5. LIKE A REAL ACTION HERO
Yuri went to the roof early the next morning. It had been a long night and he needed ballast for the day ahead.
He had developed his pre-run rituals in Syria, hunting SDF militia in the hills outside Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zor. That was where he’d learned to savor daybreak; the way light crept into the sky, how hard and black the landscape appeared right before the sunrise. The world drenched in night and only the full strength of the sun could wring it out. The shadows this morning were particularly stubborn, holding on for the wall of gray clouds Yuri spied coming out of the north.
He took a deep breath. There was iron in the wind. Damp.Rain, he judged. Mid-morning.
Clouds meant the drones would be grounded, which was good. But showers… Yuri would hear no end of it from Nikolai Sokolov. Which was bad, because Yuri’s mind needed quiet to recharge.
He never slept much when he was in the Zone, but last night had been less than usual.
The dogs had lingered for hours, circling the gas station, growling and snuffling for a way in. On top of that, young Sokolov had been hyped up on adrenaline, ranting about coming back with machine guns and slaughtering every mutt in Ukraine.
The four of them moved from the cashier’s area to the garage for added safety. The concrete floor was cold and oily even with the German sleeping bags, and the bay had the sharp, old vinegar smell of piss and kerosene. Yuri had stayed awake until midnight, standing guard with Sasha, until the accountant and his bodyguards had finally fallen asleep.
Yuri stood at the very edge of the roof and eyed the weedy streets, sipping from his canteen. Four sips a minute for ten minutes, every morning. Water, not coffee. Hydrating.
Another habit from Syria.
He pulled out his kerchief to blow his nose and carefully folded the blood stains out of sight. They were recent developments, the headaches and nosebleeds. They’d started after the bunker trip and Yuri was afraid the mutant dwarf’s twisted mind powers had torn something in him. Made him weak. He hadn’t told anyone, not his wife, not Zakhar or Timur, not even his best druh, Osip because it wasn’t something he wanted to talk about.
“Ah, there you are, Mr. Best-in-Area. Hiding up here, eh?”
Yuri turned to see Nikolai Sokolov coming through the roof hatch. Kaspar or Gleb must have seen the clouds too; the accountant was a walking advertisement for Halti foul weather gear. Yuri wondered if how much they got paid for being glorified babysitters.
Thermos in one hand, pastry in the other, Sokolov looked well rested, bright-eyed and not a single hair out of place.
Bastard, Yuri thought.
“Yes, Mr. Sokolov,” he said. “It’s a bit of a hike to Belovka and I was going over the route.”
“The town with the cement factory. Next stop on the itinerary.”
The accountant stepped gingerly onto the tarred roof, careful not to scuff his new boots. He bit into the sweet cheese bun, slurped his coffee. “So this Belovka… Bigger buildings, right?”
Yuri nodded. “Yes, Mr. Sokolov. It has bigger buildings.”
Sokolov nodded absently as he folded the rest of the bun into his mouth. He set his coffee down. “Hey, call me Nik, why don’t you?” He spread his hands as if inviting a hug. “Facing down those dog things, we’re comrades in arms, right?”
Yuri stayed where he was. “Whatever you say Mr. Soko — Nik.”
“Good, good. Now we’re friends, hunh?”
Yuri bobbed his head a fraction, trusting the young man was too focused on himself to notice.
“I have to admit,” Sokolov said, licking his fingers. “That was some quick thinking yesterday with those rocks. I was just about to mow a big one down too, but you saved me the ammo. I appreciate that.”
The wind shifted and smell of strong coffee made Yuri’s stomach growl. “The dogs are blind but not stupid. They hunt by sound,” he explained carefully. “Gunshots would have brought more. Soldiers too, if they were close enough to hear.”
Sokolov tapped the side of his head with a finger. “There you go. See? Smart.” He grabbed his coffee, slurped again, and tried to look thoughtful. ”Hmmmm. You’re OK for an old guy, you know? I don’t care what anyone says.”
Yuri wondered how thick Sokolov was going to lay it on before he got to the point.
The accountant came and stood beside him at the edge of the roof, shifting on his feet, obviously searching for something to say. Yuri went back to studying the landscape, checking for movement. He let the dead air build up between them. He was a guide, not a nanny. Leave that to Kaspar and Gleb.
