Nikolai rubbed his hands together for what felt like the millionth time. Even after months here, he still was not accustomed to Stalingrad - the battle or the weather. I miss Vladivostok…
Still, only one was better than both. For the first time in days (weeks? Time was subjective under constant gunfire), he was alone. He and a few other men had become separated from their unit; they had encountered a few Germans here, and the two men with him were killed and resting beneath a few centimetres of snow (Nikolai thought better of burying them). He could hear faint reports of gunshots and shouting in the distance, but in the area he was in was quiet.
His thoughts were interrupted by a creaking noise in the bombed-out building behind him. He instinctively turned around and raised his Mosin-Nagant, darting his eyes and listening closely. After getting within a few feet of the building, he saw an arm stretched out from in front of a knocked-down doorway.
He stepped inside, and immediately felt cold - but it wasn't the weather. He felt cold in the way he hadn't felt since he had first heard the Germans had invaded his country.
Something isn't right here. This room feels…wrong.
As he stepped in front of the doorway and saw the soldier lying on the ground, his unease turned into horror.
It was a German soldier, dead but somehow breathing. His skin had peeled off of most of his face; Nikolai could see bare bone sticking out. His uniform was mostly in tatters; beneath it, his chest and stomach were almost entirely raw flesh. The sense of unreality only intensified when he raised his hand.
"Stop!" Nikolai said in Russian. The man pointed at the door, his finger dangling from his hand as he did so.
Nikolai did not know German, but his eyes widened all the same.
"Get out," the man said in thickly accented Russian. "The man…he is not gone."
"The pain…." he retracted his hand to hold onto his stomach, which only had the effect of making him whimper in agony.
"What are you talking about? Were you in a fire?"
"No…" The man's eyes widened, and he gave Nikolai a look that scared him more than every German gun he had ever faced down.
"The pain. Where…is…the pain?"
"The…the…" Both his and Nikolai's thoughts were interrupted by the creature they saw in front of them.
It was flesh and skin, but it was not man. It stared at Nikolai and inclined its head.
The man on the floor saw him, and smiled.
The creature looked down at him. His faced contorted ever so slightly into a small frown. Then, it faced Nikolai once more.
And it smiled.
Nikolai ran. He ran faster than he thought he could, through the courtyard and into another building.
He looked around. The walls were the same as the previous building he was in. But the corpse was gone, and when he turned around, the door that he had come through was replaced by a corridor.
A long, narrow, corridor, with a wooden door at the end.
Nikolai walked down, more scared than he could remember being. He attempted to calm himself.
Focus, Nikolai. Remember what mother taught you - "when you are scared, remember what you know for sure."
He knew for sure that whatever that creature was, it was not a German. And somehow, he knew that wherever this corridor led to, neither it nor the other side of the door were in Stalingrad.
As he stopped in front of the door, he noticed a note on the front of the door, written in Russian:
"Don't overthink it. It's easier that way."
He looked behind him. There was nothing behind him after a few metres; just a solid concrete wall where the corridor had previously been.
His hand moved towards the door. He was too afraid to notice that he had not moved his hand on his own accord.
He opened the door and saw…Lenin.
Well, not quite Lenin. After his mind had taken a moment to register the shock, he recognized his location: Lenin's mausoleum. His mother had taken him here on a trip to Moscow in 1927, when he was just six. He saw people lined up to pay their respects, but could not see his mother or a younger version of himself.
He tapped an elderly man on the soldier. "What is-"
"You can't talk," he curtly replied.
"No. Stop." He put his hand on Nikolai's lips, and put it down again. Nikolai tried to speak, but even as he felt his vocal cords, he did not make a noise.
"The talking. It distracts me. When you are here, your mind talks for you."
He looked down, and found his legs moving. Strangely, he felt neither shock nor urgency at this. It's going to be alright, he felt, rather than heard, someone say. Walk up to Lenin.
He did, and as he did so the crowd wordlessly parted to make way for him. Soon he was standing directly above the embalmed leader, staring down at its lifeless body.
He felt a tug on his hand. A little Oriental girl stood next to him, smiling that same non-smile the creature had.
"We talked about this part for a little while," the girl said tonelessly. "He wanted to grab you, take you into the corpse to bring you down further."
Bring me down? He thought.
She blinked. "I don't know why he insists on taking his time. Maybe it feels better that way."
I do not know what is going on here? Where is Stalingrad? Where are Hitler's soldiers?
She touched his hand - and as he did, a searing agony burned through him. He wanted to recoil in pain, but his body was frozen in place.
"One at a time." A man walked up to her and put her on his shoulders, so she was now directly staring at him.
"You won't have to worry about Stalingrad anymore," she said, speaking to him as if she were fifty years older than him. "He likes these places, you know. Warsaw, Leningrad…it reminds him of where it all began."
His hand was as the German's had been - his skin peeled off in loose fragments, each one bringing him new pain as it flipped back and forth like a Soviet flag.
He blinked, and Lenin's mausoleum was gone. Now he was in Berlin, which he recognized even though he had never been there. He stood on a platform on a roof, overlooking a large gathering of people with Nazi flags surrounding him on either side. Next to him, he was somehow unsurprised to find, was Adolf Hitler.
"Here," he said, speaking through a microphone and pointing at Nikolai, "you see the Slav. You seem him in pain as he bears the wounds of his mind." The crowd cheered before Hitler raised his hands for silence. "Pain is eternal. Pain unites the Jews and the Slavs and the Aryans. Pain, as it strikes through us and silences us in its relentless embrace."
Again, the crowd roared. This time, Hitler stepped towards him, and spoke to him while still speaking through the microphone.
"I have seen you, Nikolai," he said. "I have seen Vladivostok, and Moscow, and Stalingrad. I have seen your mind as I have brought it here."
Why? He heard himself think.
"Because it calls for you." The crowd repeated the last four words Hitler had said in unison.
"When I was there, in that fire, I knew pain. Then I fell down, and I met it. And now, you must meet it."
As he finished speaking, the body of Hitler slowly changed. His mustache fell off, then his hair, then his uniform - until finally, the same creature he saw earlier stared back at him with a smile.
"Pain." It said that one word, and said it many times, as the crowd repeated it.
Nikolai did not remember when the scene faded, and when the words "pain" were replaced by thoughts in his head. He did not remember when the thoughts become feelings, then sensations of agony that spread beyond what his mind could comprehend. He could not remember when the year became a day, or a week, or a century.
When at last it stopped and he found his body atop the corpses in Stalingrad, he screamed. For the pain he felt was not only in what remained of his body, but in its absence.
He screamed at what he did not feel, for all he knew how to feel was pain.