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Red Star On The Sail
By Douglas E. Templin
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Douglas E. Templin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSEVERODVINSK, RUSSIA
What in the ...?
Lightning fast, a scythe from nowhere, the resounding slap smothered Captain Mikhail Cosmonov in a galaxy of grinning stars. So stunned he was from the sudden and unexpected impact, his mind whirled into momentary, balance-teetering blackness.
Dizzy ... can't focus. Knees ... crumpling ... may be finished. Thoughts stammered, halting an instinctive vocal response. Cosmonov's eyes cracked open in time to see the back of Admiral Ivanovitch Darkotov's right hand hissing past his face.
There was no time for analysis; he had no options. The Captain had to recover and recover fast. Flooded in disbelief, he wavered for an instant, resumed his motionless stance, and boldly faced his new commander with no further change in countenance, save the faint but perceptible twitch in his left eye.
Darkotov leered downward at Captain Cosmonov's stumpy but powerful two-hundred-pound hulk. The Admiral stiffened, clicked his boots, and with a fiery glare, demanded composure from his humiliated counterpart. "Attention, Mister Cosmonov ... as you were," he bellowed
Chest out and eyes drilled forward again, Cosmonov's entire body reacted reflexively, but words crying to be heard stayed deep within.
Darkotov detested the bitter Arctic wind and its prying fingers that drove snow flurries almost horizontally that day. Gritting teeth, he shivered from the cold. The shallow cleft in the center of his boxed chin was almost flattened. His lips had turned a waxy white. Leathery, sea-wrinkled skin draping loosely around his throat, shook as he breathed. His heavy mane of black hair, laced with dirty yellow-gray, hung dampened and shaggy below the margin of his fur cap, betraying fifty-six years of hard living and the stresses induced by a life of military toil.
Cosmonov couldn't help but exact every detail as he worked to recover.
Mystified by his surprisingly impulsive action, Darkotov looked inward for answers. What came over me? Surely I detected signs of fleeting distraction in my comrade's gaze. Were there facial expressions suggesting contemptuous wanderings? Did Cosmonov utter something only I could hear? He did! He slurred something beneath his breath. He must have. Was it just the fury of this infernal storm?
Horror-struck and likewise chilled almost beyond redemption, Darkotov's select crew watched from four long columns overlooking the Admiral Antonov Vitchidock, a slate-gray nuclear submarine of gargantuan proportions, soon to be their new home. Its oversized Russian ensign crackled nosily on the stern staff, adding drama to the aftermath of the Admiral's strange assault.
Young officers-chests puffed, almost bursting with pride despite the cold-filled most of the front line closest to the tattered wharf. Stone-still for the most part, occasional involuntary shaking broke their petrified poses. Heavy coats and upturned collars offered little respite from the swirls of wet snow which had begun to whiten shoulders. Medals dangling from their outer garments clinked like ice in crystal goblets at a formal dinner party.
Few of the enlisted seamen in the ranks behind the officers had ever served with the Admiral, but all were apprehensive from the ceremony's beginning. There was no paucity of rumors touting Darkotov's toughness around the training base, so they'd come prepared for the worst. Intimidated, yet acting as if they had ignored the slap, the men appeared almost frozen in their wool watch caps and bulky but inadequate midnight black dress uniforms. Not daring to break the spell with notable movement, the one hundred forty fear-filled statues stayed at full attention, enduring speech after speech as best they could.
Sevmash Shipyard's newest launch, the Antonov Vitchidock signaled a roaring triumph for the remote, far-north waterfront city of Severodvinsk. Russia Federation's largest and most lethal ballistic missile launcher was soon to be operational. This was the long-awaited day-a time for tributes, despite the delayed and arduous construction effort-the final commissioning ceremony preceding its entry into naval operations.
Christened almost a year before, the 565' Borey class nuclear sub, hull number one in this highly advanced series, was to have seen active duty in June. But completion dragged to early November and the first serious freeze grinned with a vengeance. Across the bay to the south of the shipyard, the white-blanketed landscape looked bleak; buckled icy fringes trimmed the water's edge. Sailing orders were long overdue, and, to the frustration of all, winter had slipped in the shoes of Indian summer with little warning.
Still churning with workers inside her mammoth carcass, the Vitchidock lay gracefully and low in the smelly, brackish backwater of the inner harbor, a crowded estuary all but clogged with old tires, wood scraps, undulating waves of plastic, and other carelessly discarded detritus. Standing proudly above it-a huge floating cigar with dorsal fin-the submarine dwarfed rotting and rusted hulks of many smaller, duty-torn sister submarines awaiting major overhaul or demolition, afloat at various angles nearby. It seemed to all in attendance that the new hatchling was being readied just to spite its older counterparts.
