Serikbekec caught a glimpse of movement at the clearing’s edge then it was gone.
‘Told you,’ said the baby. Mind you it was quicker this time. They must be getting better at sieving out what they want.’
‘It’ll need a home though and fast,’ that was the man crouched underneath and the rest of the statue wasn’t quiet either.
‘Always does, lucky they left one behind though.’
‘He still alive then?’
There was silence and Serikbekev thought he could see what the statues meant. He’d thought the clearing was carpeted with corpses, but there was still one that was still moving.
‘Stay and help Yurii, or run and hide?’ the baby’s whisper sound like it was in his ear and the tree tops knocked together as a wind traveled through them.
Yurii took a step forward; before that movement at the clearing’s edge stopped him again. The howl had come back a thousand times stronger than before.
‘You could always take his place Yurii.’
‘Yeah you’re in much better condition,’ said the statues.
Yurii’s feet were already moving back over themselves. He wasn’t running, not yet, but it would wouldn’t be long and then he saw what had come for the man on the ground. It looked like a whirlwind: a biblical tower of smoke filled with flashing teeth and taloned hands. When the man saw it he had just enough time to fling his arms up before it got to work. Yurii had never seen someone unpeeled so fast, but when he’d expected it be over and the screaming to stop it didn’t. Instead the smoke began to crawl under his ribs until it looked like the whole things was on fire…and then it got up and Serikbekev realised what he was looking at.
‘That’s the thing from the city.’
The creature that had emerged from the smoke all those days ago, paused, sniffing the air and for a moment Yurii felt his skin freeze. Maybe it knew he was there, and there was no building it had to climb between him and it this time. But as he watched he realised where it was looking. A barrier that looked like it had been made from old radio masts peered over the trees. He’d missed it at first with so many other things on his mind.
Branches twitched and swung back into place. Whatever the figure was hunting today it wasn’t him.
‘That’s not a dimension,’ said Yurri, ‘that’s a monster.’
‘From where Serikbekev? That’s what you’re not asking.’
‘There used to a be a lot more,’ said another part of the statue.
‘But times aren’t they used to be. You ask me, we should still rule around here.’
‘We do, it’s just a bit narrower. It makes it easier to guard the frontier if you ask me,’ said the baby.
‘Hey, where are you going Serikbekev? You can’t just walk off.’
‘Why not?’ said Yurii over his shoulder.
He’d been about to ask them about what had happened to his men but he guessed he already knew the answer to that as he stumbled on a dislocated limb.
Up ahead the barrier strung across the wind crackled.
The clearing was a large one, and when Serikbekev stopped at its edge he had trouble seeing the far side. That didn’t mean he couldn’t see what was its center though or what carpeted its floor instead of needles.
‘There’s too many.’
There was far too many, no way could Serikbekev’s squad be the only people to have ended up in the clearing and as the last of the sunlight shot through the trees, he could see what they’d hidden.
There was more than one though, four men were perched one atop the other. The one at the apex being the youngest of the lot and the one at the bottom kneeling with his head in his hands was the eldest and most obviously decrepit. It looked like they’d been crying although the liquid that covered their cheeks wasn’t water, it was too dark for that. Each one was looking a different direction and at first, he thought it was the four stations of the compass they were watching but when he followed their eyes they were all slightly off beam as though whatever it was they were looking for it wasn’t going to come from the poles.
‘Thought he would be. He’s stubborn. You going to shut up now?’
‘You owe me money,’ that was from the figure at the bottom. He had an old man’s voice and there was a cackle of glee in it. ‘The ones that lose a loved one never get put off by the forest.’
‘Put it on my tab,’ the head at top of the pile had the features of a baby; if you made one from rock. Serikbekev, swallowed. His mouth felt like it was filled with dust. He wondered if he’d been shouting, and not realised it.
‘What are you?’
At least the rest of the mist that had filled the gaps between the trees was clearing. He gazed out over the slumped forms of the dead soldiers. It didn’t look like they were confined to one side or the other. The figures that comprised the statue answered his question without his asking it.
‘It’s not us.’
‘We’ve told them to stop, but they won’t listen.’
‘Like how it feels too much. I can relate to that.’ It was the baby at the top and it had a smile on its face, as Serikbekev watched its tongue reached out and lapped a bloody tear from under its eye. ‘They bring them, they leave them. It does the rest. Helps us see too, so you can’t complain. Gives us plenty of time to tell them it’s coming.’
