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TANZANIA

C H A P T E R  O N E

STARGAZER

3 MAY, 1983

CHAPTERS

        Cecilia watched as the runway lights flashed past the wing outside her window at slower and slower intervals as the jet idled down the remainder of the runway. The warm glow of each light melted over the glossy wing like honey as it passed, penetrating the cabin’s darkness occasionally enough for her to finally lean forward enough to peer out the small window without the fear of scrutiny.

        Aside from the small collection of hangars that they taxied towards now, there wasn’t much else to the airfield. The exception was a lonely windsock that turned lazily in the breeze, unbothered by the bustle at the end of the tarmac as the Gulfstream neared it.

        She had reached the end of her tape over an hour ago but had kept her headphones on and the Walkman running, the soft hum of feedback muting the drone of the jet engine behind her window. The frequency of both sounds had reached a peaceful harmony in her ears, filling her with a warming sense of comfort as she completed the last leg of her journey.

        A journey that had been years in the making.

        There was a slight lurch as the plane slowed and turned onto the taxiway. Cecilia leaned back against the lush, cream-colored leather seat and closed her eyes, her heart performing a graceful Olympic dive into her stomach as she was reminded quite suddenly of the task before her. She swallowed and counted the length of each breath, in and out, as the plane bounced over the considerably rougher tarmac. 

        She glanced over at the stately cabin’s only other occupant, a woman with meticulously feathered blonde hair who now sat elegantly with one svelte leg crossed over the other as she perused the travel magazine, unfazed by the bumpy taxiway - and by the lengthy trip from Cologne as a whole. The two had shared no words - only a polite smile once or twice - for the entirety of the flight, and Cecilia had begun to wonder if the woman was even involved with the company or their business here at all.

        The plane turned once more, and the engines quieted as it coasted a little further over the uneven asphalt. Cecilia could just barely make out the shapes of several vehicles outside her window before the cabin lights flickered on, bringing a jarring end to her introspection.

        The Gulfstream rolled to a halt, and there was a muffled thump as the brakes locked. The woman across the aisle closed her magazine and rose, her hand trailing elegantly down the back of her skirt to hold it in place as she stooped to pick up her handbag. Cecilia caught a glimpse of her polished black Louboutins and shuffled her feet a little further under the seat in front of her to hide her own worn pumps. Her first purchase upon being offered the job, they had once been as lustrous as the woman’s pristine footwear, despite Cecilia having scooped them up from a clearance shelf at a department store rather than an upscale New York designer shop. Day after day of tottering over the cobblestone streets and scuffing the toes on uneven curbs as she went to and from work and had eventually creased them, however, and it was only now that Cecilia realized just how lived-in they had become. She cursed herself for failing to take note soon enough for her to have purchased a new pair before this endeavor.

        The woman stepped into the aisle and disappeared behind the curtain towards the front of the plane, leaving a lingering scent of what Cecilia could only guess to be a perfume expensive enough to rival the cost of those beautiful shoes.

        Cecilia removed her headphones, taking care not to muss her hair, and tucked them into her handbag with her slender Walkman. She pulled the strap of her leather bag over her shoulder and stood, looking down as she brushed the wrinkles out of her blue taffeta blouse and rearranged the gaudy pussycat bow that rested upon her collarbones so that it looked slightly less like it had been crumpled under her suit jacket during a restless nap several hours earlier. In her preening she spotted a small coffee stain by her collar and swore under her breath, trying to rub it away with her thumb. It was no use. Defeated, she fiddled with her bow once more so that it covered the stain. 

        The stewardess glided down the aisle and draped her arm gracefully over the seat in front of Cecilia.

        “Is there anything I can get for you before you depart?”

        “Oh, no thank you.”

        The stewardess smiled and stepped back, gesturing towards the door. 

        Cecilia made her way down the aisle, taking one last moment to smooth her hair before rounding the corner and stepping out onto the top step.

        A pair of headlight beams blinded her as a car turned to park alongside the plane. Out of the rear door of the polished black Mercedes stepped a figure Cecilia couldn’t quite make out. She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the headlights.

        “Cecilia,” the figure called. “It’s good to see you again.”

        She descended the stairs, holding onto the railing and stepping carefully onto the tarmac as she readjusted the strap over her shoulder. Next to the car stood a man with dark hair and an immaculately pressed suit. He finished buttoning his jacket as she approached, a smile dimpling his angular cheeks. Cecilia promptly bent forward at the waist.

        “Mr. Kaneshiro.” Her hand flew up to the bow at her neck as she remembered the coffee stain. 

        Her employer was a Japanese man of no more than forty, a brilliant mind and somewhat of a collector of other similarly brilliant minds. He had more than enough money to push Cecilia to follow every one of her theories to its culmination, or to a dead end.

        Every scientist's dream.

        He had built his empire from the ground up, putting his family’s name at stake in the process. All else about him, the source of his family’s fortune and the reason for his keen interest in Cecilia’s field, was a mystery to her, but what remained hidden was of no importance to her in comparison to what he had given to the company - and to Cecilia. When he had plucked her from her university studies she was coming apart at the seams from the countless rejections and tribulations from her peers, still searching for her purpose. He had bestowed that purpose upon her, elevated her to a level she could only ever dream of, and gave her room to succeed - and to fail. It was an investment that paid off, and so he had set his sights far higher than the company itself. 

