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Chernobyl: The very name conjures the catastrophe that the world feared could happen someday at a nuclear power plant. On April 26, 1986, a power surge caused the core of one of the reactors to explode, spewing a cloud of radioactive steam into the air. More than four thousand people died, as many as a half-million suffered potentially cancer-causing exposure, and the city around the plant became a toxic wasteland in which nothing could live. Before the disaster at the Chernobyl plant, nuclear catastrophe had ...
Chernobyl: The very name conjures the catastrophe that the world feared could happen someday at a nuclear power plant. On April 26, 1986, a power surge caused the core of one of the reactors to explode, spewing a cloud of radioactive steam into the air. More than four thousand people died, as many as a half-million suffered potentially cancer-causing exposure, and the city around the plant became a toxic wasteland in which nothing could live. Before the disaster at the Chernobyl plant, nuclear catastrophe had been only a fear, a threat. But when the Chernobyl plant was destroyed, those fears were suddenly all too real.
Frederik Pohl’s novel about this disaster was written months after the tragic events. He had the cooperation of many people inside the USSR with access to technical information and first-person accounts of the events of what is still the most tragic nuclear event in human history and only one of two level-7 nuclear accidents, along with the Fukushima disaster of 2011.
This is fiction, but it is the most riveting, realistic account of what happened that has ever been written. It is also a cautionary tale that reminds us of the dangers of nuclear power plants and the terrible devastation they can unleash.
Including a new Afterword by the author, this is an important book.
FRIDAY, APRIL 25, 1986
At this time Simian Sin is an active, affable man of sixty-four years who looks rather like a former heavyweight wrestler. He is short and quite stocky. He smiles often, with the kind of smile that other people instinctively return. He could not be called handsome, partly because he has a strip of smooth, almost glassy skin that extends across the left side of his face from his upper lip to where the back of his neck disappears inside his clothes. Still, there is a sweetness to his expression which makes his male subordinates feel free to speak frankly to him, and which women find attractive. That is one of the reasons his wife, Selena, married him, although at the time of their wedding he was nearly forty years old and she was only nineteen. Another reason is that he was a wounded and decorated war veteran, with special privileges in going to the head of queues and opportunities to buy things in special stores. It was also obvious even then that he was on his way up. He has succeeded well. He is the Deputy Director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, which supplies the eastern Ukraine with nearly one quarter of its electrical energy, a Party member of forty-three years’ standing and one who has the privilege, from time to time, of travel abroad. Selena has been permitted to accompany him out of the country twice. Once it was only to East Germany, but the other time gave her five wonderful days when he was obliged to visit the International Atomic Energy Authority headquarters in the authentically western city of Vienna.
Immediately after lunch that day Smin received the three visitors from South Yemen in the plant’s conference room. It was one of the showplaces of the plant, with its snowy white bust of V. I. Lenin gazing challengingly down from one wall and its deep-piled Armenian rug on the floor. His secretary had set up the long birch table with the things appropriate for distinguished foreign guests, who might (the people in Novosibirsk hoped) order an RBMK-1000 nuclear power plant for their own country. (Of course, for political reasons, it would be a long time before they ever got one, but still the nuclear power plant authorities wanted very much to have them ask.) There were opened bottles of Pepsi-Cola and orange Fanta, as well as ashtrays and packets of American Marlboros, and in the little refrigerator under the sideboard were unopened tins of Greek orange juice. (There was also a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka in the refrigerator’s tiny ice compartment, in case the Yemenis turned out to be more Marxist than Moslem.)
The Yemenis were escorted in by Smin’s secretary, Paraska Kandyba, her lined, lean old face impassive. Their translator trailed behind, deferentially seating himself at the very end of the table only after the men in the white robes were already sitting down. “I welcome you to the Chernobyl Power Station. I apologize for the fact that our Director, Comrade Zaglodin, is unavoidably absent, but he joins me in the hope that your visit here can add to the warm and friendly relations between our two countries,” said Smin in his pleasing tenor voice, and waited for the translator to put that into the language of his visitors. It was the standard speech of hospitality and pride in the power plant, two sentences at a time and then a pause for the translator. He went right on with it as his secretary came in with a tray of coffee in small cups and a plate of sweet biscuits, which she handed around among the guests. They sipped and nibbled impassively as they listened to Smin’s recitation of the virtues of the Soviet nuclear power system, the unflagging devotion with which they were carrying out the decisions of the 27th Party Congress, and their unfailing success in achieving their Plan goals.
