in post-apocalyptic USSR, straying from the dogmas of Orthodox communism is inquired by inquisitors, but when one of them tries to find out what had happened to a mysteriously vanished officer in infested Germany, the answers might be more surprising than expected
The armored vehicle’s tracks chewed the wet grass and spit it sideways, in two dark muck waves. Perched between the opened upper lids, Yuri held on and closed his eyes, enjoying the weak touch of West Germany’s sun. Just as lifeless as those in his Moscow and not really as warm, the feeble rays still sneaked into his soul and filled it up, after the endless dark hours spent in a dark train car with bolt-shut windows. He was safe for now, anyway, as on these flatlands any tigerman could be easily spotted from miles away.
Yuri sighed and let himself think nothing, just looking mindlessly towards the barely visible barbwire fences of Fort 24 clawing the horizon to slowly rise up from the ground. Some hole swallowed the tip of a track and shook him upwards, breaking his revelry. Around here, the Red Army had to use these old armored vehicles because the roads had crumbled over the 40 years since the Event, and their broken net connected only rotting towns and cities, ruined and infested. The decay beneath the tracks he expected, but the clear blue sky above surprised the pale-skin Russian. No more people, no more pollution; nature had already cleaned itself up and swallowed the remnants within a green, hungry tsunami.
Yuri sneaked his left hand under the overcoat, clenching it on the revolver. The young man knew he would not be welcomed by the border-guards, just as the inquisitors were never really welcomed anywhere. Fear and fake subservience, yes, those were to be expected. The thought that the issue he had been sent to investigate was not at all risk free also crept behind his eyes, tainting the warm feeling.
The mysterious disappearance of a fort commander. Perhaps devoured by the tigermen in some poor-planned patrol, as the political commissar’s report suggested, or maybe murdered by angry subordinates, as Moscow suspected. Here, in the Interdiction Zone, people disappeared quite often and only God knew why Yuri himself had been sent to the edge of the world…
The man crouched behind the rusty steel lid, as if looking for some cover. The question that had bugged him all along climbed up his skull again, screaming: why dispatch an inquisitor to investigate a suspected mutiny? That was the job of the KGB! The faith-questioners had the sole purpose of eliminating the deviants from the Red Holy Book and that has been stated very clear ever since 1928, when Comrade-Father Stalin had united the Communist Party with the Orthodox Church. Almost a century already and Yuri knew of no such mix-up ever, not even after the Event.
” Just stop’ere, ye man, can’t you hear?!”
An enraged red-haired little corporal with a huge moustache was yelling from behind a birch tree.
” Or it screeches in no times, now! Da?”
Yuri knocked on the metal lid and the vehicle stopped. First its tracks stiffened, with a mud splash; then, slowly, the rumble of the engine died out, too. A yellow-bearded face popped up the hatch and removed his leather helmet, with a questioning look.
” Since when screams me at you, no!”
The angry red-haired man had a strong and quite funny accent. After the Fall of the West, the USSR had swallowed its smaller communist brother-states in a fast gulp, but still not all their subjects were fluent in Russian, not even after decades of occupation.
” Them sensors, you fool. Da? The circle of trees around the base is for nothing, you think? As soon as a tigerman comes around, the sensors hidden in those leaves start howling! Since you can drive, you clearly are not tigered yet, but my poor ears if that alarm goes on in this one birch above me! Pfff….”
” Corporal”, grinned the driver maliciously ” bring yourself the fuck to attention and report fuckin’ properly, son-of-a-whore, or you’ll do extra patrols in the Sick Zone till you won’t get to ever have grandsons!”
” What, to you, motha’uker?”
” No, to comrade captain Marilov there!”
The mustached man froze and shouted:
” Corporal Feher, sir! Comrade Captain, allow me to report…”
” Oh, come on, really!” The young man jumped from the APV and smiled.” It’s just an honorary rank, actually I am a Second Grade Inquisitor. Marilov.”
The look in the man’s eyes surprised Yuri. It did have the expected, usual hatred and reluctance. It also had the surprise he wanted to bring up in order to study the NCO’s reaction. But not only did it not show the concealment of a murder accomplice, but, amazingly, it slipped out a short glimpse of something unanticipated, like… hope, maybe?
