Physicist Boris K. is one of three men held responsible for the catastrophic failure of Russia’s largest supercollider, a classified, subterranean loop running 260 kilometers through Siberia. The underground explosion has left frenetic scribbles on Western seismographs and cost the Russian government trillions in rubles. It has also left one worker debilitated. This twenty-six-year-old man, perforated by subatomic particles traveling near the speed of light, lies on a cot in a metal Quonset hut. One half of his body has prematurely aged, now decades older than the other.
Anna adjusts her nurse’s cap and watches Boris lean over the man. Huddled together within the small reach of a space heater, she sees what he sees: one eye bright, the other rheumy; one cheek baby smooth, the other spotted and furrowed. She touches her own cheek, wrinkled by many cold seasons.
The field hospital shudders under gales that clear all weakness from the larch forests at the 60th parallel. The patient is whispering and Boris leans in close. Anna hopes he won’t notice the bulge under the patient’s lower lip, where she’s packed a boiled mash of iceland poppy seeds harvested from the boreal forest. Boris is Anna’s son, but he is a creature of the state. For him, Moscow’s medicines are always adequate. Russia never makes mistakes.
Boris lowers his ear close to the man’s mouth. Anna knows what he’s saying, because he’s repeated it for days. “Time all at once, all at once.”
Her son shakes his head. “Gibberish,” he says. “What has he told you?”
Anna hesitates. She knows nothing of the supercollider — she’s on a need-to-know basis and her post requires only that she tend to the ill. Her psychological profile report, however, never betrayed her talent for harvesting information. The sick man, under the influence of her gentle narcotics, has said other things.
“He said the stream pulled him in,” she says. “What does that mean?”
Boris waves her off. “Impossible; he fell in. His own imbecility.”
“Boris.” Her voice comes from the back of her throat. “He lost his family.”
The patient was beset by grief, Anna knows, after his wife and two children succumbed to pneumonia in this subarctic climate. She also knows that her son, when challenged, will speak without thinking.
But Boris only gives her a cold look.
“What stream?” she says.
“Enough,” he says. His eyes narrow. Her son has the fortune of being a big man in Russia, and people rarely question him. Anna strangles her finger with a twist of gauze. She reminds herself that people like him put cosmonauts in orbit.
But the patient is mumbling something else.
Overhead, military personnel struggle to change the Quonset hut’s camouflage netting to blend with the brown autumnal ground. The rustling interweaves with the man’s whispers.
They step closer, to hear better.
“I see him,” the man says, the hive of poppy seeds visible at his gumline.
Boris turns his head, apparently in disgust. “What?” he growls.
The man points a tremoring finger at Boris. “I see you. Alive, a hundred years more. Homeless.”
Boris has had enough. He lifts the man by the hospital gown, but the gown is open in the back and the patient slumps back onto the cot.
Anna has no time to intervene. The door shudders, a blast of frigid air.
A soldier stands there, a middle-ranking officer with two yellow stars on his collar, chased by the smell of forest. The polish of his boots reflect the bars of hanging fluorescent lights. He is new, Anna notes. His footwear hasn’t yet seen winter.
He surveys the scene, then looks to Boris. “What is the report?”
“The patient is unhelpful.”
The soldier tut-tuts, but a smirk creeps into his jaw. “The eyes of Mother Russia are watching, comrade. It would be a shame,” he says, “should history forget a man of your intellect.”
Boris is a head taller than the man. Anna looks into her son’s eyes and sees no fear. He has an intelligence quotient of 191, but sometimes she thinks fear might do him good.
Boris raises himself to full height and stands over the officer. “History will be kind to me, tiny lieutenant, because I will write it.”
Outside, Boris finds himself surrounded by other Quonset huts — half-cylinders set on their sides, sheathed in corrugated steel. Green camouflage netting from the summer, piled on the ground, feathers under the winds. He has little patience for the military complex and its ant-like soldiers and their blind execution of orders. He is Russia’s top physicist and the world’s top investigator of the interplay between relativity and quantum mechanics, having mathematically proven the existence of twenty-four separate dimensions and having won the Copley Medal twice.
A man leans against the medical hut, slicing a crabapple. He has no uniform, no coding. His hair is long and waxed back.
“Tell me, friend,” he says. His eyes are arctic, the color of a sled dog’s. “Did the patient cause the implosion, or was it you?”
Boris eyes the stranger, then his knife. It’s a Yakutian blade, forged by northern peoples for the purpose of skinning seals. He hasn’t met this person, but he’s met other versions, for the president’s secret police are never far. Boris knows there’ll be no logic to this discussion nor adherence to any rules, and this bothers him, more so than the military, because at least the Russian army has chains of command and order. Boris prefers equations with quantifiable results, efficiencies that can be measured. He distrusts the concept of rounding to whole numbers and the infirmities of human interaction.
The stranger’s eyes crinkle. “You have a boy, yes?”
The worst thing, Boris knows, is to hesitate, to be soft. He might not understand all the rules of human etiquette, but he understands the most important ones. This rule he knows too: that in Russia one is expendable until one makes oneself unexpendable.
“You,” Boris says, “cannot decipher the terabytes left by the accelerator.” He refers to the data recorded by the supercollider’s sensors in the moments before the tunnel’s implosion. A printout is kept in a subterranean vault. “Something extraordinary has happened. Half of a man cannot age unless there is a fundamental disruption in the fabric of spacetime. It is a new application of time dilation.”
The man lifts a slice of crabapple with his knife and takes the fruit in his mouth. He cuts another slice, offers it to Boris. It’s understood that, whether or not Boris accepts the fruit, something will be expected of him.
When Boris doesn’t move, the man lets the apple slice drop to the ground. “You know nothing.”
“I need the data.”
“The first copy is free,” he says. He chews with his mouth open. “The second comes for a price.”
“You are obstructing something much greater than yourself.”
The other man doesn’t move.
“What do you want?”
“Something worth the weight of those papers.”
In the next few hours, Boris’s son will go missing.
Alexei sits in the old hunting cabin he shares with his family. His grandmother cuts his hair.