The speech was nearly all true in what it said, though it said nothing of, for example, the stratagems and shortcuts that made the Plan at least technically attainable. Nor did it say explicitly what the other duties were that kept the Director from the honored Yemeni guests. (Which were primarily that there were other guests the Director thought more worth cultivating than a bunch of Arabs who chose to be born in the only country on the Arabian peninsula that didn’t have oil.) Smin could have given the speech in his sleep. Sometimes he almost did. Normally in such conditions he used the fifty percent of time devoted to translation to study the visitors—Cubans and East Germans, Angolans and Campucheans, Vietnamese and Poles—and wonder what they made of this immense monument to Soviet science and technology. Of course, many of them had nuclear power generating plants of their own, or at least every expectation of having them soon. What they had, however, were generally pressurized water reactors. What none of the foreign guests had were the RBMK-1000s that powered Chernobyl. That particular model was not exported to the fraternal Socialist countries. The reactors they got were, no doubt, good enough to produce electrical power, but they were of little use for other purposes. (Of course. Who would trust Campucheans or Poles with the capacity to create plutonium?) Sometimes Smin tried to guess what the foreign guests would do if they actually ordered, and were allowed to receive, RBMK-series reactors. Sometimes he thought they would tamely return the spent cores for reprocessing inside the USSR without any unexplained shortages.
But he didn’t think that often.
On this day he didn’t play that game anyway. He had other things on his mind. When the leader of the Yemenis took his turn to respond to the speech of welcome, Smin, nodding in thoughtful appreciation at each translated fragment, took the opportunity to write on a piece of paper: “Experiment on schedule?” He passed it inconspicuously to the secretary when she came in to offer the tinned orange juice to the guests. No one seemed to notice what he had done. The head of the delegation was craning his neck to peer inside the refrigerator as the secretary opened it. He turned to Sin and said, “Peut-être, un peu de vodka?”
“Mais certainement,” cried Simon affably. “Et alors, vous parlez français Très bien!” He waved the secretary off and opened the ice-cold vodka bottle himself, pouring a nearly exact one hundred fifty milliliters of vodka for each guest. If any of them noticed that Smin poured nothing for himself, no one commented. Thereafter the conversation continued in serviceable, if rather elementary French on both sides. It went much faster that way. Smin explained that each of the four reactors that made up the Chernobyl plant was rated at one thousand megawatts and could be refueled in operation, meaning that they were on line far more of the time than most Western models. He passed out glossy prints of the turbine room, the containment shell, the arc-shaped control boards with their four or five technicians always on duty, the bound book of aerial photographs taken during construction that showed the immense power plant as it grew, layer by layer.
“But why are you showing us only these photographs?” asked one of the Yemenis politely. “Can we not visit these places in person?”
“But certainly!” cried Smin. “Of course, there is a certain amount of climbing to be done—you don’t object to stairs?—and it will be necessary, purely as a precaution, to wear protective clothing, but we can begin at once!” And do it very quickly, he added to himself, because the note the secretary slipped in his palm had said, “Yes, it is scheduled to begin at 2:00 P.M.”
* * *
Chernobyl was not merely a power plant, it was nearly a city. Each RBMK-1000 reactor by itself was immense, with its tons of graphite blocks that slowed the neutrons; its nearly seventeen hundred jacketed steel pipes that carried water through the cores; its drying tanks, where all seventeen hundred tubes met to wring the droplets of water out of dew steam and pass the energy-loaded steam itself on to the turbines; its huge macadam turbine floor, where the engines droned or howled away; its two feet of steel and six feet of concrete that surrounded each reactor—insurance against the wholly improbable chance that something, some time, should go wrong. And there were four of the RBMK-1000s already on line in the Chernobyl power station plant; and the plant itself was only one structure in a municipality of storage spaces and workshops and administration offices—and a medical center—and baths for the people who worked there—and cafeterias—and lounges for parties and resting after shifts—and everything else that Smin could imagine, and through begging or bribes manage to obtain, to make Chernobyl perfect.
That was the job of the Deputy Director, and the fact that a goal of perfection was impossible to attain did not keep Smin from continuing to try. Against all odds. In spite of all frustrations. There were plenty of those, starting with the workers themselves. If they did not drink on the job, they absented themselves without permission; if they did not do either, then they all too often drifted away to other jobs as soon as they were trained. In theory that was not easy to do in the USSR, since no one got a job without a report from his last employer and employers were supposed to discourage vagabonding of that sort. In practice, people who had worked at Chernobyl were in such demand that even a negative report was disregarded. And those were only the problems of personnel. If the workers were somehow placated and even motivated, then there were the problems of materiel. Materials of decent quality were always hard to get—for anything—and Smin was shameless and tireless in doing what had to be done to find unflawed steel and well-made cables and high-grade cement and even the best and freshest produce from the private plots of the nearby kolkhozists to go into the kitchens of the plant’s cafeterias. Just weeks before there had been a story in Literaturna Ukraina that had harshly exposed the sordid history of incompetent people and defective materials; it had been a great embarrassment to Smin’s superiors, but in the long run the story had added force to Smin’s own dedicated routine of demanding and urging and shaming and even, when necessary—and it was often necessary—bribing. It was not how Smin would have preferred to do his job, but it was unfortunately the only way, sometimes, that the job could be done.
