Only when by some miracle we saw Nicolai coming out of the tower hatch did Ross call everyone off. We should have realized that the Russian's hadn't come to attack. War and Nuclear missiles had become obsolete in the face of 'Aquarius.' The new urgency had become one that was focused on saving human lives, rather than on destroying them. In this framework the mightiest nuclear arsenal served no purpose, nor did it pose any real threat.
We watched Nicolai climb down the tower. A rubber inflatable was handed to him. He placed it on deck, climbed in, and launched himself over the edge. Still, one thing puzzled me. I had seen no smile on his face when he waved to us. There had always been a gentle smile on Nicolai's face, no matter what the circumstances were. Nor did this smile ever seem out of place. I still remembered his gentle smiling face from the day we parted in Moscow, when 'Aquarius' first rose on the horizon.
Oh, how the world seemed different now when we saw him on the viewing screen rowing towards us, alone. Even Nicolai seemed different. A new feeling suddenly emerged within, a choking, uncomfortable feeling. That's when I realized that this was not Nicolai. Also, the timing of the arrival of the submarine was too short. The person that we thought was Nicolai was another Navy officer. The man's manners were different.
I remembered Nicolai's Christmas present that he had sent not so long ago. He had sent a sealed plastic bag, well pack with foam, that contained a bottle of wine, a fine Pinot Gris of what was left of the State Cellar! I remembered the label. It was the exact same wine that Antonovna had chosen those many years ago on the night of our first dinner together. I had felt tears in my eyes when I saw the label. No, this was not Nicolai who had come. This was a different man.
A moonless gray was beginning to blanket the sea. What had gone wrong? Whatever it was, I couldn't fathom it. Too much of a commotion was going on at the station while we got ready to rush down to the beach to meet the man half way.
+ + +
When I opened Nicolai's letter that day that the captain of the Typhoon had brought, everything changed again. It was a sad letter, written by a dying man.
"The virus has been dropped upon Russia, all of Russia will be dying," he wrote. "It is over for us. I have failed my country, I have failed myself, and I have failed you. If by some miracle this letter reaches you before the virus does, the submarine that carried this letter may be able to carry you to safety. The captain will explain."
I put the letter down, in shock. Now I realized why I had seen Nicolai emerge from the tower hatch. We both knew that Nicolai could not have been on this boat. It would have been physically impossible for him to be there. But the mind makes it own rules. I wanted that man to be Nicolai. We all did. Deep down within us, we all wanted our hopes to be verified that Nicolai was all right. We saw what we wanted to see. This happens so often in life, especially in times of a great crisis. We were well aware of the hopelessness of the world's situation, even without reading the letter that Nicolai had dictated. In this sense the letter came as no surprise. Still, we hoped against all that we knew, that the crisis had bypassed them both.
After a long while of pondering, I picked the letter up again and read on. I read it aloud so that all would know.
"I guess we were unsuccessful in stopping the royals" Nicolai wrote. "We had scheduled too many conferences which had tied us down without results, while we didn't cultivate closer ties with the people who control our resources. I had always believed our people would respond without hesitation in times of such a crisis. I was wrong. And now that I am dying, I still don't know if this death star was created by the royals, and who in our country is responsible for covering it up. I know that there exist people and organizations that want to wipe out mankind completely in order to save the earth from its 'human pest,' as they have put it. I'm sorry to say this, Pete, I think they will succeed. We will never meet again now, except perhaps in heaven, if there is such a place in the sphere of the Mind than embraces us all. Our big wedding that might have shocked society and set a new direction, will now remain but the dream. It will never come true. We had fought so hard Pete, to inspire humanity to build a basis for unity in order to prevent a nuclear war from erupting out of humanity's rage that grows in isolation. Still, we hadn't imagined that anything like this could ever happen. If there had been a nuclear war, at least we might have had a fighting chance, no matter how small this would have been. Now we die without a hope, silently, with but a whimper."
I paused again at this point. Reading his latter became hard. But I had no choice, so I read on. "If we had won our fight against this silent war, Pete, and I think we may have come very close to winning it, we could have created a wonderful world, Pete, the kind of world we had so often talked about in the past. This too, will never happen now. Still, Pete, I think we had made a difference. We had achieved a real step of progress for humanity in our clumsy way, for a period of time at least, even if it wasn't enough. We had come so close, Pete. We nearly had won the battle when no one else was even aware that a war was in progress. We had achieved miracles with the few resources we had, though we remained outmatched in the end by the royals who have stolen from humanity for centuries and had used these resources to murder it in return. They have prevented us from winning completely.
"By the time you read this," Nicolai wrote, "many people will likely be deadly ill. The first city they hit was Murmansk, just as Steve predicted. Next they hit Leningrad and Minsk. I don't know if they hit Kiev, Odessa, and Istanbul. There are rumors that they have. We really do not know anything for sure at this moment. I only know that we are finished. Murmansk will be depopulated if your report about the virus is correct. So, farewell my dear friends, and please allow the captain to carry you to safety. I don't know if Antonovna got away in time. If you ever contact her, give her my love and my assurance that I have always loved her. My life is over mow. Your life, my friends, may yet be saved. Maybe Anton will be luckier than I. Please take care of her if you should ever meet her again, and whatever you do, don't cry for me, but rejoice, because the more the empire strikes us down, the more powerful we become as human beings. In time, we shall become more powerful than they can imagine, and this will be their demise forever."
"Yours truly, with all my love, Nicolai, Vasily, Berendeyev."
There was an immediate consensus that we should accept the offer that was so nobly presented. Still, while everyone was rushing around to gather their clothing and precious things, I stood there and couldn't move. I couldn't comprehend the reality of what I had read. I couldn't understand where we had gone wrong in preventing it. I took Steve aside. "We cannot let this end, here. Ok, you were right, it happened as you had predicted, but we cannot run away from it either. If we don't fight the beast here and now, it will kill us no matter where we run. This must have been also Nicolai's response. Steve, we must bring the thing down, and we must do it over the northern arctic the moment it comes around for another sweep. We must not allow ourselves to give up on what has to be done, for as long as there is still a breath in us."
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