The Dissident -- by Jean Graham

Ice stung his eyes. It had crystalized in his hair and lashes and
stiffened the threadbare wool of his coat, but Illya no longer felt
the cold. Even his feet, plowing through the endless frozen
drifts, felt nothing. Nothing existed for him now but the need to
keep on running, the need to get away.

They weren't far behind him. He'd seen them from the last rise.
Three stolid figures in uniform coats, their rifles like triple
antennae following his tracks in the snow. No need for them to
hurry. They knew he couldn't run much farther. They knew he'd had
no food, no rest, and worse, no clear idea where he was.

Somewhere south of Kirovograd. Somewhere...

"Wrong thinking, Illya Nickovetch." The words had become a litany
to the thrashing rhythm of his feet. "Wrong thinking will one day
be the death of you." They were words spoken four years before by
a man called Voynia. He had spoken them to a boy of fourteen who
had defied the rules of the _Upravlenie Skola,_ only to find that
such open defiance would gain him nothing. Voynia had brutally
proven that to him: had forced him to conform to the state school's
expectations. For a time.

_"Prival! Ostanovka!"_

The cracking report of a rifle echoed from behind him. Something
spat into the snow near his feet.

_"Ostanovka!"_ The harsh voice repeated its command. "You will
remain where you are."

Breath clouding in the frozen air, Illya turned to look at them --
three tireless faces beneath identical sable caps. One of them
held the _politsiya_ rifle that had fired the warning shot at him,
but it did not point at the snow now.

"You are under arrest." The one who spoke wore a captain's
insignia, and stood several inches taller than either of his
companions. "You will come back with us now."

His breath still coming hard, Illya stubbornly stood his ground.
"No," he said.

For a long moment, the captain's eyes assessed him, a clinical,
unreadable stare. Then, apparently judging this game concluded, he
turned to the man with the rifle.

_"Strelba emy,"_ he said. _Shoot him._

_Wrong thinking, Illya Nickovetch. Wrong thinking will one day be
the death of you..._

The rifle's long barrel moved slightly, centering on him. Illya
took an involuntary step backward in the snow, the inane thought in
his mind that he should try to turn, to run, to do anything other
than stand there...

He heard the explosion of the gunshot (why did it sound wrong --
not like the others?) and he pitched forward into the ice, amazed
that he had felt nothing. No pain. No impact of the bullet...

The explosion came again, and suddenly he knew why it had sounded

_Another gun. Not the rifle of the politsiya. Another gun!_

He rolled over in the hardpacked ice, lifted his head to see the
man who'd held the rifle face down in the drifts beyond him. From
beneath his sable hat, blood ran, already staining the snow. Not
far away, his unranked comrade lay in a similar condition, felled
by the second shot. But who--?

Illya had no time to search for his rescuer. A sound from behind
alerted him to the captain's approach. Turning over, he heard the
muffled word _"predagez"_ -- traitor -- shouted at him like a curse
before the heavy wooden stock of the rifle jabbed at him, struck
him, knocked him back into the grave-like impression his body had
already made in the snow. Through the numbing cold that nothing
had penetrated before, pain found him: a throbbing ache where the
rifle butt had opened his cheek, and the acid taste of his own
blood. He watched the weapon reverse itself in the officer's
gloved hands, saw it coming to bear on him...

Then the report of the other gun came again. The captain opened
his mouth to scream, but could not complete the sound. He
stiffened, as though somehow he'd intended to turn on his
attackers. Then his hands released the rifle, let it plunge into
the snow. With a heavy crunching sound, he fell on top of it.

Voices. Shouts. Someone coming. Illya could hear feet thrashing
through the drifts.

He tried to roll over, to force himself up far enough to see them.
But his hands refused to move. His legs, like something leaden,
weighed him down, rooted him. Shadows had begun to descend on him:
darkness, like a tunnel, closed in on every side until he could no
longer see the white all around him.

Soon, even the sound of his rescuers' voices had faded into

Two days, four... How long since he had fled Kirovograd? How many
days had they pursued him across the ice? Illya couldn't remember.

He slept, and dreamed of Karl Ivan Dmitriov and the weeks they had
recently spent in Kirovograd, assembling smuggled notes in the
dimly-lit confines of the printer's basement. Notes from the
prisoners of the northern gulags. Dmitriov had planned to compile
the letters into a single manuscript, and to somehow smuggle that
into the hands of an English or American diplomat.

