A Chasm of Choices

chapter 4 of the latest Tale from the Exclusion Zone, THE VLADIVOSTOK KIND

4. A CHASM OF CHOICES

The day’s hike was almost over.

Light was draining out of the sky and the air was chilled with the first hint of night. The village of Zymna was spread out less than a thousand meters away, just downhill, but Yuri had called for a halt. 

According to Zakhar’s Monthly, the security drones were tasked to the eastern sectors that night, so he had stopped mostly to check for earthly threats – and partially to show off his new Night Hawk binoculars. Yuri had wanted Nikolai Sokolov to see he too knew the value of technology, but the accountant just stood under a gnarled apple tree, stamping his feet impatiently while Yuri studied the long shadows between the deserted houses.

Yuri had imagined the shiny black binoculars would catch the young man’s attention, perhaps divert his incessant contempt. For the past seven hours, Sokolov had kept up a running commentary on all things Ukrainian: the Zone, the Security Services, the countryside, the women… Yuri had hoped he would shut up, at least momentarily, but apparently Vladivostok accountants drank from a bottomless cup of scorn.  

“There a monster lurking in those shacks down there?” Sokolov asked loudly after a minute. “Angry peasants with pitchforks ready to fend off a Russian invasion?”

He looked to his bodyguards for affirmation. Kaspar and Gleb flashed tight smiles.

Yuri stifled his disappointment and slid the binoculars back into his leg bag. He turned toward the sunset rather than waste breath on a reply.       

On the horizon, a veil of shredded cirrus clouds drifted in a molten sky. To Yuri, it looked like angel wings, feathered alabaster shot with fire, veined with gold and amethyst; singed seraphim slowly wheeling over the mouth of Hell.

He remembered his babushka, how she used to stop at the close of each day, no matter the weather. She would drop whatever she’d been doing and go to her porch at sunset, watching it and crossing herself. She explained to him once that each one was an omen from God. A sign. That those with eyes to see and ears to hear could discern what fortune the next dawn would bring. 

Yuri wanted a moment alone, away from his charges so he could soak in the meaning of the glow, listen before night came. He strained, but Sokolov’s disdain was still fresh in his ears. Yuri could not hear the sky.

“No,” Yuri eventually said. “I was checking for threats.”

“Threats,” Sokolov smirked. He nudged Gleb with his elbow. “Mr. Best-in-Area thinks us city boys are scared of the big outdoors.”

“Just doing my job, Mr. Sokolov,” Yuri replied evenly.  

“Then show me some real buildings, Mr. Best-in-Area. My father doesn’t need chicken coops and peasant huts.”

Yuri’s patience was wearing thin. “What does your father need then?” he asked.

“Big buildings. Real buildings,” Sokolov answered.

“For what?”

“For business.”  

Yuri looked at him, reining in his irritation. “What kind of business?”

The accountant rolled his eyes. “The real kind. The Vladivostok kind. Import, export. Not this skulking, nickel and dime bullshit.”

“What about the Cordon?” Yuri asked. “The Zone is a Restricted Area.”

“Not so restricted,” Sokolov gestured expansively. “We’re here. Aren’t we?”

“I meant for businesses. Only the military and authorized scientific research has access here.”

“We have connections,” Nikolai Sokolov boasted. “Lawyers, politicians. We can handle your Ukrainian Cordon and your scientists.”

Your scientists…

Yuri’s mind jumped to a memory: blood and pain and hooded shadows deep in a Cold War bunker reeking of mold and old lies. He stopped it before it could play back in his head. Cold wind slipped down the neck of his jacket, nipped up his sleeves.  Yuri suppressed a shiver and turned instead to Nikolai Sokolov.

Perhaps it was the man’s smirk and his spray tan, or just the end of a long day ducking aerial surveillance. Either way, Yuri’s gaze hardened.

“This is the Exclusion Zone,” he said. “Your cell phone doesn’t work here. What makes you think your lawyers and politicians will?”

He started down the hillside before Sokolov could answer.

“Stay with me,” Yuri called over his shoulder. “We must reach the Gas Station before it gets too dark to see.”

