Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
- Bhagavad Gita
From there the Lord scattered them all over the face of the whole earth
- Genesis 11:9
Of all the goddamned places to be stuck when World War III kicks off, I thought. The news on the old TV in the restaurant was Russian – Cyrillic script scrolling by beneath the newscaster reading the headlines – but Zhenya was translating for me, occasionally going silent for long moments, her fingers tapping her front teeth, her eyes fixed on the screen. This can’t be for real, my mind raced, cavitating. I tried texting Jason, the copilot, still back at the Malah, but there was no service showing on my phone. No texts. No email. No service. Jesus Christ.
Jason had stayed back at the squalid hovel that passed for an airport hotel. It was isolated, connected to town only by the ice road that crossed the frozen bay between Anadyr and the boneyard of crumbling Soviet Bloc tenements and the abandoned rusting equipment and gutted concrete bunkers that fringed the airport. Even here near the Arctic Circle in early January the unusually warm winter had kept the ice road closed late in the year, the ice too thin to safely support the weight of vehicles. I had crossed earlier in the day with Zhenya. She got us a ride across the ice in a Trekall, an amphibious vehicle somewhere between a tank and a jeep with six enormous tires, likely straight out of the imagination of some Russian engineer trying to engineer an escape from the Gulag, or at least out of Siberia, a land with virtually no roads but no shortage, of snow, water, and tundra. During freeze up and breakup, when the ice road was closed and the ferry couldn’t run, it was the cheapest way to cross from Anadyr to the airport, cheaper than hovercraft or the deathtrap Mi-8 choppers that thrashed back and forth, shuttling locals to the airport that is the town’s lifeline to the rest of Russia. Only in Russia, I thought, would anybody build an airport on the wrong side of such a natural obstacle, and then act as if it didn’t exist.
Anyway, given the opportunity to spend the evening with the young Russian women of the Anadyr English Club, I’d be damned if I was going to sit around the Malah all day and all night with nothing to do but bundle up and go walkabout in the bleak wasteland that surrounded the small cluster of concrete apartment buildings – gray rectangles against a gray sky, the flat sides bereft of balconies, with concrete steps leading to iron doors that clanged like prison cells behind you – and nothing beyond them but the white expanse of frozen tundra interrupted by rusted steel and the wreckage of a dead era, a soviet world that had been passed over and left behind. Not that it wasn’t an interesting backdrop for a walk, but I’d been there and done that. It wasn’t my first visit to Anadyr.
When Zhenya and I had crossed the ice at three in the afternoon, twilight had already been draped across the high-latitude community which hunkered ahead of us on a small hillside rising above the ice, huddled around a heat plant belching coal smoke, the rows of soviet era apartments, called Khrushchyovkas, ranked on the hill, painted in bright colours and lit up as if to ward off the encroaching emptiness that lay around it in all directions. The small community of ten thousand souls sat like an outpost in a vacuum. No roads connected it to the outside world and for much of the year the dockyard in the bay was locked in ice – its derricks and cranes visible amongst the industrial detritus at the base of the hill as we crossed the ice road. The only way in and out of Anadyr right now was by air.
Why did the other pilot stay, Zhenya had asked as the Trekall climbed off the ice.
He was worried about getting back across later tonight.
Maybe you do not have to go back to the hotel tonight, she said with a quick sideways look. The corner of her lips hinted, and when the pant leg of her snowpants rubbed against the insulated layers of my Carhartt overalls I imagined I could feel the warmth of her thin leg against mine. I’d jumped three time zones on the flight from Anchorage and now half-hoped for bad weather to delay tomorrow’s flight to Magadan. It could be a long night.
The Trekall trundled towards town. On the outskirts, where the road wound up the hill, the only church perched, isolated, gazing across the bay of ice and snow, its bronze cupola peaking the steeple, the rest built of logs and timber like a trapper’s cabin. In town, fur hats and parkas wove through the wreaths of exhaust, thick and bluish in the cold air, the sidewalks icy and banks of snow piled up amid the empty spaces beneath the apartments raised on iron girders above the frozen shifting ground. Zhenya stopped the driver, paid him, and we got out at a building like all the rest and climbed the iron stairs to an unmarked door and entered the café.
Others were waiting for us. The English Club seemed, from past visits, to consist mostly of attractive young Russian women, usually worth the effort of navigating the ice road for a trip into town. I recognized most of them from my last trip through Anadyr and said my hellos and sat down next to Zhenya under the raw florescent lights.
I’m on my way to Jakarta this time, I told them. By the end of the trip I’ll be switching up my parka for a T-shirt and shorts.
How many days to fly there in your airplane, one of them asked.
