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Tau (A Nuclear Horror)

April 24, 2016

onehundredandfortythree

I

His phone shrieked, splitting the cold November air. The checkpoint guard’s head turned toward him, the Kalashnikov rattling as he moved. Teller smiled at him, weakly, as he rummaged for the phone in his overcoat pocket. He fumbled at the keys with his thick gloves to answer.

“Hello?”.

A crackly voice spoke over his greeting.

“hello..? mister teller? hello?”.

“Hello? Who is this?”.

“mister teller?… front desk… our room…. service… your passport…”.

He tucked the phone under his cheek and patted down the thick jacket.

“Shit!”.

The checkpoint guard looked on, disinterestedly.

“Can you hold it for me, please?”.

“would you… hold it?… you return?”

“Yes, I don’t know. Just hold it for me, OK?”

“…mister teller?… hold… to the hotel?”

“The passport, just hold it, I’ll pick it up on my way to the airport. Just hold it! Can you hear me?”

The line was dead.

“Fuck!”.

He hammered the end call button and rubbed his eye with the back of his hand. The guard pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from one of the many pockets on his uniform. He drew one from the box, lit it, and gestured the pack towards Teller who shook his head. The car beside them continued to idle. Another guard stepped out of the small concrete hut that adjoined the road barrier, carrying Teller’s papers. He waved them vaguely at the smoking guard before handing them back to Teller and barking something in Ukrainian.

“In order?” Teller asked.

The guard looked back, blankly. Teller searched his mind for some Ukrainian.

Tak? Tak? Yes?” he said, pointing to the ream of travel papers.

The guard coughed, spat, nodded and waved him towards the idling car. Teller got in and slammed the door. He revved the engine as he waited. The guard walked over to the control hut, his shoulders hitching as he was overcome with a coughing fit. As he leaned through the window to hit the barrier controls he turned his head and spat in the snow. It left a shallow, pink gouge. The barrier went up slowly. Teller drove into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

II

The sky was grey, like gunmetal. Everything was grey save for where a touch of moss or ivy, creeping back into the world, painted strokes of deep green back in. Skeletal trees, defrocked of birds or leaves or lichen, seemed to reach to the sky for leverage to pull themselves from a poisoned earth. Teller reached for the phone which sat on the passenger seat. There was no signal. He hammered at buttons. No service. He threw it back on the seat and drummed his fingers on the wheel.

It wasn’t the silence that oppressed so in this place, it was the stillness. The city was never still. Even on a deserted street in the dead of the night, there was the thrum of electricity in the wires overhead, the rumble of some truck on a far away highway, the twisting  triptych of tobacco-sex-perfume on a rotating billboard. There was something. Even in the countryside, in the woods, the hills, the lake, there was movement. The worms churned the earth and the fish unsettled the silt. Here, there was nothing. Like a Greek underworld, manifest on Earth.

He clicked on the radio of the tired, old rental car. Scratchy Ukrainian flickered in and out behind heavy static. He left it on. Up ahead was a factory, its towering smokestacks long dormant but still blacked with soot. Every window was smashed, only half were boarded. As he drove closer he saw a man stood in the huge factory yard. He was sweeping leaves. Teller slowed a little. The man turned at the noise of the car, resting his arm on the upright broom. A hand rolled cigarette hung from his lips. He followed the slowly passing car with watery, heavy lidded eyes and Teller stared back. As their eyes met a small smile seemed to play across the old man’s face but just as Teller caught it the man went back to sweeping the abandoned yard. Teller stepped on the accelerator and his eyes flicked back to the buckled tarmac that stretched out in front of him. There was hardly any need, no one else was on the road.

The sun was beginning to go down as he saw the first vague signs of life on the outskirts of the village. Dim lamplight pressing weakly against a grimy window. The houses were sparsely populated. Here and there, thin smoke issued from a chimney or a dog barked at the prowling car from within one of the little cottages. Teller had no idea where he was to meet Alexandrov. He looked again at the mobile phone. Still dead. He went back to searching the gloom for a figure stood in a yard or doorway. He was peering out of the driver side window, at a cottage lit with pale blue light, as Alexandrov stepped in front of the car. Only the way a queer shadow was thrown by the headlights caught his attention in time.

“Shit!”.

He slammed on the brakes and, though it was only crawling, the car jolted on the gravel and he was thrown against the wheel. The headlight barely illuminated anything before the reckless man’s torso, but Teller almost perceived him to be laughing. He stepped round to the driver’s side window as Teller wound it down.

“Here you are, at last!” he said, motioning over his shoulder towards the blue lit cottage.

“I could have run you flat!”.

“Ah, no harm done. Come in, come in”.

His breath, coming in through the window in pale, smoky puffs, stank of strong alcohol. Teller ran a hand over his tired eyes.

“Where do I park?”

Alexandrov waved a hand around vaguely.

“No cars. No robbers”.

He broke out in a laugh that made Teller’s skin crawl.

“No traffic wardens!”.

“And if something comes in the morning?”.

But Alexandrov was already staggering towards the house. Teller got out of the rental car, locking it behind him, and followed the man in through the open door. The hallway was dank. He followed the sound of clattering pans into a kitchen. Alexandrov was collapsing into a chair at the small breakfast table. The room smelt of grease, vodka and boiled onions. Alexandrov drew a small cigar from a battered tin and motioned towards the stove.

“Help yourself”.

A thin soup was simmering away, coated with an oily film. A drunkenly cut loaf of bread lay, mauled, beside it. He was famished and ladled out a bowl of the soup and grabbed a chunk of the bread. He took a seat opposite Alexandrov who poured a generous measure of vodka into a glass and slid it towards him. Teller smiled at him, weakly. If the food was as bad as it looked, his ravenous stomach never noticed. Alexandrov took huge draws on the small cigars and took the smoke down into his lungs. He sat in silence whilst Teller ate, finally he spoke.

“How was the drive?”.

“Long”.

“Always. Always a long drive”.

He pulled the empty bowl towards him. The spoon clinked against the side.

“How was the food?”.

“Very good, thank you”.

Alexandrov laughed that same bitter laugh. He tapped the glass in front of Teller with the neck of the vodka bottle and topped off his own glass.

“Long drives keep a man from sleep. You should drink”.

“Really, I don’t think sleep will be a problem”.

