THE UNIVERSAL FLOOD

The Ark, Nazis, and Toilet Paper

Part III

Part I

Part II

Оповідь українською

Story by Oleksii Dubrov

Illustrated by Ruslan Vashkevich

I. Noah’s Tragedy

Yu regained consciousness after a bucket of ice-cold water was poured on his head. The Chinese man tried to move away, but his hands and legs were tied to a pole with torn pieces of cloth and the best he could do was flinch. His eyes were out of focus, and he had trouble seeing the towering figure looming in front of him. Still, he had no doubt who it was thanks to the eye-stinging stench of unwashed clothing from layers of sweat thousands of years old.

“You’ve completely lost your mind,” Yu said. “You’re as drunk as the heaven is high.”

“I need the manual for the Ark control center,” Noah grumbled as he sat down on the bales of hay nearby.

“You’re the Guardian. You tell me where it is,” the Chinese man replied, indifferently.

“Don’t try to bargain with me!” Noah barked. He tried to pound the hay with his first, but his hand bounced back with a barely audible rustle. “I haven’t been there in a thousand years! You played with it constantly, traipsing back and forth between worlds, bringing the lost souls here!”

“Where do you get the gall to finger the sins of others?” Yu spat at the feet of the man who had just attacked him. “You could have saved millions of people from death. Instead you locked yourself up with your family and the pigs in that ship!”

“I followed God’s command!”

“God’s command,” Yu scoffed. “Unlike you, I have a brain of my own and wanted to rescue people. I wandered the Earth gaining knowledge, so there wouldn’t be any more floods in the world.”

“Then why are you still here?” Noah roared, clutching at his throbbing hungover head. No matter what he did, the horrific pain refused to subside.

Yu didn’t respond. He would rather have described how he was finally able to summon people from the three worlds to the Ark simultaneously, so as to synchronize them with his plans to create paradise on earth for the people who had earned it. But, he got stuck here and wasn’t able to see his own creation.

“Why did you summon me here?” Yu asked after a lengthy pause. “I’m a Buddhist.”

“You know why,” Noah waved his hand.

“So, I would work while you drink?” Yu answered. “Why me?”

“Because you wanted to make the world a better place. Because you had ambitions, while my fellow believers blindly followed some kind of dogma,” Noah made an attempt to stand, but his legs buckled under him and he fell back into the hay. “If you only knew how many deaths were committed in the name of my God. How many I committed…”

“We aren’t any better,” Yu retorted.

“I can fix everything,” Noah patted his pocket.

“I just need the gold circuit board and the proper code…” the Chinese man started to say, pausing when he recalled the burnt building. “You have the circuit board, right?”

“That doesn’t concern you!” Noah bellowed. He stood up swaying unsteadily and stumbled up the stairs. “I’ll come back in the morning, and then you’ll tell me the proper code!”

Noah left the basement of the one-story structure and entered a spacious room where the walls were lined with wooden shelves stacked with various household items: dishes, clothes, boots, wicker baskets, and bottles. He checked inside every single container trying to find any possible remnants of alcohol to soothe his pain, but to no avail – all the bottles were empty.

“Ahhhh!” Noah shouted at the ceiling, causing his head to hurt even more and his vision to blur. He grabbed the nearest bottle and angrily threw it to the floor, shattering it into pieces. He repeated this several times until it made him feel slightly better. He slumped into the chair next to the table in the center of the room, which took up most of the chamber’s space.

Noah felt he must get this done, at any price to save himself while there’s still a chance. He spent his whole life blindly obeying God, surviving for His sake. He saved humanity by allowing millions to drown in agony. He ultimately agreed to let all his relatives go down to earth to breed pious offspring while he stayed behind to guard their future. Because that was what God wanted.

But his work lost all meaning when God, supposedly to help him, created a control center: an automated facility to administer three worlds – one for each of Noah’s three sons. The new machine corrected all the slightest deviations allowing the worlds to evolve equally, and Noah essentially ceased to exist. The days merged into a single stream of amber beer flowing from the copper tap in his musty tavern. But what the hell! He had asked God for wine! Why must he listen to Him, and not the other way around?!

Noah went outside. The sun was slowly setting. The building where he had dragged his prisoner was on the edge of a deserted settlement where his extended family had once lived. A few hundred meters into the forest was the lake where the control center was located. Noah was thinking how to force the Chinese man to share the knowledge he himself has lost, otherwise life will have no meaning for him when suddenly he felt as if someone was breathing down his neck.

Yu had crept up from behind and with a quick movement, jumped onto Noah’s back and grabbed him around the neck. The Chinese man wrapped his bony but agile hands around his opponent’s huge body, trying to wrestle him to the ground. Noah clumsily struggled to throw off the clinging attacker; however, his fat fingers wouldn’t obey his ancient, pickled brain. The bearded man flailed about like a swimmer drowning, trying in vain to reach the surface while being pulled under by the force of the water’s undertow. Ultimately, Noah lost his balance and fell onto his back, pinning poor Yu to the cold ground underneath him.

Noah sighed heavily and asked: “How did you get loose?”

“You forgot how to tie knots,” Yu managed to utter. “Get off me!”

Propping himself up on his hands, Noah slowly got to his feet and reached out his hand to help the Chinese man up from the ground. Shoving his hand away, Yu stood up on his own, leaning on the wall for balance. The muscles in his arms were still tense from the struggle and were cramping.

“We can’t die here,” Yu waved his hand. “But at least I can get out of here.”

“And what about the glorified Asian concern for the collective?” Noah asked ironically. 

“It doesn’t apply to alcoholics.”

Noah’s headache wasn’t letting up. He had a massive craving for a drink. God, though, could have made certain not to have left even a single drop behind if He willed it. And He, judging by everything Noah knew about Him, wanted to.

“If you help me, I’ll help you,” Noah suggested.

“Why should I trust you?” the Chinese man asked.

“And why exactly should I trust you?” Noah shot back.

Yu thought about it. Truth be told, if there were two people in this world who couldn’t trust each other, it was the two of them, here in paradise. Maybe it was worth a try.

“What do you suggest?” Yu asked.

Noah looked him straight in the eyes and hissed in a serious tone: “Let’s flood this place!”