‘What? What’s coming?’
Serikbvekev screamed, he’d been wandering in circles going out of his mind and now this. One hand went down to his belt. He’d lobbed a few grenades at shadows already, but there were some left.
‘Wouldn’t do that Yurii.’
‘No wouldn’t do that,’ said the old man.
‘We’re the watchers.’
‘Been doing it a long long time.’
‘Longer than you think. Dimensions are hard to spot.’
Dimensions?’ said Yurii Serikbekev as something howled in the forest’s depths.
‘Yeah, you’re squad sounded a bit like you when we told them too.’
Yurii clapped his hands over his ears but that howl wasn’t passing through any ear canal it was echoing in his head, ‘What..what….IS…that?’
Seikbekev opened his eyes,
To gunfire and the rattle,
Of politicians lies,
He wondered how quickly the forest,
Had taken them,
How fast it had been,
In the end,
If they’d fought,
Tooth and nail,
Sharpened spade and gun,
So they could go back to their wives,
And most of all,
He tried to forget,
He’d stolen a kiss once,
In the light from a burning car,
And spent day’s making plans,
Until they’d stepped too far,
And the governments thugs,
Had made the point,
With every hammer blow of their clubs,
It’s dangerous to dream,
And the one that lost its life,
Was the girl he loved,
Serikbekev closed his eyes,
Hung his head in shame,
Because all that sat behind them now,
There was a crack,
In the forest,
Somewhere he didn’t want to find,
Although he knew he should,
But the dead sat behind it now,
And maybe one day,
He’d see her face there too.
Yurii’s hands were wet. He brings them to his eyes but he can barely see a thing in the gloom, and when he cocks his head he can hear nothing. The noises have stopped now, only that bitter iron tang is left in the air. Yurii Serikekev cleaned the knife on the arm of his jacket and thrust it back into its holster. They hadn’t expected that when they’d taken his gun from him. He took a step, and kicked something that groaned.
‘Still alive Tovarish? That’s unlucky. You seen the state of the hospital these days?’
A curse bubbles up from what’s left of the man on the ground, and Yurii kneels down. If the man was still alive there might be information that could be taken from him in return for a cleaner death. But as he bends toward the wounded figure and thought about getting his knife out he realised the man hadn’t been cursing at him. He was too far gone for that, even in the darkness Yurii could see that. He was looking at the shrine.
‘Cursing God? Right at the end too? He’s not going to look kindly on that.’
Yurii got up, and the humour left his voice fast.
He was looking at kids, picture after picture tacked to the wall, and the shelf in front of them was filled with candles. Most of them were out now, but there was one or two left, enough to provide illumination for their owner’s sons and daughters. Yurii had found what was left of the teachers school.
‘Never said it was full at the time did you?’
‘Full? It was a feast day, whole families were there.’
It was the teacher’s voice. Yurii had thought he’d been one of the first to go, but there he was flattened against the wall he’d crawled to with one hand round his guts.
‘You’re still with us? Looks like your trap didn’t work.’
‘No trap, didn’t plan it like that. I wanted to see what would happend when I led a soldier to where they were grieving. Whether the loss of their loved ones makes much difference to which side they support.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Who do you think dropped the bomb? It was us, the rebels. They do it because it makes good news.’
‘You can’t know that. They drop them from thousands of feet up.’
There was the choked sound of someone trying not to laugh.
‘Normally, I’d agree with you, but this time we’ve got a witness. One of our own came back after his time with the “little green men”. He had quite a lot to say.
Yurii watched the teacher’s eyes in the darkness for a minute…and then used his knife.
After that Yurii didn’t pay much attention to where he was. He had a vague idea that he needed to find the others. Not to tell them what he’d seen and heard, but to find some comfort in what they had to say. He wanted to hear talk of football, and food, and what they we’re going to do to the women when they eventually caught up with them. Most of all Yurii wanted to drag as much clean fresh air into his lungs as possible. There must have been fifty kids on that wall, fifty that he’d counted anyway before he’d broken and run.
When he does find their position Yurii nearly shouts for joy, but he manages to stop himself at the last minute. Making a lot of noise approching people on the front line was a sure way to catch a bullet between the teeth. But the day’s not finished with surprises, the places is emptier than a ghost ship. Right down to the cofee boiling on the stove, it’s like the men have been swallowed by the forest pressing in all around.
Yurii can’t even hear the sound of snipers in the distance.
