Featured October 10, 2020 Science Fiction Robots pulp

Red Steel

By C. L. Werner
Aug 14, 2020 · 3,643 words · 14 minutes

A bust of Lenin and a mosaic of the hammer and sickle inside the Moscow Palace of Youth (Moskovskogo Dvortsa Molodezhi, or MDM) shortly before it opened to the public in 1988. A two-year reconstruction of the building, a significant example of Soviet Modernism, was planned to begin in spring 2020.

Photo by Steve Harvey via Unsplash.

From the editor:

Years after escaping a Russian work camp, a scientist’s past returns to haunt him when he comes home to find a sinister contraption operated by Dr. Kaschei, a mad inventor hell-bent on revenge.

Author C. L. Werner lives in Arizona and has a flair for pulp and Lovecraft-inspired tales. He’s published over thirty novels and novellas in an eclectic range of settings, including Warhammer and the Marvel Universe.


From the author: Years after escaping Stalin's Russia, an American engineer is pursued by a vengeful scientist and his creation.


Red Steel

by

C. L. Werner

I had no premonition of the terror that awaited me as I returned to the rambling old boarding house where I had my rooms. The immense Victorian structure was as dark and silent as the tomb when I arrived home, not a sound straying from the long, dreary halls, even the Porters’ wailing infant having succumbed to the lure of sleep. Mrs Kemp, the gray-headed dowager who ran the house had left a lamp burning in the foyer and a few others glowing dimly in the hallway. She was a frugal woman and I appreciated the courtesy she showed by leaving the lights. My job at the power house often kept me late and it was seldom that I could limit my comings and goings to what Mrs Kemp termed ‘human hours’.

I paused briefly at the mahogany table in the hallway, retrieving the folded newspaper resting on it. Mr Barlowe, the junkman, always saved the Times for me, knowing I rarely had opportunity to consult the headlines before hurrying off to my own work. By the feeble light in the foyer I quickly scanned the front page. Little enough there to warm the heart. The Russians were invading Finland, the rest of Europe bracing itself for Hitler to move against France. Alcatraz had lost its most notorious resident as Al Capone was released. I folded the paper again and tucked it under my arm, considering the wisdom of the saying ‘no news is good news’. Paper in hand, I mounted the wrought-iron staircase and climbed the steps to the third floor, where my own rooms were situated.

As I fished my key from my trousers, my hand brushed against the door. The portal slowly swung inward, creaking slightly on its brass hinges. I was surprised, but not unduly alarmed to find the door unlocked. Mrs Kemp was forever fussing about the rooms, cleaning up after her tenants with an almost motherly obsession. It would not be the first time she’d forgotten to lock up after herself. I closed the door behind me, deposited my hat and coat on a suede-backed easy chair and turned on the light. It was then that I saw something was wrong.

There, in the center of the room was a large wooden box. A strangely curved pair of copper wires rose from its top, looking like nothing so much as the horns of an insect. Curiosity rather than caution caused me to approach the object, forgetting for a moment the question of how it had gotten into my room. The box was some three feet in length, nearly as tall. As I circled it, I found that the front facing of the box was not wood, but rather a bowl of darkened glass that bulged outward from its wooden casing. A short laugh escaped me as I suddenly realized what the strange object was. I’d read about developments in the still infantile technology of television, enough to recognize one of the devices when it confronted me in my own den.

I prowled toward the television, studying it from every side. Passing on its left, I jumped back in alarm as with a crackle and electric whine, the picture tube glowed into life, casting silver-blue shadows into the room. My alarm turned into horror as the image resolved itself, an icy chill that clenched my heart in a deathly grip. There was a face in the picture tube now, a countenance that was burned into my mind like a brand. A cruel, hooked nose set at the center of a pudgy, almost reptilian face, a thin slash of a mouth curled in a perpetual scowl. True, there were more wrinkles in that face, less hair upon that high-domed skull, but it was still the face of Dr Igor Kaschei. I felt all the strength in my body drain out of me, seeming to sink through my feet and into the floor. My knees buckled and I crumpled to the carpet. The scowl on Kaschei’s image twisted itself into a vicious smile.

"Not so many years, hey zeka?" The voice was tinny, distorted by the speaker buried somewhere in the wooden box, but I felt a shiver of terror sweep through me as I heard it. Kaschei reacted to my fear, his smile broadening. "We are missing you at the sharashka, little burzhuy."