        He wanted to end the Cold War.

        “Walk with me,” Kaneshiro said, acknowledging her greeting. He corralled her with a hand gingerly against the small of her back and led her in the direction of the other figures that mingled just beyond his car. “Did you have a smooth flight?”

        “Oh yes,” Cecilia said. “Of course, I’m always happy just to make it in one piece.” She regretted the poor attempt at a joke as soon as the words left her mouth, and pursed her lips as if doing so would take them back. To her relief, he indulged her with a chuckle.

        “I can’t say I feel differently.”

        A loud metallic whine split the air a little further ahead of them, causing Cecilia to jump. A large black helicopter sat on the tarmac beyond the group of people they were now headed towards. Its rotors slowly began to spin as several still-unrecognizable shapes moved around it, illuminated here and there by the beams of moving flashlights. 

        Cecilia’s eyes finally adjusted to the lack of light as they reached the small gathering. They were all men of various middle ages, none of whom she recognized but all of whom had an air of importance about them as they turned to face her, their eyes methodically scrutinizing her with a single glance. She could spot the hard-nosed demeanor of a politician anywhere. They stood before her with their hands in the pockets of their tailored suits as they spoke amongst themselves, their language foreign to her ears. One of them had been smoking a fat cigar and turned his head, blowing the smoke over his shoulder as he regarded Cecilia’s approach. Camera flashes cut the darkness occasionally as a photographer circled the group.

        Kaneshiro motioned to the tallest among them, a man with a clean, swept hairstyle who possessed a more slender figure than the others. “I’d like you to meet Ambassador Vadimovich. He’s been kind enough to facilitate all of this on our expedited schedule.”

        Cecilia extended her hand with a smile. “How do you do?”

        “Very well, thank you,” the ambassador said, giving her hand a firm shake. There was barely a drop of a Russian accent in his English, which brought Cecilia to realize that she had been naively expecting a stereotype. 

        “Ambassador,” Kaneshiro continued, “Ms. Whitaker is the head of SNOW’s scientific operations in Europe. None of this would be possible without her.” He gave her a warm smile. “We are very lucky to have her.” Cecilia suddenly found her ego quite well-fed by his endorsement. 

        “Thank you. I’m honored,” she said, trying to keep herself from turning her eyes to the ground as she felt a blush rise in her cheeks. She looked back to the Russian. “And thank you, Ambassador. I’m very eager to work with your country’s finest.”

        The noise from the helicopter beyond their gathering grew louder as the rotors picked up speed. Kaneshiro gestured towards his jet. “Ambassador, if you will, you and your associates-” 

        There was a momentary vacuum of air around Cecilia as a tall, sturdy figure brushed past her from behind and broke into the circle, passing the ambassador and leaning in close towards Kaneshiro. The man wore a dark, clean chem suit with head-to-toe protective gear, and a pouch-laden rig was fastened around his chest. 

        With the noise that surrounded them and the bulky gas mask the man wore, Cecilia couldn’t make out what was being said, but she caught the Soviet politicians eyeing the source of this intrusion with varying degrees of uneasiness and disapproval. Kaneshiro nodded as he listened to the man, backing away from the others to continue their conversation. The man in the chem suit turned to the side slightly as he gestured towards the jet, revealing a glint of dark metal that rested against his torso. 

        “Ms. Whitaker,” Ambassador Vadimovich said, snapping her attention back to their brief conversation.         He smiled and took her hand once more, bringing her closer. “I have faith that your efforts here will pave the way for peace between the East and the West.” 

        “I-” There was a flash and the click of a shutter. Cecilia blinked, discombobulated by all that had transpired just in the past minute and trying to clear the blinding imprint from her eyes as the words she wanted to say escaped her. 

        “A pleasure,” the ambassador said, and gave her hand one last squeeze before releasing it. “We hope you enjoy your time here in Tanzania. It is truly a beautiful country.”

        Kaneshiro re-entered the conversation once more with the man in the chem suit now in tow. Cecilia couldn’t help but turn her eyes upwards to him as subtly as she could manage. Slung snugly across the man’s chest was a black rifle, and as Cecilia’s eyes scanned his figure further she spotted a large handgun strapped to his hip, as well as a knife with a blade that appeared to be longer than her hand sheathed on one of the straps of his rig. The man’s face was hidden in the glare of the light upon the mask, but Cecilia, sensing that she was being analyzed in return, quickly averted her eyes from him altogether. 

        “I’ll be with you in a moment, Ambassador,” Kaneshiro said with a smile. “Please make yourself at home in the jet while you wait. My stewardess will be happy to open up the reserves for you and your comrades.” He turned away and gestured for Cecilia to accompany him. 

        Cecilia offered one last smile to the Russians before setting off with Kaneshiro. The man with the gun fell in behind them, and the smile quickly fell from her face as she found herself succumbing to the growing unease in the pit of her stomach.