Tomorrow we fly to Magadan. Then Khabarovsk, Seoul, Taipei, Malaysia and then Jakarta, I said, counting off on my fingers. So, I guess another six days if all goes well.
Such a long way, she said.
I explained how the nineteen passenger seats of the small, twin engine turboprop aircraft were removed and replaced with auxiliary fuel tanks, the seats strapped on top of them, so that we could extend our range to get the aircraft halfway around the world and deliver it to the customer.
I did most of the talking. They wanted to hear about my travels and were shy with their English and left early, leaving Zhenya and me alone. We hadn’t been alone long when she paused in mid-sentence, her gaze fixed on the fuzzy TV screen, her breath held between her teeth.
What is it? I asked.
She said something in Russian, nearly breathless, shaking her head. Then said, No, no, no, over and over as if chanting a mantra.
What is it?
I am thinking we should be glad to be in Anadyr right now.
Because perhaps the rest of the world is soon to wish they were somewhere far away, where nobody can reach them.
What the fuck are you talking about?
When she told me, I was soon wishing I was somewhere far away, but it sure as hell wasn’t Anadyr. As she continued to narrate the details, or at least the details as presented by the Russian state news channel, I continued to try and get a signal with my phone, trying to get a message to my ex-wife and my daughter, to Jason – stuck at the Malah, perhaps oblivious to the potentially imminent end of life on Earth.
Do you have service? I asked her, interrupting her translation, pointing at my phone.
No. Nothing, she said. Sometimes we lose it here. It is common. But…” She trailed off and looked anxiously back at the TV.
Zhenya continued to narrate the news. The people in Moscow and other cities are in great panic. Other leaders are asking for peace, for calm minds. Our president has declared our country the victim of unprovoked American aggression. He makes promise to retaliate as necessary to protect Russian people from American nuclear threat. America is blaming Russia for the attack. Our government denies it and claims the Americans are testing Russian resolve in the Disputed Territories. The U.S. embassy in Moscow has been stormed and American diplomats have been arrested. The President says that he cannot negotiate in good faith with an American government defying nuclear treaties and risking major nuclear confrontation but has not ruled out a pre-emptive strike against American targets to cripple their nuclear capability.
Is there a land line here?
Telephone. A telephone. I need to call home. I need to call the other pilot. I need to know what is happening.
She asked the owner in Russian and he turned momentarily away from the TV and shook his head, Niet, and turned back to it.
At home, she said. I have one at home. I must call my mother, in Irkutsk, as well. I believe we should go there now.
We left the café owner, immobile below the TV, staring up at it as if in a trance, and walked down the iron staircase outside that clung to the concrete building, descending past the dark and vacant spaces between the iron pilings that anchored it above the ground. There were no cars moving and nobody walking on the streets. Our breath hung frozen in the clear air, mingling with the stars and the lights of the town spread upon the hillside. Neither of us spoke as we walked quickly towards Zhenya’s flat.
When we arrived, shuffling into the small apartment and removing our bulky parkas and boots, Zhenya went immediately to the TV and turned it on. It sat glowing mutely, its light cast upon the walls of the small room in the small apartment, adumbrating the confines and the ascetic décor of her life. Flipping through the channels she said, There is nothing. No signals.
What the fuck. I don’t suppose this is normal?
No. This is unusual.
Goddammit. Do you have anything to drink?
There is vodka.
Of course there is. I think we need some.
She had already picked up the phone from a table beside the window and was dialing a number. She held it to her ear for a long, silent moment and then put it down, an expression of desolation cast upon her as if it were also the sickly light from a screen. For the first time since the news broadcast she seemed frightened and defeated. There is nobody answering my mother’s telephone, she said.
All the more reason for a drink, I said, and immediately regretted it, feeling crass in the face of what seemed to be a tide of encroaching dread and confusion. I looked down at my phone and absently tried opening my email and resending the undelivered text messages that would not go through, but no service was still indicated on the screen and I could not talk to anybody and I could not send any messages and I could not get any information about what was happening.
Can I try making a call?
She held the phone out to me.
I punched in the long string of numbers to make the call to my ex-wife and held the phone to my ear, listening to the distant ringtone, holding my breath. It rang and rang and her voicemail message did not come on.
Zhenya came out of the kitchen with a bottle of vodka, two shot glasses and a tray of pickles and cold cuts. She sat down on a small love seat in front of an antique-looking coffee table below a hanging painting of a tall ship, her hands clasped tightly on her knees, pressed together, staring intently at the vodka and the platter on the table. I sat down next to her and poured the glasses full to the brim, the vodka two clear prisms trapped in the sallow light from the TV.
I was searching for something to say, a toast for an occasion devoid of cheer, when she looked up at me with her eyes glowing and asked if I was afraid.
