“We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
It was a rhetorical question as both men knew the answer. An undoubtful, horrifying yes.
Alexei, the younger of the two, quivered, on the brink of tears.
“It’s going to be short, at least,” Yuri, the older one, said. “But still painful. They say it's one of the worst agonies a man can go through. The body killing itself from the inside.”
The younger man burst into tears.
“Crying won’t help, son,” Yuri said and fished his pocket for a cigarette. And to think he was about to quit smoking. What a sick joke, this life.
He was surprised to see how steady his hand was, as he lit the cigarette. All things considered, he should be trembling with despair.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked as he exhaled a cloud of smoke.
The younger man wallowed in grief, hands covering his face.
“Son,” Yuri repeated.
“A-Alexei,” the other replied through sobs.
“I’m Yuri,” he said, offering a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Alexei glanced up and reluctantly met his hand.
“At least we won’t die as complete strangers,” Yuri said and pulled in a lungful of smoke. “Damn shame, isn’t it? We’ve been working here for - how long, five years? - and we haven't once shaken hands.”
The power plant was a huge complex, but still.
“I’m only here for three years,” Alexei said and wiped his eyes. “And I know you, comrade Yuri. You’re my supervisor.”
Yuri raised an eyebrow, exhaling smoke. “Is that so?” He never paid much attention to those under him, especially the younger men. It was the older dogs he had to suck up to in order to be promoted.
Alexei stood up and forced himself to look the older man in the eyes. “I don’t want to die,” he uttered, voice so fragile it could kill his mother, were she to hear it.
“Neither do I, son, but that’s not up to us, is it?” He looked around the control room, all the lights flashing and the alarm ringing. Was it just him, or was it getting hotter?
“Well, if I think again, it’s up to us to end our life early if we want to, but not up to us to prolong it. Like today. Today we fucked up, comrade Alexei, ending our lives early. Today we will meet God and answer him for what we’ve done.”
He said it with such calm that it terrified him. Did he already accept his death, only hours after knowing it would come?
“Do you think we’ll see God?” Alexei asked. “Or will He send us straight to hell?” His eyes widened with realization. “Will we have to face all the innocent lives our mistakes will claim? I can’t do that! I can’t face my own death, let alone be blamed for so many others!”
“We’ll be judged alright,” Yuri replied, unmoved by his comrades' despair. “Judged by our fellow men and women, by our superiors, by the state, by everyone who will look upon us from history books and by God himself. But none of those judgments count half as much as the one that comes from within, comrade. Make peace with it while you still draw breath.” He glanced at the control console. “You don’t have that much of it left.”
“How can you be so calm, comrade Yuri? Aren’t you afraid?”
Yuri finished the cigarette and stomped it. Then he paused. Why did he stomp it? The reactor had exploded, the power plant was burning and the radiation was spreading to the nearby towns and villages, affecting thousands. What did it matter if he stomped a smoldering cigarette bud?
“I ask myself that same question, comrade. But I doubt I’ve made my own peace. As death approaches, I’ll probably fall on my knees and plead for mercy.”
But plead to who? To God? To his own conscience? Or to all the lives who will continue to suffer long after his own is snuffed out?
Alexei stared at his feet. It was getting hotter in here. Yuri could feel his skin beginning to burn, like that of a sunburn. His mouth tasted like iron. Was that the taste of ionized particles piercing his tongue or was it the taste of a dying man’s regret?
“It wasn’t our fault,” Alexei said, talking to himself. “We’re not to blame. We’re the victims here.”
“Don’t go down that road, son,” Yuri said and went through his hair with his hand. A good clump of them fell off, like dry needles falling from a Christmas tree. It shocked him. So soon…
“How could we have known?” Alexei said, his voice suddenly strong. “We were doing an experiment, something that hasn’t been done before. There’s no way we could know! It’s not our fault! The system was simply too weak!”
“Comrade!” Yuri said. “This is our fault. We are to blame. The blood of god knows how many is on our hands and will continue to be even as we die. Don’t deny this, don’t take this with you in whatever awaits you in the afterlife.”
Alexei shook his head. “I don’t think there is an afterlife, comrade Yuri. I’d like to believe it, but I just can’t! There is no after. Only silence. And darkness.”
Damn him, but he is probably right, Yuri thought. It was a fool’s comfort, believing there will be something awaiting them after all the pain is gone.
“Here,” he said, offering a cigarette to the young man. “It’ll help you calm your nerves.” It was a poor solace, but what else was there to be done?
