by Boris Dolingo

“Seventy years! What was it possible to accomplish in such a miserable speck of time?”

The old man’s groans, coughs, and disjointed phrases had sounded behind me for some time. But I hadn’t paid any attention. I sat with my legs over the side of the bench, my back to any possible neighbors.

I had chosen this secluded corner of the park near my college so nobody could disturb me. Yesterday was my birthday, and I had a slight hangover. Now I was cutting my philosophy lecture to think about my future. I no longer wanted to be a railway engineer. But if not that, then what?  Leave school? If I did, I’d be drafted immediately. And the Russian army wasn’t my idea of a good future.

I lost myself in the newspaper. I’d bought it on my way here because I wanted to know more about the terrible attack on the Twin Towers in New York. It seemed that the whole world was going straight to Hell. It didn’t matter who you were – railway engineer, president, milkman, or soldier – if Hell waited for all.

The mumbling and groaning grew louder. It disturbed my reading, and so I turned back not only with puzzlement about what I’d overheard, but with irritation.

The voice belonged to a lean old man dressed, in spite of the warm day, in a worn untidy raincoat of indefinite color – neither gray nor beige. Atop his head was a correspondingly sloppy hat. Dirty black pants with frayed hems swept dusty unpolished shoes. Yet all his things were of good quality and had no doubt seen better times.

Our eyes met.

I experienced some confusion. On his wrinkled face, blotched with age, the eyes were the only detail which didn’t fit. They were young and piercing.

The old man nodded at my newspaper and the blurred photo showing the Boeing smashing into the World Trade Center, and with a slight grin said, «Well, and what do you think about all this?»

I shrugged. It would be a waste of time to start a discussion with such a person. Whatever I said would involve me in useless talk with someone who was old and obviously unsuccessful in life. What could he say to me? That the world is slipping into the abyss? I knew that myself. In any case, I didn’t intend to share my thoughts with a stranger.

«Not much,” I lied, turning my eyes back to the newspaper.

«Not much, to be sure! Hardly anything! And now I’ve run out!” 

«Run out of what?” I asked involuntarily.

The old man grimaced with scorn. «Time, damn you! You begin the Game at age twenty, and you only have seventy years to play it. I didn’t realize how quickly seventy years can go by. I thought it would be easy. But it’s no simple matter to prepare an Apocalypse.”

«Prepare a what?» I was so surprised that I spoke to the old loon.

«You are an educated youth, I see! You understand what an Apocalypse is — the downfall of nations and even of mankind. The Holocaust of the world!» 

For an instant I thought him a terrorist, a hidden Bin Laden…. Not in that filthy raincoat, though. I sighed and rose up to go, tucking my newspaper under one arm and tossing my book bag’s strap over the opposite shoulder.

“You must listen!” the old man cried desperately. “I only have forty minutes left.” He lifted a dirty sleeve, under which a large and obviously expensive watch unexpectedly flashed. “I must find my replacement. And you are the only person I managed to locate in time – on the first day of your being aged twenty and on my last day…”

Those last words stopped me.

“Yes, yes – today is my last day, and this is my last hour! And it’s possible for me to choose my heir only today and only now, in my last minutes. Otherwise the bracelet won’t unfasten”

How had he known that I was just twenty? And with such accuracy that he knew that the first day of my twenty-first year wasn’t over yet?  

The old man all my attention now. 

“ I’m giving you a unique opportunity, believe me!” he said. “You won’t have any barriers in space. You will be able to move wherever and whenever you like. Besides which, I have some sizable sums in many world banks…”

I looked pointedly at his bedraggled hat and down-at-the-heel shoes.

“Good heavens, what trifles! Believe me, when you have such power, you won’t care about dirty shoes. I haven’t bothered with my appearance recently. I’ve been looking to find you!”

“You’re mad,” I said sharply.

“Listen to me: Your name is Maxim Uglov. Your friends call you Max. You are a third year student at the Railroad Academy, but you don’t like your future profession. The only thing that prevents you from leaving your studies is that if you did, you’d be drafted.”

I stared at him.

