Week 11

Astride the mighty Yunker, Putin was enveloped by the wind’s roar as the world blurred past, a wash of colors devoid of detail.

Solitude, finally—the motorcycle’s saddle a hermit’s cave where he could seek enlightenment of his own mysterious past.

Memories flickered past like the landscape—sometimes too fast for him to get more than an impression, sometimes painfully graphic.

Bloody fur. Gunshots. What was that? But the wails of approaching sirens interrupted his recollections.

A caravan of emergency vehicles sped by, rushing in the opposite direction, toward Chernobyl. “No one there left to save,” Putin thought.

Putin did not see the firemen in the trucks, but some saw him; eyes widened at the sight of the glowing rider, blazing like a toxic comet.

Once they’d encountered the horrors at Chernobyl, some of the workers forgot the spectacle they’d seen on the road.

It did not matter that some remembered: All were dead of radiation poisoning before official reports could be filed.

There was one—only one—who witnessed Putin’s ride and did not die, but that observer’s report went only to others in the shadows.

100, 200 km, and still Putin rode: He was headed to Krasnoyarsk. Upon waking from the nuclear blast, he knew only to return there.

Return—had he been there before? The wind on his face reminded him of another, distant time, when he flew through the air, crashed to earth.

In the past: another explosion, pain, visions of emerging from a crater, limp, exhausted, but held securely by furry paws and strong jaws.

An 18-wheeler roared past him going the other way, its headlights momentarily blinding. The White Room! The doctors! Endless torture: Why?

How long had he been there? No telling if it was day or night, the voice droning non-stop through speakers, chipping away his personality.

Trying to remember it all was exhausting, like trying to drink a river in one gulp. Putin relaxed and let himself ride with an empty mind.

His body ached from sitting in the saddle for hours. Glancing at the fuel gauge, Putin saw it was near empty: time for a break.

Outside a small farm town, Putin found a petrol station and pulled up next to the pump. Stepping off the Yunker, he leaned back to stretch.

As the fuel glugged into the tank, Putin idly looked around—the small garage, a yellow Lada up on concrete blocks, and the forest behind it.

The tank full, Putin replaced the cap and took one last look into the woods. Suddenly, he spotted a bulbous form ambling through the trees.

The moment he recognized the form as a bear, the memories flooded back: Medved the Bear King, the slaughter, and then … Ursa! Beloved!

In an instant, Putin leapt upon the Yunker, started the engine, and roared away. It was not the wind that caused his eyes to tear.

Week 12

Ursa: How could he have forgotten? Putin clenched his teeth, enraged at his own weakness. He’d let the White Room steal her from his heart!

She must be alive—he’d seen her run to safety. But instead of searching for her, he’d lived the pathetic life of a bureaucrat.

His lips curled to a snarl as he thought of the wasted years, going to work like a loyal drone: File paperwork, torture a dissident, repeat.

Instead of Ursa, with her thick, lustrous fur and intoxicating bellows of pleasure, he’d had Mila, the sad cow. Putin screamed in rage.

He slammed open the throttle, his own furious roar meeting the Yunker’s howl as it delivered 32.8 mighty horsepower to the pavement.

Faster! He could not fly fast enough! His self-loathing was a caged beast straining inside his skull. His skin burned in the cold air.

Despite his rage, Putin was no outlaw, and he slowed the Yunker as he entered a small, shabby village north of Novosibirsk.

By the roadside he saw a small boy clutching a potato and weeping loudly. Though he was desperate to reach Ursa, he could not ignore this.

He stopped his iron steed and strode toward the child. As Putin approached, the boy’s eyes widened and he took a timid step backwards.

“Do not be afraid, mal’chik. What troubles you?” Putin asked kindly. The boy hesitated, then looked up into a spruce tree and pointed.

Putin gazed up into the highest branches; at first he saw nothing, but then his keen eyes spied movement through the dense foliage.

There among the needles was a bedraggled, frightened Toy Poodle. “He chased a squirrel and became stuck,” said the boy, his lip quivering.

“Please, please save Malen’koye Der’mo,” pleaded the boy. Without a word, Putin began climbing the tree, as gracefully as a tiger.

