Alcoholism was the only thing that saved Grigori when the nuclear reactor blew up.
He was thrown straight out of his guard tower. If he’d realized what had happened before his impact, he might have tensed up and suffered much more serious injuries. Or died. Instead, when he’d finally woken up from his tumble—face down in the dirt and with a splitting headache—he’d assumed it was just the average Sunday morning. His memory was a haze of heat and noise: indecipherable.
And then he looked up. The reactor towers that had loomed in the northern skyline over the surrounding forest were gone. In their place was a billowing cloud of rust-colored smoke. The fumes didn’t last long before the winds picked them up and carried them off. Then, as the breeze began to peter out, it started gently floating down from on high. The detritus became an orange-brown mist that obscured his vision and filled his lungs.
Of course, he had been put on watch as far away from cover as possible. The laboratory complex was barely a silhouette, shrouded in toxic fog. The barracks weren’t even visible from this distance. He had an airstrip between him and any sort of shelter. Right now, there was really no option but to run.
He managed a jog, cursing loudly to himself and wincing every time his right foot hit the ground. He made it for nearly three seconds before tripping over someone passed out in the muck. He took a few seconds to recover and a couple more to realize what had knocked him down. A girl, a child, hidden by the unnaturally long grass that was curled around her.
Even with the situation as dire as it was, he couldn’t leave a little girl out here. Especially after he got a better look at her. She was covered in cuts and bruises, some long healed, others fresh. The blast must have kicked up some debris, as shrapnel had embedded itself in her arms. The questions about how a little girl, especially a foreign one, got on the base could wait.
He picked her up and started running.
His first few breaths came out as shuddering coughs. He clasped his coat to his face with his free hand, hoping it would filter out the worst of the smoke. He hobbled across an empty airstrip, the runway trailing off into the fog. He made it past the dormant hulls of all-terrain vehicles, lying still despite the explosion. He made it into the vacant corridors of the labs and slammed the doors shut behind him. He collapsed onto the first wall he saw, and leaned the girl against him for support.
The pain wasn’t a problem, not now. He hacked up a wad of orange phlegm and tried to ignore his thoughts. Thoughts on how phlegm shouldn’t look like that. Fears on his lungs turning the same color. Worries on how hard it was to breathe. What the hell had happened? How long had he been out? His flask found way to his lips and he gulped down a few swigs. The wounds and his questions were little more than nagging pressures at the back of his mind. He was focused.
“Hello,” he called out, “I need help!”
His voice carried off into the darkness. Nothing stirred. It was hard to hear over his wheezing breath, but he should have caught something by now. Anything. There were a lot of people stationed on this base; he should have seen at least one of them.
He used the wall for support to help him back to his feet. He managed to get the girl into a fireman’s carry and, for her sake, made sure to limp a little faster as he headed off. Where was he going? Who knew? The labs were off limits except to personnel with an appropriate security clearance. Grigori assumed he could be forgiven for ignoring that considering the circumstances. He needed to find a doctor and this was the best place to do it.
To think he had been happy to be assigned this over Afghanistan. Fuck.
After a few wrong turns, he found the office suite, a line of doors listing the identity of their occupants. Each labeled with Doctor Ivanov or Sokolov or whatever. The name didn’t matter. He opened the first one that had “Doctor” on it, only to slam it closed after a glimpse at the body behind the desk. The next three were opened with a firm grip on his gun and a tighter grip on his stomach.
Doctor Yuri’s chambers yielded a more lively occupant.
Someone had managed to stuff at least half a forest’s worth of paperwork into this cramped, little office. Piles of the stuff, monuments to wasted hours, stood leaning against each other, covering every possible surface. Table, cabinets and bookshelves were packed tightly and every crevice was filled to the brim. All this was looming over a ghoul of a man sitting at the center of it, writing away at his desk.
He looked misproportioned. He was tall and with a big belly but rail thin arms and legs, like a spider. He had glasses that magnified his bulbous eyes and unkempt hair that did nothing to hide his bald spot.
Grigori stood huffing at the door, growing more and more impatient the longer he was forced to wait. “Hey!”
The doctor looked up from his paperwork, first at him, then at the gun. It took Grigori a moment before he realized he was still holding it, but it was too late to put it away now. After a moment of thought, the doctor returned to the paperwork.
“Hello comrade, can I help you?”
“You are a doctor?”
The doctor didn’t look up this time. “Yes. No. Well, yes, I am, but-”
“Step away from the desk. If you make any sudden moves, I’ll shoot you.”
The doctor sighed and stood, but not before taking one final glance over his writing. As he stepped back against a bookcase, he began speaking.
“I must inform you that I have everything in order here. There has been no experimentation that was not within the proper guidelines or permitted within the procedure set forth, nor without approval. I have the paperwork to prove it.”
