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Once again, he was here on business. Alan Wheeler is President and founder of Hazard Robotics based in Peterborough, NH. Before he set up this small satellite office in Prague two years ago, Hazard Robotics could only boast fair to moderate growth. They advertised in many trade magazines, many of them global, and they maintained a very impressive web site. Because of this worldwide exposure, they managed to close some respectable transactions. Alan's business plan was simple; tell us what you need, and we'll design a robot to fill that need. Robotics was their specialty, and autonomous robotics was their forte'.
Until two years ago, Alan had never traveled beyond the New England area. One afternoon while sorting the mail, he opened a letter of inquiry from Nicholas Chernikof, President of Future Vision. Future Vision is located in Prague and provides Internet Services to business and residential customers throughout the Czech Republic. They also design and implement complete security systems that fit the needs of large commercial customers. Mr. Chernikof explained in his letter that he has a very substantial customer who needs numerous security systems - the likes of which have never been conceived before. He could not reveal the customer's identity, nor could he describe the facilities he was to secure. That could only be done face-to-face - if Alan was interested.
Alan dialed the number at the bottom of the letter and found himself on a plane to Prague the following evening. His meeting with Nicholas Chernikof went better than he ever expected, and he returned to Peterborough, NH with a contract worth eight million dollars. Half that amount was wired into his account in the U.S. while he waited in Nicholas Chernikof's office. From that day forward, Hazard Robotics was busy around the clock, and they could never seem to keep up with the Future Vision orders.
This office amazed Alan every time he came here. When he offered to open a local office to better handle Future Vision deliveries, Nicholas was ecstatic. On his own, Nicholas went ahead and found the perfect location for Alan's Prague office, furnished it with expensive work benches, new florescent lighting fixtures, and even went as far as partitioning off a studio apartment that was more comfortable and far more quiet than any hotel the City of Prague could offer.
What Alan loved most about it was its anechoic silence. It was one of the old bomb shelters that were so common in this country, and it was ten meters underground. The walls were of ancient red brick, mortared together in a perfect circle, with a diameter of fifteen meters. The walls were perpendicular to the brick floor to a height of about five meters. From that height, the circumference of each ascending coarse began to decrease slightly, containing fewer and fewer bricks, until finally, at the ceiling, there was but a single brick. The shape of the interior could be likened to that of a giant igloo.
The history of the place was as interesting as its construction. After World War I, hundreds of these underground shelters were built throughout Czechoslovakia. When Hitler invaded the country at the start of World War II, government officials immediately surrendered to the Germans in an attempt to preserve their historic cities from certain destruction. Throughout the German occupation, locals hid themselves and their valuables in these subterranean shelters. When the Nazi's fell at the end of WW II, and the local communist government was restored to some level of order, the people of Czechoslovakia emerged from their underground bunkers to a country that was virtually unscathed.
Alan was working on a project that posed some major technical challenges for Hazard's Engineers. Alan's assignment was to build two robots that could operate in an unthinkable environment, and do so reliably for a period of at least five years. Their destination is the area surrounding the smoldering Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine.
Two units were specified for the job, and they were a radically new design. Hazard Robotics called them D4D's. These radiation-hardened surveillance robots actually exceed the most stringent of military standards.
D4D's are medium-sized robots that move about on dual stainless steel tracks. Similar in size to a lawn tractor, they look like miniature tanks without a gun turret. In place of a turret is a rotary platform populated with an impressive array of instrumentation as well as two high-resolution digital cameras. Controlling the electro-mechanics are three redundant computer cores running Alan's proprietary artificial intelligence software. Not only can these robots perform a full spectrum of pre-programmed tasks, but also given time, they can refine those tasks by learning from prior experience, and use that knowledge to enhance their overall capabilities.
The two units were programmed to take radiation measurements at defined checkpoints and do visual scans for cracks and structural changes. A complete high-resolution photo log was also to be created and monitored over time. Both units were equipped with satellite links to send data and graphical images for analysis. The problem was; Alan wasn't sure if they would meet spec. No one could give him actual site radiation measurements, and he sure as hell wasn't going to the Ukraine to make them himself.
The new Russian Federation wanted an accurate photo record of every square centimeter of the steel and concrete sarcophagus that entombs the ruined reactor. Conventional photography was impossible since the radiation level was so high. In addition, it would be very unlikely to find someone dim-witted enough to take on the job. Gamma ray emissions were so high that conventional camera film would be exposed as it approached the site. A roll of thirty-five-millimeter film within its metal container would be entirely exposed in minutes.
