Three years and not a word from the world. Three years of fighting to stay alive in the overgrown nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl amongst desperate criminals. Without law. Without hope.
But our redemption is now at hand. We remaining three. We insidious, hateful three–a thief, a prostitute, and an assassin–have packed our atonement into a thick lead case, placed it in the back of a rusty Kamaz truck, and are rattling down the highway to Moscow for deliverance.
Anastasia sits shotgun. Her AK-47 rests across her lap with the loud end pointing out the open window. Yuri sits in the truck’s cab behind us, an MP412 REX revolver–a Russian knockoff of the .44 Magnum–is in his hand; it’s more gun than hand. And then there’s me, Gordon, in the driver’s seat with my Glock resting in my lap and my AK-47 snapped into the gun rack over the windshield.
I can’t tell if Yuri and Anastasia are sick, nervous, or otherwise. I can only see their eyes through the glass portholes of their black masks. The rest of them is sealed up in yellow radiation suits, which are broiling in this summer heat. The pavement shimmers like a watery dream and even though the windows are down and we’re driving at a good clip, I’m sweating like I’m in a sauna. The short, hot breaths I have to suck through my mask’s circular filter are leaving me dizzy and gasping for more.
I don’t know if this is the hangover, the heat, or the radiation poisoning, but my stomach feels like I ate a bag of nails.
We partied like it was the end of the world last night and I think Yuri and Anastasia got together. I remember at one point her arms were around me, bottles of Black Cherry Stolichnaya were in our hands, her tongue was flickering in and out of my mouth, and she was grinding her crotch against mine in time with that godawful Russian music. Then I can’t remember what happened next. I woke up in bed alone.
I am mentally kicking the hell out of myself for this. She is an absolute knockout with a body as sleek and as sexy as a Bengal tiger’s. The Russians would line up around her decrepit apartment building in Chernobyl. And then there’s Yuri: skinny, sickly looking, and with just a handful of teeth. How the hell did I lose out to him?
“Anna,” I say, but my mask muffles my voice and she can’t hear me. “Anna,” I say louder and put my hand on her leg. She bats it away and looks at me. Her angry blue eyes shine through her mask’s dark lenses.
“What did I do?” I shout.
Then I slam my heavy rubber boots down on the breaks, throwing everybody violently forward. At the side of the road ahead and glinting in the sharp sunlight is a Skitter. He’s alone; just one from the hungry hordes that swept across the world, devouring every animal, man, woman, and child, leaving nothing but stillness in their wake.
Anna snaps back the bolt of her AK-47 and Yuri cocks the hammer of his hand cannon.
“Time for go!” Anna whoops.
The end started with a tiny tear in the fabric of space, right in the middle of Moscow in a dilapidated warehouse.
In a way, the rift was beautiful; so black it seemed to shine. A perfect pearl suspended five feet in the air above mirrored floor plates that were somehow making it all happen. Bit by bit, we watched it grow.
They cut power when it reached the size of a small car, but the hole stayed–a permanent rip in time and space.
Dr. Sergey Kracovich–the world’s foremost astrophysicist–was all smiles and bows while the assembled Russian politburo cheered. “Da, Da! Very Good Da!” Then in the midst of all this backslapping, a Skitter casually walks in through the tear.
Three feet high, eight legs, a circular abdomen, two long feelers attached to a tiny head, and all formed of some kind of clear crystal. The sound they made when they walked, this skittering sound, which I don’t know if it was caused by their crystal legs scraping over the ground or it was the sound of their joints bending, was like nails on a chalkboard to me.
At first, he was just as confused as we were. He froze like a deer in the headlights and his feelers went wild, swinging round and round as he took everything in. And then the antennas stopped, like he didn’t need to process anymore. He knew what to do.
Good old Sergey was the closest to him and the Skitter walked up and casually did what I should have damn well done two weeks before.
Back then, I put the business end of a 9mm silencer up to Sergey’s big, brainy head as he slept. But I couldn’t pull the trigger. A blond haired cooing angel, Sergey’s son, was fast asleep in the crook of his arm. I figured if the muffled pop didn’t wake the boy, the warm blood spraying over his face would. And then there would be a terrible scene of the child screaming and clutching at his father as Sergey’s head rolled lifelessly about.
Even I–I then realized–had limits to what I could do.