There was a hitch in the air before he heard their footsteps in the grass. Yuri wondered if he’d gone too far, offended Sokolov. Probably – swollen egos bruise easily – but apparently not enough to put him off his “business”.

The Vladivostok kind…’ Bah.

He hated to admit it but Zakhar might have been right.

Yuri started to scold himself but stopped short; what was done was done. In the end, everybody has to own their decisions. The three of them were following and that was good for now. He, Zone Guide Yuri Bonyev, would finish this tour. What the Vladivostoks did afterwards was on them.  

From now on though, ‘accountants’ were in the same category as ‘scientists’: never again.

Yuri remembered the sunset, thought about omens.

If devils really are fallen angels, then perhaps the distance between heaven and hell is the slimmest of margins, he decided. A chasm of choices.

Ten minutes later they were on the edge of the village. Yuri led them through an opening in a wooden fence and some of the weight lifted from his mind; this was their layover for the night. Day One of this tour was almost over.

Zymna had been a farming village, a cluster of sturdy brick and wooden buildings. Many still had tin roofs. The most modern structure was a thirty-year old Laundromat. The oldest was Saint Vladimir’s onion-domed church. Yuri found a decayed tour book one trip that claimed it was more than two centuries old. 

Zymna had been rooted in this black soil long before the new highways were paved, before the power plant’s cooling towers squatted in the sky, before the crazy radar installation rose over the dark pine forest, before the military outposts and the ugly, concrete towns that supported them. Only eleven kilometers inside the Cordon, it had no important facilities, no valuable salvage, no anomalies, mutant burrows, hardly any unusual happenings at all. Unlike the Red Sectors, the high threat level areas deeper in toward the Zone’s center, the place was an island of relative safety. It was a snapshot, a Time Capsule of life before the Incident.

That was exactly what made it so important to guides like Yuri.

Yuri angled for ‘the Drunks’, the two tottering barns that propped one another up at the east end of the main street. Their ‘hotel’ for the night was an old GLUSCO gas station at the west end.

The four of them passed silently through the angled tunnel of leaning barn walls and stepped on to the road.  

The asphalt was gray with age, cracked and choked with weeds, but otherwise surprisingly clean. The houses and shops on either side were packed tight in a funnel of black windows, wooden shutters, climbing ivy and peeling paint. There were no streetlights, no rusting automobiles. Nestled amidst hillside orchards, if Yuri squinted his eyes, he could imagine a scene out of Tolstoy.

Behind him, Nikolai scoffed and muttered.

Yuri was cradling Sasha. He’d pulled her around on the way down. Not that he expected trouble here, but it luck was all about preparation. Besides, the familiar hardness of the AK74’s wood grips was reassuring. “There a problem?” he asked.

“You know, Mr. Best-in-Area, I heard all these stories about the Exclusion Zone before I came. How mysterious, how dangerous it was.” Sokolov moaned like a cartoon ghost. “And now…”

“And now what?”

Sokolov sucked his teeth and spit. “Your Zone was supposed to be some kind of Middle Earth, a Narnia filled with monsters and magic and treasure. But all I’ve seen is shit. Take this place: one sad sack of small, beat up, and vacant. I’ve partied in Krushcheby tougher than this. This is so utterly fucking normal, I have no idea what my father sees in this place. ” 

Yuri’s tongue was sore from biting it. “What is wrong with normal? Education, a family, a steady job, enjoying life…”

“Normal…” Sokolov laughed. “Eat, shit, breed, work, die… that’s for peasants. Me? I’m king. A boss, not a budgetniki.” He raised his fists to the sky. “Vse i srazu!  I want it all, and I want it now.”

Sokolov began chanting a rap tune, strutting like a peacock. Kaspar and Gleb chuckled obligingly.

Yuri’s Praporshchik in Syria, Dygalo, used to scold him whenever Yuri was surprised certain people had slacked off and let him down.

‘What did you expect? You get crap from an asshole. This is a surprise?’ Dygalo would say.     

It occurred to Yuri his sergeant had been like his grandmother; always looking out for him, offering advice. His may have been uglier but it had always been eminently practical.  

