Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Zeitsev

by Michael Hart


Captain Alexi 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. Alexi 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 last 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. Alexi 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 Alexi 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 onboard. 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.

Alexi 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 Alexi 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.

Alexi 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 from 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.

Alexi 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 Alexi 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.”

“Mission?”

“I’m sure you have many questions Captain, but rest assured, the Zeitsev has thus far been a complete success.”

Alexi’s ship was named after Vasily Zeitsev, the remarkable Russian sniper who, according to legend, killed 242 Germans with 243 shots at the battle of Stalingrad. Vasily had saved the Russians in their darkest hour, and like so many of his peers, Alexi’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, Alexi 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. Alexi 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?”

“Yes sir.”

“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 Alexi 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.”

Alexi’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 Alexi, 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 Alexi 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 to never open the safe without orders.

During his hours, days, and weeks of boredom, Alexi 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. Alexi 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 lead 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.”

“Once again?”

“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 Alexi 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, Alexi 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 400-ft floating container, Alexi 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?”

Official reports had always claimed that Russia was winning, so Alexi chose his words carefully. A week ago he never would have imagined questioning the reports in front of a party member. But as he walked along the abandoned dock toward an abandoned battleship that would save the world, Alexi felt things had truly come to a head.

“I’ve overheard the men grumbling, especially in recent months. They’re my only consistent contact with the outside world, I’m afraid.” Alexi took a deep breath and plowed on. “Some are saying there is no front. That the enemies are attacking everywhere.” He could no longer look Chitnik in the eye as he continued. “And some say we aren’t battling foreign enemies at all. That this is in fact a civil war. That faith in the party of the People has been challenged.” Alexi looked to Chitnik in a way that begged to be proven wrong.

“There is a front, Captain. It surrounds our borders, and is constantly threatening us from above. But like I said, the enemy does not use a traditional army. His weapons have been testing our borders for decades, often slipping through. Despite our efforts to protect the people, they are always targets, even in their own homes. As technology and communications improve, so too does the enemy’s ability to infiltrate. They’ve been making spies and traitors out of Russians for years. We’ve been fighting a battle we are doomed to lose.”

As they stepped aboard, Alexi tried to exude a sense of pride and ownership. “At least she’s been given an appropriate name, if she’s going to save Mother Russia.”

“She’s going to save the world, Captain. And you know nothing about her name.”

Alexi had been leading the Commissar up to his quarters, but was taken aback by Chitnik’s increasingly bitter tone, and offended by how little credit Chitnick gave him regarding Russian history.

“This ship was not named after Vasily Zeitsev, as most would assume. It was named after Mikhail Zeitsev.”

Alexi thought for a moment, and then gave up.

“Don’t worry, it is a forgotten name. He is a black eye on our past, a general who oversaw our efforts in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. The war bankrupted and humiliated the Soviet Union. It slowly strangled us until control could no longer be kept, and the Union was lost.” As they ascended the cold metallic stairs, Alexi could not ignore the hollow echoes of their footsteps, and felt that he and the Commissar were the last two people in an empty world. Chitnik motioned for Alexi to keep moving. Sensing his confusion, he begrudgingly continued his explanation. “The ship was named while it was being built. It was meant to be a tribute to our great general. They never imagined what a mess he would make of things. As the government was crumbling, the Zeitsev’s role was changed. Those who know its true namesake and its true purpose view the title as an indicator. An indicator of when its powers must be used, and a warning of what can happen if we don’t use them.”

Alexi and Chitnik entered the Captain’s quarters, and Alexi held his breath as he opened his safe for the first time. A small booklet and a round metal disk were all that rested inside.

“Excellent. Exactly as it should be,” Chitnik remarked. Alexi examined the intricate indentations up and down the disk. “It’s a key, Captain.” Chitnik motioned to Alexi. “I cannot waste any time. Take me to the lower deck.”

