The Ark, Nazis, and Toilet Paper

Оповідь українською

Story by Oleksii Dubrov

Illustrated by Ruslan Vashkevich

“Shut down the station!” roared some of the protesters.

“Save Burshtyn!” chanted another group.

“Stop the flooding!” a third group lamented.

“Stop building the canal!” hollered others.

Andrew, wearing a security guard’s uniform and an ID badge around his neck, stood atop an improvised stage made of stacked wooden palettes. As he looked out on the diverse and boisterous crowd of two hundred people carrying placards, he quietly smiled into his thick black moustache and short beard. Adjusting the sunglasses perched on his nose, he raised the microphone clenched in his fist above his head in a defiant gesture, evoking a new wave of rage-filled shouting.

The protesters, gathered across the street from the Burshtyn Thermal Power Station, had blocked off the road to vehicular traffic. Drivers did not skimp on choice swear words directed at the crowd, seasoning them with the honking of horns: from the low-pitched bellows of trucks to the obnoxiously shrill squeals produced by the horns of subcompact cars.

A train hauling dozens of yellow cisterns emblazoned with the words “SYNTHETIC OIL” had just pulled onto the territory of the power station. The locomotive’s screeching was almost inaudible over the permanent hissing caused by the ejaculation of smoke spewing out of three chimneys the size of the Eiffel tower, their tops lost in a thick fog. It was always hard to breathe around the station, but now that it was functioning at full capacity, after the Khmelnitsky Nuclear Power Plant went offline, it was even worse. All this out of fear of a rocket strike from the territory of Russia, currently in its second year of civilian slaughter. A few hundred meters from the bus stop where Andrew and the protesters had amassed, three construction cranes and dozens of excavators worked without pause, their gigantic buckets digging deeper into the ground with every stroke.

Andrew got down off the pallets and, accompanied by the noisy ovations of the protesters, got into his car and disappeared in the fog a moment later. After driving about a hundred meters, the man turned down a dirt road leading to the back of the plant. Bypassing the traffic jam caused by the protestors, he took a supply road along the shore of the “Sea of Burshtyn” (which is what the locals called the thermal power station’s cooling pond), and stopped by the entrance into a grey, square-shaped building made of concrete, marked by the number “13” neatly applied in black paint near its entrance. He walked through the door and immediately found himself in a machine room, where dozens of workers in orange hard hats were watching other workers completing the task of attaching metal pipes to a giant generator.

Andrew advanced into the room, approaching the workers.

“So, how is ‘building our future’ coming along?” he asked the man dressed in a crumpled blue shirt and jeans, whose hands were firmly planted on his hips.

“Who in the world are you, and what the hell are you doing at this construction site?” the man barked back.

“It’s me,” Andrew took off his glasses and smiled.

“Damn! Sorry, Andriy Viktorovych, I didn’t recognize you with the moustache and beard,” said the worker, adjusting his hard hat. He pointed to Andrew’s uniform and badge and laughed. “Our director is on guard duty today?”

“Oh, I forgot.” Andrew inspected the reflection of his face on the screen of his phone, carefully peeling off the fake facial hair and threw the pieces to the floor.

“A month from now, we’ll be ready to open the floodgates and fill the new Burshtyn sea,” the worker reported. “But you still haven’t resolved the outstanding issue of relocating the town residents.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Andrew waved his hand. “While I distract them with these protests, the government will adopt everything we need it to,” he smiled. “I promise we’ll drown everything and everyone who refuses to leave. And then we’ll release the crocodiles.”

“Why crocodiles?”

“Because everyone’s scared of them,” Andrew shrugged. “I’m terribly afraid of them. Speaking of which,” he pressed a hand to his grumbling stomach, “I haven’t eaten anything since the morning. Where’s your lunch?”

Suddenly, a low male voice filled the machine room, enunciating every syllable: “Synchronization has begun.” Nobody paid it any attention.

“Synchronization of what?” inquired Andrew.

“Synchronization?” the worker he was talking to repeated, bewildered.

“The one announced on the loudspeaker.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Synchronization in ten, nine, eight…”

“There it is again!” Andrew did not relent.

“And again, I don’t hear anything,” the worker objected.

“…four, three, two…”

“Hey! Shut that damn thing off!” Andrew grabbed his head as his vision went black. Abruptly, everything around him disappeared in a white flash, and he lost consciousness.

Andrew regained his senses at precisely the moment the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and blinded him with its harsh rays. Squinting, he looked around slowly, and realized he was lying on a wide sandy beach still wearing the black uniform with a patch identifying him as “security.” There was a forest in front of him and he could hear the sounds of waves from behind. He rose carefully onto his elbows and glanced backward, where just a few meters away was the shore of a vast sea, stretching all the way to the horizon.

“What the hell just happened? Where am I?” Andrew asked himself. Without warning, a horrific headache overcame him. Waves of pain pulsing in time with those of the sea penetrated his brain, causing such agony he wanted to drill a hole in his own skull to release the pressure.

The man tried in vain to rise from the sand while keeping his uniform clean. The intense heat caused the physical exertion of standing up to make his head spin and was reflected in the hundreds of stars he saw in his eyes.

“I need to take cover,” he thought as he tried to find his footing on the sand in his boots. The beach turned into a forest a few dozen meters away. “A palm tree? Next to a pine? And a birch?” Andrew noted in wonder. “Where in the hell am I?” he thought. The unrelenting blaze of the sun left him no option: he had to get into the shade.

Sinking into the sand with every step, Andrew had almost reached the nearest palm when a tall, broad-shouldered blonde man in a grey army uniform jumped out of the underbrush directly in front of him. The stranger looked like he was around fifty years old.

Hande hoch!” the blonde man thundered in German, pointing a pistol at Andrew. “Who are you? What have you done with me? Where am I? Speak, or I’ll shoot! The Führer himself can not save you!”

