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.