Because Smin was in a hurry, he didn’t show the Yemenis everything. He skipped the oil storage rooms, up over the reactors, where the diesel fuel was kept for the emergency pumps in case of power failure; he gave them only a quick peek through the heavy glass windows at the refueling chamber, where the huge, spidery refueling machine crept on its massive tucks from fuel tube to fuel tubes as needed, lifting out the spent fuel and replacing it with new while the reactor kept right on generating power. He skipped the Red Room and the cafeteria and the baths, though he was proud of them all for the proof they gave of his constant concern for the four thousand men and women who worked at Chernobyl. He did not, of course, allow the visitors in any of the four reactor chambers, though he permitted a quick look, again through the heavy glass port, at No. 1, oldest of Chernobyl’s reactors and still pouring out energy—with, he called over the noise of steam and turbines, the best safety and performance record in the USSR! He even let them look at the huge pipes of the water system, because they were in their line of travel anyway; and then they turned away and the leading Yemeni jumped back as he saw the hissing, spitting, eye-paining flames of the hydrogen burner.
“What is that thing? I thought atomic power meant you did not have to burn oil!”
“Oh, but it isn’t oil,” Smin explained reassuringly. “It has nothing to do with the steam, simply a way of getting rid of gases that might otherwise be dangerous. As water goes through the reactor, you see, a little bit each time is broken down into the gases hydrogen and oxygen through radiolysis. We cannot have this in the system, you know, it would be dangerous! So we flare it off here and burn it.” Then he let them walk through the turbine room itself, with plugs in their ears and hard hats on their heads, because he knew they would not linger in that painfully noisy place, to get to the control room for Reactors 1 and 2.
While the interpreter was dealing with their questions for the chief shift engineer, Smin picked up a phone and checked again. Yes, the comrade guests were already gathering to observe the experiment, which was still on schedule. So, he found, checking his watch, was his tour. He had ten minutes yet to get rid of the Yemenis before going to the main control room, and so he approached them, smiling.
The shift engineer was not smiling. He turned away and muttered to Smin, “They are asking me about Luba Kova1evska.”
Smin sighed and turned to the Yemenis. “Have you some questions for me, then?” he asked politely.
The older Yemeni gazed at him. It was difficult to read the man’s expression, but he said only, “One has heard stories.”
Smin kept his smile. “What stories are these?” he asked, though he knew the answer.
“There have been reports in your own press,” the man said apologetically. He put on spectacles and took a paper out of his pocket. “From your magazine Literaturna Ukraina, is that how you say it? An article which speaks of poor design, of unsafe materials, of bad discipline among the workers—of course,” he added, folding the paper, “if one had read such things in the Western press, one would understand they are not to be taken seriously. But in your own journals?”
“Ah,” said Smin, nodding, “it is what we call glasnost.” He used the Russian word and translated quickly. “That is to say, candor. Frankness. Openness.” He smiled in a friendly manner. “I suppose you are surprised to see such harsh criticism in a Soviet magazine, but, you see, there is a new time now. Our general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, has properly said that we need glasnost. We need to speak openly and honestly and in public about short-comings and errors of all kinds. Mrs. Kovalevska’s article is an example of this.” He shrugged in humorous deprecation. “It is very useful to us to be called to account in public for any faults. I will not say it isn’t painful, but that is how faults can be found on time to correct them. Sometimes it goes too far, perhaps. A writer like Mrs. Kovalevska hears rumors and she puts them in a newspaper—well, it is good that rumors should be aired, so that they can be investigated. But one should imagine that every word is true.”
“Then this report in Literaturna Ukraina is untrue?”
“Not entirely untrue,” Smin conceded, the shift engineer scowling as he hung on every word, trying to follow the French. “Certainly some mistakes have been made. But they are being corrected. And furthermore, please note, my dear friends, that these things Mrs, Kovalevska lists in so much detail refer principally to matters of faulty construction and operation. They do not suggest for one moment that there is anything wrong with the RBMK-1000 reactor itself! Our reactors are totally safe. Anyone can understand that this is true from the fact that never, in the history of atomic power, has the Soviet Union had a nuclear accident of any kind.”
“Ah?” said the Yemeni shrewdly. “Is that correct? Then what about the accident in Kyshtym in 1958?”
“There was no accident in Kyshtym in l958,” said Smin positively, and wondered if he were speaking the truth.
