Deus ex Ucraina

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Story by Oleksii Dubrov

Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk

On that day, the sound of exploding shells whistling as they crashed into the center of Moscow woke me up. Automatically, I threw aside the edge of the warm comforter and, dressed in thin summer pyjamas, jumped onto the floor. It was inlaid with tiny, “old school” tiles. Four of them could fit into my palm. The tiles usually decorated old stoves, but for some reason, in this apartment they were installed on the floor. They were blue on white with pictures of fanciful shells, impossibly shaped. Nature would never have created anything like this, I thought. Almost certainly the local artisan had never seen real seashells.

There was no air raid siren because the warning system had been ceremoniously dismantled ten years ago. But somehow, I knew what was happening and what had to be done. I think my knowing was connected to my epilepsy and strange sensations of déjà vu, from which I have suffered since childhood.

I remember my first experience with déjà vu. I was only ten. Back then, I was living in the Chinese Occupation Zone of Moscow. The director of the orphanage, old Mrs. Mao, who, judging by her appearance, was way older than a hundred, was once again taking a swing at me with her cane. She walked with it not because she was old, but because in her hundred plus years, mysteriously, she was still a very obese woman. For the life of me, I don’t remember why she was swinging her cane at me at the time. I was a good student. And, apparently, I wasn’t singled out for bad behavior. But something would come over her from time to time, and she would take a swing. What did they call this officially? Demonstrating a “teaching moment.” Honestly, I would simply call it a beating given to anyone who wound up nearby when she was red-hot with rage. More often than not, this happened to me. The Chinese children almost never suffered.

So, I was ten years old, and one fine summer morning, when the smell of scrambled eggs smeared on a classmate’s clothing still hung in the air, Mrs. Mao decided to demonstrate her teaching moment to me. Her cane had already whistled above my head when suddenly, her swing stopped in mid-air. The old woman cried out and froze in place with her mouth wide open. She stood there for a few seconds, like a stone statue. Then she crashed onto the desk with such force, it tumbled over. The loud rattling sound first made me jump, then drop to the floor, right next to Mrs. Mao, who had landed there a second or two earlier.

That should have been the happiest day of my childhood because the witch-director never again raised a hand to me and caused me harm. But that’s when my first epileptic seizure happened. Or so they tell me because I don’t remember the seizure. Instead, as the desk shrieked when it hit the wooden floor, smashing to smithereens from Mrs. Mao’s weight, it instantly seemed as though the same thing had just happened to me. I automatically dove to the floor, wrapping my hands around my head. Next, it felt like a hurricane started in my stomach, every possible color began to sparkle before my eyes and my body began to shake. Honestly, I can’t say I was scared. Subsequent events sometimes emerge as specific scenes in my dreams. The appointment at the doctor’s office, after which I always take some pills; photographs of Mrs. Mao’s funeral, which I saw on the boarding school’s website. Since then, I’ve had a recurring dream that a beautiful woman in a military uniform is beckoning to me. I’ve never been able to follow her, no matter how hard I’ve tried.

It is said people who suffer from epilepsy experience déjà vu several times more often than healthy individuals. It is a state when two realities form inside of you, as if you are in one place but all your sensory organs and your subconscious are somewhere far away. The other reality may be connected to memories, to something that truly happened. But sometimes it brings you to a completely foreign experience. You sense the situation is familiar, but the chances of recalling any details are practically zero. It feels like gazing into a mirror of the past, but the reflection is maximally blurred.

From the age of ten, nearly every loud rattle has triggered that stupid déjà vu of mine, which is inevitably followed by an epileptic seizure. Despite being forgetful and inattentive, it’s a good thing I developed a habit of keeping pills in my pants pocket to prevent the onset of a seizure. But the pills didn’t put a stop to the feeling of déjà vu, the bubbling in my stomach or the little stars in front of my eyes. On the contrary, they prolonged the symptoms. Manifestations of the disease would last up to ten minutes, and until then, I couldn’t force my brain and body to function normally. For some time after, my emotions seemed to disappear altogether.

Those were the same sensations I experienced that day — on the floor of my Moscow apartment, except that now I was living in the zone controlled by the United Nations, where international organizations were implementing the practical part of a project to re-educate the Russians. That day, the rockets flew into our zone of occupation from beyond the Urals.