I backed away from the flickering image. In my mind the years melted away. I was back there, back in the ice and snow, back behind the wire and walls, a guest of the Soviet, the brutal cadre of madmen who would drag Russia into a new dark age. I had fought against them. When the war against the Kaiser had ended, I had joined a volunteer regiment to help the White Russians in their struggle against the Reds. Unlike the war against the Germans, this time I found myself on the losing side. Five years in a gulag, five years of slow, creeping death. Then Dr Kaschei had entered my life, stalking the work camps looking for engineers, scientists, electricians and mechanics – anyone who might help him achieve his own ambitions. He relocated those who possessed the qualities he wanted to a camp in the Ukraine, imprisoning us within the stone walls of the sharashka. Instead of cutting limber we were set to attack a riotous array of technological problems. But if our labors had become more cerebral than physical, they had not lessened in their severity. Twenty-hour work days, sweating over problems that might have kept the finest universities in Europe scratching their heads, all with the threat of torture and execution hovering over each man’s head.

Dr Kaschei worked us mercilessly, often calling us into the prison’s snow-covered yard to witness the execution of an inmate who had fallen too far behind in meeting Kaschei’s demands. It was an impossible situation – what man could bend his mind toward such work with the vision of Kaschei’s threats polluting his thoughts. The facilities were crude, barbaric by western standards, the tools a motley collection of obsolescence, the raw materials provided by Kaschei always in short supply. The Soviet scientist never gave any man working for him more than part of a problem, never giving him enough information to guess where his work was taking him or what his next project would be. With a paranoia worthy of his great and glorious Stalin, Kaschei zealously guarded his secret, the ultimate goal of all his torture and tyranny.

It ended a few years after it began. At least for me and seven others. We escaped, striking out in the dead of winter after killing one of Kaschei’s guards. Of that long ordeal, the endless march through the Caucasus and into Persia, there is little to remember. Some of us survived. Three of us did not. I had tried to put the experience behind me, yet here he was, my tormentor, smiling at me from the glowing window of a television.

"You cause me great deal trouble," Kaschei snarled, the cruel humor dropping from his face. "When you escape, I am being blamed." The image made a helpless gesture with his hands. "The Cheka is arresting me, saying that I am helping American and his friends escape. Me, they are arresting! Me, Igor Vasiley Ivanov Kaschei, the greatest mind in all the Russias! They are putting me in sharashka, making me work for them!"

As he raged, Kaschei stabbed a finger at me, shaking it in the furious gesture that had become so familiar during my years as a prisoner. A horrible thought occurred to me, as I watched him. I wondered if he was watching me as well, if somehow the image in the television was able to see me. I looked away, glancing over the room, trying to find some hidden camera, something that was betraying me to Kaschei.

Kaschei laughed. "Not so long does Kaschei stay quiet in cage, hey! They are being fools to match their wits with Kaschei! I am never telling them what you build for me, what is almost ready before you are escaping. They are telling me to finish and Kaschei does what they are asking. But I am not giving it to them! Not to the Cheka, not to Stalin, not to any of them! I use it for Kaschei, use it to escape like the American and his friends."

I only half heard Kaschei’s words, letting the madman rave. In my study of the room I had spotted the closet door. It was ajar, only a few inches, but perhaps enough for the Russian to have hidden his camera there. I lifted myself from the floor, starting toward the door.

"This day has been long in coming, burzhuy," Kaschei chortled. "After I am leaving my homeland, I am looking for the American and his friends, the men who are causing me so much trouble." The Russian’s words stopped me cold. There might be more than a camera hidden in there. I listened again to the madness, the hate in Kaschei’s words. Did he have some agent, some hired thug hidden in there as well? I stole over to my bureau, removing my .45 from the top drawer. I slid back the action on the automatic, ensuring that the gun was loaded.

"Already I am visiting Thorne in England and Vaskillo in Cuba. Koloff almost is getting away from me in Chicago." Kaschei’s voice grew still more sinister, his beady little eyes watching me from behind the picture tube. "I am telling you this because Koloff, too, is having gun when I visit him. It did not help him, any more than it will be helping you!"

When Kaschei made his threat, my hand was already closed on the door of the closet, ripping it open. I leveled my pistol. Before my mind fully registered what it had seen, I had fired twice, the bullets smashing against the thing lurking behind the door.

Instantly it was in motion, a powerful sidewise swipe of its arm smashing me to the floor, knocking the gun from my hand. I scrambled away from it, crawling across the floor as it strode from its hiding place.

"It is fitting you are seeing this before you die," Kaschei crowed. "It is what you are working so long and so hard to build for me all those years!"

