Read an Excerpt
Someone committed a simple error that, according to the plant's blueprints, should have been impossible, and a valve was left open, a pipe ruptured, a technician was trapped in a crawlspace, and a small fire destroyed several workstations. At first the alarm was discounted: false alarms commonly rang and flashed through the plant like birds in a tropical rain forest. Once the seriousness of the accident was appreciated, the rescue crew discovered that a soft drink dispenser waiting to be sent out for repair blocked the room in which the radiation suits were kept. After moving it and entering the storage room, they learned that several of the oxygen tanks had been left uncharged. By the time they reached the lab the fire was nearly out, but smoke laced with elements from the actinide series filled the unit. Lying on his back above the ceiling, staring at the wormlike pattern of surface corrosion on the tin duct a few centimeters from his face, Timofey had inhaled the fumes for an hour and forty minutes. In that time he had tried to imagine that he was inhaling dollar bills and that once they lodged in his lungs and bone marrow they would bombard his body tissue with high-energy dimes, nickels, and quarters.
Timofey had worked in 16 nearly his entire adult life, entrusted with the bounteous, transfiguring secrets of the atom. For most of that life, he had been exhilarated by the reactor's song of nuclear fission, the hiss of particle capture and loss. Highly valued for his ingenuity, Timofey carried in his head not only adetailed knowledge of the plant's design, but also a precise recollection of its every repair and improvised alteration. He knew where the patches were and how well they had been executed. He knew which stated tolerances could be exceeded and by how much, which gauges ran hot, which ran slow, and which could be completely ignored. The plant managers and scientists were often forced to defer to his judgment. On these occasions a glitter of derision showed in his voice, as he tapped a finger significantly against a sheet of engineering designs and explained why there was only a single correct answer to the question.
After Timofey's death, his colleagues recalled a dressing down he had received a few years earlier at the hands of a visiting scientist. No one remembered the details, except that she had proposed slightly altering the reaction process in order to produce a somewhat greater quantity of a certain isotope that she employed in her own research. Hovering in his stained and wrinkled white coat behind the half dozen plant officials whom she had been addressing, Timofey objected to the proposal. He said that greater quantities of the isotope would not be produced in the way she suggested and, in fact, could not be produced at all, according to well established principles of nuclear physics. Blood rushed to the woman's square, fleshy, bulldog face. "Idiot!" she spat. "I'm Nuclear Section Secretary of the Academy of Sciences. I fucking own the established principles of nuclear physics. You're a technician!" Those who were there recalled that Timofey tried to stand his ground, but as he began to explain the flaw in her reasoning his voice lost its resonance and he began to mumble, straying away from the main point. She cut him off, asking her audience, "Are there any other questions, any educated questions?" As it turned out, neither Timofey nor the scientist was ever proved right. The Defense Ministry rejected the proposal for reasons of economy.
Timofey's relations with his coworkers were more comfortable, if distant, and he usually joined the others in his unit at lunch in the plant's low-ceilinged, windowless buffet. The room rustled with murmured complaint. Timofey could hardly be counted among the most embittered of the technical workersa point sagely observed later. All joked with stale irony about the lapses in safety and the precipitous decline in their salaries caused by inflation; these comments had become almost entirely humorless three months earlier, when management followed a flurry of assuring memos, beseeching directives, and unambiguous promises with a failure to pay them at all. No one had been paid since.
Every afternoon at four Timofey fled the compromises and incompetence of his workplace in an old Zhiguli that he had purchased precisely so that he could arrive home a half hour earlier than if he had taken the tram. Against the odds set by personality and circumstance, he had married, late in his fourth decade, an electrical engineer assigned to another unit. Now, with the attentiveness he had once offered the reactor, Timofey often sat across the kitchen table from his wife with his head cocked, listening to their spindly, asthmatic eight-year-old son, Tolya, in the next room give ruinous commands to his toy soldiers. A serious respiratory ailment similar to the boy's kept Marina from working; disability leave had brought a pretty bloom to her soft cheeks.
