Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chernobyl Dreams: Prologue

Some of you may know of Elena Filatova, the Russian girl who, at least until two years ago when the dispatches suddenly stopped, rode her motorcycle (pictured above with the ominously ironic KIA on the plate) into Chernobyl and Pripyat every year. During these dangerous and lonely trips, she'd bring her digital camera to document the decrepitude of both cities and put them on her original Angelfire blog.

The spirit of this girl, and the personality that shines through in spite of the nearly-unemotional clinical detachment in her running commentary, fascinated me so much that one day a few years ago I wrote a prologue featuring a fictionalized version of her and put it away. Picking it up a few months later, I decided this would be a great way to start an installment of my then-nascent Joe Roman series. By this time, the late Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy and its unforgettable anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander took the literary world by storm. And just as a grown-up Pippi Longstocking was Larsson's inspiration for Salander, a gentler, more romantic Salander became my template for Valentina Zolatovsky, or Val Zola for short.

If you've seen the B horror movie Chernobyl Diaries, then you'll have a pretty fair idea of what Pripyat and Chernobyl looks like over a quarter of a century after the disaster. But this prologue for what would become Chernobyl Dreams was written years before Chernobyl Diaries was filmed. When I put this up on Scribd about two years ago, it had gotten more of a reaction and more reads by far than anything else I'd put up. Chernobyl Dreams is to be the third installment of the Joe Roman series, one that sends him back to a Russia he'd fled twenty years before when his NYPD mentor and best friend gets shot under mysterious circumstances.