Alexandrov shrugged petulantly, his eyes rolling about in his head. He stood up abruptly. Teller’s shoulders tensed as he stepped towards him. He picked up the glass he had placed in front of Teller, threw the drink down his neck and carried the empty to the sink. He leaned against the counter, smoking his cigar. Teller half turned in his chair so that his back was no longer to him, and asked;

“What time do we go to meet Lysenko?”.

“We’ll go see him tomorrow”.

“Is it already arranged? I thought he’d be keen to meet me to sort out the particulars?”.

Alexandrov snorted.

“I don’t think as keen as you think”.

“How so? He’s inherited a substantial sum”.

“If money was what he wanted, Mr. Teller, then we wouldn’t be speaking, here, tonight”.

“How do you mean?”.

Alexandrov blew acrid looking cigar smoke through his nostrils. Teller winced.

“I can’t speak for him. Tomorrow you’ll see”.

There was a pregnant silence. Teller shifted his suitcase at his feet.

“You want to get your head down?” Alexandrov asked. He sounded almost upset.

“If you don’t mind?”.

“As you please”.

He reached over and grabbed the bottle of vodka and then picked up Teller’s suitcase and walked off into the hall with it. Teller got up and followed him into the darkness. He saw his shadow pass into a doorway from which blue light spilled. He followed him in. It was the living room. A cot bed was set up in one corner, on the small television set in the other corner, a snowy broadcast of a Russian game show with the sound off. A battered sofa slouched against one wall and next to it a battered armchair. Teller could see his breath in the air. Alexandrov placed his suitcase down by the cot bed.

“It’s not much, I’m sorry”.

“It’s quite alright”.

“The blanket is thick. Wool. Military surplus”.

The man sounded quite embarrassed, almost forlorn. The swing in his moods bothered Teller even more than the initial mania.

“Shit!”

Alexandrov stormed past him into another room, just off the hall. He heard him knock something over and swear in Russian. He came back into the room carrying a small oil heater.

“You’ll want this”.

“I couldn’t possibly, really, you keep it”.

Alexandrov waved the vodka bottle and grinned.

“I have this to warm me”.

He plugged in the oil heater. The smell of burning dust started to mingle with the stale tobacco and sour, spilt alcohol scent of the room.

“I’ll leave you now. Sleep. It’s a long drive. Always a long drive to this place”.

“Thank you. Goodnight”.

Teller smiled, uncomfortably, as the man staggered out of the room. He heard him head back to the kitchen. Teller gingerly pushed the door to the living room too. He went to  the television and flicked it off. He sat on the cot bed. A draft from the cracked and gaffer taped window raised the hackles on his arms. He kicked off his shoes and went to lay down. Picking up the pillow and shifting it the other end of the cot he made himself as comfortable as he could under the rough blanket. He kept his eye on the door near his feet for some time before he slipped into sleep.

III

Teller was dreaming that he was in the back of an ambulance. He was sick. Poisoned, somehow. There wasn’t much time to get him to hospital. The ambulance was racing through busy streets, the siren blaring and the blue lights flashing. But there was something wrong. The ambulance driver and the paramedic, they were poisoned too. They were becoming sick themselves. Throwing up. Jibbering. Becoming incoherent and delirious. The ambulance started to swerve madly back and forth. It tottered on two wheels for a second and then crashed to the concrete, the windows exploding inwards.

Teller woke with a start, his eyes on the door. The TV was flickering on and off at short intervals. He looked at it, blearily. The screen seemed to be showing a static image. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. The screen was off. He saw his own reflection in the screen, by the moonlight. Laying on the cot bed, his breath appearing in front of him in small, white puffs. The image came back on. He squinted. It was the Chernobyl Sarcophagus. Monolithic. Over 7,000 tonnes of metal and God knows how many of concrete. The television flicked off again but the image remained in his mind’s eye. The desperate glamour of stability about it. The pathetic, patched together security of it. All held together with stained girders and rusted scaffold. The cracked and wasted concrete. A dismal ziggurat hastily built to patch a wound. The television flicked back on. He stared. It wasn’t a still image after all. It was hardly noticeable, but the grass in the foreground of the image was being lightly pulled by the wind. He wondered for what reason The Sarcophagus would be on television in this way? The sound was off but he didn’t imagine there was any narration. The camera angle never moved. He wondered, furthermore, what was causing the television set to blink on and off in such a strange manner? As the television blinked off again he listened for Alexandrov in the kitchen. The house was silent. Apart from a gentle breeze outside, the night was completely still. The TV came back on. It stayed on. This time, it was not just the grass in the picture that was moving.

One of them was much closer than the others. It was stood in the middle distance, swaying slightly. The picture was snowy and indistinct. It wasn’t clear whether the figure was a man or a woman. It was certainly an adult. It seemed to be clothed in some kind of shroud. There was the faintest impression of a green haze or aura around it. The rest of them were much further back. They were crawling out from under the sarcophagus. Dwarfed by the distance and the vastness of the structure behind them, though they were, they were perceptibly human. They all seemed to be wearing the same, strange shroud. A few who had clambered to their feet were starting to stumble towards the camera with a jerky gait. The green haze that surrounded the individual was much more noticeable in the group. Amassed there, aimlessly facing towards the camera, the haze seemed to accumulate. The one in the middle distance turned to look over its shoulder. As more of them started to catch up on its lead, it also started walking towards the camera.

Teller was sitting on the cot bed now, leaning in towards the small screen. He was not blinking. There was a very small but intense pain at his temple. His brain was sending signals down to his arm to to reach up and rub the place where the pain was but the arm was dead at his side. A bead of sweat, as cold as ice, ran down his shoulder blade. His mind went back to the discussion he had had with the Doctor in Minsk. They had discussed the symptoms of radiation poisoning he should look out for. The things to be mindful of. He was watching the television. He was hoping that it would blink off again. He was worried what would happen to the scene whilst the screen was blank. He was terrified at what would be waiting there when it came back on. The crowd of shrouded figures were near the point from where the camera watched them.

Their skin wasn’t right. Pale, but with the wrong undertones. Like the blood below ran the wrong colour. Like it ran the colour of lichen. The picture on the television was fuzzy. Imperfect. Under their shrouds one could hardly see their eyes. Except for the one nearest the front. The one who was now nearly on top of the camera. Teller could see his eyes, for it was a form of man. They weren’t looking into the camera. They were looking at something behind it. Teller could see hands. Reaching out.