The family lived on the eighth floor of a weatherstained concrete apartment tower with crumbling front steps and unlit hallways. In this rotted box lay a jewel of a two-bedroom apartment that smelled of fresh bread and meat dumplings and overlooked a birch forest. Laced with ski tracks in the winter and fragranced by grilled shashlik in the summer, home to deer, rabbits, and even gray wolves, the forest stretched well beyond their sight, all the way to the city's double-fenced perimeter.
His colleagues thought of Marina and the boy as Timofey was pulled from the crawlspace. He was conscious, but dazed, his eyes unfocused and his face slack. Surrounded by phantoms in radiation suits, Timofey saw the unit as if for the first time: the cracked walls, the electrical cords snaking underfoot, the scratched and fogged glass over the gauges, the mold-spattered valves and pipes, the disabled equipment piled in an unused workstation, and the frayed tubing that bypassed sections of missing pipe and was kept in place by electrical tape. He staggered from the lab, took a shower, vomited twice, disposed of his clothes, and was briefly examined by a medic, who took his pulse and temperature. No one looked him in the eye. Timofey was sent home. His colleagues were surprised when he returned the next day, shrugging off the accident and saying that he had a few things to take care of before going on the "rest leave" he had been granted as a matter of course. But his smile was as wan as the moon on a midsummer night, and his hands trembled. In any case, his colleagues were too busy to chat. The clean-up was chaotically underway and the normal activities of the plant had been suspended.
Early one evening a week after the "event," as it was known in the plant and within the appropriate ministries (it was not known anywhere else), Timofey was sitting at a café table in the bar off the lobby of a towering Brezhnevera hotel on one of the boulevards that radiated from Moscow's nucleus. A domestically made double-breasted sports jacket the color of milk chocolate hung from his frame like wash left to dry. He was only fifty years old but, lank and stooped, his face lined by a spiderwork of dilated veins, he looked at least fifteen years older, almost a veteran of the war. His skin was as gray as wet concrete, except for the radiation erythema inflaming the skin around his eyes and nose. Coarse white hair bristled from his skull. Set close beneath white caterpillar eyebrows, his blue eyes blazed.
He was not by nature impressed by attempts to suggest luxury and comfort, and the gypsies and touts milling outside the entrance had in any case already mitigated the hotel's grandeur. He recognized that the lounge area was meant to approximate the soaring glass and marble atria of the West, but the girders of the greenhouse roof impended two stories above his head, supported by walls of chipped concrete blocks. A line of shuttered windows ran the perimeter above the lounge, looking down upon it as if it were a factory floor. The single appealing amenity was the set of flourishing potted plants and ferns in the center of the room. As Timofey watched over a glass of unsipped vodka that had cost him a third of his remaining rubles, a fat security guard in a maroon suit flicked a cigarette butt into the plant beds and stalked away.
Timofey strained to detect the aspirates and dental fricatives of a foreign language, but the other patrons were all either Russian or "black"that is, Caucasian. Overweight, unshaven men in lurid track suits and cheap leather jackets huddled over the stained plastic tables, blowing smoke into each other's faces. Occasionally they looked up from their drinks and eyed the people around them. Then they fell back into negotiation. At another table, a rectangular woman in a low-cut, short black dress and black leggings scowled at a newspaper.
Directly behind Timofey, sitting alone, a young man with dark, bony features decided that this hick would be incapable of getting a girl on his own. Not that there would be too many girls around this early. He wondered if Timofey had any money and whether he could make him part with it. Certainly the mark would have enough for one of the kids in ski parkas waving down cars on the boulevard. The young man, called Shiv by his Moscow acquaintances (he had no friends), got up from his table, leaving his drink.
"First time in Moscow, my friend?"
Timofey was not taken off guard. He slowly raised his head and studied the young man standing before him. Either the man's nose had once been broken, or his nose had never been touched and the rest of his face had been broken many times, leaving his cheeks and the arches beneath his eyes jutted askew. The youth wore a foreign blazer and a black shirt, and what looked like foreign shoes as well, a pair of black loafers. His dark, curly hair was cut long, lapping neatly against the top of his collar. Jewelry glinted from his fingers and wrists. It was impossible to imagine the existence of such a creature in 16.