* * *
By the time Smin had his guests out of doors it was already two-twenty. He had managed to find out from the control-room operators that Reactor No. 4 was still at full power, so the experiment was not yet ready to begin. That meant he had a little more time. He used it to be a gracious host. “See this lake?” he said, indicating the lake along whose borders they were walking. “It is our cooling pond. Six kilometers long, and, as you see, a beautiful thing in itself. And it is stocked with fish; our local sportsmen say the fishing is even better here than in the Pripyat River.”
“Why is that?” the younger Yemeni asked politely.
“Because the water is warmed all through the year.”
“But I see ice in it,” the older one said dryly.
“But this is the Ukraine!” Smin said, smiling. “Of course our winters are terribly cold. But even in the worst of the winter the pond does not freeze over entirely here, and the fish love it. And now—see the trees, the flowers; it is spring.” He stopped and gazed up at the towering buildings that housed Reactors 3 and 4.
“From here,” he said, “you can see how large the Chernobyl Power Station is. Four operating reactors, each one producing one thousand megawatts of electrical energy, enough to light an entire city of one million people. And we have already begun construction of two new ones, even larger. When they are finished we will be able to supply a city of seven million.”
“We don’t have any cities of seven million,” said the older Yemeni. “Also, we don’t have any lakes.”
“With such power you can create all the lakes you wish,” Smin said grandly. “Come, I will show you where the new reactors are already being begun.”
And when they were on the lip of the giant excavation where the core of Reactor No. 5 would soon go, busy with excavation equipment and dump trucks carting the soil away, the Yemenis seemed still unsatisfied. “These also will be RBMK-1000s?” the older one asked.
“No, no. Each will be even larger, fifteen hundred megawatts electric rated output!”
“But still graphite reactors,” mused the Yemeni. “Although some people say that this design is not as good as the pressurized water reactor, like those in the West.”
“Ah, the West,” said Smin good-naturedly, his mood improved since he had seen the dark-blue Volga car that would take the Yemenis away creeping cautiously toward them, among the rumbling trucks and bulldozers. “You see, in the first place, the Soviet Union also has pressurized-water reactors; we have both kinds in service. Each has its own special advantages. The Americans do not have this variety of choice. All of their nuclear energy comes from the submarine power plants.”
The Yemeni looked puzzled. “What do submarines have to do with it?”
Smin smiled. “Do you know why the Americans stay with the pressurized-water reactors? It is because they are trapped in their own historical accidents. They are in a rut. The first power reactors ever built in America were designed for their nuclear submarines. Those had to be of the pressurized-water type, since nothing else would work inside the confined space of a submarine. Advanced models like our RBMKs simply cannot be used for submarine engines. So when at last the Americans decided to try to generate utility power with atomic energy, they simply built new and larger submarine engines. The RBMK is quite different, and by ‘different’ I mean ‘better.’ For one thing, it is extremely responsive. The American generators, like all pressurized-water generators, are only good for baseline power—they are very slow to start and very slow to stop. The RBMK is quick to respond. If there is a sudden need for power, an RBMK can be brought on line in less than one hour. And—well, I remind you of safety. Three Mile Island was a pressurized-water reactor, you know.”
“If all that is so,” said the older Yemeni suddenly, “then why have you not shown us Reactor Number Four?”
Smin shook his head compassionately. “Unfortunately, Reactor Number Four is about to be taken out of service for maintenance. So no one is permitted in the area because of some slight risk of radiation exposure, you see. It is a precaution very strictly enforced you see, in spite of glasnost articles in the newspapers, we really are very cautious. What a pity! But perhaps you could come back tomorrow, when things will be tranquil again?”
“Unfortunately,” said the Yemeni glumly, “tonight we stay in the Dniepro Hotel in Kiev, and fly to Moscow in the morning.”
“What a pity,” repeated Smin, who had known that all along. “And now your car is here! I hope you have had an interesting visit with us, here at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, and I look forward to our meeting again!”
* * *
Smin was still thinking of the Yemenis when he stopped, simply as a precaution, to make sure the experiment was still ready to go before going up to the main control room. But when he heard what the shift operator had to say he forgot the Yemenis. “Canceled? Why is it canceled? What are we going to do with all those people?”
The shift operator sighed. “If you figure that out, please tell me; they are still here. All I know is that the power dispatchers in Kiev say we can’t go off line now. I didn’t speak to them; you’ll have to ask the Director. What? No, he isn’t here; I think he’s in the turbine room below.”
Smin put the phone down, frowning. Now, that was a nuisance. There were almost a dozen observers on hand. They had gathered at Chernobyl from as far away as Leningrad, power-plant managers and representatives of turbine builders and electrical engineers, for the single purpose of seeing how the experiment in generating extra power from residual heat and momentum after a reactor was shut down would work. The experiment should be beginning right now, which would mean they would all be getting into their cars and bothering somebody else before dark.
