by Michael Hart
part 1 of 2
Captain Alexei Kavalev sat alone in his truck on a Russian military airfield, more baffled than he had been at any time since the war started. Yesterday’s bizarre orders defied any kind of rational military sense, but the doubts that crept into his head were of little importance, much like his own personal safety, in the great unraveling of the world around him.
The late August sky shifted between a light mist and a solid drizzle. He periodically adjusted the setting of his wipers. Too fast, then too slow. He muttered profanities to himself as the windshield squeaked a warning to reduce the setting yet again.
In these strange times, you always wanted to have a perfect view of who was pulling up, or in this case landing, to meet you. This is especially true when you are a Captain who is ordered to greet a highly ranked politician in your own civilian vehicle, alone. If this was some sort of inspection, he would’ve at least wanted a driver to escort the two of them. And it should have been in a military vehicle, or perhaps a limousine, even if “limos” were a bit decadent and all but impossible to procure in this region.
He swept the blanket of dust off the dashboard with his hand and smeared it under the seat. He studied his face from side to side in the rearview mirror. From some angles the shadows and bags under his eyes weren’t as visible, but there was no mistaking the multitude of shaving nicks. He drew slow, steady breaths through his nose, determined not to let the panic multiply on him once again. Please, not today. Keep it together for him today.
The perfunctory airfield had just enough lighting for one safe landing. It was even more abandoned than usual, but was as close as any plane could get to his naval base on the Kara Sea, a remote, unforgiving region on Russia’s northern coast. Alexei would scoff when he heard his surroundings described as a “naval base.” One solitary vessel occupied the icy black waters, the massive, decades-old battleship called the Zeitsev, which had engulfed the previous five years of his career and his life.
The men assigned to the ship had brief stints of maintenance detail under his supervision. Their reasons varied in the official records, but everybody knew they had been sent there as a punishment. These men came and gladly left, all under the pathetically serious supervision of Captain Kavalev.
His pride was drained more and more each time the bus returned from the airstrip with the newest rotation of undesirables. He watched the drunks, cripples, mentally unstable, unpatriotic, and generally incompetent enlisted men file out to perform their lifeless duty. It didn’t matter that the gun turrets were rusty and the steering needed reconfiguration. Alexei had no idea how to use the navigation system, but he was told that none of this was important. The body of the ship was all that his superiors were concerned with. It had to be maintained to acceptable standards.
And the dock, “You’ve gotta’ watch that dock,” his commanders would bark over the phone each month. “Make sure every nut and bolt’s intact. She’s a beast you know. 30,000 tons. She’ll rip that dock in two and take off to sea on you, especially with those storms up there.”
The spiteful boredom that the weather and the nature of the work created could burrow its way through the hardest man’s skull, and Alexei did not see himself as any special exception. But he had found a way to temper the slow, dull drill of madness.
After facing the decrepit beast day-in and day-out, he had come to accept that there was something else on board. Something that originated deep within the forbidden underbelly known as the Orange Chamber, which encompassed so much of the ship. Something so menacing it emanated a spirit of cruelty and self-loathing through the thick steel walls. Yet in his eyes the hidden force had immeasurable potential, and its alluring mystery had stayed with him while everyone else moved on.
Two lonely red lights descended through the sky. He wondered if this was when his years of babysitting for his government were going to bear fruit. He knew he hadn’t been flushed down the toilet to this wasteland just to keep him from screwing up. While his assignment didn’t require a great deal of tact or leadership, he always suspected there would be a time when it would require his unshakable loyalty.
Alexei had always finished at the bottom of his class, but everyone knew his strength. Loyalty to the People’s Party, and to the cause in general, ran in his proud blood. His great-grandfather had been a member of the Politburo in the 1980’s, in the original Soviet Government that had temporarily disbanded nearly forty years ago. He had enough common sense to recognize that this had helped his father gain a position, albeit a mid-level one, in the new People’s Party. And he knew that it helped him get commissioned and promoted to Captain. Nepotism is a vice of the capitalist system, his father always said, but it still had its place in an enlightened society.
* * *
Commissar Chitnik emerged from the plane alone, just as he was supposed to. A sense of redemption eased into Alexei as he hoped he would finally learn the meaning of the last five years. They told him the ship was of the utmost importance, and now that a real commissar was here he knew they were right.
Alexei heaved his large frame, bloated from years of stagnation, out of the truck to hail Chitnik. The airfield’s skeleton crew scurried to finish their procedural duties the same way his men back on base had frantically piled on the outbound bus that morning.
Ever since receiving the order to evacuate all personnel indefinitely, he felt like everything was sliding into chaos. Disturbing rumors about Russia’s progress in the war could run rampant among the kind of soldiers assigned to him. And they too could sense the waking force from within the vessel. They did not leave their “Zeitsev punishment” with the excited thrill-seeking boyishness he was used to seeing. They fled like wild animals before a big storm. Now that Chitnik had actually arrived, however, he knew there was a reason for it all.
