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Literature / A Colder War

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There's a blurry photograph of a concrete box inside the file, snapped from above by a high-flying U-2 during the autumn of '61. Three coffin-shaped lakes, bulking dark and gloomy beneath the arctic sun; a canal heading west, deep in the Soviet heartland, surrounded by warning trefoils and armed guards. Deep waters saturated with calcium salts, concrete coffer-dams lined with gold and lead. A sleeping giant pointed at NATO, more terrifying than any nuclear weapon.

Project Koshei

An alternate history novelette by Charles Stross which asks: "What would the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union have been like if it had been set in the Cthulhu Mythos, with both sides stock-piling Eldritch Abominations and meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know?"

Inspired by… At the Mountains of Madness, the story foreshadows the themes explored by Stross in a post-Cold War world in The Laundry Files.

Don't read the spoilers, read the story! It's free!

The following tropes are in this story:

  • And I Must Scream: Everybody the eater of souls devours is still conscious. In its own words:
    "There is life eternal within the eater of souls. Nobody is ever forgotten or allowed to rest in peace. They populate the simulation spaces of its mind, exploring all the possible alternative endings to their life. There is a fate worse than death, you know.''
  • Captured Super-Entity: The Soviet Union has Cthulhu (or K-Thulu, as it's referred to here) sealed up in a bunker with the door facing towards Western Europe. As in The Call of Cthulhu the eponymous godlike superentity is not imprisoned by any means—only sleeping. When the Soviets get nervous about US activity and poke him hard enough to wake him up, they hope he'll obliterate NATO. Instead K-Thulu consumes indiscriminately, murdering the world and bringing about arguably the darkest ending in the entire Mythos.
    • Played straight in that the Soviets do have control over at least four shoggoths. Averted in that Saddam Hussein tries to summon and bind Yog-Sothoth to attack Iran. Doesn't end well for him or the Middle East in general.
  • Domed City: XK-Masada (accessed through a portal gate to an alien world in the basement of the Executive Office Building) is a nuclear-powered city built beneath a mile-high dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, to enable continuity of government in case of World War 3.
  • Death by Irony: After a whole story of geopolitical intrigue, secret espionage, arms race, and rising tension - with everyone doing everything possible to avoid triggering the big one - the Third World War and the subsequent destruction of Earth and most of Humanity by Great Old Ones was kickstarted by Ronald Reagan cracking a joke on a hot mic.
  • Downer Ending: The best-case scenario is the last survivors of humanity eking out their existence on a dying alien world. Worse case? They've already been devoured by the Eater of Souls and will spend eternity experiencing The Many Deaths of You for its amusement.
  • Earth That Was: In the epilogue of the story, there was a passing mention of an expedition from XK-Masada back to Earth to 'salvage whatever they could' before the sands of time wipe them out forever, all but confirming Earth and most of Humanity didn't make it through the Third World War and the Great Old Ones apocalypse.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy:
    • Saddam Hussein tries to summon and bind Yog-Sothoth to attack Iran. It doesn't end well for him or the Middle East in general.
    • The unnamed congressman sarcastically notes that the 'decommissioned' weapons that Oliver North has been placed in charge of make a nuke look like a bow and arrow.
    • And then of course, we have the Soviets blatantly violating the Dresden Agreement by showing and using their 'Servitors' (i.e. Shoggoths) and 'Project Koshei'. Really, who would had thought awakening a certain K-Thulhu entity should WWIII potentially and actually did break out was a HORRIBLE idea?
  • Famously Mundane, Fictionally Magical: JFK never runs for a second term and Nixon cancels the manned space program, but here it's for entirely different reasons.
  • From Bad to Worse: The Third World War and the subsequent Great Old Ones apocalypse. First Ronald Reagan cracked a joke on a hot mic which caused the Soviets to overreact. Then Saddam managed to open portals into Sothoth, leading to the entire Middle East getting wiped off the map with nuclear weapons. Then large parts of Europe, Asia and the Eastern United States descend into total chaos or goes dark as NATO and the Warsaw Pact fight not only each other but also whatever other hellish cosmic horrors that had been unleashed. Finally, the Soviets managed to awaken Project Koshei, leading it to rampage across the Earth with no Human weapon capable of stopping it, sealing Earth's and Humanity's fate.
  • Fictional Geneva Conventions: The Dresden Agreement of 1931 which even Hitler dared not violate. Unfortunately escalating Cold War tensions make the Soviets less inhibited, kicking off the entire plot.
  • Ghost Planet: XK-Masada is built on an alien world nearing the end of its tectonic life with the ruins of a long-disappeared civilization. The Rule of Symbolism is obvious to everyone. Earth That Was has long since become this trope after K-Thulu is let loose.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Israel and Iran have formed an Enemy Mine alliance, with Iran negotiating the use of Israeli nuclear weapons that can be used for suicide attacks on whatever Eldritch Abomination Saddam Hussein is trying to conjure up. Meanwhile the United States is allied with the Taliban to fight the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.
