Going Home – Martin Westlake

Going Home – Martin Westlake

March 2021

The eerie howl of the Ekranoplan’s jet engines echoed around the city’s early morning streets. Dimitriy’s stomach lurched involuntarily. A ground effect craft, they called it, designed to be a troop carrier, now recycled as a passenger craft, plying the route between Derbent and Astrakhan. The relic, all stubby wings and a massive, V-shaped tail, howled there and back three times a day. He loathed it, but it was the only way he could get to the laboratory in Astra.

Every Monday morning for over a year, Dimitriy had suffered the same torment of emotions. Anastasia said nothing anymore as they kissed. “Think of the children,” she had said in the old days, before she’d realised entreaties were useless. “They need their father.” He missed the whole school week. Sasha, the younger, still greeted him with affection on Saturday mornings, but Andrei, now in his teens, had become increasingly sullen. Dimitriy wanted to tell him how sorry he felt, but the truth was that he didn’t. Guilty, yes; sad, yes, in a bittersweet sort of way; but not sorry.

Then there was the Ekranoplan. Anastasia had been unable to leave Derbent when Dimitriy had taken on the Astrakhan job and he had accepted that. The car trip took ten hours in the summer and in the winter the roads were frequently impassable. No, the only viable means of getting there was the Ekranoplan. He would never get used to it, though. Whenever there was the slightest hint of a breeze, his heart dropped, for the monstrous thing could only take off facing into the wind, and that meant riding the incoming waves, like a ship. Once it was up in the air the ride was smooth, but how he hated the take off! The only thing that made the mixture of sadness, guilt and fear worthwhile every Monday morning was a euphoric sense of anticipation; the knowledge that he would soon once again be where he most desired to be.

His path through the sleepy streets to the Ekranoport took him past his old workplace, the Caspian Gates Secondary School, reminding him of the day it had all begun. He’d stayed behind to help a group of fifteen-year-olds, then hurried home. A tall, thin, grey-suited, sallow-faced man was waiting for him outside the main entrance to their block of flats. A cigarette bobbed on his lower lip as he spoke. He seemed oblivious to the February cold, though both men’s breath clouded about them.

“Semenov?” he said.

Dimitriy nodded.

“Could we talk?” said the man, nodding towards a bar.

There was something about him — not furtive, but a sense of secrecy all the same. The man bought two vodkas and they sat at a scuffed table.

“To your health,” he said, raising his glass. He stubbed out his cigarette in an old dented aluminium ashtray and lit another. “Ivanov,” he said. “Rear Admiral Anatoly Ivanov, Caspian Flotilla, Astrakhan.”

“There’s been a mistake,” said Dimitriy.

Ivanov shook his head. He gestured to a passing waiter and ordered two more vodkas.

“I shouldn’t stay,” said Dimitriy.

“Tell me, Dimitriy Semenov,” Ivanov said; “how much do you earn?”

“Enough,” said Dimitriy.

“Why are you a teacher?” Ivanov leaned forward over the table. “You are a brilliant physicist with a top doctoral thesis in Biology and Materials Sciences from Moscow State University and yet you hide yourself away at the Caspian Gates Secondary School teaching low-grade mathematics to misfits.”

“My wife…,” Dimitriy began.

“We know all about your wife,” Ivanov said.

“It’s time I left,” Dimitriy said.

“Sit down,” said the Admiral, gesturing with his half-empty vodka glass. “What I mean is that we know she has all her family here. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

Dimitriy said nothing.

Ivanov leaned over the table again. “The motherland calls, comrade.”

Motherland! Comrade! Dimitriy knew immediately that the job had to be some sort of secret military work.

“It’s not what you think, Semenov,” the Admiral continued. “If I told you now, you wouldn’t believe me.”

Dimitriy inadvertently looked into his empty glass. Ivanov flagged the waiter down and ordered two more vodkas.

“No!” said Dimitriy.

“For the road.”

The Admiral toyed with his cigarette lighter, an old-fashioned metal model with a flip top and a thick wick. Then he looked up at Dimitry. “Interested?” he asked. “We’ll pay you four times what you are getting at that dump of a school.”

“The catch?” said Dimitriy.

Ivanov drank off the remainder of his vodka and placed the glass down gently on the tabletop.

“You’d have to come to Astra, Monday to Friday. We’d cover your board and lodging.”

“How would I…?”

As if to anticipate his question, the unmistakable howl of the evening return Ekranoplan came to them through the thin glass window.

Ivanov reached into his pocket, drew out an envelope and placed it on the table.

