Week 1

Darkness. At first, no sound. Then a roaring, as the deafness caused by the massive explosion began to subside. Pain. Then nothing.

The blackness, the night, becoming a grey sunrise. He rolled over, first onto his side, then up onto hands and knees as he began crawling.

Slowly he crawled toward the edge of the gigantic crater. The grey dust was everywhere, in his eyes, his mouth. Siberia, pulverized.

With every last bit of his strength, he pulled himself up and over the edge of the crater; the pain was excruciating. Darkness came again.

He lay motionless in an apocalyptic landscape. He never knew how long he was there, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Was it memory or a nightmare? The meteor, the impact, the explosion. Better not to know; better to forget.

Gradually, there was a stirring at the edge of the destruction zone. Curious eyes looked across the blasted landscape, saw the human: Dead?

Slowly, cautiously, they moved forward into the clearing where the forest had been blasted away.

Thousands of trees lay flattened, the river fouled with mud. Every step raised grey dust; they blinked furiously to keep it from their eyes.

There were no sounds in the forest but their own grunting and snuffling as they half carried, half dragged the human to the Great Den.

Surely the human would make a fitting sacrifice, their tribute to Medved, the Great One, King of Bears.

It was summer, when night does not come to the northland. They struggled with their burden through the forest in the eerie twilight.

Finally they arrived at the mouth of the cave, the Great Den. They dropped the human and waited for their king to appear.

The Great One was not long in coming. Huge and powerful, he rolled forward from the cave into the little clearing, into the summer dusk.

The bears knelt before their king. The human, whom they had hoped would win them favor as a gift, looked small and insignificant now.

“What is this?” growled Medved, sniffing at the body on the ground before him. “What is this scent …? Aha! Food!” He snorted in pleasure.

“No!” came a voice from the cave behind him. A beautiful young she-bear stepped into the twilight. It was Ursa, daughter of the Bear King.

Even in the half-light of the long summer night, her heavy fur was glossy and sleek. Her deep brown eyes shown with beautiful intelligence.

“He is not food, Father,” said Ursa. “He is like us. And he is wounded; we must care for him. Give him to me.”

“How is he like us?” snorted one of the bears who had carried the stranger from the destruction zone. “He is small, and has no fur!”

“No doubt his fur came off in the explosion,” Ursa replied, eyes flashing angrily. Medved’s daughter, she was accustomed to having her way.

Week 2

The young he-bear half snarled and turned his head. “As you say,” he growled. This was young Orso, unhappy that Ursa would favor another.

“Let us take him inside,” said Medved, stepping forward to lift the creature carefully in his mighty jaws.

The great Bear King struggled to raise the small, hairless stranger. He opened his mouth and stepped backward in surprise.

“No wonder it took so many of you to bring him here!” This creature was heavier than any other, as heavy as the densest meteorite.

But Medved was a great king, with the strength of eight bears. With a mighty effort he lifted the stranger and carried him into the Den.

Many months passed; Ursa cared for the outsider as tenderly as if he were her cub, but he did not awaken.

The massive blast had destroyed the bushes where berries grew; the mud had choked the river and there were no fish.

The bears went hungry, yet Ursa brought small delicacies and laid them beside the unconscious one.

Winter came, and the bears slept. Spring came again, and the land began to recover from the terrible explosion.

Dim light, snuffling snores, the smell of damp fur: He gradually became aware of his surroundings.

The stranger opened his eyes.

He looked directly into the face of a giant Siberian bear, and yet he was not afraid.

“Who are you?” he whispered, and Ursa’s heart leapt with joy. He spoke the language of the Bears—he was indeed one of them!

“I am Ursa, daughter of Medved, King of Bears,” she snuffled softly. “And who are you?”

“I?” He thought, and the word “put” came to him. “Put.” It meant path. Was he not on a path? Was he not a wanderer? “I am Putin,” he said.

“Put-in?” Ursa said quizzically. “Putin? It does not sound like a Bear.” But the stranger had closed his eyes again and did not reply.

That spring, life slowly returned to the forest. Putin became a useful member of the Bear Clan, due to his unusually dexterous paws.

He did not look or smell like the others, but he lived as they lived, and gradually the bears accepted him.

Still Ursa was concerned because his fur did not grow back. Putin wore breeches and boots made of otter pelts, yet refused to wear a shirt.

Though he was small and hairless, Putin was as strong as any bear.

Week 3

One steamy summers day Ursa watched as he lifted the end of a huge log and moved it to clear a trail to the stream.

Water ran down his face, and his chest and back were wet, yet she had not seen Putin go into the brook. She approached him curiously.

“You are wet,” she said. “It’s hard work,” he smiled. Puzzled, she leaned forward to sniff him.

It was an oddly pleasant scent, a mixture of food and skunk and earth. Slowly, tentatively, she put forth her tongue to taste.

The she-bear’s shining brown eyes widened in surprise. Putin’s water tasted of salt: It was delicious!

She could not help herself—she licked his back again and again. Putin stood still as the massive tongue rubbed him from waist to shoulders.

Slowly, Ursa moved around his side and to his chest, licking all the while. Putin stood relaxed, eyes closed, giving himself to her tongue.

Eyes closed, he felt the texture of her, heard her panting, smelled her dusty fur and hot bear’s breath. Never had he known such pleasure.

Neither Putin nor Ursa saw the eyes watching them from behind the peashrubs just off the trail—the eyes of Orso, the angry one.

Days passed, and Orso could not forget what he had seen from his hiding place: Ursa, the beautiful she-bear, Ursa with that … abomination.

