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2010 Pop Fiction Winning Entry: Yusov Assembles a Rifle

Benjamin Kowalsky’s short story, which earned the grand prize in the 2010 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, isolates two enemies in the Russian Revolution above a crowded theater.

The following is an online-exclusive to the PopFiction Awards story that appears in theJuly/August issue of WD. Click here to order the issue.

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“We stand here at the birth of a new order of nations, of a new dawn for the Russian people. A new Empire has been born of steel and blood, and it has been my distinct honor to have been deemed worthy of being the guiding hand for our Empire. An Empire that shall forever stand as testament to the great will of our Motherland.”--Emperor V.I. Lenin. “First Imperial Address to the Russian People”, Leningrad, August, 1925.

Section ONE: Assembly

To engage the one-piece interrupter-ejector, pull it back until it engages to the dovetail, and fasten the screw.

“You look nervous, Katushka,” he says as he lays the rifle case on the small catwalk, and he begins to unpack the case and assemble his weapon. “Don't be afraid, my little treasure. We've done this before, haven't we? This is only a bigger fish. It is only fishing for bigger fish, that's all. Now, crouch down here next to me, and make sure to whisper.”

He likes to talk to me like I'm a child. I like to pretend to listen like a child. I answer him like a child. Yes, it is just like fishing. It is only a bigger fish. I am sorry. I tell him. I crouch next to him and wrap my arms around my knees. I press my nose in between my thighs. I let my forehead rest.

“Katushka, I need the file on the target, get it from my pack and hand it to me here,” he orders. I obey. I pull the manila folder from the black pack and slide it behind him. He picks it up. He opens it.

“Hmm, it looks like we've got a high ranking Marshall in the Imperial Army. Marshall Krylov” he mutters. “Apparently he's here to show a film of some new experimental rocket. The best time to take the shot would be right after the show as the house lights begin to rise. Don’t you think?”
He hunches over his case. The clicking noises of his fingers delicately placing his equipment around him cools my sweat, it comforts me to hear him work. I feel the handle of the handgun move against my breast. It is sad that this will be the last day that I hear him tell me stories about Gonyachev and the Hashishi. These are little girl thoughts, I know, but that makes them no less powerful. I try to shake them like they were the phantoms of nightmares—shades in a dream that remain on the walls when I wake up.

To fasten the stock bands, slip the stock bands back onto the stock and turn the screw to the left to tighten.

In my nightmare, there are scissors in my hair: a cloud of scissors like silver flies. My commander orders them to cut it short. The blond curls fall around me; it is my own autumn. He tells me that the female troops in the MSB all kept their hair short. I tell him all for the Emperor. I tell him that I will kill all the Menshevik rebels for the glory of Mother Russia. I smile. He smiles. I cry in my room later that night.

In the morning, I get an envelope under my door. It contains papers for registration in the Assassin Corps of the MSB. It also contains a photograph of my target: Arkady Ivanovich Yusov. It tells me all about Yusov. It tells me how many are suspected to have died because of him. It tells me that he is a sniper. It tells me that he has used the same rifle for the last 15 years: his own Mosin Nagent 1891/30 Sniper with PE Scope. I shiver.

I am not a sniper, I complain. I specialize in infiltration. A sniper uses distance to disguise himself from the target; infiltration requires only deception to close that distance and make the kill. I can't pretend to know how to shoot a rifle.

Nobody seems to think that matters. “You are a good infiltrator,” they say. “You are to appear inexperienced and unsure of yourself. This will allow you to get close to Yusov. The more green you appear is the more he will trust in the illusion.”

Yusov kicks me out of my nightmare. I tell him that I am sorry. He huffs and continues to assemble his rifle. I run my fingers through my short blond hair.

To assemble the magazine and trigger guard, push the magazine and trigger guard into the stock, tighten the rear trigger guard screw at the top of the stock just forward of the small of the stock, and the front trigger guard screw at the forward part of the magazine on the bottom of the stock.

“This new generation,” Yusov begins, “You. Yes, you do not know how to appreciate tried and true technology. You always want the next big thing. You know. You've probably been training on the SVG rifle, right? That new prototype?”

I tell him that I have. This is a lie. I am not a sniper.

He clicks the magazine and trigger guard into place. “Bah. They tried to get me to change over to the new SVG. Do you know what I told them? I told them that I would sooner pluck out my eyes that touch that piece of shit. I won't even fire the thing. It's a piece of shit, I tell them. Now, my Mosin Nagent I have had for 25 years, and can you guess how many people I've killed with this? Moving, stationary, upside down, it doesn't matter. I've hit over 300 kills with this rifle alone, that's not even counting the time I spent in the war. You try to match that with the SVG. You can't.”

