CHAPTER TWO Leninskiy Komsomolsk Shipyard, Aboard the Soviet Submarine K-389 November 1982
The klaxon sounded twice before the announcing system blared.
“Fire in compartment five, level two.”
Mikhail jumped from his bunk and scrambled to pull his boots on as he hopped into the passageway. Not tonight, not while I’m on my duty. He buckled his belt as the raced through the forward compartment, past the zampolit’s office, the fan room, ducking into the water tight door. He stopped to slam the heavy door shut before he resumed his sprint between the missile tubes.
Stinging odors, burning rubber and ozone, assailed his nostrils. At the door from the aft missile compartment to compartment five, a pair of crewmen stood and watched the flames wax and wane atop a motor generator. Insulation melted from a conduit, sparks crackled and jumped from the exposed copper.
“Shut power for this equipment!” Mikhail ordered, slapping one sailor on the shoulder. The man leapt into action, darting through the knee-high flames. The second sailor turned to Mikhail and shrugged.
“The shipyard is responsible for manning the fire brigade.”
Mikhail’s heart sunk as his blood boiled. “If we don’t act, we die.”
The sailor threw his hands up. “The firefighting system is torn apart, like everything else. What will we do except wait for hoses from the pier?”
With a quick glance at his surroundings, Mikhail fought to find an answer. No water, a spreading fire, and no time to wait for assistance; something had to extinguish the flames. The air thickened and new odors crept in. The hull’s insulation if set ablaze would transform this compartment into an oven.
Mikhail clutched the sailor by his shoulders. “Go pressurize the waste tank, open the valves and leave them open.”
The sailor’s eyes widened. “But lieutenant-
“Now, do it, help save us all.”
With a terse nod the young man ran off. Mikhail tore off his undershirt and fashioned a mask before he picked his way through the flame riddled room. He dove for the ladder leading to the upper level and nearly fell back into the flames. The steel ladder rails had singed his hands. He peeled strips of his shirt and used them to hold the ladder as he ascended. A distant hiss reverberated in the pipes below gave him hope. The orange glow intensified below; the fire began to spread. Mikhail grabbed a pipe wrench from a nearby tool bin and struggled to remove the end cap placed by the shipyard. With the hull valve gone from the waste tank, safety demanded the backup valve be capped off. Now he prayed for the strength to overcome their effort. His vision dimmed and his ears rang. Not yet, not now. He threw the blanking flange aside and clamored for the valve. In the thickening smoke and blossoming heat, he strained to stand and tugged the valve open. A high pitched squeal grew to a throaty roar as the waste tank’s contents geysered into the ceiling and plumed out to fall down all around Mikhail. Coughing, choking, exhausted, Mikhail crumpled to the deck and shut his eyes. He allowed a smile as consciousness faded; a fitting death.
“Der’mo, and ssat’ all over the machinery!” the zampolit screamed. That Mikhail’s efforts drenched every inch of the compartment in human waste wasn’t the issue; the ship’s political officer questioned the justification
Mikhail stood at attention in the captain’s stateroom. Though the zampolit’s interests revolved around the ideological integrity of the crew, he’d taken particular interest in the ship’s schedule and the avalanche of technical difficulties which pushed the launch date further beyond the horizon.
“The shipyard fire brigade and everyone in that compartment will need shots for the filth you subjected them to.”
Captain Borodin drew in a deep breath that caught in his throat. Mikhail clamped his jaw tighter, stifling a chuckle. Despite a hot shower and fresh uniform, the stench seemed to ooze from his pores.
He’d awoken on the pier, the shipyard’s medical staff tending to him. Only at Mikhail’s insistence did the doctor allow him to return to the ship. The fire brigade had plucked him from the fetid, smoking submarine.
“If not for my actions, the compartment would’ve been gutted,” Mikhail said flatly.
Zampolit Dimitriev stood and wagged a finger at him. “You don’t know that.”
