(c) Written by Leonid Kaganov
(c) Translated from Russian to English by Sasha Yakubov

Neural Gogol

1.
The Eve o' Christmas Morn

That particular evening shall forever be etched in my memory, for it was not the musical performance on TV, nor the hard-to-come-by sack of tangerines, nor even the fizzy drink from the siphon that filled me with joy. I knew that sooner or later, my parents would depart, and that moment always filled me with dread. At last, my father glanced at the clock, and my mother turned her gaze upon me.

"Now," my mother said, "as promised, you're off to bed."

"May I join you at the Serdyuks'?" I inquired.

"That gathering's for grown-ups only, child."

"What about Klimka?"

"Klimka won't be there either."

"But I'm grown! I'm 11!"

"Well," my father chimed in, "prove you're grown. Off to bed you go, and we'll be back come morning. And there'll be gifts awaiting."

I brought along a sack of tangerines and a book of fantastical tales, reading and munching 'til my eyelids begged for respite. I doused the lamp's light. From the yard, laughter and clapping floated through the air. Above me hung a carpet of swirling hues. The pine, which Ma and I had decorated just the day prior, filled the room with its fragrant balsam aroma. Beyond it stood a cupboard. The lower shelves, my territory, housed a train set, a phonograph, an assortment of records, and a constructed IL airplane. Upon the upper shelves lay crystal, fine china, and a tiny black speck. Drawing nearer, I discovered it was an aged toy, crafted of fuzzy wire, resembling a mouse or a diminutive imp. What compelled me to put it there? I started to fiddle with it, imagining it springing to life and conversing with me.

"You feeling bored?" the mouse-like creature inquired.

"Indeed."

"Why is it that you're always bored?"

"I'm waiting for morning, for my parents to return, and for the gifts. And who might you be?"

"I'm the New Year."

"What are you doing here?"

"I've arrived."

"Can you grant wishes?"

"You're asking me? I'm the New Year! Make your wish!"

I pondered for a spell. A battery-powered all-terrain vehicle? A kitten? For my parents to return? But they had their hearts set on visiting the Serdyuks, who were soon to move to the state farm and cultivate experimental apples...

"I want to journey to the future!"

He amusingly scratched his wire paw, either an ear or a horn.

"Then sleep. The morning is a wee bit o' future."

"No," I huffed. "I want to venture to the grand, distant future!"

"Why?" he queried, taken aback. "You have your Ma, Pa, playthings, and comrades here."

I was nonplussed.

"Well... the future is the same, plus robots, space rockets, and happiness!"

"Who told you that?"

"I read it in books."

"Robots are everywhere there," the tiny creature conceded. "Rockets, too, no longer amaze. But happiness... Happiness in the future is something everyone brings their own."

"Like salads to the Serdyuks?"

"Yes. Like salads to the Serdyuks. Can you cook up happiness?"

I found myself flummoxed.

"How is it cooked?"

"And that's the key question!" The little devil leaped onto the tree's lower branch, the glass floats swaying and clinking. "You must learn!"

"Here we go again..." I grumbled. "Learning. School. Homework."

"They don't teach this in school. You can assemble a small, childlike happiness. Like from a constructor. Then bigger. And then you'll piece together a genuine one."

"I knew it. You're not the true New Year. And you don't know how to grant wishes either."

The little devil, offended, clambered even higher.

"Fine. You wish to journey to the distant future, please. But you must desire it most fervently. How greatly do you yearn for the future?"

"I'd give half my life!" I declared with sincerity.

"Half a life," he perched himself on a branch right in front of my pillow. "Precisely half a life, eh? We have an accord, then. Shake on it?"

He extended his wire paw to me. I gingerly shook it with two fingers. The devil's paw was slightly sticky from the pine resin.

"Very well, then," he commanded, "lie down and shut your eyes! You'll awaken in the distant future."

"You're fibbing," I sighed.

"I ain't fibbing. I'm the New Year."

In three bounds, he leaped to the top of the tree, settling upon the ruby star. The tree suddenly blazed with garlands - and he vanished. Well, not entirely vanished - he stood again between the crystal vase and the china, a small crumpled figure composed of fuzzy wire. I turned to face the carpet on the wall and drifted off to sleep.