He loves these moments, their sounds, their scents. Anna spent her childhood here in Siberia, learning the land, and her kitchen steeps in the smells of the forest. She harvests its plants and secretes them into the cabin via hidden pockets sown into her dress. The acridity of cowberries, the must of lichen — these flavor their gruel from Moscow.
Each room is bugged with listening devices, but they cannot detect the rich aromas that suffuse her kitchen. Nor can they hear what Anna says because she taps her words in Morse Code on Alexei’s shoulder.
“A man was hurt,” she codes, while her other hand directs the barbers’ shears. “He said a name — Planckatron.” She is aware her grandson’s friends have engineered a secret internet connection. “The name, you will look it up?”
Her touch worries Alexei. Her fingers move fast, some words are misspelled. But she’s rightfully worried — something has happened, something to do with the recent earthquake. Since that moment, Alexei’s father has changed. Less patience, more bark, even more bite. Under the shirt, where Alexei’s grandmother touches him, a yellowing bruise matches the square shape of Boris’ left fist. Each letter Anna drums into his shoulder leaves a dull ache.
Alexei recalls a time from before. Before Siberia, before his father was important.
This is the sum of his memory: an oligarch’s estate outside Moscow, bearded men with suits but open collars, some in soldier uniforms. A stone mansion, a garden, and his father moving stiffly, a ship among icebergs. The children shooed away, Alexei among a group of boys who took turns killing birds with a slingshot. Then his refusal, their laughter, the heat in his cheeks — pizda, they called him. He walked deeper into the woods.
His father found him sleeping among leaves at the base of a hundred and fifty-year old oak tree, under the slant of autumn light. Boris lay down next to him and squeezed his hand. “Thank you son,” he said, plum brandy on his breath, “for being here today. After today, we are no longer peasants.”
Alexei had never realized they were peasants, and it was strange to hear the world imposed this architecture on them without him even knowing. His life until then had a been a collection of wonderful moments. Riding on his father’s shoulder, reading with his grandmother by firelight. At the oligarch’s estate that day he pondered this new dimension as they lay there, hand-in-hand, trading messages in Morse Code like Anna taught them, until the light weakened and the ground cooled.
Boris sat up. “Come, solnyshko, it is late.”
“Do not worry, son, this moment never changes.” Boris looked up at the branches of the white oak. “The fourth dimension of time is like this tree. We are pushed through the trunk but, in every single second, we leave behind copies of ourselves. They remain imprinted there, like rings. Perhaps one day we can revisit them.”
Alexei hasn’t visited this memory for years and wonders if it resides anywhere in his father’s memory. He guesses the answer is no and, now fifteen, he realizes this wasn’t a good moment, but rather the sunset of something good.
His grandmother’s scissors whisper in his ear.
She squeezes sentences into his aching shoulder, asking again about the internet search, and he encloses his hand over her fingers.
“Yes,” he codes back. He’ll do anything for her, no matter the risks. It was she who raised him, who told him bedtime stories about old Siberia that imprinted his mind with wonder. Stories about soldiers during the first great war who found the last living Neanderthals. Stories about her own grandfather, the first man to make an overland crossing to the North Pole. “He was a great man who did great things,” she told him once, “and so will you.”
They are interrupted. Boris shoulders through the door, a tome of paper tucked under his arm. He heads towards his study.
“Say hello to your son,” Anna says.
“His mother’s son.” Boris walks as he speaks. “Unequipped for the real world, useless.”
Alexei feels his grandmother’s hand tense. He tells her, “Don’t mind him, babushka. He is touched by Hans Asperger’s disease.” Russia has no such diagnoses for adults, but Alexei has read American articles online and wonders about this — Boris’ obsessive focus, his abruptness with people. Russia abhors complicated labels — here, one is strong, weak, a genius, or a fool — but Alexei has begun to believe it’s a world in need of further nuance.
Boris slams his paperwork on the table. He hoists Alexei from the chair by his collar. Only centimeters separate their chins, and spittle lands on Alexei’s face as Boris yells. But Alexei isn’t listening. He’s happy. He has finally pulled Boris from the distant fugue where he spends his days, in some other plane of existence, and all Alexei wants to do is keep him here, keep him present in this moment.
“Enough!” Anna’s palm smacks the table.
Boris drops his son, then points a finger at her. It is shaking. “You,” he says. “You fill his head with garbage.”
Boris is a big man, but Anna can steer him with pinches just above the elbow. She manipulates him into his study.
“What garbage?” Her words are crisp. This has nothing to do with her stories, she thinks, and everything to do with Alexei’s comment. Boris is sensitive, and she wishes she could reassure him. He isn’t handicapped, just incredibly selfish.
Boris grits his teeth. “Fairy tales, pseudo-science. You tell him the Red Army encountered Neanderthals during the great war. Nonsense.”
“Your great-grandfather told me those stories. The same man who drove sled dogs over sea ice to reach the top of this planet.” Anna remembers him sitting by a hearth full of fire, his eyes hazed with cataracts, telling her tales from his youth.
“Pradedushka wasn’t the first to reach the north pole. The Americ —”
Anna holds her palm flat. She points to the lamp fixture, impregnated with a microphone. “That,” she hisses, “is your blood. Show respect — for your ancestors, and the boy who comes after you.”
“His mother’s son.”
Anna shakes her head. Alexei’s mother was an Olympic-caliber gymnast, strong in will though small in size, her pelvis too narrow for childbirth. The Communist Party arranged this union, and Anna theorizes her son was enamored of the idea of marriage, of the idea of fatherhood. Never the reality. “It is you,” she says, “who believes propaganda. Worse, lies of your own making.”
Boris winces. He takes her wrist and begins to code. “I trade only in facts,” he taps. “Here’s one: we’re in danger.”
He shakes his head. When they return to the kitchen, his papers are missing.
Anna throws the door open and steps into the winds. Their cabin is a hunting lodge that belonged to a twentieth-century tsar, and it sits at the edge of a village comprised of metal huts littered among the larch and pine. Their nearest neighbor, Mikhail, works beneath the monstrous undercarriage of a Burlak transport vehicle, each of its six tires taller than a person, all necessary to transport the Quonset residents to the government facilities located some miles north. Winter, after all, makes the roads otherwise impassable.
