Category Archives: XVI. A LONG RIDE HOME

Week 75

Putin was grateful to be astride his Yunker again. Enveloped by the icy air and the mighty two-stroke’s roar, he found sanctuary.

These last weeks had been hard. He felt betrayed by all those closest to him. But his motorcycle, the steadfast, Yunker, would never falter.

Would never falter … unlike his protege at the most dire hour. The doubt in Snowy’s eyes had hurt more than Orso’s crushing grip.

Putin rode past an old billboard for the Kharkiv Zoo. The illustration, yellowed with age, showed a little boy hugging a giant polar bear.

Putin looked away quickly, refocusing on the horizon and the task ahead. He flexed his fingers to relieve his aching throttle hand.

Betrayal, followed by disobedience. Pulpo Paul gave the order, then told him it was the only way. But what did he know?

Putin paused for a moment at that thought, then stopped himself from thinking too hard about it. Now was the time to be quiet and ride.

Mile after mile of the Ukrainian countryside passed in a blur while Putin gently hummed his favorite somber Lyube songs, like Davay Za.

“Heaven is covered by grey clouds/Nerves shake like guitar strings … They kill us, but we survive/And again move ourselves to a fight.”

He passed endless fields of wheat and barley, humble thatched-roofed farmhouses slouching upon them. The wind made his eyes blur with tears.

Putin began to sing the ballad Tam, Za Tumanami. “Blue sea, nothing but sea astern/Blue sea and we’re far from home,” then stopped.

The sign was gone in a flicker, but Putin knew what it said: Vvedennya Chornobylʹsʹkoyi Zony Vidchuzhennya.

More amber smudges of Ukranian countryside, more soul-stirring lyrics from the People’s Artist, Nikolay Rastorguyev. Grimly, Putin rode on.

He saw a small shack, its wooden siding turning grey and black, its corrugated metal roof rusting. Outside, a babushka slaughtered chickens.

Putin had heard of these defiant old crows, stubborn peasants who had refused to abandon their homes after the meltdown.

He’d read about one who told Soviet officials, “Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise we’re staying.” Putin chuckled at such obstinacy.

He thought of his grandmother, stooped but still strong, generous with both the whipping switch and the candied potatoes, she …

Putin’s reminiscing collapsed as he realized his memories were lies. His childhood was merely the product of Dr. Antonosky’s mind control.

He felt a burst of rage, and then a wave of calm. He’d arrived. The Yunker idled before a rusting metal gate: Beyond it lay answers.

Beyond the gate was the sarcophagus encasing the Chernobyl reactor; somewhere within was the White Room, and the truth of Putin’s origins.

Week 76

As he dismounted the Yunker, Putin looked around quickly to see if he was being followed. These days, no amount of paranoia felt excessive.

There was no one in sight. The compound was a cemetery, a place of buried secrets. Putin looked for an entrance to the sarcophagus.

Gravel crunched underfoot as he walked toward the enormous building that had been hastily constructed to contain the leaking reactor.

Or at least that was the story. When Putin had last been here, Dr. Antonosky had told him the power plant was just a ruse.

That time, Putin had been sent to Chernobyl to interrogate a prisoner, one with extraordinary powers. Was that a lie, too?

Could there be another like him? Or was that visit simply another instance when he’d played the fool?

At one corner of the structure stood an imposing steel door guarded by a padlock with a shackle as thick as a man’s thumb.

Putin grasped the lock and concentrated: His hand glowed green. With a quick jerk the lock shattered, and he pulled it from the door.

Entering the chamber, he felt the cold air and smelled damp concrete and rust. A hazy memory flickered through his mind.

The interior was as black as a Siberian winter night; only a slash of sunlight from the open doorway dimly lit the distant reactor.

Putin flicked on his flashlight and began to explore. As he moved closer to the core, the hair on his arms stood on end.

Inside the reactor, Putin surveyed the wreckage, sweeping his flashlight beam over tangled nests of broken pipes and heaps of rubble.