        As if he had read her subtle change in demeanor, Kaneshiro turned to her as they made their way towards the helicopter and gestured towards the man behind them. “This is Captain Davy. He and his team are here for your security.”

        It wasn’t until he had said the words that Cecilia noticed that several more armed figures were waiting by the helicopter, all clad in the same blacked-out gear as the man behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, trying not to let her eyes fall on the barrel of the weapon mere inches away from her back. The man was large enough to eclipse her completely in his shadow.

        “Are we expecting… trouble? Of some sort?” Cecilia said, turning back to Kaneshiro and trying her best to hide the worry in her voice.

        “No, no.” He waved the thought away with a pragmatic flick of his hand. He turned to her and came to a stop, clasping both hands behind his back. “We’re standing on the brink of something very important, Cecilia. The message we send today will determine the amount of control we can retain over this project. This science.” He paused for a moment, allowing the weight of his words to sink in. “We have been chosen to lead the charge into this new age. The Soviets will realize that. Give it tact and give it time.”

        For a moment, all of the bustling commotion that surrounded them slowed to a crawl as he stood resolute before her, challenging her with nothing more than his own fierce conviction. A single strand of jet-black hair had freed itself from its careful styling, fluttering in front of the rich depth of his eyes, which were now cast in shadow by his brow. But even in the darkness a warm glint pooled in his irises, the same that had convinced her to leave her old life behind and join this stranger’s cause. Cecilia breathed in deeply, allowing herself to remember what had brought her this far. With her exhale, she regained her resolve.

        “This is why I chose you for this. We share a singular vision.” He reached forward and grasped her arm with a firm hand. “I’m depending on you now, just as you once depended on me. This moment is yours.”

        Cecilia smiled and turned her eyes downwards, met with the sight of the shoes that had carried her for so many days and nights to bring her to this very moment. 

        “Thank you, Mr. Kaneshiro,” she said, bringing her gaze back to his.

        He lowered his head and raised it again, stepping back with a smile. It was sincere this time, the only time she had ever seen him reveal such a genuine hint of emotion... if one could even call it such. He slowly turned on his heel and made his way back towards the group of politicians that now clambered into his jet.

        Cecilia watched him for a moment, then turned towards the captain. 

        “It’s a pleasure, Captain-”

        He wordlessly stepped past her and started towards the helicopter, leaving her to hurry after him to keep up. As she neared the helicopter, the rotors’ downward current of air started to kick up her meticulously curled tresses, and she held her handbag up to the side of her head to shield it from the unforgiving gusts. One of the soldiers crouched at the door, extending his hand towards her. She took it and he pulled her up into the cabin more quickly than she had braced herself for, causing her to pitch forward over the lap of the soldier sitting in front of her. She excused herself quietly as she straightened up, readjusting her hair and blouse, and clutched the metal rungs above her head as she made her way to the open seat next to him. Her heart pounded in her ears almost as loudly as the rotors overhead as she turned and sat down. She began to strap herself in, her hands trembling as she clicked the heavy buckles into place.

        The helicopter swayed slightly as the captain climbed in and slid the door shut behind him. He moved past the others and crouched between the cockpit seats ahead, exchanging a few words with the pilot. The soldier whose legs Cecilia had unbecomingly sprawled herself across turned to check her straps, yanking the slack from them in a manner that forced any remaining air from her lungs. The captain returned from the cockpit with a headset and reached up to plug it into the overhead jack.

        Cecilia found herself face-to-face with the grip of the handgun on his belt. She swallowed in a poor attempt to stay the rising lump in her throat and looked down at her lap. The wire snaked down in front of her face and the captain handed the headset to her, motioning for her to put it on. She slid it over her ears with hesitation and frowned as she realized that she wasn’t going to arrive with her hair still intact. 

        The captain returned to his seat and strapped himself in, planting the stock of his rifle on the floor between his knees. With a sudden creaking jolt the helicopter lurched and rose with more speed than she had anticipated, and Cecilia wrapped her hands around the cold metal frame of the seat under her as if doing so was the only thing keeping them all in the air. The cabin swung to the side as the helicopter cut sharply to the right. Cecilia squeezed her eyes shut as her stomach churned.

        The helicopter leveled out and Cecilia took the opportunity to release her hold on the seat to open her handbag and dig through it frantically, finally withdrawing a small pill box. She struggled to open it with her shaking hands, the sweat on her palms causing her fingers to slip on the metal clasp. When she fumbled it open at last she took one of the motion sickness tablets within, placed it on her tongue, and kicked her head back as she swallowed it. She grimaced and shut her eyes tightly as the pill slowly slid down her dry throat, and kept her fist over her mouth lest anything decide to come back up unexpectedly. When she opened her eyes again they met those of Captain Davy. 