Eventually the accountant coughed and gave a little laugh. “Hey, I didn’t mean all that stuff I said yesterday. I was just talking shit, OK?” He brushed crumbs off the front of his jacket. “You know how it is.”
Yuri gave him a thin smile and another half-nod. “No problem.”
“Look here.” Sokolov dug his fancy video camera out of his jacket pocket. “How about I take your picture? A memento of my trip. I’ll tell all my friends, ‘This was my fearless guide in the Exclusion Zone. Best in the Area’ I’ll say. How about that, eh?”
“I’m good, Mr. Soko – Nik. Thank you anyway.”
“Ah, Best-in-Area, I insist. It’ll be great. Get that rifle of yours. Hold it like a boss, like you’re about to shoot one of those fucking dogs, OK?”
Yuri protested again but the accountant had already stepped back and brought the camera up, lens aimed.
“Trust me, you’ll want a memory of this,” Sokolov crowed. “Big changes are coming. Pretty soon it’ll be dengi, dengi, dengi here. But don’t you worry – I’ll make sure my father finds a place for you once we’ve settled in, eh? What do you think of a steady income? No more sneaking about at your age… Hey, what did I say? Hold that bitch like a real action hero.”
A tiny green light on the front of the camera kept winking, so Yuri obliged. He raised Sasha, looked into the camera for a heartbeat then double-checked the clouds on the horizon. They were definitely coming their way.
“There it is,” the accountant murmured. “Perfect. The tough old guide facing down hordes of zombies. Real ‘Walking Dead’ shit right there. Everyone will be impressed.”
Yuri smiled. He couldn’t care less about Sokolov’s friends or even his father; the wind had picked up. Definitely rain.
All that fancy brand-name gear was going to get put to use today. Saint Strelok willing, maybe Sokolov would even keep quiet for a while.
Nikolai Sokolov snapped the video camera shut. “So this next town, Baklava, it’s got bigger buildings for sure, right?”
Yuri sighed inwardly, nodded. “Belovka. Yes.”
“Perfect! Mr. Best-in-Area comes through. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
Two hours later Yuri was leading them on a shortcut through open country, trying to stay ahead of the clouds. They were wading through a series of old grain fields, part of a collective farm that stretched from Zymna over to Highway Seven then south past Belovka to the Ash Hills. The highway would have been easier, but with weather approaching, Yuri had decided faster was better. They were only five kilometers from Belovka when the world dissolved behind a curtain of gray drizzle.
Nikolai Sokolov threw up his hands. “Pizdets! It’s raining now? I’d swear this place doesn’t like me.”
No comment, thought Yuri.
Gleb spoke up. “It’s not so bad, boss. The drones won’t fly in this soup.”
Kaspar waved the GLONASS handheld. Turned out he’d done a stint in the Rosgvardiya and knew his way around sat-nav gear. “It isn’t much farther, Mr. Nik.”
“We should have just taken the fucking car,” Sokolov muttered. “Son-of-a-whore, Major. I’ll have him strung up by his stones.”
Yuri was wondering if hanging people by their testicles was a regular Vladivostok thing or just a stock-in-trade thug threat when a definite prickling sensation crept down his neck. He stopped in his tracks. He recognized the feeling. It was the second time since they’d left Zymna, and he most definitely did not like it.
We’re being watched.
He was sure of it.
This was another thing that started after the Bunker: a new shrewdness in his bones. It didn’t happen all the time, more like radio skip when snatches of distant frequencies emerge from the static, but when it did, it was always right.
The first time was the day after he’d returned from that run. He’d gone to Yakov’s Place to tell the story of lying scientists and lumpy mutant dwarves to anyone who’d listen, angling for some Zone fame, sympathy and free drinks. He didn’t know if anyone believed him, but he found far more of second two than he expected, and when it was closing time, Yuri staggered out of the door quite well-oiled. The second his boots touched the sidewalk though, an itching sensation sobered him like a bucket of ice.
The feeling would not go away. In fact, it swelled with each step down the street until alarm bells were screaming in Yuri’s head. So much so at the door of his Lada, he reached for his pocket knife instead of his car keys. That same instant there was a clatter behind him. A scuffle erupted and Yuri turned to find four of his friends mobbing someone in a leather biker jacket.