The cathode ray on the television set exploded with a deafening pop. It was like a musket going off in the room. Glass sprayed across the room. Teller screamed. There was the smell of ozone in the air and a wave of static seemed to pass over him, shocking him into a shiver. There was an answering bang out in the hall. Alexandrov pushed the door open violently. His eyes were bloodshot and bleary. His fists were cocked.

“What the fuck happened!?”.

He flicked the overhead light on. A bare bulb in the ceiling sprayed harsh, dirty, yellow light around the room. He looked to the smoking cavity of the television.

“Jesus Christ! Goddam thing. Are you ok?”

Teller was staring at a flicker of blue sparks in the back of the television set.

“Teller?”.

“Hmm? Sorry. I was asleep. It came on by itself. And then…”.

He couldn’t find the word.

“I shouldn’t leave it on so long. As long as you’re not hurt”.

Alexandrov walked over to the television, waved away the smoke and peered inside. He reached behind it and whipped out the plug. His shoes crunched on the glass as he walked back across the room.

“I’ll take care of it in the morning. Watch your feet if you wake up in the night”.

Teller nodded. He looked at Alexandrov, dumbly. He was still swaying. He must have been very drunk. He’d been sleeping in his clothes. The old suit the man wore was even more crumpled than when he’d first arrived.

“Are you sure you’re ok? Can I get you a drink?”.

Teller shook his head. He was still staring at the remains of the television set.

“What did you see?”

He said it quietly, that unintended volume the drunk’s voice carries slipping away. Teller looked at him and opened his mouth to tell him about the blurry figures crawling out from under The Sarcophagus.

“It just exploded”.

Alexandrov looked at him. Teller thought he saw a sad look in his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. It was hard to tell through the haze of vodka.

“OK. I’ll see you in the morning”.

He looked back at the television and mock-spat on the floor and then left the room without looking back. This time he pulled the door closed behind him. Teller settled back on the cot bed and stared at the dark ceiling.

IV

He woke as the dawn crept in through the uncurtained window. The light stole over the remnants of the television set and sparkled on the shards of glass on the floor. He heard Alexandrov bustling about in the kitchen. He dressed and went to join him. He was clearing away the dishes from the night before. The room smelt of strong, sour coffee.

“Would you like a cup”? Alexandrov said, motioning to the drip brewer on the side.

“Please”.

“I’m afraid I’ve no milk”.

“That’s OK, I don’t take it”.

Alexandrov went to pour him a cup. Teller sat at the little kitchen table. He placed the coffee in front of him and sat down.

“I’m sorry for last night. I had been drinking too much, perhaps?”.

“You’re quite alright”.

“It’s a habit, you know? Boredom. And now I need a new television set”.

“Really”.

He sipped the coffee. It was like diesel. He spooned three sugars into it.

“Where are we meeting Lysenko?”.

Alexandrov coughed.

“We can go see him at his home. It’s not far.”

“You’ve no other appointments?”

“You’d be surprised how few for the only Doctor in a town of 100 or so. And, well, where we are… People don’t like to bother me. They have no money to pay. I try to tell them”.

He shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s pride”.

Teller sat and drank his coffee, looking about the kitchen. He could feel Alexandrov’s eyes on him.

“You’ve no complaints for a Doctor?”

“Hmm?”

Teller pretended not to hear.

“You seem very nervous. I can’t have helped, acting the wild man. It’s the fear, right? Of the radiation?”

“I realize it’s not a huge concern, for me at least, not…”

Alexandrov waved away the indiscretion.

“My own Doctor told me so, but it’s there, in the back of your mind”.

Alexandrov nodded.

“Tell me, how did you find it as you drove in? This place?”.

“How I find it?”

“Yes. It fascinates me. What people think of it. How they feel as they first come across it”.

“It’s, I mean, it’s indescribable”.

Alexandrov dropped another sugar into his coffee and pointed to Teller’s cup with his spoon.

“Try”.

He smiled a knowing smile. Without the smear of vodka across it, the man’s face was warm. Interested. It made Teller relax. The man was well suited to his position.

“It’s difficult. There’s nothing you can compare it to”.

“Thank God, huh?”

Alexandrov crossed himself in mock fashion, grinning.

“Mmm”.

Teller sipped his coffee and thought.

“It’s quiet, but not peaceful”.

“I’d agree with that”.

“You’re alone but you feel intimidated”.

Alexandrov smiled and nodded.

“It’s like being lost”.

“Exactly!”.

He roughly stubbed out the cigar he was smoking in the ashtray.

“Exactly. Christ! Lost. Take a drink, Mr. Teller”.

“So why are you still here?”.

“I’m a Doctor. The only one they have. Or perhaps I’m just a martyr? It would explain the drinking”.

Teller took a sip of the coffee. His lip brushed against a chip in the rim of the cup and sent a shiver through his brain.

“Why do they stay? You don’t believe Lysenko will take the money, use it, do you? I don’t understand it. This place is killing them all”.

“Why are you here?”.

“To explain to him what’s happened and get him to sign the papers”.

“But you don’t speak Ukrainian. Or Russian. So why you?”.

“People are scared to come here”.

You’re scared to come here”.

“I suppose I just need the money”.

“But you’re a lawyer?”.

“Not a successful one”.

“So you’re here because…”

He pulled a cigar from the battered tin and tapped it on the table edge.

“… what else would you do?”.

“But…”.

“No, no, trust me, Mr. Teller, change is the thing human beings fear most. It reminds them of death. I have seen people sit and watch whilst their bodies rot because, somehow, that is better than going to the Doctor with the possibility they might be told there is no cure”.

Teller finished his coffee. Thick, black dregs ringed the bottom of the cup.

“I’m going to go check on the car”.

He walked out into the hall and towards the front door. Through the crack in the living room door he saw the dull glimmer of the glass strewn across the floor. He paused. He considered whether he should tell Alexandrov about the figures he’d seen. There was a loud, sharp rap at the front door. He jumped and looked back towards the kitchen. Alexandrov called through to him;

“Do you mind? I’m putting on more coffee”.

