Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

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Twelve: From Russia With Love

12. From Russia With Love, Matt Munro. Another “not a big star” Bond song artist, but he did have a reasonable career and it was the first Bond film to have a title theme other than the iconic Bond theme. He does a pretty good job crafting a song that fit the sixties and is about as memorable as the old film itself.

 

Fiction: From Russia With Love

Siberia is most famous as a prison, but it was more: a community, a mining town, home to many tribes that lived by hunting. That guy who’d been living in the woods with his family and didn’t know World War Two was over? Yeah, they were in Siberia. Miserable, frostbitten, wolf-scared and malnourished, but alive. If ever a place on Earth was a geographical oubliette, it was Siberia.

I’d gone up with the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development team to scout out one of the places in Siberia that even the Russian government hadn’t visited in probably three decades, since before the breakup of the USSR. I didn’t speak Russian, but none of the biologists did, and I’d grown up in Michigan, so they reckoned I could deal with Siberia. I didn’t care; it was likely to be more interesting than sitting in New York reviewing photos of laboratories from decimated Middle East cities to see if anything looked like a biological weapon.

When our soldiers or our allies’ had overrun an area, we could get pictures. For this set of laboratories, if you were going to send in photographers, you might as well just send the experts onsite and get a better opinion. So the fifteen of us flew coach to Moscow (the U.N. doesn’t spring for first class) and then caught a train up to Siberia. The landscape didn’t gradually thin out; it went from city to farm in an eyeblink, and from farm to forest almost as quickly. Then it was just forest, for hours and hours.

At least the U.N. sent us in July, so it was still light when the military bus from the train station came around a corner and stopped. We all craned our necks to the windows and peered out at a sight that looked worthy of a post-apocalyptic movie set. Trees leaned toward the concrete boxes and vines grew up their sides so that we could barely see the structures except for swaths of grey here and there, an occasional corner, the sheen of glass. It was pretty enough if you didn’t have to go walk into it, and fortunately we sciencey types didn’t have to.

The four members of our team who did have to got out their hazmat suits and their implements of destruction. They had a short conversation with the half-dozen Russian military police who’d accompanied us and then trooped off to clear the buildings.

The closest thing I had to a friend on this trip was Vanessa, a chemist from Queens who had a mutual friend in the U.N. We’d started out by gossiping about our friend’s many romantic affairs (not always strictly serial) and had gone on to build a rapport over the terrible airplane food, train food, and military food. “I’ll wager you’re busier than I am,” she said now, indicating the lab. “Who knows what could be growing in there.”

I eyed the flash of machetes against the vines and nodded. “Any potential biological weapons will probably be dead, though. Chemicals could still be viable.”

“Chemicals don’t mutate.”

I inclined my head. “Is that an offer to be my assistant?”

She snorted, and then we all snapped to attention as the team cleared away a primary door. “They’re going in,” said the team coordinator, and then he said something in Russian and the military lifted their guns to the ready.

“As if King Kong is going to come charging out,” I said. “What, are they going to shoot the viruses?”

We weren’t privy to the conversation between the coordinator and the advance crew, but all four of them disappeared into the lab. “The rest of you, get your suits on,” he ordered us, and Vanessa and I grabbed our stiff cloth suits and stepped into them.

She was just fitting her helmet on and I’d gotten mine sealed when there was a commotion, and one of the advance team stumbled out of the lab. And he wasn’t alone.

We all tensed at once. The military raised their guns. The person clinging to our teammate was a woman dressed in a tattered lab coat, saying something over and over in Russian. She didn’t seem to be attacking him; in those few seconds, it looked to me almost as though she were a wife trying to stop her husband from walking out on her. But our teammate, terrified, kept batting at her until he tripped. Then he went down and she went down on top of him, circling him with her arms.

Russian words flew back and forth around us, and then there was a loud crack that silenced everyone. The woman’s body jerked and then lay still atop the suited man. Slowly, blood seeped out onto the white lab coat.

“Who’s got their suit sealed? Go get her off him!”

I ran forward before Vanessa could stop me, along with a couple others, and we pulled the woman off him. Her face didn’t look afraid or angry, I remember. She looked blissful.

“She just attacked me.” The guy talked into his radio and I could hear him now. “Just ran up.”

“Is there anyone else in there?”

“Maybe? I was the last one in and she came out of a side passage.”

