"We've had two blow-outs, in one day, no less."
Vasily Chernenko slumped into the guest chair in Casimir Pliskin's office in Moscow, slowly and heavily, as if the weight of the world rested upon his shoulders. He sighed deeply, dejected eyes staring at the dull linoleum on the ancient office floor.
"Comrade, the world isn't coming to an end," Casimir advised. "This isn't even a minor Armegeddon. Blow-outs happen all the time, there's nothing to be done to prevent them. We simply have to cope with them as they happen. Look at the bright side; you now have the maneuvering room to try out some of the scenes you've been working on. Do you have the reports?"
"Here they are." Chernenko summoned up the energy to lean forward and toss the yellow folder onto Casimir's desk, then, falling back into the guest chair, searched his coat pockets for a cigarette and matches. Casimir pushed the ashtray toward his young friend as he flipped through the folder contents.
"Let's deal with these one at a time. Tell me about Popov, he was an old actor, wasn't he?"
"One of the oldest, actually. He was responsible for 5 scenes, all overt, but the blowout occurred on one of the best of them. The scene was a water system hallucinogenic vector. The nearby community has a very high concentration of high technology executives. Popov was caught by a municipal worker during one of his regular tests. The worker is dead, although it is uncertain if anything was compromised"
"According to the report here, Popov stated that no compromise occurred. Do you have reason to disbelieve him?"
Vasily shrugged. "I suppose not. Still, each time these things happen, I can't help but shake the feeling that we're closer to the precipice than yesterday." Vasily inhaled deeply on his cigarette, and exhaled the smoke straight up into the air until a mushroom cloud rose over his head. Casimir momentarily reflected on the irony of the symbolism.
Where's Popov now?"
"In Costa Rica, as planned. He reported on time, and according to the book. He extends his sincerest apologies. The field agent there stated that Popov was sincerely regretful, but composed, and showed no sign of instability."
"Have you reviewed his record?" inquired Casimir.
"Exemplary. He's Russian born, a patriot all the way. No black marks."
"Well, it seems to me that Comrade Popov has justly deserved his retirement. I see no reason why we don't follow through. Let the field agent deliver the good news. I presume he will co operate in the transfer of his other scenes to new actors."
"He explicitly stated he would, in the report." Vasily replied.
Casimir responded, "Well, my friend, I don't see why you're particularly distressed about all of this. I agree, it's a shame about the blowout, but all of the contingency plans have played out exactly according to the script. What about the other one?"
"This is the one which I find most distressing. Aleksander Shirovsky, American born, son of a consulate employee. Calls himself Alex Shirer. Very young, only one scene, just four years old."
"I know this one, I helped to design it. This is the fellow with the computer expertise. He's the one who feeds Directorate 17 the information about economic activity. It’s a telecommunications tap of extraordinary sensitivity."
"Yes, that's it." Vasily responded. "An extraordinary scene. Shirovsky not only had an active tap for some exceptionally useful information, but his scene was one of the most powerful in the entire play. Capitalists live and die by their dollars, you know. Shirovsky had his finger on the switch.”
"Chernenko, you're such a hypocrite." Casimir's voice was stern now. "You and I both know why we do this work. We're in it for the perquisites. Don't you travel first class when you're researching a scene? Don't you rent luxury cars and book the best hotel rooms? Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't your suitcase bulge with Western consumer products, as you bypass the custom officers on the way back? My God, Vasily, isn't that a Movado watch you're wearing on your wrist? How can you pontificate about greedy capitalists? It seems to me that you've been contaminated by the Western influence worse than the rest of us." Casimir shook his head, as if to sadly reflect on the state of such affairs.
Vasily cringed at the stinging accusation, and seemed to attempt to shrink his arm back into his jacket so that the watch wouldn't show.
Casimir instantly regretted his tirade. "I'm sorry, comrade. I'm really not as cynical as that might have sounded. There was a time when patriotic considerations dominated my thinking, and I'm now as morally corrupt as anyone, I suppose. Please forgive me, and tell me more about this Shirovsky fellow. Where is he now?"
Vasily's countenance lightened somewhat, and he continued his narrative. "He's on a fijord near Oslo. The local agent hasn't debriefed him yet. His contingency plans called for a relatively high level of escape funding, so he' s probably OK for a while. Of course, he will be awaiting his pension."
"How old is this fellow? What was his lifestyle?" Casirnir inquired.