"You should not really be here," Dmitriov had said in the
beginning, and he'd always stroked the thin grey streaks in his
beard when he spoke. "You are too young to risk the remainder of
your days in a gulag."

Illya, ignoring the comment, had continued the rapid scratching of
his pen on the paper in front of him. "I have completed two more
pages," he said.

Dmitriov had nodded slowly. "Yes, of course. What other man do I
know, young or old, with such knowledge of languages and ciphers?
Who else would help me to disguise this book as nothing more than
harmless diplomatic guidelines? You are a godsend, Illya
Nickovetch, whether you wish to acknowledge it or not."

Embarrassed, Illya had glanced at him for the briefest of moments
before returning with renewed vigor to his task. "I will finish
one more page for you tonight," he said.

The pounding on the door above had cut across his speech.

_"Atkryt dver!"_ a muffled voice had demanded. _"Politsiya!"_

Illya only dimly remembered scrambling through the casement window,
pausing while Dmitriov had frantically gathered the all-important
letters and crowded them into the oversized pocket of his coat.
They'd run into the snow, into the dark, the cold, the driving
wind, and angry voices had come close behind them. Two rifle shots
sent missiles whining over their heads. A third, no longer
concerned with warnings, had struck Karl Ivan Dmitriov in the leg.
Illya had stumbled, fallen, and struggled up again to turn and
start back, intending to help Dmitriov. But something had thunked
into the snow beside him, spraying ice chips into his eyes. He
dropped, found the feeble protection of a rock wall half-buried in
the snow, and for a moment, huddled behind it. He glimpsed two
uniformed men dragging Dmitriov between them back toward the print
shop. Three more coated figures were rushing in Illya's direction,
rifles ready.

Illya ran. South, into the ice. Two days, three days, four. In
the weary, sleepless monotony of cold, he'd quickly lost track of
the hours, forgotten the progressions of darkness and light.

There had been nothing but the need to get away. And all the while
a part of him had cried that he should have turned back. He should
have fought to take Dmitriov from them.

Should have tried...

_The death of you, Illya Nickovetch... The death of you..._

Gradually, Illya grew aware that he was no longer cold, and that
something soft and yielding lay beneath him. A mattress... covered
with coarse, homespun sheets. The taste of stale blood lingered in
the back of his throat: the odor of a woodfire assailed his
nostrils. From somewhere, voices argued in hushed tones. A man's
voice... and a woman's.

Illya forced his eyes to open, to study the room around him. It
was small, wood-panelled, sparsely furnished in the rustic manor of
a farmhouse. Dusty sunlight filtered through drawn linen curtains,
and the voices, still arguing, came from beyond the half-open door.

Illya sat up, slid off the bed, and saw the motion duplicated in a
wood-framed mirror standing near the headboard. His reflection in
the glass appeared unreal to him, like one's indistinct self-image
in a dream. The young stranger in the mirror looked wan, unwashed,
a too-thin ghost with limp blond hair and an ugly gash marring one
pale cheek. Illya turned his back on it and moved, quietly, to the

The half-whispered argument ceased abruptly when he appeared in the
doorway. A dark, stocky man rose from the wooden table to greet
him, a man whose face, though it was bearded now, he recognized.

"Illya, _moy druk!_ I am glad you are awake."

"Hello, Sergei. It's been a long time."

"Too long, my friend."

Still seated at the table, a woman with long red hair glared up at
them, green eyes a picture of distrust. Illya wondered what they
had been arguing about.

"You continue a thorn in the side of the _pozitsiya,_ I see," he

"Fortunate for you that I do." Sergei clapped a large hand to his
shoulder. "Come," he said, and guided Illya toward the table.
"Sit with us. Katra, bring our guest some of your _vareniki_ and a
glass of _kvass._ I have no doubt he is starving."

"He is also very curious," Illya said. He watched the woman called
Katra move taciturnly to the cookstove just beyond them, where she
began ladeling food onto three waiting plates. The stove, Illya
realized, had been the source of the wood-burning aroma, as well as
the far more pleasant smells of baking bread and _vareniki._ Until
now, he'd nearly succeeded in forgetting the demands of his

"Ah, questions." Sergei took a seat across from him, and folded his
thick hands. "I have missed you, Illya Nickovetch. The year we...
worked... together was a memorable one. For us as well as for the
_pozitsiya,_ eh? You were still very much a boy then. But that,
of course, has changed."