“Hey, hey, calm down!” Andrew fearfully raised his hands over his head, nearly stumbling as he tried to retreat. Wondering what the heck a Nazi was doing here, he retorted, “I know nothing!”

“You don’t say?” quipped the German as he came forward and pressed the barrel of the pistol to Andrew’s chest, next to the “Security” patch. “You’re sabotaging the search for Atlantis and kidnapping me! Perhaps you are a Jude?”

“Atlantis? Dude, chill out. Are you from one of those historical reenactment clubs? I have no idea where I am, or how I ended up here….” he tried to take a step back, but the pistol seemed to stick to him like a magnet. Suddenly, Andrew’s stomach let out a pitiful groan and his last known memory returned. “I was at work. We’re launching a new project soon… And then there was some kind of synchronization… and now I’m  here…”

The German’s face grew less stern.

“You’ve got one of those too?” he said, pointing at the rectangular-shaped object hanging around Andrew’s neck. He pulled a similar one out of the pocket of his wide pants. “I woke up… with this.”

Andrew looked down in bewilderment. Indeed, there was some kind of circuit board with jagged ends, about the size of a credit card, hanging around his neck.

“Wow. I didn’t even notice it with the ID badge around my neck,” Andrew touched the circuit board to check if it’s real. “Look… they’re slightly different. It looks like we’re both stuck here together. But I am not your enemy.”

“Are you sure you’re not a Jude?” the Nazi continued to press. “And it’s strange you speak German so well…”

“German? I don’t speak a word. Why are you speaking in Ukrainian!?”

“The SS can explain it, I’m sure. If this isn’t some kind of secret military program, of course. We just have to find the local SS office.”

“The SS?” the question flitted through Andrew’s mind. The German hesitated for a few seconds until he came to a decision, lowered his pistol, and returned it to its holster. Out of habit, he automatically smoothed the wrinkles from his military jacket, straightened his stance, and flung his right hand skyward.

Heil Hitler!” the German saluted. “Let’s get acquainted. I’m Hans Müller.”

“I’m Andrew Skoryuk,” he responded, raising his arm above his head with a little trepidation to return the gesture.

“I see! A Slav,” guessed Hans. “Better than a Jew, in any event. We’ll soon conquer you too… but it’s a secret,” he said, then whispered, “Don’t tell anyone I told you. Or the obersturmführer will kill me.”

“I’m Ukrainian,” Andrew clarified. “So, you’re not a reenactor?”

“Reenactor?” the German raised one eyebrow. “No, I serve the Führer in my SS unit!” he proudly declared and flung his arm skyward again.

“He’s definitely insane,” Andrew thought. “Something must have happened at the station, and I lost consciousness.” He closed his eyes and pinched himself in the arm, but the German was still there. A second attempt to wake himself up was equally unsuccessful.

“Okay…” the Ukrainian started, “So how did you end up here?”

“I was chewing on a chocolate bar behind my desk at the Reich chancellery… Don’t you dare think for a moment I… it was lunchtime, I was not slacking off! There was a sudden flash… and I came to with this thing around my neck. Over there,” Hans pointed his finger at a pine deep in the underbrush. “Then I see some ugly dark-haired creature wearing a scruffy uniform coming at me. Naturally, I thought you were a Jew in disguise.”

“I see your logic is ironclad,” Andrew declared ironically. “Wait… Führer, SS, Reich chancellery… What year is this?”

О mein Führer! One thousand nine hundred and forty. What a strange question!”

“My brain is really fried,” Andrew concluded to himself. “Fine. Let’s see where this all leads. Hopefully it’s back to God-forsaken Burshtyn.”

“So, what are we going to do… about all this?” Andrew inquired.

“We need to find the closest radio communication station and call in the paratroopers,” Hans suggested.

“Radio communication station? On this island? (Or whatever hell this place is?) Let’s find some water first. I wanted to be part of the Search and Rescue Service when I was a kid and watched a lot of survival videos on YouTube.”

“You watched what?”

“Never mind. There has to be fresh water around here somewhere, or we’re never going to survive this miserable place, wherever we are.”

Hans went first, pushing through the thorny raspberry and blackberry bushes, growing alongside some kind of unfamiliar tropical plants, all the while trying hard not to ruin his uniform. The flora and fauna were so wildly incompatible, it boggled the imagination: one minute, the men almost trodded on a dove, and a second later, a cockatoo flew above their heads. Off in the distance, monkeys and wolves were trading howls back and forth. Moving almost in slow motion, Andrew brought up the rear, carefully studying the surroundings. His heart fell to his feet at the slightest rustle, although he desperately tried to conceal his fear from the Nazi.

“Did you hear that?” Andrew questioned, listening to the wind for the hundredth time.

Nein,” answered Hans, annoyed. He was busy waving his hands in front of his face, trying to chase away the pesky bugs, to no avail.

“I think it’s coming from over there.”

The Ukrainian turned sharply to the right. A few dozen meters later after pushing their way through clumps of cacti and aloe plants, the men emerged into a small clearing with a narrow stream transecting it. Andrew was down on his knees in an instant, and began to wash. The German took out his canteen, drank its contents, thoroughly washed it, and refilled it with the fresh cold water.

Out of the blue, their idyll was shattered by shouting voices. Hans and Andrew looked up to see a man and a woman running, in a panic, out of the forest.

“Save us! They’re going to eat us all!” frantically screamed a pleasantly plump woman of around sixty. She was dressed in a grey business suit clinging tightly to her amorphous body. Her black hair was streaked with grey and gathered in a thick bun.Leaping in bounds completely antithetical for her physical build and tight-fitting skirt, she ran to the astounded German and Ukrainian. As soon as she caught a glimpse of Hans, she yelled out, with newfound strength, “Oh no! A real-life fascist!” She tried to flee, but the SS-man grabbed her by the collar of her suit jacket and held her in place.

