Episode 16


“Hey, Liz,” a special agent asked from a nearby desk, “what's Russian for beer belly?”

Bpiukhop,” Liz Rezhnitsky said, not looking up from her paperwork. “Why do you want to know?

“No reason, really. I saw a picture last night of one of those big Russian weightlifters. He had a massive 'Bff-you-hop' or however you say it.”

Liz turned to her co-worker. “Bpiukhop,” she said again, slowly. “You thinking with a little work, you might match him?”

“If I lift enough doughnuts.” The agent laughed and leaned back in his chair. The squad room was quiet and nearly vacant. “How hard was it to pick up Russian at school, anyway? I've always wanted to give Spanish a shot sometime. It'd be nice to work down south.”

“I never took it in school,” Liz said, “except for refresher courses. I learned at home.”

“Your family spoke Russian?”

“At dinner we did,” she said. “My Dad grew up speaking it in New York. He wanted me to learn too.”

“That was back in the fifties, right?” her fellow agent said. “Kind of a tough time to be speaking Russian, wasn't it? You'd figure the neighbors would call the cops.”

“My Dad was the cops.” Pride crept into Liz’ voice. “Police chief, Darwin, Pennsylvania.”

It had been another routine day for the Counter-Intelligence Coordinator of the FBI's Regional Field Office in Indianapolis. Perhaps someday she would move up to the premier squads in Washington or New York, but for now she kept an eye on visitors to Indiana from Communist countries and ran down leads from other offices. It was an unglamorous job, but her Dad had always said police work was a tedious business. “The gun's just for decoration,” he'd remark, patting the bulky handgrip jutting from his holster. Liz could see the truth in that. In the line of duty, her own gun had never left her purse.


The operator hung up the phone and reinserted his earplug. The control room of the Vorney, Nevada, power station had said it was time, and with a hiss and a growl, the diesel generator's huge engine soon began turning over. The operator prepared to log a reading, but then stopped and looked again at the rumbling machine. The vibrations in the floor had changed, and through the dull filter of his earplugs, he could hear a peculiar noise -- a sort of scraping sound. Then, with a screech, the generator shifted gears and began to shut down.


Paul rolled over and hit the alarm, then slid out of bed. Mondays always sucked, but with the outage dragging on, today would be worse than usual. He showered, dressed, and with his brown hair still damp, leaned down and kissed Vicki on the cheek. His girlfriend barely stirred. Christmas break must be nice for a teacher. He gazed at her for a long time. From his vantage point as a child, he could remember how happy his parents had seemed together. Perhaps this was his own chance. Or was he getting ahead of himself? He slipped out the door.

“Talked to Mike yesterday,” Crutch said, as he and Paul entered their office area. “He’s feeling a lot better. They're gonna let him out soon.”

“An ulcer.” Paul shook his head. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Yeah, he was really getting’ stressed out,” Crutch said. “Ya had management, then the NRC -- jeez.”

“That boot thing must have been the last straw.” A temporary worker had contaminated a new pair and then had tried to sneak the radioactive shoes offsite by tossing them over the security fence.

“Yeah, the boots did it. If the guy’d just let the H.P.'s wash’em instead of stealin’ ‘em back, he'd probably have walked out fine. But noooo, Mike had that mess on top a everythin’ else. Too much.”

“So I imagine you're really looking forward to filling in for him.” Paul grinned.

“Hey, you bet,” Crutch said. “I got a month-old baby boy who only sleeps when Dad’s at work. An ulcer’s just what I need.”


1986: January - April

Sergei watched with only mild interest as the jetliner banked and the lights of New York were replaced by the darkness of the ocean. After eight months abroad, he was returning home to Moscow and the Ministry of Energy. He had made the most of his time in America, the young Russian thought, as he scratched the short, blond hair on his neck. He had studied reactor physics and plant design, and visited a number of sites, including Three Mile Island. The Americans, Sergei had decided, were a fearful people. The event at T.M.I. had been minor, yet the nuclear industry in the U.S. was being strangled by endless hearings, inspections, and upgrades. In his own country, Sergei knew, such delays were not tolerated. There had been problems, of course -- a few cases of damaged reactors and melted fuel -- but no one had panicked.

Overhead, the NO SMOKING light blinked out. Sergei pulled the pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, lit up, and thought ahead to his upcoming training at plants in Russia and the Ukraine. The young engineer smiled. Some time off, then a chance to see his own country. Things couldn't be better.


