Authors: James Reich
SOFT SKULL PRESS
Copyright Â© James Reich 2013
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Reich, James, 1971â
Bombshell : a novel / James Reich.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Â Â Â
Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, Chornobylâ, Ukraine, 1986âFiction. 2.
Â Â Â
Young womenâFiction. 3.
Â Â Â
Nuclear warfareâFiction. 4.
Â Â Â
Â Â Â
Â Â Â
Chornobylâ (Ukraine)âFiction. 7.
Â Â Â
TravelersâUnited States I. Title.
Cover design by Nina Tara
Interior design by Domini Dragoone
SOFT SKULL PRESS
An imprint of COUNTERPOINT
1919 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Distributed by Publishers Group West
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
“We are the descendants of a body-city, what I do or dream or live, what I flee from or find . . . results from the cross between my cities and my lives.”
, HÃ©lÃ¨ne Cixous
APRIL 1, 2011. VARYUSHKA CASH CROSSED THE RED WASTELAND IN
darkness, under the radar, wires, and hexes that had been cast over the contaminated ground. Beneath a raw sickle of moon, as she neared her target, the night cold had come down harder and the hammer of her fear came with it. Acid stopped her muscles and she fell to the jagged earth. Turning her head, she watched crystals and lambent minerals glimmering in the blood-red rocks between sparse shadowy cacti, grit grinding under her shoulders. Struggling to breathe the cold air, drained by intervals of sprinting and crawling, she lay on her back staring into the black sky, analyzing the silver zodiac thrown out over this other forbidden space of the world. For minutes, she was paralyzed beneath its brittle, radioactive fur. The silence was profound.
Through her ill-fitting combat fatigues, the desert chill penetrated her flesh like the insistence of memory, spectral rays from the haunted city she had left behind. Her blue eyes ached in their sockets, tears failing. A wing of dirty black hair spilled from beneath her khaki cap and flapped across
her brow. She sucked her lower lip against her teeth in concentration. Her protruding upper lip was split from dehydration and sunburn. The rigor of her bruises and her exhaustion threatened to destroy her mission even as it began.
In the darkness of the desert, she thought of Valerie Solanas: Valerie, the hip panhandling playwright and feminist gunslinger who had stood against a world where men worked at the controls and tapped vainly at the heat gauges; these men who had made the machinery of life and death the same technology. These men promised both the future and oblivion with the same arrogant smile. From here, Cash would stand against them also, by guerrilla skirmish, by hit and run, by assassination. She was in love with Valerie Solanas. Valerie exorcised the shadows that had devoured Cash's biological mother, and glittered in the void left by her father. There was a mug shot poster of Valerie above Cash's bed with the words S
across it in ransom note newspaper fragments. Sometimes the chewing gum that held the poster would unfasten and Valerie's image would curl down over the bed, and their lips would touch while Cash lay masturbating in her boiling dreams. She read about Valerie's death in a memoir by the superstar Ultra Violet, whose name was another form of radiation. Valerie had succumbed to emphysema in one of the slouching schizophrenic hotels of the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, and was found dead on April 26âVaryushka Cash's birthday, and the date of the Chernobyl disaster.
Overhead, she found the great horns of Taurus, waiting. In three weeks, his atomic fires would hang over the world and light the final atrocities she had ritualized within her, accelerating acts of murder, atonement, and warning. Suddenly, a vengeful heavy metal heat flooded her tight assassin's muscles and impelled her forward. These were the early hours of Friday, April 1, 2011. Just twenty-five more days, she thought. In twenty-five
days, it would be twenty-five years since her birth in the atomograd, the Soviet atomic city of Pripyat, constructed in thrall to the nuclear reactors of Chernobyl. Her birthplace was sealed off with corroding razor wire and despondent checkpoints, an abandoned Potemkin city, where fallout had transformed the pines of the Wormwood Forest to the blood red of a dead Martian space.
History has a cruel rhythm. It is the Atavism of Catastrophe. April 26. The date they found Valerie dead in the Tenderloin. A disaster is coming. April 26, 2011: twenty-fifth anniversary of the meltdown at Chernobyl where she entered the world. Catastrophe has a luminous beat like a radium clock. It is impossible for the twenty-fifth anniversary to pass without being echoed by some conflagration of the present.
Since she had become a young woman in America, nightmarish images of her own birth had come to her more frequently, this stroboscopic horror that roved across her awareness reminiscent of the beam of a wild cinema projector. The movie came again: the interior of the hospital that had served the families of the scientists and the workers secluded in Pripyat until the evacuation. From some disembodied place, she witnessed her mother's crooked knees, their slick heat. Her mother was screaming. Another figure was there. She could not make it out. She knew only that motes of glittering dust were gathering, drawn by static into tiny embryonic formations. This ghostly infusoria drifted beside her. At the exact moment that Cash's scalp crowned out of her mother and the first blood of her placenta touched the rubber sheets of the hospital bed, the meltdown had begun. Flames and metal tears lit her shadow against the pale green ward walls, the umbilicus winding back to the blazing bulb of birth. Radiation consumed the city. In the years that followed, her city had
become the capital of what men called the Zone of Alienation, an uninhabitable wound of Europe close to the Black Sea. Ukraine and the void where the reactor now decayed had once been the beautiful province of the Amazon women under Hippolyta. Cash's ancestors strutted the raunchy, barbaric forests and the great grasslands. Destroyed and condemned now. She could justify everything: Since she had been born in the wreckage of what had once been the territory of the Amazon women, she bore within her, at her core, the knowledge that she must rise out of the nuclear inferno and avenge the crimes of men, their scientific parodies of birth, their baby bombs and the violence they wrought against the innocent. The zero point, the burning skull of Nuclear Reactor IV, was now encased in a concrete sarcophagus. In gray ceremony, this brutal sphinx whose gaze cast cancers, mutilations, and death remained surrounded by the broken cleaning robots that had bulldozed uranium ash through the streets by radio control, streets and machines that now rang with the husking of blown Geiger counters. The images darkened.
