‘The Russian Meteors came down in the middle of nowhere.’ Carol showed a sketched map. ‘Look: they splashed down here: the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, a cold, remote place. There’s nothing there but iron and uranium mines, some labour camps. The nearest settlement is a tiny port called Pevek. The harbour’s frozen half the year.’ (Our Child of the Stars)
Andrei was forty minutes off the end of the shift and itching to leave. He would take the Metro across Moscow, to Katya’s place. This was the lions’ den – dinner with her parents, for the first time. Of course, he was nervous, but he hoped they would like him, and that they would be pleased. His work was very important, Signals was a vital cog in the safety of the Motherland, and his department mattered just as much as the better-known agencies.
Not that he would say anything about it. His first day, his instructor had said that when he started, chatter always meant the firing squad. He had let that sink in, then said, ‘Now, if you’re lucky, you might end up twenty years in a camp, building a road in some wilderness so remote, God could not find it on a map.’
In his bag, he had chocolates and the bottle of fine plum brandy. Lazy Pyotr always knew someone who could get things if you didn’t ask questions – he said it would be better than the usual stuff.
Golden Katya had stroked his cheek, and said her parents would love him, he was a catch. Even if they didn’t, they would respect her choices. Oh Katya… Love and lust and longing. Watching her as she read to him, poems of war and love and motherhood. Poetry was for school but on her lips it made his heart blaze.
What a week. Twice he had slept in a chair rather than go home. The signals traffic through the Department had been overwhelming, with the Meteors landing in the ice-bound East Siberian Sea, fifteen kilometres or more from the shore. The teams took turns, taking messages, encrypting, mostly decrypting. The sun had set up there, not to rise again until spring – three great balls of fire across the dark sky. It must have been spectacular.
The Meteors came at speed, but far too slow to be ordinary meteors.
They’d found something out there, it had fallen near one of the labour camps, and whatever it was, Centre had gone berserk.
Troops were moving north in the dark and snow. The sea ways were impassable, so they moved by aircraft, and ice roads. Lazy Pyotr said the Scientific Division was being mobilised. Submarines headed beneath the ice, towards where all three Meteors had landed.
Working in the department a thing might be thought by everyone and said by no one. A Meteor had landed in the United States, in the spring of ’69, it too had come down too slowly, and the Yankee Army had built a fence around it. Andrei learned many things at work that were not in the papers or the radio. Departments one never named aloud were obsessed with that Meteor and the lies the Yankees told about it.
He would get the evening off. His supervisor understood – her parents eh – he had clapped Andrei on the shoulder, man to man, and assured him the Motherland could manage without him.
The Major strode in, a complete shock to see him among the clerks. The Major, nicknamed White Wolf. Even for the stern management of the department, here was a man to be obeyed at once and without question. He was the right hand of the General himself.
‘The General needs cypher clerks, he is moving to another location. He wants the most reliable operators.’ He snapped out four names. Andrei’s was one of them, Lazy Pyotr another.
Andrei shook in his boots but had to ask. ‘Major, permission to phone my girl…’
‘No call. You may write two sentences, now, and it will be passed to her. A man will collect anything you need. Don’t ask where, or why, or how long you will be.’
‘Sir.’ Utter dismay, Katya was soft-hearted, she would be in tears, but he was a soldier. He had explained to her how things might be. The defence of the people must come first. What could be going on that the General was leaving Moscow.
In his tunic, he had hidden her photograph. He thought of her smile, the red roses in her golden hair. He remembered how she felt in his embrace, her scent.
‘The planes will be leaving in ninety minutes. Do not waste time on fine words.’
Carrying winter kit, a cipher machine, and the plum brandy, Andrei staggered towards the gaping maw of the plane. Light snow fell, it was ridiculous weather to fly in. There limped the General with his black stick – he had left an eye and a kneecap at Stalingrad. The hero clearly expected the men to gather.