Grigori understood maybe half of what the balding man was talking about and paid the rest no mind. The desk was too crowded to act as a suitable bed. With a sweep of his free hand, he solved that issue. The doctor took a sharp inhale and twitched, but didn’t do anything besides that.
“Found this girl outside. She needs help. Medical help. Figure out what’s wrong with her.”
Grigori laid the girl gently down and moved back to lean against the wall. With the office as small as it was, it only took one step before he hit it. The position gave him a better view of the room and helped calm his shaking legs.
The doctor looked down at the girl, then up at Grigori. “You want me to do this?”
“I believe this is a bit outside my purview.”
“You are a doctor. Something is wrong with her. Fix it.”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“What? It says ‘doctor’ on your door,” he rapped on the door for emphasis, “You said you were a doctor.”
“I am a doctor,” the man explained, gesturing at one of numerous plaques adorning his wall. “Of physics.”
“A doctor is a doctor.” Grigori would not budge on this. “Now save her.”
The man stared at the gun for a moment and shrugged. He inched towards the table cautiously, waiting for some objection to send him reeling back. His eyes grew wide, magnified and distorted through his bifocal lenses.
“Ah, subject number thirty-one.”
The doctor reached the table in one stride, his reluctance falling apart like his government would in a few years. He circled twice around before poking at bits of her with a pen pulled from his pocket protector. “You found her like this then? The second level must have been breached. Tell me, did something happen?”
Grigori asked Yuri, rather rudely, if he had looked outside. The doctor replied in the negative. Grigori urged the doctor to check his window. Yuri walked to the wall and drew back his shades. He stared out his window for a few seconds before commenting.
“Oh. Must have been caught up in my work,” he murmured.
The doctor didn’t move except for the occasional clenching and unclenching of his jaw. Despite that, he looked unreasonably calm for the situation. It may have been something he was used to at this point; men like him spent plenty of time watching horrific situations from behind windows.
“Enough staring. What is wrong with the girl?”
The doctor ignored him and for a moment, Grigori thought about just shooting the man in the back. He was sure that there wouldn’t be any chance of a follow up. These thoughts must have triggered some dormant survival instinct in the older man; the doctor turned back with a trembling breath.
“Mild starvation, some healing lacerations and bruises on her ankles, legs, and neck,” he fired off in rapid succession, as if memorized.
Yuri’s eyes focused on a cut across her forehead.“Oh, looks like something hit her. That is new. Might be a concussion, I don’t know.”
“You did not mention shrapnel.”
Grigori pointed at the girl’s arms, as if it was possible to miss. Under the light inside, their unnatural origin became much more obvious.
“That is not shrapnel.”
Grigori pushed off the wall and walked closer, the gun remaining trained on the doctor. Yuri didn’t move, even when they were barely a meter apart.
When he’d found her, the smoke had made it dark and he’d been in a bit of a rush. Under the glare of an overhead lamp and guided by the doctor’s bony finger, things were easier to make out. Plants…vines…something was growing out of her skin. They were green little tendrils that bobbed and swayed, moving in sync to an unheard rhythm. They curled and reacted as the doctor poked at them with his pen.
“What the fuck are those?”
“Some sort of plant. We never were able to pin it down. Nothing seemed to match up quite right and the samples taken were quick to decompose, even under ideal conditions. She is definitely number thirty-one at least. This is normal for her.”
“How can you say normal? The plants, the injuries…she’s not waking up either. What the fuck was she doing here? ”
“She has been awake this whole time, listening. I do not believe she can understand Russian, so I doubt it is doing her any good.”
Now that he was paying attention, he could see that the rise and fall of her chest was erratic. If it got any worse, he’d think she was going to have a panic attack. Although he wouldn’t have been surprised if his breathing was just as uneven right now.
He rubbed at his head, hoping the groggy mess could manage to pull enough sense together to figure out what was going on.
“How do we talk to her?”
The doctor took a step back, grabbed a book from a shelf, and tossed it at Grigori. He was fortunate that the soldier caught it instead of shooting him. He flipped the thing over in his hands and stared at the title, spelled out in a bright red font. Spanish, Simple Words and Phrases.
“I hope you are good with linguistics. You have a great deal of work ahead of you.”
Grigori did not happen to be good with words, let alone words not in his language. It would be difficult, but figuring out what happened to the girl was the most important thing here. Start with something you have a chance of impacting, scale up from there. He thumbed the book open, its pages brand new and unsullied, unlike most things they received out here.
Her breath may have hitched for just a moment, but it also might have been his imagination. She had breathed in just as much dust as he had. Some more flipping spurred an even shakier sentence.
Her breath started coming out in quick bursts as she curled herself into a ball. Her eyes opened and she squinted into the bright light for a second before rolling over onto her right. Her eyes widened and wandered over the soldier, stopping on shiny badges and emblems, her brows knitting together as her inspection continued.