Teller went to the door. As he reached for the handle there was another loud rap on the wood which made his hand leap back. A small voice called Alexandrov’s name. Teller opened the door. A boy stood there in the light drizzle. He looked at Teller with shy but determined eyes. He rattled out something in Ukrainian. All Teller caught was a name. He mimed “wait here” to the boy and walked to the kitchen. He heard footsteps on the tiles behind him and turned. The boy stopped and stood there, gazing at his shoes. Frowning, Teller turned back to the kitchen.

“Alexandrov? You have a guest”.

Alexandrov stepped out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. He looked to the child. His brow pulled down and his mouth hung a little agape. They spoke in Ukrainian. Clipped little sentences. The brief conversation went on as if Teller were not there, stood between them. As he leaned back against the panelled wood of the hallway the young boy nodded at something Alexandrov had said, turned, and ran out of the open front door.

“We have to go”.

He went into the bedroom. Teller called after him;

“What about Lysenko?”.

“He will have to wait, I’m afraid”.

He was a carrying a shiny and cracked Doctor’s bag. He was heading outside. Teller followed.

“What’s happening? What did the boy say?”.

Alexandrov left the door wide. Teller pushed it to as he followed him out to the car. There was no lock.

“Alexandrov!?”.

He was throwing the Doctor’s bag into the boot of the car.

“His cousin is pregnant. Was pregnant. The child is premature”.

Teller was getting in the passenger side.

“Should I go back and get my papers? Perhaps after…?”.

Alexandrov revved the engine and the car skidded out on the gravel.

They were outside the village. Alexandrov stared out at the road through a spiderweb of cracks in the windshield. He didn’t speak. Teller watched him from the corner of his eye. The man’s eyes were bloodshot with their own spiderweb of cracks. Teller stared out of the passenger window. A light drizzle soaked everything in the tired, inevitable way that drizzle does. The quiet, grey countryside rolled past. An abandoned petrol station’s signage displayed stubbornly pre-Gulf War pricing. Teller wiped some of the condensation from the window. It was like existing within the workings of a stopped watch. A desert of time. He saw movement out in the distance, beyond a small cluster of trees. As they moved past the trees he saw that it was a wild horse. It was galloping across an unplowed field. At this distance it appeared to be keeping pace with the car. Teller’s mind wandered, drawn into an eddie by the strange illusion.

“I cannot guarantee we will have to time to see Lysenko. If it’s bad”.

Alexandrov’s voice snapped Teller back to reality.

“Do you think it will be?”.

“Round here, births can be difficult. Perhaps it will be bad”.

“Well, I suppose we’ll see. Maybe something can be arranged?”.

“I know you’re keen to have the job done and be gone. I have a duty”.

“I understand”.

Alexandrov checked the window and drew a cigar from the tin. He smacked the cigarette lighter on the dashboard with the palm of his had. Teller had the feeling the excessive force was applied from experience.

“The radiation, it varies wildly. It was carried by the wind and rain. My house… I’ve a Geiger counter. Where we go today, though… Still, in the short term, you needn’t worry. You’ve looked like you’re walking barefoot on broken glass since you arrived”.

“Have you had any, negative, symptoms since the accident?”.

“I have cancer, if that calms you any?”.

He grinned to himself, a horrid sneer that pulled the lips back over tobacco stained teeth.

“I… I’m…”

Alexandrov waved a hand at him that then went to the cigarette lighter and pulled it free.

“This was from before”.

Alexandrov gestured to him the cigarette lighter. The filament was red hot. Teller smelled the air burning in the dusty old car and recoiled a little.

“Long before the meltdown. You can put away the British mask that hides your terror”.

Alexandrov laughed and lit his cigar, pushing the hot metal into the soft, dry leaves. Teller heard them catch and burn.

“Renal. Nasty. It was progressing fairly viciously, but, since the accident, not so much”.

“Do you think it’s related?”.

“Do I?”.

Alexandrov stared out into the rain. The windscreen wipers moved lethargically as they smeared the water across the glass.

“No. No. It’s dumb coincidence”.

They were on the outskirts of Pripyat. The decaying tower blocks looked like tombstones, the same jaundiced colour as the nails on Alexandrov’s hand. In the foreground was a ferris wheel. Half alive, the cars rocked stuporously and the spokes rained flecks of rust. On the horizon was The Sarcophagus. An uncomfortable, hot itch suffused Teller’s body at its sight. He opened the window. They were turning off now, down a rural road. Weeds poked though where concrete had burst and torn. Teller marvelled, again, at how quickly Nature took back the frontline once Man had deserted his post.

They pulled up beside a small block of flats. They had been driving for some time. Teller wondered why it was the small boy who had been dispatched to fetch a Doctor. He wondered where the boy was now. They stepped out of the car. Teller’s breath blew in white clouds. Alexandrov threw his cigar on the ground and crushed it under his heel. He pulled a hip flask from his inside jacket pocket and drank. Teller looked the building up and down. It was only three storeys, built from the same institutional, beige concrete and yellow tiles as the rest of the buildings around. Each flat had a small balcony, the bars that ran along the edges looked prison-like. The place was more like a bunker than a home. That uniform, utilitarian, vaguely military, Soviet style.

Alexandrov was heading in. Teller followed him into the foyer. The floor was dusty, littered with chips of paint from the neglected walls. Yellow, curled notices still clung to a noticeboard announcing the births and death of those long born and dead. The building smelled of damp cement and standing water. A man came down the stair to meet them. He had on a torn, dirty jumper and, outside of it, wore a large, old crucifix on a delicate gold chain. He pumped Alexandrov’s hand briefly and turned to go back up the stair. Teller didn’t think he’d noticed him there. Alexandrov motioned that he should follow him. They climbed the stair and reached a concrete hallway. The only light came in through a small, frosted window at the end of it. Teller could hardly see his hand in front of his face. He followed the shadowy form of Alexandrov who followed the shadowy form of the man who bore the crucifix. Teller heard the faint cry of an infant, bitter, bitchy and wet.