I don’t know.
How can you not know?
I don’t know what is happening. It seems surreal, like I’m in one of the movies I grew up watching as a kid.
We do not have this in Russia.
Silence settled on the room, and then I raised my glass, concentrating on the translucent meniscus quavering at the brim, and said, Well, here’s to everything being ok. It was supposed to sound cavalier, hopefully funny, but instead the words fell flat and lame and died on the rug between us like a shot dog.
I felt the warmth of the vodka in my stomach and reached for the bottle and poured another two shots. Things are usually ok, I said. This looks bad, but we don’t know what is going on and it probably isn’t as bad as it looks. Think how many close calls there have been over the years. Why would this happen now? Who would make a decision like that? All my life I have taken risks. It is part of my job. And the bad things that I prepare for happening don’t happen. Life is like that and this is the same. Even so, I could imagine lots of terrible things happening, but not this. It’s too crazy.
Maybe those bad things have just been happening to other people.
I looked up from the shot glass that I was turning between my fingers, into her eyes, then, seeing her breasts rising beneath her thin sweater, her slender legs stretched out long in front of her beneath the slender fingers of her clasped hands, I thought, if this was the end of the world, we should be naked right now, not talking. But I asked, Where are your friends?
I will see my friends tomorrow. Right now we can only wait.
Fuck. That feels impossible. I need to find out what the hell is happening. At least I should get back to the hotel, find Jason, do something.
Sometimes doing something changes nothing.
Ya, well, sometimes I’m pretty goddamned sure that it does.
She looked at me for a long time, contemplatively, before starting to speak.
My mother would tell me a story when I was little girl. It was a story of a pious man, a farmer, who lived far from Moscow with his family and he owned many acres of good land and had cows that were fat and happy and sheep that gave thick wool and goats that gave rich milk. He worked hard and he thanked God for what he had and he came to have money as well. When the Bolsheviks came to his village they came with armed men and they demanded grain from the man and the other farmers, for the revolution. Despite the protestations of his wife, the farmer gave away his grain, and he told his wife, I am only a farmer, I know nothing of politics and revolution. These men in Moscow are smart men and they love our country. They are great patriots and they are going to create a better world. And we can spare some grain, we are not hungry, so what is the harm. So, he gave his grain to the Bolshevik men, but other farmers did not, and the Bolsheviks called them Kulaks and they hung some of the farmers from trees in the village and they took their grain and then they left. That winter was a very long, cold winter and there wasn’t enough grain and the farmer shared more of his grain with the hungry families who had lost their men, hanging in the trees, and were not able to get all their crops in before the snow. His family was hungry and they became thin and his wife was angry and she said, see, what did I tell you, look what has become of us because of these men from Moscow, but he replied that at least he was not hanging from a tree in the village and they still had a warm house with firewood and rich goat’s milk and warm woolen clothes and they butchered one of their cows for beef. In spring the Bolsheviks came back and they said that any man who owned cattle was a class enemy. They called the man a vampire and a bloodsucker and said that he was starving the proletariat, while he and his family grew fat. So, they took the man’s cows, and his daughter – who loved the cows and was now pale and skinny – cried and asked her father why the men in Moscow needed their cows, and he replied that he did not know why the men in Moscow needed the cows, he did not understand such things, but they still had their house and their farm and each other, and God, and he was sure that the men in Moscow would build a better world for everybody. But that summer he could not plow his fields without his cows and his crops failed, and when the Bolsheviks came back in the fall for more grain he did not have any extra grain to give. They called him a Kulak and a class enemy, and they said, Look at all your land. You grow fat while your comrades across Russia starve. What do you have to complain about? When his wife asked him what he thought of the men now, he said that he was only a farmer and he did not understand politics or Marxist-Leninist economics, but that they still had each other, and that God would look after them. The following spring, the Bolsheviks came back and took his farm. They took the farms of all the farmers and they told the people that there was no such thing as private property and now they would all share the land and farm it collectively. Many people starved that winter and the next winter and the winter after that and by that time the farmer was alone. His wife had died hungry and both of his daughters had died, one had become ill and the other had wasted away like so many others. The farmer was no longer the same man. His face was thin and pale and his eyes were pools of sorrow that reflected only the pain and hunger of those around him. But he still had God, and when he prayed to God he asked Him to help him understand why communism was necessary, and why he had to give all he had and his family to feed this utopia the men from Moscow told him about. He asked Him how much longer it would take, and what it would be worth if he could not share it with his family. But God was silent, so he still did not understand. Then the Bolshevik men came back to the farmer’s village. It was now a village of hungry ghosts and empty houses with a full cemetery. They came and they burned down the church and hanged the Orthodox Bishop. They told the people that they should renounce God and that only atheism was compatible with their utopian struggle. They asked the villagers if there were any among them who were so blind as to choose an imaginary God over the paradise that they were constructing here on Earth. The farmer said nothing, but several days later the red army came and took him away. They told him that his neighbours had accused him of political crimes. They took him away, put him on a train, and soon he was in a Gulag in Magadan. He worked there for five years and he laid the bones of many friends into the road that became the Road of Bones. But he survived, and he went on to marry again and begin his life from the beginning with a new family. The woman he married was my grandmother, and their first child was my mother. He was an old man, and died before I was born, but when my mother heard the stories of the Gulags and The Road of Bones from others, she asked my grandfather how he had survived. She asked him if it was because he had God. He told her that they had taken God away from him as well, that his prayers were sent up to barren heavens. So she asked him why he hadn’t lain down beside the others whose bones became the foundations of that road, when he was so hungry, so lonely, and without God, like a threadbare cloth that the winter wind blows straight through. He told her that he was only a farmer, that death was a mystery beyond his comprehension, that he had seen plenty of it, but still it was a mystery why it didn’t want to take him, that he would wait patiently for it, whatever the cost, but if man could not make a paradise on Earth, he did not expect to find one in the heavens, filled only with cold and distant stars.