Anna has always liked Mikhail. He is handsome, soft-spoken, and were he born in the same generation her feelings about him might have progressed. She senses he admires her similarly.
“Mikhail,” she says. “Have you seen our boy?”
He emerges from beneath the arctic transport vehicle shaking his head. “The children,” he says, “lose themselves in the forest. I worry they wander into the Nikelgorod Exclusion Zone. When my own boy returns, we’ll talk. So let us keep in touch, yes?”
Alexei treads the larch forest past the signs that warn of nuclear contamination. Beyond the trees, the abandoned, Soviet-era apartments of Nikelgorod rise against the sky. People are told this nickel-mining settlement fell victim to shifting winds after a seventy-megaton test. It’s here that Alexei and his friends find solace, a private space of their own.
It is here that they climb.
Alexei finds the other boys at the base of a concrete statue of Alexander the Third, pioneer of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, rising twenty meters into the air. A military-style ushanka sits atop the tsar’s head, while his hands rest on the hilt of a sabre, its pointy end touching the earth where the boys sit.
They huddle around a tablet, watching a Frenchman scale the Burj Khalifa in Dubai without rope. They watch for technique, to help them plot a route from where they sit to the top of Alexander’s ushanka. They’ve grown bored with Nikelgorod’s other structures — the theater, the church’s onion dome, every façade of the nickel-processing plant.
One boy nods at Alexei. He lives in the Quonset hut closest to Alexei’s cabin. “Are you ready to conquer Alexander the Third?” he asks. The boys bond over this preoccupation, not so much with each other, for at any moment the military may tear one of their families from this Siberian wasteland and post them in another dystopia. At nine thousand kilometers wide, Russia has many such places.
“A moment,” Alexei says, and rounds the statue and takes a seat by the heel of the tsar’s boot. He removes from his satchel Boris’ paperwork.
Alexei has tried to make sense of his father’s paper on the walk through the taiga but, without the internet, it’s hopeless. He fishes from his pocket a chipped mobile phone — contraband from Outer Manchuria that musters no cellular signal — and connects to his friends’ wi-fi hotspot. He must know what’s so classified and unknowable about his father’s life, why they live a half-day’s drive from any city and near a government installation that appears on no map. For this, everything was sacrificed, and Alexei simultaneously feels the ache in his shoulder and the warmth of his father’s hand behind the oligarch’s estate. He wants to reclaim that moment and capture the alternate history that might’ve happened between them, but first he must know what led them astray. But can he possibly decipher his father’s papers? Alexei doesn’t understand physics. Not vectors, not forces, not relativity, much less the mathematic hieroglyphs that describe them. But as his internet browser loads, he rescans the papers, and something stands out. The top right corner of each page has numbers divided into angles, minutes, and seconds — GPS coordinates, the same ones the boys use to navigate the forests. Alexei thumbs these into his phone.
The coordinates form a massive circle, stretching north. The closest spot lies two hundred meters away, so Alexei slips away through an alley between the old theater and bakery.
He finds an empty field at the town’s outskirts, but the grass here is newer, the conifers shorter, a superhighway of fresh vegetation that runs beneath his feet and stretches through the taiga. He wonders, how has he not noticed this?
The nearest building is a smooth, windowless cuboid, roughly the height of Alexander the Third. It’s one of the few structures the boys haven’t summitted. At its base stands a set of iron doors, impervious to crowbars. But there’s a crack that zags up the side, having appeared after the recent earthquake, and he knows from summiting nearby buildings about the hatch on the roof.
At the building Alexei assesses the crack. He’s the smallest of his peers but, with urban climbing, being small has its advantages. His hand fits into the fissure and, by making a fist, he can anchor himself to the wall. Using both hands and feet in this way, he can jam his way to the top. The boy puts on his climbing shoes, their rubber soft and sticky, throws on his backpack, and chalks his hands.
The inside of the crack bites against his fists — every move requires complete attention — and in this demand for presence he can climb from the fugue of insults and inhabit a moment existing outside the literal and proverbial reach of his wayward and adulterated father, outside the scramble of the world’s confusion.
At the top, the crack continues from the side and across to the hatch, and has broken the trapdoor from its moorings. Alexei lifts the square of iron and descends down the awaiting ladder.
They take Boris six days later. Eventually they come for Anna.
It’s the man without a uniform who questions her, accompanied by a soldier Anna knows from the field hospital. They sit at a table in the cabin’s kitchen, where the man without uniform cleans his fingernails with a caviar fork. The soldier won’t look at Anna, and she stares hard into his face, searching.
Anna and this solder have spent three years now at this military camp. He and his brethren have grown accustomed to her hospitality, her birch sap teas, her high-octane coffees. As she walks from the cabin to the field hospital each day, she alerts them when the tips of their noses whiten, a precursor to frostbite, and fixes their balaclavas to keep out the arctic cold. These soldiers are still boys, and miss their mothers on the far side of the Urals. Like boys, they cower before powerful men.
The soldier refuses eye contact while the other man continues to remove grime from his thumbnail with the caviar fork. Anna refuses to acknowledge it. She looks over this other man. The cracked leather of his jacket has the dull sheen of cockroach wings. He wears sunglasses with aqua lenses, like those preferred by aging rock stars. She asks, “Your mother has given you a name?”
The man smiles. “You may call me Volk.”
“That is not a proper name.”
“What is your family name?”
“Family?” he says. “What does it matter, if their poor choices doom us? It’s a thing of beauty to survive, grandmother, especially when the world conspires against this.”
Anna appraises his sunglasses.
“You are blind?” she says.
Volk squints through the turquoise glass.
“Only two people wear sunglasses in basements, sir. Blind men, and fools.”
The man laughs. “You,” he wags a finger, “I like you.”
Anna feels encouraged. “Speak to my son Boris, he is a big boy. Bigger than you.”
“But it’s the little boy that interests me. He has been missing quite some time now, no?”
Chilled blood washes through her ribcage, but Anna is quick. “Allow me to find him, then. Who better to lure him than his babushka?”