” Comrade Inquisitor!”
The corporal immediately hid his feelings behind army procedures and sheered away, eyes trailing through the undergrowth.
” Wait for me to call the Fort, stop they the sensors on this area, and it’s done quick-quick. Da?”
The NCO went to the bulky radio transmitter leaned behind the tree, turned some buttons and shouted, embarrassed:
” Can you come of here for a little? I dunno’ your code, stupid me forgetting old man! Sorry, sorry…”
Yuri shrugged and went, the gaze of the bored driver lingering on his back. Behind the birch, the red-haired briefly showed his palm, cradling two scribbled words: „Petrov” and „Envoy”. He then exclaimed:
” Sooo, Green 244 it is! Ready now, you go to the gates…”
Meanwhile, indistinctly, the corporal shook his head and winked. The inquisitor threw a meaningful downwards look, but made no gesture, as from behind he could still be seen by the crew. The officer then turned around without a word and growled, as if annoyed with the NCO’s familiarity.
Behind the tall, eroded, but still sturdy-looking metal gates, he was being expected by an entire welcome party: Cherytsin, the deputy-commander, tall, fair-haired and smiling, temporary in charge of the fort; Zedevich, the priest, a bearded dark-haired and silent short man; Ukov, the political commissar, thin, blue-eyed blond, straight and strung like a steel spring; and two large soldiers with wicked looks, „who will follow everywhere for protection”, as Cherytsin let Yuri know. The purpose of this triumphant and seemingly kind welcome was obvious to the inquisitor: those managing the fort didn’t want him roaming around on his own. They were hiding something, so Yuri smiled friendly and kept quiet, concealing the predator’s fangs behind the grinned teeth.
” … And over dinner you’ll also meet comrade Zmeyev, the Party attaché! He’s now caught up with some administrative tasks…”
Till dinnertime, Yuri did what he could in the given circumstances: he walked around the fortified army base, talking to the troopers and NCOs and discreetly tasting the thick gloomy mood. The soldiers were not at all talkative, especially because of his so-called „guards”, but from their short grumbles he could at least guess that the former commander, the mysteriously vanished colonel Golubin, hadn’t been liked and was definitely not regretted. Several men described him as „harsh”, which Yuri knew very well that in army language meant „sadistic, mean, aggressive”, maybe even worse.
When he got sure there was nothing else to be fished out from the conscripts’ minds, the inquisitor retired to his small room and napped till dinner. Just before falling completely asleep, a small thought teased him, flashing by: where was Zmeyev? A civilian, the party man should not have been allowed outside the fort, but he was nowhere to be seen inside it…
When Yuri woke up at 7 in the evening, dinner was already set in the conference hall, a grim-looking large space, metal barn-like, ordinarily used for the political indoctrination meetings. The benches had been removed for the occasion and a long wooden table had been laid, with five men already sitting around: facing the door, the now-commander Cherytsin and commissar Ukov, with an empty chair between them, and on the other side, the frowning priest, a fat officer Yuri had seen earlier in the day dealing with some supplies and a way too friendly bald civilian with pig-like eyes, too well dressed in a suit cut from an obviously expensive fabric. Zmeyev. The table was amazingly filled with fresh-made cold cuts, pork chops, thick steaming stews and some other great looking meat dishes. All of them rare gourmet delicacies hard to come by on the home front, in the starving USSR, and absolutely impossible to find here, in the middle of nowhere.
Cherytsin, friendly, grabbed the inquisitor’s arm and seated Yuri right next to him, then shouted at some orderlies lined along the wall:
” Zuckner! Petrov! Ilie! The wine!”
Yuri, smiling, thanked for the hospitality and looked around. With the tail of his eye, he glanced at Petrov: a blond youngster, pretty and slim. Could he be the one suggested by the corporal?
” …so most likely he went out during the night, drunk, and the tigermen got him!” Cherytsin leaned slightly towards Ukov, who quickly obliged to confirm.
” Ah, yes, this area is almost completely purged, but there’s plenty of them still hiding in the towns’ ruins. They may, forced by their infamous instinct of territoriality, venture this way. And yes, Golubin used to drink too much. He also did have the gate and sensors codes, so who knows what dumb idea he got into that big half-bald head?”
