~ Prologue Preview ~
Copyright Tracy Elner 2008
US Library of Congress 2011
First Edition 2013
Irkutsk, Siberia. Five time zones east of Moscow.
Dawn had already broken the vast skyline over the Angara River as the ageing academic emerged into the raw chill. Shivering, he checked his watch with the station’s clock. It was 8:35.
Good, I’m on schedule, he confirmed as he wrestled his greatcoat collar against a flurry of snow, the bizarre phone conversation of earlier that morning still firm in his mind.
‘9 o’clock. And be punctual.’
‘But that’s in two hours. Is it urgent?’
‘We have important visitors. They’ve asked for you.’
‘Really? Who are they?’
‘Officials from Moscow. I’ve been told nothing.’
‘Are you sure it’s me they want to speak with?’
‘Please, Ivan Yegorovich, just be there on time.’
His Director’s instruction had been direct but cryptic.
Why the secrecy, though? He quickened his pace across the glassy pathway. Could it be related to the deaths? Two of his team had drowned during a fishing excursion, only days before. Just a tragic accident, he reminded himself as his focus quickly switched to the icy steps that led up to a building he rarely visited.
‘Zdravstvuitie, Ivan Yegorovich!’ The young receptionist greeted him.
‘Zdravstvuitie,’ he replied, passing her his coat, thankful for the room’s warmth.
‘And your ushanka?’ She smiled shyly.
‘Ah, yes!’ Embarrassed by his absentmindedness, he removed the traditional rabbit-fur hat as his wife’s distant reprimand rang back. Sable is far too extravagant! She preferred spending the little remaining from his monthly salary on luxury food or some popular English language novels for their teenage granddaughter.
‘Chai?’ The girl offered tea.
‘Yes, please. Are the guests here?’
She nodded, coyly and turned away to fill a cup from the ornate samovar.
He reached into his jacket for a comb. ‘Do you know who they are?’ he probed, running its metal teeth through his tousled hair and slicking down the stray strands with his other hand.
‘No,’ she uttered blankly.
Has she been instructed to keep quiet?
He held her gaze for a second longer than comfortable then took the steaming drink and stepped away across the stained terrazzo floor, wrestling with the scant information.
These officials probably just want to discuss the funding, he speculated, stopping outside the Director’s office to sit and sip the sweet tea while straining at the muffled voices coming from inside. Cuts were inevitable, a result of the command economy’s recent collapse but he felt bolstered in the knowledge that he still had a full programme of research to complete, authorised from the very top. And if there had been any serious changes to that, I would have been summoned to Moscow.
Shortly, the Director’s drawn face appeared and the academic politely stood.
‘Ivan Yegorovich! Sorry for the wait. We will not be long now,’ he announced with a cursory smile before swinging his gaze to the girl.
‘Irina, please bring in more tea!’
The solid oak door slammed shut.
He seems tense. A pang of doubt surfaced again. Ivan Yegorovich had been ordered to omit certain crucial details from his reports. But he can’t possibly be aware of that. His worry, though, evaporated with the girl’s loud expletive. Tray-laden, she was struggling against the inertia of the huge door causing him to smile uneasily at the metaphor – the need to diminish the individual for the sake of the State.
For Ivan Yegorovich Isotov, the State had been his life. Growing up in poverty in another country or regime, he might have become a desperate individual, but not in the Soviet Union. It had fed and educated him and excelling in his studies at the polytechnic had earned him a place at Akademgorodok – its centre of excellence – among its finest minds.
His eyes shone, glancing up at a faded portrait of the once glorious leader, still hanging against the flaking walls, and reliving the collective sacrifices made to ensure that Russia’s fledging nuclear programme would change the course of history forever. But then the liver spot on his brow creased, prompted by discordant memories – the incredible phenomena he had stumbled across had caused instant alienation from his peers and interrogation by his masters in Moscow. Then, there followed humiliation at having to publicly refute his claims, stating that he had made fundamental errors in his observations. It ultimately led to his relocation – exile by another term – to an unknown institute. There was little consideration for his wife’s senior position in local government or his children’s elite schooling. All those privileges had been lost along with his hope of developing a technology that could have given his Soviet Union, peaceful superiority in the world.
Was it all worth it? His pride rose momentarily: Russia could become great, once again. But then his head dipped and he stared vacantly at the floor. Unlikely; too much has changed.
‘We’re ready for you now!’ A sharp call snapped him back to the moment.
He rose and automatically dusted off his shoulders before striding the few steps to grasp the Director’s outstretched hand.
‘How are you, Alexander Vladislavovich?’ he asked politely but the cold, moist palm provided the answer.
‘Come in, please. These gentlemen from the Ministry wish to discuss some things with you.’
What Ministry? I don’t report to any Ministry!
The receptionist quietly slipped out past them, masking her unease as he was invited to sit. There were no handshakes.
