IZHMEK Mechanical Plant/re-fortified fort, Izhevsk, Russia
November 14th, 1991, 10h41’
56.8619° N, 53.2324° E
The scuffing of Kirza boots on the concrete floor woke Artem Dzyuba from his intoxicated nap. He gazed at the door with haggard eyes as he scrambled to get up from his workstation. For how many hours had he slept? He didn’t know. A literal battle was raging outside, and he had been sound asleep in his windowless office all day. He thought his Vice Commander—Major Anton Smolov—would have handled things by now. Dzyuba was sick; he couldn’t even get out of bed—at least that was what he’d told everyone to camouflage his no-show today.
Kirza boots were such a hassle. Those cheap, multi-layer textile imitations of pig leather were one of the thousand discomforts Dzyuba had to endure in this facility. He hated having to use the IZh-56 combination guns, the cumbersome hunting firearm that should have had no place in warfare. He hated the desiccated, savorless hardtack he had to swallow every night to keep himself alive. He hated the Izhevsky Zavod fire on May 18th, 1980, the one that destroyed the last machines capable of producing the rifles he desperately needed.
He hated this war, one he would eventually lose.
The banging on his office door resounded. “Lieutenant Colonel! Lieutenant Colonel Artem . . . Sir!” Whoever it was, they were in a hurry. Dzyuba could no longer ignore the warnings.
Anatoly, my dear friend. This might be the day we’re reunited in hell.
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 in this facility, not today. Only Dzyuba got to choose when, and where he would die. He glanced at his pistol, one that had been sitting in the corner for so long that dust had settled on it. Do I really have to fight for my life? His trusted henchman—Maksim—hadn’t returned from the battlefield. What good is a right-hand man if he’s not around?
“Lieutenant Colonel Artem, are you inside? Please open the door! This is urgent!” The voice on the other side sounded even more pressing. Dzyuba groaned internally.
Inside him roared another battle, one of numerous struggles against himself that he had lately. In the end, he mustered his courage, what little shreds of it he had left inside his withered, barren soul.
“I’m coming.” Grabbing his pistol, he placed his palm in front of his mouth, breathed on it, sniffed. The smell of ethanol was still pungent.
He trudged to the door and opened it. In front of him stood a young officer, whose face Dzyuba 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. That was what he expected to hear.
But the young man simply said, “We spotted an . . . unidentified object.”
“Oh. It’s just that,” he mumbled. “I told you to not call me Lieutenant Colonel. Commander is fine.”
“Yes, Commander. But what do you mean by ‘just that’?” The young officer gave him a quizzical look. “We have never spotted an unidentified object inside our base before. It seems to have been dropped from an airstrike.” He kept licking his lips.
“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 on end.
“Y-yeah . . .” The young man stumbled on his words, “B-but this is different! Not a single bomb was 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, Commander. They are still playing the attrition game. They retaliate against our advances, but do nothing else.”
“Very well. Lead me to the object.”
They left Dzyuba’s quarters behind and entered the single-level manufacturing plant appropriated into a makeshift barracks. The hallway, coating itself in a dull gray overall, stank of blood and urine. Most soldiers were on the battlefield by now. The ones staying in were those incapable of fighting. They leaned against the concrete walls, or huddled inside their cramped quarters, nursing their injuries as best they could. Broken ribs, missing arms, bleeding stomach. They looked up at him; some with pained eyes, 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, either to recognize his authority or as if they would resume their duty in his presence. It angered the commander to see his soldiers slacking off—injured or otherwise—but curses and scolds would have to wait.
Dzyuba turned a corner, then another, then another. Every hallway looked like the other. The facility was like a dead-end maze with no way out.
It took Dzyuba another five minutes to reach the door—an obscure side door to an abandoned machinery room. The young officer with him pushed the door open, and the mellow light from the overcast sky was bright enough for the commander to squint. The acrid stench of urine dissipated, but the metallic taste of blood still lingered.
“Sir. It’s over here.” The young man shuffled through the snow piling up to his ankles, and Dzyuba followed.
From behind the far walls, Dzyuba heard Anton Smolov screaming to his subordinates right before another volley of gunshots filled the air. “Those cowards are retreating! 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 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. The standard operating procedure was to cordon off the area until Dzyuba or a disposal team can come in and deal with an unexploded ordinance, but the commander has since added that soldiers must cover every suspicious object to preserve its original status.
As he stepped closer, a soldier standing stock-still beside the object rendered a salute. Snow fleeted past the boy’s eyes, but he tried his best not to blink. He appeared to be around fifteen, with sharp eyes and 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 wore a small pouch over his shoulder, carrying all of his necessities. Can openers, heat tabs, pocket knives, rations for three days that he would finish in a single meal if given a choice, 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 after Kazan fell to the hands of the State of Novgorod. He was fourteen when he received his conscription notice, and he had jumped for joy at the opportunity to serve his country. Pavel considered it a great privilege since the State had never picked anyone under fifteen to join the army before. His supervisor, Leo, had told him to be careful, and that war was not what it boasted itself to be.
This was something rather unusual: Camp A supervisors for military development were instructed to shed only the most glorious light on the art of combat. 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 could 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 of 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 resembled the shape of a safe, but was 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. Numbers from 0 to 9 were arranged into a rectangular shape, framed with a thin line of metal. A small green light blinked 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 the rookies around him.
The flickering green light meant it had already been opened.
“Tell me your name, son,” he said to the soldier who had removed the cover.
The boy replied, eyes glinting. “Pavel Churlinov, Sir. I spotted this object!” Dzyuba suspected the boy 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 integrated together with, uh . . .”
“I think that’s the word, Sir.” He furrowed his brow, trying to tap into the memory of what he’d learned in his two-day anti-aircraft infantry course. “Nonetheless, 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 with a surgical needle mark along his philtrum. His name was Igor. Nobody had ever told Igor he was special, nor was he drafted into the military when he was fourteen. He carried no 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, Dzyuba thought. “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 day, 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,” murmured Pavel, engrossed in the blinking 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 spoke in an impatient voice, “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. Fabricating stories in his position, in this system designed for decision-makers to exploit, was much too easy. 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 before.
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. Smolov 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. It might have been the vodka. It most likely had been the desperation. 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.