The wide, round table was quickly becoming a fixture in Hasmik Assanian’s daily routine. It was wide enough to accompany, at once, his Vice President, Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, and anyone else called in for any situation. Ornate wooden chairs upholstered with modest blue padding, pushed neatly into the table when not in use, bore intricate carvings from traditional craftsmen. A bronze placard had been set into the table bearing the name of each man in Assanian’s circle. Many of them were absent today. Hung on the dark green walls were paintings of Armenia by local artists, depicting natural beauty, folklore, historical victories, and even a few of daily life. One had recently been purchased from a rural artist depicting a solemn girl, no more than fourteen or fifteen, weaving a carpet on the stone steps of her home. Assanian took a liking to that one: it was quiet and peaceful yet busy with life, in contrast to the vibrant scenes of battle or landscapes that he considered boring.
Beside the table, a chalkboard was propped up on a stand. Written on it were the five parties of Parliament, while their numbers after the election were represented by a colored number, all adding up to a hundred and one. Atop the board was “votes” written in plain white. Assanian leaned on the table, staring towards the board. Beside him, his vice president twirled a pencil through his fingers while the Prime Minister stood stoically in a mute grey suit with his arms crossed and a look of deep concentration on his face. The Prime Minister was much older than both Assanian and Idration, balding with only a thin combover atop his wrinkled head. Serzh Antabian had been a politician with the Armenian Liberal Democratic Party for decades now, having been a founding member back in the 1930s. A few moments of contemplation went by, before he turned to the president: “You know this is going to be divisive, right?”
“Of course,” Assanian replied coolly, his focused brown eyes poring over the board in front of him. His hand moved to leaf through a revised copy of the Georgia Plan, laying nearby, fresh from the Ministry of War with additional information updated, mostly an accurate troop deployment schedule. The goal was to draw as few men away from the Turkish border as possible, requiring additional reserve and paramilitary units like the Border Service to take part. He was considering pushing that back to his Minister to limit the impact on society. The War Minister, Yegishe Eminian, was a brilliant strategist… in military terms. While his idea of drawing reservists to maintain a two-front operation was nobly-intended, Assanian and Antabian both agreed that it would hurt its chances of passing through the Parliament. People at home didn’t want to be called up for some foreign adventure, but if soldiers were already on the front then it made little difference to them. Eminian wouldn’t like the plan, but would follow the recommendation and try to mitigate the risk of pulling troops from the front to go to Georgia. He was a clever man, and Assanian appreciated it.
“The Liberal Democratic Party has heard murmurs of this plan and they’re honestly unsure of what to think. You and I both know we’re trying to work on our own problems, and going somewhere else isn’t on our agenda,” the Prime Minister warned, pointing lazily at the purple column on the board. “I can try and spin it for you, and I think party loyalty will help. I don’t foresee many dissenters on this vote. They like you, and if you can spin this as good for the country then it’ll be fine.”
Assanian looked back at Antabian, shaking his head: “Remember, I’m the President now. Things change, I’m not exactly beholden to the party’s leash anymore. Or as much as I was.” He smoothed out the purple tie sitting neatly below his jacket, a reminder of the party he came from. Idratian, beside him, made eye contact with his President and shrugged, but remained silent.
“We’ve always been in two camps, we’ve always had our hawks and our doves, Hasmik,” replied Antabian with a stern look, almost like he was scolding someone. “And I know you’ve always been a brash hawk. I don’t blame you, you were a cavalry commander. It will just take a little bit of work to ensure this success. We need to keep party unity, your term just started. Sacrificing it now will make things very difficult in the future, and that’s not what we need at this point in our history. If this proves too controversial, then I suggest we back off.”
“The good news is, however, the Enforcement Party will be all for it,” Idratian interjected, nodding towards the board at the ten politicians voted in primarily because they wanted to expand Armenian force projection to neighboring states, a rarity in a country so focused on domestic politics and unaccustomed to the idea of foreign interventions. “They’ve actually been saying something like this for years now, ever since Artsakh.”
“Then let’s put ten on the board,” Assanian announced, moving towards the chalkboard to circle the Enforcement Party and strike a ten next to the votes column. “Obviously for foreign military action, we need a two-thirds vote. Sixty-eight.”
“With the ALDP fully in, which may or may not happen, we’ll have fifty-three,” Antabian continued. He looked back at the board, towards the red column: The Armenian Communist Party. “I’m not even going to consider the Communists, they don’t want to work with any government, be it yours or Vadratian’s.”
