Lila reached for the logbook at the same time as Joe. Their hands collided and they fought over the document.
Finally Ian reached between them and grabbed the thin book. “Let’s put it here on the counter where we call all have a look.”
“But you don’t even read Russian,” Lila said incredulously.
“Doesn’t matter,” Ian admonished. “Maybe I’ll see something you miss.”
Lila ran her hand across the cover, smoothing the wrinkled paper. “Let’s start with the front. This looks like some sort of code. I’m hoping for this.” She swept her hands to include the whole setup around them.
Joe picked up from where she left off. “It took Ian going through two locks to get to it, so obviously it’s important. Maybe it’s a disarming sequence.” He looked around for anywhere they could input the numbers. There were two keyboards, one on each side of the vehicle.
Joe quickly walked to one of the keyboards and Lila assumed the ready position by the other one.
“Joe,” Lila called out quietly, “do you see where it says alternate monitor on the screen area? Click into that area and open up an interface.” Joe rapidly did as she said. Lila mumbled to herself as she searched through the system for the right computer program.
Joe motioned toward them. “I’ve found it. Go in through the internal dialogue box where it says system functions.”
“I don’t see it,” Lila said in frustrated tones. “Oh, wait, I got it. Now what?”
“There’s a place on the left hand side to enter letters, and digits on the right. Do you see it?” Joe asked Lila. He glanced at his watch. “And I hope you see it really quickly as we have less than 15 minutes to get this done.” Lila grunted in frustration as she scrolled through screens and received error messages, but she finally managed to access the menu.
“I’m guessing we have to enter everything at the same time. Joe, do you see the little lock icon on the top right of the final square?”
“Yep,” Joe said calmly. “Wait for me at the end and we’ll press enter together.”
“I’ll read out the code,” Lila offered. Ian took up a position beside her and aimed the flashlight at the cover, holding it up in front of Lila. She began to read aloud the series of number and letters. “S, no С. Wait.” She rubbed her eyes briefly. “I’m mixing my languages. Maybe Joe should do this.”
“Steady,” Ian told her, “Take a breath and focus.”
Lila took a deep breath and began once again:
“С Р Н П 2 Х З 8 7 Ц Ю 9 Ш Б 2 4.”
With a coordinated tap on the keyboard, Joe and Lila entered the last digit simultaneously.
“Ready?” Lila asked Joe.
“Ready,” he replied softly. “On the count of one press enter. One!”
They hit enter at the same moment.
There was a pause in the countdown, but then they heard a beeping noise.
“Shit. Error.” Lila’s eyebrows drew together and she pulled the cover closer. “Ian shine the light right… there. Yes, that’s it.” She studied it for a moment. “Crap, it’s Щ not Ш.”
She wiped the moisture from her forehead, perspiring heavily in spite of the rapidly dropping nighttime temperatures.
“It says that we get one more chance,” Joe pointed to the blinking message line on the right side of the screen.
They scarcely breathed as the door budged ever so slightly. Lila studied Joe as he placed his eye against the miniscule crack. He scrutinized the area for a moment before slowly widening the gap and cautiously walking into the control room. No one appeared to be inside.
Water abruptly gurgled through pipes directly over their heads startling everyone.
Scanning the instruments for clues, Lila observed a dial on the control panel that roughly translated to coolant cycle. The countdown clock had restarted only seconds ago, so she estimated that could have been the sound that they heard.
She breathed out in relief, thinking that she had never been so frightened of rushing water.
Ian motioned for her to come closer to where he was. On the panel in front of him another countdown clock ran. This one said САМОУНИЧМОЖЕНИЕ [SELF DESTRUCT].
“Shit,” said Lila worriedly. “This is no good.”
“No kidding,” Ian agreed sarcastically.
“Actually it wouldn’t matter except that, as you can see, the light is flashing and it appears to be counting down,” she pointed out.
“Never a good sign,” Ian murmured. “So what do we do?”
“We’ve got to stop it,” Lila said determinedly.
Joe walked up behind them and they nearly jumped out of their skins as he breathed down their necks. “What’s up?” he asked quietly.
“’Houston, we have a problem,’” Ian announced quietly.
“This mining town, Karalveem, is about to go nuclear,” replied Lila tensely. “Some nutjob wants to put the Romanovs or Soviets back in power, and decided to make a big point of it.”