” Did you find the corpse or any remains?” asked the inquisitor, naïvely.
The others looked in their plates, awry. Was the investigator challenging them on purpose? Were they suspects? Could their replies be twisted to suggest guilt? Like all the Soviet people, they knew all too well silence was the key to survival, so answered nothing. Only Zmeyev, laughing as if Yuri had joked, said:
” Oh, come on, comrade Marilov, do not underestimate the tigermen’s cunning! They did indeed lose articulate speech, but are not completely dumb ZMBs, as you see on TV. They can still think enough to hide from us. Think of them as wild dogs, that’s the right level. Or rather rabid tigers”.
” Hence the name you all use around here” whispered Yuri and leaned back in the plastic chair, watching them.
” Tigermen. Not the party-approved ZMB. Zapadnâi s Mozg Bolnoi.”
He smiled and said no more. Zmeyev bit his lips, but continued as if he had not heard:
” The main effect of the virus is they cannot stand another tigerman, aaah, I mean ZMB, near them, unless in extreme circumstances, like mating. Or when we hunt them down, cornered into a tight spot”.
” And when they hunt and kill us, too” added the commissar, coldly.
” Ah, indeed, yeah, when the beast-men sense uninfected people, they go nuts and attack no matter what, biting and clawing like, well, tigers. It is true, the moment they are obsessed enough with us, they do not strike at each other” added Cherytsin, his face darkened by some bloody memories.
” Almighty God took their minds!” shouted father Zedevich, out of the blue.
Zmeyev grabbed his shoulder, leaned towards the priest and laughed hoarsely:
” Well, sure, that’s why the party called them westerners with sick brains, ZMBs. If it was God’s will when the virus got loose from the Amerikanski laboratories and destroyed them all, that I don’t know. But…” he boasted, snaking his eyes along the officers’ inexpressive faces, ”…we must certainly praise the Party’s wisdom! It was ready when it happened to them, with our borders completely closed and ruthlessly guarded by armed troops! Otherwise, now we would be just like the rest of the world. Tigered.”
Everybody jumped up and shouted, mimicking ideological fervor.
” Glory to the all-powerful Proletariat Party! God protect its holy leaders!”
” Come on, come on, friends” said the fat officer, ”let’s forget about such chilling thoughts, look, this delicious food is getting cold! Let’s just eat!”
The inquisitor didn’t push on. He pretended to be completely fascinated by the food, not a difficult task when meat was never enough at home. The young man didn’t ask where from all this mysterious abundance had come, as he knew they would just talk about something else like with the Golubin question. He did, however, drink the wine in the tall glass and gestured to Petrov, who came in a hurry with the carafe.
” Such good wine!” said Yuri to the orderly. Docile, Petrov leaned over him to pour some more, and the officer whispered: „The Envoy”.
The young man looked at him, startled, and nodded. A few minutes later, while filling the glass again, he whispered, too: „Tonight”.
The rest of the dinner went on uneventfully. The priest and the fat officer kept silent, the former apparently thinking, the latter constantly preoccupied by the stews. Zmeyev talked forever, arrogantly, laughing heartily at his own jokes. The others treated him with too much reverence, as if they owed him something, but hinted nothing of relevance. Cherytsin insisted to serve the inquisitor with steaks, wine and funny stories, but also avoided any serious subject. Ukov just brooded in cold hatred and contempt, his eyes fixed on the huge Stalin’s icon on the wall.
Disappointed, Yuri excused himself after a while and retired, to the noticeable relief of the others.
In his room, Yuri first made sure the door was locked and there were no microphones. Then he loaded and cocked the pistol and laid in bed, reading Stalin’s Red Bible until he fell asleep with the lights on. Around 2 a.m., he heard in the hallway the guards’ whispers and some laughter. One of them said something like „…he didn’t seem your kind of fellow” and knocked. Pistol behind his back, but smiling sleepily, Yuri half opened the door and Petrov squeezed in, gently rubbing against him while passing. The inquisitor slammed the door shut, locked it and turned around to the fair-haired youngster that had just lounged ostentatiously on his bed:
” Your kind?”
” Well, yeah. Queers, you know. Fags. That’s what I told them, that you called me for the night. But we both know you had other reasons to summon me here. Who told you about the Envoy?”