"Nostalgia is all well and good, Sergei. But it does not answer

The bearded man shook a finger at him, mocking. "You should have
more respect for a man who has just saved your life. " The silent
Katra placed steaming plates of food in front of them and went back
to pour the _kvass_ from an ancient-looking ewer into three metal

"It is a good thing I like you," Sergei went on, his mouth already
full. "Because of that, I will tell you how we happened to be
here, and why we took you from the _pozitsiya._ Of course, we did
not know it was you...

Katra put the cups on the table before them with more vigor than
was necessary, and took her own place beside Sergei, who pointed a
fork at her. "My Katra and I," he said, "we are a part of

Illya stared at him, unbelieving. _Svoboda_ was a notorious band
of marauding dissidents, a primary target of both the _pozitsiya_
and the KGB.

"What is wrong?" Sergei wondered. "You do not believe this?"

"What does _svoboda_ want with me? I have done nothing to--"

Sergei interrupted him. "That, my friend, is not entirely true.
You were helping Karl Ivan Dmitriov to encode the gulag letters,
were you not?"

Illya took a swallow of the warm _kvass,_ pointedly not replying.

"No matter," Sergei said. "In truth, Illya Nickovetch, we had
hoped to snatch Dmitriov himself from them today. But..."

Illya's eyes widened suddenly with interest. "Why didn't you?" he

Sergei took a deliberate breath before answering. "I am sorry," he
said, though the words didn't sound at all sincere. "But our
sources have confirmed that Karl Dmitriov is dead."

Illya's stomach tightened. "How?"

"Does it matter? You are the only man outside a gulag to have read
those letters. The _politsiya_ will now be all the more anxious to
silence you."

"I do not have the letters."
"No. But you have read them. That is enough."

A sound came from outside the cabin. The rumble of an engine.

Smiling, Sergei moved to the door. "Do not worry," he assured
Illya. "It is only our compatriots with the truck. They've come
to take us to... a safe place."

Katra's fork clattered noisily to her plate. When Illya's
questioning gaze fell on her, she looked away.

"You will wait here," Sergei said to them both, and in a moment, he
had vanished out the door.

Katra gathered dishes from the table and carried them in silence to
the old-fashioned sink.

"What is wrong?" Illya asked her. "Why were the two of you
arguing, before?"

"We were not arguing." The lie was shallow, transparent, and she
seemed to know it. But she made no effort to rectify it, either.
Outside, the rumble of the truck's engine grew louder.

"Where will they take us?"

Avoiding his eyes, she cleared the last of the dishes from the
table. "You will have to learn," she said, "not to ask so many
questions." Plates rattled in the sink in front of her. "Your coat
is in the bedroom. You will need it."

Four men, besides Sergei and himself, rode in the canvas-covered
rear of the ancient truck. It smelled of rust and old grease, and
the rotted portions of the canopy admitted the frigid cold.

There had been no introductions made. Not even the thick-muscled
driver who had taken Katra into the cab with him had bothered to
offer Illya his name. Apparently, _Svoboda_ disdained amenities.

Not forty minutes after they had started out, the truck lurched to
a stop. For the second time that day, Sergei said to him, "Wait
here." Then he and his four silent companions disappeared through
the soiled flap of the canopy. Illya could hear the crunch of
their boots in the snow, more subdued voices, and then, from a
distance, Katra's voice,once again arguing with Sergei.

A glance through the canvas flap at first showed him nothing but an
open field of white, broken only by sparse, scrubby trees and the
rutted tracks of the truck's broad tires on the road behind them.
But north of them, several yards beyond a sloping rise that flanked
the road, Illya saw the barb-tipped corner of a chain link fence --
and a man in the uniform coat of the _pozitsiya._

"You can stop this thing now," he heard Katra's voice plead from
somewhere near the front of the truck. "Before it has gone any

_"Spokoinia, kozdunya!"_ Sergei swore at her. "I will hear no
more. No more!"

Boots tramped the slushy ice beside the truck, coming back toward
Illya. He slipped over the tailgate and dropped onto the road in
time to meet the approaching Sergei, who looked less than pleased
at his action.

"I told you to stay in the truck," he said gruffly.