“Your ticket’s in there. This coming Monday. The seven-thirty departure. When you get to Astra, make your way to the Moskva Hotel. A room has been booked in your name. I’ll join you there for lunch. It’s half-term. The school won’t miss you.”

Back home, after the children had gone to bed, sitting in the low light at the melamine kitchen table, he and Anastasia had discussed the offer in earnest whispers. He had doubts, but she was logical and reassuring. The money was important. With the kids growing, it would be good if they could rent somewhere larger. If he didn’t like the work, whatever it was, he could always return to his teaching. What did they have to lose?

Dimitriy had been travelling to Astra for just over two months when Anastasia first put the question to him. He had known it must come. She had nodded and accepted so mildly when he’d first explained that he couldn’t talk about his work, but who could blame her, now that the yearning had started? She chose a Saturday evening. The children were in bed. The classical music radio channel was on, and she’d put a cloth and a candle on the dinner table. They talked about Sasha and Andrei, and then about her family. At the end of the meal, Anastasia took Dimitriy’s hands across the table. Here it comes, he thought. But she simply looked into his eyes and asked if he felt all right. She’d told him he seemed preoccupied, as if his mind were elsewhere.

He’d laughed. “I’m fine,” he’d said.

How could he tell her? Even if he had told her, she wouldn’t have believed him.

The second time, Anastasia had been more direct. Dimitriy had just returned.

“Did you miss us?” she asked.

“Of course!”

“Really?”

She went back to the kitchen. There was no cloth and no candle on the table. Over the meal, her replies were monosyllabic. Afterwards, he went to help her with the washing up, but she insisted on doing it alone. He sat on the sofa and waited until she emerged, drying her hands on a tea towel.

“Dima,” she said, “are you sure you’re not having a relationship of some sort in Astra?”

Astrakhan was on a broad river, not a sea. Its waterways gave the impression the city was floating. Unlike Derbent, there were no hills behind, and no citadel looming over the city. Rather, the great Trinity Cathedral soared upwards, with its gold-capped green domes. Astrakhan was flat and expansive. Being there gave Dimitry a sense of a new beginning. He hadn’t realised, until he first set foot in the place, how oppressed he’d felt back home. That first Monday, still wobbly from the flight, he’d walked easily to the Moskva Hotel, a great block of fake chrome and smoked glass. A room had been booked, as Ivanov had promised. The clerk told him a table had been reserved in the restaurant for twelve o’clock. Dimitriy went to his room, unpacked the few belongings he had brought, then turned on the television and watched a programme without really following it. What was Ivanov going to offer him, he wondered?

The Admiral was sitting at their table when Dimitriy came down, a vodka in front of him and a cigarette on his lower lip. He nodded curtly.

“Welcome to Astra,” he said. “A drink?”

“Thank you,” said Dimitriy, “but I don’t drink at lunchtime.”

Ivanov beckoned a waiter over.

“Today, you’ll make an exception.”

When the waiter had brought their drinks, Ivanov raised his glass. He had ordered caviar, brought by another waiter on a bed of ice. “Eat,” he insisted gruffly.

“Thank you,” said Dimitriy.

“Thank Mother Russia,” said Ivanov, stubbing out his cigarette.

They started to eat, digging out the glutinous eggs with small mother-of-pearl teaspoons.

“What do you know about Tunguska?” the Admiral asked.

“Siberia? The beginning of the last century?”

Ivanov nodded. “30 June 1908,” he said.

“I remember the pictures,” said Dimitriy. “All those felled trees. A meteor, right?”

“Da, da,” said Ivanov. “That’s what people think.”

“Think? What was it, then?”

“We don’t know.” He lit another cigarette. “I’ve brought a file for you to read, but before that, I want you to sign this.”

Ivanov tugged an envelope from his jacket pocket and drew out a folded sheet of paper. “Official Secrets Act,” said the Admiral, unfolding the sheet. “I will only tell you more if you sign. To be clear, if you sign the declaration and do not respect it, you could be tried and imprisoned. Not even your wife. Got it?”

Dimitriy read the declaration, his hand trembling. He would have liked to talk to Anastasia. Suddenly, she seemed very far away. He read it again.

“I need to think about it,” he said. “I need to talk to my wife.”

Ivanov shook his head grimly. “It’s now or never,” he said.

Dimitriy sighed and thought about the money. With such a salary they could easily rent a three-bedroom apartment. He was sure Anastasia would have agreed. She would surely have wanted to know what work the Admiral was offering. He signed and dated the paper and handed it back.

“Good,” said Ivanov, putting it back in his pocket. He gestured to a waiter to clear their table and ordered two more vodkas.

