Read Burya 4: Prologue (The Night Before) here.
Into the Belly of the Beast
Inside a submarine, night is eternal. The humming of the engine, the whirring of machines, and the noise of the ocean that is filtered through and distorted by its skin of steel become a perpetual lullaby that eventually fades into the background of the minds of those trapped inside its stomach.
Kolya knew this. He had known it long before he boarded Burya 4. He had heard Comrade Allan’s stories, had hung on his lips—almost religiously—like the rest of the crew, had soaked up every word. And yet, when the hatchway closed behind the last soldier and darkness that was only broken by the light of the cold white lamps swallowed them, Kolya had to fight the urge to turn back and pound his fists against the hatch until they let him out. But he suppressed the shudder that clawed its way from his neck down his spine, ignored the cold that seeped into his veins, squared his shoulders, and continued onward, deeper into the belly of the beast.
The men were quiet. It was not the silence of disciplined men awaiting orders but the almost eerie absence of a whispered joke, of the shuffling of feet shifting weight; it was an absence of sound that was heavy with anticipation.
Without a word—only with the occasional exchange of meaningful glances—the crew filed along the corridors and dispersed. They all knew what they had to do; for a year they had trained. And yet, Kolya had never felt less prepared for anything in this life.
“Well, here we are then.”
Kolya turned his head to see one of his comrades follow him into the room near the stern. He was in his early twenties with blonde hair that was cut so short that it appeared almost dark, and a crooked smile that gave him an air of mischief. Kolya acknowledged Alexey’s presence with a nod, then shrugged, “Here we are then,” and straightened his cap.
For a while both remained quiet, focused on their tasks but eventually, it was Alexey again who broke the silence.
“Imagine we’ll actually run into some Americans.” His voice was buzzing with barely contained excitement. Like Kolya, Alexey had never seen war. The Germans had been defeated when both had barely reached their teenage years. But they had grown up on the stories of their fathers and grandfathers as much as on their silence and the thought of facing the enemy, whether it was to return or to die as heroes, was as thrilling as it was frightening.
“Imagine!” Kolya gave a short laugh. “But I don’t think so. Burya’s the best submarine in the world—they’ll never be able to detect us. If there’s anyone else out there, we’ll slip right past them, and they won’t even blink.”
“And what’s with that story of Comrade Allan last night? What do you make of that?”
Kolya stopped in his movement, his hands paused on a handwheel. He turned his head, one eyebrow raised.
“Not much. It’s all seaman’s yarn, that’s all. The old man’s probably sitting somewhere right now chuckling into his beard at the thought of how he got us hooked on his nonsense—and a lot of free beer he got out of it, too.” Kolya scratched his clean-shaven cheek. “Or perhaps he believes his own stories. Wouldn’t surprise me—lost his mind at sea, some say. Anyhow, he knows how to tell a good story, you’ve got to give him that.”
Alexey cast him a skeptical look, but Kolya had already turned back to the wheels and buttons in front of him studying them intently. And so, until the end of their shift, they worked in silence. There was no need for words when they worked; they were a good team.
When the lights switched from white to red indicating nightfall, Comrades Mikhail and Vladimir stepped into the room to take over. It was on their way to dinner that Kolya heard it for the first time: a dull rapping that shivered through the walls of the submarine and followed them through the narrow corridors. He did not say anything and tried to push aside the uneasy feeling that wound itself tight as ropes around his heart.
Alexey was his usual cheerful self throughout dinner, and none of the other soldiers seemed to give the sound a second thought—if they noticed it at all. After all, it was likely nothing but the sound of one of the machines running, one of the many pipes, or a strange current hitting the side of the submarine.
Late at night, Kolya woke with a start.
The hum and drone of the submarine were disrupted only by the snores of his comrades. The red light drowned them in a nightmarish glow that blurred the boundaries between reality and shadow. And it was there, in the shadows, that Kolya spotted a hint of movement. It was the slow movement of a deep inhale, the almost static turning of a plant towards the light, the fluke of a curtain trembling in a breeze—only visible out of the corner of the eye. And so, when Kolya turned his head, the shadows stood still.
Yet down the corridor—at its far end—one of the lights flickered. With every split second that the light bulb failed, darkness seeped from the cold walls; a darkness that was more concrete than the vague outlines of the bars and pipes that ran along the walls under the dim night lights. And with every flickering, there came a knock that reverberated with a dull echo.
Kolya swung his legs out of the hard and narrow bed, careful not to make a sudden movement that would disturb the shadows or a noise that would wake his comrades. The sturdiness of the ground under his feet gave him confidence. He pushed himself up and began to walk towards the flickering light. Yet, whereas the end of the corridor had seemed not too far away from his bed, it grew longer with every step he took. And with every step he took, Kolya’s courage faded a little. But he continued to walk, one step at a time, a controlled breath in between each step.
Eventually, he reached the end of the corridor. The light above him flickered, dimmed, and disappeared, and the knocking that tore through the darkness shook him to his bones. And with each knock came a whisper of air that wound itself through the corridor. Almost gently, it brushed against Kolya’s ankles and he felt his muscles tense, caught between the urge to bolt and get as far away as possible, to run until he would find the most well-lit spot on the submarine and hide inside its light, and the more reasonable sounding voice in his mind that told him to stay still and wait until whatever had come crawling from the shadows was gone.
He held his breath and did not move, and finally, when his lungs started to burn, the whisper of darkness vanished and Kolya relaxed. Just when he was about to move, the thing circled back. It slithered along the floor and felt its way along the walls. Like feelers it reached out; like tentacles, it sought for something to grasp—and found it.
With a start, Kolya woke. The hum and drone of the submarine were disrupted only by the snores of his comrades. The red light drowned them in a dim glow and even down the corridor everything was calm, and nothing moved.
Written by Merle Emrich.
Cover illustration by Amr Abbas.