Joe screwed up his face in concern. “How long do we have?”
Lila eyed the control panel. “Half an hour, give or take twenty seconds.”
The three of them looked at each other. Ian was the first to break the silence. “So how are we supposed to stop this?”
“There must be a way,” Lila mused, “or I wouldn’t have been sent here.” She quickly began scanning each of the instrument panels.
“Joe, your Russian is almost as good as mine. Look for something that looks like a set of instructions for this thing.” She gestured at the control panel.
“My Russian is every bit as good as yours,” Joe teased, trying to break the tension as he methodically pulled open drawers and searched around the seating area. He tried to wrench open a locked drawer. “Ian, can you open this?”
Ian quickly performed his patented unlocking maneuver and Lila rushed over to see what was in the drawer. A log sat on top with a series of codes written on it.
It was dark and spooky beneath the tarp, with a deadened feel in the air. Lila crept over to the closest window and stood on tiptoes to peer inside the vehicle. Shining the red light from her flashlight through the glass, she had a feeling that at any moment she was about to see a horde of shambling zombies lunging toward her from inside the RV. Lila shivered.
“Creepy much,” she whispered.
Lila felt Ian slide in beside her to peer through the window.
“Wow.” He whistled almost silently.
The interior of the RV looked almost exactly like the control room of the Bilibino nuclear power plant that they had just toured, except everything was compacted into about a third of the space. The room was slightly illuminated by the flickering lights on the instrument panel. From what she could see of the space, there didn’t appear to be anyone currently in the vehicle.
Joe was acutely aware of how the canvas covering would move around them as they repositioned themselves. He pushed his hands against Ian’s and Lila’s shoulders, warning them to stay tightly pressed against the vehicle’s surface. “Slide,” he breathed into their ears.
One at a time, with Lila in the lead, they edged their way around the vehicle until they reached its door. Trying to find a joint or handhold, Lila ran her fingers carefully across the icy metal surface. She gave up in frustration after a couple of minutes and moved to the other side of the door to aim the flashlight at the door’s surface.
Ian moved in front of the door and identified what appeared to be a locking mechanism. He withdrew a fancy looking 3-in-1 tool from his pocket, from which he removed a finger-length piece of metal. He inserted the metal tip into the lock and pulled a clamp connected by a wire from the other side of the tool, which he fastened to the edge of the lock.
Pushing a button on the main body of the device, there was a brief surge of current and a spark emitted from the lock, after which Lila heard a smooth click. The door popped open so quickly it nearly brained Ian, and it was only Joe’s quick reflexes pulling him out of the way that kept him from being hurt.
They looked at each other apprehensively, and then Lila reached her foot up onto the first step and started climbing into the RV, taking hold of the railing alongside the short staircase to maintain her balance. She cautiously climbed the steps, keeping her flashlight trained on the area directly in front of her feet. As Lila reached the main level, she could see a closed and presumably locked door in front of her. She leaned down to wave Ian and Joe forward, waiting for them to reach the area next to her before continuing to the door.
Ian knelt down to study the door’s dead bolt before going through the same unlocking procedure with his device. He stretched out his hand, gently pulling downward on the European style handle. At that same moment they heard what sounded like a toilet flushing.
Lila blanched, her eyes huge. Scarcely daring to breathe, Ian released the door handle in slow increments and backed toward the bus entrance. Joe stopped Ian’s and Lila’s backward movement by the simple expedient of placing a hand on each of their backs. He gestured for them to stay in position, and they stood there for a few minutes until there was no further noise. At that point, Joe edged forward to once again open the door in front of them.
Joe steered through yet another long glide across the frozen earth as Lila clung to the door handle to keep from sliding across the seat. Looking out the window, her eyes viewed the rocky surface covered in snow.
“Not the best area in which to be driving,” she commented.
“Nope,” Joe said curtly.
“Wonder if they’ve got snow tires on here.”
“Yep,” Joe replied shortly.
“Kind of tense,” Lila said with a small grin.
Joe made a growling noise in his throat.
Ian, who had remained quiet up to this point, cleared his throat. “I think we’re getting close.”
“Why do you say that?” Lila asked skeptically.
“Because we’ve been on the road almost 40 minutes and since we’re going in the right direction, I figure we should be there any minute.” Ian checked his wrist watch GPS to confirm. “Yep, almost there.” He scanned the horizon.