        No other features were visible behind the black gas mask, and even his eyes were devoid of any expression as he watched her silent struggle to keep her dignity through the course of the short flight. Cecilia slid her pill box back into her purse with much more poise than she had withdrawn it with, her eyes flitting down his uniform. Upon his left shoulder, he bore the standard black and yellow trefoil, but aside from that, he wore no other markings. She wondered what corner of the world SNOW had contracted this surprisingly well-outfitted security detail from, and whether they would become a regular sight should her efforts here be successful. It would take enough discretion to convince the Soviets to look past her own American identity, but an entire armed unit of Westerners tagging along with her? 

        Or perhaps they, too, were Soviets, and she had just gotten herself into the biggest mess of her life. 

        She surrendered herself to Kaneshiro’s judgment, knowing that he had made the best decision for his company. She chanced a look out the window to her side and watched the dark African landscape rush past below them like turbulent rapids. In the distance, she could see the stark contrast of Mount Kilimanjaro’s white cap against the black sky, illuminated brilliantly by the silvery glow of the moon. 

        It was surreal. 

        She allowed herself to release some of the tension in her body as she leaned back in her seat and became lost in the splendor of the sight, thankful for the momentary distraction. 

        It was only yesterday that she had been eating a late-night dinner at a streetside cafe in Germany, enjoying a glass of wine as she scribbled hasty, vinaigrette-smudged notes in the margins of an expenditure report… or something of the sort. It all seemed to run together in the past few weeks as the warmth of early summer evenings crept into the old city, making her more inclined to stop for a drink or two on the way home from the lab to enjoy the opportunity to shrug off her cardigan and the stresses of the past winter’s work.

        Over the last few months, Cecilia had tried not to allow her thoughts to dwell on the prospect - the honor - of being the one to thread the first needle of peace between East and West. She had to admit, most of her work up until little more than a year ago was relatively self-serving and rooted in her own curiosity. But Kaneshiro had made something of an altruist of her through her involvement with SNOW, and it wasn’t long before she became a stalwart advocate for the company’s direction: worldwide peace through mutual scientific advancement. No secrets, no stockpiles.

        And then all of it made sense. This was her purpose.

        As her stomach began to settle, Cecilia felt more at ease. The soldiers around her kept their heads forward. Not a word had been said between them. 

        She cleared her throat and adjusted the microphone on her headset.

        “How far out is it?” she said, leaning forwards against her straps and waiting for one of the masked faces to turn to her with an answer. 

        The captain rotated his hand, revealing the face of a digital watch strapped to the underside of his gloved wrist. He was silent for a moment, and Cecilia began to wonder if they were under orders not to speak to her, so as not to reveal their-

        “Seven minutes.”

        American.

        Cecilia leaned back in her seat once more, her mind suddenly racing. What would happen if the Soviets decided to shoot down a helicopter full of Americans, anyways? How many covered-up controversies and convenient killings are too many? How many does it take until war is no longer at the doorstep, it’s kicking down the front door of a country full of outraged, fighting-age men chomping at the bit to see some action?

        It had taken her this long to fully grasp the precariousness of her position.

Cecilia blinked, banishing the intrusive thoughts from her mind. Too much was at stake. All she had to do was make it there alive, then the ball was in her court.

        Seven more minutes.

        Her eyes wandered to the stitching and weave of the fabric of the NBC suit the man next to her wore. It was similar in texture to the suits she wore in the lab back in Cologne. The company behind their contract seemed to know what they were dealing with and wanted to take every precaution.

        Rightfully so.

        She eyed the rifle that rested on the floor between the captain’s legs. The very little she knew about guns was enough for her to note that their weapons were unlike anything she had seen carried by the standard security she had encountered here and there in the past. The lab had an armed guard, but he was a portly man in his sixties who sat behind a desk all day as he watched the scientists and technicians come and go, dozing off every now and then. The metal surfaces of these soldiers’ weapons had been intentionally dulled - to draw less attention at night, she presumed - and bore more attachments than she could rationalize for such a low-risk engagement. If a bunch of old Soviet scientists did, for some reason, decide to take things up a notch and start World War III, she couldn’t imagine that they collectively had better aim than any one of the men that sat in the helicopter with her now. 

        Cecilia decided that she would take their presence as a comfort rather than a liability for the remainder of her trip. 

        She opened her handbag and withdrew a small stack of notecards. She absentmindedly flipped through them, the text on the face of each one already chiseled into her memory after hours of studying them on the plane. Talking points, statistics, politics… An answer for this, a follow-up for that. She was glad she had prepared, but she was also well aware that what she was about to see would undoubtedly leave her speechless, regardless of how much of her spiel she had committed to memory.

        She looked to the window again just in time to see a hill come into view. It was peppered with small buildings, and the occasional twinkling light shone through the agglomeration as the helicopter circled it from a distance. Atop the hill sat a hard-edged building, stiff and unforgiving against the flow of the more loosely constructed buildings that followed the naturally-occurring troughs and slopes. The lights on the outside were a harsher bluish-white than those of the rest of the village, most likely the only electric lights for miles around.

        Soviet architecture.

        The helicopter turned its course towards the hill and began to descend. As they neared the ground, the height of the hill became much more evident. It towered above the village below, and the singular building upon it cut across the night sky.

