Category Archives: VI. BENEATH THE SURFACE

Week 27

The Commander stepped out of his office, looked carefully around to make sure no one was watching, and entered the elevator.

Instead of pushing the button for the lobby, he stabbed his finger at several buttons in a seemingly random sequence.

He winced as a second set of inner doors slid silently across and locked him in. Then the elevator began dropping quickly.

He hated the sensation of falling in a metal box—he never got used to it. The elevator continued to descend for several minutes.

Finally the cab slowed, then stopped with a slight bounce. Both sets of doors opened, revealing a large, dark room far below the basement.

Dim lights glowed in sconces set into walls covered with strange symbols, barely illuminating a heavy wooden table.

At the far end a single, cloaked figure, its face obscured in shadow, sat in a massive, elaborately carved wooden chair.

Immediately, the Commander began to chant the ritual greeting. “Enough!” the figure interrupted. The Commander stopped, confused.

“We are alone,” the figure said, “and time is short. Come, sit at my right hand.” Warily, the Commander approached and sat on a low bench.

The figure began to speak again, its voice emerging from the dark space beneath the hood of its cloak. “We know Putin is on the move.”

The Commander nodded, as the figure continued. “He has already recruited his War Bear, and the Tiger, and soon there will be others.”

The Commander barely suppressed a shudder, but the figure went on as if it hadn’t noticed. “Now he is beginning his campaign.”

“Campaign?” the Commander interjected, surprised. Immediately, he wished he had held his tongue. “Yes,” the figure said, after a pause.

“Vladimir Vladmirovich will become President of Russia.”

At this, the Commander burst out laughing. “Putin?! President? President Putin? Hahaha!” “SILENCE!” shouted the figure, rising abruptly.

The figure’s sudden movement was accompanied by a wafting odor of formaldehyde, plastic, and cadaverous putrescence.

The Commander sat trembling as the figure loomed above. “You know nothing,” it hissed. “President, yes! It is the fulfillment of Prophesy!

“We shall assist him, without his knowledge. His way will be made clear. He will rise to the heights. And then …”

The figure stopped speaking, as if lost in thought. The Commander remained perfectly still, waiting, but there was nothing more.

Finally he rose and walked carefully to the elevator. As the double doors shut, the Commander realized he felt nauseated with dread.

Week 28

When the Commander’s elevator car reached the lobby floor, it did not make the ordinary chiming sound. Instead, he heard drums.

With the third beat, the Commander’s personalities switched, and he remembered nothing of his meeting with the Fetid Lord. He blinked.

The programming worked perfectly: One of the Commander’s selves was an agent for an ancient council, the other a faithful servant of Russia.

Though he consciously remembered nothing of his lord’s plan to help Putin attain office, the Commander had Putin on his mind.

As he stepped out of the elevator, he had a vague feeling
that Putin deserved more responsibility. He wanted to help make that happen.

Shaking his head like an ox in the sun, the Commander made a brief snort of determination, lowered his head, and strode through the lobby.

As he walked past the guard post and out of the Lubyanka, the Commander nodded at young Zangief, for a moment wishing he was still a cadet.

But this was not the time for sentimentality, for he had an appointment with his most important—and most difficult—agent.

A short time later, the Commander was at the meeting spot, ordering his boiled potato from a stooped woman tending a small food cart.

“Commander, I do not understand why you insist we meet like this,” she grumbled as she handed over his steaming spud. “Why not the office?”

“This is much safer, Mila.” The Commander blew on his snack to cool it, and looked up expectantly. ”Tell me, how is Putin these days?”

Mila grimaced at the indignity of her disguise, and considered whether to report Putin’s political ambitions and their new “arrangement.”

“He seems fine, though he refuses to speak about his time in the hospital. He says it is too painful.” Mila shrugged, trying to seem casual.

She waited. The Commander looked at her, squinted for a moment, and then exclaimed, “He does not even try to hide his lies!

“We must take steps to protect ourselves, we must advance Putin into the public eye. Celebrity and public scrutiny will constrain him.”