When he reached the tiny pup, Putin smiled and stretched out his hands saying, “Be calm, little friend, I am here for you.”

But as soon as his fingers grazed Der’mo’s knotted fur, the pathetic creature burst into flames. Putin recoiled in horror.

Looking down, he saw that his hands had an eerie phosphorescent glow. Radiation! No wonder the boy was frightened. “I’m a monster!”

Putin slowly climbed down the tree. He had killed a Poodle! He could imagine no greater crime. The boy sobbed as Putin stood before him.

What could he say? Sorry? Putin had no use for pathetic words. He gently took the potato from the crying child. It baked in his hands.

He handed the steaming spud to the boy, who smiled and began to eat. But even this was not enough to lift his mood: He had killed a Poodle.

With a heavy heart, Putin climbed back onto the Yunker, started the engine, and pulled away. As he rode, the glow of his skin dimmed.

Seeing this change, Putin steeled himself. “For Der’mo’s sake, I will learn to control my terrible power, and use it only for good.”

Week 13

It was raining. For any normal man, riding through the downpour would be agonizing, the droplets cold and sharp. But Putin felt nothing.

After many hours of mental effort, Putin had learned to regulate his radioactivity; with iron will, he controlled even the elements now.

A centimeter before the rain could touch him, it fizzled and evaporated. Inside this thin protective glow, Putin was warm and dry.

Leaning into a sweeping curve, he entered a small river valley. The wind and rain blew harder in the notch, and Putin increased his glow.

Though his might could contain the decay of atoms beneath his skin, it could not halt the surges of memory that battered his mind.

He saw Mila, his wife, with her plodding waddle and face like a stuffed cabbage. Long ago she’d felt comforting, familiar—like an old couch.

But those days were past, the good feelings fading and flaking off like yellow paint from an old Lada. Now they were strangers … or worse.

When she learned of Chernobyl, she would think him dead. It was for the best. She could find some walrus from the nomenklatura to marry.

Others, though, would be looking for him. Surely he had been seen somewhere along the many miles he’d traveled: Glowing men can’t hide.

Suddenly lightening shattered the darkness. In the jagged glare, Putin saw the particle accelerator exploding and the face of Dr. Antonosky.

The subject! Putin realized he’d been so focused on recalling the distant past, he’d forgotten why he’d traveled to Chernobyl.

Who was the mysterious man Putin had been sent to interrogate? How was he different? Did he even exist? Astride the Yunker, Putin rode on.

Slowly, like noticing a hair inside a dumpling, the landscape began to seem familiar. No details stood out, but the smell …

The hunt was on: Putin could tell he was getting close to his goal. He rode the Yunker hard, pushing toward the forest ahead.

He felt compelled to turn down a gravel path, casually drifting the Yunker’s rear wheel on the loose rocks like an old motocrosser.

Nearing the giant old-growth fir, Putin saw no opening into the woods. He sped faster still, weaving through the increasingly dense grove.

He pushed the motorcycle off a small berm and launched it into the air, tailwhipping the Yunker like a salmon rushing upstream to spawn.

Closer came the forest; still Putin spied no passage, yet no fear did he feel. He had the calm confidence of a carnivore in its territory.

Putin rode the Yunker’s two-stroke howl with grace toward the darkened wood, over roots and rocks, his eyes ever level.

Rushing toward the impending wall of trees, Putin grabbed the brakes and threw his machine into a sideways slide.

A meter from a massive fir trunk, the Yunker stopped. Putin dismounted and stared at a faint track leading into the great, grim forest.

Week 14

Putin turned back to the Yunker. Best to hide it, to prevent anyone from discovering that he was here … and he might need it again, later.

Working quickly, he grabbed handfuls of brown leaves and downfall branches from the ground and began covering the machine.

Before the motorcycle was fully obscured, the leaves burst into flame. The machine was hot from days of contact with Putin’s radioactivity.

He stomped out the fire, then knelt and placed his hands on the Yunker’s scorching tailpipe, drawing the radioactivity back inside himself.

In seconds all the heat was withdrawn, and the bike was covered with frost. He would have to learn a more delicate control of his powers.

Putin finished covering the Yunker, then turned back to the edge of the forest. He stared ahead into thick underbrush and trees without end.

