All access to the long-distance train platforms at the Kazan train station was blocked. Golubev showed his passport to a ruddy, yellow-mustached policeman who had an open laptop hanging at chest-height, like a peddler’s box. Like some nasty iron insect, a Veresk submachine gun lifted its proboscis on his partner’s belly.
“Press. First car,” Yellow Mustache barked after paging through his file to the right name and holding out his huge, black-gloved hand to return Golubev’s papers.
Here it was. The Rossiya. A super high-speed, jet-propelled train all set to start in half an hour on its first historic journey, from Moscow to Irkutsk. The Russian Bullet—that’s what they called it in all the news reports. Golubev had had occasion to see a bullet train before, in Japan, in Yamanasi Prefecture. That train had been a monorail running on a suspended magnetic rail, and it had reminded him of a needle with lots of eye-windows; when it vanished it left not a sound even but an echo, a delicate vibration of burst space. Unlike the Japanese train, the Russian super high-speed was getting ready to set a record on its own worn-out Trans-Siberian track. Surprisingly short and fluidly humped, it looked more like a submarine than a train—a submarine ready to launch ballistic missiles: at its head, raised on metal horns, were two dark, still cold cigar-jets.
So magnificent was the spectacle that most of this land-based nautilus still seemed to be underground, the construction having surfaced from the strata of Russian earth, where it rightfully traveled, scattering the glacial detritus. The train itself had been carefully covered with a crust of burnt stone. No fancy high-tech mirror sheen: the Rossiya was clothed in a dark grainy polymer that created a thin, almost airless screen around the speeding body. This polymer was in fact the main piece of know-how on the super high-speed train, or so it had been reported at the press conference by the director of the Railroad Scientific Research Institute, a vast and imposing man who looked like a champion bulldog and who obviously had had no part in the train’s design but had come from some secret defense laboratory. Nonetheless, it was hard to believe that the train would cover the 5,192 kilometers—the distance by rail from Moscow to Irkutsk—in just six and a half hours.
“What Russian doesn’t love going fast!” a rich bass voice boomed directly over Golubev’s ear.
Golubev turned to see his sworn friend Gosha Bukhin. Tubby Gosha, unshaven on principle, was wearing wrinkled camouflage and a velvet fez with a tassel, as usual. The rogue’s comely and succulent face was radiant with the anticipation of a pleasurable journey. Golubev had no idea what media Bukhin was representing on the Rossiya: he changed the site of his seething creative activity with such head-spinning alacrity, anyone else in his place would have long vanished into the abyss among the drifting media—but not Gosha.
“The SOB found a way onto the train, after all,” Golubev thought, annoyed.
“So you wormed your way onto the trip, after all, you pen shark!” Bukhin exclaimed, clapping Golubev on his rounded shoulders. “Are we racing to Irkutsk together? I hear they’re preparing a banquet there! At the governor’s…” Dreamily, Bukhin screwed up his gorgeous, unctuous eyes, where, however, his chronic abuse of alcohol was already manifesting itself in albuminous nodules and blood specks.
Golubev shuddered. The platform was fairly empty, even as new people kept arriving. The emptiness made him feel like yelling. Closely surrounded by bodyguards, State Duma deputies were chatting quietly, their faces as pale as extinguished lamps. Standing out among them with her artificial vivacity and turquoise blue suit was the sole woman, apparently representing the Moscow city government. The railroad institute director looked lost hobnobbing with the big shots. His big flat cheeks shook, and his arms dangled like abandoned oars.
“And here she is—Dasha, our delight!” Bukhin exclaimed, opening his camouflaged arms the width of the platform. “Dashutka, my darling, come here quickly!”
“Hi, San,” Dasha Pirogova, the Telegraph correspondent, greeted Golubev.
Yesterday’s intern, a round-faced, hardheaded girl from the Moscow area, Dasha tried very hard. Slob that he was, fond of knocking back a shot or three at parties, Golubev had gone to Dasha for information he’d missed more than once, and Dasha, good-naturedly, had always let him copy from her. That was why he didn’t like the way Gosha grabbed her proprietarily by her cute little shoulder and kissed her with the pursed bud of his whiskery mouth. Dasha stood there with her legs pressed close together forcing a smile.