‘Hah, signals, good’ he said. ‘This is an hour of trial, but you will rise to it, as your fathers did.’ And then to Andrei’s shock he coughed, and growled out a few tuneless lines of Sacred War, making the beat with a gloved hand.
Black wings don’t dare
To fly over our Motherland!
Over its spacious fields
The enemy doesn’t dare to trample!”
Andrei’s pulse soared. The great soldier’s anthem from the Great Patriotic War had been a favourite of his father when drunk. Should he join in? No-one else was. So, the trouble in the far east really was an invasion! Or some other treachery from the imperialists? Or, what?
The Americans built a fence round their Meteor and guarded it with soldiers. They spun a grandmother’s tale about radioactivity. More Meteors had fallen.
Clearly no briefing yet. He could imagine golden Katya, warm in his arms. That dress she wore so often to meet him. Best not ask where the shop girl got the material, eh?
Andrei thought basic training had been cold and uncomfortable; Camp October Revolution was something else. Lazy Pyotr called the Camp ‘the coldest bedsore on the arse of the Motherland.’ The forward party up there in Pevek begged to differ. Pevek was a frozen port for the iron and uranium ore wrenched from the ground – gulag labour for the most part. The locals were simple reindeer-herders who farmed or hunted walrus.
Maybe this was the place God could not find on a map.
There were enemies of the Motherland under the sea. First one military submarine disappeared, then a second. Each within thirty kilometres of each other, and of the impact area. Submarines sometimes sank, but not two, in the same place, within two days. This was some malevolence. Everyone said it was the West and everyone dropped hints that maybe…it was something else. Now, he deduced from the signals, a ring of submarines sought to surround the danger, to spy on it, whatever it was under the sea.
The speaker came to life. Transmitting, highest priority, Code Two signal coming.
‘Pyotr, get over here and decrypt.’
He took down the signal, but then there was a hiss of static, he had only a few lines of code. Another signal was coming in, on another channel. Pyotr grabbed his notebook, began to take down the message and flicked the alert switch with his other hand.
Pyotr could decode a signal blind drunk without error. Pyotr could take a garbled message, disappear into a corner for four hours, and figure out where some foolish clerk had made an error and unpick it.
It was time to be a man, ignore fluttering in the stomach. Andrei must be a strong jawed machine, like the posters. He clicked the settings and began to decode.
‘Attack on Reindeer [that was the code for Pevek] Silver machines like serpents from sea. Self-propelled. Three aircraft like blades strafing buildings. Blue fire not projectiles. Our artillery responding. Machines advancing in order’ then fifteen meaningless symbols.
Now the second channel was hissing static, howling like some beast.
‘Shit, shit, shit,’ said Pyotr, fumbling the settings.
A colleague, scratching his hair, his collar undone, ran in, followed by another. The phone began to ring. Internal call.
Andrei picked up the phone. It was White Wolf.
‘Signal received from Reindeer sir, it was interrupted, I will read.’ He did so, and again at the Major’s command.
‘They’re jamming other channels,’ Pyotr said. He thrust a paper under Andrei’s nose.
Andrei read, ‘Reindeer airport attack from air and ground silver forms like serpents all planes destroyed… that was all we got sir.’ Pevek airport was what, fifteen kilometres from the town? ‘They seem to be jamming radio.’
‘I will wake the General. Scientific Division are screaming about something. Bloody boffins.’
‘Is it the Americans?’
‘God knows.’ White Wolf was no grandmother, to use such a counter-revolutionary expression.
Andrei touched his jacket pocket, where Katya hid, golden Katya with red roses in her hair. How he missed her. She would be worried.
War might mean a nuclear attack. Moscow would surely be the first target. Katya worked in a shop. Of course, there was no way to tell her, to run to the country. To hide in the Metro. He could not call his parents.
Shaking, he continued to do his duty. It would be shameful to cry, to abandon his post. He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Now messages poured in demanding to know, what had they heard, what was known?
They said that metal had fallen from the sky at Amber Grove. But something else had fallen too. Something in Two Mile Lake.
