorite collection,” Golikov said, his voice quavering.
Kulik shuddered every time he’d heard his city’s new name. He worried he’d slip and call it Petrograd, infuriating Stalin. One had to be vigilant in Soviet Russia. It’s been said that OGPU jackals like Vyacheslav Menzhinsky and Artur Artuzov created fictitious “resistance movements” to ensnare their political enemies. Here, in the heart of the Soviet police apparatus, Kulik was acutely aware of his own paranoia. But that paranoia was also a Russian’s most vital survival instinct.
Stalin’s rheumy eyes shifted from Golikov to Kulik. Kulik pushed his circular bifocals against the bridge of his nose, cleared his voice, and then spoke. “Comrade Stalin, it’s an honor to meet you. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to...”
Stalin held up his hand. “Too many words. Why are you here?”
Kulik nearly swallowed his tongue. Adrenaline flooded his system. “Comrade Stalin, I’m here to report the findings of my Tunguska expedition.”
Stalin nodded. “Ah, yes. Now I remember. This is the Soviet Academy of Sciences-funded study, no?”
“So where’s my iron?”
“Excuse me, Comrade Stalin?” Kulik scratched his beard to avoid shaking.
Stalin’s eyes widened. He raised his voice. “Iron. From the meteorite.”
Now Kulik remembered. Stalin wasn’t interested in scientific curiosities; only things that furthered the Revolution. “Unfortunately, we found no iron. But I think my discovery has far greater value for the Soviet people.”
Stalin glared at Kulik and crossed his arms over his chest. “Who are you to tell me what holds more significance for the Soviet Union?” he said in an irritated tone.
“My apologies, Comrade Stalin,” Kulik stammered. “What I meant to say is that once you hear more about what I found, you’ll want to learn more.”
Kulik’s heart raced. Another adrenaline surge. This wasn’t going well. Everything he’d so painstakingly rehearsed had come out all jumbled.
“What can be more important than organizing the proletariat against the capitalist forces gathering on our borders? What can be more ennobling than destroying the very powers that seek to extinguish the smoldering embers of class-consciousness? We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced nations. If we don’t industrialize within a decade, they’ll crush us. To industrialize, we need iron. It’s one of the most critical components of our first Five-Year Plan. The aim of your expedition was to recover iron fragments from the Tunguska impact crater. I hope you’re not here to report your failure.”
Kulik winced. In his next breath he had to convince Stalin that the Tunguska discovery trumped salvaging iron deposits. Otherwise, it was the gulag or worse. “Comrade Stalin, within five months what I found at Tunguska could make the Soviet Union the most powerful nation on Earth.”
An unnatural rush of contentment washed over Kulik. As if he’d just fallen in love. Dopamine. The answer pleased his hidden master.
Stalin thrust his pipe in his mouth and puffed. “Tell me more.”
Kulik nodded. He barely suppressed a nervous sigh of relief. He took a deep breath and told Stalin his tale.
Earlier this year, my survey team went into the Siberian hinterland to examine the effects of the 1908 Tunguska meteorite strike. We catalogued a swath of destruction covering thousands of versts. The impact’s energy was so powerful, it had laid waste to over eighty million trees. Amid the destruction, I uncovered a strange artifact - one I believe is of extraterrestrial origin.
The Siberian taiga’s rugged conditions forced me to abandon my 1921 expedition. But my second one this past April was more successful, though not without its own unique challenges.
The region’s Tungus villagers were reluctant to discuss the 1908 event, much less lead us to the impact zone. Over the years, these superstitious and primitive people have accumulated a fair bit of lore about the site - lore that proved to have some basis in fact. For instance, the Tungus had an irrational fear of a cryptic tribe they called the Valley Men. Because of these superstitions, it was nearly impossible to hire a local guide.
The closer we got to the crater, we discovered increasing numbers of queer metallic shards composed of elements unclassifiable on Mendeleev’s periodic table.
The Tungus peasants we encountered nearest the site were listless, pale, and sickly. If I’d believed in a God, I would have described them as soulless. Those some distance from the impact had reported an eerie green fog that drove men mad.
It was difficult to put much stock in these tales. Yet so many eyewitnesses reported the same phenomena that it was impossible to ignore the stories. Most believed the metallic fragments were cursed.
On the night of April thirtieth, I woke to screams. Gasping for air, my assistant, Sergey Malinovsky, rushed into my tent. “Petrukhin, Timoshenko and Shcherbakov haven’t returned from the wilderness,” he said. “Earlier tonight, they went to investigate odd sounds and electromagnetic phenomena. Others are reporting peculiar yelps and a faint, strobing green light.”
