Guardians

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Chapter 16

Ryazan Oblast, R.F.

Lieutenant General Viktor Shadrin of the GRU poured himself a glass from the bottle of Stoli his associate gave him as a gift. Glancing out the window of his Russian Air Force Antonov’s passenger cabin, he took a sip and savored it.

There had been a breach of his Directorate’s facility at Dunba. Now he was making a round of the facilities in his Directorate’s charge, meeting those charged with their safety and security in the course of his personal inspections.

He insisted on making the tour alone, giving urgency and discretion as his excuses. This was hardly an efficient use of the big plane, which could accommodate two dozen people easily, even in the jet’s executive configuration, but an inefficiency justified by that same urgency.

What would his trip accomplish? In all likelihood, not much, he’d told his assistants in confidence. But he was obliged to be seen doing something in the aftermath of such an incident, even when the action he was undertaking was pointless.

That he might have been accomplishing something else beneath his appearance of strenuously accomplishing nothing would not likely occur to any of his superiors, colleagues or subordinates. Or so Shadrin expected as one who’d spent a career approaching irrationality in rational ways. He was a scientist in military uniform, psychology his field. In the course of his studies he had taken an interest in parapsychology, research that had seemed potentially profitable.

Back then Viktor had, in all sincerity, compared the significance of his work to Hiroshima, to Sputnik. Reality disappointed both Shadrin and his sponsors, the dream of psychic weaponry not materializing as they had hoped. As the years passed he became more and more willing to attribute such “evidence” as they had thought they had to statistical error, to clumsily designed experiments, to wishful thinking, to sheer coincidence. The universe certainly had its mysteries, but the kinds of mysteries with which he’d involved himself appeared trivial, irrelevant, a rock against which he’d stupidly beaten his head. It all seemed a waste, and he wondered if he shouldn’t have taken a different path, devoted those years and energies he couldn’t get back to something else. After all, when his belief in his work was gone, what did he have?

The pleasures afforded by his position had certainly provided some compensation. The handsome office, the staff, the big apartment, the comfortable country house, the chauffeured car, the attentions of the sort of women who didn’t even look at him when he was just a skinny, bespectacled academician. But these things didn’t entirely fill the hole left by his disillusionment. Nor did personal ambition. This generalship was as far as he could possibly have got in the old system. In the chaos of the new, he would be lucky even to retain it. A more hardheaded and hard-pressed leadership would likely cut his organization down to nothing, or even dismantle it outright.

And the truth was that Shadrin did not feel up to resisting his being put out to pasture, or making the efforts necessary to even try to revive his organization. He wanted only to cash out now, and enjoy the remainder of his life in such comfort as he could afford, which would be considerable if he received all the money promised him. There would be no return to the old sense of mission, but there would still be new experiences, new luxuries such as even a General did not have under the old order.

Shadrin pictured himself living in a mansion on the Cote d’Azur, like earlier generations of Russian aristocrats at play. Lying on beaches with which the finest resorts of the Black Sea could not compare, savoring the best food and best wine, amusing himself at the most elegant gaming tables, enjoying the attentions of the most beautiful women in the world.

The sums being transferred to him would make all that possible, and more, just so long as he got away with it. Shadrin thought about passing himself off as someone else when he started his new life, which could be fun in itself. He could concoct a romantic past, perhaps even a title and a lineage such as would no doubt be fashionable again in a world of reactionary triumph.

Ambitious as he’d always been, such a course would once have been unthinkable. Still, the man who’d ardently believed in the power of mind over matter had reconciled himself to a materialist outlook, one thing Marx had certainly got right in his view. In a universe ultimately made up of matter and energy, as he had found this one to be, it seemed to him that choice was an illusion – but sensation was no less real for it.

Shadrin finished his glass and thought to pour another, but as he lowered the bottle’s opening toward the mouth of the cup the plane rocked as if a giant had kicked it in the side, making him spill some of the vodka on his shirt. Before he could even utter a curse he tumbled forward out of his seat, onto the floor as the whole plane went into a steep descent. The bottle broke with the impact and the shards of glass cut into his palm as the screaming dive swallowed up the world.

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