II. Descending to the Heights

A few turns along the corridor and Hans led Andrew onto a wide concrete square bordered by a dozen oddly trimmed bushes and trees. The propellers of the helicopter standing in front of them moved languidly, causing the leaves to tickle the air in rhythm with their circular movements. The escapees heard the emphatic shouting of the imperial palace guards trying to catch up with their ruler and return him to the throne. The German was the first to jump on board. Pausing for a moment to adjust his pistol holster, which had gotten stuck on the armrest, he took the pilot’s seat and started pressing a dozen buttons in succession. The Ukrainian sat down next to him and slammed the heavy door shut behind him. Before buckling his seat belt, Andrew peeled off the outlandish sweltering hot robe he had been wearing, leaving him clad in nothing more than a silk tunic and pants.

Hans grabbed the stick and lifted the helicopter into the air at the same moment a dozen imperial guards poured onto the landing pad. They fired several shots, but the automatic weapons’ bullets only grazed the aircraft. The helicopter’s side windows towards the front of the craft were open and soon a strong wind began buffeting inside the cabin, bringing along heavy drops of rain which had begun falling almost as soon as the aircraft had left Constantinople. Andrew winced as several drops pelted his face.

“This is quite a modern aircraft,” the Ukrainian said, inspecting the hundreds of buttons and screens on the state-of-the-art control panel. 

“The Reich’s helicopters aren’t very good, so I had to borrow one from your world,” the German explained.

“Mmmm,” mumbling sounds from behind them caught their attention. The pilot and passenger turned around.

“Right. I forgot to tell you something,” the German smiled, turning back around toward the dashboard. “I can’t say catching her was any easier than catching you. The bitch is a biter,” Hans extended his hand towards Andrew, revealing a fresh wound, then blew on it to ease the pain.

“Vladlena Eduardovna?!” the Ukrainian’s eyed bugged. He carefully climbed over his seat to the tail of the helicopter, where there was a small space without any seats. Vladlena was sitting on the floor clad only in her nightgown, her hands tied behind her back, and her mouth taped shut.

“Why did you cover her mouth?” Andrew asked, trying to peel off the duct tape while Vladlena bucked and moaned heavily.

“You don’t want to know,” Hans sneered.

“You piece of shit!” Vladlena screamed before the Ukrainian had even finished her pro bono upper lip wax and freed her mouth. “You are so infantile! I’m not just going to turn you over to the KGB[1]! I am turning you over to the General Secretary himself!”

“I warned you,” the Nazi sighed.

“Can you explain to me what’s going on here?” Andrew’s last words were drowned out by the thunder rumbling near the helicopter. The aircraft was rocked by a strong vibration.

“We did some stuff in the Ark,” Hans began to explain, looking around periodically. “Everything went all to hell, oh Mein Führer.”

“He brazenly grabbed me straight out of bed!” the Belarusian shouted while Andrew untied her hands. “And he felt me up!”

“Stop flattering yourself!” the Nazi retorted to the woman.

“What happened to the Ark?” Andrew tried to steer the conversation in a more constructive direction.

“I don’t know what happened to the Ark,” the Nazi said. “But there is definitely something wrong with the world: there are earthquakes everywhere. And we’re not supposed to be speaking to each other right now!”

“I had no desire to talk to you,” Vladlena said, grasping onto the floor with both hands, trying to keep her balance and not look out the window unnecessarily. Her hands were visibly trembling. Andrew, who also was having trouble staying upright in the turbulence, returned to his seat. The Ukrainian didn’t catch the pleading look she gave him to switch places.

“So, you ended up in my time and this is all my empire?” Andrew asked.

Vladlena, leaning her back against the wall of the helicopter’s cabin, answered, “I woke up in my apartment in Minsk, nothing had changed.”

“Everything was normal for me too, at first…” Hans broke in.

“At first?” Andrew asked.

“Soon after I returned, they sent me to Greece to monitor the pro-German sentiment over there. And what do you think? I land at the Athens airport and there’s…” Hans, holding the yoke with one hand, grabbed his head with the other, accidentally knocking off his cap, revealing a full head of flawlessly blond, thick hair.

“I don’t care! Take me back home!” Vladlena hollered. “Little Vova is waiting for me.”

“What, someone actually took the bait?” Andrew laughed, and, ignoring the woman’s retort calling him a “shithead,” turned to Hans, who was smoking a cigarette with his free hand. “What’s the situation like in Athens?”

“The Chinese are everywhere, oh Mein Führer! In Greece! I swear,” he said through his teeth, keeping the cigarette in his mouth. Without turning around, he passed tobacco and a scratched, worn-out Zippo lighter to Vladlena, who accepted his offer. “And they welcomed me as the Ambassador of the Third Reich in the Chinese Empire. Can you imagine?!” Hans continued.

“Of course,” Andrew smirked.

“And you,” the Nazi poked his finger in the Ukrainian’s face, “are drying up the Mediterranean Sea without me. When I was the first one who wanted to find Atlantis, if you recall. Then, out of curiosity, I took a secret train to Minsk, to see her,” he sneered, nodding his head at the Belarusian woman, “and there… was this… communism.” Hans scowled as he said the last word. 

“You mean we’re now traveling through time from place to place?” Andrew said excitedly. “That’s so cool!”

“Yep,” Hans grunted, just as the helicopter shook with such force the Ukrainian would have gone flying into the windshield were it not for his seatbelt. The thunder outside grew stronger and the wind mercilessly rocked the chopper, making it difficult to stay on course. The German, who was having a hard time seeing anything through the dense curtain of rain obscuring the view through the windshield, looked out the side window for a second. “I’m just afraid this journey might be our last,” he shouted. Andrew could barely hear what Hans had said through the howling wind and thunder.  

“The bad weather and earthquakes at the palace are all because the space-time continuum was violated?” the fugitive emperor asked.

“I think so,” Hans agreed. “We need to go back to the Ark and fix this, otherwise it’ll be a catastrophe. Crossing these boundaries becomes more difficult every time. That’s why I kidnapped this hysterical woman as soon as I could and found a reason to get into your palace…”

“And how will we get to the Ark?” Vladlena asked unexpectedly from the back.

“Through hell, Frau Gromova!” Hans burst out laughing so hard he drowned out the sounds of the weather outside.

A few minutes later the helicopter abruptly stopped rocking and started flying smoothly, the clouds cleared, and the sky ahead turned a bright blue.