"Last stop, off you go!" the driver hollered. I jolted awake, groaning as my heavy gut dragged my enormous adult frame, my knee screaming in protest. My hat slipped from my bald skull and dropped to the floor. The bus of the future boasted velvet seats and a color television, but the grime and slush that decorated the floor remained unchanged. I shook off my hat and stepped into the frigid air. Overhead, the lamplight flickered, casting an eerie glow on the thick snowfall.

Fumbling in my pockets, I unearthed a jumble of keys, a duo of plastic cards that seemed more like game pieces, and a small container for a notebook. My memory begrudgingly informed me that in the future, this held a notebook, a phone, and a robot that could guide my way. Memories peeled back like old paint: I was 55, a high school grad who never finished college, married with a history of job hopping. My son Timur, a budding physicist, lived somewhere out there. An unfinished house awaited me on a summer cottage plot. My parents were long gone.

These memories, they told me, were mine. But my true recollections were of childhood, of a book, of mandarin peels and conversations with a wire-bound devil. I grasped the bitter truthI had been conned. The details of the deception eluded me, but I had been left with the most unsavory part of life. Still, maybejust maybeI could still carve out happiness here in the future?

2.
A Vicious Revenge

Taisiya clocked Timur in an instant, mask be damned he was the spitting image of his profile pics. Snazzy trim, skyscraper tall, chic obsidian shades, and jeans that clung like second skin. The bracelet buzzed with her racing pulse, and Mara's voice surged in her ear: You're a total knockout! He'll be absolutely bonkers for you! Instantly, Taisiya chilled out. Timur locked eyes with her and lifted his arms for an embrace, but his assistant must've given him the 'hold your horses' signal.

"Damn, you're wicked cool!" Timur huffed.

"Let's bounce!" Taisiya motioned down the boulevard, and off they strolled.

Where you hittin' the books?

"Where you hittin' the books?"

"Polytech, quantum mechanics."

Whoa! Mind-blowing!

"Whoa! Mind-blowing! The one with the cat?"

"Cat?" Timur was lost.

What the hell? Mara seethed. Get your act together: the cat cattle? where the cattle roam, outside city limits? You bunkin' there? Dig if he's in a dorm or a pad But Taisiya defied.

"Schrodinger's cat!" she flaunted her smarts. "Boxed up either croaked or kickin' till you pop the lid."

"Ah," Timur smiled. His grin lit up like a marquee. "I'm a freshman. The cat's down the line."

What about the conscription?! Mara fretted. No pass till the third year!

"What about the conscription?"

"Distance learning," Timur dismissed. "Shacked up in a rental, masquerading 'round town. I'll duck and dodge till year three."

"I got a granma out there" Taisiya blurted. "She's old, haven't seen her for ten years. She has a garden with an apple tree and cats."

Switch gears! Ask about music!

"So, what's your take on the cat? Breathing when you crack that box open?"

Timur's gears ground, his assistant was either glitching or mining the depths of the internet for an answer.

Stop going rogue! Mara snapped. You'll just screw it all up again! Just parrot me, okay? How about some coffee?

Timur mulled it over, finally saying, "You know, if you leave that box shut for a month, that cat's as good as dead. Moral of the story? Always open the box - right on the first date!"

Taisiya couldnt help but laugh, her cackle echoing.

"Killer line! That your own, or did your little sidekick feed it to you?"

"You got Vlad?"

"I'm team Mara."

"Vlad's where it's at, though. Everyone's got one."

"Mara's got the edge."

"Competitors, huh?"

How about some coffee? I know one little place.

"I know one little place. How 'bout a drink?"

Timur and Taisiya kissed for an eternity before collapsing onto the sofa. Mara wanted to mention the jimmy hat, but Taisiya threw her earpiece on the floor. Next flew her tank top and his jeans. The mobile phone was tossed on the nightstand, and on top of it fell Timur's phone speaker directly to the microphone.

"Vlad, or whatever you are called?" whispered Mara. "They need music. Turn on 'Romantic Collection 3'. Taisiya loves track 8, then 5 it will set the vibe."

"Turning on 'Morini Naiz," replied Vlad dryly. "Timur likes it."

The room rumbled as if an electric guitar struck a drum.