“He was just the same with Kira,” Golubev thought furiously and impotently. Not that there was anything happening between Kira and Golubev, either, but that’s the direction things had been taking, and Golubev was mad about the young gleam of her long, cunning eyes and her cheerful curls, which seemed capable of ringing like bells. But Bukhin had slipped in and put that same proprietary arm around her, and Kira had yielded, simply to be polite, in Golubev’s opinion, to compensate for the crassness of the situation, and then she had disappeared. Now people said she was working as a public relations specialist at Mosstroibank. What had happened? Nothing, really. Golubev was the fool. And there was no point envying Bukhin his every roguish success or every cute young reporter Bukhin sampled and then abandoned gallantly on the sidelines so that he could take wing to a new flower, like a honeybee bubbling with life.
“They’re holding up the departure for some reason,” Dasha said in her squeaky little voice.
“Hey, look what they’re doing!” Bukhin shouted, turning this way and that, still holding his victim under his arm. “They’re picking at the train coating! They’re after a nice little souvenir. Look!”
Indeed, every so often one of the people standing on the platform would sneak a feel of the Rossiya’s rough hide. The substance’s deceptive friability really did provoke you to pick at it, but the many who had chanced it were quietly sucking their injured fingers. An old man so scrawny and wearing a coat so faded he looked like a scarecrow was feeling the car’s bony metacarpus as if he were palpating a patient’s belly.
“Well, they’re not going to get anything,” Golubev spoke reassuringly.
“They’re not? You’re wrong!” Bukhin chuckled nervously. “This is Russia! Catch the metaphor, colleagues? They’re scratching at it and they’re the ones who are going to be flying on this train at some damn speed! We are really and truly screwed! What a country!”
The old man who had been palpating the train turned around at Gosha’s laughing screech. Making contact with his frozen, colorless eyes, Golubev thought that this was a scarecrow for more than crows to fear. And once again it seemed to Golubev that underneath his threadbare clothes the old man had a cross, not a skeleton.
“Why does the train have such a weird nose?” Dasha asked, intrigued, pointing to the raptorial horizontal pilot that poked out seven meters or so ahead of the cab’s sloping windows.
“Sunshine, this is the Trans-Sib,” Bukhin spoke patronizingly. “Handcars use it. People drive cattle across it. Freight trains take it at a walk. Today, naturally, all the freight and passenger trains are on auxiliary routes. But over five thousand kilometers—who’s going to monitor that? You think it’s so easy to brake at 500 kilometers an hour? We’re going to throw off everything that climbs on the rails! Get it?”
“Oh my!” Dasha pressed her hand to her cheek. They watched a thick velvet flush spread under her fingers.
Right then the train car doors lifted, like chitinous wings. Cameras clicked and whirred, bathing the pale politicians and the institute director, who for some reason had run his hand over his head, in cold flashes. A march thundered out under the vault of Kazan station, startling a flickering swarm of pigeons.
Golubev had been interested in bullet trains for a long time. Ever since the day—carefree and slightly drunk, the way you get on business trips—he had seen a ghost.
It happened outside Tver, at the Doroshikha station. A big rail car plant, Soviet vintage, had been given a loan and so had invited the press, including from the capital, to the launching of its mystery project. They didn’t show them much, but they did wine and dine them on a grand scale. Carrying an opened bottle of vodka and a smushed snack in a paper bag, Golubev split off from the noisy revelry to sit on the spring grass in blissful solitude and dream a glorious and fragile dream. The May sun warmed him like an iron, and Golubev, tipsy, in search of a suitable knoll, followed the heated rails, which blanketed the space, being the width of a good-sized streambed. Cinders, oily and hot, like popcorn, crunched under his soles, frayed butterflies fluttered past, and luscious tiny flowers flashed between the cross-ties. Then Golubev stumbled and looked up.
A perfectly ordinary train car at first glance. Or rather, scrap, the remains of a commuter train. Rusty ulcers on the car’s corrugated side, down-home-looking, like a washboard. Doors and windows, beaten sheet metal, here and there miraculously preserved windows withered and gray, like an old piece of carbon paper. And on top, at the head of the train, what was left of an airplane’s turbojet.
Golubev circled the ghost train a few times. The turbojet, which might have been broken binoculars, stared blindly into the distance. The car’s streamlined nose, created for high speeds, had collapsed like a syphilitic’s. The tragedy in steel shouted mutely for attention, and its rusty bruises were like dried blood. There was something inexpressibly bizarre, inexpressively unnatural in the stillness of this jet train, which had jumped the rails for the last time. Golubev tried to get inside every which way, and while he was jumping up and down and crawling around he polished off the vodka. There was a thick murk in the jet train; the air there was decades older than what Golubev had been breathing outside. He never did get all the way inside the battened down ruin, but Golubev thought he heard noises in there, agitated human voices.
