Last of the April Ten

Krylov reached the airstrip on the Maragheh highway before the morning sun had quite cleared Mount Sahand, whose high frozen rim floated like a ribbon of incandescent smoke upon the rising day. Inside the clay-stained stucco box that served as a terminal, a sleepy policeman glanced at Krylov’s credentials, pulled at a dyed mustache for a moment, then nodded him toward the deserted tarmac. And there, in the company of his single leather bag and an aluminum instrument case, Krylov waited for the ride Churches had promised.

“Nice chaps,” the Englishman had exclaimed over dinner the night before.

“Bulgarians, I think. Offered us transport to Tehran.”

“Bulgarians?”

“I think.”

At forty-three, Churches was not much larger than a boy, with a British lad’s rosy cheeks and quick enthusiasms. He was always excited, always exclaiming, always sweeping a hand through thin blonde hair for emphasis, his blue eyes popping with the moment’s agitation. And, like a boy, he did not always tell the whole truth, a flaw for which he was generally forgiven by those he had, in seeming innocence, deceived. Churches could be as irritating as a fly to Krylov, who was still big and fit enough to make other men nervous, and who, when things got interesting, remained as calm as stone. He had no idea why they got on, but they did.

“Too soon for me to leave, Viktor. I want to do a few more days’ cat and mouse here. Make the argument for Bonab going under Safeguards, reactor or no reactor. So I told them, the Bulgarians I mean, I couldn’t. But then I thought, here’s this ride, and here’s old Viktor heading back to Tabriz to catch the Tehran plane, thence Iran Air back to Vienna. Ordeal by narrow seats, crushed knees. So I thought, do your Russian chum a favor. Slip him the ticket. Well, no ticket, really. But you see what I mean. I told them you’d be at the highway strip at dawn. They’ll get you to Khomeini before noon. You can shop. Buy a rug. Dried fruit. You know.”

“What is this ride on?”

Churches had shrugged. “An airplane, Viktor. An airplane. Of course. Silly boy.”

Trained to a sharp wariness of gifts that seemed to come flapping out of nowhere, Krylov hesitated. Then, as he considered the two-hour drive in some smoking wreck of a taxi to the airport at Tabriz, the packed Antonov to Tehran, the endless eddying in the Khomeini terminal, the anonymous Bulgarians began to look more presentable. We share an alphabet, after all, he thought. We freed them from the Yoke of Turkish Oppression; they must still feel some gratitude. And the offer of a ride had been filtered through an English colleague and friend. What could go wrong? “I think I’ll do it.”

“Jolly good.” A bashful glance, entirely feigned. “Can you take the gear?”

“You don’t need it?”

Churches shook his head. “I just have some interviews.” A faint pulse had flitted across the face of this British boy, but Krylov couldn’t say whether it was a tremor of mendacity or just a ripple in the ambient light.

Now he stood in the mountain’s cold shadow, his leather jacket zipped against the autumnal cold. On the far side of the field a flock of sheep flowed like a rusty fog across the barren ground. Beyond them he could just discern the rooftops of Bonab, five kilometers west of the field, the buildings spread like scattered rubble, pierced here and there by the odd grove of struggling trees and minarets rising to the light.

He thought a column of illuminated dust must be his taxi, heading home; the glowing plume spun to nothing as the sun stirred up the day’s first winds. The contours of nearby villages appeared in faint relief and the rough shadows of the surrounding land greened into fruit orchards. The lavender haze lifted from the southeastern finger of the lake, a sapphire promise of water in this high, arid land. It was an empty promise, like one of Churches’, for Lake Urmia was only a few meters deep and more saline than the sea.

Iran was a veritable bazaar of such contrary stuff, Krylov had decided, all beauty until the mask came off, tranquil until the self-lacerating frenzies began, brilliant until you got to God, modern until you realized those fancy levers were being yanked by a medieval hand. As with this vast blue lake, you always arrived at the salt. “It could wear you out,” he murmured to himself, knowing as he heard his words that it was not Iran that exhausted him. It was the job. No…the mission.

