IZHMEK Mechanical Plant/refortified fort, Izhevsk, Russia
November 14th, 1991, 10h41’
56.8619° N, 53.2324° E
The squeaking sound of Kirza boots as they scuffed on the concrete floor woke Artem Dzyuba from his intoxicated nap. His haggard eyes darted to the door as he scrambled to get up from his workstation. For how many hours had he slept? He didn’t know. There was a literal battle outside, right as he was sound asleep, but he had been shutting himself in his office all day. He thought that his Vice Commander—Major Anton Smolov—would have had things handled by now. Dzyuba was sick. He couldn’t even get out of bed. That was what he told everyone to camouflage for his no-show today.
Kirza boots were such a hassle. Those cheap, multi-layer textile imitations of pig leather were one of the thousands of discomforts he had to endure in this facility. He hated having to use the IZh-56 combination guns, a cumbersome hunting firearm that should have had no place in warfare combat. He hated the desiccated, savorless pieces of bread he had to swallow every night for the sake of eating. He hated the Izhevsky Zavod fire on May 18th, 1980, the one that destroyed to the last factory machines capable of producing the rifles he desperately needed.
He hated this war, one he would eventually lose.
“Commander! Commander. . . Sir!” Not long after, the banging on his office door resounded. After evaluating the hastiness in the person’s voice, Dzyuba concluded he could no longer ignore the warnings.
It was the day he would finally die.
But I’m still not done with my Plan B.
The Commander couldn’t die here; there was no way in Seven Hells he would let himself perish. Only Dzyuba got to choose when, and where he would die. He glanced at his pistol, one that had been sitting at the corner for so long dust had settled on it. Do I really have to fight for my life? Where is my right-hand man, Maksim, when I need him? There’s no way I will survive if I step out there right now.
“Commander, are you in there? Please open the door! This is an urgent matter!” The voice on the other side was even more pressing.
Inside him roared another battle, one in numerous hollers of distress and calamity he had lately. In the end, he mustered his courage; every bit of courage left inside his withered, barren soul.
“I’m coming.” He placed his palm in front of his mouth then breathed on it. The smell of vodka was still pungent.
In front of him was a young officer, whose face he vaguely remembered. Maybe he had talked to the kid before. Maybe he had forgotten. He shouldn’t have forgotten. He was a commander, the commander who’d survived the Vyazma hellhole. Doesn’t matter. The enemy has broken the front line, Major Smolov has been slain, and we need you to command a counterattack, those were what he wanted to hear.
But instead, these were the young man’s words. “We spotted an. . . unidentified object.”
“Oh. It’s just that,” he mumbled as he sighed.
“What do you mean?” The young officer gave him a quizzical look, “We have never spotted unidentified object inside our base before. It seemed to have been dropped from an airstrike.” He kept licking his lips as he said.
“Neither have we suffered an airstrike before,” Dzyuba replied.
Finally, the time has come.
Dzyuba had always wondered why his enemy—Pavlyuchenko’s troop—never organized a bombing. Maybe, at long last, that feeble-minded imbecile of a commander had realized there was never a need to isolate Izhevsk for months in the first place.
“Y-yeah. . .” The young man stumbled on his words, “B-but this is different! There wasn’t a single bomb dropped. Only this. . . thing.” His voice trailed off, “We don’t know what to do. Please come with us.” Although the man appeared calm, Dzyuba could see the ridges on his nails. He’s been biting them.
“How about the battle outside? Is it still going on?” Dzyuba faked a cough so the officer wouldn’t forget he was sick.
“Yes. They are still doing that ‘attrition warfare’ thing. They just retaliate against our advances, but do nothing else.”
“Very well. Lead me to the object.”
They walked outside. The hallway, coating itself in a dull gray overall, smelled like blood and urine. Most soldiers should be out on the battlefield by now, and the ones staying were those incapable, leaning back against the concrete walls. Broken ribs, burned arms, twisted ankles. Their eyes looked up at him; some pained, some lifeless, but none out of the norm. Different flavors of desperation, Dzyuba thought. He stared at every single soldier he passed, and some tried to stand up and resume their duty. It angered the Commander to see his soldiers slacking off—injury or otherwise—but curses and scolds would have to wait.