On one of the walls, he caught sight of a map of the facility. After wiping off a layer of grime, he quickly located his objective.

In a sub-basement directly below one of the cooling pools was a small, unlabeled chamber. There could be no doubt: This was the White Room.

Putin made his way through dark halls and down crumbling stairwells. All the while, hazy memories nipped at his mind like horseflies.

He remembered being strapped down, old films of smiling farmers diverting water from the Aral Sea, Antonosky’s voice droning in his ears.

Once he reached the final sub-basement, all pretense of the building as power station disappeared: The hallway was a cellblock.

Putin walked slowly, peering into the cells through the small barred windows in their doors. “Which one was mine?” he wondered.

He saw himself in a hospital gown, shuffling along with dull eyes, absentmindedly holding a little paper cup filled with colorful pills.

At the end of the hall, Putin stopped abruptly as a wave of nausea washed over him. He stared at a door marked “101.”

He had reached the White Room.

Week 77

Putin took a deep breath and turned the doorknob. The door swung open easily, and he walked inside.

For days he’d been picturing what the room would look like, and his imagination had run wild.

He’d conjured up Medieval interrogation devices, dental tools, a variety of genitalia clamps, the Moody Blues “Timeless Flight” box set …

The reality was far different. Inside the White Room were simply two metal folding chairs and a filing cabinet with three drawers.

The walls were blank except for a single poster showing an adorable kitten clinging to a tree limb, with the slogan “Hang in there!”

He was a bit disappointed. Although he associated this room with profound personal suffering, he also had looked forward to seeing it.

As a torture connoisseur, Putin had been interested in visiting such a hallowed hall of instrumentalized pain: It could be educational.

He frowned, shrugged his shoulders, and walked over to the filing cabinet. Inside the top drawer, he found dozens of manila folders.

Putin pulled one at random: patient Yakov Naumovich Pokhis. Placing his flashlight in the crook of his neck, he flipped open the file.

Personal history, phobias, “treatment” record … He flipped through the pages until he came to one labeled “Operation Circus Bear.”

He dropped the file and grabbed another one. It had a section for “Operation Circus Bear,” too. Every file he opened did.

Finally, Putin found his own dossier. It was twice as thick as all the others. “OCB” was stamped in red letters on its cover. He opened it.

Just then, he heard the door slam shut behind him. He spun and delivered a roundhouse kick to it, but the thick steel held fast.

A muffled explosion above made the room shudder. A small crack appeared in a corner of the ceiling, spread, and water began to pour in.

“The cooling pool above must be draining,” thought Putin. Within seconds, the water had risen to his muscular thighs.

Putin quickly removed his Member’s Only jacket, wrapped it around his file, and stuffed it into his pants waistband.

As the water reached his chest, Putin ripped off his shirt. The water rose higher, and he kicked up to the ceiling.

He punched at the crack, widening it to a Putin-sized opening, took one last gulp of air before the room flooded, and swam up into the pool.

Looking up, he could see the building collapsing above him. He swam past massive chunks of concrete falling through the water.

Finally, he reached the surface. With one kick he launched himself out of the pool like a porpoise and hit the ground running.

Putin didn’t stop until he was astride the Yunker, racing toward the Fortress of Opulence. Someone had tried to kill him––but who?

Week 78

As Putin tore along the highway, back the way he had come, his thoughts raced even faster than his trusty Junker.

Someone had tried to kill him, someone who did not want him inside Chernobyl, someone who was keeping watch.

“Operation Circus Bear”—what could it mean? Clearly, Doctor Antonosky, or whoever ran the program, had a specific agenda.

They hadn’t just been torturing at random; in fact, they hadn’t ”tortured,” in the traditional sense, at all.

“Brainwashing,” he mused, as the Junker roared past the old babushka’s farmstead. “Why … ? Wait! What was that?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he saw the old woman holding a small apricot Poodle in an exquisite Dutch clip!

Putin slammed on the Junker’s brakes, counted to three until the machine responded, and skidded to a stop facing back toward the farm.