Weeks later, Andrei stood stiff-backed in the General’s room, a blazing furnace of a stove. Even an old soldier might be permitted to feel the cold. The machines commanded the burnt remains of Pevek, and the forces of the Motherland held back. A few human survivors had made it across the snow, but the town, its new garrison, and the airbase had been butchered.
He remembered the night of the attack and shuddered.
There were two scientists, and a female signals clerk. They had stopped talking when he entered the room. It was not for him to know the plan.
He read the signal aloud. The General got his way. His lengthy rant demanding iodine salt tablets be supplied to all troops surrounding Pevek had been agreed. They said they made you nauseous. Andrei, like everyone on the base, had lined up to receive them, and some brave soul had asked a question, about not taking them. The officer had said, ‘This is an order from the General in time of war.’
‘Show him,’ the General said.
The woman opened an attaché case. In it, a single piece of curved metal, a scale of some sort, twice as big as a hand, in a glass box. He saw the case was lined with lead.
‘From the site of the American Meteor.’ He said two words, in English. Amber Grove. ‘You cannot understand how many brave men and women tried to locate this. Some languish in a Yankee jail, holding their silence. Does this remind you of anything?’
‘The description, the scaled machines.’
‘Yes. And eighteen months later, such machines attack the Motherland. They can swim, and fly, and crawl, and burn through rock, burrow through concrete walls. We are being tested.’
One of the scientists ventured… ‘It remains possible the Americans…’
‘The West needs to see that we respond with accuracy and strength. If you are correct regarding the serpents…’
‘Our best guess,’ said the other scientist, wiping his forehead.
‘If we have time, get the iodine to the labour camps,’ the general went on. ‘They may be miserable specimens, guards and prisoners alike, but at least they are human.’
‘Centre needs to act now, and never mind the gulags.’
Lazy Pyotr had studied chemistry. He said iodine salts, swallowed beforehand, would protect you against throat cancer, a side effect of nuclear fallout. Sick to his stomach, Andrei began to believe Pyotr’s wild theory about what was coming. They would not fling heroic winter troops against the machines, instead they would unleash the power of the atom.
Why? The snakes destroyed reconnaissance flights, it was said the satellites were down, but the word was, the scientists had managed something clever to spy on the machines. The serpents had built something in Pevek… A facility.
The General coughed. ‘Take a signal. Code Four. To the Centre. Strongest possible recommendation remains Operation One implemented immediately and in full and until successful. As previous report, delay is dangerous.
Black wings don’t dare
To fly over our Motherland!
Signed etc etc Ends.’
‘Sir!’ Andrei said. He read it back as best he could.
The General stretched. ‘The day has come. We must stand firm against this act of war. I hope Centre sees the opportunity to be strong. In the West, let us finish off what we failed to do in 1945. Let us liberate the whole German people. Let us reclaim outer space for peace.’
Andrei had a night shift in the third radio room, and it was very dull. Lazy Pyotr hid behind the equipment, where he kept a bedroll. When things were very quiet, you could hear his faint snoring.
Once, very drunk, they had kissed. Horseplay. Then Andrei realised, that for his friend, it meant something else. Pyotr stuttered out some nonsense, about the girl he was seeing who no one had ever seen. Andrei said only, ‘You’re my friend.’ Nothing need be said.
The wind blew, and out of the window Andrei could see only darkness beyond Army Camp October Revolution. Pevek had been destroyed, and the snakes with it. There was something pedestrian now about the signals from up north. Yet, although the base was far from any city, in some mysterious way, it was in the heart of things.
The signals clerks needed no orders to know great things were afoot. The quantity of traffic, and the codes it was sent in, told them that great forces of the Motherland and her allies were moving to the West. The daily bulletin extolled the forthcoming defeat of aggression. Surely, the hour of trial was coming, to complete the liberation of Germany, and to end any threat from the Yankees and their subjects.