The thing took another step toward me, its steel foot denting the wood beneath it as it advanced. How can I describe that horror? It was like some mad fusing of medieval knight and modern tank. In only the crudest terms could its shape be described as human. There were two legs, massive rods of steel fitted to splayed, shovel-like feet. Its arms were immense pistons, each tipped with a great clasping claw. Its body was a bulky cylinder of armor, dials and gauges protruding from its hull. There was no head, its closest approximation being a slight extension of the body that rose above its ball socket shoulders. A great, visor-like slit in the body exposed a smoldering light that gleamed with a sickly hue. Beneath this ‘eye’ there was a slight bulge, two seams that were tightly drawn together, a rough approximation of a mouth. From the thing’s back, a long copper aerial, identical to that which sprouted from the top of the television box.

This was what Kaschei had driven us to create, the secret whole of which he had given each man only the tiniest part to perfect. A mechanical man, an automaton!

The robot took another ponderous step toward me, the claws on its arms clacking open and shut with gruesome anticipation. I scrambled back, tipping over a chair, kicking it into the machine’s path. The robot’s steel feet smashed the obstacle to splinters. Onward it came, the murderous claws raised.

"Now, Mr Price, you die!" proclaimed Kaschei. The robot lumbered toward me, its arms striking out, driven forward by the incredible force of the pistons that served it for muscles. Luck was all that kept them from striking me, sent me diving from their path and sent them to punch into the floor with all the violence of a jackhammer.

Screams sounded from the doorway. I turned and saw Mrs Kemp standing in the hall, her face pale as alabaster. Behind her stood Mr Porter and Barlowe the junkman. Drawn by the shots, no doubt. Now they stood in paralyzed horror as the metal man tore its arms free from the floor and came after me once more. I dove from its path again, this time taking refuge beside the television box, ignoring Kaschei’s sinister laughter.

Shots rang out again. Barlowe stood on the threshold of my room, an old revolver in his hand. The robot did not even turn towards the man, the bullets ricocheting from its armored hull just as those from my automatic had. The machine lurched toward me once more, its claws reaching for me. I leaped away from the dubious shelter offered by the television box. The robot took another step, then Kaschei’s gloating laughter was silenced as the piston-driven claws smashed into the wooden box. The television exploded in a burst of sparks and black smoke, the acrid stink of ozone tainting the air.

Then there was silence. The robot stood, staring at the wreckage. I looked over at my neighbors, barely daring to breathe.

"What the devil is it?" hissed Porter. "Is it dead?" he added with a hopeful note in his voice. I shook my head.

"I don’t know," I said. "You’d better get everyone out of here if it isn’t." Porter nodded in understanding.

"I sent Anne and the kids to the grocer to call the police when we heard the shots," he said. "They should be here soon."

"Good," I answered, daring to take a step toward the door. The robot remained unmoving. "Now get Barlowe and Mrs Kemp out of here. It’s after me, but that doesn’t mean it might not make a try for you."

I had edged nearly half way across the room, my back against the wall, sweat dripping down my face. Every inch was an exercise in terror, expecting the horrible machine to lurch back into life each time I moved. Porter saw my fear and it stifled whatever protest had risen to his lips. He reached for Barlowe and pulled the shaken junkman from the room, his eyes still locked stupidly on the smoking barrel of his revolver. Mrs Kemp hesitated when Porter tried to turn her away.

"We can’t leave Mr Price with that awful thing," she insisted. "And somebody has to tell Mr Bruello what is happening…"

Bruello! My new neighbor Mr Bruello, a refugee from Austria who had only recently relocated to New York. The man I had heard so much about but who I’d never seen. However erratic my work hours, he always managed to be away or indisposed when I attempted to meet him. Well, he’d speak with me now!

"Don’t worry about Bruello," I told Mrs Kemp. "I’ll tell him what has happened." Then my landlady was screaming again. It was the only warning I had. The chair I had deposited my hat and coat on earlier was beside me now. Without turning around, I grabbed the coat and swung it behind me. The garment swirled into the face of the metal monster as it stomped across the wreckage of the television box, grinding glass and wood beneath its feet. The robot staggered for an instant, blinded as whatever infernal system guided it was blocked by my coat. I implored my neighbors to run, squandering the instant I had gained to get them to safety. The robot’s claws tore my coat to ribbons and the automaton lashed out, the swipe of its arm gouging a fissure in the wall above my head as I ducked down.

