Lila squelched the urge to look behind them. “What color car?”
Joe replied sarcastically, “There’s only one. It’s black.”
“Okay, so it’s easy to spot. I guess they don’t want us losing them.”
“I’m not about to lose them. They get very angry when spurned. I don’t much fancy walking out of the nuclear plant and seeing my lovely Lada keyed up with garbage thrown all over it.”
“Wow, they really don’t like to lose people,” Lila said amazed.
“Let’s just say I’ve heard it’s not a best practice,” Joe said dryly.
Lila snoozed in the backseat as Joe drove cautiously across the rough surface, while Ian kept a casual watch on the black car.
As they approached the city, Ian leaned back to tug on the hair that had fallen over Lila’s face. She waved his hand away and mumbled, before awakening in a rush. Her first view of Bilibino was less than inspiring. “Looks like a bunch of Legos put together into long barracks.”
“I’m guessing this isn’t a place where you want to go it alone in the tundra,” Joe remarked.
“Our friends are passing us,” Ian said quietly as the shiny black sedan zoomed past them and two men waved at them.
Lila’s jaw dropped. “Did you see that?”
“They want us to know that they know that we know,” Ian said tensely.
“They really stick out here,” Joe commented. “Can’t be good for their suspension – or paint job – to go that fast.”
“I think they’re making a point,” Lila said, “that their car has more get up and go than ours.”
“Not true.” Joe patted the steering wheel. “This girl’s got a lot of giddy up in her.”
“You sound like you’re talking about your girlfriend,” Lila said with amusement.
“I’ve always wanted to drive a Lada,” Joe admitted. “First times are always memorable.”
Ian snickered. “That’s too easy.”
Lila sighed. “Will you two give it up?”
Both men burst out laughing. Ian turned his head back to face Lila. “For you, darlin,’ anytime.”
“I can tell we’re all punchy from being tired,” Lila said. “Speaking of tired, where’s our hotel?”
“Oh, not yet,” Joe cautioned. “We still have an appointment at the nuclear plant. I got a business to run, and a tour to give.”
“How about you give it to yourself, Joe,” Lila advised.
Ian laughed out loud. “This just keeps getting better.”
The group drove slowly past four monolithic Cyrillic letters that identified this as БАЭС [BAES], the initials for Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant. Round twin-headed streetlamps lined the drive leading to a series of large square buildings separated into yellow and gray sections.
Hanging from the top of one of the buildings was an enormous white banner on which giant, black Cyrillic letters proclaimed the toughness of these northern dwellers: СЕВЕР-КРАЙ СИЛьНыХ [NORTHERN EDGE STRONG].
As they pulled into the parking area, Lila marveled at all the windows in the buildings. “I guess when you live somewhere as far north as this, you want to let in all the light possible.”
They entered the building, where Joe introduced them as the expected tour members, and they walked one at a time through the metal detector past guards wearing camouflage uniforms and caps.
As they neared the heavy, metal door marked Turbine Hall, Lila felt the hair on her arms rise.
Joe rushed forward to give both of them a friendly handshake. “Hey, guys! Great to see you.”
“What are you doing here?” Lila asked when she got her voice back.
“Helping out, a little this and that, you know.” Joe spoke evasively.
Ian said derisively, “You’re here to baby-sit us, aren’t you?”
“Nope, not me.” Joe then broke into a grin. “Well, maybe. Not like I’d pick one of the colder places on the planet to visit when it’s almost winter. No, sir, not me. Gimme Thailand or maybe Vietnam for its beaches.”
“I didn’t know Vietnam’s beaches were famous,” Lila commented.
“Oh, definitely,” Joe affirmed enthusiastically. “I highly recommend Nha Trang or Phu Quoc Island. Even China Beach, where the U.S. troops used to go, is a pretty amazing place with a nice 5-star hotel. But we’re getting off track.” He paused. “Lila, how’s your Russian?”
“Better than yours,” Lila shot back.
“Oh, yeah?” Joe smirked. “My team beat yours at the language bowl last year,” he said referring to their departmental Jeopardy-style foreign language and culture game that was waged annually in December.
“You cheated,” Lila protested. “We should have won easily, but you guys pulled in a ringer. He was Lebanese, so of course he was fluent in Arabic. No fair!”