I was also working on this project, having moved to the UN part of Moscow a few years ago. However, as a janitor. But they paid good money and provided me with a modern and very bright, stylishly futuristic apartment. The windows, which I always closed with roller shutters, faced the former Red Square, where out of all the old buildings, only the mausoleum remained. Except, after last week’s terrorist attack, the body was stolen. And the square was no longer red because architects from Berlin covered it with gray concrete. The apartment didn’t appeal to me, especially the layout, but my employer was paying a crazy amount of money for the rent. How could I object? I never considered myself overworked, but somehow, I always felt tired and broken.

The day of the attack promised to be sunny and warm, the first such day in the summer of 2049. Forecasters failed to predict precipitation in the form of bombs, with their penetrating whistle and thunder as they fell to the ground. The situation seemed oddly familiar, although I had grown accustomed to not relying on my memory. One day I may forget the key to the apartment, another day my watch. Sometimes I heat up a frozen pizza and forget it in the oven until the smoke detector reminds me about it. In her day, old Mrs. Mao forced me to write down everything. She even taught me how to write by hand, even though no one had done so for a long time. And when she died, I also stopped writing by hand. As soon as my windows began to shake, I felt a chill envelop all my internal organs, or so it seemed, especially my bones. My mouth instantly dried up. I automatically popped an anti-seizure pill and swallowed it with the help of what little saliva I had, then crashed to the floor. Adding insult to injury, the X-shaped tattoo on my right hand fiercely started to itch. The chronic infection was aggravated, turning my skin red and slightly swollen.

Honestly, I could not immediately grasp what had just happened. Of course, I understood these were combat operations, but who could be attacking? At first, I thought it was the Chinese; their zone of occupation in Moscow, and what was formerly Russia, was the largest. No one had any certainty about them. The Chinese have narrow eyes, they are of short stature, and they are always smiling — except Mrs. Mao, of course. She never smiled. That’s probably why some children admired her frankness. No one trusted a smile, especially a Chinese one.

After an hour, the first series of explosions subsided. I listened to the constant wail of sirens coming from ambulances and fire drones. I stayed on the floor for another fifteen minutes, after which I got up and looked out the window. The blue sky was blotched with huge clumps of thick, black smoke billowing upwards. The streets were flooded with vehicles, including land-based hovercrafts, aerial police drones, and delivery drones loaded with suitcases. Driverless cars were stuck in an endless traffic jam. Police drones usually handled this kind of Babylonian pandemonium. But it looked like their software had crashed because they just hung in the air, shaking. A swarm of pedestrians was moving along the sidewalks, dragging heavy bags and sleeping children. My mind urged me to follow the crowd, but after my epileptic seizure I was powerless to reach a decision.

Only then did it occur to me to check the news on my watch. I went to the nightstand next to my bed and picked up the device. The Chinese watch was old, but had been working well for two years now. The miniature round watch face could project a holographic image measuring ten by fifteen centimeters, and was quite enough for me. I pressed the watch face, but nothing happened. I pressed it a second time — again, nothing. “Damn it! I forgot to trickle-charge the watch overnight!” I thought. I couldn’t charge it right then and there because there was no power. The bombs had probably damaged the nearest windmill up on a roof a few blocks from my place.

I thought I’d ask the people where they were escaping and just follow them. I put some things into my backpack (water, underwear, and an A3 sized poster of London’s “Gherkin” skyscraper on 30 St. Mary Axe). Then it hit me. I should stop by work, even though it was my day off. The non-governmental organization “New Russians,” where I worked as a janitor, was in a business center in another neighborhood of the city. Maybe they had power there. I decided it was better to charge my device before leaving because all my documents were on it. Going around to my neighbors and asking whether they had power didn’t even occur to me because, after five years of living here, I was not acquainted with anyone. And why would anyone help me anyway?

In the past, following an epileptic seizure, my flat affect had never attracted anyone’s attention on the street. After all, everyone was wearing a similar expression on their faces. Right now, my calm composure was in stark contrast to the panic-stricken men and women overburdened by heavy suitcases, dumbfounded children, and terrified pets. Finally, after breaking through the chaotic crowds of people, who continued running in all directions shouting “Achtung!” and “Сours plus vite!”, I reached my office, where the only person I met was my boss, Günther Dupré. His coal-black hair, usually greased with liters of gel, was strewn in all directions.