They sent him to the front for a long time after the incident with the girl, and Yurii had no complaints on the matter. Out where the snow drifted across the roads as soon as your back was turned his worries were halved and that niggling voice at the back of his head silenced. Whatever was beginning to spread across the West it wasn’t his problem. What was down to him was exacting as much revenge as he could on the men that wanted to destroy his home.
Smoke whipped away from the end of his gun and he saw the figure in its sights jerk and crumple to its knees.
‘Should pick your hiding places better Tovarisch.’
Yurii packed his gear away as quickly as his frozen hands would allow, right down to the last spent cartridge case. He didn’t see any reason to give the enemy any clues as to what was stalking them. If he was lucky they’d think it was just another disgruntled local upset at the rape of his daughter or the theft of his crops. Yurii bent double and fled through the ruins. He still needed to find somewhere to hole up for the night where he could light a fire.
‘Hssst…soldier. You come with me. I’ll see you right. I know where your group is.’
The newcomer was the same shape as one of the buildings roundabout and looked in about the same state of repair, But as the light hit them he realised that once upon a time the old man must have been strong as an ox despite the lines round his eyes.
‘Who are you?’
‘A teacher, I was head of the local school until they dropped a bomb on it. We need to get out of here. They’ll be after you already, you’ve been killing too many of their troops.’
‘They don’t even know it’s me.’
‘Yes, they do, you don’t think they’re chasing you but that’s because you can’t see what’s doing the watching.’
The old man pointed skywards with an odd expression on his face halfway between fear and awe. ‘There’s so much junk flying around up there I sometimes wonder why it doesn’t crash into each other. Now come with me, there’s something you should see.’
With that, he turned and crawled through a shell hole in the wall.
Yurii watched the empty space for a moment as he listened to the first artillery open up. He wanted, needed, another atrocity to mark down with the others otherwise he might not get up in the morning.
‘Fine, but you’re up and gone at the first sign of trouble remember Yurii,’ he muttered under his breath.
He found the old man two streets over holding the panel up on a building. The owners must have spent some time securing before they ran from the fighting. But the boards would have been more effective if there hadn’t been a gaping hole in place of a roof.
‘Through here, we’ll go to ground in the factory.’
‘You say you know where my group is? How are they?’
‘Oh fine, fine,’ said the old man as he squeezed his way through the gap. ‘One of them stepped on a landmine, got himself blow up, but apart from that casualties have been pretty light considering.’
‘Yeah,’ his eyes blinked back at Serikbekev from the buildings shadows, ‘considering what we’re going to do to them.’
Yurii had been getting used to the lack of light, but it still wasn’t enough to save him from the blow that came slamming into his temple.
Somewhere out there it was dawn, you could tell by the light leaking through the blood. Yurii leened closer to the observation slit but it was no use he might as well have been trying to see through mud. Serikbekev didn’t mind though, whatever had happened was over. He’d heard the last victim’s sobs before they were torn apart as he’d finally given up trying to stay awake and let sleep claim him.
‘I’m getting fed up of this.’
Serikbekev got up and strode to the door.
‘Wait, what are you doing? Security will be here in a moment.’
Yurii Serikbekev ignored his colleague he didn’t need to hang about for a bunch of hungover conscripts who thought they were on holiday from their mother land.
‘Send them in after me then. I want to see what its done.’
Yuriii beckoned the doctor over, ‘Lock me in Ok? You don’t want her running around inside here she’ll be the devil itself to get rid of.’
There was a slap as an arm slipped through the gap as he finished unlocking the mechanism. It wasn’t attached to anyting.
‘Stay here, I don’t need to watch you back as well as my own. I’ll report when I return.’
There was the feeling in the air as though it were trying to press down on you, fold you up into a box, like you got before a storm. Yurii sniffed, he could smell the blood and the filth you got when terrified men found there was a lot more to death than they bargained for. He kicked the arm away and stepped through.
The first thing he saw was the woman. She was sat against the wall with her hands folded in front of her like she’d thought about praying and given up. He wondered if she knew how. When she’d spat at him in the meat locker she hadn’t looked the type.
She didn’t neeed to be asked what he meant. One long arm raised itself from her side and he saw what it was she’d been hiding. The kid was crouched next to her. She’d had her in a headlock, jammed in the corner of her arm like a scissor jack. The girl with the struts rammed through her skin like she’d been in some hideous accident that had broken every bone in her body, was smiling. She shouldn’t have been able to move with that much metal sewn through her, but she had. He’d seen her before the geysers erupting from her victims had washed the view from site and he’d just listened.