Now in America, she was in another such exclusion zone. For Cash, this zone was delineated by the nowhere town of Radium Springs to the south, and to the north by the black slick of the Carrizozo Malpais lava field. It enshrouded the haunted gypsum dunes of the White Sands Missile Range, and to the northwest the ill-shaped volcanic stone of the Trinity Site obelisk, ground zero for the Manhattan Project and the detonation of the first atomic bomb in what is now southern New Mexico. Centuries ago, the conquistadors had named this crossing the Jornado del Muerto, the route of the dead. Under Coronado, a great snake of men had traveled north from Mexico, trailing laceworks of sunburnt skin, abandoning their plumed serpent helmets to glow in the sand, suffocating in their desiccated leather armor. In mirages of gold, men slipped like sacks of dried meat from blistered horses and perished in the red desert. It was a nightmare space born in the boiling atoms of the sun, purling
from the empty ocean of bleached dunes. Ghosts overlapped in its crucible. It made the Spaniards long for the dysentery and darkness of the Amazon rainforests. A radiant fireball wiped them out.
This landscape of New Mexico remained a militarized zone, with a plexus of dirt tracks and access roads etched into the plateau, and a hydra park of decommissioned missilesâSidewinders, Copperheadsâarrayed against the night. Unseen, Cash had traversed the ivory dunes, the petrified slicks, and the iron-hot dirt, having trespassed into the razor wire desert almost forty-eight hours before, enduring the vicious heat of the days and, now, her second exposed night. She had chained her motorcycle to a broken streetlight between a pair of graffiti-scrawled dumpsters in the small parking lot behind a cafÃ© back in Radium Springs. From there, she had hiked northeast toward the White Sands Missile Range, rehearsing this first act in her war in her mind, whispering it to herself. As the morning sun bled slowly over the Organ Mountains, Cash had undressed and changed from her street clothes to desert camouflage behind a clutch of piÃ±ons and cedar trees at the edge of the road that brought tourists to the anemic dunes. For a moment, as she stood naked at the perimeter, the barbed wire grinding in the fence posts behind her, she had felt weakened by the vastness of the country ahead of her. She choked down the faint nausea that came with understanding that once she stepped back into the atomic world of her nightmares, she would revisit a chain of reactions that she would have to fight to control. Cash imagined a naked child dipping her toes into a brilliant reservoir lit by fuel rods, red alarm lights revolving on gantries, screams, and sirens. She had dressed hurriedly, a tense punk in coyote drag, smeared her face with a zinc barrier before she pulled on her khaki cap and black motorcycle goggles against the sands. She had inventoried her supplies, the hydration pouches, the day-night binoculars, the C3 anti-detection foil, and the plastic explosives, before slinging her backpack onto her shoulders.
She wrapped her androgynous frame with red webbing to distort her silhouette. Finally, she turned and scrambled under the barbed wire fence, sprinting low into the white gypsum dust of the dunes. Her boots pushed through the loose inches of silt to the hard plaster carapace beneath. From there she moved slowly, sometimes taking an hour to cover a mile. Pale dust drifted in the New Mexico windstorms, recalling waves of disintegrating bone, a landscape of cocaine to amp the heart into wild palpitations. She oriented by map and compass, vanishing into the nuclear foothills, the volcanic corals, and the radar shroud of abandoned airstrips. As the sun rose to its zenith, the air was without moisture, and when it moved it was monolithic and hard as the blade of a bulldozer. She thought of bulldozers pushing radioactive materials into trenches around Chernobyl. Later, as the first night fell, batwing B-2s howled and sent out radar pulses in the freezing black. Security flashlights flared in the green fuzz of her binoculars. Muscular guard dogs pissed at the fence lines while their handlers smoked cigarettes. Washed with adrenaline, Cash moved on, the deep desert swallowing her, the riot of a single ghost and her cool fury, closing in on her target. Her timing was immaculate. Her spine, her blood, her body, and her nightmares were entwined in a taut twenty-five-year mechanism in which she was the final siren. She was drawn inexorably toward the blast zone. The Jornado del Muerto of the colonized New World and the Zone of Alienation of the decolonized Old World were twinned in the obliterated landscape of her memories. She was the interface of flesh between them. Now, Cash was the current of a new wave. She felt it, as native as her own uterus, the film reel of her blood bar-coded by bombs, manipulated by centerfolds and centrifuges, weird mists from the factories of power. How could her father have been involved? What had drafted him to the city of Pripyat, to attend the reactors at Chernobyl that shadowed their home? How could her mother have gone with him? The old questions split her heart. Being orphaned, she took or had been adopted by new militant mothers at different times.
Her skull was a slideshow of radical women who carried machine guns, raised their fists in black leather gloves, marched and raged against the deathtrap culture of their servitude and for the right to possess their own bodies without compromise. Valerie Solanas was the most vivid, and they were, Cash was certain, connected. With their backs against the wall, they fought their way out with bombs of bone and skin.