As she finished the story I gazed out the window, deep-set in the concrete walls of the Khrushchyovka, and watched the slow fall of snowflakes in the dark.
I know how seductive that can be, I said. The belief that things are beyond our control. My marriage failed three years ago. I knew it was happening, but I didn’t act. It failed because I stood by watching it happen. Watching and worrying. I worried about my daughter, about how the stress and fighting was affecting her, I worried about losing the life I had built, and I worried about failing. Failing in the eyes of my parents. Failing my own expectations. Failing my wife, who deserved better. But still, I watched it unravel like scenery passing by the window of a train, telling myself I was going to reach out and pull the emergency handle to stop the train and get off, whatever that would mean. Until it was gradually too late. The train never jumped the tracks, the scenery on the other side of the window just changed, slowly, until it was so bleak and desolate that I couldn’t bear to look anymore, and I closed the curtain. It wasn’t a realization that I didn’t love my wife anymore. The end came with the realization that what I thought would never happen had happened. My wife had stopped loving me.
Now, whatever is happening, I’m going to make sure I’m with my daughter.
Do you want to know why I am with you right now? Why I have not gone to find my friends?
I looked up, into her eyes, warm, radiant and dark.
Because my grandfather may have been right about the stars and the heavens, but here, on Earth, Paradise is possible, it’s just hidden in the smallest of moments, if you know where to look.
I felt the seductive pull of a train leaving its station, picking up speed, inertia, the tracks vanishing ahead where they narrowed to a single point on the horizon. I shook my head and said, I need to get back to the Malah. Before shit really hits the fan. I’ve got to find Jason and we need to get to the airport and try to get back home.
You may not be permitted to leave Russia.
I’m not going to ask permission. That’s why I’ve got to go now. I’ll try the phone again, to call Igor, the handler. He lives on the airport side. He can check in on Jason at the Malah and meet me on the other side of the ice road, to take us to the airport.
Do you trust him so much?
Do I have a choice?
It is you who believes in choices. We don’t have these luxuries in Russia.
I tried to fill the gnawing emptiness in my gut by eating a pickle, but it wasn’t hunger, and it remained, like a parasitic reminder of everything that lay between me and home. Then I pulled up Igor’s contact info on my phone and dialed it on Zhenya’s land line. The ring rang like a lost echo drowning in a void. I had almost given up and was about to hang up when Igor answered in Russian, his voice hoarse and slurred.
Igor, it’s me. I’m in town and I need to get back to the Malah. Have you heard from Jason?
You ask about other pilot?
Yes, do you know where he is?
I do not know. He is not with you.
It was unclear, in Igor’s broken English, whether this was a question or a statement.
With a deep breath I continued. Igor, I’m in town. I need to get back to the Malah to find Jason. Can you help me?
There are bad things that happen. Do you know these things?
Yes. That’s why I need to find Jason.
Where are you. I will come for you.
Igor, I’m in town, can you get here?
After a short silence he responded, I cannot cross the ice road this time. Why are you in town? This is a bad place to be now.
Can you meet me on the other side? By the ferry dock? I looked at my watch and said, I will be there at three. I need you to go to the Malah, find Jason there, and bring him with you to meet me. Can you do this please?
If this is what you want.
Ok. Thank you. I will see you at three.
When I hung up, Zhenya was already pulling her snow pants on over her jeans.
Stay here, I said. There is no sense in you coming with me. Stay here, try to get hold of your mom. And your friends. They will want to see you in the morning.