When he got back to Moscow, Golubev ascertained that he had not hallucinated the ghost train. He had seen the so-called HET—the high-speed experimental train created in 1970 at that same Kalinin rail car plant where now not a single manager could tell you what that bizarre object was rusting away on their long-distance rails. In the early 1970s, the HET, equipped with turbojets off a YaK-40, was tested on the stretch of railroad between Novomoskovsk and Dneprodzerzhinsk. They’d achieved speeds of nearly 250 kilometers an hour, after which, for some inexplicable reason, they’d abandoned the technical wonder in the plant’s backyard.
High-speed trains entranced Golubev, captured his imagination. To him, high speed on earth, in the thick of ordinary, desultory life, violated the order of things much more dramatically than did civilian aviation or even space flight. To him, a high-speed train was a thread jerked quickly out of the fabric of the world edifice. Golubev thought the bullet train was akin to a lofty insanity, because controlling it with human reason did not seem possible. Of course, the train could be controlled by an electronic autopilot. But what computer could monitor all the movements of earthbound objects, for which the “bullet’s” trajectory was nothing but rails and cross ties, ordinary materiality, a known component of the assimilated landscape?
For some reason, Golubev was fond of the intrepid history of the tests done on the turbojet locomotive in eastern Ohio in 1966. Later, pilot Don Wetzel would recall that the locomotive kept trying to accelerate past its maximum, as if it were alive, even though it was racing with a lacerating howl over the most ordinary rail lines. In order to avert a very likely disaster, they put a plane up in the air, a quiet prop, though it could barely keep up with the willful locomotive, which from above looked like a match striking its box. All of a sudden from the plane they noticed something untoward on the tracks. What it was exactly they couldn’t tell. A few seconds later—seconds that probably cost Don Wetzel a few years of his life—a bang was heard under the wheels and a splinter spurted out. It turned out, some children had put pieces of veneer on the rails for their own entertainment. Luckily, they hadn’t dragged over anything stronger or heavier.
As it turned out, the bullet train’s management had been monitoring the entire reality: countless trajectories and cause-and-effect relations. You could say that the State of Ohio, like the other North American states, like the countries of Europe, where the French TGV flies at as yet unsurpassed speeds, was in full view of the Lord God, overseen at least by his omniscient will. As for Russia, it had always seemed to Golubev like a place with an additional dimension—depth. Russia was like a huge terrestrial ocean, an Atlantis that had been drowning for centuries. Who could monitor half of Russia manually over the six hours it took the high-speed Rossiya to reach Irkutsk?
With a deep sigh, Golubev crossed himself and stepped into the stuffy, deodorized train car.
Inside, the car looked like an airplane, something halfway between economy and business class. The reporters were noisily taking their places in the cushy new seats and stowing equipment in the overhead bins. Bukhin drove Dashuta toward a window without letting go and plunked down beside her, panting and sucking a bottle of mineral water dry, until the plastic sides caved in with a click. Golubev got settled modestly behind them, fervently hoping that the seat next to him would not be taken so that he could partake of the experiences the day had in store for him in solitude.
“Reporters, please, move over. We have a few commercial passengers joining us in the car,” announced a long-legged attendant sheathed in an exquisitely tailored blue uniform.
Golubev froze with a nasty foreboding.
“May I?” A cracked, wooden voice creaked above Golubev. The old man who had just been palpating the train and who was nodding his mushroom-bald head to himself settled into the seat with a few difficult movements, his spotted fingers knitted on his opened coat.
Golubev knew that some of the tickets for the Rossiya had been auctioned off, and the price of a ticket had gone as high as 430,000 rubles. The old man, who smelled like a closet of mothballs, looked nothing like a wealthy adventurer with the wherewithal to fork over a round figure for a prestigious adventure. However, now the already rather small window did not belong wholly to Golubev. Squirming, the old man spread his bones wide and stared avidly out the sealed, double-glass porthole, even though there was nothing to see now but a stretch of platform and a crushed cigarette butt.