“Hector, why did you shove your way here?” He stared at me with eyes turned into squares from fear.

This was the first time I heard this educated intellectual from the Saar utter the word “shove.”

“There’s no electricity in my building, and my watch is dead. And where else should I go?” I held out my hands, palms up.

I have no relatives, and things have not worked out with friends. No, I’m not complaining about my colleagues; they were always nice to me. We often went out for lunch and socialized in the corridors. But as soon as we crossed the invisible border around our office, we became strangers. I was never invited to evening get-togethers in bars or for birthdays. So it wasn’t surprising that no one was curious about what happened to me today.

Günther was feverishly clicking on his work holographic screen, muttering something aggressively and constantly surveying his surroundings. I don’t recall ever seeing him so frightened. Always dressed in a perfectly ironed shirt, demonstratively polite and friendly, today he resembled a timid fawn waiting to be attacked by a predatory tiger. I set my watch on the quick charge stand; a few minutes was entirely sufficient for my model.

“Aren’t you at all anxious about the bombs? You do realize that our zone is completely defenseless?” Günther asked, without taking his eyes off the holo-screen. I remember noticing a lot of heavy drops of sweat on his face — another first.

“They convinced us that war is impossible here,” I replied, turning on my watch. “You think it’s the Chinese?”

“Why didn’t anyone warn me?” he sighed, covering his face with his hand. “After everything I’ve done!” At that moment Günther’s holographic screen squeaked. He jerked, then pulled a round memory card out of the reader. It was no larger than his delicate pinky fingernail. Günther jumped up and spoke to me with a tremor in his voice:

“Ri-Right now it-it’s st-still possible to be-be evacuated,” he stammered, gazing through the window at the smoke rising on the horizon. Then he inhaled and exhaled a few times to gain some self-composure. “Come with me, n-now that you’re here. It will be easier somehow with the two of us.”

“Evacuated where?” I asked.

“To P-P-Paris,” he forced out and stopped, squeezing between me and the tables. Then he looked at me and said, “OK, you never smile, but could you at least be scared right now!”

I shrugged and silently shuffled after him. When we dashed into the street, the effects of the morning’s epileptic seizure began to fade, bit by bit, and once again my brain launched some non-autonomic processes. Trailing after Günther through a crowd of mad eyes and gaping mouths, I looked at the clumps of smoke continuing to blanket the sky in a dense dome. It was descending slowly, making it harder and harder to breathe. My throat became parched. People all around were coughing non-stop, like heavy smokers before they die.

Günther was right. Our part of Moscow was absolutely defenseless against any attack. All troops and equipment had been withdrawn from here when Mrs. Mao was still alive, and that was twenty years ago. Back then, people said international organizations had achieved a perpetual peace on this territory. In the Chinese occupation zone, in the Far East and the Baltic zone in St. Petersburg, garrisons had been reduced but never fully withdrawn. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, increased their military presence in Smolensk and Moscow, for which they had been mercilessly criticized for the past twenty years. Maybe it was the Ukrainians who had attacked. Where would the Russians in Zone 5 get bombs? True, for several months now, the “perpetual peace” in our zone had been breached by terrorist acts, for which none of the known organizations had taken responsibility. The UN was helpless.

Günther began panicking when a new round of bombings began. Swallowing a pill, I quickly ended up on the ground. He stared at me for a few seconds, then dropped to the ground after me.

“We have to get down into a shelter, to the subway station,” I proposed. Günther only gnawed his well-groomed fingernails. “The closest one…” I looked around, trying with all my might to stop my brain from falling into a post-epileptic stupor. “…is Dostoevsky Square.”

“N-n-no!” Günther shrieked. “We’re nearby, and the buses are only a few blocks away!”

As if with the hand of a giant, I grabbed him by his shirt collar and dragged him in the direction of the underpass. Günther tried to babble something, waving his hands, but to no avail. Tripping on the stairs a dozen times, he acquiesced in the end, backed away from me, and agreed to go down to the station.