At first he didn’t understand.
‘She could have killed you.’
There was a nod, a tired one, and a thin hand pushed hair out of the woman’s green eyes, ‘She could have, but its not what she wanted. She wanted the pain to stop. The pain they gave her with all this.’ Her gaze took in the facility, the pieces of men scattered over the tiles, and the shadow hiding ineffectively behind the shower of gore on the observation ports glass.
‘There are easier ways,’ his finger patted the gun in his fist.’
‘None that she trusted not to make it worse, particularly from you.’
Yurii supposed she had a point. It was them that had turned her into what she’d ended her days as. Who knows, maybe a bullet would have crippled her, left her with a thirst and no chance of feeding it.
‘The woman nods, ‘We all are Yurii Serikbekev, the whole fucking countryside, They want it empty, they always do.’
For a fleeting moment Yurii feels like he’s six again. He has to stop himself from taking a step back from this starving girl with black teeth. He doesn’t move, instead he says:
‘You know what I have to do. It will be easier like this, the others will only make it worse, a lot worse.’
‘I do, get on with it.’
The echo’s have finished bouncing round the exercise yard when the door slams back a second time and backup charges through. It looks like none of the men missed their steroid intake for morning breakfast. Yurii ignores the man spitting insults into his face.
‘Just a kid, that’s all she was, both of them.’
His gun makes a sad clatter as it hits the tiles and his feet leave bloody footprints in their wake as he heads inside.
The truck felt like a spaceship docking when it hit the facility’s side except there was air to hear the noise.
‘How long?’ said Serikebekev.
The doctor shrugged, ‘I don’t know it depends which one she likes.’
‘What does that mean? You told me…’
‘It means she kills them quick. She can smell the chemicals we used through brick walls.’
Serikbekev thought again about telling him who else they had in the group, but he knew what that would mean for her. Besides if the Russians were so desperate to get their quotas filled he didn’t see why they couldn’t do it themselves. The woods round here were supposed to be full of the ‘little green men’ that had come across the border uninvited.
‘Here they are,’ the doctor was pointing at the back of the truck. They’d reversed it with the back doors hooked open. he supposed you might manage to cram yourself through the gap between vehicle and loading bay, but with what was lined up on the tarmac outside there wouldn’t be much point. That left the exercise yard and the little figure crouched at its center. It wouldn’t have seemed all that threatening if he hadn’t seen what happened to the earlier lot, and most of them had been healthy. He wondered how many of them would have breakdowns later.
One of the men was looking at the girl on the floor and back at the observation slit like he’d seen it all before. It wouldn’t have surprised Yurii if he had, they’d got them from a military hospital after all. In the twilight states that were one step away from being labeled ‘failed,’ they had a monopoly on all sorts of interesting experiments both sides of the East-West divide preferred kept secret.
‘What’s he doing?’
‘Not what we want.’
The man had waved the rest of the group back and was shaking his head. It looked like they were going to leave the girl alone. Serikbekev didn’t blame them, and they hadn’t seen her up close yet. Not that it would do them much good…when she was finished with what she had she’d start again.
‘Jesus,’ Serikbekev looks away for a moment. When he brought his attention back the group had sat down as far from the star of the show as possible. He could feel their eyes watching him even through the mirrored glass.
‘We wait then.’
Serikbekev’s head snaps up so hard he hits the concrete behind him, and he rubs the back of his head vaguely surprised his fingers don’t come away wet. There’d been a sound. There it was again – the sound of…running?
He gets up and walks to the glass. The doctors still there slumped in the corner. The sun must have gone down hours ago and he can barely see a thing in the gloom beyond the observation slit. The sound comes again. It is running, and it’s more than one person. The first scream has barely reached his ears before a face is slammed against the glass and a foot erupts from their mouth. It’s the man he’d seen earlier. Serikebekev watches his eyes go bloodshot and cross as the foot’s withdrawn with a pop and he slumps to the floor. Serikbekev’s glad he can’t see the rest. He claps his hands softly as he listens.
‘Another triumph of Russian engineering.’
Serikbekev sits back down, there’s a switch on the wall, but he doesn’t need it. His fingers dig through the scars on his face as he listens to the tool they’d made go about it’s work and wonders how long the mess will take to clean up.