“Now, we’ve caught us a Jude for sure,” he said, savoring every word, “Speak. Tell us what you’ve done to us!”

“Jude? No, no, comrade fascist! I’m Belarusian, or Russian to be precise. Vladlena Edwardovna Gromova. I’m Soviet. USSR, not Israel.”

“USSR? Russian? Mein Freund!” With these words, Hans kissed the frightened Belarusian three times on both cheeks, ending with a celebratory “Heil Hitler!” While all this was happening, the woman stood stock-still: she didn’t blink once and held her arms frozen against either side of her body.

Just then, a man approached them, sporting a thick black bun on his head, similar to the Belarusian’s. Average in height and build, he was busily removing a dozen or so thistles stuck to his clothing. The blue silk padded jacket he was wearing suggested the newcomer likely came from somewhere in Asia. “Black hair, sunken eyes,” Andrew assessed him mentally. “An Asian, even in Africa, looks like an Asian. They all look the same.”

“Vladlena Xiaojie, it’s only a few small monkeys. They can’t harm us,” said the Asian in his refined voice. Catching his breath, the newcomer bowed his head before the strangers. His straight posture seemed more noble than polite. “My name is Yu Lidjou, at your service. Have you also arrived from another time?”

“Mist… er… Yu,” Andrew finally interceded in the chaotic situation. “My name is Andrew, and this is Hans,” he pointed to the German, who was imperiously eying both Vladlena and Yu.

“What do you mean ‘from another time’?”

Xian sheng, we are wearing these amulets,” he pointed to the green plates hanging around all of their necks. “I am sure you, like me, are wondering why we awoke in this place for reasons unknown.”

“So, you too?” inquired Hans. “The flash, the headache…”

“Exactly,” said Vladlena, awakening out of her stupor. “This is all the KGB’s doing, without a doubt,” she declared emphatically.

“The KGB? It still exists?” a bewildered Andrew asked out loud.

“How dare you, comrade?!” the woman growled angrily. “The KGB is and forever will be, always. They must have sent us here for a reason. I can understand what all of you are saying. It’s some kind of new technology, and we are inside a government experiment.”

“Hold on,” the Ukrainian grabbed his head with both hands. “KGB, amulets, Führer, flash, another time… What kind of devil’s cabal is this? I’m supposed to be at the construction site of the new Dnister-Hnyla Lypa River canal!”

“Hnyla what?” asked Hans.

“See here,” Yu interrupted the German. “I arrived from China, from the one thousand six hundred and tenth year of your religion. Vladlena Xiaojie is from the one thousand nine hundred and seventy-second. We are, without a doubt, caught in the circle of Samsara. Andrew Xian sheng, Hans Xian sheng, what years do you remember before the flash?”

“One thousand nine hundred and forty, France…”

“All I know is it’s two thousand and twenty-six…” muttered the Ukrainian, as he sat down on the grass, exhausted, and tucked his knees under his chin. Confused about what this could mean, guessing it may be some kind of experiment, a deranged smile spread across his face, and he started laughing hysterically, like a madman. “This is where we go our separate ways.”

“Andrew, has the communist paradise been realized in your time?” Vladlena interrupted his fit of laughter.

“Stop talking nonsense, Mein Freund! Communism has not won out,” Hans said in anger. “The Führer would never allow it. Because we are the future!” he added condescendingly.

“Stop calling me that!” the woman said, as she lowered her eyes in undisguised fear of the towering German. “A communist is no friend to a fascist!”

“Oh, I see. When it comes to the partition of Poland and marching together in Brest, then it’s ‘comrade’,” the soldier snarled, mimicking her voice derisively. “But when it comes to saying it in public, you run and hide in the bushes. It’s simply disgraceful, by the way.”

“You are so crude! And infantile!” gibbered Vladlena, furious.

Andrew hopped to his feet and held up his hands in a gesture signaling to both of them to stop.

“This is nuts,” he said, trying to tame his own hysterical laughter. The Ukrainian turned to look at the German, Belarusian, and man from China. “I hope I simply hit my head and am unconscious.”

“However, if this really is the circle of Samsara, then we must undergo a set of spiritual trials before being reborn in other bodies,” said Yu, trying to sound reasonable.

“How do you know about our research programs?” Hans’s eyes widened in wonder.

“Or it’s the KGB,” Vladlena categorically fired back.

“You’re all delusional,” Andrew tried to distance himself from them.

“Whatever the case, I saw a settlement not far from here,” Yu said. “Just before I met Vladlena, when she was running away from the monkeys.”

“Why didn’t you say so! There should be a radio communication station there, and we can call in the paratroopers,” said Hans with elation.

“The hell with it!!! Let’s play this game,” the Ukrainian agreed.

“I was also surprised to find nobody here the first time I saw the place,” said Yu, in a somewhat accusatory tone, trailing behind the rest of the group.

Coming out of the palm-pine forest, Yu’s words proved true, and they found themselves approaching a small village. It included a dozen single-story brick and wooden homes, overgrown by moss and covered with ivy, the village looking as if it had been plucked out of the heart of England. They passed several homes and wound up in a small round village green with a well in the center. There were wagons and food stalls scattered about the plaza, but not a single living soul tending them.

“Hande hoch!” yelled Hans at the top of his lungs. “Whoever is here! In the name of Führer, these buildings and food now belong to the Reich!”

“We’ll see about that. The Soviet Union has more of a legal claim to them. They look like traditional Russian log houses. A friend of mine who is a historian at Minsk University…”

“Stop your yelling,” Andrew interrupted them, “haven’t you read any Stephen King? Abandoned settlements don’t bode well.”