” Feher did.”
Yuri’s face showed nothing, but he was actually surprised. He knew homosexuality, although officially forbidden, was somewhat tolerated in the army and rather common in such isolated forts, but he didn’t expect the Envoy to be about that. Could it be that the whole case was just some jealousy murder between embittered lovers?
” So you and Golubin…?”
” Aaah, God forbid, nooo!” laughed Petrov like a schoolgirl, amused. ”Golubin’s a wicked man and has many sins, but he is not… one of us. No, I was his orderly. And Feher his driver. What we two have in common is knowing about the Envoy. But I still have no right to tell you about that – only Golubin himself can confess it.”
The tiny youngster glanced at the inquisitor:
” So? Are you gonna’ arrest me? Punish the wicked creature?”
” No, since that’s not why I’m here. And I have nothing against your kind, so stop acting all drama-queen. You already know the Inquisition doesn’t arrest gays, we have plenty of other problems…”
Petrov smiled playfully.
” But do you think God can love me, too?”
” Why not? Who am I to know what God can or cannot?”
Apparently satisfied by the answer, Petrov straightened his back, suddenly became serious and said:
” Listen, Golubin went outside a week ago, in the middle of the night, in secrecy. The colonel was a damned bastard, always yelling at us or slapping soldiers and officers alike. He often got out secretly at night, just himself and Ukov. You do know, I suppose, that the purpose of the Interdiction Zone is to watch out for tigermen activity. To capture and kill those of them trying to get out of the Sick Zone and head on into the Union. But Golubin and Ukov actually did more than that….”
Petrov’s face turned red in anger. He took a deep breath and forced himself to keep on:
” Tigermen are humans. Yeah, the cursed virus got them crazy and they attack like wild beasts. Yeah, they cannot speak and never gather in groups. But I tell you, they are still human, still have thoughts and feelings, even if savage ones. I do understand killing them when trying to close in and infect us, since, you know, the virus spreads through blood.”
” Yes, I am aware of that, but still; tigermen are no ordinary savages, they are ferocious cannibals!”
” My fat ass they are. That’s what you’ve been told at home, to make you feel better about us shooting them. Indeed, tigermen did resort to cannibalism early on, because of the hunger, with them having no more agriculture or anything as such. But now they do just fine by gathering fruits and roots and hunting small animals. They learned, you know? What, if we suddenly went out of food, could you survive in the wild? Or would you resort to eating the dead in desperation?”
Yuri shook his head, silent.
” I thought so. And Golubin, Ukov and all the bosses around here know all that very well. But Golubin and Ukov were born and raised as hunters. Tigermen hunters, or simply man hunters, really. They sneaked out at night to the Sick Zone, flushed them out and shot them. For fun, I think, simply for keeping score. Big game hunting, maybe trophy collecting, just as was done with the real tigers when they still roamed this ugly world. Ukov probably still does it, for sure.”
Yuri casually put out his gun and placed it on the table, with a loud thump. He leaned over the boy and asked:
” What about Golubin? Where is the bastard?”
” That I do not know.” sighed Petrov. ”But after one such hunting expedition that he took alone, because Ukov was on duty or sick or something, the colonel returned shocked. The next day he simply wandered around the fort, mumbling to himself, and that night he took off. Without his precious rifle, which it is still in his room.”
” But why?” insisted the inquisitor.
” I told you.” answered the youngster. ”He had found the Envoy. I cannot tell you anything more. I do know what it’s about, I heard his mumbles. Feher heard, too. Everybody else knows nothing about it, but they do hide something, some different sin. I don’t really know what or who can tell you, but I do know where you should start.”
Petrov went silent for a while, then, doubtfully, whispered:
” Father Zedevich. He is…one of us. Me and him, well, you get the picture. I know the Inquisition does not prosecute army poofs, but that can certainly get a priest banned from the church. So he’s vulnerable and will talk. I’m sorry to betray that dense gentle bear, but the Envoy is much more important.”
Saying nothing more, the frail soldier leaned and kissed the red book, sighed and left the room, head-down through the guards’ despising whistling.
