This story first appeared in Curios and Conundrums: Brain Butchers (August 2017) from The Mysterious Package Company. The themes of the issue were mind control, zombies, and 1970’s Cold War Russia.
I was here, wherever here was, to steal something for the auction house. But the bovine-butchering sphere presented a fresh problem: due to the Law of Temporal Displacement, I would have to return to the future with something roughly as large as the calf’s head, or risk being turned inside out through a cruel trick of time travel. Ordinarily, when the sphere scoops out a shallow bowl of sod, my own freshly-clothed body and some priceless trinket are enough to offset its mass on the return trip. Returning with a baby cow’s head worth of treasure posed a challenge. I tapped my wrist to see how much time I had, and the subcutaneous glow answered “2 hours.” Only two hours? And where, exactly, was I? Oh, right. The middle of nowhere. Terrific.
Taking stock of my surroundings was difficult, because I wasn’t surrounded by much. A few nervous-looking and intact cows grazed further afield. To my left sat a lonely looking farmhouse. It was the only structure for miles. I lost 15 minutes just reaching the place. Where there was smoke coming from the chimney and a vintage Moskvitch with defrosted windows in the driveway . Someone was home, and home was the USSR, I surmised, somewhen in the 1970s. Perhaps Russia, or one of the -stans? I found an unlatched window and quietly let myself in.
You can tell a lot about a person by ransacking their closet. The owner’s wardrobe was inexplicably heavy on the “robe,” and I had to thumb through a dozen such garments before I found an orange shirt with flouncy sleeves that flagrantly flouted the Communist Party line. I pulled on one of the few pairs of drab pants.
Unsuitably attired, I crept through the house searching for valuables. The owner was some sort of well-heeled collector of Russian antiquities. Either that, or a ’70s Bond villain. He had decorated the interior of the unassuming farmhouse with intricate Uzbek silk tapestries and huge landscape paintings in gaudy frames, which clashed with the orange shag carpet, brown wallpaper, and proliferation of lava lamps. For every ornate stone sculpture, there was a macramé owl, and for every gilded wing chair, a wicker one. An enameled cheetah statue sat sentry beside a leopard print bean bag chair, while the golden eagle on an imperial sceptre gazed down at a brown glass ashtray. The room was a bizarre clash of cultures, with the opulence of late Russian imperialism colliding with the excess of American disco, and, unlike chocolate colliding with peanut butter, the taste was questionable.
I slinked through the wood-panelled hallway to the sunken living room where the focal point was a large corner fireplace. In front sat a stereophonic egg chair with its back toward me. As I stepped softly through the thick shag carpet, I ducked down to check beneath the chair. No feet. If the owner was home, he was nowhere to be found. Above the fireplace loomed another clue: a large print of a photograph depicting a bearded man with beady eyes and dark, lank hair. He looked immediately familiar. My brain cycled through its file folder of 20th-century notables. Was it Charles Manson? No. Ringo Starr? Perhaps.
Along one wall was a wooden liquor cabinet containing small, corked vials filled with eerie, iridescent red liquid. Curiouser and curiouser.
One magnificent old chiffonier was piled high with princely trinkets and treasures from a bygone era. There was jewellery, sure, but nothing fancy enough to justify an entire trip from the future. Nevertheless I nervously stuffed my droopy pants pockets with bracelets and baubles and rings, all in aggregate much smaller than a cow’s head. But my fears melted away when I spotted a certain something perched on a plinth: a fist-sized jeweled egg seated in a tiny chariot, which was being pulled by the alabaster figure of Cupid or some Biblical cherub. I knew that I was looking at one of the famous lost Fabergé eggs, hand-crafted for Tsaritsa, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. in the waning days of the Russian Empire. What was this place, I wondered? What bizarre, swanky dragon’s den had I blundered into? Only one thing was for certain: that egg was by far the most precious thing in the room, and the sphere had brought me here to steal it.
As I lifted the fancy egg from its pedestal, it emitted a distinctive tinkle as four dangling crystals jingled against the ornamented chariot. As if responding to a Pavlovian bell, the egg chair by the fire creaked and slowly began to turn around. I turned my head towards it just as slowly, until I was staring directly at the master of the house, who was staring right back at me.
I let out a shriek that could only mean in any language, ‘Dear holy God, no!’
The collector was seated in the lotus position, thus hiding his feet from view. He was wearing one of the heavy black robes I had seen in the closet, and around his neck hung one of the vials of red liquid, suspended by a length of scratchy twine. Sharp, pointed fingernails topped two gnarled, knobby hands connected to spindly arms, which disappeared into the sleeves of the robe. Weighed down by an enormous pair of headphones, his head hung oddly askew. Stringy dark hair spread thin across a dessicated scalp and dangled down around the face, where it was overwhelmed by a bushy, black beard. His teeth protruded donkey-like as only a corpse’s teeth can, with its flesh retreating into skeletal cheekbones and cavernous eye sockets.
Though cadaverous, the resemblance to the photo was undeniable. The robes, the beard, and particularly the bullet hole in the forehead all strongly suggested that this was the immaculately preserved body of Grigori Rasputin, the Mad Monk of tsarist Russia.