He felt this was the right place, yet nothing looked familiar. He shrugged and began walking, relying on instinct to take him to his goal.

Often he thought he had found a familiar landmark, but it was never quite as he remembered. Remembering …

Did he really remember anything? How could he know? Perhaps all his memories were false, implanted during his time in the White Room.

Everything was the same, yet different. It was disorienting. How long had he been gone?

He came to a stream with a log across it. His memory said he had placed a log in this spot as a bridge, but this one was rotted and useless.

Putin waded across the stream, looking for salmon. He had to take care not to cause the water to boil with his radioactive Putinessence.

At last he made his way to where the Great Den used to be. There was a cave, but it looked small and sad to him now, and appeared abandoned.

Suddenly he heard a snuffling noise from inside! His heart leapt up … but then, silence.

Gradually, he detected the sounds of something very large, moving slowly as if trying to be stealthy but not succeeding very well.

After an agonizing pause, a large, disheveled bear wearing an eye patch stepped out into the sunlight and squinted at him.

They stood facing each other for many minutes before the bear uttered just one word: “Putin.”

Putin could not conceal his surprise. “You have the advantage of me,” he said, trying to access some memory of this creature, but failing.

“Ah … yes, it has been a long time. I have changed, everything has changed … Even you: You did not used to glow like a firefly.”

Quickly, he tamped down his radioactivity. The bear continued to stare at him. Putin waited.

Week 15

Finally, the one-eyed creature spoke again. “I am the King of Bears now, Putin. I am … Orso.”

As he pronounced his name, the bear puffed out his chest and lifted his chin. Clearly, in his mind a fanfare accompanied this revelation.

Putin gazed back blankly. The bear’s sense of drama confused him. “All right … uh, Ordo, nice seeing you again.”

“Ha! Well played, Putin, you old snake. We both know you’re not glad to see m– Wait. Did you just call me Ordo?”

“I’m sorry, isn’t that your name? Perhaps I misheard. The hilarious idea of shearing a pig popped into my head while you were speaking.”

A snarl curled the bear’s lip: His old foe was mocking him. “Or-so. I am Orso, King of Bears.” He rose up on his haunches, roaring, “ORSO!”

Putin remained unimpressed by this bluster. “All right, big fellow, no need to shout, I have it now: You’re Orso. A fine name.”

At this, the bear relaxed a bit. “But I still have no memory of our history,” Putin said. “Did I help you out of a jam, perhaps?”

The bear’s unpatched eye grew wide with disbelief. “Help me? Help me?! You are my sworn enemy! We are bound by bitter rivalry!”

A wry smile crept across Putin’s face. “Oh, come now. Surely you exaggerate. My memory is not so deficient that I’d forget a sworn enemy.”

“We probably just had a misunderstanding, a brief quarrel. All’s forgiven, though, Otto. I wish you no ill will. Give me your paw, comrade.”

“How dare you, Putin?!” the bear bellowed. “It was no misunderstanding! We are enemies now and for-… Wait. Did you just call me Otto?”

Putin felt his patience waning; this mosquito was quite persistent. “All right, if we are enemies, perhaps you could remind me why.”

The bear’s eye narrowed as he peered at Putin. Was this trickery, or did he truly not remember? “You’ve forgotten King Medved? His Clan?”

“Well, of course I remember all that,” Putin laughed. “Did you know the Bear Clan? Did you live in a neighboring cave?”

“Old fool! Do you really not remember?” roared Orso. “I was Medved’s heir! You and I fought once and … uh … I bested you, actually.”

Putin cocked an eyebrow quizzically. “Unlikely. But to answer your question, no. I remember the Bear Clan quite well, but not you.”

“I have waited all these years for revenge, and you will not deny me satisfaction! You WILL remember me, Putin! Years ago you feared me!”

Putin pursed his lips. “Listen, Arseho–” he began. “ORSO!” howled the bear. “Fine, whatever. This bores me, little friend. I’m leaving.”

Orso could not believe it. He had waited years for this confrontation, and it had not gone at all as he’d imagined. Putin MUST remember!

Leaning forward, the grizzled bear said softly, “Ursa. She was mine before you came, and she was mine after you left!”