            The Russian girl throttling the Kawasaki Ninja knew that to veer off the road was pure death.
            This was literally true no less so than it is for sharks needing to stay in perpetual motion to remain alive. To veer off either side was literally to die for because asphalt does not absorb radiation. The scrub brush on either side of the deserted highway to Chernobyl was a different matter: It was steeped in it. But figuratively, the necessity of remaining on the road was no less real.
            Just 23, Valentina Zolatovsky, Val Zola to her few intimates, made the frightful trek once a year. She would quickly learn to do it during the brief Ukrainian summer so as to avoid as best she could a toxic snowfall.
            Since age 18, Val had faithfully gotten on her aging rice burner, Geiger counter and dosimeter in tow, to document on her digital camera what few had the courage these past 25 years to even contemplate: The uninterrupted disintegration of a major Russian city due to the fallout of Man’s arrogant stupidity.
            Virtually the only people she’d see in this part of the Ukraine were young army sentries at the two dozen checkpoints. Every year, at least one leering guard would look at the shapely girl in black leather and try to con her into stripping to take a chemical shower. She’d always avoid such a needless intrusion of her privacy by tartly wondering, for instance, how they’d fucked up to get such a shitty post. For the first time that didn’t work, she’d have in a leather saddlebag an additional deterrent in the form of a sawed-off 12 gauge Mossberg.
            More often than not, the bored and lonely guard would ask the girl with two or three extra pounds packed in her leather pants why she was out here by herself. Their rotation would not permit personal familiarity much less recognizance but word spread from one checkpoint to another about the brave or stupid girl on the Kawasaki that drove every year into the most dangerous No Man’s Land on earth.
            Since she chose to eschew even a nodding acquaintance with even the friendliest ones, she likewise didn’t wish to share her motives other than to say she was documenting Chernobyl and the surrounding area for her blog. This was true but it didn’t explain her impetus.
            Val Zola’s grandfather Sergei was one of the thousands of firefighters and soldiers who were sent straight to their deaths. The Soviet government of Gorbachev lied to these men even as they signed their death warrants and ordered them in without proper training or PPE. Rushing toward reactor four wearing nothing but their normal gear, the dying wave of humanity knew precisely what hit them. They were just never told how deadly the fallout truly was. 30 men had died in the first few weeks and Grandfather Sergei was one of them.
            He’d died mere days before his daughter Olga discovered she was carrying her first child. From childhood on, Val felt as if she owed it to him to confront the imperfectly-muzzled monster that had claimed his life.
            The plight of the Russian firefighters marched to their doom would remind her of the 343 firemen killed on 9/11. They, too, were unaware of the true scope of the danger and almost all of them perished when the towers fell with them still in them trying to rescue the employees.
            Those who’d hastily erected the already crumbling cement sarcophagus over reactor four were among the first to perish, including the chopper pilots who had lowered the blocks in place. Even their height and the downwash of the rotors couldn’t save them.
            The guards at the checkpoint weren’t the only people Val Zola would see in her annual pilgrimage. Once in a while she would pass an elderly couple in a wagon pulled by a sad-looking draft horse. They were the stubborn 300 remaining of a village of 3500 who, well into middle age by the time Chernobyl melted down, had intractably insisted on remaining on their ancestral farmlands. After forcibly evicting them, the Soviet government shrugged its broad shoulders and figured it was easier to leave them for dead than to argue with them.
            But the peasants refused to die and still refuse to this day. They were almost the perfect living embodiment of Nietzsche’s maxim, “Whatever does not destroy me makes me stronger.” Their meager harvests were irradiated because the soil was and they knew it. But not only did the gamma and X-rays not kill them, they’d acclimated themselves to it just as their hardy forebears adjusted to climatic and political change. In a way, they were immortal.
            Val’s musings on immortality put her in mind of a landmark she’d passed about back at the 86th kilometer marker. It was a giant stone egg, imported from Germany. She supposed it symbolized the never ending cycle of life, the eternal promise of renewal. It was an odd place to put such a monument, at one of the least populated and deadliest spots on earth this side of the Arctic. It sat in the middle of a killed field, the soil too toxic even for the most insistent scrub brush normally peculiar to the Ukraine. It might as well have been a 65,000,000 year-old dinosaur egg unearthed by paleontologists. In light of its bleak venue, the ovoid monument was more like a cenotaph to life: A memorial to something that now no longer existed in the area.
            Presently, her Kawasaki took her to the outskirts of the real victim of the meltdown: The city of Pripyat. Chernobyl was only marginally involved in the disaster like Woodstock was only marginally involved in the festival named after it.
            Pripyat was the thriving Pompeiian city from which many of the reactor’s scientists, engineers and technicians came. Through old clippings from Pravda, microfiche and reproduced articles on the internet, Val had read everything she could about that day. Ignorant of the enormity of the danger, the people of Pripyat stood atop the roofs of their large apartment buildings even as the first bright clouds of fallout were beginning their fatal sweep.
            Valentina killed the throttle of the motorbike as she approached what was Pripyat’s year-round amusement park. Its giant Ferris wheel stood idle as if an expensive plaything left abandoned by the child of a god or giant. Lovers, Val imagined, young men and women feeling spring enliven their blood, their hormones responding to the promise of love, held hands and kissed in these now rusty cars.
            On a previous visit, Val had walked into one of the long-vacated apartments. Behind the front door was a fishing rod and, on the wall to its left, a 1986 calendar with April 30th circled in faded red ink. The apartment had obviously been rented by a man, typically someone who’d worked at Chernobyl.
            Elsewhere, Val would see evidence of the paralyzed plans made by good Soviets for the annual Labor Day celebration on May Day. Now in Pripyat’s kindergarten, she saw more signs of the never-arrived festivities and the long-forgotten Soviet propaganda that went hand in hand.
            A warm dry wind stirred sun-bleached leaflets with pictures of famous and not so famous Soviet leaders and heroes. Now stripped of its once mandatory relevance, the propaganda had met the same fate as the Ferris wheel, fishing rod and every hearth and home in Pripyat. It was as if Chernobyl was the sleeping sickness that would spread and kill off the ailing giant that was the Soviet Union. In a little over three years the once proud superpower of Eastern Europe would begin losing territories like a leper shedding extremities.
            Val was careful to only walk into buildings in which the windows and doors were left open. Edifices are tailor-made for trapping radiation and, knowing this, the evacuated citizenry and the Red Army made opening the windows and doors their final order of business before their delayed but hasty exodus.
            As she was about to pass through the school’s front walkway, Val then locked eyes with a wolf.