“Fasten your seatbelts, please.” It felt as if the attendant were speaking the words gently inside the head of the long-since buckled-in Golubev. “Our train is pulling out. Our trip will take six hours and twenty minutes. You may not get up until we have reached our full speed. Smoking is not permitted until the journey is over. Thank you.”
They took it easy at first. Moscow passed by in the porthole looking very far away, like a newsreel, except run in reverse. Then the landscape had been swiped with a wet brush, and a heaviness pressed down on Golubev, like a large, insistent, insatiable woman, and Golubev, an erection in his pants, goggled at the mounting figures crawling across the display, which emitted a rosy glow: 250…410…590 kilometers per hour….
“Six hundred ninety-five!” the old man’s husky voice was muffled.
And then all at once, as if a cock had crowed, the sorcerous heaviness lifted. Golubev pulled the numb back of his head away from the headrest; his head felt like a pillow full of needles. His fellow journalists around him were getting up and staggering around; many were wiping wet eyes. A line formed in the aisle for the toilet. Gosha unfastened his seat belt and the bottom button of his wrinkled camo shirt and started munching onion chips with gusto, thrusting the ripped open bag toward a helpless Dashuta. The rogue’s fez was proudly red on his mighty bent knee, and his stubbly double chin reminded Golubev of a curled up hedgehog.
A lot was strange at a land speed of nearly 700 kilometers an hour. You’d think, according to the laws of physics, in the absence of acceleration, nothing special should happen—but the laws of physics don’t always operate. The nonalcoholic beverages passed out by the long-legged attendant blinked and looked for all the world like jello; tobacco smoke (naturally, the naughty reporters had pulled a condom over the smoke detector and were smoking in the toilet) lingered in the air for an unusually long, slow time and stratified fancifully, like a 3-D computer graphic. All the faces were pale, as if they’d been turned inside out. The walking through the car quickly stopped. Coming at Golubev from the forward seats was Dashuta’s forced giggle, Gosha’s purr, and the crackle of the disemboweled packets of some other kind of snack. The old man, who had placed his hard chin literally on Golubev’s shoulder, was seriously annoying him.
Like Golubev, the old man wanted to look out the porthole. Green, gray, and russet, a gleaming Russia was whipping past the porthole as if it were coming out of a hose, having shifted to an unknown aggregate state. You couldn’t distinguish anything in the flash of uneven stripes, where occasionally a line would be jotted down in rapid, flowery script (a point of settlement, probably). Sharp little thorns of utterly unknown origin started jumping out. Only the line of the horizon sometimes held steady for a few minutes, as unreliable as the edge of a distant cloud, like steam disappearing in the gloom. Despite the sunny day (the weather bureau had graciously forecast marvelous weather all along the Rossiya’s route), it seemed to Golubev that night was falling outside.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the tiresome old man suddenly rasped right over Golubev’s ear. “Kirill Kasyanovich Bibikov”—and the old man, blinking his stark eyes, slipped his bony hand into Golubev’s.
“Alexander Nikolayevich Golubev,” Golubev replied reluctantly, shaking the lifeless fingers, which were cold the way a thermometer can be at a temperature of 39.6.
Crazy old coot. Golubev knew he had a peculiarity that made people around him extremely uncomfortable: his omnipresent desire to retreat into his own thoughts tended to put people on their guard and make them want to pester him and draw him into any stupid conversation they could. Now this one, too, this Bibikov, was probably going to try to entertain his neighbor with his raspy voice all the way to Irkutsk.
“You must be asking yourself, sir”—the old man squinted, gathering the dry skin near his eyes—“where did this old ruin get the money for a commercial ticket?”
“No, of course not,” Golubev said, embarrassed, because that was exactly what he’d been thinking.
“My wife, Anna Vladimirovna, left some jewelry,” the old man explained conspiratorially. “Antiques, with very good stones. So I went and sold them. Let ‘em go!” he declared in an ecstatic falsetto, nearly catching Golubev’s temple with a sweep of his angular paw.
“But why? That money would have come in handy, wouldn’t it?” asked an intrigued Golubev, finding himself sucked into conversation.
“It’s an old story, young man. A very old story.” Bibikov leaned back in his chair, and Golubev saw under his opened coat a frayed black dinner jacket with an iron burn that looked like a bruise on the lapel. “It all goes back to 1933….They opened an aero-train in Gorky Park. A double gondola with propellers. It flew over a trestle bridge at incredible speed! The invention of Sevastyan Sevastyanovich Waldner. At the time the invention had no like in the world….”