From where they were, the USA was East, not West,
Different teams were told not to gossip. Particularly not with the haggard looking scientists in their inner sanctum. But if you took the rules literally, you couldn’t even ask a comrade in the kitchens what was for dinner tomorrow.
Department Three monitored the broadcasts from the West. The Americans claimed they had an alien. An intelligent creature from outer space. Purple with tentacles. Andrei remembered the stories of rockets he read as a child, taking progress to the stars. His pride that the Soviet Union had placed the first satellite, the first man, the first woman in orbit. The Yankees were playing some cunning game… There had been some short, confused story in the daily bulletin. Sitting on the fence, while the wise minds of the Motherland got to the truth.
He should write to Katya, so far away in the city. If the next Great Patriotic War came… she needed to know his heart.
Hope, fear, and desire fought in his chest. He wanted to dance with her, he wanted the red roses to bloom, so he could propose with a bunch of them. There in the park, near the war memorial, where she had kissed him. He thought she would say yes. They should do it now. If the war came and he died… well, better for her if they were married first.
The speaker tuned to Military Channel Four came alive.
‘This is the Ship. I need to speak to your commanding officer.’
‘Identify. Which Ship? This is not a frequency for unencrypted transmission.’
‘Yes, that got your attention. I am the Ship, the alien spacecraft the Americans have been hiding in Two Mile Lake. I will be over Washington in ten minutes. I need to speak to your commanding officer.’
‘I am an intelligent machine and I am in a hurry.’
‘I will take a message.’
Like a machine, Andrei grabbed the pad, and kicked the metal bin over, to wake Pyotr the shirker. The voice, it was so nearly human, the Russian was perfect, only somehow… not quite. He remembered the long hours in training. Do your duty.
‘Your commander needs this at once because I am going to land a probe at your base. I am self-governing. I am not under the control of the Americans. Neither have I passed technology to any human group. The hostile machines who invaded your Motherland destroyed my mission. So we have a mutual enemy. I am in touch with your government. Meanwhile, I am about to land one of my smaller craft in your inner compound. Your scientists may approach within twenty metres of it and confirm that it is of alien origin. I wish to demonstrate my peaceful intentions towards you – my neutrality between you and the Americans. However, if you attack my probe, I will turn your base to molten glass, without further warning. Am I understood?’
Inside, Andrei was reeling. ‘Permission to read back message,’ said Andrei. This was like war, he had to serve, and not give way to the animal spirits struggling within him. It might be a hoax. But that would be for others to determine.
The machine waited till he had read back the message.
‘Good,’ it said. ‘The Americans are using missiles against me. However, it is simplicity itself to destroy them. I have also grounded all aircraft within ten kilometres of me, for safety. One further point. It might be that your authorities see me flying towards the American capital as an opportunity. Weakness among the Americans so a time to strike. Understand this, I must protect the boy. He is my mission now, my purpose. Your government needs to understand. If you cause him to be harmed, that will be the gravest error your government has ever made. In fact, it will be the last decision the members of your government will ever make in that underground bunker. Am I understood?’
‘Message understood,’ said Andrei, trying to quench a quiver in his hand. He must act. The General would be in his quarters, asleep, and probably smelling of drink. Pyotr shambled, blinking, towards him; a court-martial waiting to happen.
‘The alien came in a spaceship and the machine wants him back,’ Andrei said. ‘Wait for further messages.’
He made the call to the duty officer and issued the dreaded code word. Wake the General immediately and regardless of his protests.
Outside the darkness gripped the land. How would the small spacecraft look, and how would it come? Great forces of history were marching. He touched the breast of his tunic, where the photo of Katya hid, a red rose in her hair.
He hoped for a summer wedding, under a blue sky. He often thought of how she would lay her bouquet on the war memorial. Now, in his imagination, he added to the picture. Above them might fly a silver spaceship.
Photocredits: Russian stamp 20th anniversary of Stalingrad, Poster for 1936 film Cosmic Voyage.