The door to the Orange Chamber, back down three flights of stairs, marked the final frontier of Alexi’s familiarity with his ship. The size of the door alone wasn’t what made it intimidating. The security software that he so often studied and the shiny steel bars warned potential intruders not to even try it. Chitnik snatched the codebook from him and pulled out a set of papers from his breast pocket. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.

“Commissar, I must know . . .”

“Quiet!” Chitnik barked, his eyes rushing back and forth between the codebook and his own papers. He began typing on the keypad in the center of the door, and lights from the door’s perimeter illuminated the two of them. They were prompted to enter their government ID #’s. As he mopped his brow, Chitnik nodded to Alexi to comply.

“Access granted,” flashed across the screen. Heavy thuds reverberated through Alexi’s ears and the bottom of his feet as the steel reinforcements were removed. The door moaned its way outward, inviting them in. One by one, a row of bright ceiling lights illuminated the chamber. Chitnik let out a breath and cleaned his glasses on his shirt. He turned to Alexi as he was about to enter, but Alexi stood firm.

“I need to know!”

“Come see for yourself,” Chitnik replied as he proceeded into the chamber.

Alexi couldn’t hold back for long, and he suspected the Commissar knew this. His fate had already been decided by men who were far away from the Zeitsev at that moment. Yet despite it all, he still feared that the powerful prize, which had held him together for five years, would turn out to be a grand disappointment.

The Orange Chamber was almost as long as the ship itself, with higher ceilings than those on the upper decks. Its simple, pale yellow walls were lined with dozens of sturdy looking black crates, which reminded Alexi of oversized coffins. In the center of the room stood a silver metallic cylinder the size of a washing machine. It was enveloped with wires of different colors and was connected to another black crate, like the ones lining the walls. Alexi gravitated toward it as Chitnik had already done.

“This is it, Captain Kavalev. When it was first designed by the Soviets, the ship had sensors that would detect radiation levels in the air. If the levels got high enough, it would undoubtedly mean that the Soviet Union had fallen victim to a nuclear strike. The Zeitsev was to be a farewell gift to the rest of the world. After all, a world without communism doesn’t deserve to exist. Of course, that strike never came. The Soviets defeated themselves, with a little help from the same enemy that we face now. When the democratic government seized control of this nation they disarmed the sensors, but they weren’t sure what to do with the rest of the ship. Their so-called “red tape” delayed them too long. Now that the power has been rightfully restored to the People, the weapon is in our hands!”

Alexi was silent. “It’s a bomb, Captain. The Zeitsev was designed to look like an old battleship to avoid drawing attention from enemy spies and satellites. But all it is, all it was ever meant to be, is one great big dirty bomb,” Chitkik pointed around the chamber, “with enough radioactive material to put the planet in Nuclear Winter. It will poison the atmosphere, destroy almost all life, and force any survivors to go underground.” Chitnik saw Alexi’s ashen face. “Don’t you see? It’s a chance for us to start over. All the old institutions will be obliterated.”

Chitnik began flipping switches, perspiring worse than before. “You’ll need that key.” He held-up his own disk-like key as if to demonstrate. He again noticed Alexi’s inaction, and took a calming step backward. “Captain . . . Alexi, you must understand. The Council has reached a final conclusion; our way cannot work in a world where capitalism exists. Our enemy’s ills will always find ways of seeping across borders. Their materialism, their superficial ways; these will always be temptations. They undermine us with fast food, designer clothes, and Hollywood. They’ve been slowly permeating our borders, and have started turning Russians into agents of the West.”

Alexi reluctantly pulled his key out. Two slots rested on either side of the control panel. “Once both keys are in, the reactor will start,” hissed Chitnick as he licked his lips. He inserted his key, and looked Alexi in the eye. “You realize, we’ll only have a few minutes. You and I won’t survive the blast, which is actually for the best, if you take my meaning.”

“What about the Council?”

“Far underground, along with a select few. They have enough supplies to last for decades. When they emerge, a new civilization will be started.”