“The Tunguska region wasn’t as sparsely populated as people think,” said the Admiral. “Quite a few people heard and saw something.” He lit a cigarette. “It started with noises from the sky.”

“Noises?”

“Da. You’ll read the transcripts. Some of the witnesses said it was like trumpets.”

“Heavenly trumpets?” said Dimitriy ironically.

Ivanov sneered.

“The noises went on for about a week,” he continued.

“Then?” asked Dimitriy.

“There was some sort of conflict, in the sky,” said Ivanov. “Some sort of celestial conflict.”

“‘Celestial’? You seem to be choosing your words with care, Admiral.”

Ivanov stubbed out his cigarette.

“You’ll read the file and see for yourself. As good scientists, we try always to keep open minds.”

“The word ‘conflict’,” said Dimitriy, “suggests that more than one body or object might have been involved, right? And the word ‘celestial’ suggests this was high up?”

“There are drawings in the file,” the Admiral said, “based on contemporary eyewitness accounts. The locals, the Evenki, were convinced they’d seen their god, Ogdy, in a fight.”

“Fascinating,” said Dimitriy, “but I am not sure why this should bring me to the Volga Basin and the Official Secrets Act.”

Ivanov lit another cigarette.

“Leonid Kulik,” he said. “A mineralogist. He came to Tunguska several times, starting in 1921. That was already thirteen years after the event. There was no crater — that puzzled him. How could there have been a meteorite impact if there were no crater, and if there were no fragments? He realised the fragments might have blasted out craters that had then got filled in. So, he kept digging holes to try and find filled-in craters with remains of one sort or another at the bottom — something, anything. No joy. Until 1938. His last expedition. One of his men found something, deep down, in a pit. Whatever it was, it blinded the man. He complained of an intense, searing light, then he lost his sight. Kulik’s workers mutinied. For them it was proof they were messing with Ogdy. They dragged the man out and refused to get into the pit. Kulik had to shovel most of the earth back in himself. He measured the location as accurately as he could, and then returned to the Mineralogical Museum in Leningrad. He planned to return with his own men, but the Germans invaded in 1941 and he joined the fighting. The next year he died of typhus in a POW camp.”

Ivanov drank some vodka.

“Whatever they found,” he continued, “remained lost in the archives. For a long time, as you know, the motherland had more important things to think about than primitive superstitions. But in 2007 a group of archivists started going through Kulik’s papers. When they got to the file about the 1938 incident, the team had the good idea of involving us.”

“Us?” said Dimitriy.

“The security services,” Ivanov said. “If another expedition to Tunguska were to be launched, they knew they’d need state resources. They dressed it up as being about some potentially weaponizable force. They weren’t entirely wrong. Kulik’s coordinates were accurate. They used a remote-controlled digger. Once they’d reached the depth Kulik recorded, they lowered animals down to the bottom. All came back blind. So, they were at the right place. A remote camera relayed images of glittering metallic fragments. They sent down instruments, but the instruments measured nothing. A volunteer discovered that reflections of the fragments could be observed in a mirror. Using remote cameras and mirrors, the fragments were dug out of the pit bottom. It was all hit-and-miss. Somebody thought of lead, being a heavy metal, so they fashioned a lead-lined steel box and used a remote-controlled robotic arm to shepherd the fragments towards the box and seal the lid.”

“Shepherd?”

“You’ll learn about that,” Ivanov said; “if you take the job.” He stubbed out his cigarette, drank off his vodka, and continued. “The fragments were then brought to a …” (he coughed) “… facility here in Astrakhan. The box was opened and the fragments were housed in a specially-constructed room. That, Dimitriy Semenov, is where you come in. We want to analyse the fragments. Test their qualities.” He leaned over the table as if to share a confidence. “And perhaps,” he said, “replicate them.”

Dimitriy felt the thrill of scientific discovery and the repulsion of a lifelong pacifist. But curiosity gripped him strongest. If only he could tell Anastasia! He was sure she would have been just as fascinated.

The Admiral got to his feet.

“I will be waiting outside tomorrow morning at seven,” he said, “and will take you to the facility.”

Dimitriy watched as Ivanov threaded his way steadily through the tables. That word, comrade, again. When he had gone, Dimitriy picked up the file and hurried to his room.

The Admiral was waiting for him on the hotel’s esplanade in a sleek black chauffeur-driven limousine. He was in his uniform, his gold brocaded cap on the seat beside him.

“Is this a Zil?” Dimitriy asked, getting into the tobacco-fugged interior.

“The 4104,” said the Admiral. “The Navy is determined to keep them going until they fall to pieces.”

He lit a cigarette. “You read the file?” he asked.

“Of course. Do you want me to believe that the Evenki saw angels?”