They stepped into an apartment. Crumbling linoleum barely clung to, or covered, the concrete beneath. They went into a small kitchen. A samovar bubbled and whistled on the stove. On the floor was a metal washtub filled with steaming water, soap scum and white bedsheets. The water had a pink tinge. The man with the crucifix and Alexandrov spoke in Russian, too quickly for Teller to pick out a single word. Alexandrov wore a grave look. The man with the crucifix was growing agitated, his voice was rising in volume and pitch, starting to crack. Alexandrov placed a hand on his shoulder. The man’s eyes were sparkling. He looked at Teller, who looked away. No man wanted to look through tears at the pity of a stranger. A small, older, woman with a drawn face shuffled quietly into the doorway that led to the hall. The man sniffed and wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his dirty jumper. He and Alexandrov followed the old woman out into the hall and Teller stayed, staring deliberately out of the window.

The drizzle had stopped but the sky was a stubborn, gaunt grey. A plane lazily traced a contrail above The Sarcophagus. Teller imagined the listless passengers, gazing from the small windows. He wondered if they were aware of they stared down on? He wondered if they realized they were flying through the ghost of a smoke that had changed tens of thousands of lives? If they saw the packs of wolves, tiny dots, that had started to repopulate the surrounding woods, seeking their prey in long single file. He considered the day of the accident. The confusion, the terror, the panic. Men who were turned into the walking dead by mere minutes of radiation exposure. A space on Earth, poisoned. Made too sick for life. Cursed for millennia. He imagined the sirens blaring, warning the already dying against death. He heard the sirens blaring. The rising, falling, desperate wail.

The sound was coming from from a room just off the kitchen. Except, it wasn’t a siren. It was a child. The hurt, helpless, insatiable cry of an infant. He looked to where Alexandrov, the man with the crucifix and the old woman had exited. He heard muttering coming from the room. He wanted to call out to them. To wail. To raise a siren. He stepped into the room from where the sound of the child was coming. The room was sparse and dark, the thin curtains drawn. A teddy bear sat on the window. A film of dust gathered in its fur. Its glass eyes stared out from a head that limped to one side. A crib was pushed against the wall underneath. A shadow behind its bars writhed uncomfortably beneath a blanket. Soft little grunts and moans came from the darkness. Teller walked over to the crib, his footsteps unsettling the stale smell of dust. He peered down at the shuffling form.

A young woman’s scream echoed from the room out in the hall. Teller’s skin pulled tight and his heart leapt. He looked back over his shoulder. An answering cry from the crib below, again, jolted his unsteady heart. The sound was the most pathetic, mournful thing he had ever heard. Rising to the point where the breath was exhausted, breaking with a hitching sob and then the awful sucking of air. Looking down, the sound came from something that looked like living death. A baby. Barely a day old. Teller swallowed hard and placed a steadying hand on the edge of the crib. It was painful to look at it. The skin was a wasted, translucent white and a spider web of raw, blue veins bulged from the surface. The limbs were twisted and flapped ineffectualy.  But the face, by God the face. Teller’s hand gripped the rail and the cradle creaked and groaned. The head was lumpen and misshapen. Twice the size it should have taken, it lolled from side to side. One eye was obscured by some tumour like growth, the other was not so much bloodshot as blood stained, the sclera and iris entirely scarlet, the pupil a clot. The mouth was a puckered , drooling cavern, the tongue a black and blistered stone placed in the mouth. The child had kicked off its scant blanket. Teller could not discern it it was a boy or a girl. He reached in and gingerly flipped the blanket back over the thing. Its wailing quieted a little. He looked back to the doorway and listened for any sign of Alexandrov. He looked back and the pitiful creature had kicked its blanket free again. He reached in to try and comfort it once more. A pale, mottled leg kicked out at his hand as it howled. He quickly pulled his hand free. He looked down one last time at the child. He turned and walked away from the crib, rubbing his hand on his jacket.

V

The car door slammed shut. Alexandrov sighed deeply and drew a cigar from its tin.

“How was the mother?” Teller asked.

“She’ll live. She should be in a hospital bed, but…”.

He shrugged and sighed again.

“She’ll live, at least”.

The sun was already starting to drop from the sky. The days were short. The shadows seemed to deepen the heavy lines on Alexandrov’s face. Teller looked at his own face in the wing mirror.

They had spent a long time in the apartment. They sat at the kitchen table whilst Alexandrov and the man with the crucifix spoke in Russian. Sometimes the pair got up and went in to see the sedated mother. When Teller was left alone with the old woman she bowed her head and muttered quietly to herself. Often she got up and went to see to the crying child when it wailed. He heard her softly singing some Russian lullaby to it. The child was quiet for some time and the old woman got up and went in to it. He heard her singing the same quiet lullaby to it. When she re-entered the room and sat down, it was for the last time. The child did not cry again.

“What was wrong with the baby?”.

Alexandrov started the car.

“A lot. Many things”.

“To do with the radiation?”.

Alexandrov shrugged.

“I suppose. Probably. They are stupid. Chertovy idioty! Fucking Church!”.

Alexandrov was silent as they drove back towards Pripyat. Teller stared out of the window. The ferris wheel was coming into view. Its silhouette stirred a grim memory in Teller. Something he had seen in some book. It looked like a breaking wheel.

They arrived back at Alexandrov’s house. He threw his medical bag down in the hall, its contents half spilling on the old, fading carpet. Teller was righting the mess as he heard the clinking of glasses. Alexandrov looked at him through the doorway.

“Leave that. Come drink”.

Teller put down the instrument he was holding and went into the kitchen. Alexandrov was sat at the table. The last, rare light of evening was struggling through the dirty window. Alexandrov was pouring them both a drink.

“I…”.

He’d hardly got the sound out when Alexandrov looked at him.

“Please?”.

His eyes were tired and red. Teller sat down, quietly. He waited a long time for Alexandrov to speak. He sipped the vodka. He realized that he would never speak.

“Who was the boy who came to the door?”.

Alexandrov threw back his vodka.

“Piotr”.

“Their son?”.

“No. His parents live in Slavutych”.

“They were evacuated?”.

“No. They stayed in The Zone. They had Piotr and then moved to Slavutych some years later, taking him. Around six months pass. He comes back”.

“Alone?”.

Alexandrov smiled.

“Somehow. He is… a resourceful child”.

“What possesses a child to come here alone?”.

Alexandrov frowned.

“Excuse me?”.

“What would make a child run away to a place like this?”.

“Ahh, possesses, I understand. Who knows? I have asked. His father was a drinker. Perhaps here he is safe?”.

