20 August, Year Unknown
Admiral Leonid Volsky
slowly climbed last stairway leading to the main deck, emerging on the aft quarter of the ship on a clear, starry night. The warm breeze of the Mediterranean was welcome compared to the harsh winds he was used to in the north, and he breathed deeply, taking in the sweetness of the night air, and the all embracing calm of the quiet sea.
They had been sailing east now for all of ten days, crossing the Atlantic for European waters, intent on learning more about the strange circumstances of their voyage. As his mind wandered through the memories of these last few weeks he could scarcely believe the images that came to him—of the accident that sent the ship into the icy fog of infinity and the amazing and confounding dilemma that followed. A chance encounter with an old fighter plane had led them into the cauldron of the Second World War, as astounding as it still seemed. Within days his ship and crew were locked in a life and death struggle against the rapidly mustered strength of the Royal Navy and then her American allies as well. His illness, the stubborn headache and that odd spell of vertigo that had sent him into the infirmary with Dr. Zolkin, had allowed his truculent subordinate, Captain Karpov, to embroil the ship in heated combat. By the time he had awakened from his fit, Kirov was at war and, sadly, thousands would die when her arsenal of lethal modern weaponry was set loose in the fray.
The Admiral still shook his head to think on the man, hoping that he had finally managed to reach him when he visited him, just days ago, a thousand questions in his mind and heart. He remembered it now as he walked the deck, ambling slowly toward the aft helo bay.
“Why, Karpov?” he had said right out, his eyes lined with pain and the awful sense of betrayal he felt.
The brooding Captain remained silent, eyes averted, arms folded over his service jacket, an expression of restrained anger still apparent on his face.
Volsky leaned forward, waiting, like a wounded father scolding a wayward son. “None of the others were involved in this,” he said evenly. “Tasarov, Samsonov, Rodenko—they were all blameless. Orlov I can understand,” he said slowly. “Orlov is a dullard when it comes right down to it. How he rose to Chief of the Boat still befuddles me. I certainly had nothing to do with his promotions, but here he was, ready to follow any man’s lead that seemed sensible to him in the heat of action, and given more to muscle than mind when any obstacle presented itself. Yes, he’s a hard man, Orlov, but not one with guile. He would never have dreamed or dared what you did. No, Karpov. It was all your doing, yes? Orlov was nothing more than an witless collaborator, and I am willing to bet that you had to pressure him to complicity in this mutiny.” He ended with a hard fat finger on the table between them.
They were in the Captain’s personal day-cabin where Volsky had summoned his wayward officer from the brig, marched under guard here for this meeting as Kirov sailed east, away from the black horror of Halifax.
Karpov gave the Admiral a sharp glance, averting his eyes again, still sullen and unresponsive, folded in on himself and beset with a mix of emotions—anger, frustration, outrage and beneath them all the bile of shame that seemed to choke him now, stilling his voice and darkening his mind as never before.
“That’s what I must call it—mutiny,” said Volsky, “for there is no other word for it. And for a flag officer of the fleet with such a bright future before you, it is almost beyond belief.”
“Future?” Karpov’s voice was low and barely restrained. “What future are you talking about, old man?”
Volsky brought his fist down hard on the thin wood of the table, and the sullen Captain started with the unexpected blow. “Address me by name and rank, Captain! You are talking to the Admiral of the Northern Fleet!”
“Admiral of the fleet? What fleet is this you presume to command now, comrade? We are one ship, lost at sea, and lost in eternity. God only knows where we are now, but I can assure you, the fleet is long gone, and there is no one back home in Severomorsk waiting for us to return either. It’s all gone,
Volsky. Gone! Understand that and you have your fat fist around the heart of it. If you want to understand what I did you need only open your hand and look at it. All we had left was this ship,
Admiral, and no one else seemed to have backbone enough to defend her. If I had not taken command it is very likely that we would all be at the bottom of the sea now—have you considered that?
So do what you will. Choke me. Shoot me! Lock me away in the brig!”
