The old man looked at the driver of the car. "Is he angry with me, Pasha?"
The young man gave an indifferent shrug. "It's just business, Nikolai. He hired you; you worked for him; you no longer wish to work for him; you quit. You will take another job and my grandfather will hire another scientist. Life goes on."
"Your grandfather is a very powerful man."
"Dedushka is a businessman, nothing more."
"Then he forgives me?"
Pasha Semenov looked over at his passenger. Nikolai Petrov's eyes looked sunken and haunted, like those of a dog that had been kicked too many times. The old man hunched down in his seat as if a great weight was pressing down on him. Wrapped around his left wrist was a black wool Orthodox prayer rope, tied into fifty knots with a wooden bead dividing the knots into groups of ten. The old man constantly fingered the knots, mouthing silent words until his fingers arrived at a wooden bead-then he said aloud, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Pasha smirked. "You don't look like much of a sinner to me. Maybe I should get one of those things."
"You don't know what I've done," Petrov mumbled. "You don't know what I almost did."
"What did you do, old man? Go on, impress me with your sins."
"We did things that no man should do, Pasha, things that could lead to the end of the earth-the end of everything. Your grandfather does not understand this. He does not believe as I do."
"What my grandfather believes is that the great Dr. Nikolai Petrov has lost his mind."
"Do you know why the Soviet Union crumbled, Pasha? It was God's judgment on us for the things we almost did-for the things we were preparing to do."
"Listen to yourself-you talk like one of those cave hermits from Kiev. Do you know your problem, Nikolai? You're living in the past. This is the new Russia-the world is different now."
"The world does not change, Pasha. The human heart does not change."
Pasha pulled the car off the road and stopped.
Nikolai Petrov looked out his window. In a clearing to his right he saw an enormous concrete grain silo encircled by a winding metal staircase whose steps protruded like the petals of a flower, ascending to an open doorway at the very top of the silo. There was a matching doorway on the opposite side that opened into empty space. At the bottom of the silo was a third doorway where a corn elevator offloaded the grain into a line of waiting trucks.
"This is not the train station," Petrov said.
"How observant of you," Pasha said, opening his door and stepping out. "Dedushka asked me to bring you. He wants to wish you good-bye."
"It isn't necessary," the old man protested, but Pasha was already out of the car.
Pasha put his fingers to his lips and made a piercing whistle.
One of the farmhands looked up.
"Dedushka," Pasha shouted.
The farmhand pointed to the top of the silo.
Pasha turned back to the car and found Petrov still huddled inside. He waved impatiently to the old man until he reluctantly opened his door and climbed out.
"He's up in the silo," Pasha shouted over the din of the corn elevator. "Come."
They walked to the base of the metal staircase and Pasha gestured for Petrov to go ahead of him. The old man began to timidly climb the stairs while Pasha kept one hand pressed against the middle of his back to keep him moving forward. When they had rounded the silo once, Pasha whistled down to the corn elevator operator and made a slashing gesture at his throat. The machinist nodded and pulled a rusted lever and the engine sputtered to a stop. The air was suddenly silent.
"Dedushka didn't have time to come to the station," Pasha told Petrov, continuing to urge him forward. "Prices are up and the corn has to get to market right away. You know how it is on a farm-always something to do."
At the top of the staircase Pasha pushed past Petrov and looked into the open doorway. The interior of the silo was a circular room filled with an endless sea of golden corn that dipped toward the center like a draining sink. A white-haired old man was standing knee-deep near one of the walls, scooping up shovelfuls of corn and tossing them into the center. There were no lights in the silo; it was illuminated only by the daylight pouring through the doorways on opposite sides.
"Dedushka," Pasha called out. "You have a visitor."
Yuri Semchenko turned. The man was built like a tree stump with arctic-white hair combed straight back toward his shoulders. He was dressed in denim overalls and a white cotton shirt, the sleeves rolled halfway up his thick, mottled forearms. His face was tanned and leathery, a field of deep folds and furrows with jowls that concealed most of his neck. His forehead was narrow and his hairline low; there was no hint of thinning or receding. His eyes were a dull, hollow gray set in sunken sockets like two slabs of slate peering up from the soil.
Semchenko looked at his visitors without expression. "Grab shovels," he said to them. "Make yourselves useful."
Pasha picked up two shovels and handed one to his companion. He waded into the corn a few steps, then turned back and motioned for Petrov to follow.
The old man did.
"Like this." Semchenko demonstrated, holding his shovel overhand and scraping the corn away from the concrete walls. "Moisture collects," he said. "The corn forms a crust-we must break it free."
Pasha began to do the same.
Petrov stood near the center of the silo and stared at Semchenko's back. "Don't do it, Yuri," he said. "Please-I beg you."
Semchenko looked at him over his shoulder. "Don't do what?"