Safe? Here?”.

“Sipping vodka or slugging ether, they only differ by degrees. In cold light, such is the nature of survival for mankind”.

He picked up his glass and laughed.

“Cheers!”.

Teller sipped his drink. He watched Alexandrov lighting one of his small cigars. He had given up years ago.

“I don’t suppose you have cigarettes about the place, do you?”.

Alexandrov heaved himself to his feet.

“Mmm, somewhere, yes”.

He went out into the hall and then into his room He came back and threw a soft packet of Russian cigarettes on the table.

“Thank you”.

Alexandrov sat down and winked.

“Don’t tell your Mother”.

Teller pulled a wrinkled cigarette from the packet and took the offered light. He drew deep into his lungs. They were cheap, strong and stale. The smoke was like a column of fire running through his core. It was incredible, like a pillar filling a part of him his body had forgotten was empty. It was dark and Alexandrov flicked on the overhead light. Teller blew a thick, grey, cloud of smoke. His head swam a little. He drank off the rest of his vodka and drew again on the cigarette. He spoke through the smoke, his lungs full and his voice laboured. An old habit.

“… will we see Lysenko tomorrow?”.

“Tomorrow? Yes, tomorrow”.

“You never explained properly the other night. Why you don’t think he’ll take the inheritance?”.

“I explained. You just didn’t listen”.

Alexandrov refilled their glasses.

“You can’t fathom why he would not leave. Most would no more fathom why you came. This blighted, poisonous place. Ask your nature of yourself, why you are here, why you hold that cheap vodka and bitter cigarette? That is why. And if someone were to ask why…?”.

Teller stubbed out the cigarette.

“You would have no answer for them. Would never have an answer for them. It is the same for Lysenko. Partly it is fear, fear of change. It is more powerful, more guiding, than any man dares admit. But another part of why he stays, I don’t know, does it even have a name? Perhaps determinism? That is the real reason.”

Teller lit another cigarette.

“I don’t think I understand”.

Alexandrov coughed heavily and got up to spit in the sink.

“It’s OK, I am too tired to tell it well. Perhaps I am wrong, anyway. We will see tomorrow”.

They sat for some time talking, smoking and drinking. It was Alexandrov who excused himself, this time. They were both very drunk. Teller felt a childish, bitter pride that he could still drink with the best of them. Alexandrov waved his hand at the cupboard under the sink

“Help yourself to another bottle if you wish”.

He mumbled something, half English, half Russian, and stumbled out towards his bedroom. Teller poured himself another glass, emptying the bottle. He thought about the figures he had seen on the television, emerging from The Sarcophagus. How the television set had switched itself on. How it had exploded. From a safe, drunken, distance he wondered how little impact this had had on him. Perhaps Alexandrov was right, maybe fear was so old and constant and vital we simply accepted it, no matter what strange form it took? Eventually he, too, stumbled out to his cot bed. The scattered glass still littered the floor, the moonlight let in to stay and sparkle in the shards. He lay down on the cot and watched the light from beneath heavy eyelids. The air was cold but he didn’t feel it beneath the drink. He fell asleep.

VI

He dreamt of her. In the dream he was laying in the bed they had shared, half awake. The window was open and a light morning breeze came in and brushed the inside of his wrist. He heard her getting ready to leave for work. He smelt her perfumed hair. He imagined the morning air smoothing its way over her bare hips and shoulders as she dressed. He heard her sing lightly to herself as she brushed her long, red hair. He shifted in and out of dreams and this dreamlike reality and found one no more pleasurable than the other. He felt her move nearer. At the end of an outstretched arm his hand opened. He felt the soft tip of her finger in his palm. Her skin was like frozen marble. The bitter cold ran up the veins in his wrist and shocked his heart. He opened his eyes with a start and fell deeper into the dream.

The eyes that looked back were milky orbs set in bruised sockets. He realized he was dreaming but could no more wake than he could move within that dream. The figure stood at the side of the bed with its finger pressed into his palm.It looked into his face from behind the shadow cast by its shroud. The room had fallen into an unearthly gloom, as if the moon had passed before the sun. The figure maintained its strange vigil, its face unmoving, its eyes unblinking, its chest neither rising nor falling. It was the shape from the vision of The Sarcophagus. The pale, mossy skin. The strange green aura about it.The awful blanket of loneliness that seemed to emanate from something in its countenance or stature. It seemed to move in and out of focus, waves of grey static rippling across it. Teller tried to call out. A noise to wrench him back into the living world, but his voice was as frozen and fettered as his limbs.

Its expression unchanging, still holding his gaze, the shrouded figures’s icy digit started to trace a path in his open palm. A droning noise began to simultaneously spread from the core of his mind and seep in from without, as if he took it in with each shallow breath. It rose in volume and pitch until it took on a sickening redolence. It was an air raid siren. The finger in his palm continued to draw its slow, deliberate pattern. The air and his whole being were now subsumed by the howling, scalding noise of the siren. Its volume rose inexorably until the dim room seemed to jerk and thrum from the noise and he perceived he could feel the trembling waves of sound skate over the very lenses of his wide, terrified eyes. The air, which before had been chill, seemed to heat with the vibrations. His skin prickled and tensed, drawing cold sweat. The siren blared. The air warped. The figure smiled and clutched his hand and then there was only white light.

He opened his eyes. Blades of grass filled his sight, towering up beyond his field of vision. A drop of dew, huge, glistening, slid down one blade. Up another climbed some tiny, ticking insect. His senses were afire. He felt the blood coursing through innumerable circuits of veins, drenching his muscles in oxygen. Like oil on seized gears. His bones cracked back into formation. He lifted his head from the ground, above the grass. The morning was cool and immersed in an unearthly silence. No bird called in the trees. No breeze blew to disturb a leaf or strain a bough. Everything that was living was as still as the dead. Here, he could hear and feel and sense his heart skip, falter and then hammer as he gazed on the monolithic structure before him.

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus dominated, commanded and tyrannized the skyline. He got slowly to his feet and then fell back onto his knees. He brought a trembling hand to his face and felt the skin there. It felt like wax. A croak escaped his throat, a guttural noise. He was vaguely aware that he was trying to scream. Another rattle issued from his parched lips. He drew a deep breath. He thought of Milton’s Hell. Tartarus. He had read the book as a young man. The choking sulphur. The lethal atmosphere. The scorching winds of death. He screamed. He screamed so loudly that tiny blood vessels ruptured in his throat. Nothing heard and nothing returned and nothingness remained, upon that blasted heath.