Within a minute we found ourselves in a throng of frightened people of every nationality: Germans, the French, Poles, Serbs, Bulgarians, Lithuanians and others. Many of them gawped suspiciously at my serene face; upon seeing it, they instantly turned around and tried to move away as far as possible. Just like they always do.

We couldn’t walk far along the actual platform; after walking down the cumbersome stairs of the out-of-service escalator, the crowd came to a standstill. I looked over people’s heads, which were constantly twitching in different directions, and spied a small cubbyhole in the wall above which hung a red box with a fire hose.

Pushing through the throng, stepping on the feet of oncoming grannies and dragging Günther Dupré behind me, I reached the spot. I was lucky. The floor under the fire hose turned out to be unoccupied and, bending down, we crawled inside and sat down. My tattoo started to itch again, and I tried to scratch it without anyone noticing, but failed. An old lady standing nearby shook her head reproachfully. I gestured to her that there was enough space next to me for her to also sit down. But in response, she pursed her lips in contempt.

I looked at Günther Dupré and saw he was clutching his knees, although this did not stop them from trembling. Waving my hand in front of his face, I forced him to turn his head to me, and said:

“The bombs won’t reach us here.”

He looked away. The crowd was humming. People were trying to activate the holographic screens on their telephones to learn the latest news. “Yes! I can check, too!” I thought and raised my left hand, but my watch wasn’t there. I patted my pants pockets, checked them again, but they were empty. “Damn it,” I thought. “Did I forget the watch at the office right after charging it!?” I jerked my head back and slammed it hard against the granite wall. I was overcome by pain, forcing me to clench my teeth. Feverishly rubbing the back of my head, I asked Dupré:

“Günther, can you give me your watch? I’ll try to find some news.”

“There were rumors going around the office that you’re from Ukraine. Is that right?” he asked, extending his device to me.

“I’m an orphan,” I replied, pressing the watch face. But the holographic screen was blank, and eventually a small icon appeared, saying “No connection.” I returned the watch to Dupré. “My mother supposedly fled from Ukraine during the war of 2022. I think my father was killed. Then, after the victory, some international program packed me off to a Chinese orphanage in Moscow. That’s all that I know.”

“In other words, you don’t have anyone?” he asked in surprise.

I shook my head.

“My wife and daughter are in Paris,” Günther smiled. “They’re working in the family business, a bookstore.”

“Ah-аh-аh,” was all I could utter. I suspected that in this situation I was required to say something more, but small talk had never been my forte. Especially since no one had ever talked with me about personal matters — only work-related stuff like “It’s dirty over here” or “Clean over there.” The most I ever heard was, “Oh, you got a haircut” and “What cool, new sneakers.” An awkward silence fell upon us. It seemed to me, I was the one who was supposed to break it.

“Ah, so, what do you think?” I began. “Did the Chinese or the Ukrainians attack? The Ukrainians probably did not like our program to re-educate the Russians.”

Günther opened his mouth to say something when, suddenly, the people around us started moving. I got up. Everyone was heading for the escalator.

“It looks like things have quieted down,” I said to Günther, and we joined the flow. Going up a stopped escalator was much harder than going down. One saving grace was that the flow of people stopped frequently, giving everyone a chance to catch their breath.

Once we reached the exit from the subway into the underpass, I saw something was wrong. We had been intermittently stopping all that time because there were people holding weapons standing at the top. I had no doubt they were the attackers. After all, our zone was demilitarized a long time ago. They did not resemble the Chinese or Ukrainian armies because they were all dressed differently, a mashup of clothing, and they were not carrying standardized equipment.

“They are not Chinese. Or Ukrainians,” I whispered to Günther, who, it seemed, had become even more frightened.

“B-b-because they are R-r-russians,” he replied.

“How do you know this? But where did they get their weapons?” It was stupid of me to have said this out loud because I attracted the attention of the soldiers, well, those armed individuals, and they started watching me. I tried to lower my head but it still stuck out above the crowd.

“Show me your documents,” one of them said in Russian. Yes, he was definitely a Russian. Even though it was summer, he was wearing a black sweater, worn out with holes, and heavy faded jeans. His face was hidden by a homemade balaclava, reminding me of a large knitted sock. The eyeholes were different sizes. One of them was big and open all the way to the brow; the other was a slit — you couldn’t even see his eyelashes.