Apparently there’d been a string of muggings when he was gone, all in towns right outside the Cordon; Zone traders, guides, scientists and the occasional flush tourist, all late at night, all ugly scenes with busted heads and stolen gear. The usual suspects were rounded up but the attacks kept happening. The culprit was still at large.
Turned out the punk in the jacket was the culprit. His name was Krysa, and he was an ex-con who’d come to the Zone with nothing but a lead pipe and bad prison habits. He had the bright idea he could build his reputation and kick start his career at the same time by taking out Zone workers and stealing their cash and equipment. Eliminate the competition, so to speak. Yuri’s buddies had been stalking him all day, using Yuri as bait.
Yuri put their drinks on his tab the next day. No one ever saw Krysa again.
The itching sensation pulled Yuri’s attention back to the present. He held up a fist and dropped to one knee.
Kaspar came to his side, submachine gun in his fist. “What is it?”
“Zashikat’” Yuri hissed and slowly scanned the fields.
The weather had turned the visibility to crap. To his left, the land and sky smudged were in a haze of ash and dusty silver. On his right, a messy line of wind-tossed shade trees marked the edge of a dirt road.
The rain picked up. Gusts rippled through the grass, sent the soft shrapnel of drops pattering into his jacket. Their wetness tickled his face. A hundred meters ahead lay the hulking skeleton of a giant Rostselmash combine, abandoned after the Incident. Yuri blinked, stared, but he could see nothing in its rust-streaked shadows.
Still the fingernails scratched the edge of his mind. His own finger inched toward Sasha’s safety.
There was another gust – and the feeling faded, carried off with the blast.
“What’s the hold up?” Nikolai Sokolov called out. “I’m standing in the fucking rain here.”
Yuri stood slowly. “Nothing, Mr. Sokolov. Just getting my bearings,” he explained.
“Getting your… You do know where you’re going, right?”
Yuri sighed, pointed south. “This way. Belovka. Home of big buildings.”
The Podilsky Cement Plant number 86 squatted on a rise just off the highway, guarding the northern approach to town like a medieval fortress. Gray, empty, and ugly, the facility was surrounded by a double run of chain link topped by sloppy loops of razor wire. The warning signs were the cheeriest things in sight; red, orange, and yellow squares stenciled with skulls and maimed stick figures like bright alphabet blocks of destruction.
Belovka proper wasn’t much better.
It had been the last Soviet town built in the area, the planning allegedly open and egalitarian, its architecture styled as minimalist and modern, without bourgeois ostentation. The result was a graceless bureaucratic amalgam that landed awkwardly on the spectrum between a state university and a maximum security prison. But with wider streets and less trees.
The drizzle had dialed back to a thick, damp mist, more rolling fog than rain. The four men were passing between two slab-sided apartment buildings, headed for the center of town. Yuri knew of several large office buildings there. They were approaching a small playground when paranoia scratched at the back of Yuri’s mind a third time. Then his nose started bleeding.
He managed to yell “Kantakt” before the dogs attacked.
It was two large packs this time, charging out of passages on opposite sides of the street, waves of fur and fangs, ribs and scrawny legs, all barking, growling, and snapping.
Yuri spotted the Alpha on his right, a hulking brute with bristled fur, patchy raw skin and too many teeth. He tried to get a bead on it, but the creature seemed to shiver and blink as it ran back and forth, shuddering in and out of sight. Sasha’s bolt cover was slick with blood from Yuri’s nose.
Kaspar and Gleb were already firing their machine guns, metallic farts echoing in the concrete canyon. Nikolai Sokolov emitted something between a squeal and a yell, then began banging away with his pistol, jabbing at the dogs with each shot, hitting nothing. Yuri added Sasha’s heavy chatter to the mix and beasts started to fall.
Dogs tumbled to the pavement, bloody and still. Some scrabbled and whined, others howled and snarled. Many scattered and ran but new ones boiled out of the alleys and walkways, drawn by the noise and smell of blood. The Alpha was still tearing back and forth, growling and blinking in and out of sight. At one point, Yuri swore he saw two of them, then three, all moving identically among the pack. He blinked.
