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Excerpt from Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Atomic Anna

by Rachel Barenbaum

Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum X
Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 448 pages

    Mar 7, 2023, 464 pages


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Print Excerpt

Atomic Anna

April 1986
Soviet Union

The scientist Anna Berkova was asleep in her narrow bed in Pripyat, the closed city that housed workers from Chernobyl. She was cold, but then again, she was always cold. The walls in her building were thin. Damp and wind clawed through cracks and she huddled under blankets to escape them. She had fallen asleep working on the amplifier she hoped would increase efficiency at the nuclear power plant, the prototype lying on her chest. It was small and crude, a circuit board covered with diodes and capacitors. She didn't hear the explosion or feel the catastrophic shudder as Reactor No. 4 ripped apart, its insides flayed, releasing the most dangerous substances known to man. Nor did she witness the shock of light that stabbed the dark, because at that exact moment Anna tore through time. It was her first jump—and it was an accident.

When she opened her eyes, she was on her back in the snow, alone, on a mountain, clutching the smoking amplifier. Her head felt like it was being split in two; her hands throbbed. They were burned and raw; she didn't know why. She assumed she was dreaming, but she never felt pain in dreams, only fear when nightmares had her seeing soldiers at her door. It was why she still wore boots to bed, even now as an old woman, so she could run from them like her mother should have run all those years ago. But on that mountain there were no soldiers. She put the amplifier in her pocket and her scorched hands in the snow. That hurt even more. Wind slid through her nightgown and scraped at her skin and with every sensation, she was more convinced this wasn't a dream. This was real. She quickly understood that she needed to find shelter or she would freeze.

She spotted a building in the distance. Smoke stained the sky above, leaking from the chimney. If she could get to that building, inside, she'd be safer. She slipped and clawed her way to her feet and forced herself forward. The building was narrow and long, built with stone. As she stumbled toward it, she passed a spot in the snow that bloomed red with fresh blood trailing in a long line. Her panic grew.

Perhaps the KGB had left her here? It was no secret Gorbachev detested her. Her safety protocols were expensive and slowed production, but without Anna and those protocols there would be no RBMK reactors—and those reactors were Gorbachev's pride. He wouldn't kill her, she assured herself. Besides, if he did, it wouldn't be like this. It would be with a bullet. This was too elaborate.

The front door wasn't locked. Just before she opened it there was a flash. After that, the pain in her head was gone. Relief. She barreled through the entrance, aware of heat as it rolled over her like a wave. She spilled onto a bench. A black parka hung next to her. She put it on and slowly her body warmed. As her temperature rose, so did her terror. The smoke from the chimney meant someone was there, but it was too quiet. She peered down the hall and had the feeling that this complex was familiar, but she couldn't place it. "Hello?" she called. Her voice shook from fear and cold, and only silence hit her back.

She pulled the parka tighter and that was when she realized it was wet. She looked at her charred hands. They were covered in blood. The parka she was wearing was soaked with it. So was a black uniform on the floor. She let out a scream. But again she was met only with silence. "Anyone?" she called.

She crept deeper into the building, down the hallway. The walls were covered in bright murals. Adrenaline had her mind working faster than her body, and as she stumbled through, she caught glimpses of the art, of what seemed to be three superwomen with capes and high boots.

In the kitchen, the table was toppled. Chairs were overturned. Anna grabbed a knife, held it up as best she could. That was when she recognized the lead-lined box from her laboratory flung into the corner, covered with warning stickers she had created. The box was made to hold pellets of enriched uranium oxide, the fuel used in the RBMK reactors.

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Excerpted from Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum. Copyright © 2022 by Rachel Barenbaum. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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