One evening, as the bears gathered at the Great Den in the long summer twilight, Orso could stand it no longer. “Putin!” he growled.

The human turned to face the bear with one eyebrow cocked and a half-smile. This confrontation was not unexpected. “Yes?” he said.

“We brought you as food-sacrifice for Medved, the Great One! I myself carried you from the destruction zone! Now you live among us!”

“That is true,” Putin replied. “And so?”

“You live among us, but you are NOT one of us! You have fooled Ursa, but your trickery does not fool me!

Putin had only seconds to set himself before the young he-bear charged. Making use of Orso’s momentum, he lifted him into the air.

For a moment, the huge bear was suspended aloft … and then Putin slammed him to the ground.

As Orso fought to catch his breath, the other bears backed slowly away in shock and fear.

“Judo,” Putin smiled to himself, reaching out to plunge his hand into Ursa’s deep, luxurious fur.

Putin and Ursa walked slowly together into the Great Den, and no bear dared stop them.

Week 4

Sulking, skulking, Orso stalked the forest after his defeat. How could he get revenge? Unaware, he approached the destruction zone.

Strange sounds from the crater startled him. He froze, alert for danger. Voices, shouts, rapid clickings—slowly, Orso crept closer.

The young he-bear could not believe his eyes: The crater was full of creatures like Putin! They were small, and walked on their hind legs.

Unlike Putin, the creatures were completely covered with strange, smooth pelts, but Orso was sure they were the same: Not Bears!

The Putin-animals moved deliberately through the crater, examining the clicking boxes they held in their paws, calling out to each other.

“The whole area is highly contaminated!” one shouted. “Obviously,” another replied, turning away, “but what do you suggest to contain it?”

Orso watched silently as the creature walked out of the crater toward the trees where he was hiding, and placed his box on the ground.

As the Putin-animal began marking his territory, Orso saw his chance: He lunged forward, took the box in his mouth, and ran!

If he could lead these creatures back to the Great Den, Orso could prove that Putin was one of these others, and not a bear at all!

Spittle flecked the metal box as Orso crashed through the woods. He looked back once to make sure the creatures were in pursuit: They were.

Orso charged into the clearing before the Great Den, spat the box onto the ground, and bellowed the Gathering Call. Bears raced to assemble.

Ursa and Putin were the last to arrive, just as the strangers burst into the clearing. “What have you done?!” Putin cried in anguish.

“Look!” Orso roared, “Putin is like them! He is not one of us!” The bears looked back and forth, bewildered, from Putin to the others.

Before he could say more, the humans raised the sticks they carried and pointed them at him. Small explosions burst forth, and Orso fell.

“Fire!” screamed a human, and the slaughter began. Bears turned to flee, only to fall in heaps of bloody fur. But Putin attacked.

With his judo skills and near-superhuman strength, Putin tossed the humans like salmon from a stream. But he was one against many.

Then he saw Ursa, surrounded by humans aiming sticks at her. “Beloved!” she cried out in terror. Putin dove between them. “Run!” he shouted.

Bullets tore into his flesh as Ursa turned away and fled into the forest. “She is safe!” he thought, as he collapsed onto the ground.

Putin knew the men would be more interested in capturing him than pursuing another bear. He looked at the slaughter all around him.

Putin wept.

One of the men slammed his gun against Putin’s head: Darkness. Another held out a Geiger counter. “Off the charts,” he muttered. “Take him!”

Week 5

Putin sighed and looked up from the file he had been examining. “Another day, another oligarch,” he thought wearily.

Sometimes it seemed he’d been at the KGB forever; it was as if he could not remember a time before he was a chief of the secret police.

All his days passed by with a grey sameness: read some files, order some torture, go home for dinner with his wife, Mila.

Occasionally he engaged in a bit of meaningless political maneuvering, destroying the career of a rival just to break the monotony.

He had the status of a successful KGB chief, yet Putin lived simply: He drove a yellow Lada; his apartment was small, dark, and cave-like.

Mila was large, brown-haired, plain. His colleagues could not understand why he had not married a blond gymnast from the Duma.

Putin could not explain the strange yearnings he felt. His trips to the country were the only thing that gave him any relief.

“I’m going to the dacha this weekend,” he said that night at dinner. “Again?” Mila frowned, but said nothing more.

Putin felt more strongly than ever that his wife did not understand him. The next morning he packed his things and left before sunrise.

As soon as he was gone, Mila got out an encrypted cell phone hidden at the bottom of the potato bin and dialed a number known only to her.

“Mila,” said the man’s voice evenly. There was no surprise, no pleasure, no emotion at all: It was just a statement of fact.

“I must see you, in person, today.” He hesitated only a split second, but Mila caught the pause. “Today,” she said again.

“In one hour, the usual place,” he said, and hung up. Mila put the phone back under the potatoes and went to the closet for her coat.

She took the Metro several stops, got out, and walked a circuitous route to the Lubyanka Building: KGB headquarters.

By the time she arrived in Putin’s office, his superior officer, the Commander, was already there and waiting for her.

They had chosen Putin’s own office as their regular meeting place, since the Commander had every reason to be in the building at any time.

And it was expected that Putin’s wife would sometimes visit to paw through his things, to see what he was up to when he was away from her.

As long as they were careful, no one would notice they were in the office at the same time. Mila turned and locked the door behind her.

“He’s gone to the country again,” she said flatly as she pulled off her heavy brown fur coat—a gift from Putin—and draped it over a chair.

“Perhaps you should go with him sometime,” the Commander murmured as he lit a Sobranie and gazed out the window.