What really matters is what you felt there...
Nature is treacherous but it is not malicious.
(in Soviet translation)
Part 1. The Day
The reconnaissance route starts at the kilometre marker.
Andrei takes readings at ground level — 'ground’ — and in the air — 'background’, I enter the data and the point number, and our armoured patrol vehicle swings sharply off the now-abandoned highway and into the forest, into the shadowy, resinous coolness. I’m sitting half out of the hatch, studying the terrain, looking for the best way through, glancing from time to time at the rough, hand-drawn sketch of the route (the real map isn’t allowed out
of headquarters — top secret), and bark directions at Kolya the driver. The engine makes a powerful rumble, the respirator muffles my voice, so I have to bellow to make myself heard — 'Left', 'Right', 'Take the left', 'By that bush — Stop!' Kolya brakes, Andrei jumps off to take readings, setting the dosimeter up as he goes, calls out the ground and background readings, I enter the figures, Andrei kicks the sand off his boots against the armour, scrambles back up. "Forward" — and we move on.
One measurement follows another... The readings are climbing.
Then right across our path a band of jagged tree stumps all of ten metres wide. "Drive round?" Kolya nods. Our back tyres are bald. Puncture them, and there’s no saying how we’d get a tow back... And the levels are no joke out here...
I keep us on course, Kolya drives, Andrei takes the readings — we’re like a well-oiled machine...
A reading, another reading...
The crew functions like clockwork — I find the route, Kolya drives, Andrei jumps off, stands over the measurement point about half a minute, holding the probe at waist height, calls out the background level, drops the probe to the grass, watching the instrument all the time, calls out the ground reading — we work so as not to get any more exposure than we have to...
The level rises at every point, Andrei runs faster and faster to the point and back, we’re more alert now, sensitive to each other’s work and the engine... Then Andrei visibly slows, takes about one and a half times longer than really necessary to make
a reading — doesn’t trust himself, doesn’t just wait until the needle steadies — after flying across the scale — he makes sure it’s stopped and stayed still for a while — to be absolutely certain. Meanwhile I fill the empty seconds by studying the terrain — it may well come in handy...
The pointer goes off the scale.
Click! Andrey switches over to a higher scale...
To the left — a wall of a pine forest, to the right — a railway track. Between the two is a concrete footpath. We follow it
— the narrow concrete strip slips beneath the armic. Then the path curves to the right and crosses the tracks, but we’re going straight on.
Andrey calls a reading. It’s a bit lower — looks like we’ve passed the maximum...
Goddammit! There’s a ditch — a bloody great trench! across our path. It runs right up to the railway line. Freshly excavated. Only a narrow strip left... To cap it all, it’s partly blocked next the railway ballast by a huge chunk of concrete...
'Impassable', Kolya and I decide in the same thought. Andrei has already run to the other side of the embankment — it’s the same there.
Nothing doing. We’ll have to reverse, turn around somehow between the forest and the railway — just exactly where levels are at their maximum! — and then drive all the way around the NPP... Just to get to the far side of that trench — to that heap
of sand. All for a few metres! And there do seem to be vehicle tracks on the strip... Has somebody driven over before us?..
I climb out onto the armour, pace up and down, jump down from the prow and walk onto the strip. It’s wide enough... If it weren’t for that damn block, making it very narrow for driving onto; and that big drop on the left... Will the ground hold? I take
a closer look. The exposed soil is surprisingly solid — good firm clay. I jump up and down a few times — it doesn’t give. Towards the far end it’s reinforced by several concrete blocks, with another secure-looking slab lying flat on top of them, level with the surface. If the vehicle does start to go down sideways, it should give us enough support to get through.
'Kolya, come and have a look...’
Kolya inspects the strip, jumps around on the edge and, without a word, goes back to the ARPV. Andrei is already on top of the hull — at levels like that it’s better to have armour under your arse. 'Get down. Kolya, close the hatches’. Just in case. Even when armics did turn turtle, the men inside weren’t hurt, the main thing is to have the hatches shut.
The ARPV grinds forward — Kolya engages four wheel drive — and looms over the three metre drop — why the hell did we come this way?! — and at this moment the clay under the left rear wheel crumbles, breaks away, the armic tilts, Kolya gives it more throttle, the armic’s four wheels churn feverishly, the armic starts slewing round, tipping, then sliding slowly down backwards...
I tear off my respirator: 'Stop! Sto-op!! Stooop!!!', the roar of the engine dies, and the armic comes to rest like an injured dog — belly to the ground, one rear wheel hanging over the drop...
We look at each other — a few hundred metres away, over there, where the trench runs from, we can see the blackened wreck of 4 reactor.
We’re in a real mess.