        The helicopter began to rotate, descending upon a concrete pad at the base of the hill. Cecilia braced herself, and a moment later there was a jolt as her short - albeit panic-inducing - ride came to an end.

In a clamor of clicks and scrapes the men methodically unbuckled and sprang from their seats. The door was slid open and they began to file out one by one, their rifles close to their chests. Cecilia slid her headset off and placed it on the now-empty seat next to her, turning her attention to the contraption of a buckle that still held her in her seat. She pressed the button upon it and tugged the straps, but they remained taught. 

        The captain appeared next to her in the flurry, pausing to wait for her to exit first. With the added pressure on her, she finally managed to fumble her buckle apart and stood, gathering her notecards back into her purse and waiting for the others to step out before her. One of the soldiers waited at the door, and she took his extended hand as she stepped out onto the ground.

        The tenseness in the air was thick, almost suffocating, and the steady chops of the rotor blades above their heads did nothing to ease the weight of it. Ahead of them stood several Soviet soldiers, as equally armed as Cecilia’s security detail. They held their rifles at low-ready as their eyes scanned Cecilia and her party, their index fingers taut against the sides of their trigger guards. 

        She was entirely out of her element.

        Cecilia took a deep breath. She smiled gaily and stepped forward, beginning to extend her hand to the foremost figure, a heavyset man in a tidy gray suit.

        One of the Soviets shouted a word Cecilia didn’t understand over the noise of the rotors, but the intensity of his voice told her to freeze in her tracks, her hand still half-extended and her eyes wide as two of the Soviets in front of her trained their rifles on her. 

        Cecilia, who had never had the barrel of a gun aimed squarely at her head before, let alone two, was surprised to find herself fearing more than any outcome the possibility of losing control of her bladder and starting off such a momentous occasion with a stream of piss soaking through the leg of her nylons. One of the Soviets with the gun trained on her demanded something unintelligible and flicked the barrel of his rifle upwards, indicating for her to raise her other hand as the whine of the helicopter’s engine began to quiet and the rotors slowed.

        She slowly raised both hands, and there was a shuffle as another soldier stepped forward and began to pat her down with an unnecessary amount of vigor. Cecilia huffed in embarrassment as his hands squeezed their way down her body, all eyes upon her as he did so. The Soviet took her handbag and opened it, rummaging through its contents. He found her pill box, taking it out and shaking it.

        “Ah, airsickness pills,” Cecilia said with a nervous laugh, her cheeks growing hot. “Uhm…” She mimed a gagging face and motioned to the helicopter behind her with her thumb.

        The Soviet didn’t seem to understand or care for her explanation and tucked the pillbox into his pocket. He reached back into the bag and withdrew her Walkman and headphones.

        “Oh-” Cecilia started to protest but thought better of it, letting her voice falter.

         The soldier returned her bag to her but kept her Walkman as he stepped back into line. He said a word to the man in the suit, who nodded and stepped forward.

        “I apologize for the brusqueness of our procedures,” he said, finally extending his hand to her. He had a deep voice, roughened by years of smoking. “My name is Mikheyev Petrovich. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to Caela Plant Mischa.” His accent was much thicker than the ambassador’s.

        Cecilia’s eyes darted to and from the soldiers in front of her as she cautiously lowered her hands and stepped towards Petrovich. 

        “Cecilia Whitaker,” she said, taking his hand firmly. “Mr. Kaneshiro extends his gratitude for your hospitality. He’s very eager to hear about what you've built here.”

        “As I’m sure you are, as well, Ms. Whitaker. I have been looking forward to learning about your work.” 

        Cecilia smiled. She knew that he had likely already read an entire dossier that covered everything from her university professors to how she liked her eggs. She, on the other hand, had particularly enjoyed reading about Mr. Petrovich’s mistress in Stalingrad.

        He motioned to a black limousine behind him. “I would be delighted to have you accompany me to the facility,” he said, turning to make his way over to it.

Cecilia stepped forward, but the captain quickly brushed past her first. He held his hand up in front of her, barring her from moving forward any further.

        “Mr. Kaneshiro requires Ms. Whitaker to have an escort at all times,” he said to Petrovich, his demand clear and unfaltering.

        The Russian shrugged, continuing towards the car. “By all means, escort her. But you’ll find that there is no threat to Ms. Whitaker here.” The Soviet soldier with Cecilia’s confiscated items opened the limousine’s rear door for Petrovich, who slid heavily enough into the seat that the back of the vehicle bounced slightly.

        As the captain led Cecilia to the car, she watched as both the remaining Soviet troops and her security detail loaded into the back of one large truck. The two Soviets who had Cecilia at gunpoint remained behind with the pilots, who had already begun to run their system checks as the rotor blades slowed to a stop.

        The Soviet by the limousine door offered her his hand. She took it, sliding onto the bench seat across from Petrovich. There was a distinct lurch in the suspension as the captain entered and sat down next to her, rifle in hand. The Soviet soldier outside barked a few orders at the driver of the truck, then took his place next to Petrovich and closed the door.