You saw the drawings,” said Ivanov. “I don’t want you to believe anything.”

“Yes,” said Dimitriy, “I saw the drawings.”

The Admiral gazed through the smoked glass window.

“Do you believe in angels, Dimitriy Semenov?”

“No,” said Dimitriy, “I don’t. But what else can be made of those drawings? And those sounds; if not something like trumpets, then what?”

Ivanov shook his head.

“I told you; we are trying to keep open minds. You have to remember in 1908 the Evenki were a primitive, superstitious people. When something they didn’t understand happened, they naturally ascribed it to their god, Ogdy.”

“You don’t think there was a conflict?”

“Imagine if you were a primitive people and something massive exploded overhead,” said Ivanov. “Wouldn’t you extrapolate from what you knew? Battle, noise?”

“And those trumpeting noises before?” asked Dimitriy.

Ivanov chuckled.

You called them ‘heavenly trumpets’, Dimitriy Semenov, but you don’t believe in such things, do you?”

“Of course not, Admiral. But what are the alternative explanations?”

Ivanov tutted. “You are a scientist, aren’t you? Because we don’t know the answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. We just don’t know it yet — perhaps we’ll never know it. What we do know is that we have seven fragments of an unknown powerful material that may have fallen from the sky about the time of the Tunguska event. We can, and must, try to know as much about those fragments as possible, using scientific methods, and not basing our judgements on superstition and hearsay and eye-witness accounts from long ago.”

“Of course,” said Dimitriy, chastened. “It’s those pictures in the file. My imagination ran away with me.”

The Admiral stubbed out his cigarette.

“We have arrived,” he said.

Some five months after Dimitriy started the job, Anastasia stopped making dinner on Friday evenings. The first time, she told him she’d been feeling unwell, and he accepted the explanation unthinkingly. He ate alone in the kitchen. The next Friday, though, the new practice had been rationalised; she said it was too late in the evening to eat a full-blown meal — better that he snacked or had a bowl of soup or a salad. He again accepted the explanation. Then, one Friday, when he came to bed, he found her weeping.

“What’s the matter, Ana?”

She rolled over and he saw that her eyes were puffed up.

“I just wish you’d tell me,” she said. “About her, whoever she is.”

“There is no her,” Dimitriy insisted.

“You can’t hide it from me,” Anastasia said. “I see the way you look as though you have been torn away from someone.”

“There is no other woman, Anastasia.”

“Is it a man? I’d understand.”

“There’s nobody else, I swear!”

“You think I’m stupid? You can’t wait to get back on Monday mornings.”

She rolled away and wept herself to sleep. He stared up at the ceiling. She was right, of course. The weekends back home in Derbent had become a torment.

“Welcome to Astrakhan State Technology University,” said Ivanov, checking his cap’s position in the glass of the chauffeur’s partition.

The Admiral led him through the glass-fronted entrance. Students milled about, seemingly unfazed at the image of a uniformed Admiral threading a path through the crowd.

“Where are we going?”

“The Institute of Oil and Gas.” Ivanov led the way across the leafy campus to a nondescript red brick construction. They went through rotating doors and stopped before a block of lifts. When the lift came, the Admiral pushed the button for –2, but he kept his finger on the button a long time. Ivanov turned to face a small camera in one corner of the roof of the lift and gave a salute.

“Forgive the cloak-and-dagger stuff,” he said. “Until the Union collapsed, the Caspian Flotilla was based in Baku, but a lot of the command structure was kept safely within Russia itself, including here, in Astra. The Americans knew that, of course. This place was just as much of a target, so special underground facilities were built for the command structures. That’s where we are going now.”

By then, the lift should have reached –2 level, but felt as though it were still in motion. After several minutes of slow movement, the lift stopped, and the doors slid open. In front of them stood two armed, uniformed guards. Behind them was a vast, brightly lit space. Ivanov produced papers and explained about Dimitriy. Once the papers had been stamped, the soldiers stood aside and let them pass.

“It’s quite a hike,” said the Admiral.

The vast space was devoid of human activity, but all around them stood massive columns of plastic-wrapped material.

“Thousands of men could live down here for years,” said Ivanov.

On the far side of the bunker, Ivanov led Dimitriy into a complex of smaller spaces. Each entrance was a double-doored air-pressurized port. Finally, they came to a twin set of grey-painted heavy steel doors that had been swung open.

“Here we are,” said the Admiral. “The playroom; the laboratory.”