“You turned twenty just yesterday, but the first twenty-four hours of your twenty-first year won’t end until three o’clock this afternoon. That is very soon! Has your mother told you that you were born exactly at three p.m. on the 12th of September?” 

I continued staring. Most of this of information about me he could have learned easily enough. But the time of my birth? True, there were people whom I’d told that – Annie, for instance, Sergey, Konstya, and a few others. Was it possible he had investigated me? But why would he? Anyway, I doubted my friends would share my data with such a filthy old man.

“So this ‘filthy old man’ hasn’t proved his case for you yet, eh? Okay, here’s another piece of information for you. There is someone, an old friend of your family, who has very passionately urged you to accept a position as a manager in his company. The salary is quite attractive. He even can bribe you out of the army! But you suspect he is gay, so….” He laughed unpleasantly, “… you’d hardly accept this, hee-hee!”

I’m a brawny, athletic fellow with three years of karate-do training. I do not fear anybody. Throwing my bag on the bench, I sat back down beside the old man.

“All right, grandpa, have you been spying on me? Why?”

“I know everything about you, Max.” He looked at his super-watch again. “I can read your thoughts! Right now, for example, you are wondering where such a ragged old fellow got this expensive Rolex. But this is no watch, oh no, and certainly not a Rolex…” 

The old chap laughed so hard he bleated. I had to confess I was startled. For those had indeed been my exact thoughts. 

“Son of a bitch!” I thought.

“Leave your mother out of this,” the old man smirked. I started again. It wasn’t pleasant to find my thoughts so easily read.

“All right, I’m convinced! Tell what you want.”

The old chap stared down at his watch. It had strange dials and displays, like no watch I had ever seen before. “The workings are small,” he said. “ That’s why they leave you with excellent eyesight until the end. They promised me that much, and they kept their word.”

“Who are ‘they?’” I found myself, against my will, feeling a certain respect for this strange old man who could read my thoughts.

He rubbed the dry palms of his hands together, glanced again at his watches and began to talk. He spoke quickly, coughing sometimes, and I listened with all my heart.


Seventy years ago, according to my companion, Vasily Fyodorovich Buravlyov (Vasya, to his friends) was the son of a metalworker in the town of Lipetsk. In 1934 he had just graduated from a vocational school for working youth, when he was recruited by a certain group (they might have been aliens, or possibly even demons, but he called them simply the Gamers) to arrange a grand annihilation of humanity.

These Gamers endowed him with extraordinary abilities. They gave him a device – I had mistaken it for a watch – which allowed him to become invulnerable, to fly, to live without special gear underwater or in outer space, to move through space instantly, to hear the quietest of sounds, and so on. All this was effortless for him. He could even change his appearance, though whether by hypnosis or by actually reshaping the tissues of his body, he didn’t say.

The device was locked onto his wrist in such a way that nobody save he himself (and he only at the end of seventy years) could remove it. Nor could that arm be cut off – the device would prevent that if anybody tried. 

Effectively, he was invulnerable.

In return for such splendid gifts, Vasily Fyodorovich said, he was to create an Apocalypse. It did not necessarily have to include all of mankind. At a minimum, however, major world nations must be involved. But mere scale, they told him, should always be sacrificed to the “beauty” of the destruction. That they valued above all.

Though, as he understood it, if he chose to arrange the final destruction of all humanity, nobody would have objected.

Vasya, brought up at the traditions of proletarian internationalism, decided to design a holocaust only for the “damned bourgeois” – the Western capitalists. For decades he pursued this aim with diligence. Now his time was out. The Gamers allotted seventy years, and not one minute more. Why had they done it that way, Vasily Fyodorovitch didn’t know. He claimed not to have thought too much about it. 

Other than his personal abilities, the “architect of the Apocalypse” was not given any extraordinary powers. No superweapons.  No military forces. To fulfill his mission he could use only the politics and technology to be found on Earth. If he managed to do it in the given term, the Gamers promised he would be left with his Gift, and eternal life as well. If he failed, he would receive nothing. In the latter case, however, if he could find a successor, he would be given something like a consolation prize: resurrection and new life if his successor would made something truly great – “beautiful,” as they said – from his plans.