“They never knew what hit ‘em,” Karl Leeman said.

Steve nodded. “That's something at least.” His maintenance supervisor was referring to the space shuttle Challenger, which had exploded that morning.

“Tough break,” Tarelli added.

Ted Cervantes walked into the office and slid onto the table along the wall. “Challenger?”

“Yep,” Leeman said.

Cervantes looked down and made the sign of the cross.

“I think that puts our problem in perspective, anyway,” Steve said. Like Richmond always does for me. He held up a thin document. “Have you all seen the NRC Bulletin?”

“No,” Cervantes said. Borden handed it over, and the operations supervisor scanned the contents. “So an N.E.B diesel failed in Japan, and then Nevada,” he said. His eyes narrowed. “Our diesel’s the same, right?”

“Yessir,” Leeman drawled. “Model n’ vintage.”

Cervantes continued to read. He pulled a pen from his pocket and slowly twirled it in his free hand. “Improper screws. Vibration kicks ‘em loose, huh?”

“Over a long period,” Steve said. “You just can't build a perfect machine.”

“The kicker's on the last page,” Tarelli said, pointing.

“We got ‘til end a May to replace them screws,” Leeman said, “and we'll be taring them machines down ta do it. Five days.”

Cervantes' hard gaze shifted to Steve. “Damn overkill. But we can run seven days with one diesel out.”

“Karl, how long before the new screws arrive on site?” Steve asked. He began squeezing his aching hand.

“Mid-April. Every NEB plant wants ‘em. They’re not easy to get. Odd little fuckers.”

“Understood,” Steve said. “Let’s get the work scheduled.”


“Sticking around for the main event, huh?” the operator said to Gary as they stood near the STurDI-1 turbine.

“Yah. Gotta stay on site anyway, just in case.” Gary turned to the health physics technician. “Thing don't get very hot when it runs, right?”

“Fifty, maybe sixty milli-rems an hour,” the HP responded. “Not much.”

Gary nodded. He was confident of the repairs he had made. From before his days in the Navy he knew he could fix anything that had bolts and grease. Now, he faced the STurDI-1 turbine, a chest-high lump of metal hidden beneath thick, gray blankets of insulation. A large pipe penetrated the machine from above, bringing steam from the reactor vessel to spin the turbine shaft and power the pump. Jutting out from the turbine’s rear was the pump itself, and at the front of the machine sat its brains -- the hydraulic oil control system, with its low tank and maze of finger-sized pipes.

The operator picked up a nearby phone and checked in with the control room. “Any time now,” he reported back.

At the base of the oil tank, a small black object no larger than a loaf of bread began whirring. Startup oil pump‘s going, Gary noted. STurDI-1‘s coming up. The small, battery-powered pump was providing a surge of high pressure fluid to force open the valve separating the turbine from the reactor vessel. A low, straining groan cut through the air, and after a hiss and puff of steam, the STurDI-1 turbine rumbled to life, filling the room with an ear-splitting roar. The operator read some gauges and then gave Gary the thumbs up.


Carol spotted the metal cabinet bolted to an electric pole alongside the country road, and she pulled over. Humming a Mozart concerto, she climbed out of the truck, and was greeted by a cold, February wind. Shoot. Checking the sample units within the ten mile emergency zone was usually a choice assignment for a health physics technician, but not this day. Dry leaves crunched as Carol stepped to the box. There were forty such stations, containing film badges and air samplers. The government required that Hoosier Electric monitor the environment around the plant. Fortunately, in comparison with industrial chemicals like dioxin, keeping an eye on radiation required little technology.

Carol replaced the film badges. Maybe I’ll be doing more of this next year. She and Gary had decided they would soon start a family – or she had, at least, and Gary wasn’t against it. It was a decision their parents would surely greet with approval. Her mother-in-law had been mentioning grandchildren for years -- her other son and his wife having made it clear that Gary was the only hope. There were many things to consider, of course -- their careers, their savings, their thoughts about returning home -- and Carol knew it was she who would do the heavy thinking. Gary was more of a dreamer, and said she worried too much, but she couldn’t help it. Even as a child -- a tomboy, no less -- she had always felt the need to watch out for others. There were four girls in her family -- the twins, who were six years older, herself, and Natalie, the youngest by eighteen months. Carol had reveled in the role of older sister, and she had spent hours playing with her favorite companion. The maple tree in the back yard was a popular spot –- they could climb higher than the roof of the garage, and look out over the neighborhood. Carol was ten when Natalie slipped on a branch, and the vision of her sister screaming as she lay helpless on the ground was still with her. If she’d reached out quicker, Carol often thought, she might have pulled her in. Instead, she had helped with the long years of physical therapy. Natalie did walk again, and over time the cruel limp became less noticeable. Now she was married with two rambunctious daughters of her own. And Aunt Carol was the one afraid of heights, battling herself each time she had to scale a ladder in the plant.