“Don’t be a hater,” Joe jokingly admonished before turning serious. “So, you’re here to visit Bilibino.”
“That’s right.” Lila glanced at Ian who had been silent during the Lila and Joe’s easy back and forth banter.
Ian shrugged. “I guess we’re here to see a reactor.”
“I’m the man for you.” Joe pounded his chest. “Reactor Tours Limited is here to provide you with the best and most up close Russian reactor experience possible.”
Lila burst out laughing. “You are such a ham. Is there really such a company?”
“Absolutely. In fact,” Joe rooted around in his pocket and pulled out business card, “here’s a card for you.”
Lila admired the oversized photo of Joe beaming while standing in front of a nuclear reactor building. “Very nice,” she said, snickering. “You look like a used reactor salesperson.”
“What can I say, I’m a man who loves a reactor. Now back to your Russian.” Joe returned the focus to Lila.
“I’m a level 2 probably. Not perfect, fairly intermediate.” She looked at Joe expectantly. “Why?”
“Because we’re about to take an awesome tour by none other than yours truly.” Joe whipped out a set of keys. “In fact we’re going over right now.”
Lila groaned. “I’m tired. And hungry,” she complained.
“But you have all those things in your bag. Find something to eat. Maybe a pickle would take the edge off,” Ian said with a gleam in his eye.
Lila looked thoughtful. “Beggars can’t be choosy,” she muttered and began dragging items from her bag. “Let’s see, chocolate bar, oh, and here’s that pickle,” she said triumphantly tearing it open and eating it.
Ian exchanged looks with Joe. “I see some things haven’t changed,” Joe motioned toward Lila, “she still likes her food.”
“Yep,” Ian gave a mock sigh.
Lila finished her snack and then she and Ian decked themselves out in the winter gear he had brought. “Ready,” she announced.
Joe shepherded Ian and Lila out to the parking area. “Everyone pile into Uncle Joe’s lovely Lada,” he said referring to the Russian manufactured vehicle parked near the terminal.
“No Land Rover?” Lila teased.
Joe patted the small car’s hood. “This baby will get you everywhere you need to go. I’ve driven these through rivers and they kept on going.”
Lila seated herself in the narrow back seat, the frozen plastic upholstery crackling under her. She yelped, “It’s cold!”
“No kidding,” Ian said mildly and looked back at her from the front passenger seat. “I’d offer to let you sit on my lap, but I think that would make driving here even less safe.”
Joe started up the vehicle and pulled onto the gravel track that passed for the road to Bilibino. His eyes flickered repeatedly to the mirror, while Ian casually glanced at the side view mirror.“We’ve got a friend behind us.” Ian said quietly, his lips scarcely moving.
“I don’t think there’s time to run into town.” Ian grimaced. “Besides, have you seen the snow coming down out there?”
Lila scoffed at what before had seemed horrifying amounts of snow to her. “That? The locals would consider that summer weather.”
“Hardly,” Ian said disagreeably. He pointed to the display panel next to the gate. “Does it say what time we’ll be leaving?”
Lila squinted at it. “Not yet, but I’m sure any minute there’ll be an update. If we hurry there’s probably time to make it into town.”
Ian shook his head. “No way. I’m not making it all the way to Russia, just to miss our flight because of tusks.”
“Mammoth tusks,” Lila reminded him, “And they’re only 600 dollars per kilogram. That’s a bargain! Where else can you find them available to buy like that?”
“Gee, I don’t know, but where would we store them?”
Lila appeared crestfallen.
Ian said consolingly, “Maybe we’ll have time to stop in town on our way back.”
“Do you think?” She cheered up. “I’m sure I’ll find a way to transport them… Wait, I can just ship them!” Her face fell. “Okay, and pay a ton of extra costs to make sure they arrive, but still it will be worth it.”
“What’s up with the interest in tusks?”
“I just think they’re a piece of forgotten history. You know, instead of having pillars or a Roman aqueduct in our living room, I think a set of tusks would be a nice touch,” Lila finished wistfully.
“Go great with the coffee table. Or even better you could have a coffee table made of tusks.”
Lila’s eyes lit up and then she looked sad. “I don’t know if the pieces are that big.”
“Something to look into,” Ian said encouragingly. “See? You still have more research to do.”