Mila could not believe what she was hearing. Was it a trick? How much did the Commander know? “What are you suggesting?” she asked calmly.

Lost in thought, the Commander rubbed his tummy and stared into the distance., “Do you think Putin would consider politics?” he asked.

Mila’s heart raced. Had she been fooled? Was the Commander testing her to see if she was hiding anything, lying about Putin?

“Sir, are you saying we should help Putin gain political power?” Her fingers strangled the pushcart’s wooden handle. “How can you say that?”

The Commander waved his plastic fork and swallowed a mouthful of potato. “Do not question my judgment, agent M. You will assist this plan.”

Though seething inside, Mila merely bowed her head. She could not afford to endanger her cover: Mantis did not tolerate failure.

Week 29

Still inwardly fuming, Mila lowered her babushka-clad head and slowly pushed the heavy wooden potato wagon back to the cart barn.

She knew—and the Commander knew—she was the best undercover agent the KGB had; even Putin himself had never realized her true status.

Yet she was forced to endure these indignities, again and again. Someday they would see who she really was; someday they would be sorry.

Dwelling on such thoughts, Mila finally arrived at the “barn,” the central garage from which all potato carts were dispatched.

It was a legitimate business, but the owner was a retired Lubyanka custodian who knew when he was expected to “assist” the Commander.

Mila returned her cart and smiled bitterly as she received the single kopeck that was her commission for the potato she had sold.

Then she went to the women’s locker room and changed back into her own clothes: sturdy shoes, tailored woolen suit, and furry ushanka.

Although she knew she was supposed to take a roundabout route, she walked directly from the cart barn to the flat.

Once inside the apartment, Mila began to relax. She took off her hat, went to the kitchen, and stared at the potato bin.

No, she decided, this was not such a dire emergency. She did not need to use the communicator for this report.

Instead, she poured herself a tumbler of vodka and walked into the living room. She settled into the comfy chair and closed her eyes.

Slowly, slowly every cockroach in the apartment began to emerge.

Carefully they came, from under the stove and the refrigerator and the sink, from behind the walls, from behind the toilet.

Warily at first, then faster and faster, more and more cockroaches scuttled across the apartment floor toward Mila’s chair.

Mila sat perfectly still, eyes closed, as the cockroaches climbed her legs, climbed the chair, began to completely cover her body.

Soon she could barely breathe through her nose, as the cockroaches covered her face. Gradually she felt herself becoming one with the…

Inside the Hive Mind, Mila made her report to Mantis—not with words or sounds or even images, but with complete Knowing.

Her entire body appeared to glisten and shimmer as the roaches trembled. All were one: Mantis knew all, Mila knew all, the roaches knew all.

Suddenly the roaches fled from her with alarm, racing across the apartment and back to their hiding places.

Seconds later, Putin opened the door to the flat and stopped; surely he’d heard something, detected movement from the corner of his eye.

Glancing into the living room, Putin saw Mila, eyes closed, sitting next to a glass of vodka. He snorted and turned into the bedroom.

Week 30

It was raining as the yellow Lada coasted into a parking spot and shuddered to a halt. The Commander got out and opened a black umbrella.

He’d awakened that morning feeling like a man headed to a capital trial. Head down, shoulders hunched, he scuttled toward the Lubyanka.

Slipping into the hulking yellow brick building, he quickly crossed the lobby, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten with each step.

Pressing the elevator call button, he saw a smear of sweat from his finger. “Why am I so nervous?” he wondered, wiping his hands.

The elevator groaned as it settled onto the lobby floor. The doors squeaked open, but snapped shut smartly after the Commander entered.

He reached to press the button for the ninth floor, but stopped when the buttons’ lights began flashing in an imperceptible pattern.

As the elevator lurched into a brisk descent, the Commander heard ritualistic drums begin to play and his dominant personality fell asleep.

When he awoke, the Commander was no longer a truculent KGB officer. Instead, he was a loyal servant to The Order, toady to the Fetid Lord.