    • Right about the time all hell broke loose, Saddam managed to open a gate and summoned Hastur to wipe out his enemies, leading to Iran, who had acquired warheads by then, to nuke Iraq off the map. And THEN the Soviets fired off 'half the Uralskoye SS-20 grid' towards the Middle East for good measure. By the time the radioactive dust settled, everything 'from the Nile to the Khyber Pass' had been reduced to smoking holes in the ground.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: In an expy of the Iran-Contra scandal, Roger Jourgensen is grilled in-camera on what Oliver North has been up to.
  • Historical In-Joke
    • The bunker where K-Thulu is sleeping is at Chernobyl.
    • The Colonel talks of yellow rain making the victim's skin melt off. This time it's not a load of bee-shit.
    • One of the politicians says they have a "Shoggoth Gap" with the Soviets.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: An American black ops team uses a Portal Network to travel from Afghanistan to Antarctica. They arrive older and dying of radiation poisoning, having apparently travelled via a place where time runs differently and the sun has gone nova.
  • If Jesus, Then Aliens: Inverted; Ronald Reagan treats Lovecraftian horrors as just another kind of technology as he's too religious to believe in any supernatural aspect to them. So "If Jesus, then not Cthulhu." To be fair, Lovecraft himself would likely agree with that syllogism, or rather, "If Cthulhu, then Not Jesus."
  • Is This Thing Still On?: It is all but implied Ronald Reagan making his infamous 'We Begin Bombing In Five Minutes' joke on a hot mic was what finally triggered WWIII and the apocalypse, although it is also implied hell was already breaking loose across the globe around the same time.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: A congressman suggests that the reason for the Absent Aliens trope is that intelligent life tends to kill itself off by meddling with the Lost Technology of the Old Ones. He's proven right when World War 3 breaks out just moments after he pointed this out.
  • Lost Technology: The Soviet Union has rudimentary control over at least four shoggoths, while the US is making use of a Portal Network of Cool Gates linked to alien worlds.
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: President Reagan causes The End of the World as We Know It by making a bad joke in front of an open microphone.
  • Mind Screw: Did Roger escape to XK-Masada with Ollie North, Reagan, and other high-ranking US officials—or is all of this just another iteration of their deaths being played out in the mindscape of Yog-Sothoth, meaning that humanity is well and truly extinct?
  • Mysterious Antarctica: The Pabodie Antarctic expedition (here taking place several years before the one in At the Mountains of Madness) triggered a Lensman Arms Race for Elder technology that's still ongoing. A black ops unit is shown using a portal gate under the Ross Ice Shelf, and we get hints of other Noodle Incidents as well.
  • Nigh-Invulnerable:
    • Satellite photos show the undeviating track of a shoggoth straight though an Afghan village whose occupants were armed with AK's, RPG's and heavy machine guns.
      There are no grounds to believe that a NATO armoured division would have fared any better than these mujahedin without nuclear support.
    • Or even with it, as 300 megatons doesn't alter the course of K-Thulu either.
  • Nuclear Option:
    • The USAF has twenty nuclear-powered bombers armed with XK-PLUTO on permanent standby, ready to hit Project Koschei with three hundred megatons if the Soviets attempt to waken it. It's not enough.
    • Something happened to the 501st Airborne in Antarctica that required the detonation of an atomic bomb. JFK was forced to take the fall for a "nuclear test" in international territory rather than admit the truth.
    • Iran is prepared to send suicide pilots armed with Israeli nuclear weapons through the gates that the Iraqis are trying to open. When the gates finally do open, the Iranians and then the Soviets respond by nuking the entire Middle East.
  • Post-Modern Magik: A May Day parade in Moscow has shoggoths strapped down on tractor-trailers, each covered by a tarpaulin marked with protective symbols and runes.
  • Precursors: Stephen Gould is delivering a lecture on some recent Palaeozoic fossils and artefacts. When he shows them a fossil of one of the Old Ones Roger thinks, "He's found a Predecessor, God help him."
  • Soviet Superscience: Molecular robot servitors (shoggot'im) used as weapons of war, and Project Koschei (Cthulhu) used as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.
  • Stupid Jetpack Hitler: The Nazis retrieved K-Thulu from the ruins of a Sunken City in the Baltic, with Josef Mengele running experiments with concentration camp prisoners to find out how much exposure you could get without going insane. The Soviets seized it towards the end of World War 2 and moved it to their own territory.
  • Survivor Guilt: By the end of the story Roger (and likely everyone else at XK-Masada) is in a permanent state of this. He contemplates suicide, but realises it won't make any difference if they really are trapped in the mind of the Eater of Souls.
  • X Meets Y: Red Scare meets Cthulhu Mythos. Or as this reviewer put it, "Imagine David Cronenberg directing Dr. Strangelove based on a script by H. P. Lovecraft."