“At least someone has brains around here,” Vladlena smiled at Andrew, only to be distracted by the stalls with food on their counters. “The village appears abandoned, but the produce is remarkably fresh and tasty. I’ve never seen so much, even on my trip to Moscow,” the homo sovieticus said, stuffing sausage and bread into her mouth from one of the stalls. She chased it down with an apple. “Well, maybe the sausage spent a little too much time in the sun. But it still tastes better than the stuff I get through my connections.”

“The French fed us sausage like this. My stomach was twisted in knots from it…” Hans started in.

“Eat while there’s food,” interjected Andrew, whose stomach, finally, got the lunch it had been waiting for.

“If only they had breaded cutlets,” blubbered Vladlena, as she licked her fingers.

Their banter was unexpectedly interrupted by dull banging coming from the nearest building.

“I think someone’s in there,” Yu said, pointing at a wooden building with a sloping roof and a sign with the word “Tavern.” A faint light was barely visible flickering in its window.

“Maybe they know more about this place,” suggested Andrew, wiping his mouth clean with his sleeve.

“Do you mind if I stay out here in the fresh air?” the Chinese man spoke again, as the four approached the door. “My head is really starting to hurt.”

“Do what you want to,” Andrew yielded to his wishes. “We’ll call you.”

The woman and two men entered the spacious “Tavern” hall, where small round tables and stools were scattered about chaotically. There was nobody behind the bar on the other end of the room, but there were a few barrels on the shelf behind it. Hans marched confidently straight to the bar.

“Heil Hitler! Is anybody here?” he called out, directing his words at the wall with the barrels. Instead of a response, they heard quiet snoring. Hans looked in the direction the sound was coming from. There, at a table in the corner, sat a bearded man in dirty clothing. To be precise, he was lying face down on the table, surrounded by at least two dozen wooden mugs, some empty, some full.

Hans moved toward him first and tried to wake him. Andrew and Vladlena exchanged glances, then came closer carefully. The Nazi touched the sleeping man’s shoulder lightly, to which he received a snort in response. Hans proceeded to shake the man harder. Startled, the bearded man jumped up waving his arms in the air, then fell back down onto his stool. Barely opening his swollen (from alcohol abuse) red eyes, he wheezed:

“Wow! They finally… hic… sent some, hic… newcomers?”

“I’m Andrew, and this is Hans and that’s Vladlena,” the Ukrainian gestured at his fellow travelers. “We want to go home.”

“Home?” the bearded man guffawed loudly, his periodic hiccups interrupting his laughter. “Then why did you come here?”

“It’s not like we wanted to!” Vladlena grunted, touching the dirty bar in disdain. “We all woke up in the middle of a forest, and for some reason we think we’re all living in different times…”

“Why, you’re in the… hic… in the Ark. This is where your worlds converge. How many are there… two, three, or ten… I can’t remember anymore… You come here and speak a language you can all understand…” he said, pulling his chair closer to the table.

“What’s this idiocy? What ‘other worlds’? This all sounds so un-scientific,” Vladlena was outraged, focusing her gaze on the bar patron.

“Idiocy like your communism! Haven’t you heard of Einstein, genius?” Hans ridiculed her. “And who exactly are you?” the German directed the question to the drunk. “Are you a Jude?”

“Jude? Who else would I be?!” the bearded man raised his head and pointed down at the table with his index finger. “I live here… on my own… no longer with my wife and children,” he hiccupped loudly again and abruptly broke out in tears. “Forever alone, above all the worlds… Unless there are more… hic…

“This is some village ‘philosopher,’ I’ve met his type before. They don’t know anything,” the German retorted condescendingly, as he moved his hand to the pistol jutting out of his holster.

“My first thought was he is KGB. But they don’t drink like that, except, perhaps, those at the top…” Vladlena pondered aloud as she paced around the room. “And I’m sure you never touch a drop,” she turned to Andrew, smiling crookedly. Just then she tripped on the leg of one of the stools and nearly fell onto the empty table in front of her.

“Wait!” the Ukrainian cried out, ignoring the woman. He used his arms to hop onto the bar stool opposite the patron. “Let’s say you are telling the truth, and this really is ‘The Ark.’ How would we get out of here?”

“Why should I… hic… tell you?” the drunk mumbled, still half-asleep.

“You non-Aryan scum!” Hans was beside the bearded old man in an instant and pressed the pistol against the bar patron’s throat. “Answer him! Or I’ll shoot!”

The man at the table started laughing so hard, he nearly choked on his own saliva.

“Go ahead! Kill me! I won’t die anyway,” all of a sudden, the drunk switched from laughing uncontrollably to convulsively sobbing. He took a few seconds to settle down, then peered at those present, widening his eyes as much as possible. “Or help me drink this beer. It’s getting warm. Seems I poured too much… I actually prefer wine myself…”

The travelers, be it through time or space, looked at one another. Stunned by this demand, they quietly looked at one another, waiting for somebody else to take the initiative. Guiltily, Vladlena lowered her eyes to the floor. Andrew was also having second thoughts.

“Certainly, this must be the spiritual trial the yellow man was talking about,” exhaled Hans. He decisively pulled a stool closer and sat down across from the bearded man. Vladlena came forward hesitatingly and was about to follow suit.

“Go away,” the German stopped her, “or I’ll shoot you on the spot. You’re allowed to do anything with a communist, except drink beer. Even more so with a woman.”

The Belarusian’s hands shook as she pushed the stool back to its original spot. Hans picked up a mug and emptied it in one swig. The same fate befell the second, and then the third… and then the ninth… The German drank the beer like water. At last, there was one mug left. He paused for a moment, undecided, then proceeded to raise the last mug as confidently as the ones before and emptied the glass. Vladlena and Andrew watched him, gaping with amazement.

“Now you will tell us how to get off this Ark,” demanded the Nazi, without a trace of drunkenness.

“Oh, you didn’t… hic… leave any for me? How about a drink while we talk…”

“Tell us, I say!” Hans banged his fist on the table with all his might. Two empty mugs fell over, dropped to the floor, and rolled under the table.