Joe continued driving slowly along the dirt track, which paralleled a wide river. Ian shook his head in amazement at the difficult driving conditions. “I can see why they use ice roads here. This weather is no joke.”
“Yeah, driving on permafrost takes special skills,” Lila added.
The Lada inched its way into the mining town as it was getting dark in the early twilight of the far north.
Car headlights aglow, they drove directly toward the mine, Ian navigating with his GPS. “Straight ahead,” he muttered. “There! On the right.”
Joe pulled into a portion of the road where the snow had been cleared away. The three of them got out of the car quickly and hiked toward the mine entrance.
A slow trickle of workers made their way from the mine, walking slowly down the path. The trio felt conspicuous in their outdoor gear in comparison to the miners, who wore red and white helmets with mounted headlamps, and gray, blue and camouflage jackets, some with reflective strips circling their arms and chests.
Keeping their heads down, Ian, Lila and Joe trekked up toward the mine works, scanning for anything resembling a nuclear recreational vehicle.
“Nothing yet,” Lila mumbled. “Keep an eye out for a brown RV that looks like something your parents would be vacationing in if they were Russian nuclear scientists.”
“Ha ha,” Joe said sarcastically. “I can’t picture my parents having anything to do with an RV, even if they were nuclear scientists, which they definitely aren’t.”
“Well, how do you know what they would be like then? I mean, if they were interested in having their own mobile nuclear power plant, they’d be very forward thinking. After all, they’d never have to think about another power bill,” Lila said thoughtfully.
“Just a sudden meltdown or other hazards,” Joe pointed out in an offhanded manner.
“Well, there’s always a downside to everything,” Lila quipped.
“Some more serious than others,” Ian agreed.
They walked over a ridge and saw the entrance to the main mineshaft, which appeared to be supported by sections of corrugated steel.
“Fancy,” Lila remarked.
“Indeed,” Ian said wryly. “Decorated à la corrugation. Are you sure we actually have to go into the mine to find this thing? Is it supposed to be buried inside or sitting around waiting to be found outside?”
“I’m not sure,” Lila said meditatively. “Look over on that side,” she motioned to the side of the entrance, “and let’s see if anything looks out of place.”
They walked around the side and then crawled up to the top of the hill, keeping a close eye out for anything that looked large and nuclear.
“Over there,” Lila said quietly, and motioned subtly toward what looked to be a large rectangular box covered by dark brown squares of canvas. They looked cautiously about, but no one seemed to be in this area.
The sun had almost completely set, and Ian pulled out a small red light LED flashlight. “Keep what vision we’ve got,” he explained softly.
They crept to the side of the tented object and the three of them lifted up the edge of the tarpaulin. Lila reached for Ian’s flashlight and ducked underneath.
Lila found herself whisked into a large cavern where people walked through her and around her like wraiths. Only she had the feeling that she was actually the visiting ghost.
She felt herself drawn to the back of the tunnel and appeared in front of a group of similar looking people to those she had seen in the area beneath Griffith Park before they began this journey.
“Welcome,” a multi-tone voice seemed to come from all areas of the cave.
“Uh, Thanks,” Lila answered hesitantly.
“You have been successful so far in following the traces we have set for you, but there is still one more challenge.”
“Really?” Lila asked curiously. “Don’t you think that saving the world was big enough?”
“Your task is not done yet,” the voice said in serious accents. “There is grave danger still to come from another source in this area.”
“Oh, great,” Lila said flippantly.
“This is a very serious issue!” the voice said scoldingly.
“Um, sorry.” Lila grimaced. “Not so good with the serious thing.”
“You’re doing fine,” the voice said reassuringly.
“What’s your name?” Lila asked.
“It is not important. The only meaningful thing for you to know is that your task is to identify this vehicle.” A photo was holographically displayed for Lila of what appeared to be a much-updated mobile nuclear power plant. It looked more like an RV, but Lila could see through the vehicle’s outline to the equipment inside.”
“Holy shit!” Lila exclaimed. “I mean that’s awful. Where is it?”
“We believe it is 20 kilometers west of your current location. As we are not corporeal we cannot do anything to stop its current movements.”
“But you brought me here—” Lila started to say before being interrupted.
“It is not the same thing. You have a high vibration of light energy with which we find easy to interact.”