“Are they even a real party?” joked Idratian with a scoff. “They don’t really do much, do they? Just kind of sit there and ramble. I wouldn’t count on their vote even if we were trying to print off Marx for every man, woman, and child.”
“Well,” sighed Assanian with a hint of resignation, “when the working class comes for our bourgeoisie heads I’m sure you’ll be the first one up against the wall for saying that.” He rolled his eyes and scratched in a “no” category, writing in the two Communists as definite opposition. He looked towards the Revolutionary Party and cocked his head. Despite his meeting with Serovian and the Council, the Armenian constitution was written more internally. It rarely mentioned limitations on Armenia acting outside of its borders, perhaps because the Council never anticipated a situation like this. Armenia, fatefully, was one of the larger and more established states in the Caucasus and Near Eastern region. This was interpreted different ways, and the Revolutionary Party was well-known to be against intervention in general. Taken literally, if the constitution said nothing about it then it shouldn’t be done. Defection was also rare in the hardline party, with other members shaming rogue voters as unpatriotic and un-Armenian: it was a savage sight to see. They numbered eleven, bringing the opposition vote to thirteen.
“I’ll put my estimates to about forty ALDP voters, just to give us a nice number to work with,” Antabian said with some thought. “There are a few known troublemakers… Erebunian is a nice guy but he’s definitely a bit of a flamboyant rogue. He has his posse of clowns, but they’re only three. I’d have the most trouble getting votes from them.”
The President went back to his board, marked up to fifty, and looked down at the Independence Party. Joseph Vadratian’s party, currently in a full retrograde after a disastrous election. While the ALDP and the Independence Party were often at odds with each other, the ALDP held a slim majority but not in excess of fifty-one seats. On controversial subjects, where the parties were deeply entrenched, success required coalition with the three minor parties whose loyalty very often fluctuated. Historically, the Enforcement Party and Revolutionary Party were friendlier towards conservative Independent Party policy: the Georgia Plan, however, could tickle the fancy of some Independence parliamentarians who wanted something to hold onto in the wake of Vadratian’s ousting. The party was in disarray, so defecting to the rival party would not be difficult. Strongmen inside the Independence Party controlled smaller groups of members, with the party leader working to control those factions. It was going to be at least eighteen members, however, close to half their elected population. This would require a little more work.
Antabian, thinking the same, tapped his foot absent-mindedly. His wise, dark brown eyes pored over the board. He was a quiet man, reserved in both person and Parliament, preferring to formulate his speech and actions. As such, his decisions were rather profound: when he spoke, people listened. Assanian liked that in a Prime Minister, since he had the task of wrangling politicians assigned to him. Assanian was, by nature, a military commander. Soldiers had orders, leaders, and subordinates in a neat structure. Politicians, on the other hand, made no sense, and the President oftentimes resented their behavior despite being one of them. Self-interest and political games permeated even the most checked and balanced system or the most robust arrangement of national service obligations, so it was up to Antabian to wrestle his way through the swamp and help the President out. After a few moments of contemplation, the Prime Minister spoke again: “Alright, I think I know who to talk to. I’m going to make a few phone calls.”
With that, he pushed up the sleeve of his jacket and took the time from a battered silver wristwatch. He cocked a thin eyebrow, before standing up and looking down to Assanian: “It’s also time for me to leave. I’m afraid the wife is making lahmajun tonight,” he said, referring to the pizza-like dish of bread topped with tomato sauce and spiced meat. With a rare smile, he adjusted his tie and added: “And half the reason I married her was for the lahmajun. I’ll let you know how the calls to Parliament go. Have a good night.”
The Black Sea
They appeared on the horizon at dawn as a gaggle of small, black silhouettes. The squadron of boats quickly resolved themselves to be the low-profile, fierce shapes of Russian pirates. The Breadwinner’s return lane took it away from Odessa, hugging the coast of Crimea until it turned off towards Georgia. A certain percentage of wheat, fruits, vegetables, meat, and other foodstuffs from Ukraine’s breadbasket were taken first to the military garrison in Poti as part of Captain Sarkisian’s contract before the rest of the consumer goods were delivered to Trabzon, necessitating the somewhat more dangerous route. The pirate bosses in Sochi, the wretched hive of scum and villainy it was, had caught onto these predictable Armenian merchant contracts. The visit of the Russian flotilla was not unexpected: a typical raiding party consisted of three gunboats and a boarding vessel packed with pirates, mostly teenagers scraping together a living from the unluckier merchant mariners. Captain Sarkisian, however, had seen the Russians before and had fought the fight he knew was just moments away. They were still several nautical miles out before he hit the alarm.