        There was a moment of tangible apprehension as the captain and the soldier sized each other up, but the tension dissipated to some extent when the driver pulled away from the landing pad and Petrovich spoke up, gesturing to the captain.

        “Surely it wasn’t Mr. Kaneshiro’s preference to have his men show up like this.” He let out a deep, rattling laugh. 

        “Oh, not at all,” Cecilia said lightly. “These men aren’t with SNOW. They’re at the mercy of a private employer.”

        “Ah,” Petrovich said, showing his palms to the captain and bowing his head slightly. “So few in the West have come to realize just how safe a place like this is. You are exposed to more radiation wearing that than you are standing in the very heart of our facility,” he said, gesturing to the watch on the captain’s wrist. 

        Captain Davy remained silent, his eyes still trained on the Soviet that sat across from him.

        Cecilia peered out of the tinted windows as they entered the village. Despite the late hour, the world outside her window bustled with activity as women toting large baskets of linens and cases of food made their way home. A young Tanzanian boy kicked a soccer ball in front of him as he jogged alongside the car, waving to Cecilia. She smiled and wiggled her fingers at him.

        “They have been a welcoming people,” Petrovich said, looking out onto the street. “In return for a parcel of their land the Soviet Union has provided them with food, education, and jobs. This may become the richest town in the country, economically and resourcefully.”

        Cecilia watched as the young boy split off down a side street that glowed with the warm light of hearth fires. The car began its climb up a winding dirt road that entwined the heart of the village. They passed a man trying and failing to coax a group of rowdy chickens down the hill, a mother walking hand in hand with her daughter and a sleeping baby wrapped snugly to her chest, and a group of teenagers loitering by a retaining wall as they laughed about some unheard joke together under the starry sky.

        “What kinds of jobs are outsourced here?” Cecilia said, turning her attention back to Petrovich.

        “Most of the able-bodied men here were contracted to help with the construction of the facility itself. It’s four stories, most of it underground. With the manpower, it took less than a year.” He clasped his hands in his lap. “After the exterior was completed, we set to work establishing a power grid.”

        Cecilia raised her eyebrows and looked out the window again. “I don’t see any electricity. Are you still working on it?”

        “Ah.” Petrovich held up his index finger and smiled. “As much as I like to rain on Dr. Abramov’s parade, I will let him have the pleasure of answering that question.”

        Cecilia felt a buzz of excitement in her chest. She had been looking forward to meeting Dr. Abramov since she had first read about his work almost two years prior. It had been hard to come by a more detailed record of his research outside of the Soviet Union, but Mr. Kaneshiro had pulled a few strings and managed to deliver her a confidential report written by none other than Abramov himself. It was a fairly outdated study, but leagues beyond what Cecilia was accustomed to reading from the scientific community in the States. After years of feeling so alone in her interests and pursuits, she had finally come across someone that she was convinced was a kindred spirit. The notion only further fueled her desire to break down the walls that separated the East and West’s efforts to excel in scientific endeavors; she began to wistfully anticipate what the world would accomplish as one united people.

        The soldier next to Petrovich shifted restlessly in his seat and turned his gaze out the window next to him. The captain seemed to have succeeded in wordlessly asserting dominance over the last bastion of Soviet stubbornness, a smaller representation of the triumph that she hoped to accomplish today. The moment was a silent, seemingly inconsequential victory that her country would never hear of, but she would always cherish witnessing. A memory to call upon and laugh about another day.

        The car continued to rumble along, and as the houses grew further apart and the grade of the road leveled out Cecilia was able to get a better view of the large, square structure at the crest of the hill that marked their destination.

        It wasn’t very remarkable. Petrovich was right; only the first level could be seen above ground. The flat, reinforced concrete walls and alternation of rectangular, inset windows on the top floor made it indistinguishable from every other example of brutalist architecture Cecilia had seen. Two layers of high barbed wire fence circled the facility. The limousine rolled to a stop as they reached the gate and the guard box in front of it. Cecilia glanced over her shoulder and out the rear window to see the truck stop behind them.

        The limousine’s driver shared a few words with one of the armed guards at the gate, and as they conversed Cecilia turned back around to look out of the window next to her, inadvertently making eye contact with a Soviet that sat in the guard box with a telephone cradled against his ear. He made no acknowledgment of her attention and continued to talk into the receiver. The car started off once more and         Cecilia watched the other guards as they passed, their shoulder-slung rifles bumping against their backs as they moved to check the truck behind them.

        Cecilia didn’t envy the position of the rest of her security detail as they spent the ride bouncing around in the back of a truck full of men that had most likely been conditioned to want them all dead.

        As the car approached what appeared to be the front of the facility, a small welcoming party descended the steps and congregated at the edge of the newly-paved roundabout. The car pulled around the semicircle to meet them, and before it had even come to a complete stop the soldier next to Petrovich opened the door and moved to get out, holding the door open for the others.

        The captain got out first, moving to the side of the car and watching as the truck pulled up behind them. Cecilia reached for the Soviet soldier’s extended hand, but Petrovich cleared his throat. Cecilia turned back to him, suddenly afraid that she had done something wrong.

