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Authors: Michael Swanwick

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Dancing with Bears

BOOK: Dancing with Bears
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Night Shade Books

San Francisco

Also by Michael Swanwick


In the Drift


Flowers Stations of the Tide

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter

Jack Faust

Bones of the Earth

The Dragons of Babel


Gravity’s Angels

A Geography of Unknown Lands

Moon Dogs

Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary

Tales of Old Earth

Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures

Michael Swanwick’s Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna

The Periodic Table of Science Fiction

The Dog Said Bow-Wow

The Best of Michael Swanwick

Dancing with Bears
© 2011 by Michael Swanwick

This edition of
Dancing with Bears

© 2011 by Night Shade Books

Cover art by Bruno Werneck

Cover design by Amy Popovich

Interior layout and design by Ross E. Lockhart

Edited by Paul Witcover

All rights reserved

First Edition

ISBN: 978-1-59780-235-2

E-ISBN: 978-1-59780-310-6

Night Shade Books

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To Marianne

who is as beautiful as Russia to me


I am indebted first and foremost to Alexei Bezougly, Andrew Matveev, Boris Dolingo, and all my other Russian friends for their kindness, warmth, and hospitality, and for their help researching this novel as well. Tremendous thanks are also due to Eileen Gunn, Greg Frost, and Tom Purdom for sharing specialized knowledge with me, to Gerry Webb for his description of Baikonur, and to Vanessa White for naming the serviles. Assistance navigating the streets of Moscow was provided by the M. C. Porter Endowment for the Arts.


I write of a Russia I have neither seen nor suffered nor learned of from another, a Russia which is not and could not have been nor will ever be, and therefore my readers should by no means mistake it for the real one. No slanders or insults of any kind are intended toward a land and a people which I admire greatly and who deserve much better than they have ever received from history.


he last man was led stumbling to the edge of the city. Long ago, Baikonur had been a bright jewel of human aspiration, a place from which ancient heroes rode tremendous machines beyon d the sky. Now it was a colony of Hell. The sun had set and the city was shrouded in smoke. But the red glow of furnaces and sudden gouts of gas flares lit up disconnected fragments of the incomprehensible structures that wound themselves about the ruins from the Age of Space. They revealed an ugliness that only a fiend could love.

The man was naked. To either side of him, all but invisible in the starless night, walked or loped metal demons, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four. If he lagged, they drove him along with shoves on his shoulders and sharp nips at his heels. Through a forest of metal they traveled, under tangles of pipes, and past autonomous machines that were angrily hammering, ripping, welding, digging. The noise was painful to the man, but by this point, pain hardly mattered anymore.

At the edge of the city, they stopped. “Look up, human,” said one of the demons.

Reluctantly, he obeyed.

The division between the city and the wild was absolute. In the length of a single step, soaring grotesqueries of iron and cement gave way to scrub vegetation. The air was still foul with smoke. But beneath the stench of coal fires and chemicals was a hint of the spicy smell of the desert. Far ahead, an intensification of the darkness marked the low hills beyond Baikonur.

The man took a deep breath and coughed, almost choking. Then he said, “I am glad to see this before I die.” “Perhaps you won’t die.”

To either side of him, the man saw shadows slipping out of the city and coming to a crouch at its fringe. He recognized them as the same kind of machines as those which had captured him, imprisoned him, tortured him, and just now brought him here. “Whatever your game is, I won’t play it.”

“We have perfected the drug distilled from your misery and a reliable courier carries it to Moscow to be replicated,” the demon said. “Your usefulness has therefore come to an end. So we will give you a head start—all the way to the hills—before we come after you.”

“This is what happened to my comrades, isn’t it? You brought them here, one by one, released them, and hunted them down.”


“Well, I have suffered too much already. I won’t let you play with me any more—and nothing you can say will make me change my mind.”

The demons neither moved nor spoke for a long time. Irrational though the thought was, the man wondered if they were communicating with one another silently. At last, a second demon spoke from the darkness. “One of your kind escaped us once, years ago. Perhaps you will be the second.”

Uncertainly, the last man in Baikonur turned his face to the north. He began to walk. And then to run.


eep in the heart of the Kremlin, the Duke of Muscovy dreamt of empire. Advisors and spies from every quarter of the shattered remnants of Old Russia came to whisper in his ear. Most he listened to impassively. But sometimes he would nod and mumble a few soft words. Then messengers would be sent flying to provision his navy, redeploy his armies, comfort his allies, humor those who thought they could deceive and mislead him. Other times he sent for the head of his secret police and with a few oblique but impossible to misunderstand sentences, launched a saboteur at an enemy’s industries or an assassin at an insufficiently stalwart friend.