They were greeted by the head of the scientific team, Fyodor Babikov, a beanpole of a man wearing large tinted spectacles. Ivanov left them together, promising to return at the end of the day. Babikov showed Dimitriy to the changing room. There were sinks, lockers and benches. They scrubbed up together, then dressed in classic surgical gear. Afterwards, Babikov led Dimitriy into a small meeting room. The walls were lined with large drawings showing distinctive geometrical structures. Babikov gestured for him to sit down at a table and sat opposite.

“What has Admiral Ivanov told you?” he asked.

“The basic story,” said Dimitriy. “And I’ve read the file.”

“Did he tell you about their effects?”

“The blindness?”

“Well, there is that,” said Babikov. “But you don’t need to worry. The lab is rigged so that you simply cannot look directly at the fragments. You can only see them indirectly by using the mirrors we’ve installed, or by using the camera. But did Ivanov not talk about anything else?”

“Nothing,” said Dimitriy.

“Mmm… He was probably afraid he’d scare you off.”

“Why would I be scared?”

“They seem to have an addictively euphoric effect on some people.”

“Some?”

“It seems to depend. There’s nothing chemical about it.”

“How do you know this?”

“You’re not the first expert drafted in. In fact, you are the third.”

“The others?”

Babikov shook his head.

“They didn’t last very long. The first was here for just over a year. The second lasted almost two years.”

“Where are they now?”

“Locked away,” said Babikov.

“And you?”

“Nothing,” said Babikov. “But, then, I don’t spend hours in the viewing room.”

“All right,” Dimitriy said. “What else did Ivanov not tell me?”

“There isn’t a whole lot more to know.”

“How long have the fragments been here?”

“Since 2008.”

“And you have honestly learned nothing?”

Babikov grinned.

“Honestly, very little. I’ll tell you everything we know, but it won’t take long.”

Dimitriy leaned back in his chair.

“Tell me,” he said.

“We know they have properties, and powers. The power to blind people, for example.”

“Are we sure of that?”

“You mean?”

“Well,” said Dimitriy, “we’ve only had that one example, of the man down the pit, back in 1938. It could have been a stroke, couldn’t it?”

“You’re forgetting the animals,” Babikov said. “Anyway, there have been quite a few unfortunate episodes since.”

“Here?” asked Dimitriy.

“Yes,” said Babikov. “People who didn’t listen. People who didn’t believe. An accident. A drunk.”

“How many?”

“Enough for us to know that the fragments, if looked at directly, cause blindness in humans, as in animals. Even welding masks didn’t help.”

“You’ve tried reptiles?”

“Oh, yes,” said Babikov. “We’ve tried reptiles and squid and octopus and insects. We’ve tried everything,” he said. “The fragments have the same effect on any sort of eye known to us.”

“Your instruments?”

“Show nothing. Whatever this effect is, it is produced in an undetectable way.”

“What else?” Dimitriy asked.

“Oh, the euphoria business.”

“Can you be sure of that?”

“Scientifically, no. But there must be a strong presumption.”

“Two cases only? You can’t presume anything from that.”

“You are right,” Babikov said, smiling ruefully. “Let me just call it a hunch, then. Two highly intelligent, balanced, reasonable scientists, both following a similar pattern of obsessiveness and increasingly frequent episodes of manic euphoria, culminating in madness and confinement in clinics. I agree with you, Dimitriy Semenov. It could be sheer coincidence, but I think not.”

“All right,” said Dimitriy. “What else?”

“We have found a way to manipulate the fragments,” said Babikov. “Only one metal may touch them — gold. All others melt away as they get near. Once we realised that, we had special gold implements made up that could be attached to the arms of the robots — that is the main way in which you will be working with the fragments, if you need to manipulate them.”

“But it is curious,” said Dimitriy, “gold being so malleable — like the lead in which they were encased.”

“In retrospect, the lead-lined box was a crazy risk,” said Babikov. “Who knows what might have happened if they had melted their way out during the trip?”

“What else?”

Babikov shook his head in sudden exhaustion.

“We know next to nothing, and that is all we know.”

“Now you are talking in riddles.”

Babikov looked at Dimitriy for a few moments, as though brought back from a reverie.

“We cannot record images. Nothing works; film, X-rays, electro-magnetic resonance imaging, transmission electron tomography… Whatever sort of imaging we have tried to use, nothing shows up. They are definitely there; we can see their reflection, but we can’t capture them as images, and that means that we can only study the fragments themselves.”

“What about microscopes?” asked Dimitriy.

“Lenses work,” said Babikov. “But you cannot record what you are seeing.”

“You can’t draw them?”

“No, no,” said Babikov. “They can be drawn, at least — hence all of these…” he waved at the drawings hanging on the walls around them. “Your predecessors’ masterpieces.”