But now what?
The only person who could answer that was the Director, so Smin went looking for him. Smin was meticulous about making sure his workers dressed for their work, and set them a good example by putting on the dosimeter badge and the white cap and coveralls and cloth slippers before he walked into the turbine hall.
He also fitted the plugs in his ears. The turbine rooms, particularly the big one that combined the output of Reactors 3 and 4, were the noisiest places in the Chernobyl Power Station. Perhaps they were the noisiest places in the world, Smin thought, but he welcomed the noise. The scream of the steam in the turbines was good news. It meant that the heat of the dying atoms was spinning the great wheels and magically turning steam into electricity to feed the lights and radios and television sets and elevator motors of a quarter of the Ukrainian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic—with enough left over to export electricity to their Socialist neighbors in Poland and even Bulgaria and Romania.
What was less pleasing, he thought, remembering, was that the Yemenis had asked unpleasant questions. The worst was the one about Kyshtym.
Was there any truth to the story about Kyshtym?
People had asked him the same question at the IAEA in Vienna. They hadn’t been put off as easily as the Yemenis, either. They had even handed him a copy of a book by the renegade, Zhores Medvedev, with a worrying story. It said that in 1958 some nuclear enterprise had gone terribly wrong in Soviet Siberia. Nuclear wastes—or something!—had somehow, unbelievably attained critical mass. They had exploded. Lakes were destroyed. Streams were poisoned. Villages were made uninhabitable, and a whole countryside had become a radioactive waste.
Could such a thing be true?
Smin confessed to himself that he did not know. Yet even if that story were true, Smin thought rebelliously, what he had said most of what he had said to the Yemeni about such questions—was demonstrably quite true. Soviet nuclear power had never had an accident. At least not one that was related to the nuclear reactors, and certainly not at Chernobyl!
Even with the plugs in his ears, the vast roar of the turbines made his head ache. He was glad to see the Director, Zaglodin, at the far end of the room. With him were the Chief of the Personnel Section, Khrenov, and the Chief Engineer, Varazin, talking with a fourth man. Talking was not the right word. The four men seemed to be having a sort of perverted flirtation, there under the towering half-cylinders of the turbine housings. The three high officials had their heads close together, and the fourth man was thrusting his own face in among them, shouting to be heard over the turbine scream.
As Smin approached, the fourth man broke away and, scowling, walked past Smin to the door. It was Sheranchuk, the power station’s hydrologist-engineer, usually a friendly man, but he gave Smin only a short nod as he stalked angrily past. An engineering work team, taking readings on Turbine No. 6 with checklists in hand, was more agreeable. They all gave Smin a hand wave of respectful comradeship as he passed, and he returned it, smiling.
Khrenov noticed the exchange. Smin was not surprised. As Director of the plant’s First Section, Personnel and Security which was to say, the section that reported to the KGB—it was Khrenov’s job to notice everything. The Director, on the other hand, was scowling. He gestured Smin to go back, and all four of the senior officers exited to the comparative quiet of the hallway outside.
As soon as their earplugs were out, Khrenov observed, “You are very popular with the workers, Smin.”
“Popularity is not what matters,” the Director said testily. “Have you heard, Smin? What do you think the dispatchers in Kiev are telling us now? The grid needs our power; we can’t go off line today.”
“I see,” said Smin, understanding. The experiment could be performed only when one of the reactors was being shut down. “And the observers?”
“The observers,” the Director said with a glance at the Chief Engineer, “are now Comrade Varazin’s pleasure to look after. He has just volunteered to take care of them.”
“God knows how,” the Chief Engineer said gloomily. “Perhaps tomorrow I can give them a little tour of the reactor chambers. None of them are nuclear; this is all interesting to them.”
“I’m sure they’ll enjoy it,” said Smin, pleased to learn that he, at least, was not expected to give up his weekend. He added with a smile, “At least we will now be able to overfulfill our plan for the month of April.”
Director Zaglodin looked at him speculatively, then allowed himself to return the smile. “At least,” he corrected, “I can now leave to catch my plane. Is there anything you would like me to bring back for you from Moscow?—not that I will have time, really, for shopping,” he added quickly, in case Smin intended to surprise him and actually ask for something.
“My wife would no doubt have a list, Comrade Director,” Smin said good-humoredly, “but she isn’t here. Have you orders for me for your absence?”
Of course Zaglodin had orders. He ticked them off on his fingers, one by one. “The cement plant has already delivered five hundred tons for the base for Reactor Number Five. Well, naturally, we are not ready; and also I think the cement is not up to quality. See to it, Smin.”