Shadows had grown long at the Sevmash facility, Russia's secreted but cluttered and terribly outdated nuclear submarine construction center. Distracted after the blow to Cosmonov, and concerned to complete the program while the short daylight lasted, Darkotov looked over the Captain's shoulders toward the cavernous, two-tone gray plant building beyond the assembled crowd. It embarrassed him; could have been the façade of a deserted ghost town business district in an American western movie, he thought. He gagged from the pale cocoa smoke spewing from its crumbling, charcoal stained brick stacks, and felt ashamed at myriad signs of budgetary woes: Scores of broken windows, smelly pools of black oil, peeling paint, and limitless piles of undiscarded waste. The sprawling, decrepit structure, filled with antiquated machinery, barely hinted such a high-tech weapon could have been born there.
For a few moments after the Admiral's indiscretion, an eerie and timeless still prevailed. Watches could have stopped. The two officers4 -equally shocked-said not a word for too long, each glaring at the other as though something physical might occur. But Cosmonov, who was to serve as the Vitchidock's Executive Officer, knew better, and kept himself in strict, disciplined control.
He'd seen his new commander do this before to enlisted men, even an officer or two-sometimes deserved, mostly undeserved-never imagining himself the subject of such untagged abuse. The strike at his face was unforgivable, yet such a move was Darkotov's prerogative. The Admiral was notorious for it and he'd never been seriously disciplined for such antics. Retaliation under the circumstances would have been career-ending, prompting the chagrined man to remain steadfast as he sought rationale for the incident, and strained for composure.
The Admiral leaned close to the Captain, breaching the safe margin of space top-level officers did not normally cross, certainly before the public. Darkotov's broad nose flared; his breath reeked of the pungent Cuban cigars he smoked. The whites of his eyes were still streaked pink from too much vodka the previous night. He squinted tightly again-always a bad sign-and stretched his mouth to a sardonic grin, while his tongue involuntarily flipped back and forth. Biting his lower lip to maintain control, Darkotov's sinister stare remained unbroken, until, after a worrisome pause, he turned slowly to the sub and then back again, too close to his subservient's face.
Laughing loudly for all to hear, heartily if not convincingly, Darkotov broke his rigid stance, and reached out with both hands to embrace the still-startled Captain. The grip on Cosmonov's neck was tight, but the Admiral's frown soon relaxed, and his hands did the same. Cosmonov nearly collapsed until Darkotov exclaimed to his relief, "It will be a handsome treat to serve on this fine vessel with my devoted confidante, and superbly qualified comrade." They had been trusted friends since childhood, growing up on adjoining collective farms in Ukraine. "Do not be alarmed. We've always been rough together. Yes, since boyhood we have continually rivaled. Firm horseplay is hardly uncommon between us. My Captain, I think, might have been somewhat inattentive. Were you not, Mister Cosmonov?"
Cosmonov boiling with anger, knew a reply to be inappropriate. Lips pursed, eyes glazed-frozen straight ahead-he swallowed imperceptibly, and said not a word.
It looked as if Darkotov would continue, but appearing embarrassed, the Admiral fell silent again. He grimaced momentarily and thought of ways to extricate himself from this labyrinthine dead-end. It could be opportune, he thought, to embellish the high points of Cosmonov's service record ... a perfect distraction. Regretting his indiscretion had made overt accolades necessary, the gesture did placate some, albeit not the Captain, who racked up the incident as a regrettably intolerable validation of the long-standing jealousy that often overrode their relationship.
Cosmonov shifted his stare, looked deeply at his commander, and remembered the day, decades before, when, as young lads, they had played Cossack warriors in the loft of the Admiral's family barn, each with pitchfork in hand. Cosmonov became angry, and unintentionally struck Darkotov, hard, with the heavy fork handle, slamming his friend's head against the old rusted pulley used to draw equipment and hay bales from wagons below.
Darkotov's hand showed dripping blood as he swiped it across the impact site. Older by four years and much stronger at thirteen, young Ivan stared in disbelief at the crimson smudge. Frightened at the bleeding, he raged, pushed Cosmonov to the loft's edge and over the side, to a vacant horse stall below. Darkotov jumped down, pitchfork extended. At the last moment, he plunged his weapon deep into the straw, inches from Cosmonov's head. He whispered with conviction, "I should have killed you, Mikie. I could have pushed this fork through your neck. You cut my head, you worthless peasant. I should kill you now."
That day still rang harshly in Cosmonov's memory. He could not forget the hurtful insult-a serious threat-and wondered if the Admiral remembered his sudden rage back then, as they continued peering at one another before the astonished crowd. Silence swept the ranks. All remained at full attention, but every eye was wired cautiously on the two senior officers.
Darkotov's chest heaved with several quick breaths. Solemnly, he spoke to himself again, while his grimace paled. What else can I say to masquerade this provocative moment? I can't retrieve my hand. I did hit him. The damned Cosmonov is well liked by his officers ... has their uncompromising trust. Look at him ... pompously flat belly ... coal-black hair, greased down so slick ... not a stitch of gray. Will he ever need glasses? Why should he get all the women?