“The translocation is complete,” Hans reported, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Oh really? And where are we now?” Vladlena grumbled.

“Mt. Ararat,” Hans grinned, nodding his head to indicate the majestic outlines of snow-capped mountains emerging from the milky haze. “This is the entrance to the Ark.”

“Our KGB also searched for all these Old Testament things,” the Belarusian boasted.

“You may have searched, but we found them,” the Nazi snapped back. “I think this meadow at the foot of the mountain will be perfect.”

The gently swaying helicopter arrived at its destination, hovered in the air, and then slowly descended, settling onto the ground so gently, the passengers barely noticed. The rotation of the propellers gradually slowed, intermittently causing the tall grass around the aircraft to sway back and forth.

The pilot and passengers hopped out of the craft onto the grassy meadow and began, as if on command, to stretch their legs, backs, and necks which were still tingling after the several hour flight. Vladlena sighed with every movement.

Once he was finished with his stretches, Hans lit a cigarette, took a small notebook out of his inside pocket and proceeded to study the contents on the worn yellow sheets, occasionally tearing his eyes away to look around. Andrew and Vladlena approached the Nazi.

“What now?” the Ukrainian asked.

“The road to paradise, where the Ark is, leads through hell,” Hans replied. “And to reach Satan’s kingdom, you must climb one thousand steps somewhere near this mountain.”

“What a load of crap!” Vladlena grunted. “Even atheists know hell is underground.”

“Listen, Ahnenerbe[2] has been researching ancient writings for nearly a decade and found this information long ago,” Hans objected. “Although only someone who has been summoned to the Ark can enter it.”

“Stop it,” Andrew skeptically raised his eyebrows. “You just made that up.”

“I’m not sure how this works, but I somehow know what to do. Some kind of force is leading me. It’s hard to explain. Please believe me this time!” Hans was almost pleading with Andrew.

“C’mon…” the Ukrainian started to say. He was cut off in mid-sentence by an underground tremor. The rumbling accompanying it echoed around them. “Alright, let’s try.”

The ground continued to quake. Barely able to keep his balance, Hans looked at his notebook again, and headed straight for the mountain. He kept his eye on the ground, stopping from time to time to tap it with his boot. Suddenly the ground gave way and the German fell, cursing loudly. Andrew and Vladlena, who had been straggling behind, ran over to him.

“I found it!” Hans shouted excitedly, as he tried with all his strength to free his foot, which was stuck ankle deep. “Start digging!” Heeding his own words, the Nazi began scooping up the dirt around his boot with his hands. Andrew joined in. Vladlena silently watched the two of them.

“Dig over there,” the woman pointed to the spot by Hans’s heel. “More to the left!”

“How about you stop directing and start helping?” the Nazi yelled at her.

“This isn’t a woman’s work,” the Belarusian shrugged. “To the left, I said!”

More handfuls of dirt were scooped up and discarded when suddenly, the ground gave way. Hans and Andrew scrambled backwards to avoid falling into the pit. A few stone steps appeared in front of them.

“I told you it was underground,” Vladlena boasted smugly.

“Are you sure we can’t stay here?” Andrew said, recalling his luxurious, although senseless life in the imperial palace. But the next jolt originating from the Earth’s core made the question rhetorical.

The German, Belarusian, and Ukrainian went down several steps and surprisingly found themselves in front of a massive cliff which somehow had appeared underground. A narrow staircase embedded in the cliff rose sharply and got lost in the dense milky fog.

III. The Trials and Tribulations of Hell

“I can’t believe I listened to you and went along,” Vladlena lamented, sighing occasionally as she climbed step after step. Completely exhausted, she stopped to catch her breath.

“I can’t believe I’m stuck with you again,” Hans, who was confidently marching far ahead, shouted at her angrily.

Andrew walked silently between them, looking down at his feet, having no desire to participate in their arguments. This time he agreed with the communist. Right when his life had become a paradise – well, almost – now he has to go and save the world and people he never cared about.

“That’s it, I didn’t pass the test of hell,” the woman surrendered. She sat on a cold stair with her back to the others, panting and frantically waving her hand in front of her in an attempt to cool her sweaty face.

“Oh Mein Führer! Are you serious?!” Hans couldn’t take it anymore, and with several giant leaps descended the stairs, almost knocking Andrew off his feet. Stopping slightly above her, he roared, “You honestly think THIS is hell?! When during the Battle of the Somme in the Great War I lay for three days in a destroyed trench under non-stop British artillery and aerial bombardment, using my comrades’ dead bodies as a shield; when I couldn’t breathe under the crush of their weight and from the stench – that was hell! And you can’t climb a dozen steps, you worthless communist?!”

“Why are you yelling at me?!” Vladlena cried out and added a few indecipherable curses while waving her hands. Hans rolled his eyes, swore illegibly at the sky, and started ascending the stairs. Meanwhile, Andrew approached the woman and offered her a hand. She glanced at his outstretched hand and turned away, wiping her dripping nose with her fist.

“Stop behaving like an infant,” the Ukrainian said. “We really have to do this before everything goes all to hell.”

Vladlena blew her nose loudly with the hem of her nightgown, accepted the proffered hand, and stood up. Smiling at Andrew, she staggered slowly up the stairs. The Ukrainian took up the rear to make sure she didn’t fall behind again. Suppressing his emotions, Hans waited for them to catch up, and they continued onward together. After a difficult hour-long ascent, during which even the German found it hard to catch his breath, they finally reached the top.

“It can’t be!” Hans shouted, slapping his hands on his thighs. Vladlena, holding her hand over her heart, plopped down on the grey arid ground. They had reached a vast wasteland extending far beyond the horizon with no end in sight to this valley of death.

“Is this the entrance to the Ark?” Andrew asked.

“No,” said the female proselytizer of scientific atheism, breathing heavily. “The earthly embodiment of the Ark must be in the form of a large wooden boat. Or at least be emblazoned with its image. There is no other way.”

“She’s right,” the Nazi crouched next to the woman. “In this case, the boat isn’t a metaphor. If you believe the Ahnenerbe reports, the entrance to the Ark should be at the top of the stairs. But as you can see…” Hans demonstratively waved his hand in front of them, indicating the barren landscape.

Andrew raised his hand to his forehead to block the light and peered into the distance. A slight breeze carried specks of dust which stung the Ukrainian’s face. One of them landed in his right eye, which he scratched and rubbed until it turned bloodshot.