“Of course, Comrade Director.” Smin caught the understanding look from Khrenov. He did not bother to comment. All of them knew that that meant that Smin now had the responsibility of either accepting substandard concrete or perhaps delaying pouring the foundation for the new reactor, which added up to a classical case of a no-win situation. How fortunate for Director Zaglodin that this weekend he was going hunting outside Moscow, with persons very high in authority!
“And then there is your man, Sheranchuk,” the Director grumbled.
“I saw that he was talking to you,” Smin said cautiously. “What did he want?”
“What does he always want? He is not satisfied with our power station, Smin. He wants to rebore all the valves again.”
Smin nodded. It was understood between them that Sheranchuk, the hydrologist-engineer, was Smin’s personal protégé, which meant that the Director had, and exercised, the right to blame Smin every time the hydrologist annoyed him. “If he thinks they need it, he is probably right. Why not let him?”
“Why not let him tear the whole plant down and build a new one?” the Director fumed. Then he calmed somewhat. “You will be in charge while I’m in Moscow,” he said. “Do what you like.”
“Of course,” said Smin, not pointing out that in matters of running the station he always did. The Director was, really, only nominally Smin’s superior. That was another thing of Gorbachev’s, to put the man who really did the work in the second position, so that he could get on with it, while the putative chief of the project was free to entertain visiting dignitaries, represent the organization in formal meetings, go to receptions—in short, to be a figurehead. Only in this Director’s case he seemed to want Smin even to conduct parties of Yemenis around the plant!
“There is also a soccer game tomorrow,” said Khrenov, watching Smin.
The Director lifted his head loftily. He was a little, sparrowlike man. All he needed was the little pointed beard to look exactly like the statue of V. I. Lenin that stood in the plant’s courtyard. It seemed that he knew it, for Zaglodin even stood there exactly the way Lenin stood in all his statues and portraits—eager, chin thrust forward, hands half-reaching for—for whatever it was that Lenin was always trying to grasp. Perhaps the world. Perhaps, Smin thought, that was what the Director really wanted, too, in which case it was not likely that he would ever attain it from his present position as mere head of one single power station, and one that was not even located in the RSFSR at that.
“So,” smiled Zaglodin, “you want your best forward excused from shift duty tonight so he can be fresh for the game? Why not, Khrenov? Still; you’ll have to ask Smin here, since I’ll be away.” And then at last the Director remembered the afternoon’s visitors. “How did it go with the Yemenis?” he asked.
Smin shrugged. “They asked about Luba Kovalevska’s story. They also asked about Kyshtym.”
“Nothing happened at Kyshtym!” the Director said severely. “As to Kovalevska and her disloyal stories, that’s why I have to go to Moscow, to reassure our superiors that we are not, after all, totally incompetent here.” He gazed at Smin. “I hope that is true,” he said.
* * *
Before they parted, the Personnel man invited Smin to take a little steam in the plant’s baths with him, but Smin declined. “I’d better get back to my office,” he said. “Who knows what’s gone wrong while I’ve been escorting Arabs around?”
As it turned out, nothing much had. Still, there was at least another centimeter of papers added to the stack on his desk that Paraska had brought in while he was lollygagging around with the Yemenis. There seemed to be nothing more urgent in the new batch than any of the other, older urgencies waiting for his attention, but the papers would not sign themselves. “Paraska!” he called. “A cup of tea, if you will!” And began to lower the stack, bit by bit. Acknowledgments of orders for structural steel, replacement bearings, fireproof cables, bricks, tiles, generator parts, window glass, double-thick reinforced glass, flooring, piping, roofing compound. Letters from suppliers regretting that, extraordinarily, the orders just placed could not be filled on the dates specified, but every effort would be made to ship a month, or three months, later. Party directives thick with reminders of the decisions of the 27th Party Congress to increase production, and production figures from the suppliers to show how woefully that was needed. Absentee and lateness reports from Khrenov’s First Department—not too bad, those, Smin reflected with some complacency; the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was one of the best in the Soviet Union in those respects. As in most others. He found the little chit that excused Vladimir Ponomorenko from his duties on the four o’clock shift of the construction brigade at Reactor No. 5, and signed it with a little grin; the Ponomorenkos would all be busy practicing for the next day’s football game and, after all, it did no harm to do Khrenov’s First Department a small favor now and then.
The tea was cold before he tasted it, but he had gotten through almost a tenth of the papers on his desk. He sifted through the remainder. There was still nothing in them that seemed more urgent than any of the other urgencies. He sat back, thinking about the weekend. With any luck at all, he and his wife could get away to spend a little time on the plot of land twenty-five kilometers north, where their dacha had been growing toward reality for nearly a year. How fine that would be when it was finished! It was April now, almost the beginning of May; by July at the latest all the doors and windows would be in, and in August they could almost certainly occupy at least one of the rooms. By fall certainly they would be spending weekends there, and the ducks of the Pripyat marshes would learn that Simyon Smin knew how to use a shotgun.