“Waldner’s stability triangle,” mumbled a stunned Golubev.
“You’ve heard of it, young man!” the old man rejoiced. “I was fifteen at the time, and I remember it well. My father took me for a ride in the gondola, though it was only a model, of course. He worked on a special team under the People’s Commissariat of Transportation. Sevastyan Sevastyanovich thought highly of him. Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev worked there, too. It was called the Waldner Aero-Train Bureau. They were starting to design a 500-kilometer line in Turkestan.”
“And then?” An agitated Golubev emboldened the old man’s slowed speech. Meeting a passenger from that fabled aero-train was like meeting a dinosaur.
“And then the bureau was shut down without explanation,” the old man’s voice was colorless, and his head dropped as if he and his large bones had collapsed in on himself. “Actually, the reasons followed. They gave my father twenty-five without right of correspondence. I did time on my father’s charge, too, though it was less, to be sure…. And who knows how many of those twenty-five years my father lasted? May he rest in peace, Lord.” Bibikov crossed himself clumsily and suddenly brightened. “Oh, the snow that fell the winter of 1933 in Moscow! The trams stuck in the drifts. And our aero-train’s propellers whipped the snow up like fluff. My father used to say our model was like a winged seed, that it carried the seeds of the future.”
They both fell silent. The old man was smiling, revealing his white and pink false teeth, which looked like they were made of doll plastic. Golubev thought how odd it was to meet someone with the very same secret dream as his—and at such advanced years that his own life seemed suddenly to have contracted and be nearly over.
“Why was it all like that?” he asked, just like a child, hoping the old man, whose grandson he could have been, would understand.
“All I know is, it could have been different. It could have,” old Bibikov responded with conviction, wheezing. “How I know, I can’t say. I’ve lived a very long time, young man. Long enough to have died five times over. Sometimes I see through my life as if it were a window. Here’s one fork, and here’s another. There might not have been a war. And high-speed trains would have become a part of ordinary life a long time ago. In Russia we depend too much on miracles for things to happen. Miracles are so close here, too close for normal life. It’s in the water, as they say. There’s nothing to be done for it.”
Then Golubev asked the question that had been eating at him ever since the Rossiya had cast off from Kazan station:
“What do you think, Kirill Kasyanovich, will we make it to Irkutsk today?”
“I can’t say for certain, Alexander Nikolayevich,” Bibikov said very gravely and respectfully, looking into Golubev’s face with his stark-blue eyes. “But I have a feeling we won’t.”
And the moment he said those words, they felt the first thud.
The thud was dull and painful, like a kick to a sandbag. An overhead bin came open and a jacket fell out.
“Hey! What was that?” The reporters started making noise as they got up from their seats.
“I told you. A cow on the tracks!” Bukhin shouted over the din. “Dashul, what’s the matter? Come on, relax. It’s all nonsense.”
“What if it’s not a cow?” Dasha exclaimed with a flash of desperate malice. “And get away from me. Don’t touch me. Don’t you dare!”
“Esteemed passengers, please, remain calm.” The attendant’s voice came over the PA like a gentle wave. “We are constantly in receipt of information from several satellites on our route. Our train is proceeding strictly according to schedule. In half an hour we will be serving you a hot lunch.”
But half an hour later no one was in the mood for lunch. Evidently the segment of the Trans-Siberian that had been prepared and licked clean for the high-speed had come to an end. The thuds followed one after the other, leaving a nasty vibration resonating in the spine. Now the high-speed was hacking away at Russia like an ax on flesh. Outside—or did it just seem so?—wet rags kept flying by. The reporters were smoking, no longer in secret, and the car’s odd stagnant air was woven like spectral lace with blue threads of tobacco smoke. Many were harrying their cell phones to no avail. The car was shaking, and the blue lampshades on the ceiling were flickering like lightning in a storm. The train-ax seemed just on the verge of cutting through the bone.
“We have no idea what’s going on outside, at this speed,” muttered the old man, his veiny, avian hands clutching the armrests.
“Exactly,” thought Golubev, feeling his heart under his shirt. “This really is a bullet. A very stupid bullet. We’re stuffed inside a fired bullet, and we have no connection to reality whatsoever. Who we hit or whether we survive—none of that depends on us anymore.”
“Cut it out. I’m sick of it. I do have a husband by the way!” he heard Dasha’s hysterical voice from the seat ahead.