Günther Dupré, his head bowed, got hold of his French passport with a quivering hand (they still issued paper passports). But the man who was supposed to be inspecting it didn’t even glance at the document. Instead, he looked directly at me.

“Mine is digital,” I shrugged, “But I lost it in my watch…”

“What are you babbling about? Speak Russian!” the armed man shouted at me.

“An electronic passport,” I repeated and pointed to Dupré’s watch then to my bare wrist. He must have misunderstood me because he tore the watch off Dupré’s wrist and put it in his pocket. Günther Dupré looked at me angrily. The armed man called out to another and said loudly:

“Take them to Nikolskaia!”

“What for? And where is Nikolskaia now?” asked another armed man, steering the old paper map in his hands like a wheel, pivoting his head left to right looking around at the city.

During my five years of working for the non-governmental organization, I found it strange that Russians beyond the Urals did not believe their fathers or grandfathers blew up Moscow in the fall of 2022, and so today the streets were totally different. They were all redesigned and renamed in honor of Russian cultural figures and literary personalities of the past. Where Nikolskaia used to be was now the intersection of Brodsky Street and Nieznaika Lane. International organizations spent billions of euros on re-education programs to inform them about their history. But why were these men with weapons and paper maps still not familiar with their past, today, in the year 2049?

I opened my mouth to give directions, but Günther interrupted, pointing in the direction of the promised evacuation.

“N-n-nikolskaia is th-th-there,” he stammered, pointing to the left, to the only part of the horizon still not covered with the black smoke of fires.

We walked slowly, tripping over rocks and debris. As we passed a large building in flames that were slowly dying out, I smelled a distinct metallic odor. As soon as it reached my nose, my whole body became shackled by horror, and once again I was visited by an episode of déjà vu. Except this time, I saw a different place in front of my eyes, one that was similarly burned out but which was definitely not Moscow. The image quickly disappeared and reappeared several times, like individual scenes that an editor had forgotten to cut from the final version of a film. The destroyed city flashing before me was next to a sea. But it didn’t smell like water at all; instead, it had the same odor from a recent fire.

A blow from the butt of a machine gun promptly knocked these images out of my mind. The man holding the weapon was clearly aiming at my temple, but he missed a little and only grazed the back of my head. I staggered but couldn’t maintain my balance from the surprise smack and fell on all fours. I leaned my weight on my hands, extended my arms and pushed myself back up to find my footing.

When we walked around the corner, we stopped at Ostap Bender Square. It’s quaint but surrounded by high-rises, with about a dozen trees in the center of the square, now crisp and charred with only a few flames lapping the trunks. On the balcony of one of the buildings hung a bed sheet with the words “For Peace” written in black paint. “Well, at least it covered a bit of the stupidly decorated façade,” I thought. My attention was caught by a group of people walking away from the entrance. Each one of the men was carrying a toilet. Some of which still had floor tiles hanging from their bases where they had been installed. Machine guns were in a heap next to the door. I remember Dupré saying at a meeting that we had purchased millions of toilets for the Russians. “Damn,” I thought, “Do they still need them?”

“So, why did we come here?” asked one of our guards, gesturing his hand as if presenting the building. The other just shrugged. He glanced at the men with the toilets and shouted, “Look at them cashing in at our expense!”

I glanced at Günther Dupré, who was looking all around in what was, for today, a usual state of panic.

“The transport should have been here,” he whispered to me.

“Well, maybe delivery drones,” I said ironically, referring to the small size of Ostap Bender Square. “I think you’ve made a mistake about any kind of evacuation from here.”

I didn’t think that Dupré’s face could get any paler. But now, it looked like the hair on his head was turning gray in real time. He took a few cautious steps toward me and shoved his hand into my pocket.

“What are you doing?” I jumped back, almost nudging the shoulder of one of the guards. Just then, he was trying to contact his commander on some ancient looking device, a black, rectangular box with buttons and a stick-like antenna on the top. The device made an awful hissing sound. Once, I saw Mrs. Mao with something similar because she flatly refused to buy a watch.