The captain clasped a hand over the fuming political officer’s forearm and stood. “And you don’t know anything about submarines Comrade Dimitriev.”
Captain Borodin looked old, too old to shepherd a crew of inexperienced and exhausted sailors out on an unseaworthy submarine. Thick iron-grey brows shaded watery blue eyes. Broken blood vessels kept his complexion rosy for all the wrong reasons. Vodka and frost bitten winds had marred the man’s face. The man’s spine, too tall for hours at the periscope, bent forward in a permanent slouch. His uniform bore the stains and wrinkles of a man with no time for politics or sleep.
“The man attended to his ship as best he knew how,” Captain Borodin explained, his gravel voice sounding tired, annoyed. “We’ll recover from the filth with some elbow grease.”
“Mikhail Koryavin, the miracle of compartment five, should spearhead the cleanup effort.”
Captain Borodin shook head. “As division officer, his men will bear the brunt of his decision, but I believe they’ll be pleased to have equipment to clean rather than a charred room of rubble. You too, I thought, would be equally pleased with Comrade Koryavin’s efforts to keep us on schedule.”
The zampolit stopped the moment he met the captain’s gaze. A counterfeit grin hung beneath a warning glare. The captain held little patience reserved for fools, even a Party appointed watchdog.
Dimitriev looked to Mikhail and offered a shallow nod. “Thank you comrade, for your zeal, may it yield less odorous successes in the future.”
The zampolit excused himself and shut the door behind him as he left.
“He’s just jealous,” Captan Borodin said with a sneer.
Mikhail frowned. “Captain?”
The captain chortled until a cough cut him short. “You spread derm’o with more efficiency than any Politburo member.”
“I only wanted to save the ship,” Mikhail offered. “I didn’t see any other way to quickly dowse the flames.”
Captain Borodin shook his head. “No, no, you did a good thing.” His brows furrowed. “What concerns me more, your haste to sacrifice yourself for your ship.” The captain opened his door and led Mikhail out. Shorter, the aging sea captain didn’t need to duck beneath the dangling cables and makeshift lighting strung amongst the pipes above. The staccato of impact wrenches, whining grinders, and hissing leaks in the pneumatic hoses strewn throughout the compartment; all these spoke to the harried pace to complete the ship’s repairs. The captain watched as Mikhail took in the filthy din-filled chaos.
“This is not truly a ship,” the captain shouted above the shipyard symphony. “And we’re not yet on a critical mission for our people. Why throw your life away for this hulk of steel so easily?”
“Is it not my duty, captain?”
A coughing chuckle erupted. “A hundred days beneath the waves lies ahead. And a month or two after we recover from that, we’ll dive into it all over again. This ship will claim your youth soon enough, boy, chase women and capture love while you’ve energy enough for the pursuit.”
Mikhail swallowed hard. The grit of metal dust, adrift in the ship’s wheezing ventilation ducts, itched in his lungs and dried his throat. Breaking his captain’s hopeful gaze, he stared at the cable runs in the outboards. The pungent aroma of copper brazing stung his nostrils. The refrigeration unit on the deck below, they’d begun work on the leaking unit weeks ago. The captain’s charge, to pursue love like a predator, to embrace the comfort of another, the agony of a month ago burned hotter than any welding torch across the cracked vessel that was his heart. He felt the pressure of his captain’s stare, blinked out any threatening tears and answered.
“This ship and the sea are my love anymore, comrade captain.”
Captain Borodin’s iron gaze probed Mikhail. Like the ship’s sonar, his captain seemed to silently examine him for clues, answers from his depths without actively probing. But like an active ping, Mikhail thought he caught a glimpse of his captain’s heart’s position. But before he could discern more, Captain Borodin nodded and turned.
“Aye, some of us find more solace in a mistress whose vices and virtues stand out more clearly. Keep your wits and ration your courage, lieutenant, and you may survive the bride you’ve chosen.”