“We have to keep going,” the Ukrainian said quietly, without turning around to the others.

“What did you say?” Vladlena asked.

“We have to keep going,” Andrew repeated louder, crouching down next to the Belarusian and German. “It can’t be a mistake. Once we’ve already found the non-existent stairs, the Ark must be somewhere in this wasteland.”

So, which way do we go, smartass?” Hans sneered. “Straight ahead, to the right, or to the left? The Ahnenerbe can’t help us here!”

“In all directions at once,” Andrew proclaimed heartily. The communist and the Nazi looked at each other, confused.

“Young man,” Vladlena said gently, as if she was talking to a mental patient. “We can’t go in three directions at once…”

“Oh, Mein Führer,” Hans smacked himself in the forehead. “You’re a genius! Each of us will go in a different direction!”

“And then, at an agreed time, we’ll return here…” Andrew began to explain.

“No-no-no!” Vladlena interrupted him. “I’m not going anywhere alone.”

“Stop it,” the German said, taking a cigarette out of its case and lighting it. “What can happen to you here?”

“What if there are wild animals here, like in the Ark?” the woman proposed.

“They don’t like the taste of communists,” Andrew said to the Nazi’s delight.

“You’re alright,” Hans burst out laughing and slapped him on the back.

“Well, that’s just fine,” Vladlena stood up and wiped the dust off her butt. “If an alligator eats me you won’t get into the Ark!”

Vladlena stumbled off in the direction to the left of the stairs, shifting her weight heavily from one leg to the other.

“We’ll meet at nightfall at this same spot!” Andrew shouted to her. The Belarusian responded with an annoyed wave of her hand. Hans gave a Heil Hitler salute and went off to the right. The only thing left to do was for the Ukrainian to head straight forward.

For the first hour Andrew could still see Vladlena and Hans on the horizon, moving at different speeds, though never deviating from their course. Once they disappeared from his field of vision, each of the seekers was left on their own with the arid wasteland and gentle gusts of wind, which were the only things breaking the encompassing silence.

Andrew hadn’t noticed when his pace had quickened. The wind had died down, and now the only thing the Ukrainian could hear was his own rhythmic breathing and the blood pulsing in his temples. He accelerated his pace again, now moving at a jog.

“What’s going on?” Andrew thought, confused, unable to stop or at least slow down. Instead, his efforts had the opposite effect: his breathing sped up, his heart rate increased, and his body quickened its pace to a light run. The Ukrainian mustered all his will and tried again to control his own muscles, but nothing worked. He couldn’t stop running.

“I’ve had it with these tricks,” he mused.  “But okay, let’s see where this takes me.”

The sun, which seemed like it should already be setting, was again at its zenith and remained frozen in place above Andrew’s head. The weather was dry, warm, and windless. He continued to run, having traversed several kilometers; however, the scenery hadn’t changed one bit. Only the sky changed from bright blue to a being only a little lighter in color than the ground, and the breeze, which had occasionally lifted the sand up into the air, was completely gone.

“If only I knew where I was running to,” the Ukrainian said aloud, but not a single sound penetrated the encircling silence. All joking aside, he was petrified.

“I should probably go back,” Andrew mouthed silently. He turned around to head back.

“Wait, what if this is the right direction?” he thought. “If only there was some reference point. I’ve been running for about an hour, so I should be able to start walking again by now.”

Another hour passed by, maybe even two, and still Andrew couldn’t stop. Surprisingly, he wasn’t at all tired. The runner’s breathing was steady and calm. There was not a single drop of sweat on his dry, dust-covered skin.

“What the fuck – where am I running?” His question was swallowed by the persistent silence. He strained his throat as if to scream. “Hello! Is anybody there? God or Satan, or whoever is in charge here?!”

The only answer was silence.

Scheiß drauf![3]  Hans cursed in silence while continuing to run. “I could run forever, if I knew where I was going…”

The German took the Iron Cross off his neck, hid it in the front pocket, and unbuttoned the collar of his coat which had been chafing his skin to the point of bleeding.

“This is all for the good of the Aryan race,” Hans tried to convince himself. “But what if I’m wrong? What if I’m stuck here forever? Is such suffering even legal for an Aryan? I’m not some Jude…”

“I didn’t even break a sweat. I won’t lose any weight this way,” Vladlena thought to herself somewhere off to the left from where they started. “How much more do I, the world’s most unfortunate woman, have to endure?”

The Belarusian hadn’t moved this quickly in years. The last time she had run was when she was on the university track and field team before she got pregnant. After she had little Vladimir and her alcoholic husband (what other kind of men were there in the Soviet Union?) left her a year later, the woman gave up sports for good.

 “If only something would appear on the horizon!” Andrew hoped in vain, without stopping for a second. The silence – thick and viscous like condensed milk – was becoming unbearable. Still, he continued running and running. “Take me back to fucking Burshtyn and my power station!”  

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt! Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue…[4] the German hummed silently. “This is stupid, the song doesn’t sound right in this silence…What should I do?”

“If little Vladimir gets another bad grade in math, I’ll show him a thing or two!” the Belarusian planned her potential future. “If I ever see him again, that is…”

“Shut up!” Andrew shouted silently into the grey lifeless distance. “Stop… thinking… right now… Shut up!”

“La la la la la,” Hans grimaced. “It’s soooo boring here, na-na-na.”

When Ilyich finished, there was no end to the applause and standing ovations. Standing before us was a great revolutionary, theoretic, and orator,” Vladlena quoted Lenin’s biography, which she knew by heart.

“If this is hell, it’s the worst one in the world,” the Ukrainian thought. “I was hoping for at least some kind of action, a hot cauldron with devils singing and jumping around…”

“I would have rather spent another three days with the corpses on the Somme,” the German thought bitterly. “At least it wasn’t quiet there.”

“I wonder if the KGB knows about this place?” the communist asked herself. “What if they’re listening to my thoughts right now? I have to stop thinking, they might misinterpret my doubts. The KGB knows everything and is listening to everyone!”

“I didn’t want to be emperor, honestly!” Andrew lifted his head. “If this is punishment for flooding Beijing, then I repent. That wasn’t even in my past. I don’t even remember it, and I am not responsible for it!”