        He held out her Walkman, giving it a little wave to indicate that she should take it. She slowly reached for it, taking it delicately in both of her hands as if this gruff Soviet businessman had just offered her an olive branch on behalf of the General Secretary himself.

        “Thank you,” she said, tucking it back into her handbag and stepping out of the car. 

        She immediately found herself face to face with none other than Dr. Abramov himself. The middle-aged scientist wore a knee-length, pristine white lab coat that had been unbuttoned and now fluttered in the gentle breeze, revealing a humble yet tidy yellow argyle sweater and pressed brown slacks. The corners of his eyes creased as he smiled, and he brushed back the sides of his graying hair as he stepped forward with his hand extended.

        “Dr. Whitaker,” he said almost breathlessly, taking her hand in his and shaking it heartily.

        Cecilia laughed, smiling from ear to ear. “Haven’t gotten my doctorate yet, I’m afraid. But it’s an honor to meet the subject of my eventual thesis.”

        Abramov’s eyes seemed to well with pride, and he held his other hand to his chest as he continued to shake Cecilia’s hand with rigor.

        “The honor is all mine.” He tugged her closer and lowered his voice. “The exact details of your more recent research are hard to come by in a place like this, but I have managed to get my hands on several of your reports from last year.” He chuckled. “I told them it was necessary to prepare for your arrival.”

        “I would love to know which aspects of my work interested you the most.”

        Abramov clasped his hands together. “Oh, let me think...” 

        As he racked his brain, Cecilia eyed the other men with him. Two other scientists in similar lab coats lingered behind Abramov with their hands in their pockets, watching Cecilia’s security detail with furrowed brows. The Soviet guards that had met Cecilia upon her arrival filed out of the truck behind her and ascended the steps of the facility, disappearing inside. Only two lingered, given the futile responsibility of chaperoning Cecilia and her small army.

        “I know,” Abramov said, raising his finger to illustrate his arrival at what seemed to have been a very hard-thought decision. “Three years ago you wrote a paper.” He nodded his head in the direction of the facility, beckoning for her to walk with him as he continued. “You sought to disprove the link between decaying caela atoms and the gamma radiation that killed four scientists in Stockholm--1957 if I recall. Do you remember?”

        Cecilia smiled. It was the paper that turned the last of her peers against her and nearly got her expelled from Princeton. How could she forget?

        Abramov gestured towards her. “You wrote that, yes, caela is highly radioactive, and even more so when in an unstable environment like it was on that occasion,” Abramov continued. “But you had argued that there was no presence of gamma particles. The manner in which the scientists died was not consistent with other, similar cases of fatal radiation poisoning.”

        They began to climb the steps, and Cecilia once more felt the shadow of the captain over her shoulder as the others fell in behind them.

        “You proposed a new field of scientific study to create new laws of science. Just because the details of this unfortunate - yet minor - event did not seem to sit well upon your mind.” Abramov laughed, shaking his head. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the most stubborn scientist I have ever encountered. I must work with her.’” He turned to her and smiled. “And here we are.”

        Cecilia sighed. “I only wish that particular theory could have amounted to something,” she said, tucking a stray hair behind her ear. “Other than making myself unhirable, of course.”

        “But it did,” Abramov said, stopping at the top of the steps. He clutched the plastic badge that was clipped to the front pocket of his lab coat, holding it out for her to see. Cecilia leaned in closer to make out the text upon it.

        Dr. Aleksandr Abramov. Chief Caelumologist, CPM.

        She couldn’t help but let her jaw drop ever so slightly as she read and re-read the words.

        “It’s…” she said, brushing her finger across the tag as if it was simply a smudge of ink or a trick of the light.

        “An accredited field of scientific study in the Soviet Union,” Abramov said. “Because you published that paper, and because I believed in it.”

        Cecilia straightened up once more, the smile gone from her face as she fought the overwhelming urge to forgo all propriety and embrace this stranger in front of her. She was at a loss for words, all of her extensive, well-rehearsed vocabulary suddenly absent from her mind as she struggled to think of a way to convey to this man exactly what such a thing meant to her.

        She managed to twitch her trembling lips into a smile, laughing nervously, and simply decided to give a hearty nod as thanks. She looked to the soldiers behind her, and to the captain, half-expecting them to support her in her floundering moment of enthusiasm, but they stood still as stone and without a single blink’s worth of a change in demeanor.

        Cecilia bit her lip and turned back to Abramov, hoping he couldn’t see the red that she knew was steadily rising in her cheeks.

        “Shall we?” Abramov smiled amicably, reaching for the door handle. He turned it with a heavy click and pulled the door open, spilling a wash of bright white light over all who stood on the steps. 

        The vestibule was tiled with floor-to-ceiling white linoleum and opened up directly to the similarly-styled main floor, A wall of glass separated them from an extending room alive with white lab coats scurrying back and forth from computer monitors to control panels, all of which were arranged in neat rows.         The workstations eventually narrowed in their distance apart from one another and came to a point ahead in one wide, semicircular row, just before a grand observation window. 