Shiv didn't care for the fearlessness in Timofey's eyes; it suggested a profound ignorance of the world. But he pulled a chair underneath him, sat down heavily, and said in a low voice, "It's lonely here. Would you like to meet someone?"
The mark didn't reply, nor make any sign that he had even heard him. His jaw was clenched shut, his face blank. Shiv wondered whether he spoke Russian. He himself spoke no foreign languages and detested the capriciousness with which foreigners chose to speak their own. He added, "You've come to the right place. I'd be pleased to make an introduction."
Timofey continued to stare at Shiv in a way that he should have known, if he had any sense at all, was extremely dangerous. A crazy, Shiv thought, a waste of time. But then the mark abruptly rasped, in educated, unaccented Russian, "I have something to sell."
Shiv grinned, showing large white canines. He congratulated him, "You're a businessman. Well, you've come to the right place for that too. I'm also a businessman. What is it you want to sell?"
"I can't discuss it here."
Shiv stood and Timofey tentatively followed him to a little alcove stuffed with video poker machines. They whined and yelped, devouring gambling tokens. Incandescent images of kings, queens, and knaves flickered across the young man's face.
"No, this isn't private enough."
"Sure it is," Shiv said. "More business is done here than on the Moscow Stock Exchange."
Shiv shrugged and headed back to his table, which the girl, in a rare display of zeal, had already cleared. His drink was gone. Shiv frowned, but knew he could make her apologize and give him another drink on the house, which would taste much better for it. He had that kind of respect, he thought.
"You're making the biggest mistake of your life," Timofey whispered behind him. "I'll make you rich."
What changed Shiv's mind was not the promise, which these days was laden in nearly every commercial advertisement, political manifesto, and murmur of love. Rather, he discerned two vigorously competing elements within the mark's voice. One of them was desperation, in itself an augury of profit. Yet as desperate as he was, Timofey had spoken just barely within range of Shiv's hearing. Shiv was impressed by the guy's self-control. Perhaps he was serious after all.
He turned back toward Timofey, who continued to stare at him in appraisal. With a barely perceptible flick of his head, Shiv motioned him toward a row of elevators bedecked with posters for travel agencies and masseuses. Timofey remained in the alcove for a long moment, trying to decide whether to follow. Shiv looked away and punched the call button. After a minute or so the elevator arrived. Timofey stepped in just as the doors were closing.
Shiv said, "If you're jerking me around ..."
The usually reliable fourth-floor dezhurnaya, the suppurating wart who watched the floor's rooms, decided to be difficult. Shiv slipped her a five dollar bill, and she said, "More." She returned the second river because it had a crease down the middle, dispelling its notional value. Shiv had been trying to pass it off for weeks and now conceded that he would be stuck with it until the day he died. The crone accepted the next bill, scowling, and even then gazed a long time into her drawer of keys, as if undecided about giving him one.
As they entered the room, Shiv pulled out a pack of Marlboros and a gold-plated lighter and leaned against a beige chipboard dresser. The room's ponderous velvet curtains smelled of insecticide; unperturbed, a bloated fly did lazy eights around the naked bulb on the ceiling. Shiv didn't offer the mark a cigarette. "All right," he said, flame billowing from the lighter before he brought it to his face. "This better be worth my while."
Timofey reached into his jacket, almost too abruptly: he didn't notice Shiv tense and go for the dirk in his back pocket. The mark pulled out a green cardboard folder and proffered it. "Look at this."
Shiv returned the blade. He carried four knives of varying sizes, grades, and means of employment.
"Just look at it."
Shiv opened the folder. Inside was Timofey's internal passport, plus some other documents. Shiv was not accustomed to strangers shoving their papers in his face; indeed, he knew the family names of very few people in Moscow. This guy, then, had to be a nut case, and Shiv rued the ten bucks he had given the dezhurnaya. The mark stared up through the stamped black-and-white photograph as if from under water. "Timofey Fyodorovich, pleased to meet you. So what?"