The shadows were gathering now, climbing the walls around them. The last of the sun’s rays glowed in the treetops. A hundred meters ahead, a row of gas pumps guarded a battered garage bay door. The service station’s convenience store entrance was ajar under the dingy canopy. Yuri checked the diamond-shaped GLUSCO logo beside it – it was tilted to one side.

Ahhh, empty. Good, he sighed. No extra worries tonight.

Straight would have meant they’d be sharing accommodations with whomever. There was an unspoken truce at ‘hotels’, but such things could be tricky.

Almost there. At least he’ll be quiet when he sleeps.   

Yuri was about to lift a quick prayer to Saint Strelok against snoring when barks and squeals erupted on his left.

The Vladivostok men jumped, whipped their weapons around. Yuri spun on his heels and racked Sasha’s bolt as large boar rushed out of an alley.

“Don’t shoot,” Yuri shouted.

The beast was awkward and lumpy, bloated, with a squashed pig face and spindly legs. There was blood on its flanks and its eyes were wide in terror. It saw them and froze in the street, its gaze darting between them and the alley behind. A second chorus of barks and howls rose over the houses, louder, nearer than before. 

The two byki had their little black machineguns in their big fists while young Sokolov stood behind them waving his pistol. “Shoot it! Shoot it!” he yelled.  

Yuri raised a hand, put iron in his voice. “Do not fire.”

The boar stepped one way then another, quivering with uncertainty, coiled to flee not fight.  Right then, a pack of dogs burst onto the street. Nikolai Sokolov gasped. Kaspar and Gleb swore.

There were two dozen at least, all rushing back and forth, yipping and barking, circling the creature. They too were misshapen, lean and scabrous, with tall, pointed ears, long jaws, and a bulb of smooth skin covering their eyes.

“What’s wrong with their heads?” Sokolov bleated. “Where are their eyes?”

“They’re blind,” Yuri hissed. “Now be quiet.”

Several larger dogs turned at the sound of the accountant’s voice and snarled. Part of the pack immediately veered away from the boar onto the main street. The rest stayed on the boar, swarming in an ever tightening noose. Gleb raised his machine gun. A red laser dot danced across mangy ribs.

Yuri hissed again. “Fire and we’re all dead.”

As quickly as he dared, Yuri reached down and scooped up a handful of large rocks. He tore his eyes off the dogs and looked over his shoulder at his three charges.

“When I say ‘go’, run to the gas station. Fast and quiet as you can,” he said. “Not before. And keep him with you, yes?”

The two bodyguards swallowed and nodded.

Yuri turned back. Half the pack was ignoring the boar now, slinking down the sidewalks on either side of the street, ears perked, noses raised. Hunting new prey. A steady growl thrummed in the air that Yuri felt more than heard.

All at once warmth slithered down Yuri’s lip. He licked away coppery blood. His nose was bleeding. A sudden stab of pain in his head almost made him cry out, but he squeezed the rocks until their edges bit into his palm.

Saint Strelok…. Not now. Not again.

Yuri scanned the nearest house for the biggest window. He drew his arm back.  

“Get ready,” he whispered.

A deep breath. Then he flung the rocks with all his strength.

Glass shattered, clattered, crashed to the ground. The dogs on the sidewalk turned as one and charged toward the house, yowling and barking.

“Now!”

And Yuri was running.

The four of them surged up the street, speeding past the bleeding, squealing pig-thing, through the swirling, snapping dogs with their stink and teeth and skin-masked eyes. One lunged at Yuri but he twisted aside. Howls rose over the tin roofs.    

Their boots pounded on the pavement. They flew past the pumps. Kaspar reached the station first, flung the convenience store door open. Gleb bundled his boss inside. Yuri followed last, half-expecting teeth to sink into his leg any second.

A second later he was sliding across the floor. Kaspar slammed the door shut. Blind dogs milled outside, feral and frustrated, but their barks were muffled by the thick glass and the only real sound was Nikolai’s retching breaths and Yuri’s own heart beating in his ears.

Trembling, Yuri stood. He swayed. The headache was gone but his nose was still bleeding. He fished a kerchief from his pocket but before he could staunch the flow, fat drops spattered on the floor. One by his boot made a perfect crimson circle. On the mud-smeared blue tile, it looked exactly like the sunset.  

 

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