“The damned Jude invented this religion,” Hans complained. “Who asked them to, tell me?! Everything was fine, but no, they need hell, paradises, arks…”

“Well, maybe sometimes I have doubts. What’s wrong with that?” Vladlena pondered. “Who doesn’t have doubts? Am I not human? Shut up, brain!” the woman slapped herself.  

“Fine. I also wanted to kick people out of Burshtyn. It was for the greater good! They just don’t understand anything, that’s why they protest. You can’t explain anything to those kinds of people,” Andrew demurred, staring into the dim solar disc.

“That’s why they must be destroyed, right?” the German argued with himself, raising his head. “Everyone will thank us later.”

“If you can hear me, KGB comrades,” the Belarusian looked up at the sky, “can you order them to provide university professors something better than margarine and sardines in oil? At least sausage and tangerines. So, I can give little Vladimir a treat for the New Year?”

“What’s there to talk to them about?” Andrew insisted. “They didn’t study about energy at university, they don’t understand economics. I’m talking about strategic things, not their forestry. We’ll plant new trees! Beijing was flooded in this reality, and it was no big deal – it benefited the empire.” 

“Fine, I’ll transfer to another department. I’ll do administrative work,” Hans continued his monologue with the heavens. “I won’t shoot Jude. Is that enough? Now will you show me the Ark?”

“My life is so hard,” Vladlena lamented. “And there’s nothing I can do about it. Everything depends on the party and new people, Soviet citizens… I’m too old to change anything. I’m almost forty…”

“I understand that millions of people left Beijing. But it wasn’t me,” Andrew said to the wasteland. “I don’t remember any of it. I wouldn’t have ruined their lives if it was truly up to me.”

“What should I do? Resign from the military?” the German shouted. “What good am I as a civilian? After the Somme I tried to get a job, but all I did was drink. I’m just following orders… Shut up, stop talking!”

“No-no-no,” Vladlena restrained herself so she wouldn’t blurt out anything more. “Stop thinking, stop thinking, stop thinking.”

“OK, fine! Fine! I would have done exactly the same thing because that’s what I’m like! I know you shouldn’t do that to people!” Andrew bemoaned, surprised to feel the first gust of wind after an hour of running. “God, is that you?! Get me out of here!”

“Alright, I’ll surrender to the Americans at the first opportunity and tell them everything,” Hans sighed. “I won’t go to the communists, I’d rather shoot myself! Oh, Mein Führer, save me from these thoughts!”

“But like the bourgeois Decartes said: ‘Cogito ergo sum,’” doubts crept into the Belarusian woman’s head. “If the party and the KGB control my thoughts, then do I even exist? Oh, Lenin, help me!”

Andrew began to punch himself in the head and body while still running. He didn’t feel tired at all, the landscape around him wasn’t changing, the sun stayed at its zenith. Squinting, he surveyed his surroundings. There was still no sign of the Ark.

Suddenly, something stopped him in his tracks, as if the Ukrainian had run into a wall. The same wasteland was all around him. When he looked down, a contour started to emerge on the dry, cracked earth. The man scrambled backwards, however, an invisible force pushed him to the same spot. A small drawing of a ship – the Ark – appeared on the ground. The same one Andrew had seen when he was a kid, in his Bible for Children book.

All at once, the ground shook, the cracks under Andrew’s feet widened and deepened, and before he could blink, Andrew fell into the abyss along with some fragments of rocks and blacked out.

IV. The Password

“You’ve gone mad,” Yu said, twirling a finger by his temple.

“Where did you lose your Asian good manners?” Noah asked him.

“In paradise,” the Chinese man grimaced.

“All the better. Make me a flood here and then you’ll go to earth. Deal?” Noah extended a hand.

“What good will it do?”

“If there is no paradise, there is no need for a Guardian. It’s the only way God will be convinced I really want to die,” Noah said.

“If there is no paradise, there is no synchronization of worlds, you moron,” Yu shrugged. “Are you ready to sacrifice humanity for the sake of your wager?”

“Who said having three unique worlds is worse than three identical ones?” Noah stood his ground.

“Your God said so,” Yu said.

“No, he didn’t,” Noah replied.

“He did too!” the Chinese man raised his voice. “And it was in the instructions which I, unlike you, read and memorized. And it says if there are problems here, there will definitely be problems in the three worlds. Didn’t you think if you flood paradise, it will happen to the people in the other worlds too?”

“I don’t care,” Noah waved his hand. “People haven’t changed since back then, I saved them for nothing. God’s idea of cleansing didn’t bring grace.”

“Because utopian thoughts are ridiculous,” Yu replied. “I won’t help you,” he added after a brief pause.

“You don’t have to. I’ll study the instructions on my own,” Noah turned around and walked towards the control center.

“Good luck in 40 years, days, and nights, Xiansheng,” the Chinese man waved after him.

“Did you lock the panel?”

“Geeze, what do you think?”

“Ahhhhhh!” Noah roared furiously, having taken only a few steps towards the control room. He turned around and swung at the Chinese man, but Yu dodged the blow, and the attacker’s fist met painfully with the wall instead.

Yu darted away and quickly hid behind the trees. Noah tried following the Chinese man who managed to hide, disappearing from view. Snorting heavily and nursing a headache, the bearded man circled the area among the palm trees, oaks, blueberry bushes, and cacti. Yu was nowhere to be found. Eventually, the exhausted man dropped to the ground and passed out, snoring loudly. 

Yu waited for Noah to fall asleep more soundly before carefully climbing down the nearest oak tree and landing on the forest floor. Dried branches snapped under his feet. The Chinese man froze, but the portly Noah snored even louder. Just as Yu was about to take a step in his direction, Noah’s roundelay abruptly ceased. For a few moments there was complete silence, shortly thereafter interrupted by several deep, convulsive breaths, as if the sleeping man wasn’t getting enough oxygen. The Chinese man waited until the Guardian of the Ark’s breathing became more regular, then slowly made his way through the bushes, creeping up to Noah, and reached into his left pocket. It was empty and, for some reason, sticky. Yu pulled his hand out and wiped it on his silk robe, disgusted. Smelling his fingers, he gagged and coughed from the stench reminiscent of rotten fish.

“Huh? What?” Noah cried out, opening his eyes. Yu huddled nearby and held his breath. The old man didn’t notice him and instantly fell back asleep.