The man reaches out and touches the tines of the caviar fork to where her collarbones meet. “You say those lines. Soon you’ll believe them.”
Volk removes the caviar fork from her skin. She dares not look down at the two dimples that surely remain, the skin within their orbit pale and swollen.
“You have three days. After that, I cannot help you.”
Anna is a tough woman, but she understands bad things happen to people in this country. She should know. For years she managed an infirmary in the basement of a Moscow federation building, wheeling victims on gurneys through dishwater-gray corridors, treating their cigarette burns, their naked fingernail beds, the stumps of missing toes.
“I’ll see you on the third dawn,” Volk says.
Later, Anna looks out a northern window at the soldier standing post, shuffling his feet so they don’t freeze in his boots. Behind him, through a window in the neighbor’s Quonset home, the neighbor’s boy is watching too. In the condensation on the windowpane he writes something, then wipes it away.
It was too small for Anna to see.
At the ladder’s end, Alexei finds a concrete hall awash in red light. The ladder meets the floor at a right angle but when he touches down and let’s go of the rungs, his shoes slide across the floor towards its dark end, leaving tracks through a metallic film on the floor. He grabs the ladder. He is still young enough to believe in the impossible, to wonder at its mechanics, and for the first time he considers that his father’s secret involves a truth more precious than any of them.
There are shelves on the walls, anchored with bolts, and hand-over-hand he lowers himself down the hall. The confusion of gravity dizzies him. Where the shelving runs out of length, the room opens into a chasm steeped in blackness. Alexei hooks an elbow around one of the shelves’ uprights and removes a pocket flashlight and throws wattage into the hole.
The light is drawn to the center of a large space where a miniature planet hovers, a black planet rimmed in embered light, orbited by disks of the same colors. An evil tiny Saturn.
It pulls the luminescence from the flashlight and casts auroras against the walls, dancing as in a grotto, but this isn’t a cave. It’s a tunnel — an enormous tunnel, big enough for a subway and yet there are no tracks. He can put no name to this thing.
There is no echo in this space, no sound. It’s as though Alexei’s reached the end of all things, an edge of the universe.
He fumbles for Boris’ papers in his backpack with his free hand. But the papers are thick, meant to be held with two hands, and the leaves split open and fall instantly, sideways, pulled toward the tunnel’s center.
He shines his flashlight after the papers. They hover in the air a few meters into the larger space, oozing into the abyss. Their edges begin to curl.
The boy is nauseous, woozy. Hand-over-hand, he moves back toward the ladder and ascends it.
Outside, the world is different. He’s loitered in the tunnel perhaps twenty minutes, but it is the night sky that greets him, and it twinkles over a layer of snow that blankets the buildings and treetops for as far as he can see. He thinks that whatever his father has been up to, it can change the universe, and he questions whether his ideas about life have been too small.
Anna boils water on the wood stove. The yellowing sky above the eastern tree line has begun to wash out the starlight. It’s the third dawn.
For three days she’s hiked the forest, looking for the boy, leaving ribbons on trees and cairns by streambeds, encoded with messages, but the taiga has offered nothing in return.
She unwraps gray, army-surplus toilet paper nearly to its cardboard core and removes the Wolfsbane she’s pressed there. The flower’s purple shade is still vibrant. The toxins reside in the roots, but she throws the entire plant in the bubbling water and sets out two cups, one for Volk, one for her. She’ll drink first, while he watches, then offer him a cup. She re-enacts the scene until her breathing slows. She no longer has a reason to exist, the generations before her deceased, her son and grandson lost to cruelty.
When the knock sounds at the side door, she jumps.
It is Alexei.
She can only stare. He looks clean. He wears the same clothes as the day he disappeared — his olive canvas jacket, his blue ripstop nylon pants. His hair hasn’t grown.
“Where have you been, boy?” She embraces him, envelopes him, their hearts beating just inches from one another. She can feel the muscles in his back; he’s eaten well. From a part in his hair, she smells the autumnal foliage that disappeared from the forest with the first snow. “It’s been six weeks,” she says, and holds him away and studies him. His eyes have the shape of confusion.
“Six weeks?” His eyes flit around the cabin. “Where is dada?”
“Taken.” Anna closes her eyes, takes a breath. “Taken north.”
“To the circle?” He refers to Stalin’s arctic death circle, home of Russia’s modern gulags.
“His documents, they need them back. They are classified.”
The boy stiffens, but there’s no time for questions. A knock rattles the front door.
It is Volk.
He opens the door and removes his gloves. “Good morning, grandmother,” he says. “You’ll recall we have an appointment.” Another man stands at his aft, holding a fifteen-centimeter Makarov pistol.
“Have you found —” But Volk doesn’t finish. He sees the boy. “Ah,” he says, “the prodigal son returns.”
Anna taps words on her neck — words only the boy can read. They need more time, she writes.
Like his father, Alexei never hesitates. He turns to Volk and says, “I have your papers. In a cave, in the mountains.”
“You’ll take us there.”
Anna clears her throat. “Tomorrow. He will take you tomorrow, what is another day? Give me one day with my grandson.”
Volk rounds on the boy. “How far is it?”
“A hundred miles,” he says.
Volk scans the boy’s shoes. Athletic trainers, not boots. The man takes a loose cigarette from his shirt pocket and lights it. He puffs long enough to grow a red cherry at the tip, then turns the cigarette around and appears to contemplate its ember and its many, many uses. “You travel light.”
“Gentlemen,” Anna says. She steps toward the stove. “Let the adults have tea. I have just boiled water.”
Volk puts a hand on her arm. “For everyone then. The boy too.”
“It’s not to his taste.”
Volk smiles. He walks to the stove and looks into the boiling pot where the limp purple petals flutter in the rolling waters. He drops the lit cigarette into the pot. “Okay, grandmother.” He turns toward Anna. “One more day with your grandson.”
An hour after they leave, the boy falls asleep in his bed. Awake or asleep, Anna feels blessed to spend these moments with him, watching his chest rise and fall. He looks the same as Boris did, when he was young, and she traces the contours of his face with her fingertip. She feels lucky to have another soul in this arctic world. It’s all she has.