“Look, Vasily Fyodorovich”’ I said, “Why don’t these aliens of yours destroy the Earth themselves? Why use a human agent? And why you in particular?” 

“They said I was chosen randomly, like in a lottery. As to why they haven’t destroyed the Earth themselves… They could do it, I guess. But they look on this as at a game. They place bets on me: On whether or not I will create their Apocalypse. On when it will come. On how much of the world I will destroy.  So long as I annihilate a world power, and not some backwater tribe of nobodies out in the middle of nowhere, they are content.”

“You bastard!” I cried. “You sold out your own planet! You’re a little shit, Vasya!”

“Not I!” the old man exclaimed. His passion started him off on a fit of hacking and coughing. “They’re the bastards, not me. You see how old I am? A year ago, I was as young and strong as you! I looked not a day over forty. Now, only my eyes are still good – there are a lot of tiny figures on these dials. Perhaps I stopped paying attention to myself, as age hit me. See how worn these clothes are? It didn’t bother me – I had to find a successor. You think here that I’m some kind of a street Arab, but in London alone I have forty million pounds in the Royal Bank. Sterling! You can do a lot with that kind of wealth, don’t you see?”

“I do see, old Bolshevik,” I said. “I see that you have sold mankind to some nasty creatures from outer space. And sold yourself for the promise of eternal life. You’re a Judas. You’re a traitor to mankind.”

“Not mankind, I tell you!” The old man didn’t quite cry, but his hot, and none-too-fragrant breath blew directly in my ear. “I decided to put an end to world imperialism. I decided to put those capitalist devil bastards to death! That’s why I brought the Nazis to power.”

“Wait, you…?” I didn’t finished the sentence.

“Yeah, for sure, I’m telling you! It was me who started Word War Two, and after that arranged for Hiroshima… It’s such a pity that comrade Lenin wouldn’t listen to me. I could have helped him so much.”

“He had more of your help than anybody needed. You wanted to destroy world imperialism? The war you launched killed over thirty million of our own people!”

The old man made a helpless gesture.

“I did my best! But who could think that Hitler would move against Russia instead of concentrating on England? Or that Japan would fall to America?  I did a good job with Pearl Harbor! But Hitler turned out to be a fool…”

“So, Hitler was a fool, and you were not! All right, let’s suppose the Germans and Japanese had taken the United States – what then?” 

“Germany and Japan would have been weakened by the war, and the Soviet Union would have linked up with our comrades in France, Spain and Latin America. After which the USSR would have smashed both Germans and Japanese! It a beautiful plan. It would have been a massive victory for the World Revolution!”

“As it is, the proletarians for whose sake you did all this were exactly the ones who died in your meat-grinder!” I grimaced. “What did you do after 1945? When you saw exactly what you’d done for the World Revolution?”

Old Buravlyov nodded his head sadly.

“I took to drink. I teleported into shops, past locks and watchdogs, and took what food I needed and drank what vodka there was to drink. That took up years.”

“So you relaxed in a very Russian manner. Well, and what then?”

“I recovered  I had a fresh idea. Imperialist power, I realized, could be destroyed by two things – terrorism and religious fanatics from the Third World”

 “Fuck your brains!” I exclaimed. “So it’s you who’s been financing all these Ilich Carloses and Osama Bin Ladens? You are not simply a bastard, but a fucking freak without any reason! Again – who have you harmed? Your own country, first of all! Today they destroy skyscrapers in New York. Tomorrow they will blow the Kremlin!”

“I didn’t understand!” the old man cried bitterly. “If I have failed, my intentions were for the best.”

“In a word, what you’ve accomplished is shit.”

“Still, you see, these Gamers said that they got a lot of pleasure during all these years. I deserved a reward, anyway…” He was speaking this as though he were trying to convince himself of it. “If on the last day of my life I find a young man of precisely the right age, I can pass the Gift on to him. On the condition, of course, that he agrees to continue my business. That is – to try to arrange the Apocalypse… Now I have found you, Max. I beg you, please, agree! Give me a chance.”

I thought. Suppose that all he’d said was true. Must I become an all-powerful killer, a destroyer of nations, a genocide? All in the name of a mad dream of world revolution? 