Taking advantage of the chaos swirling in the heads of our guards, Günther Dupré took a few steps to one side. I tried to catch hold of him to stop him, but he was too far away already. He took a few more quiet steps and crept up to the closest building, stopping right underneath the inscription, “For Peace.” Suddenly, our escort, the one holding the communication device from which someone was yelling loudly, turned and commanded:

“We got orders to liquidate these two.” The men raised their weapons, preparing to shoot.

Seeing Günther had moved, one of them shouted, “Halt!” and began shooting.

Shocked by the sound, the men in the distance dropped a few toilets, which instantly smashed into pieces. I fell to the sidewalk and swallowed my last pill. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Günther veering sharply and running toward the entrance. The bullets finally caught up with him, and he fell to the ground. The commander of the toilet-carrying-detachment was yelling at his subordinates who had dropped their precious cargo. My two guards quickly ran to the still-warm Dupré and began rummaging through his pockets.

I raised my head and looked around. The toilet movers were continuing their procession, my guards were swearing loudly. Then they looked at me and yelled:

“He has the flash drive!”

“Flash drive?” I thought, “What is that?” Then I remembered Günther had shoved something into my pocket. I put my hands in my pockets, but they were so sweaty, I couldn’t feel anything with my fingers. My epilepsy medication slowed down my thoughts, and I decided to make a run for it only after the first bullet flew over my head and hit a tree. Splinters, mingling with the little stars in my eyes, flew in every direction. I was bending down when the second bullet hit me in the leg. My body gave way. A dull pain suffused my muscles, but the adrenalin was blunting my senses.

Mustering my willpower, I managed to jerk my body into motion and miraculously ended up behind a tree. “I’m alive,” I thought. Then I heard more shots. I clamped my eyes shut and saw multicolored wheels twirling in a kind of chaotic dance. My head began to ache, and with all my strength I tried to squeeze my head with my arms, as if that would help. Writhing in pain, I totally forgot about my wounded leg. My ears became plugged from the next bullet that whistled past me. Suddenly, the kaleidoscope in front of my eyes stopped, and all at once, I was surrounded by complete silence and darkness.

I don’t remember whether I lost consciousness or if my medication failed and I succumbed to another seizure. But I came to when someone forced me back on my feet and leaned me against a tree.

“Who are you?” a menacing voice spoke to me. He repeated himself. He wasn’t speaking Russian but I understood him. “Ukrainians?” flashed through my mind.

“Hector Kharabetts, a resident…civilian,” I managed to squeeze out the words just barely peeking through my eyelids.

“Do you know Günther Dupré?” The man in a military uniform was shorter than me, but he still managed to loom over me.

“Y-yes, I worked for him,” I said.

“Well, then say your good-byes.” The man abruptly moved back and aimed his weapon at me. He was ready to pull the trigger when another voice interrupted him.

“Wait!” The voice was thinner but scratchy, like from a smoker. A woman in full military gear appeared in front of me. It seemed to me, I had seen her somewhere; however, my memory completely refused to function. The woman patted me down, rooting through my pockets. After checking the last one, she removed the small memory card that I had seen that morning in Günther’s possession and which he later shoved into my pocket. It was so small that I had missed it.

“We’ll talk to him first,” the woman said in English.

“But Colonel, Ma’am, he was helping the enemy,” the man who was just about to shoot me said disappointedly in English. The woman waved him away, letting him know that the order was not open to debate.

Next, everything happened with lightning-fast clarity and speed. I managed to catch a glimpse of the bodies of my guards and their colleagues with the toilets while I was being led around the corner to Sharikov Street, and there they pushed me into a helicopter. In a few minutes, we were in the Ukrainian Occupation Zone of Moscow.

The helicopter landed on the roof, and I was led so quickly into the building that I couldn’t even look around. A few minutes later, I was sitting with my hands bound at a table in a small room with glass walls and nothing else. Opposite me sat the woman, thanks to whom I was still alive, and near the door was a soldier in full uniform with a machine gun. A small blue-and-yellow flag was on his arm. I knew a lot about Chinese people and Europeans, but I had no idea what to expect from those who were probably of the same blood as me. The woman remained silent until a doctor entered the room and rebandaged my wounded left leg.

“Do you speak Ukrainian?” The lady colonel asked me in Ukrainian.

“I understand a little, but I speak better in Chinese or English.” I looked down at the floor.