As soon as the sun rose in the chilling morning, Yuri put on his inquisitor uniform, a golden cross around his neck, took the Red Bible under the left arm and calmly walked into the chapel. Inside, Zedevich was doing his early daily chores. Surprised by the visit, he came forward and exclaimed:
” Comrade Inquisitor? How…what can I…”
” God bless, father. I just came to confess.”
” Aaah, sure, right this way….”
Yuri glanced briefly at his guards. Somewhat embarrassed, they remained outside, confused. The priest and the young officer went into the dark back of the chapel, where they could not be heard. Yuri kneeled and confessed the ordinary stuff: lies, not respecting a fast, missing a service. Zedevich, still eyes wide with amazement, blessed him and began standing up. The inquisitor swiftly grabbed his elbow, grinned and dully said:
” Father, while I’m here, and obviously ordained myself, let me hear your confession, too. Cause who else could forgive your sins out here, in this Godless wilderness?”
The priest flinched, looked at Yuri and understood he had good reasons to be afraid. Zedevich gulped and kneeled, hesitating.
” I have sinned and look for forgiveness. I drank too much, I ate pork during the fast, but there was nothing else I could cook…”
” Father” Yuri interrupted him gently, ”do you know Petrov?”
Zedevich went silent, lowered his eyes into the ground and began trembling and weeping.
” Yes, yes, I do….”
” Sinner, confess under His all-watchful eye, since Almighty and the Inquisition representing his will on Earth already know it, did you know his body, too? And before answering, think well about two words: Hell and Siberia.”
” Yes, yes, I confess. I confess!”
Yuri caressed the thick long black hair, comforting.
” My son, I have two choices: I heard this as an Inquisitor and must let the Church know it all, or as a priest, and then I could forgive your sins and keep it a secret. But before we decide that, I have a small, tiny question. And don’t lie, it’s bad for the soul…”
Yuri paused and looked around the walls, feigning interest in the crudely painted saints. The priest, tearfully trembling, looked up at him, half terrified, half hopeful:
” But of course! Yes, yes, comrade Inquisitor, of course that if I can shed some light on something…anything…”
” Golubin.” said Yuri abruptly, clamoring like a harsh judge. ”Where is Golubin?”
” Not that! I really don’t know, could not know…”
” Siberia, father?”
” …but I know who should have your answer. Zmeyev! I think he murdered the colonel. To silence him, maybe. During his last day Golubin kept saying he must confess it all, and Zmeyev’s spies must have warned the Party man. And he couldn’t just let the Farm be found! So Zmeyev killed him!
” The… Farm?”
Zedevich burst into tears:
” I swear I have nothing to do with the Farm. I am a sinner, but in love, not in that! And if I say anything they’ll kill me, too, Zmeyev’s uncle is comrade Zolotov, the General Secretary for this whole area, he’s untouchable!”
The inquisitor was experienced at questioning, and he could clearly see that Zedevich was more afraid of Zmeyev than of him and would give no further details. So Yuri didn’t insist, but grabbed the priest by the collar, raised him up forcefully and hissed:
” Tell me where this farm is, I’ll find it myself by accident…”
Zedevich snorted and said:
” In the Gathausen village ….”
Riding the tracked vehicle again through the tall grass, like an errant knight on a not so shining fat mount, Yuri watched the grey sky. This time there was no sun to enjoy, just low dark clouds and a cold thick rain pouring down on him. Before them, some buildings slowly grew up from the bleak plain: Gathausen. He shortly glanced back. Left behind, the fort and a pensive sulking Cherytsin. Yuri had asked the man for an APC to reach a destination of his choosing, and the commander had agreed, although in obvious doubt. The inquisitor had clearly read the commander’s unease and suspicion in the man’s eyes: so Cherytsin also knew about the Farm and feared Zmeyev. But the officer feared the Inquisition, too, and probably had decided it wasn’t worth putting himself in peril between two dragons; better to just let them devour each other and then pretend he had been favoring the winner all along.
Three silhouettes stood up, blocking the road. Zmeyev in the middle, smiling coldly like a crocodile, and beside him two big thugs in civilian clothing. So the perfidious Cherytsin must had warned them through the radio. The inquisitor checked for his pistol, but knew it was pointless: he had no chance against three men, and the tank crew would be neutral. At best. This was a battle he could win only through words and cunning, not guns, and in craftiness Zmeyev was clearly also a formidable opponent.
