Ghosts of Zona
(Lukas Sokolov, “Priest”, Lidya Gavrilov, “Sharp”, Andriej Smirnov, “Rat”)
The pack of mutated wolves circled right, and their black-furred leader howled, sensing a prey. About twenty gray shapes blending with the bleak surroundings followed the leader and sped up, soon disappearing behind an outbuilding of the Emission Observatory. Lidya could bet her three diplomas that more beasts lurked in the area. She lowered the binoculars and crawled down the small slope she used for scouting.
An extremely bored Andriej Smirnov, called “Rat”, looked up from an American magazine he was reading. Or ogling, Lidya was not sure and did not really want to know. His Kalash was propped against a rock, good three meters away from the man.
“You have a death-wish, Rat?” complained Lidya.
“Why so angry, Gavrilov? The pack scared away other predators, so I’m relaxing,” Smirnov looked up and, seeing the woman’s angry face, noted: “Bad news?”
“We either need an army or a new plan,” she said glumly.
“Da. A three-way split is better than an army-way-split. Let’s get back to the Roadhouse.”
The old bunker known as the Roadhouse was unusually crowded; newcomers mingled with veterans. At the bar, Wolf—a legendary scavenger—was talking to Sknerovsky, the establishment’s owner. Both of them stopped mid-sentence and nodded to Lidya and Andriej, welcoming them back. Lidya smiled, and Rat made a mocking salute, but before Wolf, an ex-military, could react to Andriej’s provocation, a commotion at one of the tables drew his attention, and he started shouting at a group of scavengers.
The pair turned away from the common room and took steep stairs to a secluded back chamber. Once a storage space, recently it had been turned into a chapel. It was eerily quiet and a minor artifact—a misshapen amber lump—illuminated the room’s far wall, dominated with a large Delta symbol made of dozens of small Catholic and Orthodox crosses as well symbols of other denominations. As Lidya looked, the Delta seemed to pull her in, closer and closer, and suddenly she found herself standing a foot away from the symbol. She did not remember getting there.
“Blyat!” Rat’s voice shattered the church-like atmosphere. “I think I stepped into…”
“Quiet!” a voice rang in the darkness, and, near a wall, a shape stirred to life, slowly emerging into the orange glow. It was a stocky man, his mouth and face covered with a cloth mask, with a ragged cloak drawn around his naked torso. “How dare you disturb this holy place?” he roared.
“Easy, Sokolov, it’s us,” Andriej leaned against a wall, trying to clean his boot. “There’s a deal to make. Nice cloak. How much do you want for it?”
“It’s not for sale. I made it myself, from the skins of creatures that dwell in Zona,” Priest stepped towards the amber artifact and put his hand on it, diminishing the glow. “What’s the deal, Lidya Ivanovna Gavrilov?” Lidya blinked and looked away from the symbol.
“Andriej and I are going to the Emission Observatory,” she explained. “We’ve everything we need, but there is a complication we didn’t account for.”
“To the point, Gavrilov,” Priest growled. “Even as we talk, Zona’s ghosts gather.”
“Wolves, Sokolov, wolves,” said Rat. “A huge pack of angry, mutated wolves led by a big-ass black alpha.”
Sokolov whirled towards Andriej, visibly interested.
“A black alpha!” he muttered. “At last, the signs are right! Yes, I’ll go with you and deal with the wolves.”
“Even split?” Andriej asked. “And twenty percent for my fence, of course.”
Bathed in the artifact’s orange glow and before Zona’s glittering symbol, they all agreed and shook on it.
“Can I shoot them now?” Andriej asked, looking through his rifle’s scope. “Or him?”
Lidya ignored the smuggler and once again checked her calculations.
“We should hurry if we want to get through the ice garden. You know, the anomaly that’s blocking our way to…” Lidya gestured towards the distant buildings of the Emission Observatory. They stood quiet and half-hidden between autumn trees, a mile or so away. “The one I’ve extensively researched so we can get inside…”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re great. Now, shut up and look!” Andriej pointed to the bleak stretch of land between them and the Observatory. A lonely figure—Sokolov—was sitting on a small stone, his ragged cloak fluttering in the wind. Lidya took out her binoculars.
A gray shape emerged from the undergrowth and slowly, one paw at a time, approached Sokolov. The wolf bared its teeth, and Lidya could easily imagine the low growl coming out of its throat. Sokolov remained motionless, and more wolves appeared around him, circling, sniffing, but not attacking. Finally, having made sure it was safe, the pack’s leader showed up. It was a huge black beast, as big as a pony, with nasty half-healed burns along its side. Slowly, Priest unclasped his cloak, which slid onto the ground, revealing the man’s badly burned back. There was an artifact embedded in the flesh, a glistening, greenish slug that pulsed in sync with Sokolov’s beating heart.
“What the…” Andriej swore. “Gavrilov, do you think that maybe we should, you know, go on without him?”
“Lidya?!” Rat got up. “I’m the resident expert on deals and I declare the deal with Sokolov is over.”
“Yeah,” Lidya nodded. She could not help but notice that Priest, and all the wolves, were staring directly at her.
“Run?” she suggested.
And so they did.
They flew across the overgrown plain, trampling grass and stumbling on unexpected rocks. Behind them, in total silence, the wolves were coming. Priest, however, sauntered in the distance, with the black wolf at his side.
Somewhere along the way, Lidya lost her shotgun, but did not dare to look back. At some point, Andrei overtook her. Gasping for breath, with muscles on fire, she wanted to shout, to warn him… He ran headlong into a seemingly unremarkable ground before the entrance to the Observatory. An icicle appeared in the air, then another, ten, dozens! A freezing wind blew, pushing Rat to the ground, where the icy knives smashed into him, some shattering upon impact, others penetrating the man’s flesh.
Lidya stopped and started counting. At the count of twelve, she made three quick steps, entering the raging anomaly. All she felt was a cool breeze, and none of the ice shards hit her. She risked a glance back—Priest and his wolves were a few dozen yards away.
“The ghosts of Zona are coming, girl, and your science can’t help you!” Sokolov shouted.
Later, she would remember the Observatory as a series of nightmarish, distorted images. There were rooms full of still working equipment, humming computers, and blinking screens. Dark corridors, where snarling shadows moved. A tranquil garden, where a white birch with human eyes cried at the sight of her. A pool of bloody goo that chased her across an abandoned recreational area. A handsome, naked man who danced among flowers the size of a tree. She did not know what was real and what was her imagination. She focused on her research notes, on what she remembered.
Lidya fell onto her knees, the keycard uselessly dangling in her hand. There was nowhere to hide; besides, only a bunker protected you from the emission’s deadly radiation and other harmful effects. The glow from the Sarcophagus intensified, becoming too bright to watch, and then a silent wave of death spread across Zona, burning unprotected flesh, minds, and gear, coming closer and closer.
A shiver went through Lidya, a cool breeze touched her skin. She gasped—and started counting.
Written by: Janek Sielicki.