Alexandrov found him wandering near the ferris wheel. He would not have recognized him. The man was broken, entirely, shambling in the long, dry grass. Alexandrov got out of the car, carrying a blanket. He wasn’t sure that Teller recognized him as he looked down from the spokes of the wheel that seemed to transfix him and into the Russian’s eyes. He bundled him up in the blanket and guided him to the car. Alexandrov had been drinking and the road was still wet from the night’s rain but no matter how many times the car lurched and Teller was thrown limply about, he still made no sound other than an occasional hoarse mutter.

He was in the same catatonic stupor when they arrived back at Alexandrov’s house and he sat him on the cot bed whilst he went to the kitchen to fetch water. Coming back to the living room, he rifled in his doctor’s bag, still left lying in the hall. He stepped into the living room and found Teller on his hands and knees on the floor. He was picking up the shards of glass, one by one, holding them to the light and studying them from every angle, searching, before tossing them back into the common pile and picking up another. Alexandrov went to him, gently coaxing him back, against small resistance, to the cot. He gave him a heavy barbiturate and made him lay down. When he was sure that he was asleep he swept up the glass and left the room, closing the door behind him.  

VII

Teller woke in the dark. He had slept a dreamless sleep. He sat up. His mouth was dry and he had the faint smell of soil in his nose. It was coming from his clothes. He remembered and his heart seemed to drop out of his chest and his throat wring itself closed. He fell back onto the bed, the springs clashing. He heard footsteps out in the hall and Alexandrov appeared at the door.

“You’re awake, then?”.

Teller wetted his lips and tried to speak. The voice was a quiet croak.

“Am I…?”.

Alexandrov sat down on the dusty armchair and stared into the blown out husk of the television. He inhaled deeply.

“Were you at the Sarcophagus?”.

“I was… how do you…?”

“You have… days… I’m sorry, Mr. Teller. I cannot tell you otherwise”.

Teller felt a bile rise up in him, washing through cold blood and over taut muscle, like acid thrown across ice.

“Why… why was I out there?”.

Alexandrov continued to stare into the television’s shell.

“Why the fuck was I out there, Alexandrov!?”.

He tried to stand and his legs failed him. He sat down with a clang of springs. Alexandrov looked to him, but not into his eyes.

“I have… drugs… that can manage your discomfort. Or, if you can’t manage…”.

Teller struggled to find words. Alexandrov stared at the floor at the foot of the bed.

“I need to get to a fucking hospital! Where’re the the keys to the rental!?”.

“Teller…”.

Teller stood up, shakily.

“Where are the keys, you fucking drunk? I’m getting out of here”.

He stumbled out into the hall looking for his jacket.

“What the hell would you know about what a Doctor can or can’t do!? You’ve been rotting in this… this godforsaken limbo for years!”.

He staggered back into the room, shaking the jacket by the collar.

“I will not lay down in this toxic fucking earth like some broken mongrel. I will not!”.

He shook the empty coat, furiously.

“Where… where are the goddam…”.

A wave of weakness and nausea washed over him. He tasted copper on the back of his tongue. He dropped the jacket and reached out to the cot, bending at the knee to place a steadying hand on it. His legs collapsed and he sat down on the floor. Alexandrov was already halfway towards him. He lifted him under the arms and helped back to the cot.

“Where… the keys…?”.

His voice was meek and turned into sobbing coughs. Alexandrov himself coughed from the exertion, covering his mouth. He looked down into his handkerchief, balled it up and sat down again.

“The nearest hospital with the right capabilities is around a days drive. I imagine they could buy you another half of a day”.

Teller spoke, weakly.

“There must be something?”.

Alexandrov sighed.

“There is not. Look around you, Teller. These forces are beyond human control. In this circumstance. In any”.

“But, there must be something?”.

Alexandrov pulled the crumpled pack of cigarettes from his jacket, lit one and handed it to Teller.

“There is not. There is nothing. I am sorry, but there is nothing”.

“I suppose you would know, wouldn’t you?”.

Alexandrov closed his eyes.

“Yes., I would wouldn’t I? I advise, for what it’s worth, that you abandon this idea of control. You don’t have long to forgo a lifetime’s instinct, but, there it is”.

He looked around for the bottle and went into the kitchen to retrieve it. He sat down and took a slug from its neck and passed it to Teller who drank in turn.

“And what good would that do me?”.

“It is a freedom”.

Teller snorted.

“Don’t speak to me about abandoning control. I’ve spent a lifetime losing things to a lack of it. It’s abandoning control that led me here. It’s abandoning control that led me out there”.

He laughed, bitterly. Alexandrov smiled.

“Is it?”.

Teller drank again and looked at him, puzzled. The smile melted from Alexandrov’s face.

“The illusion of control”.

He took the bottle back.

“One day, the stars themselves, will burn out and die from the inexorable fusion reactions that take place within them. And we thought we would engineer and harness them to do our bidding?”.

Teller smiled himself. The drink was, somewhat, steadying his hand and heart.

 “If control is an illusion we were destined to engineer and harness and lose control of it. ‘What else would we do’”.

Alexandrov put down the bottle. He reached into the doctor’s bag and started cracking open bottles of pills and dispensing their contents, placing them in a neat line on the arm of the chair. At one stage he seemed to be counting a handful of syringes. He gathered up the rank of pills and handed them to Teller.

“Take these”.

“I don’t have any pain. Just sickness and weakness”.

“I know. Many of them are for these things. Please?”.

Teller swallowed the pills and lit another cigarette. By the time it was an ember, his eyes were growing heavy. He shifted his feet up onto the bed. When he spoke it was as if his voice issued from somewhere far beyond his throat. His whole body swam in an ocean of nothing.

“Alexandrov?”.

“Hmm?”.

“I saw… the night I arrived…”.

He tailed off. His mouth felt thick with naught but air.

“Who are they… in shrouds?”.

Alexandrov drummed his fingers on the side of the dusty armchair.

“You should sleep”.

“I’ll sleep… enough… who are…”.