Alexei saluted Chitnik, as he would any party member. The frail man with round, wire-framed glasses gave a weak half-salute in return. As they boarded his truck Alexei could already see lights in the control tower going out.
“Commissar I must say, we could have arranged for a more formal event. No one of your prominence has ever visited the Zeitsev. At least not under my supervision.”
“No,” replied Chitnik, “I did not want to draw attention to this mission.”
“I’m sure you have many questions Captain, but rest assured, the Zeitsev has thus far been a complete success.”
Alexei’s ship was named after Vassily Zeitsev, the remarkable Russian sniper who, according to legend, killed 242 Germans with 243 shots at the battle of Stalingrad. Vassily had saved the Russians in their darkest hour, and like so many of his peers, Alexei’s eyes would threaten to water every time he told the heroic tale. And although the Zeitsev namesake had been assigned to places of prominence over the years, Alexei found it blasphemous that it be written on the side of an unused relic of the late Cold War era.
* * *
The last traces of daylight abandoned an already morbid sky above the empty two-lane highway. Alexei had so many burning questions fighting to reach his lips that he couldn’t formulate a single one of them. Chitnik beat him to it.
“Are all your men gone?”
“We can’t have any interference, Captain. Hence the strange orders.” Chitnik tugged at his elbow. “Everyone in the Council is proud of you. You trusted that we were doing the right thing.”
“Of course, Commissar.”
He gave Alexei a grim face. “I’m afraid the war with the West has not been going favorably for us. The Council has decided it no longer has any choice but to use its most secret weapon.”
Alexei’s excitement was checked with a sense of anxiety. He had finally been called into action it seemed, but the nature of his role had become as mystifying as the war itself.
“You and I have been given a glorious task. Ending this struggle is now in our hands!” Chitnik glared at Alexei, silently demanding a response.
“But Commissar, the crew was all sent on leave. The Zeitsev is in no shape for combat. She doesn’t even have ammunition.”
Chitnik grinned and held up his hand to interrupt. “It will not be used in that manner. Of course not.” He seemed to savor the gradual explanation. “Captain, you are obviously aware there is more to that ship than meets the eye.”
“The Orange Chamber,” he said without hesitation. Chitnik nodded. The pulse of the ship, as well as the closest thing Alexei had to a companion, had finally been brought to the forefront. The Orange Chamber consisted of the main compartments of the lower hull.
The instructions he had been given five years ago were simple: Under no circumstances were he or any of his men permitted to enter this section of the ship. It was sealed off by a steel door with a security system more advanced than anything else onboard. Almost the entire bottom level of the ship lay behind this door. The guide to opening it was locked in a safe in his quarters. The second most emphasized instruction was never to open the safe without orders.
During his hours, days, and weeks of boredom, Alexei would imagine what waited behind that door, wondering what could be so important as to require such caution. Perhaps information on enemies, or prototypes for new weapons that had to be shelved for the time being. Alexei always prayed it was important. On his worst nights he would enter the first few combination numbers on the safe, not knowing how far he would be led from there. The thought that his thankless exile would some day benefit the People had kept the pistol out of his mouth thus far.
“What is it, Commissar? I’ve been with it for so long!” The Zeitsev was now coming into view in the distance.
“It was a difficult decision to make, but it was the right one. You need to understand why we must use it, Captain. We were the world’s last chance to get it right. The only hope left for mankind was within our borders. Saving the world once again fell on Russia’s shoulders.”
“We Russians have borne the world’s burdens for centuries. Meanwhile, the empires of the West have flourished, spared from enslavement by our blood.” The commissar shifted in his seat to face him, and Alexei knew he had delivered this rant before. “The Mongol Hordes, Napoleon, the Nazis... all determined to conquer Europe, and yet all ended up breaking their backs in Russia. And at such a cost to us. History claims Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, but...”
As Chitnik spoke, Alexei pulled into his base. He would usually try to avoid seeing the ship from the distance in its entirety, but couldn’t resist this time as he saw it anew. Never before had it carried so much meaning to him. He struggled to make the connection between the Commissar’s historical exposition and the ship he knew too well.
“But now Captain, we are fighting a very different enemy. One that guns and old-fashioned sacrifice cannot always stop.” The Zeitsev’s brown-stained sides creaked gently against the dock. A 120-meter floating container, Alexei thought. Hidden from the world. Rows of gun turrets lined its narrow frame. Although rusted and unused, the big guns gave a hint of virility to an otherwise quaint old relic.
As Chitnik stood and took in the ship himself, his excitement visibly waned into somber acceptance. “How much do you really know about the war, Captain?”
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Hart