I will take you down to the ice. We should be going quickly.
During the short drive down the hill through the rows of the apartment blocks with the snow falling lightly in the dark – the snowflakes suspended against the lightless sky like drifting ash – nuclear winter seemed a near thing. Zhenya stopped the car where the road ended in a rutted track down onto the ice, and for a moment we sat in silence staring out across the forlorn frozen surface where the tracks of the Trekall and the vehicles of other reckless drivers vanished in parallel lines converging towards the dark beyond her headlights. After a moment without speaking we got out of the car and stood, two figures, indistinct in our parkas, silhouetted against the backdrop of Anadyr, which sat oblivious, wreathed in smoke, the chimneys of the heat plant still churning coal smoke into the frigid night.
I probably won’t see you again, I said, not knowing what else to say.
Zhenya didn’t immediately respond, but when she did her voice was quiet, nearly vanishing in the surrounding silence, like the tracks across the ice. It seemed the whole world was holding its breath.
They say, the scientists, that we are descended from apes. We are just animals that have – what is the word in English – evolved? But if this is true, where did our obsession with mystery come from? Animals do not think like this. They do not need to know answers to all things: why the world works as it does, is there a God? We have worked hard at reducing these mysteries until the world became explained like the end of a detective novel. Maybe the only mystery left was if we could destroy it.
Perhaps it’s just the inevitable conclusion of our fascination with death? I said.
Death. She let out a short laugh and I watched the cloud of her breath disperse around her face. I think that in other times, when death and suffering were so common, it was not such a mystery. For many Russians it was a familiar place at the end of a long journey, where one could rest. When everything is suffering, there is no room in your life for mystery.
Before I could think of a response she said, You should go. She looked up at me and I was amazed by how large and bright her eyes were, so perfectly drawn, as if by design.
All I said was, Goodbye, before turning and walking down through the packed ruts of snow onto the flat expanse of the bay to begin my trek across the ice road.
I didn’t look back at Anadyr, hunkered on the hillside, its electric lights still burning like a constellation, as I trudged across the hard, windblown snow, following the tracks that cut through it and scanning the white expanse for signs of thin ice or open water. I thought about my daughter at home without me. I wondered if she was safe, if she was scared. I wondered if she and my ex-wife were alive. Then I wished I knew how to pray for them. Again I thought, Of all the godforsaken places to be…
It was a long and uneventful trek across the ice. I didn’t look at my watch once and time became obscured in the repetitive crunch of my boots in the snow. At some point I stopped, almost hot in my parka in the windless night, and I opened the collar of it, pushing back the hood, and I lifted my exposed face to the obscured sky and featureless cloud above me, feeling the cold air fill my lungs with every deep breath, and watching it rush out and float and disperse amongst the lightly falling snow. I felt myself disperse with it, vanishing between two uniform planes of white, the sky above and the ice below, and there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
It only lasted for a moment and then I continued walking for the unseen far shore.
When the bank was barely visible ahead of me, I began to angle away from the tracks in the snow, to the south, towards a dark space on the shoreline between where the road climbed the bank and where the ferry dock jutted out, concrete and pilings angular in relief against the snow.
I struggled up the bank somewhere in between these landmarks, post-holing through snow past my knees, until I staggered into the warren of old soviet buildings scattered down the shoreline – derelict husks like the iron nests of vanished apocalyptic insects left to rust and collapse beneath the weight of the sky. I wove through them towards the ferry dock where I had told Igor to meet me.
Before I arrived I spotted the dim shapes of two military vehicles parked out on the road leading up to the concrete staging area at the ferry dock. Squat UAZ vans, gray and malignant, nestled amongst the rubble. I couldn’t see the men I knew were inside. I didn’t have to go farther. On the dock ahead I saw the lights of Igor’s car flash on, cutting a bright swath across the ice below the dock and disappearing into the night. From the shelter of a tin shed, peering out a broken window, I saw him sitting on the hood drinking from the bottle of Crown Royal I had given him when we had arrived at the airport the day before. He was a fat man, and in his parka and snow pants he looked like some animal from below the ice, sleek and protected by a layer of blubber. There was no sign of Jason.
I slunk back inside one of the dilapidated buildings. I wasn’t sure how far it was to the airport. I had made the trip several times but always with Igor driving, never paying much attention to the distance travelled. My best guess was about five kilometers. I looked at my watch. 3:30. The airport didn’t open until 8:00 but there would likely be signs of life there by 6:00, unless everybody decided to stay home for the apocalypse, which was entirely possible, but I didn’t want to bank on it. The Malah was nearby and on the way and I figured I could find it. That gave me one last chance to find Jason and I had a couple hours to work with. I made my way back down onto the ice and slipped through the darkness below the dock and past the hulks of beached boats, their shapes formless mounds beneath the snow broken only by the crude extrusions of rusted metal thrust out stark against the white backdrop, and then I staggered through the drifts again and back across the buried tundra to the road several hundred meters from the ice, rejoining it well out of sight of the men in the vans. I started to jog slowly in the direction of the airport.