So I slipped out and went back to pretending I was just another one of his bodyguards, biding my time till I could get him alone. The CIA would just have to wait.
How was I to know that was my only shot to save the world?
In the warehouse, the Skitter stretched out a long leg and nonchalantly shoved it through Sergey’s abdomen and abruptly pulled it out. Sergey screamed as his guts hit the floor. Then he collapsed to the ground and the little shit finishes him with a crystal leg through Sergey’s big head.
Everyone starts screaming and my gun’s out and I’m firing at the little bastard, but before I can hit him the thing skitters back into the tear with Sergey’s body in tow. I don’t know what happened next in there, I can only guess. Somehow the little buggers can communicate, not in words, maybe telepathically, and I think the Skitter went back through the tear and shouted: Dinner’s On! And then it was like we had torn a hole in an anthill, thousands began pouring through the rift into our world.
I ran for the fire exit with the screams of the dying in my ears. I was about a hundred yards from the door when Skitters began appearing in front of me in bright flashes. The little buggers could teleport.
My Glock rattled hot in my hand as I emptied the rest of my clip into them. Even with all this insanity going on about me, I don’t miss. Six bullets went right into six little heads, popping them like shot out light bulbs. They collapsed into jumbled piles and I ran on, not once looking back.
All roads lead to Chernobyl; at least that’s what it felt like. I was fleeing down the highway in a rusted-out shitbox jeep and whatever turnoff I’d take, a tide of humanity with Skitters nipping at their heels would force me back.
Like cattle, the Skitters were funneling us onto the main thoroughfare and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. It was already too late. The trap was sprung and we were on the killing floor.
A seething sea of humanity blocked my junker, so I had to get out and run alongside the reeking crush of people. All along the road’s shoulder, Skitters would appear, dive into our midst, tear someone apart, and then take the carcass back to the rift.
There is a certain kind of person who survives something like that. It’s not the kind that stops to pick up a screaming baby that was dropped by a mother who was ripped away by a Skitter. It’s the kind that runs by and doesn’t look back.
I’m not proud of what I did to stay alive.
By the end, the only ones left running along with me were thugs, pimps, criminals. And then suddenly the Skitters were gone. I don’t think they planned that. I think they were happy to keep us running and whittling us down to nothing. They weren’t expecting to run into something like Chernobyl.
Our foe is alone on the side of the road. He’s likely a scout. His little feelers swing round and round as he tries to puzzle out what the hell we’re up to. He’s probably thinking: all the delicious fleshy things run when they see us so why aren’t these ones?
“Don’t shoot,” I shout and put my gloved hand on the stock of Anna’s AK-47, which she’s raised up to fire. I gently push the assault rifle back down into her lap. “I want you to see this. You need to see this.”
I take the Glock from my lap and step out. The Skitter is frozen, watching us, processing us. I aim low and rattled off a hail of bullets at him. A brilliant rooster tail of shattered crystal winks in the sun as I shoot his legs off. Then I get back in and drive towards him.
I’ve left two legs intact, which he tries to use to drag his body away from us. He’s like an insect that some kid tortured, not some fearsome creature that the world capitulated to without even a whimper. But that’s not what I wanted to show them. What I wanted to show them starts when we get about twenty feet from him and he stops crawling and begins shuddering. His body arches like a jolt of electricity ran through him and then he drops down flat. His screams sound like glass crackling under a heavy boot.
We pull up alongside him and watch him squirm in the dirt. The radiation is destroying him. Cracks spread across his body and some kind of clear fluid hemorrhages from the fissures. His head swivels madly about, looking for some way to escape. Bubbles start forming in his abdomen like he’s boiling inside and then all at once he collapses into a pool of liquid crystal.
Two weeks ago, I caught one and dragged it back to Chernobyl, just to see why they were so adverse to coming near the place. When that little bugger started melting in the back of my truck, for the first time since my son was born, hope caught me off guard and I broke down and cried. I was grateful only a pile of crystal goop was there to witness that.
Anastasia slaps me hard on the knee, breaking my reverie. I look ahead to where she’s pointing.
Before us, stretching from the base of the hill we’ve stopped on and into the bright horizon, is an undulating sea of sparkling crystal. There must be a billion Skitters, stacked ten deep, all the way from here to Moscow.
I’d like to think my son is still out there. That somehow he survived all this. His mother and he ran through a gauntlet of hell just like I did and made it to Chalk River, or Three Mile Island, or some other nuclear accident site.