“Okay, okay,” the bearded man capitulated. His hand shaking, he pointed behind his back. “Go that way, you’ll find a lake. There, on the shore… hic… you’ll find the place… hic…it controls everything. You can go back to your worlds from there… or maybe you can’t. I don’t know because I’ve never tried. You need to do it all together, at the same time, or it won’t work… Unless you have the gold plate, of course,” the man started to sob again. “And be very careful: Don’t rewrite anything and… hic… avoid the…

But nobody was listening to him anymore. Having discovered where they needed to go, the group promptly left the tavern. Yu was standing among the stalls, stuffing food into the folds of his jacket. A minute later, the travelers left the village, moving in the direction they were told to by a random alcoholic they encountered at the local bar.

The drunk wasn’t lying. A little under a kilometer away from the village, Andrew, Hans, Vladlena, and Yu arrived at the shore of a lake. Night was falling, the water was smooth as glass, and there was a pleasantly cool breeze.

“So. Where is this place?” asked the woman, spreading her hands.

Her fellow travelers looked around, but nobody spotted anything looking like a control center. The sun had almost set, the light was waning, and the lake was quite large. It would take some time to walk along its entire shore. Vladlena leaned over the water, studiously exploring its calm surface. Hans, sweeping the beads of sweat off his forehead, took out his canteen, and drank a few gulps. Yu, meanwhile, had taken off his coat. Underneath he was dressed in a short silk tunic, pale yellow in color. He carefully folded his garment and placed it down neatly alongside the food he had been carrying. He lay down on the sand in silence and promptly shut his eyes, exhausted.

“It looks like we have to wait until dawn,” suggested Andrew. “We’ll make camp. We can sit on these logs,” he pointed at some fallen trees rotted at their core, scattered on the ground near where the group stood. Then he motioned toward the forest with his hand. “I hope they’re no beasts of prey around here. I heard wolves down by the ocean.”

“There are wolves here?” Vladlena asked, frightened, as she hurried to stand closer to the two men.

“Don’t worry. They don’t like the taste of communists,” remarked the German bitingly.

“Stop abusing me, fascist! I teach Marxism-Leninism at the university and will not tolerate it. It’s an ‘elite specialization,’ by the way.”

“Well, then it’s perfectly clear why you don’t know anything about Einstein. Lenin never wrote anything about him. And if you’re really from a university, then you ought to know I am a Nazi, not a fascist!” Hans flicked the edge of her nose with his finger. “And proud of it. Heil Hitler!”

Suddenly, Vladlena doubled over, grabbing her stomach. She plopped down onto the ground, writhing in even greater pain.

“Vladlena Xiaojie, what’s wrong?” the Chinese man jumped up and ran to her.

“My stomach is in knots, like I overate. It’s that sausage. Must be imported…”

“Oh no! Go in the bushes,” Hans ordered. He took some paper, folded several times, out of his pocket, and offered it to the teacher of Marxism-Leninism.

“What’s this?” asked Vladlena.

“Toilet paper. It’s a little rough, true, because it’s army issue. At least it’s something. I never go anywhere without some; anything can happen at our age… Well, you understand…” the German lowered his voice.

“No, I do not understand. I didn’t even know such a thing existed…” murmured the woman as she inspected the paper.

“Are you kidding me? I thought you were from 1972!? What do you wipe yourself with there?”

“Pages from books, the Pravda newspaper,” Vladlena obviously did not understand why this was surprising.

“О mein Führer! I can’t even imagine the Soviets are still wiping their butts with books. It would be better to throw them in a pile and burn them! And they dare tell us Race Theory doesn’t make sense,” he uttered the last phrase under his breath.

Vladlena snatched the paper and disappeared in the bushes. Andrew, meanwhile, gathered tinder and began making a fire, carefully arranging the wood in the form of a structure, as if he was assembling an electrical power station, not a campfire. Yu presciently tossed the sausage into the lake and dished out portions of food on large leaves serving as plates. They made camp a few meters away from the water, underneath a palm tree buttressing a towering spruce. Using another plant, whose flowers looked like small bowls, Yu collected water from the lake. It turned out to be suitable for drinking.

The exhausted foursome ate their dinner in silence, occasionally exchanging short remarks. The sun had completely set beyond the horizon an hour after their arrival, and the entire area was plunged into darkness. The flames of the campfire provided the only source of light in this strange, nightmare of a world.

“What am I even doing here? I woke up this morning, as usual, in the rented apartment in that stinky little town, now here I am wandering around a jungle, God knows where. Why me?” Andrew’s thoughts did not relent, preventing him from sleeping. He looked at his fellow travelers: Hans and Yu were sound asleep; Vladlena was tossing and turning from side to side, sighing heavily with each movement. After a final sigh, she rose and quietly approached the Ukrainian.

“Listen, you’re a communist, right?” she asked in a whisper as she sat down beside him, close enough for their shoulders to touch.

“Why would I be?” said Andrew, as he shirked away, sliding closer to keep a comfortable distance between them. Vladlena ignored his attempt at establishing the boundaries of his personal space.

“Because communism is the future. By the way, I know a thing or two about canals. I’ve written three books about the White Sea Canal,” the university instructor continued to lean towards him. “You’re still so young. You must be studying somewhere.”

“I thought you taught Marxism-Leninism?”

“That too. We need to get rid of the fascist. Let’s go somewhere where nobody will bother us,” she said as her breath grew heavier and faster, “to discuss the details of the plan.”  

“I’m not going anywhere with you!” Andrew worried he may have protested too loudly, but Hans, snoring noisily, merely rolled over.

“After we report this to the KGB, they’ll honor us as ‘Heroes of the USSR’,” Vladlena’s eyes glowed as she placed her warm, sticky palm on Andrew’s knee, “at an awards ceremony in the Kremlin itself.”

