After breakfast Nick put in the phone call to the number Tarasov gave him, and arranged a meet with Gubin in Gorky Park.
Nick decided to take the subway there, because it was said to be a viable way of getting around the city, and one much less likely to draw attention than a private car. He proceeded to the station under the square, in the process getting his first look at the famous Moscow Metro. With its red granite floors and white marble walls, Tverskaya station was a far cry from the D.C. Metro, let alone the graffiti-covered piss holes he’d seen in New York. And it looked like the stations were still in good shape, even when the people in them weren’t. The smell of homelessness, familiar from the cities back home, instantly assailed his nostrils, and en route to the platform he spotted a legless man moving about on a little wheeled cart, playing an accordion.
Nick noticed that the handicapped man was wearing ribbons on his unwashed clothes, identifying him as a paratrooper and an Afghansti, and even a winner of the Hero of the Soviet Union medal and an Order of Lenin.
Nick thought momentarily of Vietnam vets he’d seen living on the street, then turned away, back to navigating the unfamiliar transit system, and making sure he wasn’t being followed in the process – or getting his pocket picked.
The crowding got worse as he continued to the platform, the crush making him think less of New York than of Tokyo. The trains ran frequently, but that barely let them accommodate the vast numbers of passengers. Of course, very few people here had cars, so such a level of traffic was probably unavoidable.
Nick caught a train traveling south to a cross-platform station where he got off, then walked over to the other line. He rode that one another four stops south and got off at Frunzenskaya, then took a third train north back to Park Kultury, just to try and flush out any tails.
So far as he could tell, no one was following him.
Nick made for the street, and then realizing that he was actually across the river from his destination (he’d been confused by the name, he guessed), caught a trolley bus which carried him to the park’s main entrance. As he approached it Nick spotted a short, gray, bespectacled man standing near the edge of the lake, idly watching the people skating on its frozen surface as he smoked a cigarette.
“You have a light?” Nick asked him.
“Sure,” Gubin answered.
Nick got out a cigarette, borrowed Gubin’s lighter, started smoking himself.
“Our mutual friend enlightened you as to why I’m here?” Nick asked him as they both continued standing there, looking out at the water.
“Of course,” Gubin said. “These are interesting times for us here. More so than you might think in the Directorate. I suppose you know the kind of thing I mean – the change in leadership.”
Of the country, or the Directorate? Nick wondered.
“It’s something we’d certainly like to know more about,” Nick said, not wanting to give away his ignorance. “The circumstances.”
“The Director’s plane went down two weeks ago,” Gubin said.
Two weeks? If that was the case, Nick realized, then the report he’d read back in D.C. was already outdated, and no one had bothered to give him an update since. Was it possible no one back home knew about this?
Nick just nodded, encouraging Gubin to go on.
“We were very quickly told the plane crash was an accident,” Gubin continued. “So quickly that I’m not sure a proper investigation could have taken place.
“Of course, there are rumors. Some are saying the accident was due to a lack of proper maintenance on the aircraft – you know how such things have been lately. I have also heard people speculate about foul play, but that is only to be expected given his position, and the circumstances of his death.
“Besides, you know us: the worse the story we hear, the more credible it seems to us, and if it’s bad enough, why then, it must be true.
“A natural response, perhaps, to living through so much shit, and hearing so many official lies. Maybe there’s even something genetic in it after all these centuries.”
Perhaps. “Any theories?”
“You mean the motive for crashing his plane, assuming it was the work of an assassin, rather than an accident caused by a lazy mechanic? There’s no shortage of those. Or do you mean any ‘theories’ that I give some particular credence to? The answer to that would be ‘no.’” He took another puff of his cigarette. “People make extravagant guesses based on very little information. You know the kind of thing.”
Indeed he did. Their whole reason for being here was extravagant guesses based on very little information.
“I’d rather you told me the kind of thing.”
Another puff. “Some think it’s an internal coup. Shadrin’s death of course leaves General Demidov in charge for the time being. But I don’t buy that. He doesn’t have the kind of power base that would permit him to take over the Directorate.
“Of course, someone may well want a vacuum, push an agenda into it. It might be petty shit, someone just looking to advance their own career, but then again it might not.
“Some of us are wondering about a possible move against the new regime, and all the concessions it’s making to the West. But how exactly a takeover of Directorate Thirteen would fit into this isn’t clear.
“One possibility that occurs to me is that the old KGB may think it has found its chance to steal the program away from us, as it has wanted to do for a very long time. But I haven’t seen any evidence to support this, especially with the organization facing so many other challenges.
“A point of interest is the Directorate’s internal reserve of hard currency, which has helped buffer it against some of the more recent troubles. This in itself is a prize. But this doesn’t convince me either, not when there are so many other, easier ways to gain illicit money for virtually any outside actor.”
But not necessarily any inside actor, Nick thought. Someone might have been dipping into the accounts, and got caught, and put Shadrin out of the way.
Or the new Russia being what it was, Shadrin may have been in on the theft, and then unwisely got into a fight over how to split the take.
Still, Nick was only here listening to this gossip because the Directorate was in charge of other Soviet assets.