He swallowed hard. He felt as if he were sinking below the surface of a cloud. A soft, luscious form, pregnant with warm summer rain.

“…they? Alexandrov, please? Whilst we’ve time”.

“I… have never seen them. I… should have… I suppose. Who knows what decides these things? I don’t know. In that place, The Sarcophagus, there is a reaction happening, still. Like nothing on this Earth. Perhaps it has… warped… the nature of things. Created, or broke loose, elements that have not been possible on this planet before man advanced to a stage whereby he could engineer, sow the seed, of the necessary circumstance. I can’t give you answers, Teller”.

“I don’t… want to die”.

His breathing was becoming slow and heavy.

“I… don’t… to live”.

Alexandrov was silent. As he slipped beneath the surface of consciousness, Teller imagined he could hear the faint wail of a siren.

VIII

Lysenko came to the house after midnight. He and Alexandrov sat in the kitchen. Alexandrov went through the papers from Teller’s briefcase with him. Lysenko rubbed the rough, grey hair on his chin and squinted at the words as Alexandrov read them out to him. He took out a pen and laid it next to the forms in front of the old man. Lysenko frowned down at the pages and picked up his drink.

Teller stirred from his heavy, opiate sleep and looked to the doorway. Alexandrov stood there with another man. Looking out from the darkened living room into the hall, bathed in the light of a bare bulb, the two figures were surrounded by a halo of sick, yellow light. The second figure was the old man who had been sweeping the abandoned yard. He walked into the living room and squatted on his haunches by the cot bed. In the darkness his face was a mess of shadows. He took Teller’s hand, quite gently, with his own rough one. He could not see for the light, but he felt the old man was looking straight into his own, blinded, eyes. Teller tried to speak. He was not sure if the words were coming out or not.

“Lysenko? I have…”.

The old man’s finger started to trace a pattern in Teller’s palm. Teller rasped a rattling laugh and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again the first pale slivers of morning light were beginning to creep into the room. Alexandrov was sat in the armchair. Teller’s body ached. Each joint felt like it were rusted, each muscle like it were run dry. His blood seemed to flow weakly in his veins, like thin and fetid water. He blinked eyes that felt scratched and coarse. He looked at Alexandrov.

“Did he sign the papers?”.

“He… I’m sorry, Teller. He did not”.

“Why?”.

“I cannot speak for him”.

“That’s what you said before. But you’ve spoken to him now. What reason does he have?”.

Teller coughed violently. A few small drops of blood splattered on the floor.

“I’m sorry”.

He tried to get up and could not.

“It’s OK”.

Alexandrov stood up and dabbed the tiny spots of blood from the dusty floorboards. His handkerchief was already dotted with a pasture of brown flowers. Dried blood. He was leaning close to Teller’s face. Teller could smell the tinny scent of stale vodka on his breath. He looked, sidelong, into Teller’s eye. He whispered;

“This is a plague and it will not be cured until we let the dead bury their dead”.

Teller felt a bile rise in the back of his throat.

“Why did you let me come?”.

Alexandrov spoke even lower in reply, trying to guide Teller’s voice down to whispers.

“Even the living may have their ghosts, Mr. Teller. You will understand in time”.

But Teller had nothing left to say.

Later, as he lay in the darkness, his eyes open but slipping in and out of consciousness, he remembered driving into The Zone. He had pulled over at one point because he needed to urinate. He left the car idling on the hard shoulder whilst he stepped sideways down the embankment to the cover of the trees that lined the road. It was a force of habit. He hadn’t noticed but his breathing was very shallow, a subconscious attempt to minimize the intake of adulterated air. He looked about the sparse ground as he relieved himself. The crushed and rusted cans. The soaked and then dried and now mummified newspapers. The shrunken, faded wrappers of crisps and sweets and snacks. And then the more incongruous and arbitrary items. He saw a lipstick, the lid cracked and oozing red fat from within. A bicycle pump covered with thin weeds. Something that looked like it was once a kettle, now shards of obliterated plastic and a half buried filament. Detritus like this, in places like these, had always fascinated Teller. They seemed to carry some odd melancholy, some terrible weight with them. Abandoned parts of human lives. Flecks of experience, deserted and forgotten. Perhaps this was why he felt such oppression and insignificance here? The Zone was like a roadside ditch, exponentiated out in a whole city and its surroundings. A landscape of lost experiences, as dense as the centre of a sun.

As he zipped up his trousers he spotted something else buried in the dirt . It was a toy robot. The, no doubt once gleaming, red paint that adorned its boxy, steel frame was now ravaged by the weather and peeled away in jagged, brown strips. Its convex plastic eyes that stared up into the bare, grey sky through the branches of the trees were dull with the cataracts of evaporated condensation. Teller stepped over a fallen branch towards it. It lay on its back, its legs splayed mid-step. He kicked it gingerly with the tip of his shoe. He whipped his foot away and stumbled back as the toy whirred back into its imitation of life. The thing’s small, steel legs kicked at the air as whatever pathetic energy it had preserved in the tiny coils of brass within it was released. One arm pumped weakly, the other palsied limb was embedded in the dirt. The milky eyes glowed and blinked. The miniscule cogs and gears fired, struggled,rattled and died in a few seconds and the toy lay still again. A shiver ran through Teller’s heart. He quickly climbed the bank and got back in the car.

The shiver carried through the memory and into the corporeal. He called out to Alexandrov and was woken by the sound of his own voice. His head was splitting and his skin felt like it was contracting, constricting and suffocating him. His vision was clouded by flashes of hot, white pain that accompanied each syllable he called out. Glibly, he cursed having to die on a Russian’s sofa . He laughed internally and his mind and stomach seemed to roll in opposite directions. He forced the name into the air again and mentally collapsed back onto the bed, his muscles slack. There was no reply. The was nobody out there, in the darkness. The faint sound of the siren roared, whisper quiet, like the plaintive cry of a trapped animal, the moan of a Black God. He watched the hallway through the open door. It glowed faintly with an eldritch, green glow. Traces of an ethereal, grim shadow crept like a cancer along the wall. Like smoke, it curled and billowed and took on a form. The silhouette of a shrouded figure. The shade appeared before that which cast it. An unnatural mercy. Teller was already closing his eyes as a withered finger began to curl around the doorframe.



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