"32 years old, something of a rogue, the field agents report. Likes to chase the women. No long-term relationships. Politically, he's an atheist. He’s about as different from Popov as two actors can be".
Casimir thought for a moment. "Well, I suppose I see your concern here. This fellow is too young to retire, and might be something of a thrill seeker, perhaps he'll become trouble in the future. What about the blowout, is there any evidence to believe that he might have precipitated it himself?"
"This was my greatest concern." Vasily replied. "Shirovsky's scene was highly technical, and even the experts would have a difficult time confirming or debunking his story. Furthermore, we've lost an important asset, one that will be difficult to replace. Still, I have no specific reason to believe he caused this accident on his own."
"Tell me about his pension expectations,” Casimir inquired. “What does he believe he's getting?"
"We promised him a third tier amount, comfortable, but not luxurious by Western standards,” Vasily informed him. “Also, it' s not in the form of a funded annuity, so he will be depending upon our honor and good will to deliver."
"Well, clearly that was a mistake." Casimir replied. "This fellow is not going to sit in a cabin in Norway, abusing himself, or the local women, for very long. The first thing we should do is to instruct the field agent to tell Shirovsky that his pension will be funded by deposit in Geneva. We'll show some good will to begin with, perhaps that will reassure him."
Vasily offered, "I'll be talking with the Scandinavian agent manager myself, this afternoon, so I'll inform him personally."
"Good. The next thing we need to do is to see if we can't find a European scene that he can participate in, and offer him a significant bonus to delay his full retirement. A fellow this bright needs something to occupy his time beyond the women, and his skills might be put to better use. Besides, we will be in a better position to watch him for any signs of instability."
"Will you be reporting this to the Producer?” Vasily inquired.
"Of course, I'll have to inform him that we've lost the scene. I'll keep the personal characterization of Shirovsky our little secret, however. He would probably expect us to cancel his contract, and I frankly don't care to do that unless there's an obvious and imminent danger. The rest of the work we do here, my young friend, can be thought of as something of a game, but contract cancellations are a serious business, and I don't much care to participate. Besides, as you should be well aware of, contract cancellations are in themselves dangerous, for the play as well as you and me."
"Nonetheless, the play has been dealt a serious blow," Vasily offered. "Shirovsky, especially, was a particularly powerful scene. There aren't too many actors with his skill and knowledge, combined with an incredibly useful position."
Casimir reached into his pocket and withdrew a cigar. "Nonsense, my dear friend." Striking a match on the rough edge of the table, he continued. "Let's see, how many are there? Don't we have several dozen scenes analogous to Shirovsky's? Telecommunications pinch points?"
"Perhaps you're right," Vasily sighed as he ground out his smoke in the ashtray, reflexively reaching into his pocket for the next one. "Still, this scene was uniquely situated, and who can tell if this Shirovsky fellow cleaned up adequately before retiring? I tell you, comerade, the play is like an elephant that dances on the head of a pin. Just a small misstep, and the balance can be lost..."
"All right, Chernenko, you've made your point," Casimir snapped. "Perhaps the most important point you've made here relates more to your suitability for being the Director some day. You must learn to roll a bit more with the punches, Vasily." Casimir's tone became somewhat softer, more supportive. "I've lived through dozens of blowouts in the last fifteen years. The basic principles of the play do indeed work, comerade. The scenes are sufficiently isolated. Even a bad blowout can be survived, and the play lives on."
Chernenko sat upright in his chair, seemingly snapped out of a funk by his supervisor's last comments. "I'm sorry, Casimir. I suppose you're right, I do let these things bother me."
"And because they do, my friend, it shows me that you have the dedication needed in this job. All right, the day is going to be a long one, let' s get started. I'll need all of the field agent reports before I can file my notices with the Producer. You also need to talk to the Scandinavian field agent right away. We'll need to replace Popov's water system scene, so send the new script writer to see me tomorrow, what is his name, Sergei something or other?"
"Kamazof, Sergei Kamazof," Vasily interjected.
"Yes, Kamazof. This should be a good type of scene to break him in. And Vasily, for God's sake, take off the Movado before you interview him," Casimir said, glancing at Chernenko's watch. "He'll be corrupted before long, but there's no need to accelerate the process."
Vasily smiled. "Very well, Casimir, although I would keep your own watch out of sight, as well. Rolex, isn't it? And you call me a hypocrite?"