Alexi squeezed his key, terrified of the ridiculous possibility of him accidentally dropping it right into the slot. This is suicide, and I’m taking everyone else with me, he thought.

“Just put it in, Captain. Those are orders right from the top. There are others out there who know of this weapon. People from the old government who might want to stop us. They could be on their way as we speak.”

Alexi glanced around at the menacing contraption that had been lying right underneath his nose. “But everyone from back home? They should go underground too! I just think . . .”

“No! You don’t think! The Council has done all the thinking. They chose you for the assignment because of your loyalty. They knew you would do what was necessary if this situation arose. You are a Captain in the Russian Navy! You have been given orders from the People’s Council!”

Alexi gripped the key even tighter, not ready to make up his mind. The Commissar’s patience had reached its limit. He took a step back and produced a small pistol. “I’ll put it in for you if I have to.”

“Then why bother arguing? Why wait?”

“I was hoping it wouldn’t end like this. You’ve earned the right to see the mission through.” Alexi held the key over the slot. “Besides,” Chitnik said with a touch of sympathy, “no one should have to die alone. Not out here. Not like this.” The reminder of his imminent, violent death caused him to hesitate once again.

“Alexi, you will die tonight. This is a certainty. But you can choose how you will die. You and I will start a new history! We are the most important people in the world right now.” Alexi squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head slightly. “Alexi, what would your great-grandfather have done?”

Alexi decided to stop thinking. He would just do. The key seemed heavier, but he forced it toward the slot. Fighting every instinct in every fiber in his body, he held his breath and slid it in. The reactor rumbled like an engine. The ship came alive as if for the first time, like an old man emerging from a lifelong coma. Alexi looked to Chitnik helplessly, as if he had done something wrong. Chitnik gave everything one last inspection, and appeared satisfied. Alexi’s basic survival instincts took over, and he began to run.

“Alexi, wait!” Chitnik shouted as he chased him out of the chamber and up the stairs. Alexi was covering ground much faster when Chitnik shouted, “It was just a test!” Alexi froze. “A test of your loyalty to the Council, and you passed.” Chitnik raised his arms toward Alexi in a proud, congratulatory fashion. “We are perfectly safe, Captain. Or should I say, Commissar.”

Alexi felt every emotion rush through him at once. He backed away as Chitnik came closer, unable to process it all. Through a grimacing mouth he managed to force out, “You stay away from me.”

“Alexi, I know what you’re feeling. I felt the same way when it was my turn.” Alexi stopped pacing, and started to listen. “That’s right. Every senior party member has to pass the ultimate test of loyalty.”

The panic and dread began to subside within him, and Chitnik patted him on the back. He pushed Chitnik’s hand away, though with less disgust. “Come on Alexi, let’s get some fresh air. I’ve never needed a cigarette so much in my life.”

####

Alexi looked at the Kara Sea for what he figured would be the last time, trying to breathe through his nose and let relief set in. “This is a great day, Commissar.” Chitnik remained silent, but exhaled a large puff of smoke and nodded.

The realization that he would finally be done with the ship and the miserable assignment filled him with glee. Patience Alexi, they sent you here for a reason. He had been right all along, and could no longer hide his smug grin. He imagined heading far away from the place. As a commissar, he would be sent somewhere important, somewhere exciting. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll get my own seat on the Council. Only moments ago the terror of an unimaginable situation had flooded his body, yet now his thoughts turned to a revived future.

Alexi knew the Zeitsev would mourn his departure, and he could already hear its lonely protests growing louder from below. Chitnick looked at his watch, then firmly put his hand on Alexi’s shoulder. Alexi took a drag off his cigarette and closed his eyes. For a split-second, he could actually feel the joy rapidly warming his skin. Through his eyelids he could see a bright orange light. In that perfect moment, every fiber in his body was scattered far, far away.

THE END


© 2007 Michael Hart

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