Kaigun: Steampunk chapter 6

The Curator, 2017, Novosibirsk

In a dark corner of Kamchatka, in a dark corner of the Museum of Victory Against the Ravening Hun, Sergei Andropov worked alone. Deep in the “Cold War” against the lucky Americans, nobody had money for a vacation to visit the frozen pimple on the bum of Nowheresibirsk. Sergei smiled at his private joke. Nobody would get it but him. Nobody would understand an American pun.

He sighed. Realistically, he knew nobody would even come, ever. That there was a museum of any kind here was a testament to the grant writing prowess of some long dead overambitious apparatchik, a bureaucrat with a golden tongue and probably good party connections to boot. Not only was Novosibirsk out of the way, but civilization itself seemed to be falling into disrepair. Now his town had a large, bunker-like (as all buildings) unvisited equipment mausoleum which, truth be told, mothballed rather than displayed all these artifacts of earlier wars.

Quite an exotic collection! Dr. Andropov had trained in history and foreign languages, and had lead the museum’s procurement efforts during it’s heyday in the 1980’s. With a charter to specialize in warfare, and incisive understanding of European cultures, he’d tried to identify things uniquely Russian in design for the museum, an in consequence the collection tended to hyperbolic overdesign, simplicity, impracticality, and a complete lack of any concession to human frailties. There were insanely overpowered piston fighter planes sprouting propellers from both ends, lean ground to air missiles that could suss out the body heat of a chicken, and something describable only as a blunt copy of an American Jeep, over-heavy but with an undoubtedly deadly gatling gun mounted to its rollbar. Sergei was familiar with the American TV show that surely spawned this fighting vehicle.

There was a beautiful T-58 tank, squat and teardropped, impossibly heavy, like a fat tic the size of a cafe, only it could roll at 50km/hour, and had an elephant’s trunk of a weapon that could fire a radar homing missile or vomit a meteoric slug of spent plutonium a dozen miles into a target the size of a pretty girl’s backside. Mostly of milled titanium, the tank gave off a gray sheen of permanence like fine jewelry, and Sergei worked to keep it that way.

There was a six pack of suicide submarines, diesel powered with prehensile siphons that featured a flanged cutting bit that could twist and plunge, slowly reaming upward through polar ice pack. Sergei imagined their frozen hypoxic 3 man crews, working the manually actuated mechanism, thrusting at levers and springs in dark desperation, erecting a tube through which life would flow, the very existence of their heirs, the whole line of unborn progeny hanging in the balance, although success would only mean a chance to breathe another day and maybe glorious immolation on an unremarked beach by a Seattle Navy base. Somehow these subs didn’t catch Sergei’s attention here, 200 miles from ocean they seemed out of place and useless; he let them rust, just a little.

A modern version of one of those subs had actually succeeded, beginning the cataclysm, a war the Americans didn’t really think Russia would want, but they underestimated both desperation and fatalism of a people used to winning wars by starving and freezing slower than the other guys. Russia had lost the war’s first hot round in a sparkle of evaporating cities, but this round would be decades long, bullet-less, and fought each night when, in ramshackle cabins dotted across taiga not worth bombing, lonely farmers, trappers and museum curators boiled tea made from pine needles and roasted marmot over open flames rather than merely laying down to die.

His grandfather from the infantry would have been proud to see that Sergei continued to do his duty years after the paychecks stopped, the electricity was turned off, and the trains quit coming. He could chop wood, pluck a chicken, keep the museum’s machinery oiled, and had a tiny stash of real tea secreted away in a heavy brass canister, just in case a party official should visit, or maybe a woman.

Sergei always came to work but he’d stopped doing housekeeping and begin putting his efforts into preservation. The machines liked it better, he felt sure. Growing older and with a wet cough that bothered on cold nights, Sergei spent most evenings amongst his charges, though their cold iron bellies, unfired, gave no actual warmth, he’d sleep inside one or another, on a bed of stiff heavy canvas, his tools at hand, a doctor on call for patients in need only of admiration and rustproofing.

