Jul 11 2011 5:34pm
June 30, 1908 AD
It was morning over the boreal forests of central Siberia, and thewilderness had awakened, just as it had since time immemorial, to the rustling of branches, the songs of birds and the buzzing of insects. Deep beneath the ground inside a bunker of concrete and steel, Maxim Rykov sat in his small, Spartan ofﬁce and poured over a pile of notes and charts with the vigor of a fanatic. He had not slept the night before, such was the signiﬁcance of his work, and now his bleary eyes were kept open only by the knowledge that today would be the day that he would deliver Russia from her enemies.
There was a noise at the door, and Rykov looked up to see his fresh-faced aide, Lieutenant Pavlov, watching him.
“What is it, Alexi?” he asked.
“It’s time, sir,” Pavlov said. “The machine is ready.”
Rykov’s face lit up. He leapt to his feet, knocking aside his chair.
“Then we’ve no time to lose!” he cried, rushing to the door.
“Come, Alexi, it is time to change the world!”
* * * *
They hurried into the belly of the bunker, through concrete tunnels lined with pipes and wires. At every turn, soldiers and engineers going about their business passed them and gave the two ofﬁcers salutes that they had no time to return. At length, Rykov arrived at the heart of his creation, a vast engine room ﬁ lled with boilers and generators, thunderous machinery and working men. The air was heavy with steam and smoke and an all-pervasive heat that made him sweat beneath his uniform the instant he crossed the threshold. Pavlov followed, his breath quickening.
“I want pressure at full!” Rykov shouted to the engineers. “Keep those furnaces going!”
He walked to the center of the chamber, where there stood a massive column of metal covered in belts, wires, and gears. All of the pipes and wires in the engine room converged on this single machine, and the engine’s many dials shook violently as the pressure behind them threatened to break them into pieces.
“Is the program loaded?” Rykov demanded.
“Yes, sir,” Pavlov said.
Rykov drew a small punch card from the tunic of his uniform and studied it, his face distorted by a strange half-smile. The card had been made from a piece of tempered steel, its holes cut with the most advanced precision machinery to ensure clean and perfect circles.
“Smile, Alexi,” he said, placing his hand on Pavlov’s shoulder. “Today is the start of a new age.” He swept a hand through his sweat-matted hair. “Fetch me the megaphone. I would like to address the men.”
“Of course, sir.”
When Pavlov had done as instructed, Rykov stepped to the front of the balcony and raised the megaphone. His voice echoed throughout the engine room, drawing his troops to him like a priest calling his congregation. As he spoke, the noise of the room seemed to fade away into the background.
“Soldiers! Brothers! Sons of Mother Russia! Today is a great day! Today is the day when all the world shall be remade by our hands!”
There was a cheer from the crowd, but Rykov waved them into silence.
“We have all toiled so very long and so very hard for this great goal,” he continued. “Some of you have worked for these many months constructing this great engine of Russia’s destiny. Others of you have served alongside me in pursuit of this goal since its ﬁrst inception years ago. But all of you can hold yourselves proud that what you are doing is for the greatness, the glory, and the preservation of our Empire!”
Rykov’s tone became more serious.
“I cannot stress too greatly the urgency of our situation and the necessity of our cause. Russia’s enemies are many, and they will stop at nothing to destroy our beloved empire. In Crimea, the British and the French allied with the godless Turks for no cause greater than to oppose the rightful will of the Tsar. It was ordained that Russia should control all of Asia, the great frontier to our east, and yet the British have stalked us at every turn in their so-called ‘Great Game.’ Now, in desperation, the French turn to us to free them from their isolation, to use us as a weapon against Germany! Now, the hated British seek to lure us into complacency, so that they and their Japanese dogs can tear the Empire into pieces!”
Rykov leaned forward over the balcony, the light of the furnace ﬁres casting his face in orange and crimson.
“Enough, I say!” he cried. A cheer echoed from the crowd. “No longer shall mongrels like the British bite at our heels! No longer shall the craven Austrians and Turks lord over proud Slavs and noble Christians! No longer shall Japan seek to bar our rightful possession of East Asia! With this machine, brothers, we shall harness the very power of the Earth itself, and with the ﬁery might of gods, we shall shatter our enemies and lay waste to their cities! I swear to you that before this day is out, London and Paris, Berlin and Vienna, Tokyo and Peking will all burn! We shall defend Church and Tsar whatever the cost our foes must pay!”
Another great cheer rose from the soldiers and engineers, but it was to be short-lived. As Rykov stood, arm outstretched as if to take the very future within his grasp, the air became heavy as if a storm was about to break, and the stench of ozone rose to assail the noses of the men. A torrent of sparks erupted from the generators, followed by bursts of electrical discharge. The pressure gauges went mad under the strain, and pipes began to burst as steam struggled to vent between the joins.
Though almost overcome with panic, the engineers rushed to their stations and began struggling with the machinery. Under the increased pressure, the belts and ﬂywheels thundered louder than ever, drowning out the screams that arose when clouds of boiling vapor erupted around the men. The bunker shook as if rocked by the blows of heavy artillery.
Rykov bounded down from the balcony and grabbed one of the engineers by the arm.
“What happened?” he demanded.
“Some sort of electrical surge!” the engineer cried. “It is running along the metal supports in the walls, and the boiler pressure has doubled without any increased heat. I do not understand it!”
Pavlov grabbed his commander’s arm. “Major, we must give the order to evacuate! The engines could explode at any moment! If we don’t leave now, we could be boiled alive!”
The chamber shook again.
“Good God!” Pavlov cried. “I think we’re sinking into the ground!”
“I will not give up when we are so close!” Rykov rushed for the central machine. “We must activate the machine now, before it is too late!”
“Activate it?” Pavlov gasped. He rushed forward and tried to bar Rykov’s way. “If the machine is turned on now, there’s no way of knowing what it might do! There’s too much pressure and electricity for it to handle!”
“Out of my way, Alexi!” Rykov shouted.
Pavlov pressed his back against the machine’s control panel, blocking Rykov’s access to it.
“You’ll kill us all!” he cried.
There was a dreadful ﬁre in Rykov’s eyes as he drew his revolver and leveled it at Pavlov.
“I will kill any man who stands between me and Russia’s destiny. Even you, Alexi.”
“No . . .” Pavlov said.
Rykov ﬁred without hesitation.
The gunshot was scarcely heard above the noise of the engines, and none of the soldiers showed any sign of noticing. By then they were all too intent upon their own survival, some struggling to relieve the pressure of the boilers, others ﬂeeing for their lives, certain that doom had come.
Rykov kicked Pavlov’s body aside and raised the command card. He shoved it into its slot.
A cascade of sparks showered down around him and lightning arced across the room. Rykov placed his hand on the machine’s control switch. A hymn to glory pounded with the blood in his ears.
“Today is the day we change the world!” he cried and threw the switch.