Dzyuba turned to a corner, then another, then another. Every hallway looked like the other. Like a dead-end maze with no way out.
“Sir. It’s over here.”
The young man shuffled through the snow piling up to his ankle, and Dzyuba followed. From behind the faraway walls, he could hear Anton Smolov’s screams to his subordinates right before another round of gunshots filled the air. “Great Russia calls you to action, comrades! Time to strike! Get outta there and push them back! Now, now, NOW!”
The officer led Dzyuba to the location—inside of a forsaken warehouse. Snow rested in layers on top of the roofless concrete walls, weaved into the hollow niches about the size of a fist, and sparsely spread on the bulwarks. It had been snowing for the past three days, and the snow had coated all over the old equipment in an insipid white hue. That made the “unidentified object” in question easily identifiable. It sat right in the middle of the building, with little snow on top, or at least on the blanket covering it. It was standard procedure to cover every suspicious object to preserve their original status.
As he stepped closer to it, another soldier, who stood stock-still close to the object, gave him a military salute. Snow fleeted past the young boy’s eyes, but he tried his best to not blink. He appeared to be around fifteen with sharp eyes and a furrowed brow. Too young.
Indeed, the fifteen-year-old Pavel was too young to tell right from wrong, virtuous from corrupt, passion from disgust. He was wearing a small pouch railing over his shoulder, carrying all of his necessities. Can openers, heat tabs, pocketknives, rations for three days that he would finish in a meal if he was given a choice to satisfy his appetite, and a hand-written letter wrapped neatly inside an envelope.
Pavel had only been released from Perm Human Production Facility fifteen months ago to be sent to Izhevsk as an emergency fortification against the upcoming threat from the State of Ural. He was fourteen when he received his conscription notice, and he had jumped in joy at the opportunity to serve his country. Pavel considered it was a great privilege, since the State had never picked anyone under fifteen into the army before. His supervisor, Leo, had told him to be careful, and that war was not what it boasted itself to be. It was something rather unusual, since Camp A supervisors for military development were instructed to shed only the most glorious lights of ‘the art of combat’ to their incumbents. Pavel had smiled at him and said, “I am the first fourteen-year-old to be drafted. I’m sure I can take care of myself.” Leo had personally gone to the young man’s carrier to see him off and had given him a letter he had spent the entire night writing. At that time, Pavel thought Leo was a tad over-sentimental.
The letter read, “I wish I can be there for you, but I’m sure you will be fine on your own. You are destined for greatness, Pavel. Serve this country, and you will see the good and the bad of it. Kiss your uniform, hold your head high, and don’t ever forget how special you are. I await your return after you’ve won this war for us.”
Pavel had kept the letter with him even after Leo was confirmed dead in the battle of Perm six months ago. He would open it and read it over whenever he felt down. Leo’s letter was a necessity, like a pocket knife, like a canteen of water. Leo’s letter was hope. It was hope that kept his eyes beaming until now, as he yanked the cover off the suspicious, unidentified object in front of Commander Dzyuba.
A container, that was the first thing coming to the Commander’s mind when he saw it—the dark, cubic object resembling the shape of a safe, but far too big for an industrial safe. Dzyuba speculated it could fit at least two people inside. He knocked on it; the charcoal-like surface was icy, and the clank it made was unmistakably of metal. He turned to the electronic dashboard attached to the container and saw numbers from 0 to 9 arranged into a rectangular shape and a small green light beeping above it. It didn’t look like a bomb trigger switch, but more like a password scanner. As a grizzled veteran, Dyzuba had seen these dashboards a few times in his life, unlike these rookies.
Flickering green light meant it had already been opened.
