**(9th Edition - 2003)
Chapter 1 - The Nutcracker Ballet.
The land of endless horizons is a land of ice, reindeer, and drifting snow. Certainly, this is how it appeared to me. The world calls the place Siberia. Some call it a land of death, others, a land of great plenty. To me, the word Siberia, stands for yet another beginning.
We flew into Novosibirsk, Anton and I. Novosibirsk means interpreted, New Siberia. On the surface, Novosibirsk is just another city, like any other large city. In our experience, however, it came to light as an oasis, an outpost cultural center in a vast empty land that extends for over four thousand miles east from the Ural mountains, spanning an area larger in size than all of South America and Mexico combined. Novosibirsk is its center for art, theatre, music, and science. It is home to more than 20 research institutes. It features a suburban 'science city' that accommodates nearly 25,000 scientists. Strangely, in this frontier setting, Antonovna's short name didn't fit anymore, in spite of the great privilege that it represented. Life seemed too vulnerable for shortcuts to be appropriate, here.
+ + +
Ushi had been right when she told me on the plane from Caracas to New York, that I would be invited back to Russia before the year is over. Except, this had been just a hunch. Now it was happening. Only a few months had passed after the last of us got back from taking part in Nicolai's world tour in support of Africa, when new marching orders were written for me. But how did Ushi know? She couldn't have known. Was she involved in something that Russia needed my help for? If so, why didn't she say it?
The nature of the trip had not been revealed when the orders were presented. This strangely corresponded with what Ushi had hinted at. There was one thing, though, that she hadn't hinted at, that I would meet Anton again.
The orders stated that I was to meet a certain Alex Koldunov at the Kremlin, to answer to some allegations about me having insulted the government of Russia during one of my remarks at the Caracas conference. I couldn't think of what I might have said. Indeed, it should have worried me, but there was this overriding feeling that Ushi had something to do with all that, in which case I had nothing to worry about.
As expected, my orders were changed when I got off the plane. An agent of Alex Koldunov handed me a white envelope, which he said contained a dinner invitation from Nicolai Vasily Berendeyev, for 17:00 hrs. at the TV tower restaurant. I pulled the card out, opened it up. The information was correct. It was written in Nicolai's hand writing, and signed by him.
The invitation was brief. It said nothing about any reason for it or anything about Antonovna. Still, I wasn't surprised to meet her there with Nicolai. In any case, I had planned to telephone her once I got to Moscow, which was no longer needed.
While Nicolai took care of my coat, I asked Anton quietly if she knew why I had been invited to Moscow. She put a finger over my lips and gestured that I should kiss her. When we embraced, after the kiss, she whispered softly, "You must trust us on this." She stepped back a foot and looked at me and smiled as she had done so on many occasions in Caracas. "I'm glad you were able to come," she added quite audibly, now.
As we were seated, Nicolai brought out a set of three tickets for the Bolshoi Theater where Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet was performed that evening. "I have invited you here to give you a chance to discover the real Russia," he grinned, "and Antonovna will help you to find the best of it. This is my way of saying thank you for what you have done in helping to organize the international food aid for Russia."
Evidently, this story was for somebody else's ears since it was quite loudly spoken. I was puzzled. Why would anyone be listening? Nicolai never spoke this way before. I had never experienced this tense atmosphere before in the presence of Nicolai.
Nicolai spoke like a tour guide, suggesting places we should visit. Ushi chided him for this. "Leave this up to us, please." So he spoke about operas. He said that Madame Butterfly was being performed this week. He told us the story of it. He spoke with great compassion about the Japanese girl who had been married to an American who had left Japan and then abandoned her, but who had come back later with his wife to claim her child as his own.
Now he spoke like the real Nicolai. Though it seemed I had barely known him, I sensed something familiar in the beauty of the intimacy of his sharing, in the tone of his voice, and the care he took in presenting the story. I could also see the same care expressed by him towards Antonovna. Nicolai had changed. He had become more beautiful, more genuine, and more human. I wasn't speaking to the politician anymore, or the powerful and respected security chief of the Russian Northern Fleet. Or was it I, who had changed? Perhaps, what was unfolding here was a faint trace of what Ushi had brought up as a challenge to be overcome in male to male relationships, when we met at the airport in Caracas at the morning of our departure.
After dinner, Nicolai told us that we had some time left for dancing. Nicolai danced only once and left the rest of the time to us. The music was loud and monotonous. Still, we danced to it. We held each other close, and with a soft voice Anton informed me that we would meet one of Koldunov's men in two days. Koldunov is helping us," she whispered.
"But why me?"
"You can thank Nicolai for that," she said, and grinned.
I hadn't thought about the implications when she said that, we, would meet his man. The word didn't register until she explained that we were facing a dangerous mission together, but an important one on which all of our lives might depend. "This mission might be the most important mission, ever," she whispered while we danced. "I told Nicolai that we can trust you," she added. "It will have to be done in total secrecy, inside of Russia. Will you help us?"
How could I decline? The great care with which everything had been arranged, a care that flowed from the depth of Nicolai's beautiful soul, was something that inspired trust. How could I not honor this trust. "Of course I will help," I replied.
"Something ominous has happened up north," Anton whispered while we danced. "Nicolai was ordered in no uncertain terms to stay away from it. It appears that an unknown device was dropped over northern Siberia in a strategically sensitive area. It was picked up by infrared sensors, but not by radar. Nicolai found out about it, but was ordered by his superiors not to get involved. The reason might be that his involvement would draw too much attention. It is more likely, however, that his superiors want to cover something up, something that is directed against our country, something big that certain traitors don't want Nicolai know about, or find out details about. Nicolai believes that the object might be a biological warhead of some sort. No one has gone near the site as far as Nicolai has been able to find out. They are treating the incident as if nothing had happened. Several of the log entries have been erased that Nicolai had made copies off. It all adds up to something big. Nicolai wants the two of us to go on site. Are you still willing to come?"
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