By the time he reached the farmstead, the old woman was no longer in sight, but there—Yes! Yes, it was a perfectly groomed little Poodle!

Putin parked the Junker and dismounted. Holding out his hand to the little dog, he noticed the faint green tinge of his excitement.

Quickly, he suppressed his putinescense. He had learned his sad lesson with another Poodle, poor little Malen’koye Der’mo: Never again!

“Hello, Little Friend,” Putin smiled, walking carefully across the rutted yard to where the Toy Poodle stood calmly wagging its tail.

As he approached, the little dog stepped backwards, just out of reach. Again, Putin admired the beautifully scissored hair of its legs.

“Come, come, Little One,” Putin murmured, stretching out his hand. “I will not hurt you.” Still wagging, the dog stepped back again.

“Ah! I see!” he said, “This is a game with you.” As if by signal, the little Poodle turned and ran for the collapsing old wooden barn.

Smiling, Putin followed. Such japery! Perhaps this little fellow would make a jolly companion for C-4, back in the Fortress of Opulence.

As he stepped through the door into the darkness, Putin was brought up short by the smell. The old woman’s cow must have died some time ago.

He would get her a new cow, he would get her a new barn! Surely she would see that he could give her dog a better life than this.

Putin blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dim light filtering through the holes in the corrugated metal roof. He did not see the Poodle.

“Where are you, Doggie?” he called, moving quietly toward a huge pile of rotting straw. The straw shifted slightly, then was still.

Putin’s smile widened. “I wonder where the little doggie went,” he sing-songed as he stepped forward, then plunged his hand into the straw.

“Here!” he cried, just as pain sliced through his forearm and razor-sharp teeth sank into his calf.

Week 79

The slimy straw fell away to reveal the old babushka wielding a threshing scythe. As she raised the blade to strike again, Putin leapt back.

The Poodle was gnawing at his leg, ripping at the calf muscle like a thing possessed. Putin began to grow green with rage: A trap!

Of course! No peasant would own such a splendid beast! Putin ducked as the woman swung at his neck and the scythe whooshed over his head.

The dog squealed and let go as his mouth was burned by the heat of Putin’s radioactive putinescense. “Sorry, Der’mo,” he thought.

Just then a blow struck his back with such force that he was pushed forward, past the old woman, spoiling her aim as she sliced at him again.

Putin wheeled about to see another old woman waving a mattock, and three more emerging from the shadows with pitchforks and a rake.

They were the ones who had tried to kill him in the containment building! Years of living in the forbidden zone had surely driven them mad!

As the old babushka brought her scythe across again, Putin grabbed her wrist and twisted. Her arm came off in his hand.

The old woman made no sound, but continued lumbering toward him. The other one swung her mattock and hit the first woman in the face.

Her head fell off and rolled into the corner, where the little dog was whimpering in pain. Her one-armed body kept coming at him.

Over the next half hour, the five old women did more damage to each other than to the nimble Putin, as he continued to evade them.

They stumbled about, swinging their weapons, seemingly without any definite target. Body parts—some still animate—piled up on the floor.

Putin thought of Mila, scooping the twitching bits of the Commander into bin liners. “зомби?” he thought. But how could that be?

And how could these old farm women be connected to the Commander? Only if he had an enemy who was able to reanimate the dead, he thought.

It did not seem likely, and yet … The headless, legless trunk of the first old woman began clawing at the floor with her remaining hand.

Beneath the scattered straw, Putin spotted a trap door. He kicked the babushka’s torso out of the way and pulled at the edge of the cover.

At first, looking down into the darkness, Putin saw only water, some kind of cistern beneath the barn.

Gradually he made out several large forms, submerged and hanging motionless. Another moment, and he recognized them: more babushkas!

Putin decided he had had enough. He took one last, lingering look at the little Poodle, still cowering in the corner of the barn.

The he turned, stepped to one side to avoid a swinging pitchfork, and released the full power of his radioactivity.

The flames of the burning farmstead rose high into the twilight behind him as Putin rode away on the Yunker, once again headed north.