Boris’ letters from prison, folded in her dress pocket, prod against her abdomen. Her mind skips to what he’s written. “The boy, a victim of his own imbecility,” in that chicken-scratch scrawl. “A fool.” Anna dabs her eyes with a shirtsleeve. Boris is a man who cannot sew his own clothes nor cook his own meals. A selfish man, of the most selfish variety, focusing on his equations, desperate for the acclaim of his superiors, to the exclusion of all else. It was she who allowed him to devolve into such a creature. “It’s my fault,” she whispers. But she knows the past is unchangeable, that only the present is in play.
When the soldiers come at nightfall, she meets them at the door.
They pull Anna from the house.
“I need my winter coat,” she says.
“This will just take a minute, babushka,” one says.
They are strong, and the toes of her slippers drag against the crust of the snow. She steals a look at the neighbor’s Quonset hut and sees the neighbor’s boy, backlit in a window. She thinks of her own Alexei. He has no protector. She opens her mouth to cry out warning but the other soldier’s hand is ready. Her scream dies in his glove.
Volk waits behind the cabin, finishing a cigarette. He drops it into the snow. “Grandmother, your wish was granted. But this is our way, you know this. There are no gifts in this country. Here we pay for everything.”
The report of a single shot from a Makarov pistol sounds through the Siberian night.
When the soldiers re-enter the cabin, Alexei is not in his room. He’s not in the kitchen, nor in the bedroom, nor anywhere they know to find him.
“Your son has admitted to everything.”
“Release me then,” Boris says.
“You are his conspirator. Fellow saboteurs.”
Boris sits back down in his cell. Through a narrow window he can view the arctic wasteland, when it’s not obscured by snowstorms or sulfur dioxide emissions from the Norilsk mines. He curses his son. The narrative in his mind tells the story of a short-sighted boy, selfish and vulnerable to whim. Still, as much as Boris thinks he knows, his thoughts are infinite but bounded.
The first thing he doesn’t know is that his bosses are in trouble, because to date nobody has explained what caused the supercollider’s implosion. A loss of five trillion rubles isn’t easily stomached. The second thing he doesn’t know is that, in the tunnel’s surviving segments, a layer of palladium, four microns thick, coats the walls. The price per gram of palladium is twice that of gold, and the president has demanded someone re-create this alchemy.
Russia’s other physicists haven’t been helpful.
Soldiers return Boris to the cabin, where he finds himself provisioned with a copy of the papers he lost and a mandate that he cannot leave the premises. The soldiers take away all his outerwear, even his shoes. Anna, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found, and nobody tells him why. The soldiers have simply said she’ll be back, and he believes them.
Whatever questions he has end up suffocating in the focus he reserves for the supercollider data. He reads the papers far into the evening by candlelight, analyzing numbers and calculations. Only the wood stove provides warmth.
The palladium he can explain. The particle accelerator’s last experiment smashed atoms of tin into one another, knocking off protons. With palladium sitting four spots left of tin on the periodic table, its creation makes sense. But other data doesn’t. The equations cannot balance, even if Boris accounts for string theory’s extra spatial dimensions. He can hear his mother’s voice as though she were at his ear. “You have identified twenty-four dimensions in your work, but what about the dimensions of love? The dimensions of fatherhood?”
These questions are born of her letters. His photographic memory preserves every character of her looping script. “Get home,” she wrote in the letters he received in the arctic prison. “Help me find Alexei. If I cannot appeal to your sense of decency, perhaps then your curiosity.”
These words create a knot in his throat he cannot swallow away.
One night the weather is particularly foul, the insides of the windows frosted, the taiga beyond lost in whiteout. Boris is alone, unobserved, and he takes every article in the house and examines it.
The boy’s shoes sit beneath the table, their treads caked with a silvery-white metal. Boris steps across the room to the hearth. In the back corner he’s spotted the faint imprint of a small shoe in the ash. The interior stones of the hearth are layered in char and so he cannot spot the sticky black rubber left on their surfaces, these footsteps tracking up into the darkness.
A knock sounds at the door, but nobody waits for response. A soldier throws it open.
“Emergency!” the man barks. Behind him stands the neighbor, carrying his own son. The boy’s sock is sticky with blood.
“Bandage him, be quick,” the soldier says, giving the neighbor wide berth, his eyes skipping between the boy’s bloody leg and his own spotless uniform. The neighbor, older than Boris by a decade, turns almost carelessly, swinging his son’s leg, grazing the soldier’s wool overcoat.
“Idiot!” The soldier checks his fabric, huffs, then steps out the door.
Boris turns to the neighbor. “I’m not a medic,” he says. He suspects a compound fracture, bone through skin. “You’ve confused me with my mother.”
The neighbor shakes his head. “I am not mistaken.”
“Yes you —”
“We have no other choice. Please, have faith.”
Faith, for Boris, is a dangerous word. It asks him to leap to conclusions without the bridge of data underfoot.
They lay the boy on the kitchen table. The soldier monitors through the milky rime on the windowpanes.
Anna’s med-kit sits in a closet, below her hanging clothes. Boris sets water to boil and opens the kit, then takes trauma shears and cuts away the boy’s sock. He sees nothing, only a mess of syrupy plasma, and he dabs a cloth into the pot of simmering water, then at the skin, clearing blood, trying to locate the wound. He dabs the entire ankle and finds nothing, then looks at the boy’s father. His name is Mikhail, Boris remembers now.
Mikhail removes his jacket. There is another jacket underneath, and he removes this too and throws both into a corner. From a shirt pocket he pulls a roll of cloth. “Use these bandages,” he says. His eyes are burning. “Disinfect the laceration, set the fracture, wrap the ankle.”
There’s no fracture to set, but they pretend. The boy screams and the soldier squints through the frosted window. Boris pores iodine over the ankle, then unfurls the bandage around the joint.
“Cut here,” Mikhail says.
Boris hesitates, and Mikhail’s hand closes over his own and guides him to cut the bandage. The remnant fabric on the roll bears writing, and Mikhail tosses it into Anna’s med-kit.