An hour later I was wandering through the apartments huddled on the perimeter of the airport. The Khrushchyovka here were not painted in the bright colours of those in Anadyr. They stood forlorn in their rows. Without balconies, the dark spaces of the windows gaped in the night. The dead eyes of concrete flies. For me, at night, it was a labyrinth of snow and dark and undifferentiated concrete with the Malah hidden somewhere at its heart. I found it by dumb luck, the Malah sitting squat and uninviting in a small square of Krushchyovka surrounding a bleak playground of trampled snow, buried see-saws and merry-go-rounds in hibernation, their steel limbs protruding like those of dead men poorly interred.
I had no high hopes that the metal door beneath the flickering neon Malah sign would be unlocked. I half expected somebody to be waiting in my room to apprehend me if it was. But it was open and I made my way into the dark cavity between the steel exterior door and the steel interior door, careful not to let them swing shut with their usual steel clamour, and then climbed the narrow curving stairway inside to the vacant desk above and crept down the short hallway to my room. It was empty, as was Jason’s.
I sat on the cot in the spartan room, on the threadbare sheets too short to cover it, and tried to think of what to do next, but instead I thought about my ex-wife and my ex-marriage and all the failure that surrounded it. Goddamn, I whispered as the breath leaked out of me, my head hung low. All I could remember was the very good, and the very bad, and I couldn’t say if I would trade the joy of the former to forget the pain of the latter. And was it impotence I had felt when I gave up and left them, acceptance of my inability to salvage a marriage shattered and foundering? Or was it selfishness?
I said sorry to Jason, absent and abandoned like every other soul on Earth, and grabbed my bag from the floor and left for the airport. What was one more failure in the grand scheme of things?
Aircraft sat, arrayed on the still tarmac beyond the chain link fence. AN-24s and 26s dusted with snow. MIL Mi-8 choppers, their rotors drooping, resigned beneath the slow revolution of the sky. My aircraft, the Twin Otter, was parked alone on an icy corner of the ramp, unfueled. By the Chukotavia hanger two more Twin Otters sat, outfitted with wheel skis. I had delivered both aircraft a year ago and now one of them could be my ticket home, or back to whatever was left of it. I threw my bag over the fence and scaled the chain link.
There was no sign of life as I crossed the frozen no man’s land of the apron under the black glass gaze of the tower to the first of the two Vityaz machines. My aircraft was not fueled but with any luck one of these was. And they had skis.
I opened the pilot’s door of the first, put my foot up on the step and pulled myself into the cockpit to turn on the power. The cockpit flashed alive with the light of the four EFIS screens. I waited, bathed in their glow as they booted up, until the fuel was presented. I switched it off and moved on to the next machine, repeated the actions, and sighed as I turned off the power. I did some quick math in my head, got down, and turned back to the first aircraft.
Igor stood in front of it with the bottle of Crown in his fat mitten, leering in the moonlight.
You are going somewhere, Captain?
The English came out thick and ugly.
What do you want, Igor?
What do I want? I want to help you. I know where other pilot is.
And how does that help me?
You will just leave him here?
Do I have a choice?
He shrugged inside his parka and spread his hands slightly. He took a pull from the bottle and looked around casually before speaking. The people here are trapped. If everything is gone, and we are alone, it will be a slow and bad death for very many people.
What makes you think it’s going to be different anywhere else?
The same hope you have, Captain.
I’m trying to go home. Something tells me you aren’t going to be very welcome there.
Take me from here and I will bring the co-pilot.
Round headlights crested the road out in the flat past the airport. Then another pair appeared in trail. I walked past Igor towards the first Twin Otter and he followed my gaze and saw them. He said nothing as I tossed my bag inside and climbed into the cockpit and watched the blunt grey shapes of the two military vans coalesce under the wan light cast from the airport lights as they approached the fence. I flicked on the battery and master switches and began setting switches and levers in the light of the avionics.
You Americans are all the same, he said from below me, near the cockpit door.
I know this. Is no matter. You are not Russian. We Russians are used to being alone. This has taught us…
He paused for a moment, weaving slightly, before continuing.
Solidarity, he said, finally. Dramatically. He took another long pull from the bottle of Crown Royal, and then slurred the word: Comrade. He said it slowly, savoring it. Then he said, That word used to mean something.