But what if…

An idea began to form inside my head. “Don’t think,” I feverishly told myself. But my interlocutor, involved in his own emotions, didn’t think to monitor the contents of my skull.

“Are you sure, Vasily Fyodorovich, that these aliens weren’t lying to you?”

“Of course, I’m not sure, But what other chance do I ahve? I have to hope, don’t you understand?”

 “Why these conditions? Why must it be on the first day of my twenty-first year? Why exactly seventy years? Why not fifty or a hundred?”

“Who can know? The sadists made the rules, not I.” 

“Oh, right – they’re sadisrts, and you’re a fighter for the liberation of the oppressed peoples!”

“I only wanted to do good.”

“All want good,” I said. “Well, so there’s no need to destroy all the Earth?”

“Yes, yes, that’s right. A local Apocalypse would do, if it were thorough enough. It’s like the theatre for them, I suppose – staring at the show, trying to prolong the pleasure. Well, we have to get something for ourselves out of this, am I right?”

“Hm, yeah, right…” I said, rubbing my neck reflexively, and trying to hide my thoughts hidden..  

“So you say yes, Maxim?” There was hope in Buravlyov’s voice.

“And you are not kidding me, after all?”

“Kidding? Kidding! Good God, bless you, I will show you right now…” He nervously glanced at his watches and muttered “There is some time still…” Then he gripped my hand and said, “Get ready!”

“Get ready to do…?” I began, but haven’t had time to finish my sentence.

We were not longer sitting on the bench in the city park, but standing on virginally clean ice eaves. There were glorious mountains all around us. The air was very thin.

I lost my breath, both figuratively and literally. In my light windbreaker, I felt the terrible cold instantly. It was easily twenty below zero here.

“Convinced?” The old man, to my surprise, looked absolutely calm. “We are in the Himalayas.  Look down and you can see an expedition climbing below us.”

Careful not to slip, I crept to the edge of the precipice and looked downwards. I could see the first climbers in bright orange jackets, scaling the almost vertical wall. 

“Convinced?” repeated Vasily Fyodorovich. 

“C-c-convinced.” My teeth chattered. “It would be nice to get to someplace warm again.”

“Give me your hand!”

He did not need to order me twice. I grabbed his hand as if it were a life preserver and I a drowning man.

 We were on the park bench again. It was amazingly warm. I rubbed my frozen ears. The old man didn’t seem to notice the change of temperature. 

“So, do you agree to take my place?” he asked with some pathos.

“How will you pass this thing to me, if it’s impossible to take it off?” I switched to the respectful form of address – teleportation makes you feel a certain respect for the person who can achieve such things.

“You are a fool, Max,” Vasily Fyodorovich smiled like a good-natured grandfather. “I can take it off in these my last minutes.”

“Where does it get its energy from?” I asked.

“How should I know? I’m no scientist. Why should it matter to you?”

“No reason at all.  And where did you say it can take me?”

“Anywhere you wish. Of course, if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, then you might not arrive exactly where you want to be. But don’t worry. It’s impossible to wind up inside a rock or in the wall of a house,” he said, anticipating my next question. “But it is much better to know exactly where do you want to get – say, you have a photo or something else. But you’ll understand all that soon enough. You can travel anywhere in the world just by wishing yourself there. But outside of the Earth you need to have a clear reference-point.”

“Then it’s possible to teleport to other planets?” This was unexpected.

“Of course! You’ll need to see the Gamers sometimes – to make reports, to answer questions, to explain your strategies, and so on. They love to watch plans become reality.”

“Well… so,” I said, swallowing my saliva. “I understand, yeah. What do the Gamers look like? Are they green? Do they have horns?”

“They look just like ordinary people. Maybe they’re demons in human appearance, I don’t know. I’ve stayed very long in their presence. Never more than half an hour or so.”

“And where are they?”

“Sometimes we meet on Mars.”

“Mars?” I was surprised. “There’s no life on Mars!” 

“I don’t know! They have a kind of a base or headquarters on Mars. They themselves come from the stars. The base is sleek, but there are not many Gamers there. To transfer directly to them, they gave me a stone from there – the stone is just a kind of reference-point for the device.” The old man jiggled his pocket. “It will bring you right to their doorstep.”

