Episode 23


Time: 2:07 am.

Liz felt a sense of relief that she was finally headed north on the two hour drive to South Bend. Still in her sweatshirt and jeans, her gun in the handbag on the seat of the Bureau car, she ran through her preparations one more time. She had set up a rendezvous with Walt Kreveski and Paul Hendricks, telecopied the appropriate papers to South Bend, informed the S.A.C. of her plans, and sent a brief message to Washington. Everything was ready. All that was left to do was to capture the suspect.

John Donner. An illegal. Her background search suggested Donner had been in the U.S. for at least nine years. Nine years. Such a very long time. Did he have a family back there? Someone who misses him? He was a highly trained individual: a licensed operator in a nuclear power plant. His records indicated he was conscientious about his work and well thought of by his superiors. Yet all that was only a masquerade, a disposable part of his life that he would someday shrug off. Who was he, really? And what had he been up to all these years? Special Agent Liz Rezhnitsky pressed a little harder on the accelerator. With a little luck, I can ask him myself.


Figure 4 (again)

Time: 2:28 a.m.

Vitaly made a right turn and drove on through the farm fields a few miles east of Fairview. He tuned his car radio to a strong AM station. Country music filled the speakers.

The round white barn came into view and Vitaly let his car drift by the darkened farmhouse. Soon, as trees on either side gave way to open fields, static began to fill the speakers. Vitaly took note of the landmarks: a bent fence post, an asphalt repair along the road’s edge, a slip of paper stuck in the high grass. The static crescendoed, then faded back to music. He turned off the radio. There were trees beside the road again. There. Vitaly spotted the small gap. He stopped, then backed up into the undergrowth.

With the car idling in the darkness, Vitaly stepped well beyond the vehicle and listened. Except for a dog barking in the distance, the night was silent. Returning, he worked quickly, using his flashlight only for brief glimpses. Inserting an earphone, he clipped a small radio to his belt, put on a black motorcycle helmet and flipped up the visor, then grabbed a pair of thick, electrically insulated gloves and pushed his hands inside. The balloons were next. Vitaly took hold of the attached crowbar and carefully maneuvered the light, bulky mass out of the back seat. He let it rise in the air just above him as he gauged the direction of the breeze. Now do it. He crept to the road, the balloons in tow. Vitaly listened for oncoming traffic, but there was nothing. He waited a few seconds more to be sure, and then, in a low, crouching run, he moved off into the nearby field.


Time: 2:34 am.

Wendell stretched in his chair. It was another slow night on backshift. And sleep had been harder to come by the last few weeks. He and Karen seemed to be arguing more now. She had dreamed of a lawyer’s life in the big city, handling tough cases in the financial and corporate worlds – or at least by this point watching how it was done. The work for Hoosier Electric wasn’t as exciting as she would like, and while Wendell worked his way up the ladder, she was growing more and more restless. Wendell had never thought they could grow apart, but perhaps that was happening. Or maybe it was just another rough patch. His odd hours didn’t help, but the experience on shift could allow him to move into a higher management slot. And it was interesting. They would work something out. The love was still there – he was sure of it.

Seeking a break from his thoughts, Wendell opened the glass door, crossed to the front of the control room, and slowly paced the length of the curving panels. Behind him, the two control room operators were seated at a table, casually monitoring the panels as they discussed a fishing trip. The only thing out of the ordinary this evening had been the call from Hendricks about the weekend shift schedule.

Wendell stopped for a moment at the center panel with the full core display above -- the circle of lights entirely red, showing the control rods were fully withdrawn. A check of the meters below found reactor vessel level and pressure were normal, and power sat at 100%. Fairview Station was currently supplying 580 million watts of electric energy to the grid.

“Wendell, they're gonna have the #2 diesel back on Tuesday, right?” The question was asked by Larry, the chief operator, an angular bald man with a bushy mustache.

Wendell turned. “That’s what they tell us. Monday night or Tuesday. No problems so far.”

“Control!” The operator's table held the plant radio, and a voice had just crackled over the loudspeaker.

The man seated beside the radio, the assistant operator, picked up the microphone. “Control.”

“Yeah, DeMira here. Just letting you know I'm heading over to the air compressor building.” The Turbine building operator was checking in with his walkie-talkie.

Wendell turned back to the main panels. On the wall to the right of the core display, crimson lights showed that all the valves carrying feedwater and steam to and from the reactor vessel were wide open. Every minute, 14,000 gallons of water were pouring into the bottom of the huge steel capsule, passing up through the hot fuel bundles and being heated to a gas, and then sent on to the main turbine and generator. At the far end of the controls, Wendell finished his tour beside the shift technical advisor's desk. “Yo, Tom,” he said to the young engineer, who was reading. “Anything interesting?”