“Stop it!” the Ukrainian shoved her hand off his knee and leapt to his feet. “You’re old enough to be my mother!”

Even in the darkness, Andrew could see how the university instructor’s wrinkled face flushed crimson with rage. She surged to her feet, took a gigantic windup, and landed such a powerful slap on his face he saw supernovas, never mind stars.

“How rude! How infantile!” seethed Vladlena. Hans and Yu sat up, wiping the sleep from their eyes. “You are not a real communist! When I get back to Minsk, I promise I will report you to the proper authorities,” threatened the homo sovieticus. “I’m only thirty-five, I’ll have you know.”

“Communism spares no one,” mumbled Hans, turning away to lay on his other side.

Vladlena stormed off in the direction of the lake, the low heels of her well-worn shoes sinking in the sand. A few seconds later she let out an ear-piercing shriek and bolted back to the camp in the spruce-palm forest. Out of breath, the woman tried desperately to tell the others what happened, but all she could manage was to collapse onto her sizable behind and gesture wildly towards the water. Hans and Yu sprung to their feet, awakened by the ruckus. Just then, the head of a crocodile appeared in the nimbus of light from the campfire. Vladlena tried clambering backwards into the forest as quickly as possible. The German grabbed his pistol. Andrew froze on the spot, as if his feet were glued to the ground.

Hans fired. The first bullet only injured the reptile, causing the crocodile to become enraged.

“О mein Führer, it jammed!” yelled the German, trying in vain to pull the trigger again. “Throw something into his mouth, Andrew!”

But Andrew was numb. Fear had completely paralyzed him. Right then, Yu, having found a fairly large rock, hit the crocodile in the right eye with a well-aimed throw. This disoriented the reptile for only a second, but it was all Hans needed to get another shot off. The bullet penetrated the croc’s skull right between the eyes. The crocodile flailed his tail about several times in agony, then stilled.

Exhaling a rush of air from his lungs, Hans sat down on the ground, pulled a copper cigarette case out of his pocket and lit a smoke. Breathing heavily, Vladlena sat down beside him. Yu, meanwhile, inspected the beast with great interest.

“C-c-can I have one of those?” the Belarusian asked, pointing to the cigarette, white smoke lazily rising from its lit end.

“Here. Maybe this will settle you down and stop your shrieking,” Hans offered her a cigarette and helped light it. Her lips aquiver, Vladlena greedily took a few drags. After the third one, she started to cough. Hans hit her on the back.

“Even though you’re a fascist…”

“For the love of the Führer,” the German interrupted the woman, “I’m a Nazi!”

“Whatever. You saved my life,” Vladlena gazed admiringly at him.

“You don’t say?” grimaced Hans ironically.

“And such a good-looking man,” the Belarusian smiled.

Hans grimaced even more, this time in disgust. He stood and called to Andrew:

“Hey! Let’s drag this crocodile further away from the campfire. It’s bothering me,” the German glanced at Vladlena, who’s wide grin revealed her yellow teeth, then nodded towards the dead reptile. Wide-eyed with fear, Andrew gaped at Hans, eventually finding the internal strength to move his body. They both grabbed the tail and slowly, but surely, dragged the corpse a few meters off to the side.

“Listen, you handled the situation very well,” said Andrew, stuttering, as he tried to start a conversation with the German, but the latter did not react. “It was probably attracted to the campfire. I’ve seen it on YouTube.”

“Do they hand out any ‘balls’ on your tube?” barked Hans in response. The Ukrainian did not reply.

After surviving the surprise attack, the travelers decided to stand guard until the morning. Hans took first watch, followed by Andrew, then Yu and Vladlena. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, except for the occasional howling of the wolves.

As soon as it was light, the travelers resumed their journey along the shoreline. Yu suggested walking barefoot, which was easier on the sandy beach, and everyone agreed. The weather was clear, but the day felt significantly colder. A strong wind began blowing as soon as they set out, driving sand into their eyes, causing constant tearing from the pain. This slowed their progress down even further. Luckily, the lake wasn’t as large as it seemed the night before. It took them 2-3 hours to make it to the opposite shore. Along the way they didn’t see anything resembling a “command center.” The wind chased in clouds, gradually hiding the sun.

“Maybe the alcoholic Jude lied to us. Wait ‘til I get my hands on him…”

“No, Xian sheng, it must be somewhere nearby,” Yu piped in.

“How can you be so sure?” asked the German. The Chinese man did not reply, merely looking away.

The shore grew narrower a few hundred meters further along, with the forest creeping closer to the lake. There, they unexpectedly came upon a well-worn path leading between two palm trees into the depths of the jungle. At this very moment, the wind died down and snow began to fall.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Andrew said. “I suppose that’s the way we should go.”

Hans and Vladlena just shrugged their shoulders, while Yu smiled.

“Something seems off, but I don’t think we have any other choice,” thought the Ukrainian. The foursome entered the forest and, just a few meters in, emerged onto a small meadow in the middle of which stood a wooden hut more closely resembling a shed than a house.

“And this is supposed to be the ‘command center’ for this … Ark?” Vladlena was outraged. “It’s some kind of outhouse.”

“Of course! Who understands toilets better,” Hans managed to utter between bouts of laughter, “than someone from the USSR, where half the people shit under trees, and wipe their asses with books!”

“Who told you that?” the woman asked indignantly, as if she’d forgotten the previous night’s “adventure.”

“We have great analysts working in the SS. We also know at least one professor of Marxism-Leninism cannot restrain from eating expired sausages.”

“Perhaps we can move on and see what’s in there?” Andrew was getting impatient.

“Yes, yes, mein ‘frozen-from-fear’ Führer,” the German replied ironically.