“Put her to broadside, I want all the guns trained on these guys,” Sarkisian ordered calmly, peering through a set of binoculars out the bridge’s window. The Breadwinner, like most Armenian cargo ships, maintained a pair of machineguns with sectors of fire covering the side of the hull. A single light naval cannon mounted to the bow was being rotated into position by its crew. On the bridge, Sarkisian’s crew went to their positions and fixed their eyes to their instruments. A klaxon blared, while the signalman announced an action stations call over the intercom. Nazarbekian, his executive officer, quickly downed the rest of his coffee from a ceramic cup and lit a new cigarette while he reached down to put on his intercom headset. This allowed instant communication with his ship’s section heads: engineering, damage control, gunnery, and medical. They checked in one by one as they came up on the intercom. The Russians drew in closer, their gunboats fanning out and starting a circle around the ship. They tried to stay out of range of the Breadwinner’s side guns, while confusing the bow turret’s gunner.
“All men are set,” announced Nazarbekian, acting as the communicator for Sarkisian.
“Thanks,” replied Sarkisian. He looked down at his watch before going back to the binoculars: “Give me a slow to seven knots, helmsman.”
The thrumming of the engine dulled and the ship slowly decelerated to give the gunners a better chance at reacting to contact. This presented more of a tactical risk, but Sarkisian was a fan of the strategy. The Russian pirates, noticing the change in its wake, began their charge. One of the gunboats gunned its engine as it tightened up its circle around the Breadwinner to slide away from the broadside. The Russians took the first shots: semi-automatic rifle fire, poorly aimed in the choppy sea, trying to keep the Armenians’ heads down.
“Hold fire until he reaches the starboard guns,” Sarkisian ordered. Nazarbekian repeated it into the intercom, where the message was taken by runner from the gunnery chief to the sailor manning the 12.7 millimeter heavy machinegun on the ship’s side. The other gunboat took the opposite direction while the boarding ship and its escort stayed away. Sporadic rifle fire erupted from the pirates’ ships, answered by Armenian sailors’ own personal weapons. The gunboat at the bow turned abruptly towards the ship, training its weapons right onto the Breadwinner’s gun positions. Armenian Independence class vessels had been traversing the seas for over a decade, and the pirates were smart. They trained almost as much as the sailors did. A volley of their machinegun fire ripped out towards the starboard guns, who began their answer. A rapid rhythm of fire crackled through the air as the gunners began engaging. Trails of water spouts sprang from the water behind the gunboat, while tracer rounds arced their way over the deck. Sailors dove for cover and returned fire in a back-and-forth.
“Do we have eyes on the other boat?” asked Sarkisian, switching his view from the starboard side to the boarding vessel still waiting out of range of the guns. “I need to find out where he’s going!”
Nazarbekian spoke into the microphone of his headset, trying to get information from the lookouts. With attention focused on the pirates in the direction of the coast, someone had to head to the rear and try to locate the flanking gunboat. He pressed his hand to the earpiece, listening to the crackly voice of the lookouts. His eyes narrowed and he took a drag of his cigarette. “Shit!”
“What?” Sarkisian asked with a jolt, spinning towards his executive officer.
“Another squadron is coming up from the rear! That’s two, what the fuck is going on?”
A chill ran through Captain Sarkisian’s spine. His eyes widened: “We need to flex our defenses. These guys are playing around with us. How did we let that slip?”
“Sir, they’re gunning it our way. The lookout says they look like they’re maxing out their engines coming for us. They’ll be within range in a few minutes.”
The second gunboat reached the stern by the time Sarkisian returned to his position by the window of the bridge. The arrival of the second squadron was quickly enveloping them, and the pirates were starting to close in. The stern gunners began to shoot and try to ward off the pirates while Sarkisian frantically tried to plot a course to get out of it. He shouted to his helmsman to increase speed and try to get out of the ambush: “We have to go, our gunners will just need to suppress and wave them off!” he ordered urgently. Back to his map, he calculated the distance to Poti. Over a hundred and thirty nautical miles: they couldn’t outrun the pirates to safety any time soon. He cursed again, they’d have to stay and fight. More of the guns became engaged while the main cannon locked into a tracking pattern on the boarding ship’s escort, which had started to swerve in and out. The machineguns were overshadowed by the loud thumping of the cannon as it send an airburst shell out to try and destroy the third gunboat.