” Good day to you!” shouted Zmeyev in a friendly voice. ”Not such a good weather for a walk, eh?”
” Good shall it be, by God’s will” replied Yuri. He decided to strike first and, seemingly bored, jumped down and said from the corner of his mouth: ” I came to see the Farm. I heard it’s well worth it …”
Zmeyev looked sideways:
” Who knows? Only comrade Zolotov, the area party secretary, can decide such matters.”
The party man laughed satisfied, accompanied by his thugs. The inquisitor laughed heartily too, untouched by the weapon of high connections, then hissed, poisonous:
” You haven’t done your homework well, comrade Zmeyev. I am second grade Inquisitor Marilov Yuri. Marilov indeed after my dear mother, Oleksandra Nikolaevna. In my line of work, being conspicuous is not a good thing, so I don’t use my father’s name, Mikhail Akimovich Korolev…”
The thugs stood awe-stricken and Zmeyev dropped his jaw, speechless. Korolev? That Korolev? The disappearing of such an important general’s son would have been vigorously inquired, so it suddenly didn’t seem such a good option.
” Oh, come on, comrade, I knew that already, how could I not?” replied Zmeyev in a hurry. ”I was just wondering if they knew each other, that’s why I mentioned my uncle… But please, please, let’s go see the Farm. You want to visit the Pig Farm first, or the Cattle Farm?”
” The pigs”, said Yuri as if he already knew all about it.
Fifteen minutes later, they entered a huge restored agricultural complex that housed the Pig Farm. Which was exactly that, an unbelievable wealth in the ever hungry USSR with its meager meat rations on monthly coupons: a few dim-lit huge halls, each divided into pens full of swine. And in each fold, a caretaker. Where from, so many of them? There were no civilians in the area, just tigermen and the military personnel, and no soldier was missing from the base.
The inquisitor stepped forwards, but Zmeyev suddenly stopped him with a firm hand on his chest:
” But, comrade, why lose you so young? And why break the pens? You cannot go in there without the biohazard suit!”
Confused, Yuri looked through the greenish glass window and understood: the caretakers were naked, skeleton-like, skinny and chained, dirty, with half-beast looks. They were tigermen slaves! But how could that be? He turned to Zmeyev, who coldly smiled back:
” As you can see, my friend, the tigermen’s savagery is overestimated. Under certain conditions they are relatively docile, as long as one enters only in a sterile suit so as not to be smelled. They cost nothing, never protest the harsh conditions, and when they die we feed them to the pigs. So, profitable all the way.”
Yuri kept his composure:
” But what about the pigs, anyway? What do you feed them with regularly, since I don’t think you can ask for provender as long as they are hidden from the state?”
” Well, the pigs…” smiled Zmeyev. ”They do eat provender, comrade, Zolotov sees that some from the army official farms gets lost. And we bring them here with the army’s tracked vehicles, on the army’s expenses. We also feed them the garbage from all the forts in this area, every commander knows what’s going on. But the swine are mainly offered whatever we can find around here, like grass, roots, meat…”
” What kind of meat, there are only small animals on these flatlands?”
” Come on, really? Small animals only? There is plenty of big wildlife and it is hunted down by those who enjoy it, like Golubin. Yeah, you got it, we exterminate the tigermen and feed them to the pigs. It’s called efficiency.”
Yuri stood silent. This was a horrible smugglers’ roguery, but was it enough for Zmeyev to kill Golubin? He didn’t think so, and the priest was too disgusted by the Farm for it to be all about some pigs. So, pretending to be bored by such things he had already known, the young man said:
” Comrade, we both know my silence can’t be bought with some pork chops. But I think the Cattle Farm might interest me more…”
” Ha, I knew you were a connoisseur!” grinned Zmeyev perversely. ”That’s only for the selected few, way less people know about it. Do you prefer colts or calves?”
” Yes, so I’ve heard… Right this way, please.”
He led Yuri beyond the pig halls, all the way to a long white building with small grated windows. The thugs remained outside, but the two of them entered a cold hallway and Zmeyev walked a few doors away and took out a key. The man unlocked the padlock and invited him inside, with a large doorman-like gesture. Yuri stepped in, unsure.