Igor, that’s just a word that helps people sleep at night. I’ve been all over, and the world is a lonely place. Now get out of the way, or get in.
I was spooling up the first engine when the vans reached the gate and had the second started by the time they had the gate open. As I taxied away from the hangar two Russians with guns wearing big hats and long jackets stood in front of the first van and watched me go. Igor stood apart, isolated, mute. I didn’t see Jason, but I could imagine him sitting in the back of one of the vans. I ran the before takeoff checks from memory as I taxied towards the runway and tried not to think.
It was calm and snow sifted down lightly from a high ceiling suffused with moonlight. I applied power as soon as I turned out from the taxiway onto runway zero-one and kept advancing the power levers, checking the torque gauges as the aircraft accelerated, until I had takeoff power set. The empty aircraft rotated easily and as I pitched up and the horizon vanished I put my head down, scanning the instruments as the aircraft climbed. At four hundred feet I reduced power and pulled the prop levers back to the stops, the blistering noise of fine pitch dropping to a steady thrum as I balanced the propeller speed at seventy-five percent. I banked the aircraft hard over through a thousand feet and overflew the runway, looking down at the apron. Igor and the other two Russians were still visible, isolated in stark contrast against the ice and snow on the apron, their faces turned up to the sky.
I looked at my watch. It was 18:20 UTC. I looked at the fuel quantity. Just under fifteen hundred pounds of fuel, enough for about three hours. I was lucky the aircraft had been left with so much fuel in it, but I could have been luckier. The aircraft GPS was not picking up any satellites. I assumed that the satellite network was down, something that had never happened before, to my knowledge, and confirmed the most calamitous scenarios I had seen on the Russian news. This also meant that my FMS was useless, and with no charts or land-based navigation aids to follow I would be scud-running along the coast, navigating visually for the full run. If my fuel held. I estimated it was about three hours to Nome, the nearest friendly port of call in the vast expanse of snow and ice and frozen sea laid out ahead of me beneath the cold veil of night and cloud.
The shoreline was a white shoulder of sloping tundra and cliffs, jagged and barren, that dropped from the white crenellations of barren mountains to the empty, white, pearlescent expanse of the frozen sea. I settled in low alongside this ragged demarcation, the rising terrain passing by the left wingtip of the aircraft, the irregular white line of the coast leading me onwards, the aircraft suspended in darkness between pallid planes of white, the sky and the sea, bearing nearly due east according to the wobbling whiskey compass mounted near the windscreen – an unreliable oracle this far north of the arctic circle, but the only one I had. The sun would not yet rise for several hours but I bore towards it, against the turning of the earth, as if trying to wind back a giant clock.
There was only one community that I knew of between Anadyr and the Bering Strait – Provideniya Bay, an outpost nestled near the mouth of a small fjord, nothing but a runway of dirt and a smattering of buildings and houses. As I went by I saw no lights. I wondered how long communities like it and the scattered native hamlets would survive in isolation.
There was plenty of time to think. I kept the machine following the shoreline and my thoughts rolled back in time, carried with the aircraft like a boat against an implacable current, random memories rising to the surface. I recalled a night, almost twenty years earlier, with friends in the remote hours of the night, a guitar being played in the next room, people singing, bottles scattered about and lining the counter. I remembered the love I had for those people. It all seemed so distant. Tears welled in my eyes, and I remembered that night in that moment, pausing in the kitchen, imagining them all gone, leaving me old and alone to witness their vanished lives, awash in the current of time, and I thought how this drunken premonition had come to pass, but I was not old, and instead I would bear witness to a cold and empty world.
As the higher terrain around Provideniya receded towards the North – to lower reaches of tundra, barren lands that ran along the Bering Strait – and as the first glimmer of a sunrise appeared on the horizon, casting its oblique light across the tundra, it conjured a lost vision of these lands eons old, of shorelines now inundated and landmarks buried, a panorama of plains and grass, wild and pristine, suddenly liminal and within reach. I felt if I looked hard enough, down below I would see some of the world’s earliest pilgrims encamped near herds of beasts long gone from the earth as they followed them across this far perimeter of perpetual twilight, bundled in hides and bathed in the cosmic aurora of green and red that spilled across the cold stars in the depths of night. I wondered if their shamans told them of the lands that would unfold before them, a new world, tethered to the old by a tenuous bridge that would rise from the sea and then recede, vanishing like a road of ice with the turning of the earth. How many generations would pass before their descendants plied the depths of jungles half a world away, building temples and scrying the heavens. Or was the future as inscrutable then as it was now?