"I want to know what is happening, Sergei. Why have we come here,
to the _pozitsiya?"_

"Sergei!" A man Illya had not seen before appeared from somewhere,
breathing hard, a hunting rifle slung across his narrow shoulders.
"Mikael is here," he reported. "I saw him just now, at the fence."

Sergei's eyes narrowed. "How many guards?" he asked.

"Only four, as you specified."

"And they have agreed to the exchange?"

Glancing briefly at Illya, the man nodded. "They have agreed."

Unflinching, Sergei's eyes met Illya's. "As I told you," he said,
"you are a valuable man. Worth enough to ransom our comrade, at
any rate."

Illya took one step toward him, but drew up short when the muzzle
of an automatic pistol appeared from under Sergei's coat.

"I am sorry, _moy druk._ But you will have to come with me now."

Illya did not move. "I'm not going anywhere," he said.

More figures materialized around them -- the men from the truck,
the driver, and Katra. She glared sullenly at Sergei, but as
before, would not meet Illya's gaze. Knowing now that she had
argued in his defense made him resent her no less for having said
nothing to warn him.

"Walk, my young friend," Sergei said from behind the gun. "Or I
swear to you, we will knock you out and carry you."

When Illya still made no move to obey, one of Sergei's men grabbed
the collar of his coat and shoved him, forcing him to walk north,
toward the rise. The _svoboda_ followed, pausing only when they'd
crested the incline and come within full sight of the uniformed men
who waited at the fence juncture a scant one-hundred yards away.
They held a tall, emaciated man between them: the captured
dissident Mikael.

Illya's eyes swept quickly left to right, surveying nonexistent
escape routes. To the west, a naked field of snow, dyed faintly
orange by the approaching sunset. North, the land confined behind
the fence, apparently a military or _politsiya_ training compound.
East, a field of snow-capped rocks, and beyond that, a stand of
leafless trees that had not been visible from the road.

No cover.

Nowhere to run.

Insane, he knew, even to think it. To run now would only be to die.

_"You have seen the letters,"_ Sergei had said. _"That is
enough. The politsiya will now be all the more anxious to silence

The man gripping his collar released it, gave him a final hard
shove toward the fence.

_"Zodit,"_ he said. _Walk._

A hundred yards away, Mikael began a tortured shuffle in the
oncoming direction.

They approached one another in tense silence, the slush of ice
beneath their feet the only sound. Illya watched one of the
uniformed men peer long and hard at him before leaning over to
speak to the others. Illya could read his words without having to
hear them.

_It is the one,_ he had said. _I saw him with Dmitriov._

The others nodded curtly, and as one, their hands moved into the
bulky folds of their coats. Four rifles came up. The men
flattened at once to the ground. Illya shouted, trying to warn the
ambling Mikael. There would be no exchange. They had waited only
to be certain of the prisoner's identity, and now they would kill
both him and the hated _svoboda_ with him.

Illya dropped before the first of the rifle shots exploded. He
heard Mikael cry out, heard the shouts and return fire coming from
Sergei's men. He rolled to his right, burrowing into the snow as
bullets slapped into the ice around him. Three, four, five times.
The fifth shot sent fire through the sleeve of his coat and into
his left arm. Heedless of it, he somehow scrambled to his feet and
ran toward the rocks, into the stand of naked trees. The screams
of the dying echoed behind him, but he felt no remorse for the
_Svoboda,_ or for the four _politsiya_ who would most likely die
attempting to destroy them. Let them kill one another. He didn't
care. He had only to hope that none of them survived to follow him
into the trees.
Hours passed before he finally stopped running. Hours in which the
voices he had thought to be pursuing him became nothing more than
his footsteps, and the rasp of his own tortured breathing.

Blood soaked the left sleeve of his torn coat and ran in a warm red
stream down his fingers to drip into the snow. He paid it no
attention. He would walk until he found some shelter or died: it
didn't really matter to him which. But if he did survive, he swore
to himself, he was going to find a way out of this harsh,
uncompromising homeland, to some place where "wrong thinking" would
no longer be a threat to him.

He would find a way out. And he would do it alone, without friends
or aides or allies who could not be fully trusted. It would be
many years before Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin would come to trust
another human being.

Alone, because that was how he'd always been, he walked on through
the frozen wilderness that was somewhere south of Kirovograd.

-- End --