Savina crossed her arms. The control room was back in Chelyabinsk 88, in one of the old abandoned Soviet-era apartment buildings. Technicians manned the small room of monitors and computers. Once the site was evacuated, thirty different cameras would provide coverage of the area.
The engineer counted down the seconds. “Three…two…one…zero.”
A snap of an electrical circuit sounded from the silo door, and its steel petals opened like the iris on a camera. As they peeled wider, a low roar of water echoed up to her. She stepped to the iris and stared over the edge. A vertical shaft dropped two hundred meters through the rock.
The engineer joined her and pointed a heavy flashlight down the throat of the mine shaft. Far below, she spotted a silvery rush, reflecting the light. An underground river. There were several such waterways draining the Urals, massive aquifers flowing down from the highlands. On the far side of the mountains, the waters flooded into the Caspian Sea, but here the aquifers drained through a series of rivers, specifically the Techa and Ob, all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
Savina turned and looked up the sloped shaft that led to the fault line under Lake Karachay. It contained over one hundred times more strontium and cesium than was released in Chernobyl. And Chernobyl’s toxic plume had circled the globe. She stared back down the vertical shaft to the flowing aquifer.
It had been an ongoing threat. Geologists were well aware of the faults that underlay Lake Karachay. It was only a matter of time until an earthquake burst one of those fissures and dumped all that radioactivity into the drainage basin of the Ural Mountains. Studies done by geophysicists from Norway estimated that such a catastrophe would sterilize a good portion of the Arctic Ocean, one of the planet’s last great wildernesses. From there, its poisonous pall would sweep halfway around the planet, concentrating its worst effects across northern Europe. Conservative estimates put the death toll from primary radiation and secondary cancers at one hundred million. And that could easily double or triple from the resulting economic and environmental damage.
She stared from the sloped shaft above to the river below. Such a disaster had always been a constant but barely acknowledged threat. All nature needed was a little shove.
Then the world would burn.
Her breathing grew harder at the enormity of what was about to unfold. Out of that radiological fire, a new Russian Empire would rise, like a phoenix out of the ashes of their own nuclear legacy.
She would let nothing stop her.
She had spent her life and soul here in the Warren, all to serve the Motherland. And after so many sacrifices, so much bloodshed, what was left of Russia? Over the past decades, Savina had watched the Motherland devolve into this corrupt, pitiful shadow of itself. Here at the end of her life, she would offer it hope again. That would be her legacy, brought about by her own son.
She would burn away the corruption and create a new world.
“General-Major? Is there anything more?”
She shook her head and controlled her words. “I’ve seen enough.”
The engineer nodded and crossed to a steel lever beside his workstation. It looked like a giant handbrake on a car. He pinched the release on the lever, cranked the bar up, and shouldered it in the opposite direction. The iris swept closed at her toes and sealed the shaft. There was still work to be done. Miners, who had stopped to see the silo doors open, went back to work, crossing over the top of the iris, as they had for the past two years since dropping that first shaft.
Operation Saturn was ready to commence.
Savina turned away and headed toward the waiting train. She also had final preparations back at Chelyabinsk 88 to complete. She checked her watch. Nicolas should be heading to the ceremony at Chernobyl in another hour. Despite his rash actions of late, he did have everything under control. With or without him, systems were in place and would run their course. All was in order. Nothing could stop it from happening.
As she stepped into the train car and the doors sealed, she glanced back to the heart of Operation Saturn. She tried to picture the millions that would die, but they were an abstraction, a number too large to contemplate beyond cold statistics. She faced forward as the train lurched into motion and headed back toward the Warren at Chelyabinsk 88. The teachers and researchers should be readying for their own evacuation. Computers were being wiped, records incinerated. The children were also being prepared—but not for evacuation. They would be taking one last train ride themselves.
All of them, except the ten who would be with her.
Savina pictured the faces of the other children. Sixty-four, including the infants. It was a number too small to view as only an abstraction. She knew a majority of the children by name. As the train trundled toward the Warren in the dark, Savina leaned a hand against the wall. Her knees trembled, and a wave of emotion swept through her. She did not fight it. It welled up out of her chest and choked her throat. A few hot tears streamed down her cheeks. In this private moment, she let her emotions run their course. She recognized her humanity and allowed herself a moment to grieve.
But only this moment.