“Ha,” Lila joked, “here I am always thinking I need to lose weight.”
It was dead silent.
“So, not really jokers,” Lila responded awkwardly. “I get the point. I’m supposed to get Ian and Joe– ”
“No, just you.”
“Oh, hell no! I am no way gonna be the only one on the quest for the holy mobile grail,” Lila retorted.
The voice relented. “Very well, if you think it will be expedient to have your friends along, then they may accompany you.”
“How generous,” Lila replied mockingly.
“It is. Now go back to where you were.” A being near the front of the group waved his arm and again Lila felt herself drawn backward to where she was before.
As she came to, she felt Ian patting her cheeks gently and his worried voice in her ear.
“Lila come back to us. You all right?”
Lila’s eyes fluttered open and she stared directly into Ian’s concerned expression.
Clearing her throat, she slowly sat upright and looked out the window. They hadn’t moved an inch from the parking lot where they were during her last conscious moment.
Joe’s left hand tapped the steering wheel impatiently or nervously, she couldn’t tell which, but thankfully he had the heat cranked on and it felt glorious on her chilled skin.
“I… I saw the people again.” Lila nearly stumbled over the words, feeling foolish.
“What people?” Ian looked as though he might doubt her sanity.
“The same people we saw in Griffith Park.”
Ian’s eyes widened. “Them?”
“Yes, them.” Lila’s eyes twinkled. “If you knew how funny you look saying that.” She smirked a bit.
“Glad that you’re feeling better,” Ian said in annoyed tones as he pulled his arm from around her and leaned back into the opposite corner of the back seat.
“I’ve received a mission,” Lila announced grandiosely.
“Oh, really,” Joe said deprecatingly.
“Yes,” Lila said importantly. “We’re to find the mobile nuclear power plant that is at this very moment moving 20 kilometers west of us. By the way,” she asked Joe, “what’s located 20 km west of here?”
Joe looked confused. “Nothing, at least… Wait, there’s a working gold mine over there.”
“That’s it!” Lila said triumphantly. “A gold mine! That would explain all the people running around, and moving to the back, and, and, everything!” She stuttered to a halt.
Ian looked bewildered by her incoherent outburst. “Okay,” he said soothingly, “I’m sure it was emotional seeing those people again.”
“No, really.” Lila put out her hand in a stop gesture. “I was pulled into what looked like a mine and I’m sure, well, I think I’m sure that it was that! You know, the gold mine.”
“Why wouldn’t they just tell you that?” Ian asked critically. “Seems like a lot of work to send you back here only to have you drive back again.”
“I said I wanted you two to help.” Lila’s voice thinned out as they both turned to look at her with equally stormy visages.
“I thought you’d want to help me,” she said in a small voice.
“Yes, but it would have been nice to be asked before being sent on a quest for the Holy Grail.”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Lila said excitedly. “It’s like a quest. Well, isn’t it?” she demanded.
“Okay,” Ian gave in somewhat gracefully. “Let’s head out.” He turned to Joe. “You said this vehicle could go through some serious stuff. Guess you’re going to get a chance to test her.”
Joe’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve no doubt she’ll make it.” He gunned the car engine and fishtailed his way out of the parking lot.
“Tally-ho!” cried Lila.
Ian gave her a disgusted look. “That should be ‘I hate snakes.’”
Lila grinned. “Indiana Jones! Perfect.” She began humming the theme song and hitting the back of Joe’s headrest in time to the music.
“Knock it off,” Joe grumbled.
“I’m trying,” Lila smirked.
”Off to see the wizard.” Joe mumbled.
Lila laughed, and then quickly sobered. “Let’s just hope the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t there to greet us when we get there.”
Warning signs covered the door in front of them, which included signs with an exclamation point forbidding entrance into the room without a helmet. A yellow triangular sign cautioned about a working crane inside and yet another sign appeared to ban ringing cell phones.
Lila, Joe and Ian put on the helmets and long sleeved white outfits provided by their hosts and began a circuitous tour of the reactor building. “I look like a chef,” Lila murmured to Ian.
“As long as we’re not the ones cooking in there,” Ian said a bit sarcastically.
The company guide gave them a warning look and Ian and Lila subsided into silence. Apparently they weren’t taking the tour seriously enough. A little levity was always a good thing when dealing with Armageddon, Lila thought.