Yu wiped the sweat off his forehead and walked to the other side of the portly man. He carefully pushed aside Noah’s hand covering his right pocket, stuck his skinny fingers inside, and skillfully pulled out a beautiful gold circuit board, which shimmered in the moonlight. Yu smiled and hid the circuit board in the secret pocket of his robe, moving away from Noah just as stealthily. 

“The old man completely forgot the gold circuit board could unlock the panel,” the Chinese man muttered to himself, walking over to the ash heap on the shore of the lake.

Yu caught glimpses of light reflecting off the surface of the water as he trotted noiselessly along the sandy beach. His bare feet sank into the sand, which was cool on top and still warm from the daytime sun deeper down. The full moon shined brightly, and a pleasant breeze tickled the Chinese man with its velvety gusts while he plodded along the familiar path to the control center.

He stopped halfway at a small promontory and sat down cross-legged. This was where you had the best view of paradise: the pool of water, whose far shore disappeared in the distance, merging with the sky, surrounded on both sides by a dense evergreen forest. Although right then everything was drowned in the depths of the moonlit night, the Chinese man knew every inch of the place and could paint the landscape in his own imagination. Yu especially enjoyed the view here when the crowns of the trees were covered with white snow which reflected the sun’s warm rays in their own special way. He always imagined how he could harness the inexorable elemental strength of water by covering the earth with canals and dams, and no person would ever die in a flood again. And now he had another chance to realize his dream.

“This religion’s paradise is incredibly beautiful,” Yu whispered. “Although it’s still a rather senseless place,” he added a few minutes later, standing up.

After leisurely walking along the shore for a couple hours, the Chinese man turned onto a well-trodden path leading into the forest. A few hundred meters later he ended up in a small clearing, in the middle of which was a lopsided shed, haphazardly constructed from several dozen boards. The man opened the door and went downstairs, then passed through a corridor to enter the control room. Viscous multi-colored fluid flowed up and down through the network of tubes on the walls of the vast cylindrical bottomless pit. Each tube flickered with a dull light inside, filling the room with the colors of the rainbow.

Yu went over to the main computer, took out the gold circuit board, and positioned it near the special slot. The moment had come. He had studied the Ark for centuries, having come to love it and hate it, until he was able to summon people from each of the worlds. And now it was so simple – he would insert the circuit board granted only by God, enter the code, and change the world. He didn’t even need the memory card the Ukrainian had taken from him – after so many years he had already memorized the code.

Yu pushed the card easily into the computer. It fit perfectly. The panel beeped. A message appeared and a deep sonorous voice announced: “Noah-2000 unlocked.” The next message brought a wide grin to the Chinese man’s face: “God mode activated.”

All of a sudden, something caught Yu’s eye. He was about to enter the combination of symbols when he took a step back and started examining the multi-colored walls. It was just a brief moment, but anyone who had spent as much time in the room as he had couldn’t have missed it. Two of the tubes briefly flashed brighter, after which one of the tubes merged with its neighbor and the fluid from the first tube flowed into the other one. Yu looked around; there were a number of similarly connected tubes. Several minutes later two more tubes flashed and merged, resembling two rivers joining into a single stream. 

“This is very, very bad…” Yu said quietly, when suddenly his legs buckled. Noah had snuck up and knocked the distracted Chinese man off his feet.

The bearded man was surprised Yu hadn’t heard the thumping of his heavy footfalls as he was approaching. Luck had given him a second chance – and Noah had to take advantage of it and convince Yu to help him this time.

“You idiot,” Noah sighed. “Without the Guardian, the gold card is just a piece of metal.”

“You don’t understand what I’ve already done…” the Chinese man muttered, sitting up on the floor. 

V. The Return to Paradise

Andrew came to just as the scorching sunshine grazed the dry skin on his cheeks. He lifted his head and broke out in a huge smile – he was lying on a sandy beach, the sea rippled behind him, and in front of him he saw a marvelous forest with both oak and palm trees vying for space. Around his neck hung a small green circuit board on a thin metal chain.

The Ukrainian, clad only in a tunic, pants, and wooden imperial slippers, hopped to his feet and headed to the forest, his impractical shoes constantly filling with sand. He reached the first set of trees where he had encountered Hans last time; this time, there was nobody there. Andrew took a few steps forward when he heard something rustling in the fallen leaves. The screech of a monkey echoed from deep in the thickets.

“Hans! Vlada!” Andrew shouted, pushing his way into a raspberry bush whose thorns assailed his face. In response he heard a wolf’s howl competing with the sounds of a parrots’ choir.

Untangling himself from the clutches of the rapacious plant, Andrew spotted tracks on the forest floor. He didn’t know whether they belonged to a human or animal, but at first glance they seemed fresh. After making his way through the forest, the Ukrainian ended up in the familiar settlement with fairy-tale medieval brick and wooden houses. He walked past two of them and found himself in the central square, still filled with carts. Hans was already there, gloomily looking down at the ground.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Andrew said and stopped next to him.

Hans silently pointed at a large, black, perfectly rectangular stain on the ground. Andrew looked around and realized something was missing.

“The tavern used to be here,” he said what he was thinking out loud.

“The old alcoholic Jude burned to death, the Chinese man fell into the abyss,” the Nazi continued his thought. “We don’t know what to press on the computer.”

“It means we’re stuck here,” Andrew sighed, sunk to the ground near one of the carts filled with sausages, grapes, and bread, and leaned his back against the cart’s wheel.

Hans sat next to him and lit a cigarette. Andrew silently took the cigarette case and Zippo lighter from the German’s hand and did the same. The Ukrainian took a deep drag, closed his eyes, and said,

“I quit several years ago.”

“Trying to live to a hundred?” Hans joked sarcastically.

Vladlena emerged from the forest, looking around suspiciously. She tried to walk as quietly as possible so as not to attract the attention of the band of monkeys. “You are getting on this poor woman’s nerves,” she thought. “And they’re already shot.” The Belarusian walked up to the cart in the square and took a piece of sausage. The weather was getting worse; the sky was blanketed with dark grey clouds, portending rain. Savoring every bite, Vladlena turned the corner to the other side of the cart to grab a piece of bread and lurched in surprise.