Suddenly the gate display flashed a new message:
Magadan plane now boarding.
A gate attendant propped open the door to the plane’s walkway and people converged from all corners of the small terminal.
Ian and Lila joined in the fray, entering the walkway. They pounced on their seats, stuffing their bags in the overhead across the aisle where they could keep an eye on them.
A man with a chicken in a wire cage walked past them.
“I love chickens!” Lila exclaimed.
Ian groaned. “So do I. For dinner.”
Lila gave him a disgusted look. “They’re so cute, and full of personality.”
Lila sniffed. “You have no appreciation for fowl.”
“Actually, I’m a friend of fowl: barbecued fowl, seasoned fowl, garlic and butter fowl, and of course, lightly roasted fowl. I’ll go with extra crispy, but I’m really more of an original recipe guy.”
Lila sighed. “If only I could get you to see the light: vegan, vegetarian.”
“I’ll eat that too, along with the fowl.”
Lila just shook her head and then leaned it against the window to watch the countryside flow underneath them after takeoff.
The flight took about four hours, and Lila was staring intently out the window as they circled over the mountainous landscape coming in for a landing. “Wow, this is rural. I mean really rural.”
“I take it you’re not a Farmer in the Dell kind of gal.”
“No, not at all. In fact, my father sent me to stay on a farm for a summer to gain some appreciation for down home living, but it didn’t work. I came back more determined than ever to stay in the city.”
“This is the same father that buried people in cement?”
“There’s no proof of that.” Lila grinned. “Let’s just say it’s a good reputation to have. Nobody messes with you.”
“I can imagine.” Ian laughed. “Hope he likes me.”
“Oh, he does, at least he’s said so,” Lila teased him.
They began deplaning at that point and they grabbed their luggage, walking from the plane onto the cold ground. Lila shivered as the frigid air engulfed them. She spotted a man holding up a sign with their names.
“It’s us,” Lila called out in Russian and waved to the man.
“Handy, you speaking Russian.” Ian murmured. They walked toward the man and Lila smiled in a friendly manner. “Здравствуйте!” [“Hello!”]
The man pointed to a building with red and cream siding that served as the airport terminal.
“Go in?” Lila asked as the man waved them away. She tugged Ian along with her to the structure and breathed a sigh of relief as they entered the slightly warmer interior.
“Ian and Lila!” A familiar voice called out to them.
“Joe?” Lila blurted out in astonishment.
“Mmph,” Lila muttered
“That was profound.” Ian’s voice trickled through her consciousness.
“What happened?” She groaned. “I’m so stiff. I feel like I slept… in a chair.” She snorted. “I guess I did.”
“Yeah, you were out like a light after you sat down.” Lila thought Ian sounded remarkably chipper for someone who had been awake for over twenty-four hours.
“Did you sleep?” Lila yawned so wide that her jaw cracked. “Ow.” She subsided into the chair and stretched each limb painfully.
“I did for about four and half hours. Long enough to keep me going.”
Lila looked around blearily. “Where are the flight attendants?”
“They got off before the plane took off. A little strange if you ask me, but since you didn’t,” Ian shrugged. “At least there are snacks in the fridge.”
“Snacks?” Lila perked up immediately. “What’s there?”
“Have a look.” Ian waved his hand toward the small built-in refrigerator.
Lila undid her seat belt and rubbed her sore stomach where the strap had dug into her skin. Moving carefully over to the fridge, she bent down and tugged the door open to peer inside.
“Yum, cashews.” She tossed the narrow bag onto the table and pulled out a series of packets. “Candy, candy, ooh, chocolate, and… What’s this?” She eyed the small semi-transparent package. “A giant dill pickle.” She waggled her eyebrows at Ian. “In case I get bored.” She shoved the last named item back into the fridge and walked unsteadily to the small table holding the assortment.
Tearing open the package of cashews, she began to eat with relish. “Where we at?” she asked through a mouthful of food.
“Ugh,” Ian shielded his eyes. “Could you try not to talk while eating? One of your – few – bad habits.”
“Okay,” Lila covered her mouth with her hand. “Any idea where we are?”
“The captain announced that we’re about an hour away from Moscow.”
Lila’s eyes became like circles. “Wow, I slept a really long time.”