“Ah, a hus-band,” the unseen Bukhin was clearly offended, and the back of his chair strained and creaked. “Where were you keeping this husband before, I wonder? A husband always turns up whenever a girl decides to be a cocktease. Is that what you are, a cocktease?”
Dasha sobbed. Golubev made a face and stood up. Old Bibikov winked understandingly and moved his spiky knees aside to let Golubev pass. Right then the long-legged attendant, without a glance at anyone, ducked into the engineers’ cab. Immediately she and another attendant, who was a little older and had a face like a sweet dried fruit, just as quickly, almost breaking into a run, moved past Golubev as he was getting out and went into the second car, where the politicians were riding, sealed in nice and tight.
“Well, we’re in the first car, colleagues,” someone in back voiced their shared thought. “If anything happens, we’ll be smashed to smithereens first.”
Right then the enormity of the situation dawned on Gosha Bukhin, who raised his innocent, overheated face to Golubev. His marvelously lovely eyes got as big as an owl’s awoken at noon. The thudding started up again, passing over the train’s skin like a terrific chill. Golubev’s stomach lurched, and from above, from an open bin, batteries and leaflets rained down on him and Gosha, and twisted cables fell out and hung there.
“Gentlemen, Gosha Bukhin is unwell!” a woman, maybe from The Moscow News, shouted from behind Golubev.
It was true. Gosha looked as if someone had run a watercolor brush across his puffy face, wiping away the color. His eyes rolled and his body went limp as his big feet in their nice new sneakers gave way. Seeing all this, Golubev hollered for all he was worth, “Someone’s sick!”
In the flickering murk of the car gone mad, the reporters climbed over one another and formed a solid ring around the prostrate Gosha.
“Let me through. I’m a doctor!” the old man’s harsh rasp was heard behind their backs.
“Step aside! Step aside! Everyone back to your seats!” Golubev did his best to push his balking colleagues back and let old Bibikov through to the patient.
Freed from his scarecrow coat, the gangling skeleton in the dinner jacket that could barely keep the drop of his own life wandering through his raggedy vessels warm leaned over the sick man. Gosha had broken out in a cold sweat and his delicate curls were stuck together. With a professional movement, Bibikov felt the beating thread on Gosha’s puffy wrist and lifted an eyelid: a rust-brown eye goggled with merry horror, casting a glassy light.
“The first aid kit! All the medicines there are!” Bibikov cawed, nearly falling into the aisle.
A box with a red cross was already being handed over people’s heads by the chalk-pale attendant. Scattering plastic as fancy as bonbon wrappers, Bibikov shucked the plain paper from a tiny pill and pushed it into Gosha’s soft, mustached mouth with his index finger.
“Stop the train at the nearest point of settlement,” he ordered hoarsely, tearing the plastic off a syringe. “The patient is in shock, most likely a major infarction. Contact the local clinic and have an ambulance waiting right on the platform!”
“But…you know we can’t…” The attendant inched backward, trying to disappear in the darkness.
“Call your superiors, you ninny!” an unrecognizable Golubev shouted at her, stamping his foot.
Clutching her hair, the attendant ran off. Bibikov concentrated as he drew the gelatinous medicine from the ampoule into the syringe. Dasha, in tears, her eyes like a lemur’s, held Gosha’s limp arm in its torn sleeve tightly under hers. Bibikov, who only just now had nearly been literally scattered into individual bones by the blows to the car, suddenly became as mean and nasty as a wasp and thrust the needle neatly into the patient’s barely blue vein. The medicine started to flow, and the patient’s eyelids fluttered and became wet.
“Whatcha got there, dad?”
A broad-shouldered man in an austere suit loomed over Bibikov. He had steel-gray eyes that looked like screws twisted in deep and fast, but misthreaded. Judging from his suit and short haircut, which lay flat on his skull, he was one of the men who had been guarding the deputies on the Kazan station platform.
“I see we have a drunk here,” the man concluded, casting his misscrewed eyes at Bukhin, whose foot had moved slightly.
“Myocardial infarction against a background of stenocardia, possibly against a background of high sugar,” old Bibikov croaked, straightening up with difficulty. “Rest assured, I’m a fine diagnostician.”
“Sure, dad, you got your diploma under Tsar Gorokh,” the man spoke equably, rolling something around in his mouth. “Don’t worry, in three hours we’ll be in Irkutsk. They’ll examine our patient there and dry him out. Write him up if need be.”
