Prelude: Ruins, 1986
Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov. The alarm went off at 1:29 A.M. Moving at 300,000 kilometers a second, the photons passed through the screen — rendered brick-colored by the dust — pierced the air saturated with smoke from Turkish cigarettes, and, following a straight line through the control room, smashed into his pupils just before the blare of a siren, traveling at a mere 1,200 kilometers per hour, reached his eardrums. Unable to distinguish between the two stimuli, his neurons generated an electric whirlwind that engulfed his body. While his eyes focused on the scarlet iridescence and his ears were thrashed with sound waves, his neck muscles tensed, the glands in his forehead and armpits accelerated the production of sweat, his limbs stiffened, and, without the assistant to the engineer noticing, adrenaline infiltrated his blood stream. Despite his ten years of experience, Anatoly Mihalovic Diatlov was dying of fright.
A few meters away, another chain reaction was following a parallel course. In one of the side panels, the mercury was flying to the top of an old thermometer, while the iodine and cesium particles were becoming unstable. It was as if those inoffensive elements had plotted a revolt and, instead of being suspicious of each other, had joined to destroy the bars and torture the guards. The creature wasted no time in taking control of Reactor Number Four in an open challenge to the emergency rules. It was taking revenge and accepting no excuses: It would execute its captors and establish a kingdom of its own. Ever more powerful, it sped to conquer the plant. If the humans did not take immediate steps, the massacre couldn't be contained. Thousands would die. And the Ukraine, Byelorussia, perhaps all of Europe, would be forever devastated.
Seasons of Ash: A Novel in Three Acts
by Jorge Volpi (translated by Alfred Mac Adam)
Paperback, 464 pages
List price: $15.95
Flames were devouring the horizon. Far away, the Pripiat shepherds, accustomed only to events as severe as meteor showers, confused the columns of smoke with artillery practice or the celebration of some victory. Makar Bazdaiev, tending sheep, became tongue-tied as he watched the sky — an aftertaste of vodka in his throat — not knowing it heralded his death. Nearer to the fire, engineers and chemists, builders of stars, recognized the nature of the cataclysm. After decades of alarms and vigilance, the unthinkable had actually occurred, the often-postponed curse, the feared surprise attack. Old people still dreamed of German tanks, impaled children, and rows of graves: The enemy would decimate the forests again, burn the shacks, and drench the altars with the blood of their children.
At 1:30 A.M., Diatlov decided to do something. He'd always hated spring — the sunflowers, the songs the townspeople sang, the need to smile for no good reason. That's why he stayed inside the plant, safe from the euphoria. Only vodka and extra work enabled him to survive the holidays. And now this! The wise men of Kiev and Moscow, cities of wide avenues, had sworn that nothing like this would ever happen. A Party boss had reproached him once upon a time: There is no room for error. You have the manual in front of you, just follow instructions.
The manual was now useless. The needles were spinning wildly, like helicopter blades, and the protective barriers erected thanks to the indefatigable will of socialism — thousands of workers had built the secret citadel — were collapsing. This is how Sodom must have looked. The night was pierced by shouts; the air was filled with the stink of scorched flesh, and panting dogs blocked the side streets. The peasants confused the black smoke with the angel of death. And all because of a whim: the desire to test the resistance of the plant, to go beyond standard precautions, to surprise the Minister.
Only a few hours earlier, Diatlov had ordered the cooling system disconnected. Just routine. Within seconds, the reactor fell into a lazy sleep. Who could suspect it was faking? Its breathing became slower and its pulse was barely perceptible: less than thirty megawatts. Finally, it closed its eyes. Fearing an irreversible coma, Diatlov abandoned common sense: We must increase power again.
The technicians retracted the barium carbon rods, which restrained the beast, and it recovered its powers. Its vital signs stabilized. It was breathing again. The technicians cheered, not knowing that those rods were the only thing that protected them: The manual stipulated fifteen as the lowest acceptable number, and now there were only eight. How stupid! That error would result in thousands of casualties. The monster's heartbeat quickly reached six hundred megawatts, and in the blink of an eye it had enough strength to demolish the walls of its cell. Its roars shook the fir trees of Pripiat like the howl of a thousand wolves. Sand crackled and steel blistered. The nucleus of Reactor Number Four had almost attained the heat of the stars — magma pouring from its jaws — but Diatlov stubbornly insisted on floating above the void. Let's go on with the test.
The beast took no pity on him or his crew. It attacked its guards and devoured their guts; then, angrier and angrier, it began its pilgrimage across the plant's galleries, spreading its fury through the ventilation system. Disregarding orders from his superiors, Vladimir Kriachuk, a thirty-five-year-old technician, pushed the AZ-5 key to stop the entire process. Two hundred carbon rods cascaded into the body of the intruder — vainly. Instead of succumbing, it went back on the offensive, becoming even more dangerous.
It's out of control! Olexandr Akhimov, the team leader, wasn't lying: The monster had won. It plucked out Yuri Ivanov's eyes and smashed Leonid Gordesian's skull like an almond shell. Two explosions signaled its victory. Reactor Number Four ceased to exist.
The plant was the pride of the nation. In secret, over the course of toilsome months, an army of workers, supervised by hundreds of functionaries from the Ministry along with various security groups, built the reactors, the electric transformers, the water distribution system, the telephone lines, the workers' houses, the schools for the workers' children, the community centers, the firehouse, and the local centers for the Party and the secret service. A city in miniature, an example of order and progress that was self-sufficient; a perfect system erected in a place that didn't appear on any map—a genuine utopia, proof of Communism's vigor.
Besieged in the rubble, Diatlov ordered the activation of the emergency cooling system (his hands were trembling like wheat in a gale). He thought that water, as it did in ancient eras, would defeat the fire.
Comrade, the pumps are offline. It was the voice of Boris Soliarchuk. Diatlov remembered that he had ordered them disconnected only the day before. What is the radiation level? The maximum our instruments can register is one millirem, and we went beyond that hours ago.
That was a hundred times the allowed norm. Diatlov furrowed his brow and imagined a cortege of cadavers.
From Seasons Of Ash: A Novel In Three Acts by Jorge Volpi. Translated from Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam. Published by Open Letter and used with permission of the publisher.