“Good,” the woman continued in English. “You were an accomplice of Günther Dupré’s?”

“An accomplice?” I repeated.

“For years, you supplied weapons to the Russians — now you have the result.” The colonel took out a pack of chewing gum and tossed two pieces into her mouth. I looked at her. She was chewing slowly and observing me carefully.

“What weapons?!” I was outraged and, for the first time in my life, nearly raised my voice. “We dealt with education programs, teaching, and support. There weren’t any weapons!”

I don’t know what was written on my face, but the lady colonel smiled. Or maybe she simply didn’t believe me. Suddenly, she jumped up and yelled right in my face:

“For five years, pursuing your good intentions, you put money right into the hands of those idiots! Did it not occur to you that they would spend it on something else? Acts of terrorism were taking place almost every week!”

I think I recognized her right then and there. For years, I had seen her but was unable to get near her. She was the same woman who was calling to me in my dreams! I suspect I looked stupid to her at that moment. Here I was, being accused of a crime, and I had a smile of relief on my face. The lady colonel grimaced. Then she heard something through her earpiece and picked up her tablet, studying something on the screen. Gradually, the contours of her face began to soften.

“So, Mr. Hector Khara-d-m-bts…” The lady colonel stumbled over my surname, without stopping her energetic gum-chewing. She was beautiful, just like the woman in my dreams. But why on earth would I think she was her? My hand started to itch again, and I tried to scratch it with the plastic binders that bound my hands.

The lady colonel noticed and stared at my hands. After a few more chews, she removed the gum from her mouth and stuck it underneath the table.

“Why didn’t you say this was your first mandatory job placement after the orphanage? And that you were working there as a janitor?

“Is that important?” I shrugged.

“Yes, it is.” The woman clasped her hands and leaned on them against the table. “A Ukrainian child from Mariupol, who in 2022 is forcibly taken away with his mother.” Her lips trembled slightly. “My dad was killed while taking my grandmother and us to Zaporizhzhia.” Then she extended her arm to me and raised the sleeve of her uniform, showing me the same X-shaped tattoo that I have just below her wrist, for only a second. Then she was shuffling papers in a folder, almost afraid the guard at the door would notice the mark. “After that, the orphanage and a job that you couldn’t refuse,” she continued. “You even safeguarded data about the black ledger and illegal financing of the ‘New Russians,’ which will now untie our hands.”

The lady colonel said something into her communicator and began pacing. At first, she circled the room a few times in silence. Then I sensed she had stopped behind me for a moment. I’m willing to bet she was trying to peer into my consciousness to figure out if my intentions were evil. She continued pacing in a circle and asked:

“So, you really believed you could re-educate them?”

“At the general meeting, Dupré reported that consultations were held with psychologists, human rights defenders, social democrats, the UN… And everyone supported the project,” I said. “The Russians once had a great culture but suffered from tyranny, so we decided to show them a different path. A controlled experiment, so to speak. The idea was (I had read it on a website several times to commit it to memory): We trust them, we help them to feel like full-fledged people, we cooperate with them, we enable each one’s personal growth…”

“Hah!” The lady colonel interrupted me. Just then, someone waved to her through the glass, and she left.

The lady colonel shut the glass door and was explaining something to someone at length, barely gesturing with her hands. Then she listened to the man for a long time without moving. I barely knew Ukrainian and was unable to lipread a single word. Suddenly, a broad smile appeared on the lady colonel’s face, and she embraced the man with whom she was speaking. It was the first time in my life a smile seemed sincere to me. Without thinking, I smiled as well.

With that conversation over, she opened the glass door and said:

“After everything is over, you can return to China.”

“Over?” I asked, but she had already left.

I remained seated. Half an hour later, someone whispered something into the guard’s ear, and he ordered me to stand up. He removed the plastic ties binding my hands and brought me to a small but cozy room. A bed, a dresser, a table and chair, and a separate bathroom with a shower. The whole time I was being interrogated, I thought they’d put me in jail, but I lucked out, ending up in a warm room with a soft mattress.

After taking a hot shower and lying down to sleep, I heard more explosions through the window I had opened to air out the room. My hand reached automatically for the epilepsy pills in the pocket of my pants hanging on the back of a chair, but my pocket was empty. My breathing sped up and became heavier. It felt like ants were crawling over my body. Something stirred in my stomach.