Hans’ comment struck a nerve with Andrew, so he wasn’t paying attention as he rushed into the shed and nearly fell into the underground passage located immediately inside the shed door. The concrete steps leading deeper were well lit with luminescent lamps, which contrasted curiously with the half-collapsed building and the rest of the world outside. Andrew started to descend cautiously, the others following behind. After climbing down some two dozen steps, the foursome emerged into a narrow corridor, which gradually sloped further down below ground.

The corridor ended at a set of massive metal doors. Three vertical lines were painted on the doors, the paint partially peeled off. The lines looked similar to the Roman numeral “ІІІ.” Andrew tried pulling on the long horizontal handle of one of the doors, and then he tried pressing down on it, but the doors did not budge, not even a millimeter. Hans tried as well, but all he could get out of the doors was a tiny creak.

“Maybe both of you should try, together,” suggested Vladlena.

“Look at that! Your mind does work, after all,” smiled Hans. The woman’s face reddened.

The men threw their weight at the door. A metallic screech filled the entire corridor, as the doors seemed to be opening. But they settled back in place a moment later.

“Perhaps we should use this lever?” suggested the Chinese man, pointing at a thick, meter long rod sticking out of the floor. He walked up to it, and easily pulled the lever. The doors screeched as dust flew off of them. Slowly, but surely, they finally opened.

“From the seventeenth century, you say?” asked Hans.

“Chinese civilization was always more advanced,” smiled Yu.

An enormous empty room revealed itself to the four travelers, its walls covered with a multitude of vertical tubes shimmering with a blue and green glow. A metal bridge with railings led away from the door. It ended about twenty meters further, atop a small platform with three electronic panels, a chair in front of each of them. Images of colourful doves adorned the backs of the chairs.

“Oh, Lenin!” Vladlena cried out as she backed away from the railing. “I can’t even see the bottom!”

The two men and the woman made their way quickly over to the platform, as Yu followed quietly behind. Finding themselves in the middle of the huge room, Hans and Vladlena looked around in wonder.

“О mein Führer! I’ve heard about something like this. This may be one of those reactors running on the new fuel they’ve been developing in Hannover …”

“No. Only the KGB could build something like this,” the woman countered with conviction. “These tubes are like large telephone wires,” she added. “They probably know everything with a listening machine like this…”

“Just imagine its potential. It can probably find more than one Atlantis…” continued Hans.

“And Hyperborea…” Vladlena joined him.

“…and build a beautiful and brave new world there!” they yelled in unison, staring into each other’s eyes. You could see genuine happiness on their faces as they smiled sincerely to one another.

“Enough gawking! We need to understand how these computers work,” Andrew said, while the communist and Nazi exchanged their feelings for one another. “I have to build an actual canal, and not waste time listening to your stories!”

In his unkempt security guard uniform still full of sand, Andrew approached one of the panels. On it were a few unmarked buttons and various screens where individual pixels glowed and died down again. “Noah-3000” was inscribed on its lower right corner. There were a few slots above the inscription, similar to the kind for memory cards. One of them was larger than the others.

“This is what the circuit boards are for,” realized the Ukrainian. “But wait… why are there only three computers…” The cold metal barrel of a pistol against his neck prevented Andrew from completing his thought.

“Very well done, Andrew Xian sheng,” Yu’s genteel voice said from behind him. “Now step away from the panel.”

Andrew’s heart tumbled straight down to his heels. He turned around and saw his circuit board was now around the Chinese man’s neck. The German and Belarusian awakened from their trance. Hans reflexively reached for his holster, but it was empty.

“What’s going on?” the woman yelled out in a panic. Her hair bun had begun to slowly unravel.

“Give me back my pistol, Chinaman! Or whoever you really are,” barked Hans as he moved towards him.

“Take one more step and you will never see your Führer again,” Yu said as he aimed the pistol at the German, stopping him in his tracks. “Now, the two of you sit down in the chairs and fasten the seatbelts.”

It didn’t take long to convince Vladlena. She was the first to jump into one of the chairs and buckle the seatbelt, just like on a bus. Hans tried to say something, but the “power of the pistol” was not on his side this time around. Unwillingly, and with his pride trampled, the Nazi followed the communist’s example.

“Move back some more,” Yu ordered Andrew, keeping the pistol aimed at him. The Ukrainian took a few steps backwards, towards the door. The Chinese man cautiously approached the German’s panel first, then the Belarusian’s, and pressed the same buttons on both of them. Their seatbelts made a clicking sound. “Now, you can’t help him.”

Hans tried to get out of his seat, but it was pointless: the lock was unbreakable. He extended his arm, in a bid to try and press any of the buttons, but his chair was too far away from the panel. Yu walked over to the Ukrainian.

“Keep backing up,” he said in his aristocratic voice. “You will remain here. You can go see the halfwit in the tavern, he’ll tell you about your new job.”

“Job?! Hey, can’t we talk this through, leave here together…”.

“There are only three parallel worlds, so we can only activate three panels. You’re out,” Yu declined Andrew’s suggestion, annoyed. “Four hundred years have passed since I was called here to make things right. Now, finally, I am ready to go back and personally lead Earth’s renewal!” Yu raised his arms over his head to lend his words more weight.

“You’re mad if you think you can play God!” Andrew cried out.

“You don’t say?” the Chinese man raised an eyebrow in wonder, and, keeping his gaze fixed on the Ukrainian, spoke to the others. “Do you think I’m the only one? You, German, do you not consider yourself superior, in your quest for a lost continent in the name of a single race? Or you, Belarusian, when you fill young minds with delusional ideas in order to try and create a new type of human in the name of ideology?”

“Um, I don’t do any of that,” Andrew protested, “and I don’t subscribe to any ideology whatsoever.”

Hans tried in vain to rip apart the seatbelt, while cursing in the most profane German he could muster. Nobody could understand what he was saying.

