1636 The Kremlin Games – Snippet 11
Bernie sat in the sleigh and moped. He should be interested and excited, but he couldn’t manage to feel even an echo of such an emotion. It had just hit him again: the Ring of Fire, the people he’d killed at the Battle of the Crapper and his mother’s death. He could quit and go home but it wasn’t home. Home didn’t exist anymore. Bernie wanted a drink. He knew he shouldn’t have one but he wanted one.
He had been drinking a lot less since they started for Russia. Getting out of Grantville had helped, but sometimes it all came back on him. For some unknown reason, today was one of those times. Mid-winter this far north had short frigging days. Maybe that had something to do with it. He’d read something about that somewhere.
Natasha looked over at him and grinned. “We will reach the dacha soon, Bernie.”
Bernie grunted without much enthusiasm. God, I wish I had my car. I wish I had some gas. I wish . . .
“What is wrong, Bernie?”
“Nothing you can help with, nothing anyone can help with really. I guess I’m just homesick.”
“You wish you could go back? But we have only begun to become acquainted.”
Bernie noted with some amusement that Natasha’s vamp routine needed a bit of work. Still it was nice that she was trying to cheer him up. “No, I don’t wish to go back. Not back to Germany anyway. I wish I could go home, back to the world I came from. This world isn’t home. Even Grantville isn’t home. I used to do all right, you know. I had enough money to do what I wanted, for the most part. I dated, I worked my hours. I had a life.” I hadn’t killed anyone; I had a mother who was still alive. “Now, though, well, it’s just not the same, not even in Grantville.”
Bernie looked at the girl. She seemed nice enough and she hadn’t gotten pissed at the Boris and Natasha bit. On the other hand, she was Vladimir’s sister and Bernie had finally figured out just how rich and powerful Vladimir was after he had gotten to Moscow. This girl was the daughter of a great house. She was pretty, dark-haired and slim. Slimmer than a lot of the Russian women, with black hair that hung down to her waist. She spoke some English. Funny-sounding English, but English. Mostly, though, she was someone to talk to and Bernie was sick of thinking about his troubles.
“So,” he said, “tell me about yourself.” Natasha looked taken aback by the question and the old lady, Vladimir’s Aunt Sofia, cackled a bit. Bernie didn’t have a clue why.
“Ah . . .” Natasha stopped. “What do you wish to know?”
“Oh . . .” Bernie hesitated a moment. “What do you figure on doing with your life? Do you have any plans to become a doctor or lawyer? What’s it like in the summer here? Is there summer here? Do you like parties?” He snorted. “What’s your sign? That’s probably too many questions, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps,” Natasha acknowledged. “In any case, I didn’t understand what all of them meant. I don’t know what my sign is. Unless you mean the family crest.”
“Never mind,” Bernie scratched his chin. “Why do all the men wear beards?”
“Men wear beards because the church says that it is a mortal sin to shave them. God did not create men beardless, only cats and dogs.”
“Not to mention rats and mice,” Bernie said. “Goats, though. Goats have beards.”
Aunt Sofia was suppressing laughter. Bernie grinned at the old lady. “Of course, goats don’t shave either.”
“Perhaps so.” Natasha sounded like she was trying not to laugh. “But I’m not sure the church would like hearing that . . .” She searched for the word. “Ah . . . compare?”
“Comparison,” Bernie said. “Yeah. I’ve never met a holy roller yet that liked that sort of comparison. I understand the churches down-time have a lot more power. So maybe I should be more careful about what I say.”
“What of your faith, Bernie?”
“Mom was a Methodist, a Protestant I guess you’d call it, and Dad a Catholic, though neither one of them were big church goers. Me, I guess I was an agnostic before the Ring of Fire.”
“Someone who doesn’t know,” Bernie said. “Maybe there’s a God or maybe not. If there is a god maybe it cares about people and maybe not. After the Ring of Fire . . . well, something had to do that. Which still leaves me wondering about what it wants, whatever it is.”
That statement seemed to set both Natasha and Sofia back on their heels. Which wasn’t an unusual reaction. Bernie had had his face shoved in the fact that most people down-time were members of a church whether they wanted to be or not. There was no Madelyn Nutcase O’Hare down-time screaming about atheist rights. And considering what the holy rollers got up to without such people, maybe O’Hare wasn’t that much of a nut case after all. “Like I say, someone or something took a six-mile diameter chunk of rock, earth, water, and air, animals, people, machines and books and shifted all of us 369 years into the past and halfway around the world in a flash of light. I know that there’s someone or something that can do that and if it ain’t a god, it’s close enough for me. On the other hand, whatever it is didn’t appear to have much concern for what it was doing to my mom by taking her into the past and leaving the medicines that were keeping her alive in the future. So, yes, I’m convinced there’s a god. That God is good and caring, not so much.” Bernie ran down and realized he had probably said way too much. I’m not here to fix their culture or update their religion, he reminded himself. It was time for a change of subject. “So what do you do?”
“Do?” Natasha asked. “Ah . . . I take care of the family properties while Vladimir is away. Someone must.”
As the sleigh carried Bernie, Natasha and Aunt Sofia to the dacha they talked about the roles of women in the future America where Bernie came from and the role of women in Russia. Natasha was clearly shocked at the options open to women in that future. Sofia was more curious and cautious.
Natasha found herself both shocked and intrigued by the up-timer’s lack of concern for her rank and station. It wasn’t so much that he ignored her rank. Instead, he treated it like some local fantasy that he paid polite lip-service to. In a very real sense, it seemed to Natasha that Bernie did not see himself as outranked by any man. Perhaps not even by God. And that was a truly frightening, and oddly exciting, thought.