But that’s just what I’d like to think. Not one baby, not one toddler, not one child, made it to Chernobyl. With those odds…well…I don’t want to think about the odds.
“There’s no going back,” I shout to Yuri and Anna. “Point of no return! Understand? Ponyat’?”
“I hero,” Anastasia shouts defiantly.
“I too hero,” echoes Yuri.
I look at humanity’s last chance: crusty radiation suits, grotty black masks, terror-filled eyes. They’re unskilled, uneducated, violent criminals. There’s just no way we’re going to make it.
“OK,” I say. “It’s as you say, time for go.”
We drive on slowly, parting the Skitters before us like Moses did the Red Sea. They give us a hell of a wide birth.
In the side mirror, I watch the crystal sea close in behind us. We’re like sailors pulling away from port, never to return.
While the collective pauses to contemplate what we’re doing, the Skitters are stone statues, except for their feelers which whirl like little tornadoes.
It dawns on me that we may actually have the upper hand here. I haven’t seen them so stumped before. They don’t know what we’re doing. They’ve only seen us run.
They’ve never seen anything like this.
Worse than the drone of a billion whirling feelers, which feels like paper tearing in my hungover head, is the sudden silence that follows when they figure out what to do.
With a kind of choreography that only a collective consciousness could perform, a mass of Skitters starts to form into a tower.
They begin with a thousand or so piling together into a mound, then others climb up the sides to the top of the heap and interlock their legs. Then on and on they build like this, rapidly forming a tall crystal spire that grows to block out the sun.
The road bends towards it and we drive into its cool shadow, marveling at how quickly they built it and how impressive it is; they are industrious little buggers. The tall minaret bends like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and all the little Skitters furiously strain to pull it back straight.
Whatever the hell it is, it can’t be good. Anna and Yuri’s lenses frost over with worried breaths, and, despite my training, I’m feeling it too. The acidic taste of fear and anticipation fills my mouth. I grip the steering wheel tighter, making my rubber gloves squeak.
Just as we get directly beneath it, I figure out what it is. They’re far smarter than I ever realized. They know the danger we hold, know what it’s capable of, and know they must stop us whatever the cost.
The crystal tower, the deadfall trap, lurches over and topples down on us.
The outer layer of Skitters turns into a pile of watery crystal goo as the spire falls into our hot zone. But the inner core, blocked by the outer frame of Skitters, remains somewhat intact. Crystal ooze and partially melted bodies slam down on the truck like a tidal wave dropped from the sky.
The windshield goes white and shards of legs stab through the roof. The force of the blast pushes the truck down, bottoming it out with a horrific crunch. Anna screams as we start to turn over. I twist the truck into the roll to throw the weight back the other way. All four tires touchdown with a protesting shriek and then we go sideways, skidding across the goo covering the highway. In my mind, I see us slamming into the guardrails and then going end over end in a fiery crash. But at the last second, the tires catch a patch of clear pavement and we straighten out.
The spears piercing the roof have melted and drip through like a light rain. I flip the wipers on to clear the boiling liquid from the windshield.
To my left, another spire is forming.
“Shoot out its middle!” I shout. “Cut it down!”
When I don’t hear gunfire, I turn my head to glance at my crew. Despite having survived the highway gauntlet run and the kill-or-be-killed order of the day that followed in the burnt out husk of Chernobyl, these tough sons of bitches are paralyzed with terror.
I hit Anna hard on the leg and then reach back and smack Yuri across his mask. Untrained. Unprepared. We are morons carrying a hot mess made by other morons, hoping that somehow it’ll all come together and we’ll save the world and redeem our hideous selves.
I slam down the breaks. Anna braces herself, but Yuri finds himself up in the dash. I grab him by the collar, throw him back, and jam the truck into reverse. We back up, rapidly accelerating.
As the tower falls, it twists itself towards our reversing vehicle. But we’re too far back now and it topples to the ground in front of us and explodes like a glass building dropped from the sky–a wonderful ear-shattering crash.
I stop, throw the truck into gear and gun the engine. Half-melted Skitters try to drag themselves out of our way, but they don’t have a chance. They explode like water balloons on truck’s front bumper as I plow straight through them.
“There is no going back! Net vozvrashchayemsya!” I shout to Anna and Yuri, just in case they were thinking about turning around. “So get it together or it’s here we die!”