By the time the train began slowing, she wiped her face and patted her cheeks. She took several deep breaths. There was no turning back.
Necessity was a cruel master.
And she would have to be just as cruel.
Nicolas climbed into the limousine with Elena. A caravan of vehicles flowed out from the staging area in front of the Polissia Hotel. Politicians and officials were being shuttled or had private escorts. Since midnight, news crews from around the world had been setting up cameras and prepping vans that sported towering satellite antennas. Since first light, celebrities and dignitaries had been drifting over there, for interviews, for tours, for a moment in the limelight.
In the next hours, the eyes of the world would be upon the sealing of Chernobyl, a final act to end the old nuclear era and launch a major new summit to address the issue far into the future.
But Nicolas had his own issue at the moment.
As soon as the limousine door clicked shut, Nicolas had his first moment of privacy with Elena. He turned to her. “I’m sorry. I should have told you about Sasha and Pyotr.”
Elena shook her head very slightly, furious. She had not spoken a word to him since his interrogation of the Americans. Even now, she shifted to stare out the window of the limousine. Sasha and Pyotr had always held a special place in her heart. It was more than the usual affection. She had a personal connection, too. It had been Elena’s older sister, Natasha, who had given birth to them, dying in labor.
“You know the policy at the Warren,” Nicolas pressed as the limousine set off down the road. “Birth records are sealed.”
It had been a guideline from the start at the Warren. Familial lines for the most part were kept secret. Children knew their immediate brothers and sisters, to discourage inappropriate fraternization, but that was all. Breeding was dictated and controlled by the geneticists.
But Nicolas had been no ordinary offspring. As the son of the founder, an entire history had been fabricated for him, starting in Yekaterinburg, where his mother had given birth to him at a local hospital, using the false surname Solokov. His mother would have used the name Romanov, but that might have been too obvious. From the very start, he had been groomed for a special destiny. As such, he was granted certain privileges.
“I checked the fertilization clinic’s records one day,” he said. “I was curious if I had any children. It was then that I discovered that Sasha and Pyotr were my own. But I was forbidden from saying anything.”
He reached a hand to her knee, but his palm hovered, fearful of touching her. “In fact, it was because of the production of such talented children that my mother encouraged our union. In an attempt to repeat such a fortunate genetic cross.”
Elena would not turn his way. A part of him enjoyed her coldness, this control. He wanted to touch her, but she had not yet given him permission.
“Please, milaya moya, forgive me.”
She ignored him.
Sighing, he stared ahead.
Through the privacy glass, Nicolas spotted the rise of Chernobyl. A tall ventilation tower, ringed by maintenance scaffolding, climbed high into the sky. It rose from a jumble of cement buildings. Crammed against one side stood a massive blocky crypt of black steel and concrete. It looked damp, as if sweating. It was not a mystery why the structure was called the Sarcophagus. It looked like a black tomb, and at its heart lay the ruins of reactor number four.
Nicolas had seen pictures of the inside, a blasted landscape of scorched cement and twisted steel. In one room, there was a clock, charred and half melted, that forever marked the time of the explosion. Within the Sarcophagus, over two hundred tons of uranium and plutonium remained buried within the ruins, most of it in the form of solidified lava, formed from the radioactive fusion of molten fuel, concrete, and two thousand tons of combustibles. Pieces of the exploded core could be found everywhere, some embedded in the outer walls. In the lowest levels of the facility, seeping rainwater and fuel dust collected into a radioactive soup.
Was it any wonder that a new solution was necessary?
Off to the left was that answer.
It went by many names: the Shelter, the Arc of Life, the New Sarcophagus. The hanger-shaped arch rose thirty-seven stories into the air. Weighing over twenty thousand tons, it stretched over a quarter kilometer wide and half again as long. It was so cavernous inside that engineers feared it might form clouds and actually rain within the structure. On the underside of the arch, robotic trolley cranes waited to dismantle the old Sarcophagus piece by piece, operated by technicians safely outside the Shelter.
But things were already on the move.
The entire arch rested on greased steel tracks and was even now being slowly hauled along the rails, pulled by a pair of massive hydraulic jacks. It was the largest movable structure ever built by man. And by eleven o’clock this morning, the Shelter would be pulled over the old Sarcophagus and sealed up against the neighboring concrete building, totally covering the old crypt, and thus closing forever an ugly bit of Russian history and heralding a new start.