Her focus didn’t last long. The rest of the room captured her attention next and each new object she spotted required a moment of inspection. With every new observation, her guarded expression started to loosen.
At the sight of the doctor, she managed to shed all signs of injury and was off the table, using the meaty soldier as a shield between the two of them.
“Good, she seems to be doing well. Now, would you kindly please leave. I have plenty of work to get done and not much time to do it.” The doctor stepped around the desk and began picking up his possessions strewn over the floor.
Grigori followed the man with his gun, while he took a step away from him. A small one, to not squash the girl against the wall. “Is that all you have to say?”
The doctor looked at him over his glasses. “I would not be wasting my time with idle chatter and threats if I were you. You do not have much time to flee.”
Grigori frowned. “What are you talking about?”
The doctor hemmed and hawed. “The radiation mostly. You have failed in your job as well. I cannot imagine the party will be happy about that. The reactor has been tampered with and the experiments are out…or so I assume. Mainly the radiation though. I assume you have heard enough about it?”
Every few months there would be a meeting held with both military and scientific personnel to discuss issues, objectives and upcoming events. They’d pack everyone into a room, either too stuffy or freezing cold, while groups of pasty people wearing white lab coats would stumble across stage, showcasing pointless posters with monotone speeches. At each one of these events, inevitably there would be someone there who made a special point to let everyone know the reactor was completely safe and there was no reason to worry.
There had likely been some commentary on what they should do in the slight, slight, slight chance something went wrong, but he couldn’t remember what it was. Most of the meetings had been passed through thinking on other, much more important things. But one sentence managed to loosen itself from the flotsam of memories those lectures had solidified as.
“Don’t breathe it in or get it inside cuts?”
The doctor’s laugh came out in sharp, wheezy bursts, like a dog’s chew toy, until it cut off just as abruptly as it started. “Yes, but you will find that it’s a bit too late to worry about that. A few days, maybe a week. Will not be long, no, I do not think so. If you are planning on getting out of here, I would suggest you start walking. Time is of the essence, of course.”
Why the fuck had he not paid more attention during those lectures. How long had he been outside? How long had he been passed out? Hard to tell, but he was sure he’d done quite a bit of breathing. He grabbed the girl, ready to follow the doctor’s advice, before a stray comment coalesced in his mind.
“What did you mean by experiments?”
The doctor had taken Grigori’s pause as a cue to continue picking up his scattered belongings from the floor. He looked up at the new line of questioning. “Hmm?”
“What did you mean by experiments have gotten out? What experiments? This is a protection facility for the reactor.”
Grigori took a glance back at the girl, holding onto him like a life preserver.
“Did you really believe they would waste the brightest minds of the Soviet Union to take care of a nuclear reactor?”
“I believe the answer is outside your authorization.”
Grigori’s grip tightened on his handgun. “I don’t think you have the option to stay silent.”
The doctor took a short look over his wire-frame glasses and went back to gathering his supplies. “You are going to shoot me? Then do it now. I do not want to get blood on any of my work.”
“I am not joking.”
“Neither am I. Kill me or leave, I do not care which. I have many things I need to finish and do not need you here bothering me.”
The doctor did not twitch, grimace, or give off any tell to betray a bluff. There was nothing. He didn’t even bother to keep his eyes on Grigori or the hand gun pointed at him. He crawled around the room, picking up pens and scraps of paper.
The gun’s weight, once like lead in Grigori’s hands, felt much lighter.
“I don’t have time for this. You’d better not have lied about the radiation.”
“You are leaving me alive? Surprising, if I had been in your place, I most likely would have killed me by this point. Not to say that I have not already tried.”
Silence hung in the air for a few uneasy moments as the doctor placed his things on his desk and Grigori fumbled for the doorknob without taking his eyes off the man.
“I am joking of course. I have tried.”
Yuri sat back down in his chair, tweaking everything to get it arrayed the way it had been before. He hunched back over it all and began scribbling.
Grigori felt the door crack open was happy to feel that little ball of anxiety leave his stomach. The girl darted out and he followed her, before sealing Yuri in. He let his gun fall back into his holster and wiped at the sweat on his forehead.
The girl stood by his side huddled into herself like a cocoon. Her eyes darted back and forth down the darkened halls, except for the brief moments where they would focus on him, waiting. He couldn’t quite make out her growths in the dim light, but the few he could were thrashing erratically.
It would take minutes to find the translation to explain, but he didn’t really need words for this. He rubbed her on the shoulder and reached out his hand. She looked at the meaty thing like it was a gun, but, with some trepidation, grasped it. Grigori gave a tiny tug and walked back the way he had came. It was the closest way out and he wasn’t interested in staying here any longer than necessary.
More importantly, it led back to the barracks. He wasn’t going to be traipsing around the Ukrainian wilderness without supplies…and he needed a mask. He wasn’t risking breathing in anymore of whatever it was falling down out there.