“It doesn’t matter,” the Chinese man declared to Andrew, as he pulled a small object from the right side of his coat. It looked like a memory card. “The world will soon become what I want it to be. After synchronization,” Yu started chuckling, “the three worlds will become one, and all the roads will lead to China. Only to China. My China. The Great Empire! Like it was under the legendary Yu the Great! I’m telling you this, so you have something to think about. Because you’re stuck here. Forever.” The Chinese man wound up and struck his foe with the butt of the pistol across his head. The Ukrainian collapsed onto the metal bridge with a heavy thud.

His head throbbing, Andrew tried to open his eyes, but something was blinding him. He first thought he had experienced one hell of a hallucination from having fallen off the electrical station’s observation deck. Then he realized he was barefoot, and the floor should be concrete, not metal. He became aware of the sound of voices. Initially, they seemed far away, but they gradually grew nearer.

“I will find and shoot you myself faster than you can say Heil Hitler,” one of the voices threatened in a distinctly German accent.

“And I’ll turn you in to the relevant security authority,” hollered the woman.

“Calm down. You’ll see. It will be wonderful, the new world,” a cultured male voice promised them.

Andrew opened one of his eyes, as his sight began to return little by little. He lay on a metal bridge in the middle of a huge hall lined by shimmering tubes, exactly as he had been a few moments ago. In front of him was the already familiar platform with three panels. Hans was seated to the left, Vladlena in the middle, while Yu was on the right, pressing some buttons.

“Is that it?” Yu asked out loud. Some writing appeared in front of the panels: words and numbers. “Time to relocation and synchronization of realities: “01:00, 00:59, 00:58”…

Andrew’s head was still splitting, but he was finally able to stand up. Although his legs were shaky, he managed to walk towards the platform. Then his legs buckled and he nearly tripped. “This will not happen! You will not steal my life!” his nostrils flared and the look on his face radiated with determination.

Andrew charged at the Chinese man just as he was trying to buckle his seatbelt. The two struggled, Yu trying to grab the pistol lying beside him on the chair while Andrew pushed his hand away. The gun betrayed Yu, slipping out of his grasp, making a loud bang as it hit the floor. The computer’s voice continued its countdown: “00:27, 00:26”… Andrew tried pulling his slim-bodied opponent out of the chair, but Yu resisted with unusual strength. “00:19, 00:18”… Vladlena attempted to reach out and grab the Chinese man to help (although it wasn’t clear whom exactly she wanted to help.) It didn’t matter because her arms proved to be too short.

“C’mon Ukrainian!!!” Hans yelled with encouragement. “You still have time!”

Yu bit Andrew in the forearm forcing the Ukrainian to take a few steps back in shock. The pulsating pain in his head grew stronger as everything began to go dark again.

“Not now, not right now,” Andrew gathered all the strength he had left. “00:12, 00:11”… Andrew grabbed Yu by the shoulder and, yanking with all his might, ejecting the Chinese man from the chair. Out of the corner of his eye, the Ukrainian saw Yu rolling towards the chasm below. Yu desperately tried to catch one of the railings, but the space between them was too wide, and he flew through the gap. “00:07, 00:06”… Andrew jumped into the empty chair and fastened the seatbelt. Just then he spied the small memory card Yu had inserted to rewrite the worlds. He tried reaching it, but the chair was too far away. “00:04, 00:03”… Andrew unbuckled his seat belt, leapt at the panel and pulled out the flash card. “00:02, 00:01”… In the final second, he fell back into his chair and grabbed both armrests holding on for dear life.

“Commencing relocation and synchronization… Have a happy future! Noah-3000.” The Ukrainian felt a slight movement, and then everything was filled with a bright, white light.

His headache was worse. Andrew, lying on some kind of surface, tried opening his eyes, but his eyelids felt like they were made of lead. He touched the floor. “Concrete,” he realized. Out of happiness, his eyelids shed the weight keeping them shut. He opened his eyes and jumped to his feet.

Somebody immediately grabbed hold of him, helping to steady him and find his balance. Andrew looked around: he was surrounded by a dozen men wearing hard hats. Without a doubt, he was back in the building of Power Bloc #13 of the Burshtyn Thermal Power Station.

“Are you ok, Andriy Viktorovych?” asked him a man in a crumpled blue shirt with his sleeves rolled up. “You fell down pretty hard.”

“So, the synchronization has ended?” Andrew looked fearfully at those present.

“What exactly do you mean by this ‘synchronization’?”

“What’s the date today? What year is it?”

“December 12, 2026, just as it was this morning…”

“Thank God!” Andrew crossed himself for the first time in his life.

“Amen,” the men answered him in unison, and made the sign of the cross, too.

“Something’s not right here,” Andrew thought. “Why am I barefoot?”

Suddenly, they heard a terrible roar, like the revving of a race car. Fifty people, men and women, in full battle gear and with weapons strapped to their backs, flew into the premises, all the while shouting to each other. They blinded all those present by shining the bright light of their flashlights into everyone’s eyes, so it was difficult to get a good look at the newcomers.

The soldiers surrounded the workers and ordered them all to lie down on the floor. Andrew was among the first to do so. After the newcomers had handcuffed the station workers and led them off to the side, he realized he was left lying all alone. The soldiers turned off their flashlights, so now he could see their eyes. They were, without a doubt, Asians. “Did they discover my scam at the station?” Andrew thought. Then the soldiers stepped forward, fell to their knees, and bowed deeply.

Huangdi [Yellow Emperor], Son of Heaven!” they chanted with great admiration and respect. “We’re sorry we failed to protect you. We swear to you we’ll find the kidnappers who brought you here to this distant province of the Empire!”

Andrew blinked several times in disbelief. He had promised himself earlier nothing would surprise him anymore, hoping all the surprises were long behind him.

“Son of Heaven?” the Ukrainian barely managed to get the words out, as he lay there on the floor.

To be continued…

Other stories by Oleksii Dubrov

Other stories illustrated by Ruslan Vashkevich

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