"Look at where I live: Skotoprigonyevsk-16."
Shiv made no sign of being impressed, but for Timofey the words had the force of an incantation. The existence of the city, a scientific complex established by the military, had once been so secret that it was left undocumented on the Red Army's own field maps. Even its name, which was meant to indicate that it lay sixteen kilometers from the original Skotoprigonyevsk, was a deception: the two cities were nearly two hundred kilometers apart. Without permission from the KGB, it had been impossible to enter or leave 16. Until two years earlier, Timofey had never been outside, not once in twenty-three years. He now realized, as he would have realized if he hadn't been so distracted by the events of the past week, that it wasn't enough to find a criminal. He needed someone with brains, someone who had read a newspaper in the last five years.
"Now look at the other papers. See, this is my pass to the Strategic Production Facility."
"Comrade," Shiv said sarcastically, "if you think I'm buying some fancy documents"
"Listen to me. My unit's principal task is the supply of the strategic weapons force. Our reactor produces Pu-239 as a fission by-product for manufacture into warheads. These operations have been curtailed, but the reactors must be kept functioning. Decommissioning them would be even more costly than maintaining themand we can't even do that properly." Timofey's voice fell to an angry whisper. "There have been many lapses in the administration of safety procedure."
Timofey looked intently at Shiv, to see if he understood. But Shiv wasn't listening; he didn't like to be lectured and especially didn't like to be told to read things, even identity papers. The world was full of men who knew more than Shiv did, and he hated each one of them. A murderous black cloud rose from the stained orange carpeting at his feet and occulted his vision. The more Timofey talked, the more Shiv wanted to hurt him. But at the same time, starting from the moment he heard the name Skotoprigonyevsk-16, Shiv gradually became aware that he was onto something big, bigger than anything he had ever done before. He was nudged by an incipient awareness that perhaps it was even too big for him.
In flat, clipped sentences, Timofey spoke: "There was an accident. I was contaminated. I have a wife and child, and nothing to leave them. This is why I'm here."
"Don't tell me about your wife and child. You can fuck them both to hell. I'm a businessman."
For a moment, Timofey was shocked by the violence in the young man's voice. But then he reminded himself that, in coming to Moscow for the first time in twenty-five years, he had entered a country where violence was the most stable and valuable currency. Maybe this was the right guy for the deal after all. There was no room for sentimentality.
He braced himself. "All right then. Here's what you need to know. I have diverted a small quantity of fissile material. I'm here to sell it."
Shiv removed his handkerchief again and savagely wiped his nose. He had a cold, Timofey observed. Acute radiation exposure severely compromised the immune system, commonly leading to fatal bacterial infection. He wondered if the hoodlum's germs were the ones fated to kill him.
Timofey said, "Well, are you interested?"
To counteract any impression of weakness given by the handkerchief, Shiv tugged a mouthful of smoke from his cigarette.
"Are you listening to anything I'm saying? I have a little more than three hundred grams of weapons-grade plutonium. It can be used to make an atomic bomb. I want thirty thousand dollars for it."
As a matter of principle, Shiv laughed. He always laughed when a mark named a price. But a chill seeped through him as far down as his testicles.
"It will fetch many times that on the market. Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea all have nuclear weapons programs, but they don't have the technology to produce enriched fissile material. They're desperate for it; there's no price Saddam Hussein wouldn't pay for an atomic bomb."
"I don't know anything about selling this stuff ..."
"Don't be a fool," Timofey rasped. "Neither do I. That's why I've come here. But you say you're a businessman. You must have contacts, people with money, people who can get it out of the country."
Shiv grunted. He was just playing for time now, to assemble his thoughts and devise a strategy. The word fool remained lodged in his gut like a spoiled piece of meat.
"Maybe I do, maybe I don't."
"Make up your mind."
"Where's the stuff?"