“My own boy, so foolish,” Mikhail says. “Fooling around in Nikelgorod … falling from buildings, exposed to radiation.” He meets Boris’ eye. “We must not give up on our foolish children.”
“Your boy will be okay,” Boris says. He is realizing something. This man, his mother — they are complex beings with complex thoughts, operating in dimensions unfamiliar to him.
He pulls Mikhail into an embrace, his lips a centimeter from the man’s ear. “Radiation in Nikelgorod is a story,” he whispers. “It keeps people away. Stories — wonderful things, yes?”
“When shared,” the older man says.
The Siberian winter arrives, and the soldier guarding the cabin stands on the porch, his eyelashes heavy with frost. Boris hands him a cup of birch sap tea. It’s all he can do not to break the porcelain cup on the man’s teeth. The inscriptions on Mikhail’s bandages contain stories — about the soldiers’ habits, about what happened to Anna. He first decided he would kill those responsible — he doesn’t know their names but he has their physical descriptions. They have taken something from him and his first instinct is to balance equations, here with revenge.
Fortunately Mikhail’s bandages also hold a blueprint for moving forward, and this plan demands restraint.
Near midnight when the guards change shifts, Boris stirs a new pot of birch sap tea. He finds Anna’s copy of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and removes, from its final pages, the dried yellow toadflax that she’s pressed there. The yellow flowers, brittle, disintegrate in the bubbling water and sigh the faint odor of wet dog. Boris hopes the birch sap will cover this smell. Sips from the tea will force a lengthy visit to the outhouse that stands frozen behind the cabin.
Contrary to popular belief, Boris has always paid attention, and his memory forgets nothing. So he knows all of Anna’s herbal recipes and their pharmacological properties. He merely believed, once, these things were unimportant.
At midnight a new soldier knocks at the door. A blizzard has overtaken the night, the winter dust infesting the cup of tea that passes between the men.
Thirty minutes later, Boris watches the soldier run to the latrine.
They’ve taken Boris’ goggles, his jacket, his boots. But he remembers his great-grandfather’s stories about the Samoyed peoples in the far north, with slitted eyewear carved from driftwood that filtered the harshness of weather. Boris has cut a like slit in his belt, and fashions the leather around his head. From behind the wood stove he pulls out snowshoes fashioned from wool socks and floorboards. From a closet, Mikhail’s second coat. From Anna’s keepsake box, lastly, he removes his great-grandfather’s steel Adrianov compass.
Boris opens the door to westerly purge winds, laden with ice chips, hazing the visible world from reckoning. He strikes out north in blowing weather that fills his footprints.
He feels what his pradedushka must’ve felt. Dizzied, no horizon, blundering through roiling clouds of pixelated white. He is proud — to walk in the footsteps of his people, to go beyond. His chest fills with this ancestral spirit and, barring an Act of God, he’ll find the boy. He checks the Adrianov compass every forty steps to confirm his bearings.
At the faceless, oblong building in Nikelgorod, he finds Mikhail and his boy at the entrance. “My son believes your son came here,” Mikhail said.
Boris punches numbers into a keypad and tumblers unclick. The door, thick like a bank vault, swings inward without sound.
Before they enter, Boris asks the boy, “How would my son get through here?”
Mikhail’s son motions for the men to follow. He circles the building and points to the fissure that travels up into the whiteout. “He would’ve followed this.”
Boris barely fits his palm into the crack. “Impossible,” he says.
Mikhail lays a hand on Boris’ shoulders and feels a slackness in Anna’s son. He is surprised. The physicist is an imposing figure — there’s always been a rigidity to his posture, in his very being — and Mikhail is encouraged to find plasticity in the man. He wants to do right by Anna, by her family. Mikhail is a mechanic who keeps the military’s all-terrain vehicles in repair, with their monstrous tires and snow tracks. He believes he and Anna were the same, both grips in the play of life, moving scenery when others darkened the stage.
“Tonight,” he tells Boris, “we triumph over impossibility.” He prays for this. There is a cosmic debt he must pay, for he watched the soldiers drag Anna to her death from the dark maw of his kitchen and did nothing. His son, too, is in arrears. The boy never told what he knew about Alexei’s disappearance — until the crack of midnight gunshots broke across the plateau.
Boris leads them down into building’s gut and, at the bottom of a ladder, they find a concrete hall cast in submarine-red light. They grip the ladder, necessarily so, it seems. Mikhail feels as though if he let go, he’d fall across the room.
“This isn’t right,” he says.
He shines his flashlight across the floor. The palladium coating offers a soft luster, but Mikhail trains the beam along its surface and into the tunnel.
Alexei is suspended ten meters in, motionless, withdrawn into a fetal posture. His own flashlight points back, a deep-red circle. Beyond that, a black sphere of nothing hangs in the deadened space, silently orbited by an accretion disk, the swirling light warped as though twisted through a carnival mirror.
“My god,” Mikhail’s son says. The boy releases the ladder and begins sliding across the floor, palladium gathering in ribbons along the outsoles of his boots.
Boris grabs him.
“It’s pulling me,” the boy says.
“No,” Boris says, “you’re falling.”
Mikhail has locked an arm around the ladder. “Falling? Into what?” He’s dizzy, and cannot reconcile how one falls sideways.
“It is …” Boris shakes his head. He points light into the tunnel at various angles, tries to illuminate its center, but this isn’t possible. Everything is swallowed. “A black hole.”
Mikhail knows these are formed by dying stars in deep space. He’s a maintenance man, not a cretin. “Impossible.”
“For many reasons.”
“Black holes are big. They cannot fit in tunnels.”
“Comrade, black holes can be any size, if you press enough mass into a small enough area. Could we squeeze the earth into the skin of a gooseberry, we’d have such a thing.”
Mikhail looks into the abyss, at the curled form of Alexei. He pulls his own boy close. “Why is he stuck there?”
Boris’ voice is soft. “He’s not stuck. He’s moving fast, from his own perspective. Within milliseconds he’ll be crushed, in his frame of reference.”
“But he’s right there.” Mikhail points.