He gestured painfully at the door where a guard stood stiffly at attention, pretending to see and hear nothing, a
steel mannequin that nonetheless represented the business end of the Admiral’s authority here—for that is what it had all come down to in the end, a contest of authority between these two
men, the aging Fleet Admiral longing for the peace and quiet of retirement, and the hungry and assertive scheming of his Captain, pushing always to reach that next rung on the ladder of
Karpov had wrestled for control of the ship, and he had nearly succeed. Had it not been for the timely arrival of Fedorov, coming as he did to the sick bay to find it secured by
padlock from the outside, the Captain’s plan may well have caused even more havoc. In the brief interval while the Admiral had struggled to regain his freedom and restore his authority on the
ship, the Captain had unleashed hell on the Allied navies that were closing in on them from every side. And now they were living in some distant quarter of that hell, a region of silence and eerie
calm, where every shore they had come upon seemed blackened with the cinders of war.
The Admiral looked away, still pained, his eyes unsatisfied. He stood up and stepped over to the guard,
speaking to him softly.
“Right away, sir,” the man said smartly, and then quickly let himself out of the door to leave the two officers alone.
Volsky looked at Karpov where
he sulked, head lowered, his elbows leaning heavily on the table. Slowly, deliberately he pulled the chair back and stat down again. He regarded his Captain with that same pained expression, waiting,
but Karpov seemed apathetic and indifferent to the whole situation now, resigned within himself to any fate that awaited him. He had mustered all the courage at his disposal in that heady moment when
he first slipped the padlock on the outer hatch of the infirmary, locking both Zolkin and the Admiral inside. Now he was spent, empty, and there was nothing more than a dull ache in his head and an
awful sense of emptiness in his gut. A much younger man, the ordeal seemed to have aged him, and his eyes were dark and deeply lined, so tired and listless now as he stared at the empty
“I don’t mince words here,” said Volsky, “nor do I come here to shame you any more than you have already shamed yourself. But mutiny is the word for it, and you
must stand accountable—as any man must—for what you have done. No… I will not choke you, Captain, nor will I shoot you. Yet a good long visit to the brig is in order, yes? It is
clear that I cannot simply set you loose on the ship again after this. What would the men think? I could confine you to quarters, but first, the brig. Yes, the brig. You will sit there and
contemplate, no doubt for some time before you catch a glimpse of the fact that you are a man, Karpov, and then perhaps you can begin to regain some sense of self-respect again, and remorse over what you have done.”
“For what?” said Karpov dully. “So that I can look forward to swabbing the deck, and then join the ranks as a common seaman with the hope of someday making rank again? Don’t you see how stupidly pointless that all is to me now? I had my hand on the throat of time itself and I let it slip from my grasp.” He made a fist as he spoke now, his eyes hard and cold. “Don’t you understand what we could have done with this ship?”
“I am still trying to understand what we did do,” Volsky said quickly. “You were locked up in the brig when we made port at Halifax, and I had little mind to deal with you then. The men needed me on the bridge—and thank God for Fedorov. I had at least one other head I could count on in the midst of all this insanity. Fedorov and Zolkin—yes, thank God for them both.”
“You forget Troyak,” said Karpov, an edge of sarcasm in his voice. “Without him I might still be sitting in your chair up there, Admiral.” He tersely thumbed to the unseen citadel of the bridge, somewhere above them on the upper decks.
“That is what it came to,” said Volsky. “You with your key and a finger on the trigger, me with mine, and Troyak in the middle of it all. At least he knows what the word duty means, yes? At least he had the good sense to discern a madman when he saw one—for that’s what you were, Karpov—a madman. Do you have any idea how many men you killed in these engagements you were so keen to fight? That is the least of it…” The Admiral breathed heavily, and turned when he heard a quiet knock on the door.
“Come.” He waited while the guard stepped into the room again, a bottle of Vodka and two small shot glasses in hand. Volsky gestured to the table and the man placed them there and then stood quietly by.
“That will be all. You may wait outside.”
“Sir!” The man saluted, and stepped crisply out through the hatch, closing it with a thud.
Volsky eyed the bottle and glasses, his gaze shifting to Karpov. Then he slowly reached for the vodka, twisting off the cap and pouring them both a shot glass of the clear liquor. He pushed the small glass across the table to Karpov, who gave it a sidelong look as he did so.
“Go ahead,” he said. “It will do us both some good.”
He raised the shot glass to his lips and drank, exhaling with the sting of the liquor on his throat, and with a certain satisfaction that only a Russian could really understand. Karpov watched him drink, then sighed deeply and reached for the shot glass himself. He downed it quickly, saying nothing. Volsky was silent as well, and poured them both a second shot.