On the gunboats, the Russian pirates emerged with rockets: they carried their shoulder-fired tubes to positions on the gunwales and took aim. A lookout reported the sighting of rockets, but he was too late to direct any fire to it: a rocket launched, swirling through the air and just missing the bridge. The crew ducked, hitting the ground with their hands on their heads before Sarkisian ordered them back up to their stations. “We almost got it there, boys!” Nazarbekian cheered, before his voice was drowned out by a cacophony of fire. His pride was short lived, the Russians got another rocket off. This one hit the bow, crashing in dangerously close to the cannon and sending an explosion roaring over the deck. The ship vibrated with the impact as a wall of flame swept across towards a group of personnel who dove for a cover. A fire started, smoke blowing backwards across the deck while others rushed for the hoses. “Fire, fire, fire!” came the report from the damage control officer.
Sarkisian watched from the bridge as a team of sailors moved out with the hose. He looked towards the smoke that was now threatening to obscure the main gunner’s optics. The gunner, too, saw this and let loose another round from the cannon before it was too late. Through good aiming or simply luck, this shell flew straight past the deckhouse of the third gunboat and exploded exactly over its stern. The pirate ship’s stern disintegrated and rocked the rest of the hull forward, bodies and debris launched like ragdolls. The gunboat started sinking instantly, a raging fire starting on its deck. Again, the Russians answered this victory with another round of gunfire, now getting dangerously close to the other gun positions. Nazarbekian checked into the intercom for reports from the other lookouts and had opened barely his mouth to relay information to Sarkisian before a horrific crash threw everyone to the floor. Nazarbekian’s coffee cup lurched off the center console and crashed into a steel pillar, shattering all over the captain. The electrical power flickered and went out. “What the fuck was that?” shouted Sarkisian.
While the battle had been raging near the bow of the Breadwinner, the second squadron of pirates had rushed into position through a hail of gunfire. Of their three gunboats, the lead was riddled with machinegun fire and left immobilized in the sea. Two more arrived in position, one with a weapon nobody had seen in this region before. A Tsarist multiple launch rocket system, affectionately called the Katyusha, had been cut off of its typical truck mountain and welded to a pirate gunboat. Eight racks carried thirty-two rockets, seventeen of which impacted the rear of the Breadwinner’s deckhouse, completely shredding through its superstructure and setting the topside alight. Sarkisian struggled up on shaky legs, smelling smoke in the air. Nazarbekian had been thrown to the console, hitting his head: he bled from his temple, but was grunting and steadying himself as he rose. “Is anyone hurt?” he asked, wiping the blood away. Nobody on the bridge was, aside from cuts on shattered glass, but a fire was slowly moving to the bridge. Nazarbekian tried the intercom one last time, getting only static.
Sarkisian kept panic at bay on the bridge: he ordered the bulkhead be closed to slow the fire down, and moved everyone out to the railing so they could climb down the exterior ladder and make it to the alternate command location. More rockets pummeled the ship as the Armenian gunners failed to take out the Russians’ gunboats: gun positions became damaged or destroyed, with the pirates suffering another loss of a gunboat from a fuel tank explosion. The fire became increasingly accurate: casualties were beginning to flood the lower decks where the ship’s surgeon was triaging. With nobody to coordinate them, the machinegunners’ sectors of fire began to lapse and the pirates, still circling the ship, started to find gaps. Sarkisian lost his lookouts, the eyes of the ship, and had no idea that the Russians were now moving boarding vessels into these blind spots. The crew, now fighting for their lives at the gun positions, were unable to stop them. The armored boarding vessels raced in towards the Breadwinner as Armenians fired their rifles in desperate attempts to hit crew members on board.