Boris sinks to the floor, scraping at the palladium with a thumbnail. “It’s the black hole’s gravity, its effect on time.” Light, he explains, struggles to escape such a thing and yet light must always travel at lightspeed, regardless of circumstance. “This is Einstein’s great contribution,” Boris says. “If light must always travel at the same speed, and gravity retards its progress, then time must slow down. The seconds dilate so that light can catch up.”
Mikhail finds the other man’s voice distant, defaulting to the jargon of his trade. Perhaps comforted by it. “This is difficult for me,” Mikhail says.
“You will see. Even with us, only seconds are passing, but for the world outside —” Boris motions up the ladder “— it is days, maybe weeks. Could they see us, we would look frozen too.”
The maintenance man puts his hand on the physicist’s neck and looks into his face.
“We will problem-solve, our people are good at this. Explain to me. Alexei is right there, just meters away.”
The big man’s eyes have teared. “There is more to the story, look at the red-shifting.” He nods at the orb of Alexei’s flashlight, a deep red and nearly invisible. “His light is just reaching our eyes, just as starlight from distant galaxies shows us what once was. We are looking into the past.”
“If time has slowed,” Mikhail says, “perhaps we can reverse it.”
“Enough,” Boris says. His jaw has tightened, his shoulders too. He wipes his eyes. “The boy is lost.” His logical brain patterns have re-emerged. “Let us focus on what’s here — the Solar System’s only black hole.”
Mikhail sees, reflected in the man’s eyes, the red auroras that dance on the walls.
“We can be heroes,” Boris says. “Each of us.”
“But the boy.”
Boris inhales. “We must judge objectively. Rescue is impossible.”
It is Mikhail’s turn to steel up. He feels Anna’s breath gather in his lungs and his voice comes low but clear. “Let us have faith.”
“But nothing.” Mikhail can see the line of saltwater that rims Boris’ eyes. He can see that Anna’s son is breaking down, succumbing to the physical laws of humanity, finding within himself emotions other than anger. “We will get back your boy.”
It is summertime when they emerge from the building. Under weak cover of the season’s two-hour nightfall, they approach the camp.
They find it deserted, bare as Nikelgorod.
Three days later, they have backed Mikhail’s tow truck to the entrance to the oblong building and, with the help of his son, knotted the tow cable to a makeshift harness fashioned from steel chains. Boris yokes himself into these riggings.
Alexei tethers himself to the ladder with a retraced figure-eight knot, snaking the rope through his nylon mountaineering harness.
The tunnel’s air is heavy and pressing; Alexei feels as though he’s underwater at depth. The harness cuts into his legs and he packs himself into a ball. But he created the disorder, he thinks, and his mind drifts to the report of the pistol, dampened by the wall of spruce logs shielding that terrible thing from view. At that moment and for the first time, he felt as though he were nothing more than an assemblage of flesh and bone. A bloodless creature. But for his father, Alexei is alone in the world, completely and utterly, and to retrieve the man from the gulag, to restore the world he once knew, he must retrieve the papers. In this way can reverse the world’s entropy.
The pages drift deeper as Alexei draws closer. No longer frozen, they continue to curl. The closest paper floats just a half-meter away.
This is when the rope snaps.
He looks up, toward the ladder, and swears he can see his father and the neighbors, just a blur of them, up and down the ladder, in and out of the cave, but over the course of a microsecond. There’s little time to process because Alexei’s in freefall, being crushed, unable to swell his chest to inflate his lungs.
But options appear.
There are frames before him, layers of time stacked, and he can see himself, copies of himself, lined up overhead. A proverbial flipbook of his life, and what Alexei finds is that he needn’t fall further. He can move in the opposite direction, second-by-second in reverse, traveling back through time, and it starts by uncurling himself and reversing the choreography of his fall. With a backward dance through the air, the boy inches his way back towards the ladder, back towards home, rewinding his life. The rope unsnaps, his decision to leave the ladder undone.
Outside, he pauses in his reverse-scale down the oblong building. It’s all there, the taiga’s piney smells, the gritty surface of the crack against the back of his fist. He cannot do anything new but must backtrack through the passageway he’s already etched through spacetime. Inhaling carbon dioxide, exhaling oxygen, but he’s alive, somehow. Alexei surveys the top of the arboreal forest and savors the moment. He’ll be able to see everything again.
When his gaze returns to his hands he finds a horsefly crawling backwards on his arm, something he hadn’t noticed on the climb up, and he twitches his forearm.
The horsefly doesn’t respond.
He understands then. His father talked about time as a fourth dimension, the trunk of a tree through which all matter moved, all past moments permanently inscribed in its rings. He flexes harder against the encasement of his life, beating notes against its paralyzing membrane.
It’s not enough to merely visit the past, he realizes then. He wants to say all the things he wishes he’d said, do all the things he wishes he’d done.
Alexei knows that every action has an equal and opposite reaction and so he wonders, if beating against the wall of the fourth dimension won’t affect his past moments, then what is he disturbing? If he can’t affect the moments that make up here and now, then when?
Boris sinks toward the black hole. He shines a flashlight toward the ladder where Mikhail keeps watch; when clicked off, his neighbor will raise him back. The older man will be significantly older when Boris returns, the micro black hole placing them on different worldlines with different experiences of time. His mind returns to the patient with the ruined face, and Boris theorizes that the micro black hole, born of the supercollider, sped in its infancy through the tunnel and passed within inches of the victim’s head, its core singularity fundamentally changing the fabric of spacetime for long enough to place each side of his face on two similarly different worldlines. It is this issue, he thinks, that truly merits his attention.
The big man mutters to himself. The idiocy of this plan, the romantic beliefs of modern-day peasants. How, he wonders, was he swept up in their mythology? But he swallows this down. He knows. He knows that without the reckless pursuits of his pradedushka, he wouldn’t have known how to navigate the blizzard. Without the lessons of his mother, he could not have imprisoned the soldier in the outhouse. Without Mikhail’s cunning he would not have learned the fate of his mother or the whereabouts of his son. He understands, now, the beauty of other people, their existence, the strength in their numbers. He wonders if this is love.