“Son of a bitch!” the woman’s face contorted comically, and she grabbed at the cart to keep from falling. Instead, she caught hold of a tomato and crushed it in her fist. It squirted all over the place, with a few red splashes landing on Han’s shirt. He didn’t even blink. “You left a poor woman alone in the forest with gorillas. I almost had a heart attack. And all the while you’re just sitting here smoking!” Vladlena continued her diatribe.

“We’ll never hear the end of this,” Hans rolled his eyes. “What idiot said paradise was a good place?”

“Why are you just sitting there doing nothing?” Vladlena spread her arms and shrugged. “I want to go home to little Vladimir.”

“This is our home now,” Andrew exhaled the cigarette smoke.

“I will not stay here!” the Belarusian huffed. “Especially with you jerks!”

“The alcoholic went up in flames, our Andrew here threw the Chinese man into the abyss, remember,” the German continued to gripe. “And none of us geniuses know how those colored tubes work.”

Vladlena started to object, but then accepted the fact Hans was right – it was one thing to find the entrance to paradise and the Ark, and another to understand how all this works. It could take forever. Vladlena discarded the sausage and parked herself on the ground next to the men. Hans handed her a cigarette without saying anything. Just as she put it to her lips, the Belarusian suddenly froze and then unexpectedly jumped to her feet.

“Get up!” she ordered them.

“Why?” Andrew asked skeptically.

If a Chinese man from the 17th century could learn to operate the Ark, then so can we!” she insisted.

“He was here for hundreds of years. What’s the rush?” Hans stretched himself out alongside the cart.

“What, we’re dumber than him?” the woman shouted. “The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll finish. Get up!” she kicked the Nazi.

“You’re like my German language teacher,” Hans groaned and pulled his cap over his eyes.

Andrew sat there with a blank look on his face, staring into the deep blackness of the pile of ashes. This morning he was the emperor of the world. Yes, it was monotonous and difficult. But he had a life. Here, in paradise, he had no clue what to do. Vladlena’s voice reached him as if it came from a distance. Its sound blended with the rustle of the leaves on the trees and the thunder rumbling ever louder and louder. A huge drop of rain landed on his forehead, snapping him out of his daze. Andrew looked at his companions. They were fighting. Like always.

“You’re infantile!” Vladlena shrieked, stomping her feet. The rain was getting heavier. Her nightgown, on which the circuit board around her neck was swaying rhythmically in time with her gestures, was gradually getting soaked.

“You know what?” Andrew said. “She’s right.”

“Since when did you agree with a communist?” the Nazi said angrily.

“We have to move, let’s go!” Andrew jumped up and headed towards the forest in the heavy rain.

“Where are you going?” Hans hollered at Andrew’s receding back.

“To little Vladimir,” Vladlena smiled and hobbled after him.

VI. Overcoming the Past

“I programmed the maximum amount of rain and set it for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s the longest allowed, for some reason. Still, there’s no guarantee it will cause a flood,” Yu said, pressing the buttons on the computer.

“It will,” Noah’s smile revealed his crooked, yellow teeth.

“Well, we did it,” the Chinese man looked at the multi-colored tubes. They were lighting up and merging more frequently. “Now we have to stop the destruction of the worlds by not synchronizing the past…”

“No,” Noah came over and pushed Yu away from the panel. He hastily pulled out the gold circuit board and hid it in his pocket.

“What are you doing?” the Chinese man shouted, trying to grab the artifact. “You’ll kill them all!”

“Sinners must die once and for all,” Noah swung and tried to hit Yu in the face, but his nimble counterpart turned away in time and grabbed him by his long, grey beard. Noah cried out and almost fell, barely maintaining his balance in the aftershock of Yu’s attack. The Chinese man jumped on Noah’s back and tried to reach his pocket to pull out the circuit board, when Noah, trying to throw Yu off his back, pulled the piece of gold from his pocket and threw it into the abyss.

“Nooooooo!” Yu shouted in desperation, dove off Noah’s back and pressed his body to the edge of the metal bridge, grasping at the air with his hands. But it was too late. The circuit board was plummeting into eternal obscurity, reflecting the light one last time before disappearing forever. And along with it, humanity’s hope to escape the apocalypse.

“So, these Jude are alive!” the Nazi’s voice reached their ears, as he entered the control room with Andrew and Vladlena.

“One of them is Chinese,” Andrew reminded him.

“What, a Chinese man can’t be Jewish?” Hans persisted.

“How did you get here?” Astonished, Noah turned and took a few steps towards them.

Suddenly, a blinding white light filled the space. The visitors to the control center tried to cover their eyes or look away, but it didn’t help at all. The light was everywhere and even managed to penetrate their eyelids.

“God, You have appeared!” Noah stammered, dropping to his knees. “I did as You wished. I fixed everything.”

“You couldn’t come up with anything better than destruction?” a menacing voice sounded from everywhere.

Vladlena sank to the floor and covered her head with her hands. She was shaking.

“I followed Your example, Lord!” Noah parried.

“I admitted I was wrong and repented,” God answered. “I see you still have not found your own way.”

My way is Your way,” the old drunkard shouted.

“Excuse me,” Hans raised his hand without opening his eyes. He was spinning around, not knowing in which direction to speak. “May I, a humble member of the Nazi party, ask to intervene and save the world?”

“A member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union asks the same,” Vladlena agreed, without raising her head.

“I led you and the Nazi to paradise, what more do you want from me?” the light inquired.

“Well, You’re God – fix everything,” Andrew replied.

“You suddenly remembered about God?” the all-encompassing voice took on a mocking tone. “You seem to know more about divine affairs than I do. People truly are hopeless.”

“Show us the way before our entire existence collapses!” Noah pleaded.

“As they say in your world…Figure it the fuck out for yourselves,” said the menacing voice, and the light went out as suddenly as it had appeared.

Hans, Vladlena, Andrew, and Noah carefully opened their eyes and looked around. Yu had been sitting next to the computer on the left the whole time, clutching his head with his hands, swaying back and forth. All his life he had wanted to rebuild the world according to his plan, and soon nothing will be left of it. And it was all his fault.

There was a rumbling as dirty water started pouring through the door into the control center from the corridor. It reached the edges of the metal platform and rapidly cascaded down.

“So, this is how it ends?” Andrew asked, glancing with fleeting hope at the Nazi, then the communist, and finally at old Noah, who was smiling in satisfaction. Nobody said a word.