“May I?” Dimitriy asked.

Babikov nodded.

Dimitriy studied the drawings for a while.

“I have an idea,” he said. “But I’ll wait until you’ve finished.”

“Second,” Babikov continued, “they are constantly levitating.”

Dimitriy raised his eyebrows.

“They always hover, never touching any surface.”

“Some sort of energy, then?”

“I think so, but we can detect nothing. We thought of magnetism or light but it’s neither of those.” Babikov smiled and shook his head. “Believe me, Dimitriy Semenov, we have tried and tested many ideas — all fruitlessly — so far.”

“I understand what Ivanov was getting at now.”

“Getting at?” said Babikov.

“We were talking about scientific method. He said we don’t know the answer yet, and perhaps we never will.”

That very first time Dimitriy came back from Astrakhan she’d known already, he realised — or, rather, she’d suspected already. Something had happened. He couldn’t entirely hide it from her. For a start, there was the fait accompli of his decision. He had taken the job without first discussing the offer with her. It was so generous, he said, that he had decided on the spot. That wasn’t the whole truth, of course. She asked about the work. He told her how he’d had to sign a declaration and was now bound by the Official Secrets Act. He saw her recoil.

“It isn’t what you think,” he’d said.

“What is it, then?” she’d asked.

“Something unimaginable,” he’d replied.

She’d wrinkled her nose. “Can’t you give me a clue?”

He’d laughed. “I promise you it’s nothing sinister.”

“I can see you are enthusiastic about it.”

“Come with me to Astrakhan, Ana,” he’d urged. “Bring the children. We can make it work.”

“We discussed all that,” she’d said, shaking her head. “My job, my family, the children’s schools…”

He’d nodded his head slowly. Already, his thoughts were drifting back…

“Dimitriy?”

“I’m sorry, my love,” he said. “I was daydreaming.”

He’d listened patiently as Babikov listed the other properties his team had so far noted. The seven fragments were identical in appearance. Each was a convex oblong, about nine centimetres long by five centimetres wide. From a distance, they seemed to be golden in colour but, the stronger the magnification, the less colour there was. From very close up they seemed neither transparent nor invisible, and completely colourless yet iridescent. The fragments’ default position was to hover vertically in an overlapping formation, like the defensive testudo Roman legionaries had sometimes adopted with their shields. If the fragments were separated, they immediately moved back to the testudo formation. Once again, Dimitriy studied the drawings on the walls.

“So, what’s this big idea of yours?” said Babikov.

Lepidoptera,” said Dimitriy.

“Butterflies?” said Babikov, momentarily confused. “We’d thought of fish scales, but lepidoptera?”

“In appearance they seem similar to fish scales, it is true, but butterfly scales have three-dimensional lattices that cause iridescence, and I just wonder whether some similar effect is not at work with these scales — and they are scales, Babikov, aren’t they? They’re not just fragments.”

Babikov blushed. He took off his glasses and polished the lenses.

“Ivanov doesn’t like such talk. I think he’s right. We shouldn’t leap ahead of ourselves.”

“But are we?” said Dimitriy. “We know — or we assume — that these fragments fell to earth in June 1908, right?”

Babikov shook his head.

“No,” he said. “We know only that they were found in the area where that event occurred.”

“Ivanov gave me to understand there was a probability.”

“So there may be,” said Babikov. “But he doesn’t want us to start wandering off into anthropomorphism and zoomorphism and all the rest of it. We know only what we know. The rest is speculation. If the Admiral hadn’t given you the file, you wouldn’t have started thinking along these lines.”

Dimitriy smiled.

“What lines, Fyodor Babikov? What lines are those?”

Babikov remained silent.

“All right,” said Dimitriy. “I’m sure you have similar thoughts. These so-called fragments are themselves a fragment that fell off something much larger, probably during that ‘event’ of 1908 — off a wing, maybe?”

“Enough!” said Babikov, waving his hands in front of him.

But somehow, Dimitriy knew; the fragments belonged to something.

In February, just over a year after his first visit to Astrakhan, Anastasia put the ultimatum to him. He couldn’t blame her. The Christmas period had been disastrous. Derbent was bitterly cold and the streets were littered with filthy snow and slush where the gritters had passed. The morning, midday, and evening howls of the Ekranoplan as it departed and returned punctuated Derbent’s days just as accurately and regularly as a clock tower bell. He couldn’t wait to get back to Astra. He was constantly irritable with the children and mostly morosely silent with her. He felt dreadful. He needed to be back, to be back with them, in their presence. When the holidays were finally over, and he had been leaving for the Ekranoplan, she had said, “I can’t say I’m sorry to see you go, Dimitriy. You have to get a grip on yourself. Whatever is going on in Astrakhan, you have to put a stop to it. It is ruining you and us.”