A predatory light flicked on in the hoodlum's eyes. But Timofey had expected that. He slowly unbuttoned his jacket, it fell away to reveal an invention of several hours' work that, he realized only when he assembled it in the kitchen the day after the accident, he had been planning for years. At that moment of realization, his entire body had been flooded with a searing wonder at the dark soul that inhabited it. Now, under his arm, a steel canister no bigger than a coffee tin was attached to his left side by an impenetrably complex arrangement of belts, straps, hooks, and buckles.
"Do you see how I rigged the container?" he said. "There's a right way of taking it off my body and many wrong ways. Take it off one of the wrong ways and the container opens and the material spills out. Are you aware of the radiological properties of plutonium and their effect on living organisms?"
Shiv almost laughed. He once knew a girl who wore something like this.
"Let me see it."
"It's plutonium. It has to be examined under controlled laboratory conditions. If even a microscopic amount of it lodges within your body, ionizing radiation will irreversibly damage body tissue and your cells' nucleic material. A thousandth of a gram is fatal ... I'll put it to you more simply. Anything it touches dies. It's like in a fairy tale."
Shiv did indeed have business contacts, but he'd been burned about six months earlier, helping to move some Uzbek heroin that must have been worth more than a half million dollars. He had actually held the bags in his hands and pinched the powder through the plastic, marveling at the physics that transmuted such a trivial quantity of something into so much money. But once he made the arrangements and the businessmen had the stuff in their hands, they gave him only two thousand dollars for his trouble, little more than a tip. Across a table covered by a freshly stained tablecloth, the Donhis name was Voronenko, and he was from Tambov, but he insisted on being called the Don anyway, and being served spaghetti and meatballs for lunch-had grinned at the shattering disappointment on Shiv's face. Shiv had wanted to protest, but he was frightened. Afterwards he was so angry that he gambled and whored the two grand away in a single night.
He said, "So, there was an accident. How do I know the stuff's still good?"
"Do you know what a half-life is? The half-life of plutonium 239 is twenty-four thousand years."
"That's what you're telling me ..."
"You can look it up."
"What am I, a fucking librarian? Listen, I know this game. It's mixed with something."
Timofey's whole body was burning; he could feel each of his vital organs being singed by alpha radiation. For a moment he wished he could lie on one of the narrow beds in the room and nap. When he woke, perhaps he would be home. But he dared not imagine that he would wake to find that the accident had never happened. He said, "Yes, of course. The sample contains significant amounts of uranium and other plutonium isotopes, plus trace quantities of americium and gallium. But the Pu-239 content is 94.7 percent."
"So you admit it's not the first-quality stuff."
"Anything greater than 93 percent is considered weapons-grade. Look, do you have somebody you can bring this to? Otherwise, we're wasting my time."
Shiv took out another cigarette from his jacket and tapped it against the back of his hand. Igniting the lighter, he kept his finger lingering on the gas feed. He passed the flame in front of his face so that it appeared to completely immolate the mark.
"Yeah, I do, but he's in Perkhuskovo. It's a forty-minute drive. I'll take you to him."
"I have a car. I'll follow you."
Shiv shook his head. "That won't work. His dacha's protected. You can't go through the gate alone."
"Forget it then. I'll take the material someplace else."
Shiv's shrug of indifference was nearly sincere. The guy was too weird, the stuff was too weird. His conscience told him he was better off pimping for schoolgirls. But he said, "If you like. But for a deal like this, you'll need to go to one godfather or another. On your own you're not going to find someone walking around with thirty thousand dollars in his pocket. This businessman knows me, his staff knows me. I'll go with you in your car. You can drive."
Timofey said, "No, we each drive separately."
The mark was unmovable. Shiv offered him a conciliatory smile.
"All right," he said. "Maybe. I'll call him from the lobby and try to set it up. I'm not even sure he can see us tonight."
"It has to be tonight or there's no deal."
"Don't be in such a hurry. You said the stuff lasts twenty-four thousand years, right?"
"Tell him I'm from Skotoprigonyevsk-16. Tell him it's weapons-grade. That's all he needs to know. Do you understand the very least bit of what I'm saying?"