‘Ivan Yegorovich, do you know why we are here?’ the sour-faced stranger asked.
‘Not at all,’ he replied, smoothing out a striped polyester tie while clocking the obnoxious casualness of the man’s gum-chewing colleague.
Kretin! These new apparatchiki lack any respect for my generation.
‘We want to discuss your research work with you,’ the visitor continued, fingering his collar away from a roll of fat.
‘I see. What aspects, if I may ask?’
‘All of it.’
‘All of it?’
‘Yes, you are instructed to halt it.’
‘On whose authority?’
‘The funding is to be stopped.’
‘But the programme is scheduled to run for another two years,’ he said, registering a cruel harshness in the man’s bulging eyes. ‘I’ll need to have clearance from my superiors before there can be a cessation of my research.’
‘That is not necessary. This is the only instruction you will need!’ He tossed a letter across the desk.
Isotov smouldered, eying him for a fraction before picking it up and noting the ministerial stamps that confirmed its legitimacy. Reading it slowly, it became clear that his former chain of command had been usurped.
Stunned, he lingered a stare at his Director in a desperate bid for support – to buy more time – but it was met with impotence.
‘So you see, Ivan Yegorovich, your programme is to be closed with immediate effect.’
‘That’s impossible! The technology is still undergoing important tests.’
‘It will be decommissioned and removed.’
‘On whose authority?’
‘Mine! From today you will report to me.’
‘And Sphinx...the Institute?’
‘It will continue with its other lines of research.’
‘So there’s still funding for that?’
‘That’s the responsibility of another ministry. Just make sure that you comply then you can retire quietly with your pension.’
‘What!’ He flung down the letter and stood up. ‘That’s it? My entire life’s work finished because of some bogus instructions.’
Flushed, the stranger glared back, unfamiliar with defiance.
‘Then I have nothing further to discuss with you!’ He turned and stormed out of the room.
‘Ivan Yegorovich!’ the crumpled Director called out, fearful that his fate had been sealed by the scientist’s rash behaviour. But Isotov was already across the lobby and snatching his things from the startled young woman.
How could they have found out about the machine? He shook with suppressed rage. It’s classified to the highest echelons within the Kremlin. These Neanderthals couldn’t possibly have had access to that!
Outside, brilliant sunlight had pierced the veil of low cloud, transforming tiny snowflakes into a shimmering mist that hung in the air around him, stinging his cheeks. Oblivious, he looked about to see if he had been followed into the station. It was impossible to tell from the ubiquitous crowd milling about the platform, stamping its feet in a discordant cacophony to keep warm. Within minutes, though, he was sucked into the wake of huddled bodies, surging to meet the train’s arrival and escape from the frigid conditions.
The regular sway of the carriage and its oppressive heat only seemed to intensify a looming sense of desperation. A pensioner, sitting opposite, attempted a smile as she juggled several small jars of pickled cabbage on her lap but her young grandson was scrutinising Isotov with an expression that seemed to comprehend his plight.
The academic looked away, out into the dense pine canopy, squinting against the sun’s strobing rays. Then a crushing revelation descended upon him. That’s inconceivable! Yet he understood it was the only possible explanation. A caricature of his own terror stared back at him from the window’s reflection. There hadn’t been any accident. His hapless colleagues had been murdered.
Strategic assets of the State’s military-industrial complex were being blithely expropriated by a new breed of biznismen, greedy for untold wealth.
Those bastards will exploit my technology and then discover its real function. He shuddered convulsively. I pray that they haven’t got to Lubimov yet.
The boy’s eyes met his again as he considered the possible options. A small window of time now remained in which to reach Sphinx and his close friend. Together they could destroy their crucial files before disappearing, perhaps to the West.
The journey dragged but as the train slowed, Isotov was already leaping from the opened carriage door onto the platform.
A dirt-splashed Lada screeched into the station’s car park and jumped to the head of the taxi rank. Honked horns of disapproval soon stopped as a shaven head emerged into the biting wind and its bulky owner held out a palm to the approaching academic.
What the..? Isotov’s heart raced, instantly recognising the intent behind the jaundiced face. His earlier refusal to step down gracefully had meant that he too faced a fate similar to his friends. Their deaths must not be for nothing. He resolved, sinking his posture in feigned submission and fingering the Nagant M1895 pistol in his pocket.
A single gunshot sounded and fleetingly, Isotov believed he was simply a witness to the act. But as the crowd’s screams rushed violently into his ears and the wounded man staggered towards him, he let out a suspended gasp and ran.
His legs tired in the snow, slowing his escape and then a piercing pain shattered his shoulder. He slumped down, panting and watching the red polka dots of his blood diffuse into the thick snow.
It can’t end like this. A kaleidoscope of images ran before his eyes then, in a show of defiance he turned his trembling pistol back towards the injured man. But another shot had already rung out.
His friend, Lubimov, would now have to face the thugs alone.