Bad, bad, bad… Zona koshmar. We need to fall back.
His hands swapped out Sasha’s magazine even as a plan formed in his head. Some part of his brain had been tracking the locations of doorways and passages as they were walking so he knew there was a bicycle path behind him. It ran the tight gap between two buildings, the entrance further narrowed by heavy steel bollards.
“To me,” Yuri shouted. “This way.”
Kaspar and Gleb obeyed. Nikolai Sokolov didn’t. He stayed in the middle of the street, hopping back and forth, screaming profanities and waving his pistol like a maniac. He was oblivious that the slide was locked back. The weapon was empty. Useless. Part of Yuri panicked imagining his client getting mauled. Another part was relieved the young punk lacked the presence of mind to reload. Given Sokolov’s aim, he was an equal opportunity idiot; just as dangerous to humans as the dogs.
Gleb grabbed his boss and dragged him out of the way. Kaspar walked backwards toward Yuri, raking the packs with tight bursts. Yuri fired Sasha semi-auto, picking his targets as quickly and carefully as he could.
“This way,” he yelled again. “To the bike lane.” One final burst and they ran. Dogs howled in confusion and pain but kept coming after them, spurred on by the Alpha.
The darkened canyon of the bike path ran straight for a good thirty meters before ending onto an open street. The narrow space amplified the sounds of thudding boots, the men’s hoarse shouts, the dogs’ howls and frothy snarls. It blended the noise into an echoing bedlam of panic and rage. Ahead of them, on the far side of the open road was the brick shell of a department store. It sagged in the misty half-light, its broken windows rain-streaked and glistening dully, the sturdy double door beckoning like the gates of paradise.
“There! The store,” Yuri shouted. “Get inside.”
He burst onto the street and spun around, stumbling on the broken asphalt. He flicked Sasha’s selector to full auto as the Vladivostoks ran past. The dogs were right behind, packed in the funnel of the bike path. Yuri emptied a clip, swapped out another. Emptied that.
Dogs howled and died. More dogs came.
Yuri heard the men batter through the department store door. “Cover me,” he shouted over his shoulder.
Instinct told him to trust Kaspar, to rely on the man’s training not to abandon a comrade. Yuri fished another clip from his chest rig and slammed into place. He racked Sasha’s bolt then turned and ran too.
Some action hero… I’m getting chased by dogs like some raggedy-ass house thief, he thought. For the second time.
Yuri slammed through the store door and ducked behind the nearest counter, certain the dogs were hot on his heels. He brought Sasha to bear and spied Kaspar out of the corner of his eye; the tattooed byki was kneeling by a window, covering the street with his nasty little submachine gun.
“Thank you Saint Strelok,” Yuri wheezed. He breathed in through his nose, trying to steady his hammering heart. Waiting.
Nothing happened. No dogs charged through the door. Not even one.
Yuri cuffed sweat from his eyes, the blood from his lip and chin.
Gleb leaned over. “Are you hit? Did you get bit?”
Yuri shook his head, gulped a deep breath. “Where – – where are the dogs?” he croaked.
“Still out there,” Kaspar replied tightly.
“What? What are they doing?”
Kaspar frowned. His brow furrowed in confusion. “Just – – just standing there. Looking at us.”
“Chto za chert?” Yuri muttered.
He peered over the counter and through the grimy window glass. Sure enough, a huge pack of dogs milled in front of the apartment on the other side of the street, seething with hunger and violence. But none of them stepped off the sidewalk.
Yuri stared. It’s like children at a swimming pool, standing at the edge of the deep end. No one wants to take the first plunge.
Even the Alpha wouldn’t cross. After a long minute, as if on command, the pack began to melt away. The dead and dying were left whimpering where they lay. The wounded began to limp or drag themselves away.
“Why didn’t they attack?” Yuri asked out loud.
“Holy shit, that was fucking outrageous,” Nikolai Sokolov shouted. “Did you see me? I shot those mutant bitches up. Bang, bang, bang. Die, you fucking dogs. Holy shit, I love this place.”
Nikolai Sokolov’s voice faded. Yuri didn’t care about the accountant. He didn’t bother to correct him, to respond, or even shave off a sliver of scorn at his boasting.
All he wanted to know was Why did the dogs stop?