That had been January. He had got worse over the following month. Then, one Friday evening in late February, she took the final initiative. Part of him felt she was absolutely right — he felt sorry for her and for Andrei and Sasha. But another part of him just didn’t care. Or, rather, it only cared about them, the angelic fragments (which was what he called them now), and about being with them.

The children were in bed. The classical music radio channel was on. She’d even put a lit candle on the laid dinner table. It was the first time in a long time that she had cooked a meal for his return. At the end of the meal, Anastasia took his hands across the table.

“I am so very sorry, Dima,” she said, “but I can’t take this anymore.”

“What do you mean?” he blustered.

She smiled and put a finger to his lips to hush him.

“You know what I mean. I have spoken to you so many times.”

She was right.

“So, now what?” he asked.

“I’d like you to resign from your job in Astrakhan.”

“But how would we…” he began, blustering again.

She shook her head and smiled wistfully.

“We were fine before. We’ll be fine again.”

“But my work is important.”

“I’m sure it is, Dimitriy but, please, let somebody else do it.”

He burst into tears.

“I can’t,” he wept. “I just can’t.”

“What do you mean? What is it that has such a hold over you? If it is not a mistress, then what is it? Drugs? Is that it? You can tell me. Please.”

“It’s none of those,” he blurted. “But I can’t tell you.”

“Of course you can!”

“I have signed the Official Secrets Act, Ana.”

“I promise I won’t tell anybody else. Who could I tell, anyway?”

Dimitriy shook his head.

“If you won’t tell me,” said Anastasia, her tone hardening, “that’s it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll leave you, Dimitriy.”

His shoulders sagged.

“All right, I’ll tell you,” he said finally.

He told her about his second meeting with Ivanov, and the file about the 1908 Tunguska event and Kulik’s 1938 discovery. He told her about his first entry into the thick-walled, steel-shuttered underground space where the plate glass and mirrors had been set up to enable scientists to gaze indirectly on the fragments. He told her about his indescribable feelings of ecstasy, of euphoria, when he was in the presence of the angelic scales, and how the obsessive feeling had grown until it had now overwhelmed all other considerations. He told her about the steel shutter inside the space housing the scales which Babikov had to operate every day so that Dimitriy could at least no longer gaze upon the angelic fragments, and the way he, Dimitriy, had to be dragged out of the space by orderlies and given sedation before he could be convinced to return to his hotel room in the evenings.

Anastasia sat patiently through his explanation.

“All right,” she said when he had finished. “Suppose everything you’ve told me is true. Where do you think this will all end?”

“I have to finish my work,” he said. “Nobody understands the fragments better than I do. I have a feeling for them, don’t you see? I understand them; their need to return. You see?”

She looked at him with sad eyes. “Of course I do, Dima,” she said, “but you need to take a break. You’re working yourself crazy.”

“I can’t take a break, don’t you understand? I must continue.”

“Nobody would blame you for taking a break,” she said.

“But the work,” Dimitriy insisted. “I must be there.”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “You must stop this nonsense. You can stop it, you know. Let somebody else do it.”

“NO!” he shouted, startling himself as much as Anastasia. “I can’t let someone else come in. I must be with them. You can’t stop me now.” He broke off and wept. “Don’t you see?” he said. “It’s stronger than me.”

Anastasia shook her head once more.

“You must choose,” she said softly.

“No!” Dimitriy sobbed. “Please don’t make me choose.”

“If you go back to Astrakhan on Monday, then we will move out.”

“But the children need their father!” Dimitriy blurted.

“Don’t be a fool,” Anastasia snapped. “The children haven’t had a father for over a year now.”

He nodded and hung his head. “All right,’ he said. “Where will you go? Your parents?”

She nodded.

Good, thought Dimitriy, with a sense of wonderment at his own callousness. Now I can go back to the fragments.

Anastasia didn’t come to the doorstep with him. He’d kissed her on the head as she lay in bed. She didn’t move, though he sensed she was awake.

“Goodbye, Ana,” he said. “I still love you, you know. And I’m sorry. I just have to be there.”

He closed the door and walked through the slushy remains of the snow to the Ekranoport. He was petrified of the take-off, as usual, but his heart had already filled with joyful anticipation. As the Caspian Queen approached Astra, the sea became agitated and the sky darkened. A strong wind blew up and Dimitriy could feel that the pilot was struggling with the controls. He was relieved when the craft slowed down and started its long taxi up the relative calm of the Reka Bakhtemir channel. Ivanov was waiting for him on the quayside.