"You know what. You have no right."
The white-haired man let out a snort.
"Science makes possible things that should never be done," Petrov said.
"Who is to say what should not be done?"
"God. He is to say."
Another snort. "Then let God tell me himself and not some cowardly old man."
"I cannot have a part in this. I will not." " Yes, Nikolai, you've made that very clear." He tossed a shovelful of corn in front of Petrov and nodded toward the center of the room. "Throw it there-in the middle."
Petrov slowly scooped up the corn and threw it a few feet. "I have to go, Yuri. Please, I have a train to catch."
"Pasha must help me first," Semchenko said. "The sooner he finishes, the sooner he can take you to the station." He tossed another shovelful at Petrov's knees.
So did Pasha.
Petrov began to eagerly dig into the growing pile of corn and pitch it toward the center of the silo, working as hard and as fast as his aging back would allow.
Semchenko watched the old man work for a few moments, then nodded to Pasha. The two men set down their shovels and waded through the corn to the opposite doorways. Pasha climbed out onto the stairway on his side. Semchenko sat down on the ledge of his doorway, leaned out, and signaled to the corn elevator operator below him.
The engine started up again.
Petrov began to sink.
He looked up in horror and saw Yuri Semchenko calmly watching him from one of the doorways. He twisted around and saw Pasha doing the same behind him. He tried to take a step, but when he lifted one leg the other leg only sank deeper. With a rustling sound the corn poured toward the center of the silo like sand emptying from an hourglass.
Within seconds the corn was up to Petrov's waist.
"Don't do this!" he cried out. "Yuri, please!"
"Sorry, old friend, but a conscience is a dangerous thing. I cannot be certain where yours might lead you."
"I won't tell anyone! I swear!"
"Yes, I know."
The corn was up to his chest now. He threw himself forward and tried to swim, but there was nothing to push against and the corn flowed up and around him and licked at him with its yellow tongue.
"Stop struggling, Nikolai. You'll only sink faster."
But the old man began to struggle frantically, thrashing and clawing and beating at the corn. Nothing helped; the corn continued to swallow him like a snake with a helpless mouse. His shoulders disappeared like two rocks beneath a rising tide. His hands clawed at the air above him, then fell limp and slowly sank back into the yellow sea. The corn rose up to his neck, then his chin, and he threw back his head and gasped for air as his lungs began to compress.
His eyes looked at Semchenko one last time. "Yuri," he whispered. "Please-don't-"
The corn poured over his face and into his mouth and he was gone.
Semchenko stared at the sea of grain for a minute or two, then signaled to the machinist to stop the engine again.
The silo fell silent and the corn was perfectly still.
He looked across the room at Pasha. "Clean this up," he said. "Tell the authorities it was an accident. And Pasha-I was never here."
Nick Polchak slumped in his chair in the back of the classroom and watched stone-faced as the student concluded her presentation.
"And that," she said brightly, "is the life cycle of a fruit fly."
She tucked her poster under her chin and turned from side to side, offering her fellow students one final look before grinning hopefully at her professor.
Everyone in the classroom turned and waited for Nick's evaluation.
Dr. Nick Polchak was one of the best-respected and most-feared professors at North Carolina State University. Nick loved his academic discipline-entomology, specifically the study of the arthropods that comprise half the living species on our planet, and he had no patience for anyone who didn't share his passion for insects or his love of technical detail. For Nick life was bugs, pure and simple, a perspective that had long ago earned him the moniker "the Bug Man."
Nick took off his glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "C-minus," he said. "And that's only because I'm in a generous mood."
The student did a dramatic double take, an imaginative blend of indignation and personal affront. "A C-minus? C'mon, Dr. P.!"
"Don't call me that," Nick said. "It makes me sound like a urologist."
"I deserve better than a C-minus!" The student hoisted her poster high overhead, as though Nick might have somehow overlooked it. "Look at this thing! I practically spent the whole night on it!"
"Lovely," Nick said. "Let's take a closer look."
As Nick worked his way to the front of the classroom, the students began to grin like hungry hyenas. They knew what was coming; it was the main reason they'd signed up for the course. Nick's students took an almost perverse pleasure in watching him savage their classmates on the days when projects and papers were due. This was the first project of the fall semester, and everyone could taste blood.
The young woman lowered the poster to chin-level and allowed Nick to look it over.
"Ms. Smith," he began.
"My name is Karnofski."
"Whatever." Though Nick had at his fingertips the Latin names of hundreds of species of blowflies and flesh flies, he had only two names for students-Smith and Jones, depending on which name randomly rolled off his tongue when summoned. "First of all, your drawing is all wrong," he said. "Drosophila is yellow-brown in color and has transverse black rings across its abdomen."
"That's awfully picky," she grumbled.