An unforgiving series of frigid gusts and a brisk though tinny band number gave the Admiral precious time, a welcome opportunity to cover his outburst. "Men, I love this fine officer as I do my own family," he finally boomed when the music ended. He rubbed icy gloves together and gestured toward Cosmonov. "Later, you'll understand our playfulness. You must understand; the Captain and I could be spatting brothers for all you know. Isn't that right Comrade?"
Cosmonov was speechless. Perfunctory salutes were exchanged.
The scar above Darkotov's right eyebrow from the childhood incident still pulsed with reminding anger while he continued his demanding introspection. From where did my madness come? What the hell caused me to impart the indignation my old pal must have felt, and the consternation I could see in the expressions of every crewmember standing here? Christ! What have I done? This could bring a reprimand. Did I see a button off center? Is he not clean-shaven? His pistol ... was it unclean? The man is always polished, and so perfectly in every corner-just to spite me, I suppose-such a cocky upstart. Darkotov's budding guilt screamed irrepressibly.
Shy at heart, the Admiral was glad visibility of the crew was impeded by a glint of sunshine peeking beneath the low-hanging clouds, and the thick glasses he had been forced to use since his last cruise. He'd finally admitted that he could no longer see road signs at a distance, nor read nautical charts without a hand lens.
His wife, Alana, had prodded him to see the eye specialist. Loath to do so at her suggestion, Darkotov relented only to stop the nagging.
He reflected how deeply he loved and needed Alana, despite the lack of affection she had shown in recent months. In a passing moment, he pictured his much younger spouse, bathing before him, then alighting, and stretching in the tub before drying herself. Usually for his benefit, it was her signal they would soon make love. But that message had quit flashing in recent months.
The crackled concrete pavement, slick with dirty, crusted ice had turned the Admiral's feet numb, snapping him from the straying notions; his toes were immobile, and his hands shook when he spoke. Despite the cold, words flew loudly and confidently in usual Darkotov fashion, a combination of his strong and raspy monotone voice, and the uncontrollable volume of the scratchy PA system. He flung phony though politically correct platitudes favoring the shipyard workers, coming close to smirking at the huddled group of them seated patiently in the ramshackle bleachers behind the crew. Their poor work product, he had continually lamented in previous months, resulted in far too many first-round systems test failures, and a painfully endless train of quality control complaints.
Declining morale brought on by the Federation's financial crisis should have been blamed, for Darkotov knew that in some trade circles, shipyard people were not paid for weeks, even months on several occasions. They'd gone on strike because of it and were compensated at least twice with food in lieu of cash. Contrary to usual, insensitive upper-level military protocol, the Admiral often found himself empathetic, and frequently spoke out about their welfare.
He thanked the workers repeatedly for their efforts, and the way they had persevered; brushed accumulating snow from his drooping mustache, and wrinkled his forehead as he lied. Nervously, Darkotov removed and carelessly wiped his glasses, looked at the crowd for as much unaided eye contact as possible, then replaced the thick lenses to continue.
Admiral Darkotov viewed his country's near-exhausted military budget and the lag in technology with deep contempt and sorrow, and as great risks to the reliable development and production of sophisticated weapons systems and competitive military ships. Soviet Russia's fall in 1991 and the ensuing decay of its military prowess still frightened him. He had little respect for Boris Yeltsin, but considered Gorbachev somewhat heroic, attributing economic support for Russia a product of his world diplomatic efforts, especially with the U.S.
Standing there in the abysmal weather, the Admiral worried over President Putin's recent gestures suggesting military cooperation with China. Would he be forced some day, to blend with such an alliance? Maybe that had precipitated his lash-out. Life in the navy had certainly been unsettling, hardly predictable, since the President's installation in March of 2000. A former KGB Secret Service agent, Putin tended to be secretive, if not aloof. He acted whimsically, and rarely showed enough respect for Russia's military forces. His apathy toward decorated senior officers infuriated Darkotov.
Though an uncommonly loyal, dedicated, and committed career man, the Admiral viewed Russia as hanging on the precipice of potential military failure. Unconscious glimpses at so many neglected assets barely floating in the icy bay brought that to a quick reality. He'd harbored fears and suffered nightmares that this might even be his last mission.
"I must apologize to all of Russia for the long delay in completing the Admiral Antonov Vitchidock," Darkotov continued, back at the microphone with renewed vigor. He blamed the sub's high technology, not the slow moving, financially decrepit government, following the lead of former party officials who had alluded likewise while speaking at the launching almost a year before. "I wish to extend my unending gratitude to the Federation-to our comrade designers-for creating this monster of destruction I am to command." He turned toward the harbor and spoke reverently to the sub. "Truly, you are Russian shipbuilding's finest achievement." The Admiral brushed his pewter mustache in another moment of feigned deliberation; clouds of vapor streamed forward from nose and mouth, and he regained his breath to smile obligingly. "Indeed, Antonov Vitichidock, you are a rare beauty, the answer to my dreams-yes, the final height in my military service."
Excerpted from Red Star On The Sail by Douglas E. Templin Copyright © 2010 by Douglas E. Templin. Excerpted by permission.
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