        Cecilia’s eyebrows raised on their own accord as she stepped forward, her heels slowly clicking on the sterile white flooring as she moved. Abramov hung back for a moment, allowing her a moment to take in the sight before her.

        “This…” she began, out of breath at the sight of the expanse in front of her. “How did you get the funding for this?” She didn’t know what she had been expecting. Perhaps a dripping, damp cement basement or a crumbling building constructed twenty years prior that had been repurposed for the occasion.         But this…

        “It wasn’t easy,” Abramov said, returning to her side. “But you haven’t seen the best part.” 

        Cecilia suddenly felt drawn in the direction of the large window at the opposite end and began to make her way toward it. 

        “Did Mr. Petrovich tell you about the power grid?” Abramov said, following her closely. He reached ahead of her, unlatching a seamless, glass door that led into the thriving crowd.

        “He mentioned that you’ve been constructing one,” Cecilia said absentmindedly, looking at the men hunched over the workstations as she passed each one. Some of them looked up at her as she walked past before quickly returning to their duties. Most kept their eyes trained on their respective monitors, calling out to each other in Russian as their fingers clacked away at their keyboards.

        “So,” Abramov said, unable to hide the hint of giddiness in his voice. “He has kept his promise.” 

        Cecilia craned her neck to attempt to see through the windows at the end of the floor, but she still wasn’t close enough to make out what was behind them.

        “You noticed, I’m sure, that the surrounding town is completely without electricity. There are no oil or gas-powered generators. Anywhere. Not even in this building.”

        Cecilia stopped mid-step and turned to him, her brow furrowed. She looked out across the sea of monitors and blinking lights, crisp and conditioned air flowing through the vents above their heads. Her eyes grew wide.

        “You’ve already done it,” she said quietly.

        Abramov couldn’t hide his grin. “On a very small scale, Ms. Whitaker,” he said, wagging a finger. He continued to walk towards the windows, and Cecilia followed, pulled along as if she were attached to him by a string. “Powering a single building on caela is a relatively easy undertaking.”

        “It is..?” Cecilia choked, barely louder than a whisper.

        They reached the final row of monitors, and as they began to round it Cecilia could finally see that the glass was all that separated them from a massive, concrete-lined chasm that stretched three floors beneath their feet.

        Her heart began to beat faster in her chest as they finally reached the open floor in front of the windows. Abramov gestured to the glass.

        “Please.”

        Cecilia meekly stepped up to the edge of the precipice, as if she were at risk of it crumbling under her weight, and peered down. 

        Housed at the bottom of the shaft were two sleek, angular mechanisms that were each almost half as wide as the building itself. They took on a similar shape to a typical commercial-grade generator but lacked the same mess of wires and hoses. 

        “I was inspired by the sensual shape of a Lamborghini, but our architects didn’t take my request to heart,” Abramov said, chuckling.

        His humor was lost on Cecilia as she watched the figures of several scientists far below. They scurried around the machines like little white ants, taking their readings and scribbling on their tiny clipboards. She suddenly felt sick by the scale of it all and looked back to Abramov.

        “How?” she said bluntly.

        Abramov smiled, looking down. She could tell that he had been eagerly awaiting this moment. “You’ve heard of the concept of dark matter?”

        “Of course.”

        “It’s something of a misnomer. There are many things that are considered dark matter. It is anything that our peers are too afraid or too uneducated to give a name to.” His voice softened. “This is what caela really is. It is all around us. Dark matter. Every caela molecule has its own place in the universe that it seeks to return to if it has been moved from it. It is always drawn home, and the energy it emits when it returns to its place is…” Abramov laughed gently and shook his head.

        Cecilia was suddenly catapulted back to the old library at Princeton as she pored over books, records, and accounts, driven nearly to madness by her unfaltering desire - her need - to bring the loose ends together. She never did, and it still haunted her.

        Until now, when suddenly everything tied itself into a beautiful, intricate knot.

        “Caela isn’t the radiation… Or the molecule.” She swallowed. “It’s both.”

        “It can be either.” Abramov looked upon his creation like a father would look upon his son, with a pride that could only be earned through the trials of the soul. “It is almost sentient in that regard.”

Cecilia felt her knees suddenly grow weak, and she stumbled backward slightly. Her arm was caught quickly by the hand of Captain Davy, who she had forgotten was still behind her.

        “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, turning to apologize.

        The suited soldier behind her was smaller in stature than the captain, and as Cecilia righted herself she scanned the expanse of a room behind her. The two Soviet soldiers that had followed them inside were nowhere to be seen, nor were the rest of her detail, including Captain Davy. 

        “We’ve thrown a net over it,” Abramov said, calling her attention back to the wonder below them. “We collect the molecules, and as they fight to return to their place, they emit energy. We hold onto them just long enough that radiation expenditure never goes over our safe, predetermined threshold. We release the molecules, they emit energy as they fall back into place. We collect them again.” He knit his fingers together as if he were about to pray. “You will never find a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable source of energy.” He looked over at her and smiled, his crow’s feet creasing as his eyes beamed with excitement. “I would like to give you the honor of lighting this village for the first time.”

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