Tonight he lit a candle and gently patted the curved flank of his favorite, the Sovetski Kaigun. Conceived just before the first war, but then somehow bypassed in popularity by the whining airplane, she was intended to be invulnerable, first of a class of prairie dreadnoughts meant to evoke the Motherland’s supremacy on tundra just as Japan’s seagoing navy laid claim to the ocean. Ten meters wide and more than twice as long, made of walnut, oak and iron, she carried a locomotive’s heart slung low between double rows of overlapping iron wheels two meters tall. A swollen cathedral of timber enclosed it all , protecting the control bridge forward, the captains room in the back, and mess & bunk house for her crew of 20 amidships. Armor plate was fastened over every vulnerable surface with bulbous inch-wide rivets. Below, on either side of the boiler, firemen would feed her maw, consuming in just a few days all the bunker’s store of coal or wood, but, train-like, she could pull a sledge carrying another barn load of fuel, and her natural element, this vast chill forest, would always provide more.

Left and right in sponsons were the great guns, steam powered rifles he had named Leviathian and Ineluctable, their names stenciled lovingly on the barrels. Each would fire an enormous javelin, a seven foot long cylinder of birch or aspen, 2” across and tipped with a 12km slug of polished bronze or iron. The manual called them “bolts” for some reason Sergei’s mostly encyclopedic knowledge didn’t encompass. Breech loaded, each of the two big rifles could be charged in a few seconds by one man, while another cranked the aiming gears and a third operated the steam launching valves. On firing, the pressure would splinter and swell the last foot or two of the bolt, sealing the barrel and making the launch all the harder and deadly straight. It could shoot 7 miles and sounded like what it was, the bursting exhalation of a mighty steam piston.. With a blunt tip, one of these missiles could make a charging cavalry horse disappear in a red cloud or explode an ancient spruce. With a sharpened iron tip it would pierce a foot of battleship plate armor leaving a head sized hole that looked vaguely molten. (Sergei had learned this in an illicit test he’d allowed himself during the riots after the collapse, before his curator’s urge had reasserted.)

He loved Kaigun best of all and traced his fingers sensually over her armor plate, checking to assure the red grease covered every inch. She smelled of oil and glistened in the candlelight waiting for him, like a woman coiled around her champagne. Except for the greased decolletage of her armor swelling, she was a prude, this one, draped in oiled canvas with undergarments of waxed butcher paper to keep out prying eyes, moisture, bugs and dust. Wherever it showed, her wooden skin had been slathered with teak oil and then massaged with beeswax until it gleamed. Inside the rich wood and polished brass looked warm and inviting, as though a feast would soon be served. Starving just a little bit, Sergei imagined it. Thick smoked glass covered round plates of steaming salmon and tureens of borscht which during the day ensconsed only steam gauges. Overhead, entrails of copper piping warned “chaud” in black Cyrillic, just as they would on the espresso machine in a trendy St. Petersburg cafe. Sergei thought he could hear the orchestra warming up, and smelled Gruyere and tarragon bubbling on top of a Vichy onion broth. He hiked up the collar of his felted wool shirt, loosened his boots and sat down to make an entry in the Captain’s Log before his candle finally guttered out.

“May 30th. Machinery checked. No steam or mission orders. Crew, absent, will face strictest discipline.”

Sergei worried his irony would someday be mistaken for frank insanity, but figured he was safe, nobody would ever read this.

“Checked the munitions stores, 224 rounds total, 75 flechette, 75 wooden, and 74 iron tipped. 900 javelin blanks and 300 tips also stored in the trailer. Coal bunker topped off. I have copied the manuals against the chance they’ll be needed by new crew. Bound these each in waxed leather and hung close to hand in each crewman’s station, clipped to brass chains to prevent misplacement. The boiler’s been drained to preclude rot, and the captain’s store of wine moved to the firebox, against summer heat. I have sharpened and greased the onceler as well, should be quite serviceable. [“Onceler “was a reciprocating steam saw that hung low just ahead of the front grille, the name another of Sergei’s private jokes.] I have completed all the preparations I can here, and for what? Will she ever make steam? A shame.”

No comments:

Post a Comment