I could hear Porter hurrying the others down the stairs, their escape sounding like the mad stampede of cattle on the wrought iron steps. The robot seemed to react to the sound, situating itself to intercept my path to the open door. I cowered as the murderous machine turned back toward me, its claws still working with a hungry rapacity. I fought down my terror. Again I was in Russia, trying to overcome my fear so that my mind could think clearly, wracking my brain for any idea that would keep me alive.

Inspiration! I crushed myself tightly to the back of the chair, staring back at the robot as it stomped toward me. I waited, my heart pounding against my chest, fear dripping down my spine. If I was wrong, I was dead. As the dreadful automaton came for me, I quickly dove away from the chair. The robot remained fixated upon my late refuge, its claws striking at the suede and tearing it apart.

Stereoscopy, a peculiar trick of photography to create the illusion of three-dimensions with a flat, two dimensional image. Motion blur, the after-image left behind by a moving object. Somehow these two properties of photography had combined to create a flaw in the electrical vision of the robot. By quickly sheltering behind an object, to the vision of the robot and whatever mechanical mind guided it, I had merged with that object. Later, when I abandoned my refuge, the robot’s intelligence remained fixed upon it – convinced by its flawed camera-like eyes that it was still attacking me when it destroyed the television or ripped apart the chair.

I eased myself around the bulk of the robot. It did not linger long over the chair, but rose and started looking for its real prey again. I froze as that visor-like eye fixated upon me once more. The seam beneath the eye dropped open, exposing a small round speaker. "You are being most obstinate, American," Kaschei’s voice snarled from the speaker. "But with me guiding the robot, you will not be tricking it for long!" He laughed, a cruel sound that belonged more properly to the Russian winter than Spring in New York. "You have found the difficulty in my robot’s eyes. This too will be dealt with in time. For now, it is enough to serve my needs. Your tricks cannot deceive it forever. Consider, each time you hide behind something, the robot is just as likely to focus on the little man who is jumping away as it is the chair he leaves behind."

The Russian’s gloating gave me the time I needed. I leaped for the doorway, tumbling into the hall, wrenching my shoulder as I crashed against the wall. Pain flashed through me, but I did not give thought to my injury. Even a moment and I would suffer far worse. I dashed down the hallway, hearing the steel bulk of the robot storm after me. Kaschei’s roar of rage boomed from the robot’s voice box and the entire hallway shook as the machine charged after me. It was then I knew that I had guessed right. The rest depended on luck.

I reached for the door to Buello’s apartment, praying fate would smile on me. Kaschei had had the whole day to move the television box and the robot to my room. If he had waited until late in the night, I was finished. If he had laid his trap earlier, then I had a chance. Mrs Kemp was in the habit of visiting the room of each of her tenants to wish them a good night before she herself retired. It was a motherly eccentricity her tenants learned to accept. After all, it was difficult to keep someone out who had all the keys. Mrs Kemp was in the habit of forgetting to lock up behind her, a product of kinder, less suspicious times. If Kaschei hadn’t gone out, if he’d done his dirty work earlier, then the door might still be unlocked after Mrs Kemp’s visit.

The door swung open as I turned the knob. I leaped into the room, startling the fat-faced man seated behind a machinery-ridden table. Kaschei glared at me, his face growing livid. He stabbed his fingers at the console, snarling commands to his robot. I didn’t wait for the killer machine. With a roar of my own, I pounced on the Russian, driving him to the floor. My fist smacked against his jaw, his hands groped for my throat. We rolled across the carpet, upsetting his table and knocking the machinery over. The destruction only increased Kaschei’s rage and he pushed me back, bending me over one of the thick oak legs of the table, using his greater weight to try and snap my spine.

With my wrenched shoulder, there was no question of overcoming Kaschei. But in his rage, the Russian had forgotten something. It stomped into the room, a half-ton of steel and electronics, its feet denting the wooden floor. For an instant, the machine stood there, its mechanical brain deciphering the images sent to it by its electric eye. Kaschei’s eyes went wide with fear as he heard it enter the room. He looked down at me, at his own hands wrapped around my throat. With a cry, he shoved himself away, leaving me sprawled by the table.

It was too late. The robot had already confused the two men, the simple American electrician named Price and the vengeful Russian genius named Kaschei. When the combined image broke apart, its synthetic mind was forced to recalculate. This time it chose the object that moved away instead of the part that stayed behind.

Cruel, vicious, brutal and vindictive, even for Dr Igor Kaschei it was an ugly way to go.


C. L. Werner

C. L. Werner, a desert rat telling tales of fantasy and horror in worlds near and far.