I fought to recall everything I knew about the man. He was a self-professed healer who had brought Tsar Nicholas II’s son Alexei back from the brink of death on two separate occasions. He became an unsanctioned royal vizier, accused of exerting an evil, mind-controlling influence over the royal family… to say nothing of his penchant for orgies. Jealous nobles decided to assassinate Rasputin. Hadn’t he been poisoned? And then shot multiple times? And then drowned? And then burned? Well, the evidence of being shot was as plain as the hole in his face, but his body had clearly escaped the flames. For my part, I could not escape his burning gaze as his deep-set, deathly eyes flashed open. At the very same moment, I let out a shriek that could only mean in any language, “Dear holy God, no!”
I was still holding the Fabergé egg, as I gazed in horror at the abomination in the egg chair. Rasputin raised a bony hand to the vial around his neck, pulled it free from its cork, and took a greedy swig. He seemed to surge with energy as he re-corked it. With one unexpectedly swift movement, he surged forward, becoming an angry, flailing lich that flew toward me.
I staggered backwards and fell, jewelled trinkets spilling out of my loose pockets like I was a luxury piñata. Rasputin rushed at me, his bearded mouth agape, and the coiled cord linking his headphones to the hi fi popped out and trailed behind him in the shag. The stereo suddenly blasted an entirely too appropriate euro-disco melody, and with each “rah-rah,” Rasputin charged ever nearer. I crab-crawled backwards, breathless with fear and unable to stand. With a clawed hand, Rasputin grabbed me by the throat, pulling me forcefully to my feet with surprising strength. I gurgled, unable to breathe, as the Mad Monk tightened his grip. With my last scrap of resolve, I fumbled around in my roomy pocket, grabbed a jewelled brooch, and plunged it into the softened skull of Russia’s greatest love machine. A spring of brackish brine oozed from the spot, and down went Rasputin.
Seizing my chance, I tore back through the hallway still clutching the prized egg, as Rasputin convulsed in the thick orange pile. I could already hear the cricks and snaps of the fiend contorting himself to a standing position as I sprang out the back door and onto the half-frozen fields, tripping on my overlong pants with every other step.
I wasn’t more than a few metres clear of the house before I turned back to see Rasputin’s alarmingly spry form appear in the doorway. Then, with only the Fabergé egg in hand, I dove for the crater. The snapping sounds of Rasputin’s body in motion drew ever nearer. The sphere was due back in moments. I knew how to make up the calf’s-head difference in displaced mass, but my timing had to be exact. Rasputin’s footfalls came fast, and my heart beat ever faster. I took a deep breath and pinned my hopes on the relentless, dependable ticking of time.
How did Alexander return to the future unscathed? Click here for a hint!
The time travel sphere slices through anything it intersects.
Click here for the solution
I sat there huddled in the shallow crater as the irate and undead Rasputin approached. I tapped my wrist and watched the digits countdown, mouthing each number to get a lock on the sphere’s timing. The evil zombie Rasputin arrived and planted his feet defiantly at the edge of the crater, affording me an unfortunate view straight up his robe. Trying to shake the sight of the Mad Monk’s Boney M, I leaped up and grabbed the vial around his neck, pulling him down by the scratchy twine until his cadaverous face was a hair’s breadth from my own. For the briefest second, I could feel the foul air from his dusty lungs penetrate into my nose and mouth, and could see the flecks of frothy spittle dotting his desiccated lips. If my timing was right, my plan would work; if my timing was off, I was about to be eaten. At that very instant, the sphere arrived.
As the sphere blinked into existence, it trapped Rasputin’s outstretched head inside it and snicked it off cleanly. With a whisper, the fields vanished along with the sphere, and I was back on the floor of the Ready Room. Rasputin’s head fell from its position in mid-air, hitting the floor in front of me with a dry crack.
Boss Teegan stared at me wide-eyed from behind her protective barrier. “Another severed head, Musick?” she asked incredulously. “We’ve only just finished cleaning up the first one.”
“Keep an eye on this one,” I replied, “or it’s liable to come back and bite you.”
“Do you have it?” she asked greedily.
No “how was your trip?” or “what bloodcurdling abomination was trying to grab you just then?” With a sigh, I held aloft my prize. “Cherub with chariot,” I announced. “One of the lost Fabergé eggs custom-crafted for Empress Alexandra the last Tsarina of Russia. Found in the funky front room of her long-lived advisor Grigori Rasputin, and at my considerable peril, I might add. You know, if you want these trips to go more smoothly, I would greatly benefit from some sort of preliminary briefing to inform me…”
“The serum, Musick. Where is the serum?” she interrupted.
“The serum!” she screamed. “It was the most valuable thing in the farmhouse!”
“And it’s not…?” I looked down at the beautifully detailed egg.
Boss Teegan threw her hands up and growled with exasperation. “Guards!” she bellowed. As she turned away, I covertly pocketed the glass vial that was still clenched tightly in my fist.
The door of the Ready Room whirred open, and for the second time that day, evil hands gripped me and pulled me unwillingly to my feet.