There had been a time when Krylov believed Safeguards inspectors might really stem the spread of nuclear weapons. Not at the beginning, of course. At the beginning, he hadn’t cared one way or another, for he was just a technical Russian without much belief in anything, and, like most of his compatriots, he had come to Vienna as a spy. But by the time his spying days had ended, he believed his work made a difference in the world. In that frame of mind, Krylov would have gladly spent his life crawling through the nuclear community’s littered cable runs and tunnels and domed containments, its invisible mists of radioactivity. He’d been proud to be one of those atomic people who took risks to save civilization. He became a true believer.

But in the past few years, his faith had begun to evaporate, leaking away like love escaping from a cracked marriage. As though suddenly, his old beliefs acquired the gauzy texture of half-remembered dreams. He wasn’t sure what had cut him loose from his former certitude. It wasn’t just Pakistan’s going nuclear and selling her knowledge everywhere, or North Korea’s brandishing catastrophe, or the presumed weapons program in Iran. It wasn’t just those former Iraqi colleagues who’d looked you in the eye and said the boys at home had no dirty secrets.

It was the hard fact that there were too many people in too many countries working on too many clandestine bombs—the sense that, behind all the obliquity, all the lies, all the smoke and all the mirrors, there was a universal willingness to render the world a more dangerous place. Those wonderful atomic people had merely delayed the inevitable. As Simon Bolivar famously said of his own efforts, they had merely plowed the sea.

One day, Krylov now believed, all but the poorest nations would have the bomb. No submarine-launched multiple warheads or thermonuclear devices in suitcases—those were for the very rich. The rest of the world would have a kind of atomic Kalashnikov, a small, jury-rigged fission bomb with just enough kilotonnage and fallout to win a seat at the big table—or, if it came down to it, to take a large bite out of some great city. The future, which had once seemed almost promising to Krylov, had become a monster crabbing toward him through time, bringing all that everyone had feared--except extinction.

In a way, that was the horror of it. The world would become inured to occasional nuclear exchanges, tolerating them as it did the occasional genocides by machine gun and machete. When word came that a hundred thousand Nubians had been vaporized in the Sudan, no one would even look up. The world would become that little bit hotter. Like the inhabitants of the forbidden villages around Chernobyl, everybody would eat radioactive food and worry less about infant mortality and life span. Tourists would visit the planet’s grounds zero with digital cameras at the ready. Humanity would cease caring about the minutiae of survival.

In the old days, Krylov would have stayed with Churches, trying to discover whether, as rumor had it, the cyclotron at the Bonab Research Center was being rigged to produce plutonium. Now he didn’t care. Everyone wanted a bomb. Everyone would eventually have one. Uranium-235 and plutonium-239, it turned out, were as addictive as uncut heroin, and Krylov, like a worn-out veteran of the drug wars, carried the certainty of failure like a planet on his shoulders. It was the weight of that, not the contradictions of Iran, which had exhausted him. He could hardly wait to get back to Vienna, his soft, sweet home from home.

Krylov shivered, either from the cold or some premonition. You had to care about very little to be out on this forlorn airstrip at dawn, waiting for some Bulgarians to do you a favor.

Selected Works

Fiction
A former RAF squadron leader and Russian nuclear safeguards inspector try to thwart a decades-old Iraqi scheme to re-infect the world with smallpox.
An editor named Randall strives to succeed at Dawn Books, part of Dawn magazine’s media empire.
An international thriller, a moving tale of love and deception, beautifully told.
A mysterious rain of radioactive material poisons Bolivia’s coca crop. “Outstanding thriller.”
Publishers Weekly
American operatives stalk the world’s first molecular microchip in communist Bulgaria. “Extraordinary on every level.”
London Daily Telegraph

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