I’m too focused on the road, the sea of the Skitters, and a newly forming tower, to check if my words have any effect on them.
I reach over to give Anna another firm rap on her leg, but she knocks my hand away. I give her a quick glance and see she’s giving me the finger with her big black glove.
Still angry at me for God-knows-what, but at least she’s snapped out of her paralysis.
“Shoot out the middle of the tower!” I shout and point to the growing citadel on her right.
She rests the barrel of the AK-47 on the windowsill and unloads. It’s a drum magazine with about 300 bullets, and in three seconds flat it’s empty. Hot shells bounce around in the cabin and I have to shake my legs to get them off my lap before they melt through my suit.
The tower crumbles in the middle and the whole thing collapses in on itself, like a skyscraper falling to controlled demolitions. The Skitters at the top disappear in bright flashes as they teleport to safety, but the others at the base–the others near our truck–stay put and are gloriously crushed underneath the weight of the toppling tower. The crunching crackle of their screams is music to my ears.
Another pillar begins to rise from the crystal sea, but Anna unloads a new drum into it, shattering its middle and down it falls. Unbelievably, the handguard on her AK-47 catches fire and the sharp smell of melted plastic fills my mask, making my eyes water. It’s a cheap gun, scrounged from a pile abandoned by the Red Army as they evacuated Chernobyl; probably deemed too contaminated to use. Anna furiously pats it out with her gloved hand. Black smoke curls across the windshield.
Seeing that their towers haven’t worked, the Skitters have stopped and are now planning something else. The horrific drone of their billion whirling feelers cuts like a buzzsaw through my tender head. While they’re frozen in contemplation, I use the pause to our advantage and jam my foot to the floor. The wind whipping past our windows sucks some of the blistering heat from our bodies, giving us a small amount of relief.
Something must have slipped when we loaded our cargo or these crap Russian-made radiation suits are nothing more than like wearing a t-shirt in Antarctica. I can feel clumps of my hair collecting at the back of my neck and it occurs to me that my skull splitting headache and my acid-filled guts might not be from the hangover.
“Everybody OK?” I ask. “Da Gordon!” Anna replies. “Da Da!” Says Yuri.
It is a cosmic joke that the world’s redemption rests in these incapable hands. Moscow seems as far away as the moon.
In silence, we drive down the highway with the Skitters quickly parting before us. Suddenly one of them explodes across the windshield and we all jump. I didn’t see him coming. It’s like he teleported into us, but from what I’ve seen it’s not possible for them to do that into a hot zone.
Another Skitter smashes down on the truck’s roof and we collectively wince from the booming assault on our senses. The dent he knocked in the roof is so deep it brushes the tops of our heads.
I look up into the bright, stabbing sky and see camera-like flashes. A stack of interconnected Skitters, twenty deep, drop from the heavens like a loosened icicle and stabs down into the highway just in front of us. They explode and cover the truck in a slushy gush.
“They’re dropping from the sky!” I shout. “Shoot them! Shoot them!”
Anna leans out the window and fires into the heavens. Yuri climbs out of the window behind me to sit on the sill and finally puts his hand cannon to good use. The booming crack of his gun rocks my tender ears and I roll up my window to deafen the noise.
I vary our speed and randomly swerve so I mess up their aim, but I do this carefully to avoid launching Anna and Yuri off the truck.
It’s a hard thing to hit a moving target. Even with a high-power rifle, the wind at a standstill, and nothing between you and your prey; just an inch over and it’s a complete miss. Teleporting in, way above a small target that’s going at a hefty clip and jerking about erratically beneath you is–as I figure–damn near impossible to hit.
Unfortunately, despite my figurings, it isn’t. Not when you’ve got a billion desperate minds calculating all the variables.
Ten feet to our right, the first stack of Skitters smashes down into the highway, spraying shattered crystal over the truck’s side like a hail of bullets. The next group nails us, just behind my seat. A concussive whump knocks the wind from my lungs and throws me into the wheel. The horn blares and we dangerously skid on the road.
Dazed, I look through the side mirror and see a bunch of half-melted Skitters, a crumpled side door, and Yuri’s form, all cartwheeling down the road behind us.
I slam the truck to a stop just as Yuri comes to lie still on the pavement. His yellow suit is shredded and patches of bloody skin peak through the tears. He doesn’t move.