“Something’s going on,” he said. “We’ve been hearing noises in the sky.”

“Heavenly trumpets?” said Dimitriy.

“Noises in the sky,” Ivanov repeated. “But, yes, not unlike the descriptions the Evenki gave in 1908.”

“Could it be?” asked Dimitriy.

“Be what?” said Ivanov, drawing on his cigarette. The sky flashed. A long roll of thunder sounded. “And we’ve been having strange weather. Look at those clouds.”

Dimitry looked up at the dark, corrugated formation hanging heavy and low over the city. Thunder reverberated above and around them.

“And the fragments,” Ivanov continued, “have started to oscillate.”

“Oscillate?”

“All right,” said the Admiral, flicking away his cigarette and blowing out smoke. “They seem to have become agitated.”

“I can’t wait to see them.”

Ivanov gave him a sour stare then lit another cigarette and leaned against the Zil.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Dimitriy Semenov. They are no longer stable.”

“What do you mean? I’ve got to see them. You know that.”

“Pull yourself together,” said the Admiral.

“It’s just that I’ve got to see them. Surely you have understood that by now?”

The sky flashed and flickered. Ivanov looked up and waited for the roll of thunder.

“This is not normal,” he said. “Something is going on.”

“There’s a connection?”

“I don’t know, but I have a sense there might be. It’s almost as though the scales are trying to escape.”

“Ah! Escape?”

“Babikov says they have already melted through the gold lining on the roof of the cell.”

“No!” said Dimitriy. “Then we must hurry. They are going back. I knew it!”

“Back?” Ivanov drew deeply on his cigarette. “Take my advice,” he said. “Return to Derbent. The Ekranoplan will be leaving very soon. Go back to your wife and children. Maybe it’s nothing. We’ll see. Come again tomorrow.”

“There’s no point,” said Dimitriy. “They’ve left me.”

“Because of this?” Ivanov asked. “Because of your…”

“Yes,” said Dimitriy.

Ivanov nodded slowly and drew again on his cigarette. They heard the distinctive whine as the Caspian Queen’s jet engines started up.

“Go!” he urged.

“I can’t!” Dimitriy sobbed. “I must see them again.”

They leaned on a railing and watched as the gangplanks were drawn away and the aft and forward doors closed. The sky flashed vividly. A dockworker cast off the mooring ropes. When they had been entirely wound back on board, the jet engines roared, and the Caspian Queen sailed slowly out into the Volga. They heard the familiar howl as the captain increased the power and taxied the strange vessel down towards the sea channel.

Ivanov flicked away his cigarette, then opened the door of the Zil.

“We’d better hurry,” he said.

“Ana,” called her mother. “Come quickly.”

Anastasia pulled the plug in the kitchen sink, wiped her hands on her apron and joined her parents in the living room. They were watching a Russian television channel and the news bulletin had just started. Sasha was playing on the floor. The newsreader was halfway through the headlines. A train had crashed just outside Vladivostok. The President had visited a new LPG facility at the port of Murmansk…

“What is it, mama?”

“Ssshhh,” said her mother, “you’ll see in a moment.”

The newsreader finished the headlines. Anastasia’s mother turned the volume up.

“And now we go back to our main news item this evening. Reports are coming in of a massive explosion on the northern outskirts of the city of Astrakhan, at the premises of the State Technology University. The explosion is said to have occurred in an underground research facility situated beneath the University’s parkland.

“As can be seen from these helicopter images, several buildings have collapsed and the police and the fire services are searching the rubble. Among those missing are the director of the Caspian Flotilla’s scientific outreach programme, Rear Admiral Anatoly Ivanov, and the head of the Astrakhan State Technology University’s Oil and Gas Institute research programme, Fyodor Babikov. An acclaimed Moscow State University materials scientist, Dimitriy Semenov, who joined the research team from Derbent, is also missing.”

Pictures of the three men flashed up on the screen for a few moments.

“That’s Daddy,” said Sasha.

Anastasia nodded tearfully.

“Yes, darling,” she said.

“Babikov!” Dimitriy cried. He staggered out into the remains of the room where he had first met the scientist. He could hear flames flickering. The air was heavy with smoke. A long, low groan sounded out. “Babikov!” he said, “Is that you?” Dimitry staggered over to where he thought Babikov’s office had once been. He heard the groan again. “Babikov?”

“Dimitriy Semenov,” whispered the scientist. “What has happened to your eyes, man?”

Dimitriy smiled, the charred skin wrinkling where his eyes had once been.

“The fragments have gone back to their rightful place,” he said. “I’m going home now.”

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