He ran. Those following him would find him fast enough. He had to find a spot to hide from his pursuers. There! The alleyway off to the left. He ran down the alleyway, dodging the garbage cans partially blocking the entryway. He stopped for a minute to catch his breath. Doubled over, he could hear the sounds of his pursuers drawing closer. He would have to start running again, but he didn’t have the energy. He’d been running since morning, and the sun was starting to go down. All his energy was long gone, but he continued to elude those looking for him. During his few minutes of rest, he asked himself a few questions: Who were these people who followed him with such single-mindedness? Why, every time he thought he’d lost them, did they regain his trail? He’d been asking himself the same questions all day, but he was no closer to finding an answer this time than any other. The sounds of his pursuers grew louder. Too close now. He ran.
His day hadn’t started off nearly as interestingly. He got up at dawn as usual. He let the dog out like normal. He finished off his morning routine, as he was accustomed. Everything seemed normal. The only thing that he noticed was out of the ordinary was a touch more grey at his temples than he was used to seeing. How had he gotten so old?
Pyotr Mikhailovich Vladislavskii took a look around his apartment to make sure everything was in its place. When he ascertained it was so, he left for work. It was on the way to his workplace that he noticed for the first time the men who were following him. His birth date was October 4th, 1957 (the proud day Russia had launched the first Sputnik into orbit), so he had lived through the time of the secret police, the KGB. His first thought, therefore was that the men were part of the government, but there was no black automobile following them. Only a group of 4 men talking to each other and paying too much attention to him. Pyotr boarded the Zamoskvoretskaya Line of the Moscow Metro at the Tsaritsino station and looked out at the group on the platform. “Well, at least it wasn’t me they were interested in,” he thought to himself as the train pulled away from the station.
However, at the next station, the same men were waiting on the platform. Or were they? He couldn’t tell if the men were the same group that had followed him to the train or a group that were simply dressed the same as those who had followed him to the last station. He took a closer look to see if he could identify any of the men individually, but just as one turned towards him, the train again pulled out of the station. None of the men had boarded the train. “I must be going crazy to think that someone’s after me,” Pyotr thought to himself.
And yet, the next station, the same men were there, and the one after that, and the one after that as well. Pyotr decided to get off a stop early to see if they followed him or stayed on the platform at the station, which would mean they were looking for someone else. When he got to the Novokuznetskaya Station, the station before the one he normally disembarked at, he got off, and looked around for the group of men. Sure enough, there they were, off to the side, as they had been at the last four stops. When they spotted him starting to go up the stairs to street level, they began to move in his direction. Pyotr hurried into to crowded concourse, hoping to lose his pursuers in the large arched space. He barely noticed the intricate frescos depicting Russia’s military forces carved into the walls. It was 8:30 am. Rush hour was just beginning. He decided to walk to the Tretyakovskaya station to board the Kalininskaya Line out to the Circular Line, where he could go around the centre of Moscow without having to worry about running into the end of the line with nowhere else to go. He could sit on the Metro and think about what to do next. Of course, that assumed that the mysterious group of men wouldn’t board the train at some point to speed up whatever it was they had in mind for him.
He was beginning to feel relieved when he rounded the corner onto Ordynka M ul and spotted the group of men waiting outside the entrance of the metro station. Outwitted. He spun on his heel, looking for a way out. He began to walk rapidly in the other direction. Maybe if he crossed to the much larger Ordynka B ul, he could flag down a cab and get away. “They won’t be able to anticipate where I stop in a taxi.”
When he reached Ordynka B, morning rush hour was just beginning, so he had no problems flagging down a cab. “Take me south,” he said. The cabbie accelerated smoothly into the traffic. They came to Zhitnaya ul, one of the sections of the road ringing the city centre. “Head to the university”, Pyotr instructed the driver. Pyotr still had colleagues on campus, despite the fact that he hadn’t taught there in fifteen years.
Pulling up in front of the main building of Moscow State University, Pyotr paid the fare and got out. He looked around. Not much had changed since he had last visited, about 3 years ago. The same imposing architecture housing many of the university’s faculties, a few thousand dorm rooms, and the administration offices, among many other things.
It was the first that interested him the most. Perhaps one of his former colleagues or students from the Department of Biological Evolution in the Faculty of Biology would be able to give him some clue as to why someone would be after an obscure biology researcher. He wasn’t even weaponizing any bacteriological vectors, as some of his higher-paid colleagues had gone on to. His research was largely genealogical in nature, looking at the way mankind had evolved over the last 3000 years or so: a blink in evolutionary timescales, really. For the life of him, he couldn’t think why someone would follow him so sinisterly for his research, but if he could eliminate that as a cause, he could move on to examining another part of his life his followers might be pursuing.
When he reached the entrance to Building 12, he spied a friend in the lobby. He called out, “Hey Gregor!” His friend turned to look, squinted, then recognised him. “Pyotr,” he shouted out, “You old wolf – what have you been up to?”
“Not much,” Pyotr answered. “Still trying to prove my hypothesis about inheritance. How about you?”
“I’ve been contracted to work for the government to develop a vaccine against this new avian flu that’s supposed to be the next epidemic.”
Pyotr and Gregor both got a chuckle out of the government’s willingness to appease the people, despite not having any solid evidence that a general epidemic was on the way.
“Whatever the latest headline disease is, I get to work on it,” laughed Gregor. “Last year it was SARS after that outbreak in Canada. Before that, BSE from Britain… who knows, next year I might start a rumour about malaria so I get sent somewhere warm for a change.”
Pyotr chuckled along, still feeling uneasy about the morning’s events. “Listen,” he asked his friend, “do you know anyone in the FSB that could help me with a quick inquiry?”
“I might know one or two people,” offered Gregor. “Do you have an internal or external question?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” ventured Pyotr, “but my guess is internal.”
“Fair enough. I know just the gentleman to help you out. He owes me a favour for getting his daughter to the top of the immunization list for that encephalic fever that went through the schools awhile back.”
“Great! When can I talk with him?”
“Right away. Just let me drop this mail off in the outgoing box and we can head back up to my office.”
MSU was founded in 1755, and even though building 12 had been built much more recently, it still had the air of history about it. The great hallways of stone seemed to press in on Pyotr today much more than they ever had while he was a professor here. He guessed it was because of the nature of his errand here today. He recalled the last time he’d been inside this building, five and a half years ago. He’d thought never to return after that, but he’d been back on campus a half-dozen times since. Never to this building, though. He walked the corridors with trepidation, following his hurrying colleague to his office on the 14th floor.
Entering Gregor’s office, he looked around. Nothing much had changed here in the last 20 years. There were oversize poster of viruses and bacteria on the wall. He recognised the shepherd’s crook of Ebola to his left and the menacing cross-section of A Streptococcus, the bacteria responsible for flesh-eating disease, on the far wall. This was the office of someone on the front lines of the war against disease. As much as he made fun of it, Gregor was doing important work here.
Gregor was rummaging around in a desk covered with scraps of paper and blow-ups of microscope slides, textbooks and printouts from health agencies from around the world.
“Found it,” Gregor announced triumphantly. “Here’s the number for the guy I know in the FSB. His name is Nikolai and he should be able to help you out.”
“Thank-you greatly, Gregor,” Pyotr said, shaking his friend’s hand. “One day I will tell you what this has been about, but today I must be on my way.”
Taking his coat, he turned left out the office door, leaving Gregor shaking his head behind him.