I tell him that I'm sorry.

“Sorry, yes. You should be sorry. This new generation will never produce anything like a Gonyachev, or like me. You just don't have the discipline that it takes to truly be a master of this craft. You just get bigger and more powerful toys. You want to start using explosives. Still won't ever make up for the discipline involved in sharpshooting,” he says.

He likes to preach like this, and I can always say that I'm sorry, and it will always be the right thing to say. But every time I say I'm sorry, I have nightmares and I press my fingers into my eyes. I see the most fantastic colors before everything goes dark and there's not even pain anymore, just dull clarity.

To assemble the magazine follower, grasp both the follower and floor plate with the forefinger and the thumb, press them together, and push them up. Push the magazine floor plate up; at the same time, pull the magazine floor plate catch back.

My mother tells me that I'm so pretty in my uniform. She runs her slender fingers through my long hair. I remind myself that I am an assassin, and that I only cry when it is appropriate. She puts her hand on mine and tells me how proud she is of me. She wants to go to my father's grave and show me to him. “He would be so proud to see you serving the Motherland,” she says.
I slide my fingers in the grooves of the letters on the tombstone. SERGEI ILLYCH GONYACHEV. My father has a marked grave, unlike many soldiers in the Emperor's army. Assassins have greater prestige than others. Assassins get medals, they get to meet our Emperor. Assassins will never be nameless. I smile as I stand up and salute my father. His legacy. My duty. My mother crosses her hands across her chest.

“You know, if you keep pressing like that, you are going to burst a few of your capillaries. Then your eyes won't get enough blood, and you won’t be worth a shit,” Yusov scolds, “Silly girl.”
I tell him that I'm sorry again. And this time, I mean it even less.

To insert the bolt, squeeze the trigger, and, at the same time, push the bolt all the way to the front.

The theater beneath us begins to fill with white lab coats and green jackets. Scientists and military personnel. They chatter as they sit down around the center stage. A few of the military types march up to the stage, and sit in a few seats next to a podium. Red hangs along the walls of the theater in cloth that shimmers. The bolt of the rifle clicks onto place.

“We're in business, Katushka,” Yusov whispers. “I need you to lie down next to me. You're going to be more visible if you sit up like that. Didn't they teach you this in the MSB? Didn't you...ah forget it. Damn incompetent little girl. You're probably the greenest recruit that they've ever sent to me, did I ever tell you that?”

I tell him that he has. I flatten my body and push against him. He shuffles the rifle against his shoulder, and places his eye against the sight. He squints. I sigh.

“Katushka, why do you never address me as Arkashenka?” he asks. “Something perhaps more informal than 'Yusov'? I would even prefer you call me 'Arkady'. This has always bothered me.”
I tell him that it is because I respect him too much to address him informally. He turns his head to me, smiles, and winks, “But you and I are on more informal terms, yes?” He takes his hand from his rifle and traces the curve of my back until he comes to rest it on the top of my thigh. He squeezes. I shiver and slip my hand into my jacket. I slide my finger across the handle of the pistol.

And now, I am only grateful.

Section TWO: Ammunition

Standard rifle ammunition for the MSB (Menshevik Socialist Brigade) is of the 7.62 mm caliber (cal. 30), has a rimmed bottlenecked case, and is 3.03 inches in length.

“You would like to hear a joke, yes?” says Yusov. He takes a clip of 7.62 mm bullets out of the case and examines them. I do not like jokes. No, that isn't right. I have many favorite jokes. I remember one about a penguin that my father told me, but I can't remember exactly the content. But Yusov tells jokes about women. It makes me want to close my legs and pull them close to me. I can't. I cross my ankles, one on top of the other, and I press them together.

“You will love this one, it is very short,” he grins. I hate his teeth.

“You know what they say about women drivers in Minsk? 'When there is a cunt behind the wheel, she's not driving!' Did you know that one?”

I giggle. It is not a good joke. Men like women who laugh at jokes about women. He is comfortable in knowing that he knows something about me. He relaxes. He knows how to make me laugh.

But he knows nothing save what I show him, and that is nothing at all.

The ammunition for rifles is usually packed in five round clips, three clips to a cardboard package, twenty packages to a hermetically sealed zinc-coated metal container (a total of 300 cartridges), and two metal containers to a wooden box (a total of 600 cartridges).