The Ukrainian walked across the metal bridge towards the three panels. He touched the plastic buttons and dusty screens with chaotically blinking pixels.

A drop fell on the panel and rolled down the flat surface. Andrew looked up. The rain was falling from the darkness which was illuminated from time to time by sparks. He looked at the panel again and his eyes moved to where the drop had fallen. It was the slot for the circuit board.

“We’re a bunch of idiots!” he smacked himself in the forehead. “Hans, Vlada – we each have our own circuit boards from the Ark!”

“No, you can’t!” shouted Noah. He rushed over and tried to push Andrew away from the panel.

“Tell me, you bastard, how are you going to get out of here and prevent the global Scheiße[5]?” The German took his gun from the holster and put it right under the old man’s nose.

Noah started roaring with laughter. Hans got angry and shot him in the shoulder, but the bullet passed right through him and ricocheted off the metal floor into the distance. Noah didn’t have a scratch on him. The bearded man knocked the gun out of the stunned Nazi’s hands and pinned him to the railing. The circuit board popped out from under Han’s shirt and dangled over the abyss, the only thing preventing it from falling was the thin chain around his neck. Vladlena ran up and punched Noah in the back. The old man didn’t feel a thing.

Andrew hurriedly scanned the panel. There were symbols on the buttons, but some of them had worn off.  “Х,” “+,” “=,” “!,” “<,” “>,” “?,” “Ґ” repeated along the rows in different combinations. Unfortunately, he had no clue what they meant.

Suddenly Yu grabbed Andrew’s arm so hard the pain shot up to his shoulder. He tried to free himself, but the Chinese man’s grip was rock solid.

“Run the backup. I’ve played this game long enough,” Yu hissed, his hair disheveled and eyes mad. “There’s a unique, one of its kind button for that!”

Yu took two large steps and leapt onto Noah’s back, forcing the brute to release Hans. The German would have fallen into the abyss had Vladlena, despite her hysterics, not grabbed him by the shirt and, holding on to the railing, pulled the Nazi onto the bridge. The German and Belarusian rushed over to the control panel.

The water kept pouring in – now, instead of single drops, it was flowing in streams and one gushed onto the bridge where Yu and Noah were fighting. The Chinese man squirmed on the old man’s back like a rodeo rider on the back of a bull. The cowboy looked as though he was about to be dislodged and drop into the chasm.

Despite Noah’s clumsy attempts to throw him off, the Chinese man held on. A second later, the Guardian of the Ark slipped on the wet metal and fell over the railing along with Yu. The trio could hear the two men cursing, their voices getting fainter and fainter, finally dissolving in the sound of the waterfall.

“Assume your positions!” Andrew commanded. Hans and Vladlena inserted their circuit boards, sat in two of the three chairs, and fastened their seatbelts. The Ukrainian mumbled to himself. “There’s only one of its kind… there’s only one of its kind… there’s only one of its kind…X…=…!… Ґ… there’s only one of its kind! That’s it!” Andrew pressed the “Ґ” button. “Are you sure you want to revert to the previous version?” the message on the screen read. Andrew pressed the unique letter in the Ukrainian alphabet and settled into his chair.

The robotic voice was drowned out by the roar of the huge deluge of water. A white light filled the space just as the waterfall poured over the three computers and knocked them into the dark, endless abyss.

Epilogue

“You’ve definitely made up your mind?”

Andrew didn’t react to the question. He was staring at his phone on a large round glass table that occupied most of the small conference room in the administrative building of the Burshtyn Thermal Power Plant.

He googled “Hans Müller.” The top search result was a World War Two military history enthusiast’s site. Under the title and description, a message written in light grey read, “Page visited often. Last visit 10.05.29.” Andrew clicked on the link. He already knew the brief bio by heart: Hans Müller (b. 01.09.1892, Munich, German Empire; d. 21.06.1942, Tobruk, Italian Libya). SS-Obersturmführer[6]. Born to a family of farmers. Member of the NSDAP[7] from 1926, and the SS[8] from 1927. May have been part of the Ahnenerbe search for the Old Testament Ark in 1940. Died in Rommel’s Second Offensive near Tobruk. Awarded the Iron Cross (1940).”

Next Andrew did a search for “Vladlena Gromova.” The information about her on the website of the Russian History Department of the Belarusian State University was even more sparse. “They always write less about women,” Andrew thought. The information about the female communist read: “Vladlena Eduardovna Gromova (b. 20.03.1937, Vologda, Russian SSR[9]; d. 19.03.2007, Minsk, Republic of Belarus), Professor of the History of the CPSU[10] since 1966. Senior Lecturer since 1983. Author of nearly 200 scientific articles and one monograph.”

“I don’t think they’d understand my decision,” Andrew thought.

“Maybe you’ll give it some more time? The government is willing to delay the process,” the woman in a business suit sitting across from him put her hand on the papers and started pulling them closer.

“No, no,” Andrew insisted. He locked and folded his iPhone 19 with its bendable screen and pale-yellow back panel. “Let’s get this done.”

The woman handed him the documents. He picked up a pen in his right hand and paused for a moment over the spot where his signature as director was supposed to go. His last glance was at the text at the top of the document: “The Act of Decommissioning of Burshtyn Thermal Power Plant.” He hesitated for no more than a second and with a hasty stroke of the pen, signed the document.

“Your grandfather designed this station. Your father worked here all his life. Don’t you regret closing it?” the woman asked, gathering the papers and placing them in a grey folder made of recycled paper.

Andrew stood up, shook her hand, and said confidently, “Who said there should be any regrets?”

Part I

Part II

Other stories by Oleksii Dubrov

Other stories illustrated by Ruslan Vashkevich


[1] KGB – Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union

[2] Ahnenerbe – “Ancestral Heritage” – a German Nazi organization engaged in historical research in 1935-1945

[3] Scheiß drauf! – Screw it (German)

[4] Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt! Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue – Germany, Germany above all, above all in the world! German women, German loyalty… (excerpt from the “Song of Germany”)

[5] Scheiße – Shit (German)

[6] SS-Obersturmführer – German military rank in the SS equal to Lieutenant

[7] NSDAP – National-Socialist German Workers’ Party

[8] SS – The Schutzstaffel were the militarized units of the NSDAP

[9] Russian SSR – Russian Soviet Socialist Republic

[10] CPSU – Communist Party of the Soviet Union

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