She’d heard stories of the local fauna hideously mutated by the radiation warping their genes. Zoologists for the most part dismissed these as lies, hoaxes or rumors. But it would be fallacious to assume that so much radiation spewed out over a quarter century wouldn’t play havoc with the genetic code of every living thing.
Val knew of an American cardiologist who made his own annual pilgrimage to the area to perform free surgery on children throughout the Ukraine. The genetic deformities most often seen were atrial septal defects or holes in their hearts and thyroid cancer. But Val Zola saw on that same documentary horrific abnormalities such as a toddler whose brain grew outside of her skull and was protected only by a sack of skin.
Why should the fearless animals, to whom Man was a stranger, be any different?
Consistent with what she’d read and seen with her own eyes in years past, the wolf, a large, gray male with a head the size of a watermelon, looked nonplussed at her abrupt appearance. Since their top predator, Man, was only a rare interloper, they hadn’t cultivated any fear of humans. Only the smaller species of birds took flight at her presence.
The wolf’s mouth was distinguished by some hanging, bloody skin tissue and Val didn’t know if was the aftermath of a kill, an injury or a genetic deformity. It didn’t matter at the time because the lupine predator stood between her and the Kawasaki Ninja carrying her sawed-off 12 gauge.
Both woman and wolf locked eyes in a moment as frozen as the entire city of Pripyat. Then the large animal licked its bloody chops, turned to its right and loped away. Val quietly but deeply inhaled before getting back on her bike.
The next stop was the local fire department. In the first hours after the meltdown of April 26th 1986, the local firemen were the first responders, the ones who’d arrived in advance of the 650,000 “liquidators”. As with the firefighters, policemen, soldiers and helicopter pilots, the “liquidators” were issued inadequate personal protective equipment, training or an adequate briefing on the dangers.
They were hurled into the mouth of an invisible beast they’d never fought before, a neutron bomb detonating for 48,000 years that left the buildings intact but leaving no one alive. Many going into the 3000-30,000 roentgen inferno were fried on the spot. 400-500 roentgens over five hours is fatal to humans (ironically, roaches can tolerate up to 100 times that much).
And the emergency personnel never really knew what hit them because the meltdown was still a state secret. In fact, the people of Kiev were ordered to continue with the Labor Day celebrations until they, too, began dropping from radiation sickness a full week after the meltdown. Even the people of neighboring Pripyat weren’t evacuated until two days after the beautiful, shiny cloud had blown into the city like a deadly amoeba. The Soviet government of Gorbachev’s glastnost wouldn’t even admit there was an accident until Swedish nuclear reactor workers were found to have radiation on their shoes.
30,000-40,000 people died either directly or indirectly because of the fallout. The government’s official death toll was an absurd 300.
Val’s grandfather and 29 others had been among the very first to fall. In keeping with protocol and common sense, the bay doors were left wide open. Many, many firemen never made it back and neither did their engines.
            Large vehicles such as fire trucks are typically the most radioactive objects in the region. Instinctively, she glanced at her Geiger counter. Even standing 50-60 feet from one fire engine (amazingly, even after 24 years, the tires were still inflated), she was getting a reading of 763 microroentgens or about three quarters of a milliroentgen, which is 1/1000th of a roentgen. It was actually a minor exposure (a typical baseline city reading is anywhere from 10-16 microroentgens) but as Val was wearing no PPE, she didn’t wish to take any unnecessary chances.
            Besides, she knew that with every step she’d take toward the engine, the microroentgens would very quickly spike into milliroentgen territory and the greater danger would be not to her but her new digital camera. Radiation plays hell with hard drives.
            She got out her Canon Powershot SX20 and squared it as she began taking pictures of the engine and the plain cinderblock firehouse just adjacent. From virtually any angle and at her distance, it was impossible to see inside the engine. But Val gave it no thought-After all these years, who or what could still be inside?
            She moved on and took some more pictures of Reactor Four that so quickly killed her grandfather while keeping a very respectable distance (from even a kilometer away, the fallout leaking from the crumbling sarcophagus measured several hundred microroentgens or almost a full milliroentgen). She’d been here enough times to know and had been warned by her scientist father who’d gotten for her the government permit that got her this far that if she were to walk right up to number four, she’d glow in the dark like the magic trees and would be dead in a week or two.
            Calling it a day, Val Zola mounted her Ninja and sped away from the Chernobyl reactor, through the necropolis of Pripyat, past the peasant village, past the egg and all the way back to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
            Once in her studio apartment, she set right to work uploading her captured images to her computer’s hard drive. She minutely examined every image, sometimes comparing them to older ones with identical subjects to see what changes had occurred.
            At first, she didn’t see any changes out of the ordinary. The usual rate of disintegration, the flora’s shy but inexorable encroachment on manmade structures and vehicles. Then Val observed the pictures she’d taken of the fire engine. As when she was looking right at it, the reflection of the trees and buildings confounded any view of the truck’s interior. But she noted a circular white object against the driver side window.
            The glass was spider-webbed from some impact but she couldn’t tell either then or now if it was struck from within or without. She zoomed in on the picture that offered the best view of the round, white object. Using her photography software’s enhancement tools, she cleaned up the pixilation as best she could to no avail. There weren’t any details out of which she could divine any sense.
            Val Zola then played a hunch and decided to blow up and enhance the only picture she’d taken of the front of the engine. Then horror dawned on her, neurological lightning charging the top of her head.
            There, in the front of the white, round object, were two barely discernible black holes and, between and below them, another. And, beneath the roughly triangular-shaped hole, what looked like teeth.
            A human skull.
            Below the skull that rest against the driver side window was the suggestion of a tie and around it, what appeared to be a dark suit. She blew up and enhanced the image taken from the passenger side window and could barely see through the reflection of the fire station on the window what could be interpreted as a bullet hole in the side of the skull.
            Whoever had died in that fire engine wasn’t a fireman and he certainly didn’t die from radioactive fallout. Like 99% of us, Val Zola’s first instinct was to alert the authorities. But this was the most radioactive place on earth, a region that would remain uninhabitable for, best case scenario, 300 years.
            Who would investigate it?
            It was perhaps a short term mercy that Valentina Zolatovsky couldn’t see in the picture of the engine’s passenger side another reflection, this one coming from behind the fire station.
            She would’ve seen another man in a coat, looking right at her.

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