Ian checked his watch. “Almost twelve hours. The plane sat around for a while waiting to take off. Guess there was a line.”
“I’m going back to sleep,” Lila announced.
“But what about your food.” Ian gestured to the large pile that had accumulated on the table.
“This all goes in my bag.” Lila suited actions to her words and stuffed the small packets in various pockets of her carry on. “I hate to be hungry.” She gave a sideways look at the fridge and then got up to grab the dill pickle. “It says it doesn’t need to be refrigerated,” she said triumphantly.
“Well, in that case.” Ian laughed.
“Let no food go to waste.” Lila grinned and set the dill pickle on the table between them. “Don’t try to get fresh with me,” she said to him with a half-smile.
Ian attempted not to laugh. “I won’t.”
“Okay, sleeping now.” Lila pulled the attached hood on her sweatshirt over her face. “Wake me when we get there.”
“We’re here.” Ian’s voice penetrated Lila’s slumbering brain.
“Wha..?” She pulled the hood from her face setting her static filled hair on end.
Ian hooted with laughter. “You look like a tribble.”
“You mean an adorable, cuddly little thing?” She batted her eyelashes at him.
“Very funny.” Ian snickered.
After they landed, they moved through a quick customs check where no one actually looked at either their documents or luggage.
“Nice, this.” Lila said under her breath.
“Don’t say anything.” Ian breathed.
They both smiled innocently at the official who wished them a good visit, and then walked briskly through the terminal to the departure gate listed on the display.
Stopping at their gate area, Lila looked at tickets. “Flight lasts about 8 hours.” She looked around the waiting area disappointedly. “No food.”
“Good thing you’ve got all that stuff in your bag.” Ian motioned to her heavy looking bag.
“Yeah, but I kind of wanted something hot to drink. Hold this.” Lila shoved her bag at Ian. “Bathroom.” She pointed in the general direction of the terminal concourse and strolled away. Fifteen minutes later Lila strolled back victoriously holding a large cup of what Ian guessed was coffee by the way she was blissfully sniffing the steam rising. “Got one for you too.” She shoved a second much smaller cup at him. “Caffeine makes you jittery,” she explained.
“Gee, thanks,” Ian said sarcastically.
The flight to Magadan began descending, and Lila’s face pushed against the airline window, which was unfortunate for the person actually sitting next to the window who craned his head backward. “Look!” Lila said enthusiastically. “There it is!” The Russian man sitting beside her attempted to see also and bumped his head against hers with a thud.
Lila rubbed her sore temple and waxed poetic. “Magadan, home of Magadan beach—”
Ian interrupted her, “In mid-October? Bit cold.”
Lila continued, “Mammoth tusks, and even a mummified mammoth.”
“I highly doubt we’ll have time to pick up a mammoth tusk. Plus, where would we put it?” Ian added sensibly.
They exited the plane after landing and Lila shivered at the sight of snow on the ground. “Brr. So not excited to be in a cold place.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Ian cheerily. “Gives it a holiday feel.”
They quickly made their way to the gate for their flight to Keperveyem. The light began blinking over the display next to the gate and Lila read:
Due to a snowstorm in Keperveyem, this flight has a delayed departure.
“Awesome,” Lila said with satisfaction. “I can get my mammoth tusks.”
A blond woman approached them and smiled. “Ian and Lila? I am Yulia and will accompany you to your flight. Follow me, please.” She spoke to them in what sounded to Lila like a Slavic accent.
Ian’s eyes widened a bit and he leaned down to Lila’s ear. “This sure beats flying on the government’s dime.”
“I know. Private definitely seems to be the way to go.”
Yulia led them to the elevator at the top of the parking structure. Once they reached street level, a shuttle was waiting to take them over to the international terminal. The woman then walked with them to Aeroflot’s check in station where she spoke briefly to a red haired woman behind the counter whose nametag read Olga.
Olga picked up the phone and after a few words, one of which sounded to Lila like the name Ivanov, a blond man appeared through a door behind the desk. The red haired woman immediately walked out through the same door.
The blond man approached the counter and held out his hand imperiously. “Your passports, please.” Ian and Lila dug out their passports and handed them over to the man.