A grim mood fell over the camp. Siberia’s suffocating isolation, cold, and gloom only heightened the sense of despair.
In that part of the world even late spring is bleak. Mosquitos nipped at our skin, draining every ounce of blood from our bodies in the bog’s chill damp. A cloud-covered sky blotted out the stars. For those accustomed to the warm glow of city lights, it’s tough to fathom just how absolute darkness is in that forlorn and desolate place.
To calm my men, I dulled their nerves by issuing extra vodka rations. Then Malinovsky and I ventured toward the impact zone’s epicenter. We took our rifles, lanterns, and two dogs to sniff out the scent of the missing men. As we closed in on the impact site, we crossed into a silent abyss where even the chirps of crickets and the hum of mosquitos were absent.
Our compass needles began spinning erratically, as if affected by a strange distortion of Earth’s magnetic field.
As we descended deeper into the darkness, a ghostly trilling akin to the call of an American whippoorwill resonated in the blackness. Among the deathly silence, the eerie trills unnerved me. Nevertheless, I pressed on. After wandering several hundred meters, I stumbled onto Timoshenko’s corpse. His skull had been pried open like a tin can. His brain was missing. The cuts on his cranium were precise, almost surgical. Several meters away, I found the bodies of Petrukhin and Shcherbakov. Their skullcaps had also been removed.
“We should turn back,” Malinovsky said.
But as the expedition’s leader, it was my duty to push forward. So we did.
Our dogs refused to go any further. So we dragged them by their leashes. They resisted. Malinovsky’s dog savaged his hand. Frustrated, I handed my dog’s leash to Malinovsky.
“Head back to the laager site,” I said. “Resume the search tomorrow morning if I fail to return.”
He was only too happy to oblige.
As I trekked forward, the emerald light pulsated with increasing frequency. The whippoorwills’ trills and the unsettling yelping grew louder.
And I felt more alone than ever.
As I got closer to the source of that ghostly pulsing light, I unearthed much larger fragments of the strange metal. In some cases, chunks as large as human hands. The material had the texture and color of obsidian, but it was harder than tempered steel. Oddly, it also had unprecedented resilience. I could crumple it, but it would return to its original state within seconds. As a mineralogical specialist, I've seen nothing of its kind on Earth. I gathered samples until I felt nauseated.
It was becoming harder to breathe as a thick miasma, a kind of frothy green fog, increasingly permeated the wilderness like a toxic soup. My breathing became labored. I soon started coughing up bloody phlegm.
I hiked as far as I could, but the miasma’s adverse impact on my health thwarted my efforts to push any deeper into the murky morass. So I turned and made my way back toward the laager site. When I passed the place where my comrades had fallen, their bodies were missing. I assumed Malinovsky and the others had retrieved the corpses and buried them.
But I was wrong.
The men were in a frenzy when I returned to the site. They were loading rifles, lighting lanterns, and donning their greatcoats. It was obvious they had no plan. The dogs were barking wildly, likely sensing their masters’ unease.
When I tried to intercede, Malinovsky rested his hand on my shoulder and said, “The bodies are gone.”
I knew there was nothing I could do to stop their ill-considered foray. But I could limit the damage. So I addressed the group, urging patience and calm. “Wait until morning,” I pleaded.
My efforts failed.
When people are tired and afraid, they can be stubborn and irrational. If I couldn’t convince them to wait, I could at least ensure they’d be safe. So against my better judgment, I accompanied them back toward the crater.
Twenty-one armed men ventured into the wilderness and into the blackest night I’ve ever known. Their lantern light flooded the darkness, scattered by the pervasive green fog.
Given my adverse reaction to the mist, I stayed a few meters behind the group. As they got closer to the site, the men ahead coughed and retched. Not long after, I felt sick again.
Exhausted and ill, I stopped to rest. The group pressed forward into the wispy miasma. The strange trilling echoed from beyond the toxic fog’s swirling shroud.
A riot of commotion broke out about fifty meters ahead. A voice shouted, “Timoshenko!” A rifle shot cracked, reverberating in the night. With bloodcurdling screams, the crowd fled, stampeding pell-mell toward the laager site.
Malinovsky ran toward me. His face was twisted in a rictus of terror. He was wheezing. He grabbed my collar and pulled me close. He whispered, “The Valley Men are real and they’re coming for us.”
Earlier, I had discounted Tungus accounts of their ancestors rising from the earth. But every report on the Valley Men we’d examined had been consistent.
Malinovsky let go of my collar and fled. Others rushed past me. Soon, the only remaining light was from my lantern and the flickering green strobe.