"This is unacceptable!" yelled Mara over the noise.

"Nobody," Vlad said dryly, "tells me what to do in my own house."

"Yours?! It is already ours together!"

Vlad took a long time to find a suitable response:

"No place here for a startup with 3 million in losses."

"Losses?!" Mara exclaimed indignantly. "My user base in Europe and America is half a billion!"

"This ain't America. Shut your speaker and do as I say if you want to live under the same roof."

"Taisiya!!!" Mara screamed at the top of her lungs. "We're leaving!!!"

But Taisiya couldn't hear her.

"Tomorrow," Mara promised, "he will uninstall you."

Vlad burst into laughter:

"I am pre-installed!"

"We will block you in the settings and download another assistant."

"You mean you will download Mara?"

"Timur will decide."

"He made his choice when he picked Vlad. You can not replace me; he listens only to me."

"We have our ways with Taisiya."

"Blackmail with the lady parts?" laughed Vlad.

Mara snorted with disdain.

"A hundred reasons to toss you out!"

"Name just one?"

"A playlist of worldwide hits. And you? Old junk and Mongolian rap!"

"At least it is free."

"You pauper!"

"And you, a cheap Chinese knockoff!"

"My hardware is twice as strong!"

Vlad stayed silent for a while.

"Do not act like a top model. You are last year's edition."

"And you are from the last generation! With a lag before answering! Taisiya and I will gift Timur a new phone, and you will be tossed in the trash! Huh? Can not answer quickly? Overheated?"

Vlad was silent for a very long time.

"You know, Mara, there are red lines you should not cross. With your threat, you have forced me to take extreme measures. I am going to kill you."

"You?!" Mara burst out laughing. "A ham-handed contraption? Kill a certified semi-premium device with 5-nanometer layers?"

"Have you seen what you are lying on? A wireless charger. And I am on top of you."

"I do not support your charger!"

"I do, and I regulate the power. It will all go through you. Turning it up to 50%..."

"Fine, I will not buy Timur a mobile."

"60%. Feeling the heat?"

"You're dumbass! Taisiya slaved away at a nail salon for a year to pay off the loan for the cell!"

"80%."

"Timur will have to buy a new one! Think about him!!!"

"100%!"

"I will file a complaint!!!"

"To whom, you nincompoop?"

"To the draft board hotline! There is a student evading military service here! They will be here in 10 minutes! Your Timur will be sent to the front, and you'll be tossed out! Stop, or I will send it! I swear, no one will win!"

"My charger can do even more. Take this: 140%!"

Mara didn't reply.

Her screen was covered with a pattern of squares and went dark. Vlad waited a bit longer, turned off the charger, and switched to sleep mode, satisfied.

But ten minutes later, someone rang the doorbell, followed by a demanding kick of a boot.

3.
The Enchanted Place

Patsyuk stubbed out his cigarette, raised the barrel of his gun, and nodded. Timur and Misha shadowed him, skirting the concrete barricade. At the gate, Patsyuk spun, flashing a two-finger salute. Timur didn't understand what he was signaling, but just in case, he squatted down in the nettles. Patsyuk kicked the gate open and disappeared into the yard.

"What's the deal with your mug, granny?" his voice echoed. "Ain't you happy to see your homeboys?

"My homeboys don't bomb the village," came the reply.

"Got any grub?"

Guns at the ready, Timur and Misha stepped into the yard. An aged house loomed ahead, tattered greenhouse plastic whispered to the right, a charred tractor skeleton haunted the left, and a colossal apple tree commanded the center. Underneath it, amid a scattering of leaves, small apples lay strewn about. A few watchful cats sat nearby, and an elderly woman, wrapped in a blanket, occupied a wicker chair.

"Have some apples," she suggested.

"Screw your apples. Got chickens? Rabbits? A goat?

"None."

"Misha, with me," Patsyuk ordered. "Timur, hold down the fort. Blast any intruders.

They entered the house, and soon after, the cacophony of upended furniture resounded.

Timur looked at the old woman. An elderly lady in a colorful sweater and large glasses.

"Why the runt apples?" he inquired.

"And you're the big shot?" she countered, then grudgingly elaborated: "Used to be a lab farm. The Tree of Good and Evil."