Ivanov quickly examined the documents before turning to an empty page in each passport and stamping a visa, which he then signed and annotated.
After passing back their passports, Ivanov quickly departed out the same door through which he had entered.
Lila peered at the visa stamp in her passport. “That was probably the fastest and cheapest visa I’ll ever get.”
Their guide quietly cleared her throat, reminding them that she was waiting. She gestured toward the door behind the counter. “This way.”
Lila felt alarmed at the thought of what they might find, but mustered her courage and followed Ian and Yulia through the door where she saw a cubicle space filled with people seated at desks. Their guide led them to a second door through which she motioned them to walk. A long hallway dimly lit by flickering lights stretched in front of them.
“You will follow the hallway to the end where you will find your gate. Please have a pleasant flight,” the blond woman said and closed the door with a sharp click.
Out of curiosity, Lila tried the doorknob, which refused to turn in her hand. It was locked.
Eyebrows lifted, she began walking down the hallway accompanied by Ian.
“No changing our minds now,” Lila said nervously.
“It will be fine,” Ian said in a reassuring voice.
Within a few moments they had reached a black door with a bar across it. Lila hesitantly lifted the bar and waited for an alarm to sound. Relieved when all was quiet, she peeked her head through the doorway and saw that it led down a walkway to a plane door.
“Hmm… Didn’t know they had these back entrances.”
“How do you think they get the president and other important people in and out?” Ian commented.
“Never really thought about it.” Lila shrugged.
They made their way to the plane door where were met by an attractive pair of flight attendants. “I am Markov,” said the tall, handsome man who reminded Lila of a famous blond model.
A dark haired woman stood farther back in the cabin. She smiled and gestured them toward a set of cushy looking chairs that sat on either side of a table that was bolted to the floor. “Would you like a drink? Maybe something to eat?”
“Sweet.” Lila murmured to Ian.
He smiled at the flight attendant. “I’ll have a screwdriver, orange juice and vodka. The orange juice makes it healthy,” he joked.
The woman smiled politely. “And for you?” she addressed Lila.
“Um, just water.”
“I will bring it to you. Please fasten your seat belts and prepare for takeoff.”
Lila seated herself in the chair facing the cabin door and Ian sat across from her. They connected their lap belts and leaned back in the comfortable seats. An array of magazines were neatly organized on the tabletop in front of them.
“I could easily get used to this,” Lila said with feeling.
“Yeah. It’s not bad,” Ian agreed.
The flight attendant brought them their drinks and Lila took a long sip. She picked up a magazine to flip through and then leaned her head back against the headrest. Everything went dark.
They left the park and drove back to their condo where they parked their car. Lila stuffed her favorite black non-wrinkling travel clothes into a carryon, and Ian threw into his backpack some sub zero cold weather parkas that folded down into small packets, along with warm socks and thermal underwear.
“You’re packing like we’re headed to the Arctic,” Lila commented.
“We are,” Ian pointed out, “we’ll be north of the Arctic Circle in Bilibino.” He checked a phone app to look up the local temperature. “Today the high temperature is, dum, dum, dum, five degrees, with a low of minus 4 degrees.”
“Holy…” Lila’s mouth dropped open. “We’re going to need a whole lot more winter gear than that!” She pointed at the backpacks.
“Well, this is all we have time for, and if they want us to be prepared, they’re gonna have to provide it or we’ll buy it once we get there. I’m sure they stock clothing suitable for the weather there in the area.”
“I am never moving from Los Angeles,” Lila said determinedly. She looked at her phone app and quoted the day’s temperatures. “84 degrees for the high, and a low of 58. I love this place,” she said with conviction.
“I know, I’ve heard you say that often enough,” Ian laughed. “Let’s go. We’re heading out now.”
As they were walking over to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, Ian received a text on his cell phone. “Top floor. Go now.”
They picked up their pace, quickly entering the hospital and taking the elevator to the top floor.
“I’m glad we’re flying out of here, instead of flying in,” Ian said grimly.
Lila nodded in agreement.
A man wearing a yellow vest met them at the top and addressed them in turn. “Ian? Lila?”
“That’s us,” Lila yelled over the pounding noise from the waiting helicopter.
“ID?” the vest wearing man continued.
Ian and Lila dug out their passports to show him.
He motioned for them to get on the helicopter.