Spacetime squeezes Boris as he descends, funneling him toward the singularity. It has obsessed him, this micro black hole. By his calculations, it is a billion tons of mass compressed into the space of an amoeba. The weight of 107 billion people, the mass of each and every ancestor to all those persons currently alive.
He’s made it about halfway to the boy and, as he predicted, Alexei falls deeper, in slow motion as his eyes shut and his mouth opens to scream.
Boris knew this would happen — that pursuing the boy would be a chase without closure, that moving nearer to Alexei would only speed up the moving picture of the boy’s inevitable death. Einstein’s models predicted such a thing, based on tested calculations, and Boris for once cannot stomach being right. What he didn’t anticipate was the accelerated effects of time dilation on himself. He knew the world he’s left behind would move in fast-forward, but his own calculations are flawed. As Boris sinks toward the dark singularity, Mikhail appears and disappears up and down the ladder, under the crimson glow of the lights, more quickly than anticipated. Ten times, twenty times, a hundred times, Mikhail is blipping in and out of sight, aging, then an old man, then gone.
Boris clicks off the flashlight.
He’s alone, doomed, a speck in the universe. His son is gone, Anna is gone, Mikhail is gone, and no longer can he witness their impossible feats nor celebrate them as he should have done. He thinks of Mikhail’s trickery of the army, his son’s fifty-foot ascent along little more than a fault line. All the science and medals in the world will not replace them. He tells himself these feelings are simply in his genetic hardwiring, in the hardwiring of all humans — social creatures engineered to feel this way for the sake of their collective survival, no different than pack animals. But he will surrender, there is no other way. In searching for memories of Anna, of his son as a baby, Boris finds he can’t even remember their faces. Boris turns to look at his son, to reanimate the flashlight and shine its light on his face.
But the chains pull him back.
The neighbor’s son greets him by the ladder. His hair is salted, his skin leathered. He’s older now than Boris.
“What year is it?” Boris says.
The man tells him.
“You minded the truck so many decades?”
“I held two lives in my hand,” he says. “How could I not?”
There is little left of the camp. The Quonset huts have rusted through, the roads cracked and weedgrown. There is only the hunting cabin, which Mikhail’s son has maintained. Boris removes his two Copley Medals from their encasement in a glass frame and hands one to Mikhail’s son and buries the other in the spot shown to him where Mikhail is buried. It’s all he has to give. The two men embrace and Boris realizes he has not hugged anyone as an adult, not his mother, not his son. His body tenses, the weight of the other man against him, the smell of pine in his coat. He stays there in that moment.
Before the sun disappears he finds a familiar black poplar and walks forty paces north and unburies a box that contains money and his identification. The next day, in Novosibirsk, he waits for the train. The Trans-Siberian Railway has changed little, though a ticket to Moscow is quadruple what he remembers. In the capital he will inform the Kremlin of his discovery. He has nothing left now but his life’s work and it will have to be enough.
On the steps of the Ministry of Defense along the Moskva River, police in mirrored visors intercept him. They ask for identification, they listen to him, they laugh at his story — a story only a homeless man could tell — then arrest him and throw him into the back of a utility vehicle. Boris finds himself among a half-dozen vagabonds, their shoulders and knees touching. They are driven to the outskirts of the city and into a forest, where the police tear them from the vehicle and push them to the earth. Boris finds himself alongside a buckled asphalt drive, disrupted by the roots of old-growth trees. Once the police van leaves, the other men trudge after it, presumably toward a highway, toward civilization. But for Boris, something is familiar about this road. He follows it in the opposite direction.
He comes upon a decayed estate and realizes he’s been here before. It was here he had the greatest moment of his life, where the ruling party plucked him from the ranks of basement physicists and raised him up. By the hearth of a great room he stood with men of power in a circle, upholstered in cashmere suits and gold. Servants distributed Cuban cigars and copper mugs heavy with vodka. Boris knew, then, he was indispensable. So he’d thought. Because he had always been indispensable, he sees this now, but he never valued the smaller circle of souls who needed him.
He walks through the ruins of the estate. The autumnal breeze whines through the great room and the hearth is choked with dirt and the skulls of rodents, a forsaken den, a forsaken man walking through an apocalypse. It’s as if the world Boris knew never existed, as if he never existed, and he recalls the insult of the tiny lieutenant who threatened such a thing, and the words of the young man disfigured by the supercollider who foresaw this very result. Boris stumbles through broken doors to the back of the estate, the lawn interrupted with yellow leaves. His feet guide him forward — he’s taken these same steps before, though he can’t remember where they lead.
Beyond the hedges he finds himself surrounded by birch trees and then a white oak, two hundred years old. Sunlight dapples the forest floor, a last kiss of warmth, and he sits among leaves of embered colors and lays there, his head against the earth.
He remembers, and the encasement around his heart cracks.
With closed eyes he can see the memory, the two of them at this very spot, both prone and side-by-side, hands clasped, trading code through the smallest pulses, a practice born of Anna.
Boris feels outside himself, heady and light, in third person, and he feels these palpitations again in the center of his hand.
Except this is not memory.
This is something new. Boris doesn’t know how he knows this, but he knows it is Alexei. He can feel his son near — clouds of his gravitons interacting with his own through the fabric of spacetime, across dimensional membranes, beating letters on the surface of his palm.
“It is me, Alexei.”
The message pulses, over and over, proof of dimensions beyond the twenty-four Boris has identified, a dimension of love that tethers distant moments in the fourth dimension. The small dark star in the underground of Siberia has amplified this interstitial gossamer, clarifying messages over an impossible difference. He thinks of megaphones in a crowd, fiber-optic braidings across the oceans’ floors, of all those abysses throughout the history of the world where bridges have since arisen.
Boris’ eyes well with saltwater. He knows so little, he can admit this now.
“I left you there,” Boris squeezes back to his son. “I was too late.”
Too late to be any good to him, too late to catch him in his fall, too late to realize that he’d viewed the world through a tiny keyhole and never once considered all that others had to teach him and all there was to really know.
“I failed,” he signals, embracing that tiny hand in his, unseen but sentient.
“We are here now,” the boy says.