Carol slid back into the truck. Perhaps, next winter, Natalie would be the one helping her, as she carried her first child. If that happened, she would be given temporary assignments away from rad areas, since the risk from radiation was greatest for an unborn child. Slow and boring jobs. But to Carol, it would be a wish come true.


Midnight was approaching when Vitaly heard the page from the control room. The shift supervisor reported that condenser vacuum was rapidly falling, which meant the huge metal box would soon be unable to suck steam through the main turbine. John Donner needed to check things out –- fast –- before the reactor was shut down to prevent any damage to the turbine and generator.

Vitaly raced through the plant, his key ring jingling, and at the condenser control panel he confirmed that pressure in the huge box was inching its way up towards the red line on the dial. A minute to go before reactor shutdown. Scanning the panel, Vitaly spotted the problem. Two small pumps in another room had to continuously remove air from the condenser to keep pressure low, but neither was now running. The breaker must have tripped. Vitaly quickly found the large circuit breaker bolted to a nearby wall and saw he’d been right. He grabbed the handle and twisted it to ON, but it snapped back to OFF when he let go. His mind raced through the possibilities: What’s causing the breaker to trip? Did one of the pumps burn up?

He considered his choices. If I force the breaker closed, one of the pumps might still work. That would be enough. But his plan was against the rules, and Vitaly wouldn't do it without permission. His training, in both Moscow and America, had emphasized that. He grabbed his radio and explained the situation to the shift supervisor.

Procedures called for a great deal of paperwork before taking such an action. But there was no time, and the supervisor knew it. “Try it,” he said.

Slamming the breaker to ON, Vitaly braced himself for the recoil. The handle pushed back, but he kept it in place and twisted to look at the control panel. A pump was now running. The condenser pressure needle was perilously close to the red line, but it didn't seem to be moving up. After watching the gauge for what seemed an eternity, Vitaly saw the needle begin to creep back down.

“You're John Donner?” a younger man asked when Vitaly entered the control room a few hours later.

“That’s me.” The shift supervisor had already warned him he'd be interviewed.

“I'm Paul Hendricks,” the engineer said to the lean man with the strong jaw and intense expression, “and I’ll be writing the report on the condenser event. You got a minute?”

The beginning of the sunrise was evident as Vitaly headed east along Highway 30 towards Brixton. John Donner had stayed late to finish his interview and then accept the congratulations of the day shift personnel. But now, speeding past the snow-covered landscape, he realized he couldn't share his glory with his wife. Dmitri yes. Maybe Dr. Berdyayev. But not Yelena.

Yelena. His wonderful partner, and soon-to-be mother of his child. A few more weeks and he'd be home again, he reminded himself, as he turned and headed north to his small house on the outskirts of South Bend.


Anton stepped across a rivulet of icy water and ducked into the cramped second-hand bookstore, where an edition of the works of General Secretary Gorbachev was prominently displayed in the window. Browsing the shop's musty interior, Anton selected a copy of SOVIET AGRICULTURAL PROGRESS: 1960 to 1970 as his purchase, then worked his way back into a narrow aisle that was out of sight of the store manager dozing at the register. From his coat pocket, Anton extracted a small, sticky package and secured it to the underside of a shelf.

The drop now complete, the KGB officer left for the subway. Just before heading underground, he passed a polished young man in a knee length coat, striding with purpose in the opposite direction. Briefly, Anton thought of another young Soviet who would soon be in Moscow. That visitor would also try to make every minute count. Somewhere next month, probably in an obscure safe house, C393-492 was to attend a meeting.

As with the illegal's last trip, Anton had set up a conference between the foreign-based agent and members of the KGB's technical branch. This time he had stumbled upon an interesting, though likely trivial, item: one of the meeting participants would be a Dr. Berdyayev. Anton had no idea who the doctor was, but perhaps the CIA would -- after one of their own had returned from a little book shopping.


End Post 16



“Well Vitaly,” Doctor Berdyayev said as the meeting finished, “I think you have some excellent plans here.”


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