As they ducked and raced to enter the passenger seats, Lila called out, “It’s really loud!”
“I said it’s really loud!” Lila shouted again.
Ian shook his head. “Can’t hear you,” he mouthed.
They seated themselves and strapped in, gazing out in awe at the city lights beneath them.
Lila grinned. “This is so awesome. I love flying at night!”
Ian looked a bit grim. “Bad memories from my last night flight,” he mumbled.
Lila could barely hear him. “Baghdad?”
“Medevac over the Euphrates. Cool view of the river, but less than desirable circumstances.”
They traveled in silence to the airport where they flew high over the runways before making a pinnacle landing in a steep descent onto the LAX west helipad. Before they exited the helicopter, the pilot turned to give them a set of tickets. Lila clutched them in her hands as they raced underneath the whirling blades of the helicopter.
They slowed to a walk and Lila eagerly tore into the ticket envelopes.
Ian laughed. “You’re like the announcer on the Miss World contest opening the winning envelope.”
“Well, the winner is… nonstop to Moscow, flight to Magadan,” Lila’s eyes lit up. “Hey, that’s where Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman went in Long Way Round.”
“And then?” Ian asked patiently.
“Then a flight to Keperveyem Airport.” Lila’s eyes sparkled.
“You were talking with him. He is still able to converse in his current form.”
“But… he’s dead.” Lila said incredulously.
“Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t able to converse with others. It is true he vibrates on a higher level than most – but not all – people. People such as yourselves will be able to see him, as you are more sensitive than others.”
The voice directed the following comment toward both Ian and Lila. “That was one of your tests, when you were able to interact with him at the Trianon. It shows that you are two of those people who have that ability.”
“Great,” Lila muttered, “just what I needed to have, the gift to see – what do you call him?”
“He is an entity, as are we. There is no reason that energy has to disappear, it simply changes form, as your Einstein so sagely wrote. Matter may convert to energy, but the energy is not lost, it has simply changed form. This is what has happened with Sergey.”
“And us, someday,” Lila mused. “In a way it’s nice to know that I may be spooking some people in the future.” She grinned unrepentantly. “I know a few people I’d like to haunt.”
“They will not be able to hear you, but perhaps will sense a tiny bit of disruption around them, unless they are as you are – sensitive to interaction with others.”
“I guess that’s a good thing,” Lila said hesitantly.
“It is most definitely for us. Now let us plan for how you will prevent this potential nuclear holocaust”
Ian interrupted the voice – was it one person or all of them speaking? – to ask cynically, “What is your stake in all of this? Why do you care?”
“We have a vested interest in what goes on here on this planet as we are currently home based here. The ecology is already dire in places like the ocean surrounding Japan, but the possible nuclear meltdown in this location in the Chuvan Mountains is very near our headquarters. There is almost no traffic or disturbances in this area as it is only accessible through an ice road in the winter. It is ideal for our,” the voice paused, “studies.”
“What kind of studies are you doing?” Lila asked suspiciously, thinking about how aliens used humans as a food supply on the 1980s TV show V.
“We gain energy through processing the output of human emotions. It is a simple and harmless technique we use.”
Lila snorted. “Like what, sucking their brain waves from their skulls?”
“Nothing so drastic. We are also conducting further research in the laboratory where you were at this evening. It was useful to see how you interacted so easily with the interface. You are truly gifted.”
“Okay, down to basics.” Ian interrupted. “We need to figure out how, if a crisis is looming on the horizon, we are going to get from here to there.”
“There will be a helicopter waiting for you at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital helipad.”
Lila nodded. “That’s near where we live.”
“Where to from there?” Ian asked skeptically. “It’s a long way from here to Vladivostok, or at least the nearest airport to Bilibino.”
“You are correct. There is a rough road leading from Keperveyem Airport to Bilibino. You will take it one leg of the journey at a time and we will provide tickets along the way.”
“What about food?” Lila demanded. “I’m not going hungry.”
“You will be supplied as needed. Return to the upper level now.” One of the entities waved its hand and Ian and Lila were drawn against their will back to the tree where they found themselves once again standing.
“Hell of a ride.” Ian beamed.
Lila nodded grimly. “But what will tomorrow bring? And what will we find in Bilibino?”