Alan shuddered at the thought of the Soviet Government sending innocent, naive workers onto that site without knowing the risks they were taking. Wearing only raincoats, and exposed to the molten radioactive core, they were sent to control the blaze. It was not the fire that was their enemy; it was the invisible Gamma radiation. In minutes, men were literally cooked from the inside out, and when they collapsed, they were taken away on stretchers to be replaced by other unfortunate souls.
At one hundred meters from the core, recent calculations put the gamma radiation levels at 30,000 roentgens per hour, powerful enough to fully cook an entire steer in ten minutes. Even to this day, 3,000 roentgens per hour radiate a mile from the site. A mere 500 roentgens per hour are lethal. Thousands died while the concrete shell was erected and because of the extreme conditions, workmanship was poor. Recent aerial photographs reveal the shell is severely cracked and is leaking steam. The fact that steam is emanating from the structure means there is a source of water reaching the core, a very dire sign. Measurements made by the Swedish government indicate a steady increase in the ambient radiation levels that emanate from the site. All of these indicators confirm what scientists have feared for years since the accident - the poor construction of the sarcophagus cannot, and has not, withstood the harsh winter weather in the region. Time has taken its toll and the protective sarcophagus has reached a point where it is ready to collapse - and if it does - the resultant cloud of radioactive steam and graphite particles would contaminate most of the European nations for a minimum of three hundred years.
The phone rang. It was Nicholas from Future Vision, "Do you have units ready?" Nicholas asked with a thick Russian accent.
This was his third call today. He wanted to pick them up and put them into service. Moscow had a deadline to make before a United Nations meeting next week. News of the Swedish findings had made it into the news wires and all of Europe was watching the situation closely. Of course the ex-Soviet instrumentation disagreed; as a matter of fact, Soviet measurements never seemed to change. There would be no mistakes with the measurements made by the D4D's. Alan wanted to set up a public website that would show the actual navigation cameras for the robots, as well as the instrumentation readings. That, of course, would have to be cleared with Future Vision.
Alan spoke clearly, "I've done what I can with them, Nicholas. Send your guys over and they'll drive themselves right into your truck. I'll warn you now, if the Gamma radiation is higher than your numbers, we may have problems. If they detect computer malfunction in any of their three redundant systems, they will proceed to the outer drop point of the site. You can bring them to me for repair. I still get paid on pickup. You know I always keep my word."
Alan knew that if the robots made one trip around that site they would be so hot that no one would dare return them to him for repair anyway. They would be radioactive for hundreds of years. Hazard Engineers had triple tested everything on these two machines and Alan was one of those Engineers. He had all the confidence in the world that their deployment would be successful.
"Okay, okay, Mr. Wheeler. This is good. I have many confidences in you, and these units will work fine like the others. I will wire the funds right now and you will see money in one hour. Truck will arrive 7:00 AM tomorrow morning," Nicholas answered enthusiastically. He went on to say, "I am pleased to complete this project for Moscow; this will bring more business for me, more business for you."
Alan said, "Good. Will you need any assistance in the setup for these two?" Alan had his fingers crossed because he didn't want anything to do with radiation.
"None needed, my friend," Nicholas responded. "Robots know what to do like always, yes?"
Alan confirmed, "Just like always; open the truck, lower the ramp, and they'll do the rest."
Nicholas was chuckling, "You are like their mother; they do as they told, yes?"
Alan was thinking, just keep that in mind if you ever forget to pay me.
"Only until you buy them, Nicholas. After that, Future Vision is their new mother."
"Good, good. I will be discussing next project in one week; you will be in Prague? We will have vodka and talk?" Nicholas asked.
"I will be in the U.S. I am returning home tomorrow," Alan answered.
"Maybe I will come to your great country to discuss this then."
"Call me a day ahead of time and we can meet," Alan confirmed.
"I will see you soon, my friend," click-
Alan retired to the studio apartment and sprawled out on the bed. He was exhausted and his internal clock was behind by eight hours. He set his alarm for 5:00 and didn't move from that spot until it went off.
He grabbed a diet coke from the fridge, and couldn't wait for a shower. His gym bag was already packed, so he took the stairs two-at-a-time, and was soon standing in Old Town Square. There were a few street peddlers near the banks, but that was about it. His destination was the YMCA, a few blocks down the street. He had a membership there and worked out if he had a chance. He used the showers whenever he needed one, like right now.