“For once,” the STA said. “Chernobyl. Man, they really screwed up.”

“Sounds like it,” Wendell said. “Drop that on my desk when you're done, okay?”

At the back of the room, a thick door closed with a thud, and Wendell saw through the glass that Zabowski, the reactor building operator, had returned from rounds. Fleck got up from his desk and began reviewing the results, the heavyset supervisor nodding as his man in the field explained an item. Wendell walked back to the office door and stepped inside. “Something up?”

“Well, there’s a drywell cooling valve drippin’ a little,” Fleck answered without concern. The air in the drywell was heated by the hot reactor vessel and required constant chilling. “We’ll have Leeman's boys look at it Monday. Soon enough.”

“You want me to write up the work request?” Wendell asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Darrel said. “I hate paperwork.”

“I know,” Wendell said, a freckled smile forming beneath his copper hair. I know.


Time: 2:38 am.

Vitaly moved at an even pace across the darkened pasture, the cluster of balloons trailing in the sky behind him. After thirty paces, he stopped and peered into the night. He could just make out the transmission tower that lay ahead. Ninety feet up from its base was the lowest of the three electric lines. A few more steps and the metal framework of the tower was clearly in view. Vitaly knelt and pulled in the silvery balloons. He watched the floating mass sway. Light breeze.

When Dr. Berdyayev had first suggested the balloon idea, Vitaly had recognized its advantages. The metal-coated decorations had proven troublesome to utilities, frequently drifting into power lines with damaging results. Now, above him, high tension wires stretched across the field on their way to Fairview Station, where they served as a backup source of three-phase power for the plant. If any of the lines gave out, the rest would be useless. Vitaly studied the tower against the backdrop of stars. The three wires were suspended, one above the other, along the side of the structure. There. Right there. In the gloom he had spotted his target: a column of dish-shaped, porcelain insulators that hung down from a crossbeam and held the center line aloft. If that connection were broken, the line would drop and ground itself on the tower or the wire just below.

There was a puff of wind, and Vitaly felt a tug from the balloons overhead. The shiny formation stretched nearly eight feet in height from the top of its rounded cluster to the tip of its tail, each balloon filled with an explosive mix of gasses. If the metallic mass touched both the metal crossbeam and the center power line below, there would be a short circuit. The brief surge of power and detonation of the balloons would then allow the center line to drop free of the insulator column and fall onto the lower line.

Still kneeling, Vitaly fed out the string, letting the balloon-kite rise until its tail was two stories above him. He gauged the breeze, then stood, and keeping his eyes on the column of insulators, he stepped back upwind a few paces, away from the tower. He had practiced this maneuver only once before, in Moscow. It hadn't been difficult.

Vitaly took a deep breath and tried to ignore the adrenaline surging through his system. Careful now. Slowly, he uncoiled more string and the balloons rose higher in the darkened sky. He came to a knot in the string and, peering back at the tower, decided he was far enough from it to make the final adjustments. He kept unwinding, twisting off the string with his thick glove. A second knot appeared. Then a third. On a perfectly calm day, the middle of the balloon formation would now be even with the center power line, and the top of the metallic sphere would be the same height as the crossbeam holding the insulators. Vitaly unwound a little more string to compensate for the angle of the floating mass in the wind, then glanced back and forth between the tower and the balloons. Looks even.

Reaching down, Vitaly fumbled with the radio on his belt, and static began to roar in his ear. He edged closer to the tower, the balloons overhead. When they were a few feet from the lines, he stopped again. The height was correct. It would work. He slid down the clear visor of his helmet.

Ready . . . Go! Vitaly took two steps forward, his eyes fixed upward. The balloons drifted closer to the center power line and the insulator column that held it in place. Closer still. From his angle of sight, it seemed to Vitaly the balloons were already touching the wire. That’s it . . .

CRACKKKKK! A searing blue flash lit up the night, followed instantly by a fireball, twenty feet in diameter, extending out from the tower.

Yes! In the first fraction of a second after the explosion Vitaly thought he saw the center line fall free. Shards of porcelain showered down around him as music began flooding into his ear. He turned and ran towards his car.

Only after he had reached the woods, fighting for breath, did Vitaly peer back. In the darkness, a few small spots of burning material lay near the tower. Got it! Jumping into his idling car, he jerked the vehicle into gear. Move! Vitaly pulled onto the road in the direction he had come and flipped on the headlights and the radio. Music filled the speakers. He tapped once on the accelerator, then slowed when a landmark appeared beside the road. About here. The music from the speakers remained clear. Leaning forward, Vitaly gazed up to the sky through the windshield. It was too dark to see, but he knew that somewhere overhead a group of deadened power lines were no longer supplying energy to Fairview Station. One down, one to go.