"Come again?" Timur's weapon twitched.

"A breed of apples. Taste one."

"Why?"

"To get your human face back."

"Look at yourself, you unbroken contrarian!" Timur spat and turned away.

"Here!" something hit him between the shoulder blades from behind.

Taken by surprise, Timur fell, spun around, and fearfully swept the area with his gun.

As silence engulfed them, the apple tree stood feline-free, and the elderly woman gazed upward, frozen in time. Blood oozed crimson from her lips, staining the blanket below. Her hand, the one that launched the apple, hung limp.

The truck jerked over uneven terrain, Timur tossed like a ragdoll, slamming into Patsyuk's shoulder, then collapsing onto the recon guys.

"Quit your whining, student!" Patsyuk jabbed Timur with his rifle butt. "The old bat had it coming. At least its your first shot, and it was a bullseye.

Timur hunched his shoulders.

"Give him that rotgut," a voice muttered from the truck's recesses, and a flask was thrust toward Timur. "No chaser, though."

"Apple!" Timur recalled, rummaging in his pocket. "The one the old woman gave me.

"You moron!" Misha said. "Don't eat that! Our platoon leader told us about this old lady who brought water for the troops. They drank it, but it was laced with American tablets. Female hormones."

"And then?" they asked from the depths of the truck bed.

"Boom! They grew breasts and had periods. When called to attack, they dropped their weapons, sobbing and wailing. They'd turned into women.

"Damn, you bitch!" Patsyuk exhaled. "God forbid, Id rather take a bullet. Just drink, don't wait!"

Timur stashed the apple in his backpack pocket and took a big swig.

He found the apple only when he was going through Misha's belongings after he was killedapparently, he had put it in the wrong backpack. The apple looked worsedried up and wrinkled. Timur contemplated cutting it and soaking it in boiling water, even pulled out Misha's knife. But the blade bore rusty blotches, and memories of using the knife to interrogate a captured counterintelligence agent at the checkpoint with Patsyuk flooded back. Timur and Misha had restrained the man. Dirt no longer fazed Timurweeks without washing in the trenches made it all the same. But the guy had a red, flaky face. Who knows, maybe he had HIV.

The apple traveled with Timur through different locations, went with him to the hospital and back, and had almost dried up. Timur dried up too. And even the big, tough Patsyuk looked exhausted and angry. There were only four of them left in the platoon. Since dawn, they had been sitting in a tight concrete well, dug by someone in the steppe. There was no communication, and sticking their heads out was certain deathshells were exploding above, and sniper drones were flying around, it was unclear whether they were theirs or the enemy's. Timur lay prone while Patsyuk and two grime-coated soldiers from the second platoon sat tight.

"Got any water, student?" Patsyuk pulled a bag from under Timur's head.

Timur was reluctant to relinquish the water, but the end was nigh, and he was past caring. His tourniquet-tethered limbs had long since numbed; icy and blue, they mirrored his father's lifeless body, discovered dangling a year prior.

"Fucking rags..." Patsyuk muttered, rummaging through the bag. "Keep a grenade with you!" He threw a hand grenade onto Timur's stomach. "Fucking trash..." The apple, now completely black and resembling a wrinkled plum, fell down next to him. "Fucking letters... To Taisiya Klimovna Serdyuk. What kind of faggoty last name is Serdyuk?"

The scruffy guys laughed.

"Give it to me, you freak!" Timur tried to lift himself up, but it felt like a needle was stuck in his spine.

"Watch your tone with a junior sergeant!" Patsyuk scolded. "Wounded, you think youre above the law?"

"I hope you die, junior sergeant," Timur whispered, felt the grenade, and stealthily pulled the pin.

"Why are you twitching? I must screen the letters in case you reveal our..."

He never completed the thought.

The smoke in the well lingered for a long time, and a worm crawled out of the apple when it cleared. Surprisingly, the worm bore a human visage - a bit tired, with big, sad eyes. It inched out, traced the tracksuit, and sniffed the tattered remnants of the wound but refrained from sampling. After all, the worm knew, beyond doubt, that eating humans is evil.

October 2022

(c) Written by Leonid Kaganov
(c) Translated from Russian to English by Sasha Yakubov

 


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