They entered a cavernous multilevel space filled with yellow and white painted rounded objects and followed their guide down to the control room in which two men, wearing the ubiquitous white outfits, reclined in cushy chairs in front of an entire wall covered in monitoring equipment.
As their small group filed past, the worker on the left reached for the telephone situated next to his elbow, and Lila heard him speaking softly into the microphone. “Да,они здесь.Я недумаю, что онизаметили.” [“Yes, they’re here. I don’t know if they noticed.”] The man’s eyes followed them closely as they walked toward a door posted with even more warnings, this time in yellow lettering on a black background. They finally made their way into the Central Hall, an area at the heart of the reactor.
They walked toward a section demarcated with bright yellow and red radiation symbols posted on floor signs, wound around with white and red caution tape.
Joe gestured effusively to the open pool in which they could see the submerged rods. “Very safe, as you see,” he said in cheery tones. Pulling out a pocket Geiger counter, Joe showed Ian and Lila the numbers registering. “Only 2.67 sieverts. That’s a little more than half of what you’d get from a dental X-ray.”
“Um, great?” Lila responded.
“That is!” Joe continued enthusiastically. “You may not know this, but in the early 1960s Russia designed a couple of mobile nuclear power plants to provide energy to remote areas like this. There were two versions, one on tank treads and one on regular wheels. Pretty nifty, as it’s tricky to transport fuel to isolated areas. The mobile versions could even power themselves to get places using Radioisotope Thermal Generators, the same power source used by deep space probes. Unfortunately, after Chernobyl, Moscow scrapped the whole program.”
“I saw a photo of the mobile versions in a museum,” Lila interjected. “The wheel variety looked like a semi truck, and the tread type reminded me of a tank made into a school bus. Pretty interesting.”
“This power station was planned back in 1965 and finished in 1976. Quite a marvel.” Joe pointed to the area from which Lila could see protruding rods. “Look closely at this section.”
Lila focused on the area toward which he gestured. She could see something that appeared to be steam rising, which then turned into fantastical shapes that coalesced into… Sergey.” She heard his voice inside her mind.
Look over toward that nearby section of the wall.
Lila saw piping running in vertical lines across the wall. A green haze began to appear over the left section and she could see a crack forming. She thought a question toward Sergey: Is that real?
No, but it soon could be. Mention it to your host.
Lila turned to the man monitoring them on their tour and waved toward the problematic piping. “So, this part over here. What does that do?”
“It’s part of the cooling system. This is the only nuclear power plant in operation that still has ordinary water cooled graphite as a neutron moderator, which is what preserves the nuclear chain reaction.”
“So what would happen if those pipes cracked and burst?”
The man spontaneously began to sweat. “It would be a very bad thing. Of course, this will not happen,” he hurried to reassure her.
“How often are those checked?” Lila asked carefully.
He looked at her suspiciously.
“Just curious.” Lila shrugged. “I imagine it’s a lot of work keeping up on everything here,” she said in her best dumb girl voice.
“We manage,” the man said gruffly.
“Still, do you mind if I take a closer look? I’ve never seen so many pipes in one place.” Lila batted her eyelashes at him.
“You may, but be cautious.”
Ian walked next to Lila as she stepped closer until she was directly in front of the section that Sergey had indicated. “Is it supposed to look like this?” She pointed to a pipe that had glowed the brightest green in her vision.
“Like what?” Their host stepped toward the piping and peered closely. He blanched white and quickly told her, “There is nothing here. It looks fine. Please continue your tour. There is much to see in our city.”
Lila’s raised her eyebrows in disbelief and looked over at Ian, who nodded almost imperceptibly at her.
“Yeah, let’s go,” she said to Ian, who waved Joe over to them.
“Is the tour over?” Lila asked Joe.
“This was the last part on it. Ready?” Joe asked them offhandedly.
“I think so,” Ian replied. Lila nodded her agreement.
They exited from the building after walking through what appeared to be another set of metal detectors.
Walking briskly to the car, Lila asked Ian. “Mission accomplished?”
“I guess we’ll find out,” he said quietly.
Joe unlocked the car doors and they all climbed in, shivering from the cold air outside.
“Turn on the heat!” Lila called out to Joe, rubbing her hands together and blowing on them.
Suddenly a yellow light filled up the car and Lila felt herself drifting through space, sound echoing in her ears as though she was underwater.
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.