But this… this was different somehow. A few minutes passed, and there was no seizure. And no déjà vu. When my mind came to this realization, I did not fall to the floor. I stayed in place, in the warm bed, without pills, but with explosions in the background. This time, the menacing bombardment acted like a lullaby. After a second, my eyes closed, exhaustion overcame me, and I fell into a deep, calm sleep.

“Zone 5 no longer exists,” the lady colonel jubilantly informed me the next morning. “The information from your organization’s flash drive has shocked everyone in Europe, especially upstairs,” she said, pointing at the ceiling.

I rubbed my eyes, trying to understand where I was and what was happening. My leg started aching from yesterday’s injury, and I winced.

“I spoke with the director,” she smiled. “He’s going to allow you to stay in Ukraine. According to the law, they can even issue you a passport if you find some information about your relatives. Or you can head for China, to be among the people with whom you grew up. What do you want to do?”

“This is all so unexpected,” I mumbled, sitting up in bed. The woman stared straight into my eyes, which made me feel embarrassed. Then I thought about Mrs. Mao, my work as a janitor, and I burst out, “I don’t want to go back!”

“Good,” the lady colonel smiled and patted me on my shoulder. Then she took out a small blue and white colored tube and put it in my hands. “It won’t itch anymore,” she whispered, nodding at the tattoo, and left.

Still not fully awake, I forgot to ask her what happened to Zone 5. Large celebrations took place over the next few days, but still no one could give me a concrete explanation. Everyone was chanting, “ROZ-YII-BAH-LY!” Some people said Zone 5 would now be a wasteland, while others said it was a giant toxic lake.

There was also no consensus on the fate of the local population. Ukrainian journalists claimed everyone there was killed or had “self-liquidated.” Western experts insisted that a group of people remained, and they created a new religion — a cult to worship the White Toilet. An Italian journalist even located a building not far from Kyiv from which, he believed, the Russians had stolen the artifact during the war of 2022. But I think even if anyone survived, they would rather worship the corpse from the mausoleum — why else would the terrorists want to steal it? Incidentally, few people noticed, but I sure did, that after Zone 5 disappeared, not a single act of terrorism took place anywhere in the world. The UN vanished just as imperceptibly and quietly.

At first, they put me up in a dormitory on the left bank of Kyiv and gave me a small stipend. I couldn’t find a job, so in my spare time (and I had a lot of it), I studied Ukrainian. After my studies, I went to the archives. After two weeks of searching, I found a record of my father. He was killed by Russian shelling in September 2022 during the liberation of Amvrosiivka. A staff member of the archives helped me to upload the document to a special database. A few weeks later, they called me, issued me a passport and offered to help me move back to the city where I was born — Mariupol.

The small house was actually located in a suburb of Mariupol, in a large cottage community called Steel on the shores of the Azov Sea. A general whose surname I don’t remember gave me the keys and said he was my father’s brother-in-arms. The good news is, since I started living here beside the sea, my epileptic seizures stopped, as did the sickening feeling of déjà vu. I no longer complain about my memory. Now I even doubt that I had the disease in the first place.

Sometimes in my dreams, I catch myself wanting to go back to Moscow and scout out the situation in Zone 5. But then, every time I stroll along the seashore, my face catches the first timid sunrays and droplets of saltwater, carried on the morning breeze, and I convince myself to stay. Besides bombs and déjà vu, there is nothing there. Not even the white toilet that everybody worships. But here under my feet are such beautiful seashells. And they’re real.

I often think about the lady colonel and her smile — the first sincere smile I ever saw in my life. Once, I even looked her up on social media and wrote to her, but I never got a reply. About ten or fifteen years later, I saw her being interviewed, and she was already a general. There on her face was the same smile that made me smile.

I’m here, in Mariupol, on the shores of the Azov Sea. Where I no longer feel the need to close windows with roller shutters but instead wake up every morning full of energy for my studies in architecture — my new profession. They keep me busy. And over time, I’ve even forgotten about Mrs. Mao and Günther Dupré, and that once, there existed a place called Zone 5.

Other stories written by Oleksii Dubrov

Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk

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