For some time Vasily Fyodorivich had been staring at his watch. Now he said, “Well, it’s about my time, Maxim! Here’s the detailed description of this thing – a Communicator, as they call it – and here are the numbers of my accounts in various banks.” He held out an unexpectedly clean booklet, like a manual for an electronic watch, and a piece of paper covered with figures. 

Moving as in a dream, I took the papers. The Communicator slipped from the old man’s wrist and fastened itself onto mine. 

“Well, here you are, now, the new architect of the Apocalypse!” 

When the bracelet with fastened on my wrist, I felt a slight but painful pang at the base of my brain. I could hear old Buravlyov’s thoughts.

“ Thank God!” the old man was thinking. “I’ve had enough time to convince this young fool to carry on my work. If only the damned Gamers weren’t lying, I’ll live again!”

I could think openly now.

“Tell me,” I said trying to keep a malicious smile from my face.  “Is there anything preventing my from arranging the Apocalypse for a non-human race? Will the device prevent me from bringing it to another planet?”

“What do you mean – non-human race?” Vasily turned pale. “You can’t mean…”

I smiled, showing all my teeth.

“No. no, not that!” He shivered. “It is impossible! Give the Gift back to me – I can still find somebody worthy of it!”

“It’s too late, Grandpa Vasya! I know not that it’s possible. I can read it in your head. There’s nothing in the rules to stop me. Arranging a nice little comedy for your Gamers. They want to play? I’ll play. I’ll give them a Game they’ll never forget!”

Just to be sure, I tried out my new abilities – and an eyeblink later found myself in the Himalayas. Unfortunately, the first climber chose that moment to climb onto the same ledge where a quarter of an hour earlier I had stood with Buravlyov.

The climber saw me standing warm and comfortable in my loafers and windbreaker and goggled. Possibly he thought of the old joke about the explorer who climbed with enormous effort to the top of a mountain and found a bar and barbecue there. The guy had not yet fixed a rope into his last piton. His hand slipped. The alpinist fell, a bright orange speck.

“Fuck your mother, mother, mother…” The echo in purest Russian bounced from the rocks, vibrating in the clear mountain air.

“A compatriot, then,” I thought. I rapidly caught the guy, brought him up from the abyss, and fastened his rope to the piton in the rock.

“You should watch yourself,” I scolded, as if I myself had been climbing the mountains all my life. “It’s foolish to lose your life so!”

Back at the park, I found the former creator of the Apocalypses lying on the bench gasping like a fish out of water. The poor bastard was dying. 

“Give… it back,” he wheezed. “The Gift…”

I sat down beside him and put his hat, which had fallen to the grass, under his head. It was easy to read Buravlyov’s thoughts. He was afraid to die and it hurt him very much that he himself hadn’t thought of doing what had immediately come into my head.

What a foolish old man the Gamers had given their power to! He’d been young then, just like me today. Young, foolish, and brought up on Stalinist slogans: Death to Imperialism, and so on. That was probably why in seventy years he hadn’t thought to do what I was about to.

“Vaya con Dios, amigo,” I whispered. Then, posturing slightly before myself, and more loudly, “No pasaran, comarad! Mars will be free!”

He twitched and died.

I looked at the familiar park, trees, bushes and benches with new feeling. There was nobody around. But I didn’t care if somebody did see me: Of whom should I be afraid now? 

Having closed the eyes of the former architect of the Apocalypse, I stood up and stretched. I had a future now. The Game would keep me nicely occupied for the next seventy years.

But I wasn’t in a rush. I needed to prepare. Before I made my move, I’d want to have a handful of aces. The fate of the Earth depended on me. I hoped to prove that Vasya Buravlyov had found a worthy successor.

The old man had said he had a stone that would bring me to the Gamers’ doorstep.

I went through my predecessor’s pockets and found some change, a dirty handkerchief, matches, a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a porous brown stone – a piece of Mars. A compass stone for the new architect of the Apocalypse.

After all, who said that the chaos had to be limited to Earth? 

The end


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