Captain Second Rank Sergei Andropoyov pulled the heavy sealskin coat even more tightly around his body and stepped out of the Naval Command Building into the bitter Arctic wind. He hated winters in this gray, God-forsaken land. The sun never dared rise above the horizon and the icy wind, its fangs bare, howled in off the Barents Sea, just a few miles to the north.
At times Sergei wondered why anyone would ever build a submarine base in a desolate place such as this, but he knew the answer: water. When she was a mighty sea power, Mother Russia needed access to the world’s oceans, and this was the best she had. The warm southern ports were all bottled up on inland seas, but here, ports on the bleak, bitter-cold Kola Peninsula offered a gateway to the west. Submarines could depart into a narrow ribbon of open water in the Barents Sea before disappearing under thousands of square miles of Arctic ice. Driving submarines out of this extreme environment demanded hard men and strong ships, but those sailors and boats had done their jobs for the motherland, and had done them well.
Captain Andropoyov pulled the fox fur hat even farther down over his ears and yanked the heavy fur-lined mittens onto his stiffening hands. He glanced around before stepping off the little stoop into the horizontally blowing snow. The dull gray buildings that made up the Polyarnyy Northern Fleet Submarine Base added no color at all, nothing that might alleviate the drabness of the landscape. They only served to funnel the icy winds into an even more concentrated blast of knife-sharp cold.
Andropoyov walked quickly to the slushy street that ran in front of the building and jumped into the back seat of the old black Zil waiting at the curb. He didn’t utter a word to the tall, thin man who held the car’s door open for him. Michman Tschierschkey slammed the door shut and scurried around to climb into the driver’s side.
“Back to the ship, Captain?” he asked, rubbing his nose with both hands to get the circulation going again.
“Oh, da, Tschierschkovich,” Andropoyov said without even looking up. “It is time for us to be sailors again.”
The two men had sailed together for as long as Andropoyov could remember. Tschierschkey was a draftee onboard the old submarine Kommosellet when Andropoyov first reported aboard, fresh out of the Soviet Naval School at Stalingrad. Much had changed in the years since. The city was called St. Petersburg once again, the Soviet Union no longer existed, and the mighty Northern Fleet of the U.S.S.R. was nothing more than a rusting shell.
That is, except for Sergei Andropoyov’s new submarine. The K-475 , Gepard, waited in the covered sub pen at Shkval on Olenya Bay, newly completed and hungry for her first taste of the sea.
“We have orders, Captain?” Tschierschkey asked, his eyes wide as he turned to look back at his commander.
“We sail with the tide.” Andropoyov met the gaze of the thin man, his eyes squinting in mock anger. “Admiral Durov will not be sympathetic if we are late because my insolent driver wanted to sit here in front of his headquarters and chat.”
Tschierschkey wore a broad grin as he turned and ground the car’s starter. He already had the inside of the old Zil warm, just the way he knew Andropoyov liked it. The captain slipped off the heavy mittens and pulled the fur cap from his head, revealing a disheveled shock of white-blonde hair. He sat back in the seat and sighed as the old Michman pulled away from the curb, skewing a bit in the patchy ice in the roadway.
The ride over the steep, pot-holed streets back to where his boat awaited him would give Andropoyov time to reflect on the meeting he had just completed. Admiral of the Northern Fleet Durov had been his usual imperious self, but as well as he knew him, Sergei had never seen him act quite the way he had this morning.
Over his career, Durov had single-handedly built the Soviet Northern Fleet into the largest, most potent submarine force in the world. Then, as he was not shy about telling anyone who would listen, he had watched it all be discarded by the spineless politicians in Moscow. On several occasions Sergei Andropoyov had seen him foam at the mouth as he ranted on and on about the castration of his beloved submarine service, all to appease the Americans and the clear-eyed capitalists in his own nation who would rather be rich than omnipotent, comfortable instead of supreme.