Alexei took the cigarette and Yuri lit it for him. Then he lit himself another one. The two men smoked in silence for a while, until Alexei began to cough.
“I thought you’re a smoker,” Yuri said.
“I am,” Alexei said between coughs. Then Yuri noticed red drops of blood in the man’s coughing. Alexei noticed them too. His hands began to tremble, tears pouring down his face.
“I don’t want to die! Please, I don’t want to die! My mother… I want to see her! I don’t want to cause her suffering by dying!”
Yuri pulled in the smoke. The young man’s despair worried him. What will happen to me when I get to Alexei’s stage? Will I roll on the floor, coughing in my own blood? Or will I scream like a madman, until my lungs come out?
His hands were starting to burn like a red-hot piece of iron was pressed against them. I shouldn’t have touched that valve.
He glanced at the control panel. The gages were off the chart, but he focused on one in particular.
“Come,” he said and waved a hand at Alexei. “Come comrade. We cannot redeem ourselves for what we’ve done, but at least we can lower the damage.”
Alexei was leaning on the wall, sobbing uncontrollably, his skin red and blistered. As Yuri looked down at his arms and legs, he noticed the same redness. His body was on fire, only there was no flame.
“Come,” he placed a burning hand on the man’s shoulder. “Let’s pull that lever.”
“No!” Alexei bellowed suddenly, pushing the older man away.
“No, no more! We’ve done enough! It wasn’t our fault, but I won’t touch it again! No more!”
Yuri noticed hysteria behind the young man’s eyes. Panic. Deathly fear. The boy is gone.
“We have to release the water into the system manually to slow down the rate of spreading contamination. We can’t extinguish the fire, but perhaps we can slow it down. Perhaps some people can escape-”
“No! There is no escape! We will all die and there will be nothing left! Only darkness and silence!”
Yuri watched with remorse as Alexei slumped down to the floor and began scratching his face.
“It burns! God, how it burns!”
The skin peeled right off, caught in between his fingers and under his nail, exposing the bright flesh beneath.
Yuri turned to look away. There is no God, only man, and his foolishness. His whole body burned, his hands were beating like two additional hearts and he felt like every cell in his body was turning to mush. So that’s how radiation poisoning feels. He heard it explained to him many times. Never did he think he’d actually suffer from it, working at the state-of-the-art nuclear power plant.
Only men and their foolishness.
He waltzed over to the control panel, hair falling down on his shoulders with each step. Everyone else in the room had gone away hours ago, getting themselves as far away as possible, but he and Alexei remained behind. There was no use leaving, the dose of radiation was already lethal in the first five minutes after the explosion. Perhaps he could survive if he ran away, but it would be only to prolong the suffering later.
He wrapped his agonizing fingers around the lever, feeling the blisters bursting under the pressure of the touch.
“Forgive us,” he said and pulled the lever. The water coursed through the system. It seemed like a mockingly small thing to do, but what else was there? The only alternative was to roll on the floor and wait for the end with Alexei.
He turned around and saw the young man spasming on the floor, mouth wide open but in too much pain to even scream.
“A preview of what awaits me,” Yuri said and took out the box of cigarettes. His fingers were all bloody, skin hanging from the ruptured blisters. He was beginning to lose movement in them, but not the feeling.
With the most agony he ever felt in his life, Yuri lit what he knew was to be his last cigarette and slumped down to the floor, back against the control panel. He watched Alexei going through his final death throes, eyes bulging, chest flailing up and down.
“At least you’re not alone as you go, comrade,” he said, forcing not to look away. “But who will watch me die? I will be alone.”
Alexei’s back arched and he managed to find the breath for one long, heart-piercing wail before his body fell still.
The sirens suddenly became much louder and the flashing red lights like the fires of hell encroaching from all sides.
The boy was dead. Suddenly, Yuri’s calm shattered. He dropped the half-finished cigarette, unable to keep his hands from shaking. The radiation was eating him from the inside, feasting on his every fiber.
“Don’t leave me, comrade!” he shouted. “I was there for you as you died! Who’ll be there for me!”
Panic got a hold of him. His heart raced so fast he couldn’t feel the single beats, but a prolonged vibration in his chest. The skin burned so intensely that he had to check constantly if he wasn’t on fire after all.
“I don’t want to die!” he shouted to no one. “Why is man such an ignorant fool?! Curse you! Curse you all! I never wanted this to happen!”
His shouts became incoherent screams and rambles.
Soon, he joined his comrade on the floor, both in experience as well as destination.