With a clang, the first of the boarding ships made contact with the Breadwinner. A Russian pirate, under fire, moved with a hooked ladder out to the side and hoisted it up with the aid of two others. They flailed it about until it got caught on the railing of a lower catwalk, securing it into place. The boarding ship had matched speed with the Breadwinner, and a boarding party began to scurry up the ladder. Two Armenian sailors began to shoot at the ladder, knocking some Russians off with their gunfire. It was too little, too late: the pirates had climbed aboard and were now engaging the Merchant Mariners with shotguns, submachineguns, and handguns. A breathless runner arrived at the command post as Sarkisian started receiving word that the other boarding vessel was near: “Sir, we’ve been boarded!”
The captain swore, his heart beating through his chest. His command and control over the situation was totally shot: there was no way he could communicate with his crew from the alternate command post, the power was still out. Russian boarding parties were already shooting with Armenian sailors in the cramped, tight passageways of the ship. The gunfire rang out through the metallic halls, the shouts and screams of men in combat accompanying it. On the stern, the other boarding ship had made contact and hooked in their own ladder, dispersing freely throughout the ship. Their first target was the bridge: Captain Sarkisian and his executive officer were prime targets for ransom. He ordered his crew to guard the entrances to the command post while his hands patted his belt to find his keyring. He fumbled amongst the brass keys, searching desperately for the alternate arms locker at the command post: each ship maintained a few guns in the bridge and backup command post in case of this specific event. Shaking, he went to the locker and tried the keys. The first few wouldn’t work: he cursed them loudly. The gunfire was getting closer.
Only two of his bridge crew had actual weapons on their person, a shotgun and a carbine. They posted up together at the entrance to the superstructure’s main stairs, where they heard the voices of the pirates below. “Sir!” one of them shouted, before letting loose a pair of shotgun shells. “They’re coming!”
“Fuck!” shouted Sarkisian, finally getting the key into its lock. With a click, the arms locker opened and five shotguns were sitting neatly in their racks. The Captain quickly distributed them to his crew along with a cardboard box of shells, which they began loading. He took a pair of pistols from the bottom shelf and handed one to Nazarbekian. A chorus of racking and clicking followed as the Armenian sailors prepared for the Russians. Tension was thick in the air: the Armenians took cover behind desks and lockers, aiming at the entrances. The stairwell guards shot again, now exchanging fire with the Russian boarding party. Sarkisian exchanged looks with his executive officer, then closed his eyes and muttered a quick prayer. His amen was punctuated with a shout from the hallway: “Stoy! Stoy! U menya yest granata!”
Then, in broken and heavily accented Armenian, a different voice translated: “He has… grenade! Put gun to floor!”
“My ne khotim prichinyat tebe bol! Sdacha!” angrily shouted the first one.
“He says… We are not wanting to kill. Put it down.”
Gunfire on the ship showed no signs of ceasing, as the crew bitterly fought in the corridors against the pirates. Sarkisian knew he couldn’t tell his men to stand down without electrical power to the intercom. Did they even have a grenade? Nazarbekian looked to him sternly: “What’s our decision? I don’t know if we can win this fight,” he warned.
“Shit…” Sarkisian muttered. He peeked his head over at the stairwell. “If they have a grenade we’re all fucked,” he whispered.
“Are we going to take that risk?” asked Nazarbekian. He looked over the railing. “A grenade goes off, we die. We fight, maybe we die. We surrender… these guys are pirates, not murderers: they’re financially motivated. We’re captured, yes, but… we could go home.”
“Who the fuck is going to grab us from Sochi?” asked Sarkisian, frustrated. “Who’s going to pay a pirate king in Russia?”
“It’s better than nothing,” Nazarbekian shot back. He sighed deeply. “I don’t like it either.”
The Captain closed his eyes again, the grip of his hand tightening around the pistol. He shook, frozen behind the desk. Inside, he pushed against it, but he knew it was over. The Russians repeated their request. His crew looked to him, wide-eyed, awaiting an answer. The fear in their eyes was amplified. So Captain Sarkisian exhaled harshly and muttered: “Please God, forgive me.” He put his pistol down on the floor gently, before motioning Nazarbekian to do the same. Sarkisian kept his eyes to the floor, shame washing over him: he did not want to see the faces of his crewmen. With great effort, he stood up from behind the desk and looked to the stairwell. The Russian had emerged from the staircase as soon as he heard the guards put down their guns. His eyes stared down the sights of a rusted rifle with rotting wooden furniture. The sights were aimed directly to Sarkisian’s chest, with the captain staring down its barrel. Sarkisian raised his hands slowly, shakily above his head.
“It is done. We give up,” he announced to him. “No more killing. It’s over. It’s over.”