Something in that simple act of sharing a drink together changed the whole atmosphere of the room. The two men sat in that small interval of silence, each lost in their own inner muse for the moment, lost in their own toska, as the Russians might say it, that sad inward-looking reflection tinged with melancholia and the quiet ache of yearning.
At length Volsky spoke again, his voice softer, flatter, with no edge of recrimination. “I understand what you did, Karpov. Though I cannot condone it, or even explain it away, I at least understand. But that changes little here today. We have sailed across the whole of the Atlantic because I thought to get the ship away from those unfriendly waters as soon as possible, and perhaps away from the shadow of guilt we all must shoulder equally after what we saw at Halifax. What was it we did, I wonder? Fedorov thinks they thought we were Germans, and that the war started too early for the Americans. He believes our use of atomic weapons put such hot fear into the Allies that they moved heaven and earth to get the bomb for themselves. Perhaps they succeeded and the war ended differently. We do not know. Yet one thing we do know: this ship fired no weapon at Halifax Harbor.”
He paused, filling his shot glass and that of the Captain one more time. “We stopped at the Azores on the way over… Madalena Harbor was destroyed as well, and I think by a very low yield weapon. I put men ashore on Pico Island for fresh water, but we found little else. Some of the buildings were still sitting there untouched by any sign of war. But there were no people—just bones where they should have been. Just bones…”
“So I thought we would have a look at the Med. Yes, I know there are too many targets there to think anything survived if they were willing to spend a missile on a distant island outpost like Madalena Harbor, but one gets curious, yes? You were below decks, and did not see much of this, but as we approached the Straits of Gibraltar I thought, or perhaps I hoped we might see the lights of Tangier glittering on the coastline, yet it was black as coal. Once we got closer we encountered a heavy fog, thick as good borscht, and it was deathly quiet through the strait. Gibraltar was burned and smashed—almost beyond recognition. We sailed on all night, but the fog was still on the sea when dawn came, dull and gray. We skirted the North African coast for a while. Oran and Algiers were devastated—who knows why?” He held up a hand, inexplicably.
“I turned north and sailed up into the Balearic Sea. I don’t know what I thought to see there after what we had already encountered. Perhaps it was only to confirm my worst misgivings…. Then again, I have always been fond of the south coast of France. I thought, one day, that I might buy a cottage there and grow grapes for wine. But no more. Nothing is growing there now…” His voice trailed off, and he tightened his lips on the edge of the shot glass. The Captain drank with him, slower now, to savor the lingering taste of the vodka and chase the bile from his throat.
“Did we do all this?” Volsky waved his arm at unseen shores as he spoke. “No. We did not. We only made it possible for them to do it—all the other generals and admirals and prime ministers and presidents. We showed them what power was, and they wanted it for themselves as badly as you wanted it, Karpov. So now we see the result. In truth, I cannot blame you any more than I blame myself, and all we have before us now is simply a matter of survival.”
Karpov nodded, and the two men sat in the quiet for a time. Then he looked up at the Admiral, and blinked. Something in his face spoke more than he was capable of at that moment, and Volsky was wise enough to see it—the sorrow, the anguish, and the shame.
“I want to have a look at Rome before we turn and head back out into the Atlantic,” said Volsky. “I thought we might transit the Aegean and head for Sevastopol, but I see no point in that now. If there is still anything living on this earth it will likely be in the southern latitudes. We’ll skirt the Italian coast, then head west again through the Tyrrhenian Sea. After that, who knows.”
“That island, Admiral?” Karpov managed a wan smile.
Volsky stood and went to the door, looking over his shoulder as he went with one last word. “I’ll have the guard escort you back to the brig now. It’s best that the men see the consequences of what you have done, and it’s also best if you bear it like a man. In due course I’ll have you transferred to your quarters, and from there I suppose the rest is up to you.”
Before he left he poured his Captain one last shot of Vodka. Then he tipped his hat lightly and reached for the door.
Volsky looked over his shoulder again.
“I was wrong… I… I made a stupid mistake.”
Volsky nodded gravely. It was probably as close as Karpov could come at the moment to a genuine realization of his wrongdoing, and an apology, but the Admiral said nothing more.