"Yes, science is like that. Second, their wings don't look like a couple of badminton rackets, and if I remember correctly, only the fairy-princess fruit fly is decorated with glitter."
Snorts and snickers from the classroom.
Ms. Smith-Karnofski frowned. "I wanted to make it stand out."
"Well, don't. And what, may I ask, is that?" He pointed to the fly's head, where a curved line arced beneath the two huge eyes.
"That's a smile. I was trying to make it look-you know-friendly."
Nick turned to the class. "Okay, let's get something straight. This is a course in basic entomology. What Ms. Smith here should have brought us was a technically accurate rendering of a Drosophila melanogaster. Instead, what we have here is essentially a Precious Moments fruit fly. I'm sorry to break it to you, Ms. Smith, but fruit flies are not cute or cuddly or friendly. They are tiny arthropods that are valuable for research chiefly due to their extremely short life cycle."
Nick took the poster and held it up to the class. "What else is wrong with this drawing?"
No one dared an answer.
Nick ran his finger around the contour of the drawing. "See this? She colored inside the lines. That's an indication of a serious personality flaw that Ms. Smith will want to address before she gets any older." He handed back the poster. "Sorry, Ms. Smith, the C-minus stands. Who's next?"
Another student stepped to the front-an eager-looking young man with a thick gauze bandage wrapped around his left forearm.
Nick looked him over. "We're all yours, Mr. Jones-impress us."
The young man quickly unwound the bandage and held his hand out palm-up. In the fleshy, hairless center of his forearm was a shallow gash about three inches long. The flesh around the wound was red and swollen, and in the center of the gash was a line of wriggling white maggots.
The class let out a gasp and the front row emptied out.
"My project is on maggot therapy," the student announced. "Maggots have been used for hundreds of years to clean out wounds. They eat away the dead tissue and keep the wound from getting infected."
Nick took the young man by the wrist and adjusted his glasses to get a better look. "Well, nobody can accuse you of coloring inside the lines. I have to ask you, Mr. Jones, is this a self-inflicted wound? You didn't do this to yourself just for my project, did you?"
"Nah. I got it skateboarding."
"Good. I get in enough trouble around here." Nick turned to the class; it looked as if someone had tipped the room and deposited everyone along the back wall. "Okay, gather around. Let's see what we can learn from Mr. Jones."
No one moved.
"Oh, c'mon," Nick said. "You've all seen grosser things than this. You live in the dorms, don't you?"
The class eased forward and surrounded their wounded classmate.
"All right," Nick said to the young man. "Go on with your report."
Mr. Jones looked at him. "Go on?"
Nick blinked. "Was that it?"
"Pretty much. It's more of a ... demonstration."
"Where did you learn about maggot therapy, Mr. Jones?"
He grinned. "From the movie Gladiator. Remember? Maximus has his shoulder ripped open and it's full of maggots, and this guy tells him, 'Leave them-they clean out the wound.'"
"Uh-huh. Tell me, Mr. Jones, how much do you know about maggots?"
"A maggot is the larval form of a fly," Nick said. "The gravid female looks for decaying matter to lay her eggs in. Some species prefer decaying flesh, like the ones on your arm-probably common green bottles. The eggs hatch into larvae and begin to feed. They have two little mouth hooks, one on either side, and they use them to scrape away the decaying tissue and stuff it into a kind of prestomach known as a 'crop.'"
Nick looked at the group; their faces were slowly contorting. "Give me a break," he said. "I've watched some of you eat-it isn't much different. The maggots will pass through three stages of development called 'instars.' When they reach the final stage-when they've stuffed themselves on Mr. Jones's decaying tissue-they'll drop away and look for a secluded spot to pupate. A few days later they'll emerge as adult flies. Tell me, Mr. Jones, where did you get the maggots for this little demonstration?"
"Well-we've got a lot of flies around our house."
"And why do you suppose that is?"
The young man shrugged.
"It's because you're a male, Mr. Jones, and your decor probably includes a lot of decaying matter. So you just exposed your open wound to the air?"
"It took a long time," he said solemnly. "I had to sit there for hours and act like I was dead."
"Yes, I've seen you do that in class-you're very convincing. And where did the flies come from?"
"Where did they come from?"
"Before they landed on you. You don't think your arm was their first stop of the day, do you?"
He paused. "I never thought about it."
"Flies aren't picky eaters, Mr. Jones. Yours probably landed on a dog pile on the way into the house, then stopped off for dessert in that garbage can your roommates never empty. And every time the fly lands, it picks up bacteria on its feet and deposits them on the next place it visits. Take a close look at his wound, everybody-see the redness around the edges? Notice how swollen it is? That's what doctors call infection, and Mr. Jones has managed to get himself a pretty good one." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ends of the Earth by Tim Downs Copyright © 2009 by Tim Downs. Excerpted by permission.
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