All the furniture in the room was just a bed, a chair and a sink, all from some rugged reddish metal. On the bed, chained with his butt up, a teenager tigerboy lied sobbing. It could not speak, of course, but yelped like a puppy. Next to the bed, a box with whips, blades and various other such stuff.
Yuri stood for a few minutes, thinking fast. He exited, almost bumping into the glowing Zmeyev.
” No. This is not enough. If you want me to write down a report with none of these included, I need to know what you did with Golubin’s body.”
” Ah, ha, ha!” laughed Zmeyev. ”It might amaze you, but I really didn’t kill him. Actually, nobody did, that damn fool went out for tigermen hunting one night, returned crazy and the next night simply took off into the Sick Zone. He went mad!”
The party attaché watched the inquisitor slyly and said:
” But I do know the village where you could find his remains. I like you so much that I’m even willing to provide you with a car and a biohazard suit. But since he’s deep into the Sick Zone, no one will be willing to accompany you. And I have never ever heard of somebody going alone into the Zone and coming back, dead or alive, the tigermen always get them all…”
Yuri turned the wheel and stopped. Alone in an old rusty 4×4 GAZ car, he had almost reached the village, amazingly without being attacked once by the dreaded beasts. He leaned nearer to the babbling radio receiver and tuned it until he could clearly hear commander Cherytsin’s voice:
” Black 11 to all bases in area 17-32, I repeat: inquisitor Marilov went mad, stole a vehicle and ran into the Zone, being most certainly infected. I order his immediate termination upon identification. I repeat. Black 11 to all…”
The young man turned off the radio. So that was the reason behind Zmeyev’s help. Yuri could not understand why he had not been simply killed right there and fed to the pigs, but there was no way back to find out. All he could do now was to determine what had really happened to Golubin and the Envoy.
Yuri drove into the village, cautiously, ready to quickly accelerate whenever a tigerman showed up. But none did. He rolled slowly alongside the ruins, decrepit building after decrepit building, and still saw nothing out of the ordinary. After going through the whole village with no result, the inquisitor decided to try again. He turned the car around and suddenly hit the brakes hard, petrified with amazement. In front of him, the road was blocked by the most unbelievable scene ever, scientifically impossible: a group of tiger-people. Not one tigerman ready to strike, not two beast men ripping each other into pieces for territory; but some twenty calm tiger-people of both sexes, watching him in silence, motionless. And amongst them, colonel Golubin, dressed only with a pair of camouflage pants, friendly waving the officer to come closer.
In awe, Yuri got out of the car and stumbled towards them, frightened and also inconvenienced by the large stiff suit. Golubin smiled and shouted:
” Lose the damn thing, you won’t get infected! And the gun, you won’t be attacked, either. I promise.”
The inquisitor took off the biohazard overall and, almost naked, trembling in his shorts, took Golubin’s hand. Surrounded by the still silent half-beasts, the men entered a ruined house. Golubin lit a candle, put it on a wooden table and showed Yuri a chair. He himself sat in another and the docile tiger-people sat directly on the floor, in a wide circle.
” Listen here, my friend. Since you came for me all this way, you must have passed over many lies and many evil men; you already gave up everything in order to find the truth. I know it. And I’ll give you that truth, at least as much as I understand it myself.”
The muscular colonel looked around him, gently, and the creatures looked back with human gazes, not beastly ones.
” You know I used to hunt tigermen. I was a wicked man…” sighed Golubin. ”And you know that after a hunting trip I returned a changed man.”
The Inquisitor nodded. He said nothing, just listened on.
” That expedition was right here, into this no-name village. I was alone, cause Ukov was on duty. I was sneaking stealthily through the ruins, searching for prey, when I saw a light coming from this very house. Can you imagine? A light? And not even flickering? Where from? The tigermen have no electricity or mind to use it! Curious, I went in. But inside, surprisingly, it was again pitch dark. So I stumbled and fell, then I felt a hand helping me up.”
” Helping you up!” chanted the tiger-people, to Yuri’s shock, who knew their brain speaking centers had been utterly destroyed by the virus.
” Ah, you wonder about their ability to talk?” laughed Golubin.