“There are also other things to loot,” he said simply, trying to pull the conversation back to his assignment.
“People talk about that too,” Gubin said.
“What do they say?”
“There have been rumors about an incident at the Dunba facility.”
More names he hadn’t heard before, Nick thought. There was no mention of a Dunba facility in the tables in the report he’d seen back in D.C., he was sure of that.
“Frankly, the way they talk about it, I’m not even sure there was an ‘incident’ of any kind,” Gubin continued. “I’m sure you know the type of people in the Thirteenth’s counterintelligence section. To them every irregularity is the sign of a plot, every absence of irregularity a sign that things are ‘too quiet,’ and therefore evidence of an even bigger plot underway.”
Nick wanted to know more about Shadrin’s death, and the investigation into it; as well as more about this Dunba facility. That incident could have been any of a number of things, an intrusion perhaps. But if there were intruders, what were they after?
“The ellipton has been mentioned,” Gubin said.
Nick had heard that term before. In fact, the thing had been near the top of the list of items they were expected to seek information about. But what he’d heard about it was so bizarre that he hadn’t really credited the stories, and anyway, there was so much uncertainty surrounding it that just knowing what Gubin knew would be something of value in itself.
“I’m not sure I know what that is,” was Nick’s reply.
Gubin shrugged. “Perhaps you know it by a different name,” he said. “This thing, if it exists, is a rectangular metal object, about the size of a briefcase. A team of archaeologists discovered it at a site in the Ukraine, on the Black Sea coast, near an old Greek settlement, about thirty years ago. Just a curiosity at first, but it presented our academicians with one mystery after another. They could not identify the material. Or penetrate the object, by X-rays, by radar, by mechanical means, the drill bits breaking as soon as they were brought to bear on its surface.
“It was too perfectly engineered to be natural. And at the same time, its make far beyond anything our metallurgy, or anyone else’s for that matter, could possibly achieve. You know the conclusion the people in charge came to, and naturally the Directorate claimed it.
“Most of this sort of stuff went to the Kapustin Yar test range for examination by our engineers. With little success. Until, that is, someone hit on the idea of bringing in participants in our program of research into extrasensory perception. Several of them were put in contact with the device, and claimed that it communicated with them, almost as if it were a living, even sentient thing. Some reported receiving nothing but intuitions, others that it used mental images.
“What they learned from it is that it is a weapon of mass destruction, perhaps more powerful than all our hydrogen bombs combined. To use it, they said, would leave us living in caves again.
“Two of them claimed that the ellipton showed them how to activate it, the process apparently requiring such faculties as they had.”
“But of course, you were never able to test it. To know if it even works,” Nick said.
“Of course,” Gubin said. “Those who work with it say that even if it was all some kind of hoax, clearly it is one beyond the capabilities of any humans.
“But someone dreamed up a use for it anyway. They decided to take the reports about the device’s capabilities at face value – and to pass that information on to the West. Which is why I assumed your knowledge of it.”
Everything Gubin had said matched what Nick’s briefing told him until he mentioned this leak.
“What was the idea behind telling us about it?” Nick asked.
“The story goes that Khrushchev saw that we were far behind in the arms race,” Gubin continued. “The Bomber Gap, the Missile Gap – they were real enough, but it was the other way around. At the same time, he wanted to prioritize domestic development. So he had to end the arms race on terms he could live with.
“The ellipton looked like it might be the most direct way of achieving this, by making it clear that no matter how many bombers and missiles the Americans built, they could never destroy us without being destroyed themselves. Since deterrence can’t work unless others actually know what you can do – he instructed the intelligence services to arrange for them to learn of it. They received photographs and film of the device, demonstrating its physical characteristics, and showing the testimony of our personnel.
“So far as we can tell, it didn’t budge the West one inch, and so he decided to put missiles in Cuba. You know how that went. They were probably as disbelieving of the story as I am.
“Still, the ellipton continues to be considered a part of our strategic defenses, just like our nuclear weapons – one reason why it’s stored in the Dunba facility, here near Moscow and its air defenses. In fact, some of the strategists thought that in the event of a major crisis, using the device might have been preferable to the destruction that would follow a large-scale nuclear exchange. We even tried to provide for it in our civil defense plans, figuring out how we might be able to rebuild the country after using it, though of course our understanding of it was limited.
“Now the rumor’s that the ellipton may be missing. But like I said, I don’t even know if this thing exists, let alone whether or not we still have it.”
The ellipton, missing, maybe stolen – again, if it was real at all. That was definitely worth reporting.
When they concluded their talk Nick took his leave, heading back to the Park Kultury station. While he waited for the trolley bus outside the park exit he saw a group of marchers, people protesting the reforms to go by the slogans written on the placards they were carrying. As he expected, there were a lot of old faces in the crowd.
He didn’t expect to see that they weren’t all old. There were some young people, too. They’d probably heard stories about how the way things used to be, and been spooked by the rougher edges of change.
Nick didn’t give the matter much more thought than that as he got on the bus for the ride back to the Metro station. The marchers were forgotten by the time he got there.