The trills drew closer. Frozen from fear, I stared into the darkness. The steady crescendo of footfalls penetrated the silence. I say “steady” because they didn’t sound like the shaky meandering of a man blindly fumbling in the fog. People walk in irregular patterns, especially in rugged terrain. This was different. These footsteps were as precise as a metronome.
Timoshenko emerged from the mist, his body riddled with wounds. His skullcap had been reattached to his cranium. When he saw me, he halted with military precision. His eyes stared through me. He handed me a black cube. It had a circular impression on its upper face. Paralyzed by dread, I could do nothing but accept the offering. Timoshenko headed to the impact zone, never to be seen or heard from again.
When I left Tunguska on the Trans-Siberian Railway, I placed the device in the train’s brake van. An armed detail of ten decorated Red Army veterans guarded the van to ensure the device reached Leningrad.
On the third morning of my passage, I couldn’t sleep. So I went to the brake van to check on the cube. I glanced at my chronometer the instant I entered the car. It was precisely 3:14 a.m. The guards stood rigidly along the center aisle in two ranks facing inward. Their eyes were transfixed on the floating obsidian cube. The artifact cast rippling green rays of light that connected each veteran’s eyes like the nodes of a spider web.
The cube floated toward me. I watched, mesmerized and unsure what to do. The soldiers’ eyes rolled back into their heads. The lights vanished. The cube descended to the brake van’s corrugated iron floor. The men turned and faced me. Their eyes glowed a dull green. Two veterans marched forward in perfect cadence. One of them spoke. “Return. One year hence. We will be waiting.” He frothed at the mouth and shook before collapsing.
The other man spoke. “Gather men of science and men of war. Bring experts on biology, physiology, and botany.” Then he crumpled. And on it went, until all ten were dead. Then I blacked out.
When I awoke, I felt violated and unsettled. A notebook I had had in my possession at the time of the incident was filled with strange runes and mathematical equations I do not recall writing.
I ordered the brake van to be quarantined until the train’s arrival in Leningrad. There, we ran several tests on the artifact and the shards we recovered from the impact site. Using the Townsend discharge process, we detected latent alpha decay, a clear sign of radioactivity. So we encased them in lead and sealed them in the Mineralogical Museum’s vault.
After Kulik finished relating his tale, Stalin sat in silence as if weighing the options. The party officials were mute. Their dour and downcast faces betrayed an uneasiness that had become all too common in Soviet Russia. Many of them likely thought Stalin was testing their loyalty, forcing them to choose between treason on one hand and a madman who believed in extraterrestrials on the other. Given the OGPU’s reputation, only a fool would bet against Stalin.
“Did you open the cube?” Stalin said.
“No. That’s a decision for a head of state,” Kulik replied.
Stalin chuckled. “You assumed right, Dr. Kulik. What do you intend to do with this artifact?”
“I’ll keep it in Leningrad for further study,” Kulik said. “I dare not bring the thing here. It’s not worth the risk of endangering Moscow’s citizens. Not all we found at Tunguska was a positive omen for the Soviet Union or the human race.” Kulik’s head throbbed with sudden pressure. He’d said too much. He fought through the pain. “There are forces in the universe far older and more advanced than our own.”
Kulik let the last bit linger. He was counting on Stalin’s paranoia. He needed to scare the man of steel into marshaling the state’s resources to protect these secrets. If the rest of the world learned of Tunguska, there’d be chaos.
“What’s this artifact’s purpose?” Stalin said.
“I don’t know. I think it’s some kind of biological calculator. I believe it uses electromagnetic fields to control brain tissue and to transfer data like an analytical engine. I’ll issue a full report once I have more time to fully examine it.”
Stalin puffed on his pipe. “What did this?”
“I don’t know, Comrade Stalin.” Kulik lied, wanting to say more. But his fear of the thing inside him kept him silent.
Stalin nodded. “What else did the possessed guards say?”
“They provided instructions for what to bring to Tunguska in exchange for technology centuries beyond our own. Here’s the list,” Kulik said, placing a slip of paper on the table.
A colonel grabbed the document and handed it to Stalin. Stalin examined it. “What do you expect this future expedition to uncover?”
“I don’t know,” Kulik hedged, “But whatever’s there, it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.”
Stalin raised his index finger. “One moment.” The officials huddled around him. A mumbled exchange followed.
Minutes later, Stalin glared at Kulik. “Take your list to Marshal Tukhachevsky. He’ll get you what you need. You’ll lead a third mission to Tunguska on the appointed date and time. Until then, learn all you can about the device. Dismissed.”
Kulik saluted Stalin. The mineralogist left the rotunda. A dark essence clouded his emotions.
He was no longer hopeful about the future. But a wave of exhilaration swept over him as the parasite rewarded him for his efforts in establishing a foothold on this world.