There’s nothing I can do and stopping just means we’re an easier target for the Skitters, so I drive on.
The wind whistles terribly through the void where the passenger door was and the engine rattles and pops uneasily. The rusted seams of this crate must be just about to burst from this brutalization. Judging by the odometer, Moscow is miles and miles to go.
Another bundle of Skitters slams down on the road in front of us, sending a spray of bulletlike crystals across our windshield. The glass is so full of dings I have to lean my head out the window to see.
“Anna!” I shout. “Try to kick the windshield out!”
She doesn’t budge. I bring my head in so the wind whipping past our truck doesn’t suck my voice away.
Through her mask’s glass portals, I can see tears flowing in her bright blue eyes.
“Anna!” I say. I reach out to touch her leg, but she bats my hand away.
A break appears in the form of an underpass just ahead. Our truck darts into the dark, cool shade and I slam down on the breaks, stopping us somewhere in the middle. Far down the tunnel, in the bright chink of day, I can see the boiling crystal sea. Behind us is the same.
The spluttering engine worries me, so I decide to get out and check on it, but then Anna suddenly hauls of her mask and I’m stopped cold.
Despite the few red sores on her face, she is as beautiful as ever. Long, jet-black hair and bright, sultry eyes.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shout. I take her mask and try to put it over her head, but she won’t have a bit of it and pushes it away.
“No Gordon,” she says.
“Why?” I ask. “With what we’re carrying,” and I point behind us.
A thunderous crash fills the dingy tunnel. Dust rains down on us. The Skitters, I realize, are trying to pound through by appearing high in the sky and then slamming down like a jackhammer into the concrete above us.
“I hero,” Anna says to me and locks her blue eyes with mine. “Yuri also hero.”
“OK! I get it. Now put your mask on!”
“I no prostitute!” She shouts.
I look at her in confusion. Her beautiful body is swallowed up by her bright yellow suit. Her stunning eyes gleam with anger.
“What are you…” and then I trail off as I remember something from last night. I told a joke, a really bad one.
It’s the end of the world and an assassin, a thief, and a prostitute walk into a bar in Chernobyl.
It didn’t have a punchline; the setup was the punchline. I thought it was funny because there the three of us were, in a rundown bar in Chernobyl.
“You hero,” she says. “You no assassin.”
“It was just a joke,” I explain, but that doesn’t register a bit in those ocean blue eyes of hers.
“Hero,” she says again firmly.
Another group of Skitters slam into the overpass, sending sizable chunks of cement down on us.
I feel like we’re arguing about something here, but I don’t know what the hell it is. I want to grab her mask and shove it over her face and drive on, like we planned–like we promised each other we’d do. It’s the end of the world goddammit! Can’t she see that? Can’t she understand that? We’re the only ones that can stop this.
The engine stumbles, and then stops for just the briefest of seconds. My heartbeat pauses and then the engine catches and I can breathe again.
“We need to go! OK? We need to!”
The radiation poisoning must be affecting my tear ducts because I’m crying now. It’s all coming down my face and I can barely see. It’s too hot and wet inside the mask and I have to pull it off, just so I can breathe. Cool air rushes over my freshly shaven face.
“People are counting on us!” I say. I nearly tell her my son is counting on us. “Can’t you see? We need to get to Moscow.”
“You hero,” she says and I just want to smash her face in.
“This is my fault! Do you understand? I’m trying to fix this!”
She doesn’t understand, not in the slightest because I’m babbling and crying and everything is coming out in a watery, blubbery mess.
“I was supposed to stop something like this from happening,” I tell her. “But I couldn’t. I didn’t do my job. This is my fault. All of this is my fault!”
She nods like she understands and puts her hand on my knee. “Hero,” she says again.
I don’t get mad this time when she says it because I understand her now. She’s pounded it into me.
We are not going to make it. We were never going to make it.
Our redemption isn’t in Moscow. It’s here. It’s now. The act–this attempt–is our redemption. That was why she was so mad when I called her a prostitute last night. She is a hero now, as I am a hero, as Yuri is a hero. No longer a prostitute, no longer an assassin, no longer a thief, we are much more than what we were. We are saviors. We are heroes.
“I hero,” I say and she nods firmly in agreement. She snaps another drum into her AK-47 and looks ahead, ready for what is to come.
I let my mask drop to the floor, put the truck in gear, and drive.