He lit one of the Marlboro cigarettes thoughtfully, gazing at the old cartoon he had tacked over his desk; it was from an ancient issue of the humor magazine, Krokodil; it showed a bolt the size of a railroad car and a nut as huge as an apartment building coming out of a plant labeled RED STAR NUT AND BOLT WORKS NO. 1, and the caption read, “And so in one step we fulfill our plan!” It was not, Smin appreciated, an unfair jibe at Soviet manufacturing customs.
His workday was nearly over, and he even thought he might get home on time. He picked up the phone and called his wife to tell her so, but Selena Smin had news for her husband.
“We won’t be going to the dacha. Your mother telephoned,” she said. “She wants us all to come for dinner tonight. She says you didn’t come last night, so at least you can come tonight. Do you know what she meant by that?”
Smin groaned. He did know, but did not particularly want to say so on the telephone. “But that means driving into Kiev and back!” he said, thinking of the hundred and thirty kilometers each way.
“No, we can stay over in our room in her flat, and then I can do some shopping in Kiev tomorrow morning,” she said. “Perhaps we can visit the dacha on Sunday. Oh, also she says she has a surprise for you.”
“She said you’d say that. She said to tell you that if she told you what the surprise was, it wouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s a big surprise.”
Smin surrendered. When he had hung up he buzzed for his secretary. “I’ll want my car tonight,” he said, “but I’ll drive myself. Have Chernavze bring it around and see that the tank is full, then he can go home.”
There was one more thing for Smin to do before he left the plant. In a way, it, too, was setting an example. It was a visit to the plant’s baths. He undressed in the locker room and, taking a sheet and a towel from the attendant, headed for the showers.
There had always been showers in Chernobyl because men who worked with radioactive substances needed them. But these baths were not only new, they were Smin’s own. The slate slabs for each man to lie on, the shower heads above, the soap dispensers—those were Smin’s. He stretched out, turned the water on to a trickle, and soaped himself. He lay back, bare, the glassy scar exposed for anyone to see if anyone had been there, but he was alone in the shower room. He closed his eyes, listening to the squeals and cries from the women’s bath on the other side of the wall—some of the female workers were playing tag and ducking each other in their pool. He wondered absently if they appreciated the luxurious facilities he had provided for them. But, after all, whether they did or not, what was the difference? The extra care showed up in the plant’s attendance, and the important thing was the plant.
When he had rinsed himself off, he wrapped the sheet around his broad shoulders and headed for the sauna. It was almost time for changing shifts. There were eight or nine men in the steamy sauna. Four husky young men were tossing a knotted towel back and forth; one dropped it and kicked it to another, who rescued it and nodded apologetically to Smin.
“Don’t mind me,” Smin said, recognizing them. “Just do the job in the game tomorrow.”
“You can count on it, Comrade Deputy Director,” said the big forward, Vladimir Ponomorenko, the “Autumn” of the four related players they called the Four Seasons. They were two sets of brothers, and their fathers had been brothers as well; they all had the same surname of Ponomorenko. Arkady was “Spring,” a slim, shy diffident man of twenty-three, just out of his Army service, who worked as a pipefitter in Sheranchuk’s department, but on the football field he was like flame. Vassili, “Summer,” was a fireman; Vyacheslav, “Winter,” a machinist. All of them were on the midnight shift of the plant except for “Autumn”—Vladimir—the forward.
“So you are getting ready to practice for tomorrow’s game?” Smin asked as he peered through the steam for a vacant place. He was never entirely sure which of the Four Seasons he was talking to. They were all strong-featured dark men of medium height, none of them yet thirty. Spring was the quick one, Autumn the one armored in muscle, Smin reminded himself; but the other two?
One of them said, “That’s right, Comrade Deputy Director. Will you be there?”
“Of course,” Smin said, surprising himself as he realized that, after all, he might as well; they would not stay in Kiev all day, he hoped, and the game was in the late afternoon so that the players on the midnight shift could get some sleep.
A man on the bench before him threw back the towel over his face and revealed himself as Khrenov, the First Department man. “Enough steam, Comrade Footballers,” he said genially. “Now cold showers, and then practice!” And to Smin, “Thank you for excusing Autumn from the shift.”
“Why not?” said Smin, shrugging. Absences for footballers to practice were always approved, for encouragement of sport was a directive from Moscow. The Chernobyl plant was not unusual in that respect. In some places, in fact, it was standard practice to give star athletes good jobs they did not necessarily ever work at at all.