Time: 2:42 am.

Wendell finished up some paperwork and gazed into the control room. The assistant operator, a chunky figure with tousled brown hair and silver-rimmed glasses, was checking a panel, while at the table a few feet away, the chief operator chatted with Fleck. In the corner, the STA was still reading.

An annunciator alarm cut the quiet and everyone looked up to the blinking, lighted rectangles on the wall. Two at once. Something's up. Wendell stepped inside just as the assistant operator read off the alarms:

“Loss of Backup Offsite Power. Backup Transformer Low Voltage.”

“Well, well,” Fleck murmured, as he and the chief operator rose. “Anything else from the transformer?”

The assistant operator scanned the dials. “Nothing I can see. We'll get DeMira to check the local readings,” he said, referring to the operator on rounds in the turbine building.

“I'll call Load Dispatch,” Wendell said. The backup supply for offsite power came from lines running east of the plant. If they had gone down, the dispatcher in South Bend would be able to tell. Otherwise, it was a problem at the plant. Although it needed to be dealt with promptly, the loss of the backup supply wasn't a critical concern. Fairview Station still had its primary offsite power source for the plant's safety systems -- a set of lines from the huge towers three miles west of the site. And there was one emergency diesel generator in reserve, as well as the batteries for STurDI-1, STurDI-2, and the control room instruments.

“L.D. said the lines went down a few miles from here,” Wendell soon reported to Fleck.

Fleck chewed his gum for a moment, then looked to the chief operator, now in radio contact with the man in the turbine building. “Larry, just in case, have DeMira check everything out. Never hurts.”


Time: 2:44 a.m.

The radio provided a steel guitar background as Vitaly sped through the countryside. To the east was the well-lit exterior of Fairview Station. The next intersection appeared. Two hundred yards and he would go under the lines. Another fifty and he would park. He touched the brakes, and as the music disappeared in a haze, he caught sight of his final target. Sixty yards back from the road was a substation; a light illuminating its fenced-in area. Letting the car drift on, Vitaly searched for the tractor path. A song reappeared from the static, and then two ruts came into view at the edge of a woods. There.

His helmet back on, the insulated gloves in his pocket, Vitaly laid his beaming flashlight in the trunk. He opened the canteen resting inside the spare tire, drenched the lifeless body of the cat, then lifted the carcass, along with the collapsible fiberglass fishing pole beside it. The rod was joined to the dead animal by a few feet of cord; one end wrapped around the cat’s neck and shoulders in a makeshift harness. Clutching the objects, Vitaly stole out across the field.

Gravel crunched under his feet as he crept along the chain-link fence of the humming substation until he reached the cement-block shed in the far corner. A service light glowed above the door. Behind the building, shielded from the road, Vitaly knelt on the sharp stones. His heart pounding, he laid down the soggy cat and then extended the fishing rod to its full length. Now, wearing his thick gloves, he grabbed the pole and rose, jerking the cat into the air.

Vitaly slid one hand up the rod to counterbalance the cat, then stepped around the building. Just over the fence was a large transformer; columns of stacked, porcelain insulators jutting from its top like spines. That was the feed. Primary Offsite Power. Thanks to the energy flowing through the device before him, Fairview Station was still supplied with an independent power source for its safety systems.

Vitaly peered toward the road. There was no traffic. Perfect. He flipped the helmet visor down and shifted his feet for balance, then slowly swung the carcass of the cat over the fence and maneuvered the wet object toward the top of the transformer. Drawing close to the target, Vitally stepped sideways to shield himself with the edge of the block building, awkwardly extending his arms around the corner. A little more . . . good . . . good . . .

The lifeless cat now hovered a foot above the insulator columns on the transformer. In the shadowy light, Vitaly eyed the animal's position and shifted the carcass to the left. Then he braced himself, and carefully lowered the cat still further.

Right there . . . Right there. . .

NOW! Vitaly let the carcass plunge onto the transformer as he tucked his head behind the wall.


An explosion shattered the night as the short circuit burst the insulators into fragments. Vitaly felt shrapnel smack into his gloves as the area went dark, the service light broken by porcelain debris. He yanked the fishing pole back, the cord holding the cat having burned away, and let the rod collapse into itself as he began sprinting for the car. He looked back once, but there was nothing to see in the darkness, and soon he was driving away from the scene. A flood of relief, of completion, washed over him. That’s all. It’s over now.

But, he knew, for Fairview Station a nightmare had just begun.


End Post 23



“Level at 152!” Wendell said. “Creeping down!”


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