After a few quick exercises to loosen up, and a long hot shower, Alan returned to the office and waited for the truck to pick up the two D4D's. As he expected, the truck was early, and both of Nicholas' people already smelled like vodka. Luckily they didn't speak a word of English, so the transaction was swift and painless. All Alan did was verbally instruct the robots to drive up the ramp, nod his head, and say "Jaaa, Jaaa," every time he was spoken to.
By 7:00 AM, he was ready to pack up and catch his flight to Munich, which continued on to New York City. Then the phone rang. He was tempted not to answer it, but he thought it might be Petra - it was Nicholas. He said there was a severe emergency with one of the earlier robot installations and he wanted "desperately" for Alan to visit.
Alan held his tongue and said he would go. He would have to catch a later flight, and Nicholas promised to take him to the airport.
Nicholas arrived in ten minutes, and they were in the outskirts of Prague in five. Alan barely managed to grab enough equipment - Nicholas was in such a rush. They were heading north to a town called Liberec.
Nicholas said, "This facility you have never visited, its existence must be kept secret."
"I see," Alan responded slowly. I wonder what he means by 'secret'?
As they drove at 120 kilometers per hour on roads paved with cobblestones and only wide enough for one car, Alan started to wonder what he had gotten himself into. He could smell vodka on Nicholas' breath and he could see a fl ask in his jacket pocket. It was right next to a big, black pistol strapped to his side.
Nicholas pulled out a box of Marlboro's and said, "Would you like?"
"No thanks Nicholas, I never took it up."
The Mini-Cooper handled well, but the speed, the cloud of cigarette smoke, and the aroma of vodka breath, were turning Alan's stomach. I wish I would have had time to eat something, Alan thought.
Alan finally broke down and asked, "Nicholas, can I open the window? I'm not used to smoke."
Nicholas blurted out, "But of course, my American friend. Would you like some of this to settle your stomach?"
Nicholas pulled out the half-liter flask, and offered it to Alan.
I'm gonna get the dry heaves any minute. Alan merely shook his head 'no'. Nicholas took a long pull from the fl ask, and slipped it back into his jacket.
He smacked his lips and said, "Someday you Americans will discover pleasures of us Russian people." With a coarse, smoker's laugh, Nicholas slapped his beefy hand on Alan's left leg.
Alan tried to give a sincere nod of appreciation, but wasn't sure if he was scared or just light-headed.
At least they were in the countryside now and he was getting some air. He tried to look interested in the scenery, because Nicholas had turned the radio on to some Russian talk show. Every now and then he would yell at the radio in Russian and light up another Marlboro.
They entered a wooded stretch that went on for a few miles. The only signs of civilization were a few scattered farms. A few more miles along, the buildings were abandoned, and looked to have been so for many years.
Nicholas turned down the radio and said, "Alan, we are almost there. This facility was abandoned when Communist Party disintegrated in 1991. Soviet Government claimed it was a research facility for cancer; you will soon see different."
The Mini-Cooper sped down the narrow dirt road, clipping tree branches and barely missing the trunks of overgrown trees. Alan could see a chain-link fence in the distance, and Nicholas slowed down. The rusty gate and fencing that it was connected to was beginning to get overgrown with some type of thorn-bearing brush.
Nicholas stopped and got out, "After I take care of business, we go on."
Alan turned his head away so Nicholas could piss in private. When he was finished, he walked to the gate and fumbled around with the lock. Alan could see that the lock was not fastened to the latch, and it hadn't been for quite some time. Nicholas swung the gate open and got back in the car.
They sped forward again, only at a reasonable speed. The woods started to break into open spaces, and then they entered a fairly large parking lot. Small trees and brush grew through cracks in the pavement, so they had to swerve around the obstacles toward the massive factory ahead of them. It was built of red brick, and had the look of a basic communist-era manufacturing facility. Nicholas drove past the guardhouse and right up to the main entry of the building.
"Okay, time to show you our problem," Nicholas said as he opened his door.
When they both got out, Alan noticed there were an awful lot of signs that said 'Keep Out' and 'Prohibited' in Russian. He didn't want to ask why.
"Follow me, please."
Alan followed behind the 250-pound, five-foot-ten Nicholas. The door in the front was open, and they stepped into the lobby. Alan noticed the smell of rotting flesh roll up his nose as soon as they stepped inside. He saw a dead deer and several other small animals on the floor that had decayed down to skin and bone.
Nicholas said, "There are six Hazard Patrollers in this building. Do you remember those robots?"
Excerpted from Hazard 666 by J. P. Landry Copyright © 2007 by J. P. Landry. Excerpted by permission.
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