The great man’s mind never rested. In the liberal state of Greater St. Petersburg, he considered student radicals who dabbled in forbidden electronic wizardry, and in the Siberian polity of Yekaterinburg, he brooded over the forges where mighty cannons were being cast and fools blinded by greed strove to recover lost industrial processes. In Kiev and Novo Ruthenia and the principality of Suzdal, which were vassal states in all but name, he looked for ambitious men to encourage and suborn. In the low dives of Moscow itself, he tracked the shifting movements of monks, gangsters, dissidents, and prostitutes, and pondered the fluctuations in the prices of hashish and opium. Patient as a spider, he spun his webs. Passionless as a gargoyle, he did what needed to be done. His thoughts ranged from the merchant ports of the Baltic Sea to the pirate shipyards of the Pacific coast, from the shaman-haunted fringes of the Arctic to the radioactive wastes of the Mongolian Desert. Always he watched.

But nobody’s thoughts can be everywhere. And so the mighty duke missed the single greatest threat to his ambitions as it slipped quietly across the border into his someday empire from the desolate territory which had once been known as Kazakhstan…

The wagon train moved slowly across the bleak and empty land, three brightly painted and heavily laden caravans pulled by teams of six Neanderthals apiece. The beast-men plodded stoically onward, glancing neither right nor left. They were brutish creatures whose shaggy fleece coats and heavy boots only made them look all the more like animals. Bringing up the rear was a proud giant of a man on a great white stallion. In the lead were two lesser figures on nondescript horses. The first was himself nondescript to the point of being instantly forgettable. The second, though possessed of the stance and posture of a man, had the fur, head, ears, tail, and other features of a dog.

“Russia at last!” Darger exclaimed. “To be perfectly honest, there were times I thought we would never make it.”

“It has been an eventful journey,” Surplus agreed, “and a tragic one as well, for most of our companions. Yet I feel certain that now we are so close to our destination, adventure will recede into memory and our lives will resume their customary placid contours once more.”

“I am not the optimist you are, my friend. We started out with forty wagons and a company of hundreds that included scholars, jugglers, gene manipulators, musicians, storytellers, and three of the best chefs in Byzantium. And now look at us,” Darger said darkly. “This has been an ill-starred expedition, and it can only get worse.”

“Yet we survive, and the ambassador and the Caliph’s treasures as well. Surely this is an omen that, however badly she may deal with others, Dame Fortune is unreservedly on our side.”

“Perhaps,” Darger said dubiously. He scowled down at the map unfolded across his saddle. “According to this, we should have reached Gorodishko long ago. Yet somehow it continues to recede from us as steadily and maddeningly as do our dreams of wealth.” He folded the map and put it away in a flapped pocket that a now-dead leather worker had sewn for that express purpose onto his klashny’s scabbard. “If fortune smiles on us, then let her give us a sign.”

Just then, a horse, reins loose and saddle empty, topped a rise in the road ahead and came trotting toward them.

Darger blinked in astonishment. But his comrade, ever quick to action, wheeled about his mount and, as the horse passed them, seized the reins and brought the animal to a halt. Surplus had already dismounted and was calming the runaway when the ambassador rode up, mustaches a-bristle with indignation.

“Sons of indolence and misfortune! What treachery do you plot now?”

Darger, who had long ago grown used to his employer’s extravagant rhetoric, took this as a simple inquiry. “This horse appears to have thrown its rider, Prince Achmed.”

“It is lathered from running,” Surplus added. “We should pause to wipe it down. Then we should set about finding its fallen rider. He may be in distress.”

“The rider must see to himself,” Prince Achmed said. “My mission is too important for us to go haring off into the countryside looking for some careless lout who doubtless was inspired to fall from his mount by an excess of alcohol. The horse is salvage and I shall add it to our woefully depleted resources.”

“At least,” Darger said, “let us remove the poor creature’s saddle and saddlebags.”

“So that you and your dog-faced crony can plunder their contents? Allah forbid that I should ever grow so weak-minded as to permit that!”

Drawing himself up to his tallest, Darger said coldly, “No man can with justice accuse me of being a thief.”

“Can he not? Can he not?” Prince Achmed’s lips tightened. Then, with sudden resolution, he wheeled his horse about, galloped back to the last wagon, and rapped briskly at the door. A slide-hole opened briefly, he spoke a few words, and it shut again.

“This does not look good,” Darger murmured. “Do you suppose he has found the letter?”

Surplus shrugged.

The door opened for an instant and when it slammed shut, the ambassador held a dispatch case with a long leather strap. He cantered back to the pair.

“Do you see this?” He shook the case in their faces. “Does it perhaps look familiar to you?”

“Really, sir.” Darger sighed. “Need we bandy rhetorical questions at one another?”

“We saw it first from our ship,” Surplus said. “Midway up the Caspian, on a drear and rocky shore, the lookout espied a crudely made hut such as a castaway might build, with three poles erected before it. On one was the flag of the Byzantine Empire. The second flew a courier’s ensign. On the third was a black biohazard pennant. In the doorway of the hut hung this case. Together these four items told us that a messenger had been sent at some time after our departure from Byzantium, that he had taken the direct route through the plague-lands of the Balkans, and that in doing so, the poor fellow had paid for his courage by contracting one of the many war viruses yet endemic to that unhappy region.”

“You took a boat ashore and retrieved the case. Alone.”

“To be fair, sir, that was done at your command.”

BOOK: Dancing with Bears
10.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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