We moved the woman’s body near the lab and hoped that she wasn’t carrying some windborne disease; distance would have to serve to quarantine her for the moment. Then we had to figure out how to go in. The three other team members weren’t answering their radios, and we didn’t want to go in weaponless. But the Russian government had insisted that only the military be armed, and also that they would not enter the lab, so we didn’t even have enough suits for them.

We could’ve just left the whole thing. We voted, and it was a close thing, but seven of us didn’t want to abandon the three guys who might be simply in a shielded chamber and unable to hear us. So the rest of the team trooped into the lab, keeping close together, while the shaken fellow who’d been attacked remained outside.

The first dark room was a waiting room. We went through the single door, which had been left ajar, and continued back into the lab.

We were scientists, not rescuers, was the problem. So while we kept an ear out for any noises–and there were noises aplenty–we also couldn’t help looking around at the rooms we were walking through. And when we stopped at a room full of journals, we couldn’t help but flip through some of them. At least, some of the others did, and the few of us who couldn’t read Russian listened to the translation.

The weirdest thing was that the journals only spanned a couple decades, from the fifties to the early seventies. But the rest could have been somewhere else; this had the look of a storage room. The other weird thing, once they started reading them, was that most of the journals were gibberish.

“Seriously,” Vanessa said. “It’s just like hippie gushing about how beautiful the world is. Double rainbows and all that crap. There’s no scientific method at all.”

“Take a look at this one,” Joe, the other chemist (they had different specialties, but don’t ask me to tell you what they are) said, holding open a journal. “I don’t know this word, but it looks like it’s describing a stone of…some kind of origin.”

“Extraterrestrial,” the team coordinator said.

We all looked at each other. “Little green men?” someone said.

“E.T.”

“Little green stones.”

“Guys, it’s true.”

We’d all clustered around the journal, and now we spun around. One of our team was standing in the doorway. His faceplate was open, and he wore a beatific smile. “It’s true. They’re aliens and they’re trying to teach us to love.”

“Jesus, Mike, close your suit!”

“It’s too late.”

“He’s exposed.”

“Stay back.”

We babbled over the radio. None of it had any effect on Mike, who did in fact stay back. “Just listen,” he said. “You can hear the message if you listen.”

Joe, I think, said, “Let’s get out of here,” but then Vanessa shushed him and we all listened.

Mike was humming something, and the way he was doing it was weird, really relaxing. I thought it sounded a bit like some New Age music an old girlfriend of mine used to listen to, and then I noticed Vanessa standing beside me.

It was like seeing her for the first time. Her dark skin shone in the lab’s meager light, and it wasn’t just that she was pretty. I remembered all the great times we’d shared. I wanted to tell her, but before I could, my radio crackled to life again.

“Adam, you’re a great guy.”

“I love you, Jess.”

“I love all you guys.”

“Vanessa,” I said, and found her looking at me.

“I know, Kris,” she said. I could see her bright smile through the glass, and then it seemed really stupid that we had these faceplates between us. All around us everyone was opening theirs, so we did too.

Her lips tasted of her menthol lip balm. She smelled like a pine forest.

“You see?” Mike said.

We did. We thought about the poor military guys on the bus and how we should tell them about this love, and a bunch of us crowded out to the doorway, leaving about half the team who were getting out of their suits to get more industrious at the whole loving thing.

As we got to the doorway, the team coordinator spoke Russian over the radio, but as we came out onto the grass, he laughed. “They don’t have radios,” he said. “I forgot about that.” He raised his arms and shouted something in Russian.

The soldiers were lined up in a row and they looked terrified. I felt sorry for them, living in fear like that. Was that how I’d been once? I wanted to hug them and tell them it was going to be all right.

The air filled with sharp, loud pops. Something punched me in the gut, then again in the chest. All around me, my team, my friends, my loves were falling, tumbling, lying. I reached out and found Vanessa’s hand. Her eyes met mine. “Love,” she whispered.

“Love.” I said the word and then, as my breath failed, I started humming the tune Mike had hummed. It was easy once you knew how to do it. All of us hummed it, but our voices were weak and the wind didn’t carry, and the soldiers stared at us with wide eyes and then turned and fled back into the bus.

The last sight I remember seeing was the fourth member of our advance team looking at us through a window of the bus. He still wore his suit, but his faceplate was open, and on his face was the most dazzling, loving smile.

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