“We won’t get him that far, citizen officer!” the old man said hoarsely, like a prisoner, or maybe like a dog looking up at an enormous guard. “I can’t ward off another attack!”
“Don’t make a scene, dad,” the man spoke, becoming stern. “Sit quietly until Irkutsk, that’s all anyone’s asking of you. You have no idea who’s monitoring our high-speed trip. Savvy? Yes, indeed.” With these words the man turned and strode authoritatively toward the deputies’ car.
“Who do you have on the line there, Comrade Stalin?” the old man spat out at the guard’s solid back, shaking his knobby fist clamped around the disposable syringe.
In response the guard just shrugged one square shoulder without turning around. The door slammed shut. The reporters, with faces like flickering blobs, gazed silently at old Bibikov: the few transparent hairs on his bald skull were standing on end, as if they’d just sprouted. Everything in the car shuddered, and behind Dasha, a brown blip quivered and crawled in the porthole, flayed by the speed. And then Bibikov lifted his half-dead face toward the ominous electric ceiling and shouted in a cutting falsetto that sounded as if it had been strangled out of a squeeze toy, “A miracle! Lord, give us a miracle!”
There was a jerk. Everyone was flung forward. “650 km/hour” crept onto the display, reluctantly, and immediately after that, “600.”
The train was braking. Braking heavily and terribly, as if it really were digging into the earth, plunging into the earth’s crust like a stone submarine. People covered their ears at the tonnage grinding. The reporters grabbed onto one another, stumbling over the scattered possessions, and climbed to their seats. Sobbing and wailing, Dasha buckled in Bukhin’s heavy body, which kept trying to slide to the floor. Golubev dragged the stiff Bibikov to his seat as he tried to insert his false teeth into his stretched mouth.
If anyone, even Golubev, had been able to observe the braking from a low flying altitude, he would have seen that on the rails, rising straight up at the Rossiya in the distance, like a smoky firebrand plunged into water, was a short rusted-out train with the remnants of jet turbines at its head. The train was lifeless and deaf; only pointy little birds that had probably woven themselves a nest in the left turbine were grumbling. No one knew how it had got there, but this train was more real than the white-hot machine that was creeping up to it, like to a mirror, stratified in a haze of heated air, its grainy hide sizzling. The Rossiya nearly hunched like a caterpillar as it extinguished what was left of its speed, and its terrible pilot, with scraps stuck to it like a kitchen pot, very nearly plowed into its twin’s collapsed nose. The time that separated the two miracle designs became maximally compressed, bowed like a flexible, layered air lens, and slowly dissipated. The Rossiya, blazing, came to a halt forty centimeters from disaster.
Immediately the car’s thick doors, like sizzling hotcakes, lifted—either at the engineers’ command or of their own accord. Golubev grazed the shoulder of the plastically and crookedly grinning Bibikov and hobbled over to look. The sunny world outside flooded him with the smell of vibrant, pine-soaked air and the chirping of birds. It was too high to jump from the car, and the bright blue gravel below, which looked as if it had regelated from the abundance of light, was covered with icy patches—which were dancing in Golubev’s blinded eyes.
Golubev blinked and looked around. Directly opposite, its complex, layered coating glittering as if sprinkled with salt, a cliff loomed. Up above, among taut cloud clusters that looked like they’d been formed by cannon fire, reeled the thick raggedy tops of pines, and beyond the cliff he glimpsed a lake with a band of vibrant silver drawn across its middle.
“The Ural,” an entranced voice behind Golubev spoke.
Golubev nodded and hopped down, raising white stone dust. Alongside the burning hot Rossiya a short man in a magnificent gray suit and with a skeptical expression on his round, perspiring face, scurried up, his boots crunching in the sugary gravel.
“Is the doctor in this car?” he shouted up.
They led a squinting Bibikov out by the arm.
“It’s the ambulance helicopter, speak!” hollered the man, tossing the whiskered radio in his fat hand.
Bibikov snatched the black box, plugged one moss-grown ear with a pencil-straight pointer finger, and began croaking unintelligibly, his back turned to Golubev. Golubev took a deep sigh. He still hadn’t seen the rusty reason for the halt on the rails, which his enterprising colleagues were photographing from every angle. In the thick heavenly blue, the noise of helicopter blades was mounting, filling the space.
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. This story appears in the October print issue of The American Reader, on newsstands now.