I show Yusov my skin because that is what he demands. I let him touch my flesh because that will make me precious to him. I do not let him inside of me, and he is frustrated. He wants to be satisfied, but I cannot allow him make love to me. He asks me to pleasure him, and then demands with his hands. They grip my shoulders and pull me down. They hold what little is left of my hair, and pull at my scalp.

I could kill you now. I could kill you while you are sleeping. I could kill you when you go to piss. You leave the door open. I could bite down. I could bite down and pull back and leave you screaming. Then I could laugh and spit your cock out, flaccid and useless. Then I could tell you everything. I'd laugh with a mouthful of your blood. I'd tell you the joke about penguins, and I'll laugh. I'd tell you about my father, the great Gonyachev. That man you worship. You'd know just then. You'd know who I am and you'd cower before me. The child of your god. I'd tell you about the greatness of my Emperor, and that it is for love of Motherland and hatred of traitors that you have to die. You'd tell me that you're sorry. I'll shoot you anyway. I'll shoot you in the chest so that I can watch your lungs fill with blood as you gasp for air.

He moans. I brace myself. It's hot, and I gag at the taste. He sighs and pats me on my head. My tongue is numb. I want to wash my face, but he embraces me. He wants to hold me. He rakes his face into my neck, and brushes rough against my cheek. I can't smell him. I can't smell anything at all. I am grateful for this much.

Section THREE: Adjustments of Scope

A thumbscrew with sight graduations at 100 meter intervals is located on top of the telescope. This thumbscrew is used for setting angles of elevation.

“Did I ever tell you about the Hashishi?” he says. I tell him that he hasn’t. He sighs. He turns the top knob to the left.

“This new generation, you. You have very little regard for where we come from,” he says, “Well, I suppose that with the state of affairs being what they are, I can't very well expect that you get a good education in history.”

I shake my head. He can't hear me

“The word 'assassin' comes from Arabic, originally. Their word was 'Hashishi', and it meant 'those who partake in Hashish'. I don't expect that you'd know what Hashish is, we don’t have much trade with the Arabs these days. I've had it before, quite nice stuff. Anyway, the Hashishi would smoke this peculiar substance called Hashish,” he paused to twist the top knob to the right slightly, “and would run through the palace of some Ottoman or Arabian king, cutting down bodyguards, slicing up courtiers, and causing havoc all the way. The purpose of the Hashish was to distort their sense of judgment, so that they wouldn't hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way. But I believe that the Hashish had yet another purpose.”

He pauses again and turns the screw to the left.

“I don't believe that the Hashishi were supposed to survive. If you think about it, it was one man, or perhaps a small group, against a small army of trained guards. The Hashish distorts two more things: sense of self-preservation, and the sense of pain. These Hashishi no longer had any idea that they were being lead to their deaths, or if they did, it didn't matter anymore. Their pain was dulled, so that even if they were wounded, they could still accomplish what they set out to do. And that's where you and I come from. We are the professional children of suicides.”
If there is anything that I can say for Yusov, he has a keen grasp of the meaning of history; however, he hasn't the taste for irony.

A thumbscrew for lateral corrections (windage, drift, and in the case of a moving target, lead) is located on the left side of the telescope. It has 10 graduations in either direction, beginning with zero; the plus markings are used for corrections to the right and the minus markings for corrections to the left.

“That's him,” says Yusov. “The one in the red hat there, that's Krylov. Look, Katushka, look at that smug little grin he has. I can see why Lenin likes him. You can tell so much about a man from his face. Don't you think so?”

I look at Krylov. I know that he is a proud man, and a loud man. I know that he is one of the Emperor's favorite Marshalls. I also know that he is not going to die today. Yusov does not know this.

“And once he is dead, I think you and I will go out and get some coffee down the street to celebrate. Maybe after that we could find a bottle of wine and celebrate more properly. What I wouldn't give for a bottle of good Champagne, hmm?” Yusov pauses and turns the knob on the left side of his scope.

“You know, one day they might not even be able to make Champagne anymore? It's true! I realized this when the Imperial Army took Berlin, they renamed it something awful, and when the Emperor pressured Finland into signing over sovereignty of its territories they renamed Finland something awful” He twists the knob again, slightly, “My point is, that one day the Empire may stretch to encompass France, and we'll name the Champagne region something awful in Russian. Then there will be no more Champagne. There will only be some sparkling white wine that tastes like Champagne in its place, but it won't be Champagne.”