It wasn’t Smin’s own way, of course, but in this he was willing to make concessions, since there were so many others he refused to make. He moved slightly to get past Khrenov, and the towel slipped off his shoulder.
Khrenov didn’t get out of his way. He did, Smin thought, a very Khrenov-like thing. When Smin’s towel failed to cover him in the baths, most men almost invariably averted their eyes. Not Khrenov. The First Department man reached out and thoughtfully touched the line of scar tissue at the back of Smin’s neck, like an art collector appraising the patina on an old bronze. He didn’t say anything about it, but then that was also Khrenov’s way. He just studied the scar carefully every time he saw it, although Smin was quite certain that the Personnel and Security man not only knew its exact dimensions but very likely also knew the serial number of the blazing T-34 Army tank in which it had been acquired.
Smin shrugged away from Khrenov’s touch. “So,” he said, to change the subject, “will we win tomorrow, do you think?”
“Of course we will win,” Khrenov said with pleasure, and began to explain the ways in which the Four Seasons would triumph on the football field. Smin heard him out patiently. It was a matter of policy with him to be as cordial as possible with the Security man, so that the times when confrontations were necessary would be eased. As GehBehs went, Gorodot Khrenoy wasn’t so bad. The men who were the organs of state security came in two main varieties—the ones who wanted you to know who they were, like Khrenov, and the ones who did not. The undercover ones were a nuisance sometimes, but as you could never be entirely sure who they were or what they were looking for, the way to deal with them was simply to guard your tongue and watch your actions all the time. The Khrenov variety was something else. They made themselves conspicuous. They were like the militiaman on the corner, whose principal job was not so much to catch violators of the law but, simply by his presence, to remind everyone that the Law was watching. It amused Smin to wonder, sometimes, if KGB training included, for people like Khrenov, lessons in how to look all-wise and sinister.
Yet Khrenov interfered less than other organs did in other plants, and his interest in sports, if officially directed, seemed also sincere. The Personnel man looked as though he, too, could have been a wrestler at some time. He was shorter even than Smin, and not nearly as solidly built, but he had a driving energy that would have been troublesome in the ring.
“So,” Smin said, to cut off the lecture on football strategy, “it should be a good game if the Four Seasons are in form. Why not let the ones on the midnight shift off an hour or two early, so they can get a little more sleep before the game?”
Khrenov smiled with pleasure. He said, “Thank you. I’ll tell them,” and left to find them at their practice.
* * *
Smin sat down and closed his eyes, inhaling the steam cautiously through his open mouth. He sat with his mind peacefully empty until he heard someone speak his name. When he opened his eyes he saw that it was his hydrologist-engineer.
“Good evening, Comrade Plumber Sheranchuk,” said Smin. “And how are your sticky pump valves? Is it true that you intend to rebore every fitting in the plant?”
“Only a few at present, Comrade Deputy Director Smin,” Sheranchuk said gravely.
“Yes, of course. You’ve done all the others already,” Smin chaffed him. Sheranchuk was the newest addition among Chernobyl’s senior employees, a stubby, red-headed Ukrainian, rescued from an old peat-fueled steam plant that was about to be decommissioned, and now gratefully lumbered with all of Chernobyl’s water circulation problems. There had been plenty; every valve had come from the factory with only a rough approximation of the right dimensions, and Sheranchuk had been busy regrinding them.
Sheranchuk hesitated, then glanced toward the door through which Khrenov had just left. “I suppose,” he said, “you are aware that Director Zaglodin ordered the automatic pump system turned off this afternoon?”
Smin frowned. He had not known. But he said, “Yes, of course, to prepare for our free-wheeling experiment. Since that was postponed, the shift chief will certainly turn them back on.”
“I suppose so.” Then, “I am sorry about this afternoon, Smin.”
“Why? Our Director sometimes makes me sulky, too. The important thing is that you get your job done.”
“I will come in tomorrow and check them once again,” Sheranchuk promised.
Smin nodded. “So we will be in good shape for May Day,” he said, and added judgmatically, “I would say that, in general, you have done well.” He felt the hot air almost searing his lips as he spoke. One of the men had been pouring water on the hot ceramics again, and the steam had made the sauna oppressive.
Smin settled the thick, rough sheet around his shoulders and looked for a cheerful word to sweeten his engineer’s mood. A joke? Yes, of course. The one he had heard that morning from one of the turbine men. He said, “Tell me, Sheranchuk, do you like Radio Armenia jokes? Here’s one. Someone calls in to Radio Armenia and asks, ‘What was the first People’s Democracy?’”
“And what was the answer?” asked Sheranchuk, already smiling.
“It was when God created Adam and Eve, and then said to Adam, ‘Now, select a wife for yourself.’”
Copyright © 1987 by Frederik Pohl
Afterword copyright © 2012 by Frederik Pohl