“Tell me your name, son,” he asked the soldier, to which the boy replied. “Pavel Churlinov, Sir. I spotted this object!” His eyes were glinting. Maybe he was thinking about the generous reward to be given to him for his discovery.
“Good. Were you here when this thing was dropped?”
“Yes, Sir! I was running back inside to get more ammo when something dropped this from the sky. Snow splashed everywhere, and when I ran to the spot, the base of this cube-thingy was already inches deep in the ground!”
Get more ammo, right. He just didn’t want to have to fight, Dzyuba told himself. The Commander continued to ask. “Did you catch sight of the vehicle that dropped this?”
“I saw it! It was a bomber plane, but I’ve never seen such a thing before! It flew way faster than the ones we had at Perm and seemed to have its wing and fuselage integrated together or something. I don’t think it’s from Pavlyuchenko.”
“Not from Pavlyuchenko?” Dzyuba raised his eyebrow.
“Yes, Sir. It flew from the opposite direction of Pavlyuchenko’s camps.”
“Please be careful, Sir. There might be explosives inside,” said the other officer. His name was Igor. Nobody had ever told Igor he was special, nor was he drafted into the military when he was fourteen. There wasn’t any sappy letter inside his military pouch, just a few grams of cocaine for the nights he wanted to run away from the cacophony of voices inside his head. Just yesterday, he dropped most of the stuff onto the floor and had to scramble on the ground, trying to sniff it with a plastic straw. He couldn’t waste it. He needed the high.
“If they wanted to drop a bomb, they would have just dropped a bomb,” Pavel chimed in. Nevertheless, Dzyuba took a step back.
“Have you tried to open it?” The Commander asked. Pavel shook his head. “Should we set some Semtex to crack it open?”
“No. There could be supplies inside. We may damage whatever’s in this.” They might attract unwanted attention, that was what Dzyuba was thinking, “Has anybody else learned of this?”
“No, Sir. Just us two.” Pavel said.
“Good.” Dzyuba took his pistol out of his holster, swaying it at the dashboard as he spoke up. “You two. I will need you to do a couple of things for me. I think this thing is locked by a password. Back in the days, there were a few passwords the higher-ups used to set for their security vaults. Now one of you input the code, the other will try to push the door open. C’mon, huddle in.” He clapped once as the soldiers approached the object. “Good, like that. Now, if I could just remember that code. . .”
“I’ve never seen something like this attached to a safe before,” murmured Pavel, engrossed in the beeping green light. Igor elbowed him, put a finger on his lips, and whispered a ‘shhh’.
“Don’t move,” said Dzyuba, his slumbering voice persuading in the still silence.
After a few seconds, Pavel began to feel impatient.
“Sir, we are ready—”
A banging noise resounded—a pistol shot. The bullet lodged in Pavel’s skull. His face slammed into the vault, scraping onto the surface of the safe until he collapsed in the snow.
The young officer next to him turned back in horror. “What are you—”
Another gunshot reverberated. Igor dropped dead.
Dzyuba clicked his tongue.
If only these rascals hadn’t meddled with my plan.
He would just bury the bodies somewhere and report them as missing, presumably having fled the facility. It was way too easy for him to fabricate stories in his position, in this system designed for decision-makers to exploit. The lives of these lowly nobodies were of no value to him; after all, he had stained his hands with their blood so many times.
The object in front of him, however, was no common encounter.
That is an emergency evacuation box, Dzyuba knew it all too well. The box would be filled with ammunition, dry canned food, utility knives, hand drills, and shovels. . . for one person. Everything he had been missing. It would be his, ALL HIS. He started pacing, knowing time was against him. The troops would be back from battle soon.
If he acquired the loot within that safe, he could finally finish his Plan B without arousing any suspicion.
Excitement possessed the Commander as he bolted toward the safe. Maybe it was the vodka or maybe he was just that desperate. Whatever the reason, he didn’t stop, not for even a second, to think about why the safe was unlocked.
Dzyuba flung the safe door open. Nothing was inside.