The elevator settled, its doors opened, and the Commander entered a modest antechamber and began undressing.

Naked and chanting, the Commander went to a stone basin filled with blood and lard, scooped out a small handful, and smeared it on himself.

Next, he approached a ram’s horn hung from a hook, bowed, and drank the white, syrupy liquid inside it. The Commander was ready now.

Donning his robes, he thought of the report he was about to give The Order. They would be so pleased with him.

The plan was working just as they wanted. The Commander felt loyal and good. He was doing his part, just as the Fetid Lord had demanded.

He left the antechamber and began ascending a spiral wrought iron staircase. Lodge ceremonies could only be entered from below.

Careful not to make a sound, the Commander emerged from the staircase into a dark corner and silently watched The Order’s ritual.

Eleven hooded figures stood around the large table, hands clasped, swaying slightly as a tall figure at one end uttered guttural sounds.

When the figure stopped his chanting, all the others stopped swaying and removed their hoods. The Commander looked around at his masters.

Some were among of the world’s most prominent men—or had been, long ago—while others had always ruled from the shadows.

The Commander was jolted from his thoughts by the Fetid Lord’s voice. “Come, my servant. We await your news.”

He hesitated, fearful of the Lord’s power, then bowed his head and hurried towards the pungent odor wafting from the table’s end.

He stopped at the edge of the gloom, just outside the dim, viscous candlelight enclosing his masters, and began his report.

Week 31

“My lords, I am pleased to announce that your plan is on schedule. Putin’s star is growing brighter, and he is unaware of our influence.”

The Commander’s gaze shifted from one member of The Order to another. Most looked solemn or contemplative, but not all.

As usual, Cheney had replaced his hood with a gimp mask, and Henry Kissinger was gently kneading his thigh the way he’d choke a cat.

A low whine, barely audible, indicated that the former Vice President’s robot heart was pumping at an accelerated rate.

Next to them, at the head of the table, sat the Fetid Lord in his ornate wooden chair, his hood pulled low to obscure his face.

The Commander paused, aching for a sign of approval from his masters. They gave none, and after a moment he continued.

“As head of the Presidential Property Management Department, Putin has been able to meet many of Russia’s rising oligarchs.

“As usual, his arrogance betrays him. He actually believes he’s charmed all these men into supporting his political ambitions.

“In any event, Putin has taken quite well to his position as Chief of the Main Control Directorate. He displays a real lust for power.”

The Commander paused. Still desperate for a member of The Order to show some approval, he couldn’t resist a final barb at Putin.

“He loves power so much, why doesn’t he marry it? I think he would prefer it to sharing a mattress with his sow wife, Mi-”

“SILENCE!” A voice utterly familiar and terribly distorted stunned the Commander. Something flashed in a dark corner of the Lodge.

Suddenly, there stood Walt Disney, his half-frozen head encased in a glass jar, torchlight glinting off his polished carapace.

The commander was terrified. Through frostbitten lips, Disney hissed, “How dare you insult Putin, servant? You are nothing compared to him!”

Eight slender legs whirred in unison as Disney, his icy head riding a large robotic scorpion body, moved to stand next to the Fetid Lord.

Putin is to be the Host! It is a great honor,” said Disney, his words emitting from a speaker atop his telson. “He will serve our Lord.”

Lifting his hand, the Fetid Lord signaled for quiet. “It is time for Putin to move to center stage,” he said. “We begin the Final Phase.”

The Lord reached his thick, blotchy hand toward a steel chain draped over the arm of his throne. He grasped it and pulled.

The chain came taught, yanking the brown leather collar around President Yeltsin’s neck. He looked up from his vodka-filled dog bowl.

“Boris—You will accept Putin’s invitation to his dacha this weekend. He must join your administration before we give him the presidency.”

“So sayeth the Fetid Lord!” shouted Disney, and in unison, all the members of The Order responded: “So sayeth the Red Tzar!”