Soon there was nothing but ice. The Bering Strait, hibernating beneath its winter mantle. All I could do was hold my course and check my fuel, obsessively. I monitored the radio and made several calls, but they were swallowed by a surreal silence on all frequencies. I tuned up the Nome NDB but received no signal or ident, not a flicker of a needle.
The sun crested the horizon in its low arc to the south and was soon obscured by an approaching snowstorm. With it came the amber warning light on the instrument panel, showing low fuel. In the faint light of dawn I was forced to descend to five hundred feet above the ice to keep the surface in sight. The visibility dropped to a couple miles in heavy snow, swirling in the light of the new day. Finding Nome would now be the desperate groping of a man nearly blind and lost.
When I saw the ragged line of the Alaskan shore through the snow, it was desolate. Nothing but more snow and ice braced up against the sea. I banked low along it towards the south, hopefully in the direction of Nome. With a chime in my headset a new message displayed my final low fuel warning. I had fifteen minutes of fuel till the engines flamed out. Still fighting the low cloud and snow with no sign of Nome, I took the first lifeline I saw and turned up a river that breached the forsaken stretch of shore. From flying over the area on previous flights I knew that inland were small lakes and even scrub trees, short and stunted and huddled close to waterways, and now I looked desperately for a place to land, for shelter. I selected the ski position lever to down and watched the three lights go green as the skis locked down below the wheels and I wove slow and low to the ground above the river, it’s white banks sliding past. The river’s course opened into a broad bend where it gathered in a small lake, the shores of both river and lake lined with pines.
With a last look at the fuel gauges I banked low across the lake, studying the surface, looking for a smooth landing place. In the flat light under the overcast any drifts or snowbanks that could damage the aircraft would be hidden, but it no longer mattered if I broke the airplane. And I was out of time. I lined up with a shoreline fringed with stunted pines and as I brought the flaps down and pushed the prop levers ahead, hearing the high pitch of the flattening blades, I saw a small cabin in the hazy dawn light nestled in the trees near shore. My luck hadn’t yet entirely given up the ghost.
I touched down near it, deep powder streaming up around the aircraft. The shoreline was well protected and despite touching down blindly in the flat light no hidden drifts or snowbanks menaced the aircraft. I brought it to a rest and shut down the engines and it sat placidly, silent amidst the snow. I expected it could well remain there for eternity.
Pulling my parka on, I dropped into the snow. It came nearly to my knees and I trudged through it to the bank and climbed up amongst the scrub. The cabin hunkered beneath eaves heavy with snow, surrounded by trees packed closely about it, like something hiding in its den. Fresh snow had fallen, two small windows on its face were dark, and it looked abandoned.
I cleared the snow from in front of the unlocked door, pulled it open, and went inside.
A radio was racked on the log wall at the far end, its screen alive and glowing blue, its speakers crackling, and after a long digital tone it began reciting a robotic monotone, an inhuman digital pronouncement to any left alive to hear it:
THIS IS NOT A TEST. THIS IS AN ACTIVATION OF THE EMRGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM AUTHORIZED BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. OUR COUNTRY IS AT WAR. IN THE NAME OF PEACE AND LIBERTY FOR ALL FREEDOM LOVING PEOPLE IN THIS GREAT COUNTRY AND AROUND THE WORLD THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN FORCED TO RESPOND TO THE PROVOCATIONS OF THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT IN ORDER TO FORESTALL THE CATASTROPHIC AMBITIONS OF THIS EVIL REGIME. THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN MOVED TO A SECURE AND CLASSIFIED LOCATION. NUCLEAR STRIKES HAVE BEEN ORDERED AGAINST THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION AND HAVE BEEN EXECUTED TO PROTECT THE SECURITY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. IN THIS TIME OF CRISIS OUR GOVERNMENT WILL BE RESOLUTE IN THE FACE OF EVIL AND OUR PEOPLE WILL PERSERVERE. EVERY AMERICAN CITIZEN KNOWS THAT GOD IS ON OUR SIDE AND WITH HIS BLESSING WE WILL MEET ALL THREATS, UNDETERRED.
There were some more tones, long, high, and alien. Then static. Then the message continued. People in the Nome area should be prepared to be self-reliant for the duration of the crisis. They should expect to be cut off from communication and transportation. As it ran on I walked to the small window that looked out into the trees behind the cabin, four panes set in the cross of the wooden frame. In the drifts outside I saw a body. A man, dead in the snow. The face, still melting the freshly fallen snow, was turned upwards and the eyes open as if looking for some answer above. At the end of his splayed arm, his hand still clutched a revolver. Behind his head, a spray of crimson across the white.
I turned away. I thought about all the many miles between me and home and my daughter and looking about the cabin I took a pair of hanging snowshoes off the cabin wall and began ransacking for supplies. It was going to be a long walk into the unknown.