” You’ll understand. So, a hand picked me up and I found myself facing a tall shape of blinding light. It did not speak to me, but I somehow knew clearly that I have been a bad man. Not anymore, since from then on I received a mission of goodness! A healing one, and I understood immediately, as if it was too obvious, that from that moment I had the power to heal the virus away from these unfortunate ones. Just by touching them. Simple as that.”
” The hand!” exclaimed the tigermen, too, grateful.
” Yes,” smiled Golubin, ”it’s all real, all these here I found wandering around the village, I touched them and they… got healed. Of course, all are still in their own mental development stage, clearly just some big children, but now they can learn to speak and to live together. I do not know if they will ever go back to a civilized world as we know it or simply gather in new tribes of hunter-gatherers, the new redskins, so to speak, and evolve into a different one. We’ll see about that in some centuries.”
” But how?” asked Yuri. ”A miracle? Was it an angel?”
” Oh, come on, man, don’t you start too, like Feher and Petrov. They heard that I talked to a messenger and, poof, biblical miracles. No, I think it was rather a telepathic alien that touched my hand in order to infect me with a contagious counter-virus. Or nano-robots, whatever, an antidote anyway. Which I transmit through touch, just as they have been transmitting their virus before. I don’t believe in mystical stuff….”
” Well, true, but still…”
Yuri couldn’t finish his sentence, suddenly overwhelmed by a terrific metallic roar. He ran outside to see what was that all about and bumped head first into some hellish creature, with squid eyes and a pig’s snout. Then the officer got over his surprise and understood he was looking at a mask and also straight down the barrel of a rifle, since the creature was just a soldier from a team of about a dozen, hurriedly pouring down from a helicopter. One of them gestured arrogantly and, from the way that wave looked and from his stoutness, the Inquisitor guessed it was Zmeyev. The others obeyed the signs and rushed inside the house, weapons at the ready.
A rumble of machine-gun bursts, then the masked men exited, accompanied only by Golubin, dragged between them sad and broken, offering no resistance. A speaker crackled on Zmeyev’s suit and barked:
” A thousand times thank you, comrade Inquisitor! I couldn’t find the asshole for so long, but now I just followed your signal and there he is! I see the bastard was surrounded by some ZMBs, but my troopers shot them just as the beasts were about to devour him. A fate reserved for you, comrade Marilov, when they’ll find you later!”
Zmeyev waved and two soldiers grabbed Yuri and threw him inside the house.
” As for Golubin, since he went insane and thinks he’s some kind of a prophet, he’ll get his prophecy right away!”
The troopers kicked the inquisitor inside and blocked the door with the wooden table, while Zmeyev could still be heard yelling and laughing:
” The tigermen will love the taste of your noble flesh, comrade!”
Yuri kneeled on the blood soaked floor and stood up in the dark. Feeling his way with both hands, he walked along the walls, stumbling over corpses. He found the window, boarded up with heavy nails decades before, and started pulling on them. He drew for many minutes, while from outside he could hear screams of pain, knocks, Zmeyev’s laughter and the propeller’s roar. When he finally managed to break a board loose, Yuri saw the window had grates too, so he could not get out; but he could see the helicopter flying away with a huge racket, and in the yard a cross profiled against the starry clear night sky, with a limp body hanging lifeless on it.
Then, silence. Exhausted and despaired, Yuri sled down the wall and laid on the cold floor, sobbing.
Light. Some warmth on the unshaven cheek. Yuri opened his eyes and saw the morning sun’s light, slipping inside through the broken corner of the window. At the door, somebody was pulling on the table, hard, and a thud came when it fell heavy on the gravel. The man waited for a few moments, but nobody opened the door, so he stood up and went outside. Two tiger-people were walking away towards the village, holding hands. They smiled and shouted:
” The hand! Helped him up!”
On the cross, some blood stains, but no body. Had the tigermen taken Golubin away to devour, or worship? Those two carried nothing…
Had the Envoy come for him and took the bad man turned good to the skies? Who knows…
Or maybe Golubin was wrong about his faith and had been miraculously resurrected for real, to walk around the ravaged Europe healing the tigermen and hailing a new era…
First published in Romanian, in „Gazeta SF” (2015)
Translated by the author