The voices in the theater gather to a loud murmur, Yusov continues to talk and twist, “Sometimes I feel like I'm fighting only to keep the Champagne. You young ones may have your ideals, but all I want to do is have a nice bottle of real Champagne, and I want to remember real German beer, and I want to... Ah, give me a moment,” he rubs his eyes. “You are too young to remember such things, but I'll tell you. It was sweet. It was like a mouthful of liquid bread and honey. There are memories in that. There were the German resistance soldiers who shared it with me. Now they are either all dead or subjects of our Empire. There aren't any Germans anymore. There isn't any of that real German beer. It's all part of our Russian Empire. Maybe the youth fights for the future, but I tell you that I fight for the past, for Champagne and real German beer, for memories. Don't you agree with me, Katushka?”

For a moment, and only slightly, something twists in me. Something makes me believe him. I rub my finger against the suppressed barrel of the pistol next to my heart. It is a reminder.
No matter how right he is, the Empire must prevail.

On the tube of the PE sight there is a knurled collar with a diopter scale, to make adjustments for defects of vision. The plus markings on the scale are used to make adjustments for farsightedness, and the minus markings for nearsightedness.

He asks me how much I know about Gonyachev, the greatest assassin that Russia ever produced. I tell him that he's told me a bit about him, and that I learned about him from various instructors of mine. Certain maneuvers were developed by Gonyachev, and certain tactics for both sniping and following were created by him.

“Yes, but did I ever tell you about the day that I met him?” He asks. I tell him that he has not. This is not a lie.

“It was during the Russian siege of Berlin in the summer of 1940, so perhaps twelve years ago. You would have been a little girl then. The MSB was there assisting the German resistance forces. I was a young man then, 20 years old, and Gonyachev was there. He was killing off the German officers, one by one.”

I remember asking my mother where my father had gone. She never told me.

“I met Gonyachev at the Christmas cease-fire agreement. It was clear by then that Berlin would fall. We had lost almost all of our officers by that time. We were exchanging food with the Imperial Army, and I saw a man sitting by himself. He was writing a letter.”

I remember that letter. I remember the feel of the paper, and the grit that stuck to the pages. I remember scratching it off with my fingernail and tasting it on my tongue. Real German dirt. Sent to me by my father.

“I shook his hand and introduced myself. When I found out who he was, I am embarrassed to admit that I fell into a case of hero worship on the spot. Christmas is a strange time in war. This man was single handedly responsible for the destruction of the German resistance, and my mission from Stalin, but here I was like a giddy schoolgirl. I asked him if he had any advice for a sniper. And do you know what he told me?”

I remember a letter that I filled with kisses. I remember an envelope that I put up to my nose and breathed in to see if I could smell him from all that way away. I remember.

“He said 'Remember not to miss'.”

I remember.

Section FOUR: Operating Instructions

To set the safety, draw back the cocking piece and turn it to the left. This prevents the bolt from opening. To put off safe, pull the cocking piece back, turn it to the right, and allow it to move forward.

The lights go out. The murmuring turns to silence. I sit up behind Yusov and pull my knees up to my chest. He puts his fingers to his lips. I don't want to kill him. I want him to die, but I don't want to kill him. If I scream then the theater will open up in gunfire and they will kill us both. I will fail in my mission, but Yusov will die.

The black theater opens up with light. I don't scream. The screen on the stage is filled with images of airplanes. I grip my hand around the handle of my pistol. I pull it up slightly out of my jacket. I feel the beads of sweat form between me and the firm handle of the gun. Yusov shuffles and keeps his eye in the scope.

I flick the safety off as the screen fills with white light. A giant cloud, shaped like a mushroom, pierces the sky. Buildings crumble, buses fly as if they were made of paper.

I tell Yusov that I'm scared. He doesn't respond.

Open the bolt, place a clip of cartridges in the clip guides, and press the rounds down into the magazine. Close the bolts; the clip will then fall out of the clip guides onto the ground.

The lights go up and Yusov opens the bolt on his rifle. He slides the cartridge of ammunition into the rifle. He slides the bolt closed and put his eye back into the scope. His finger caresses the trigger.

I pull the pistol out of my jacket and press it against my face. It is cold and my hands are damp. Yusov shuffles his shoulder against the rifle. I take the pistol from my face and gently rest the suppressor against the back of Yusov's head.

“Goodbye, Nikolay Krylov.” he says.

“Goodbye, Arkashenka,” I say.

Pull the trigger.

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