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an apocalyptic horror novel
by Win Chester

Copyright © Win Chester 2020

Cover Artwork © Vladimir Grigoryev

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from the author, except by reviewers who may quote brief excerpts in connection with a review in a newspaper, magazine, or electronic publication; nor may any part of this book be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or other, without written permission from the author.





















































About the Author

Other books by this author



Ramses Campbell stood by the frost-bitten window and looked at a dark figure shambling in the unlit part of the alley. It walked like a dead man, which had just crawled out of the grave and was learning to walk again. It hit against a lady who was walking her dog. The woman flailed her arms. The figure fell down on the icy path. Ramses cringed looking at this scene. He could see now that the shambling figure was a man. The woman sawed the air with her hand, and Ramses was sure she was shouting at the man, but he could hear nothing through the soundproof window glass of his room in the Arkaim Hotel.

The woman walked away in a hurry, dragging her dog on a leash. The man lay on the ground for a while and then struggled to stand up. He leaned over and picked up something from the ground. He stepped into the cone of streetlight, and Ramses saw that it was a drunkard clutching a bottle. The man took a gulp, threw the bottle into a snowbank and walked away.

Ramses shook his head in disapproval. He was a tall African American with huge biceps bulging under his gray T-shirt. His long black hair, which fell on his shoulders, was in dreadlocks.

It began snowing.

“Damn snow,” Ramses said with sadness, watching the snowflakes slowly waltzing outside the window glass. Snow always makes Californians, which Ramses was, unhappy.

His view opened on a busy tree-lined street and a huge LED screen on the corner. It flashed advertisements for cell phones, lingerie, and movies and highlighted the latest news about Chelyabinsk City.

He heard the kettle whistling. He killed the fire under it and poured himself a large cup of coffee. Drinking coffee was the second thing he usually did in a foreign country to battle the jet lag. The first thing was to catch a good sleep right after arrival at the hotel. Which he had already done.

The third thing to do would be to soak a little in a foamy bathtub, and he would enjoy doing it right now, but there was a bang on the door.

Ramses glanced at his watch. 6:00 p.m.

Punctual as death, he thought.

“Open up, old dog,” a male voice said behind the closed door. “Time to rise and shine!”

Ramses took a sip of the hot brew, sauntered to the door and opened it. A fifty-something bespectacled man of medium height was standing there. Steve Clayton, his business partner, and best friend. His room was opposite Ramses’s across the hallway.

“Hey, Steve,” Ramses said. “I ain’t old yet. I’m twenty years younger than you.”

Steve smiled. “Ready for the party, you young big black fight fish?” he said. Steve was not a racist. It was just his way of showing affection — the more you got closer to him, the more he insulted you. Five years living in New York might have influenced him.

“Oh, just leave me alone, Steve,” Ramses said, stepping aside and letting Steve come in. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“What do you mean?” Steve said. “Are you nuts? Everyone’s waiting for us. We have to celebrate the launch of our martial arts seminars in Russia.”

Ramses slumped into a chair. Had another sip from his cup. “Coffee?”

“Er, no, thanks.”

“I know this is all important, Steve. But look at this, man,” Ramses said, pointing at the window. “The snow.”

Steve followed his glance and made a “Doc” Brown stunned look on his face.

“We’re in Russia, pal.” Steve smiled. “In the dead of fucking winter. What did you expect? Beach bunnies and surf dudes playing volleyball under the hot sun?”

“You grew up in Chicago,” Ramses said, sipping his coffee. “Then you moved to the Big Apple. You won’t get it.”

Steve came up to the window and looked at the falling snow.

“No harm in a little bit of snow and frost for your brown Californian ass,” he said. “Will put more energy into you. Next time you will complain you’re missing burritos? Come on! We’re in a hurry! Let’s not keep the tough Russian guys waiting.”

“Where does it say in the contract that we have to go somewhere and celebrate something?”

Steve looked at Ramses with pleading eyes.

“All right.” Ramses drank up the coffee and put the cup in the sink. “But keep in mind that I’m doing it for you.”

Steve smiled and patted Ramses on the shoulder. “Now we’re talking. Still, you’re such a prima donna!”

Ramses put on his coat and looked at the falling snow outside the window.

“Fucking snow, dude,” he said to himself.

They went out and loaded themselves into a taxi which took them to a local judo gym where they would have their seminar next morning.

The gym was situated in the city center. They had seen it already in the morning. It was well-equipped. It was obvious that the city authorities had invested good money in this kind of sports. Judo and taekwondo championships took place regularly in Chelyabinsk, and lots of kids wanted to be enlisted in judo training programs. The audience in the gym was going to be not only judo fighters. There were karate fighters, boxers and even bodybuilders in their list of members. Men and women.

Ramses and Steve were happy with their first world tour. It had been their second success since the time when Steven Seagal invited them to take part in one of his action movies, where they had to do rather difficult fight scenes. Once Ramses’s right knee was hurt badly, but still, he had to finish the scene, anyway. He did not tell anyone, because he was afraid they would remove him from the project, and he desperately needed that money.

They got out of the taxi and entered the judo sports center. A large poster in the foyer invited to the 2013 World Karate Championships in Budapest.

Next to it was their poster, which read, “Ramses Campbell & Steve Clayton: The Ultimate Martial Arts Seminars in Russia.”

The guard on reception in the foyer did not speak English, and he tried using gestures to explain to them that Vassili Koshkin, the local organizer of their seminars, had not come yet. Steve grumbled at the Russian unpunctuality and tried to call Vassili’s number but it was busy.

Then the guard looked at the poster, slapped himself on the forehead and took a piece of paper out of his desk drawer.

It was a note from Vassili. It said they could wait for him in the café across the street.

They went there and sat at the window. Ramses ordered a pizza and Coke. Steve went for a cup of coffee. The snow was still falling. Sudden blasts of wind made the snowflakes jump and dance.

“After Russia, we’ll go to the Ukraine,” Steve said, holding a cup of hot coffee. “The cash we’re gonna make there should be pretty handsome. And the chicks are hot stuff there, too. Then we’ll do Estonia, Romania, Lithuania. Maybe Poland as well. We’re gonna be a hit, bro.”

Steve called a waitress and asked for some pizza, too.

“You know, I don’t like Eastern Europe much,” said Ramses, chewing. “I agreed to come here because of the Red Square. That and the Kremlin are the only things I wanted to see here. When are we heading to Moscow?”

“All in due time, my friend,” Steve said. “In two weeks, probably. We’ll be lucky if we get on a talk show there. Promotion, buddy, promotion. It’s all about promotion. We gotta keep moving all the time. And we have lots of things to do here, starting tomorrow.”

A waitress brought Steve his order.

Ramses said, “Steve, I keep thinking about those times, when I was nothing.”

“Oh, don’t say that.”

“But I mean it. I was going down the drain when you showed up in my life.”

Steve furrowed his brow. “You sound like a faggot, you know that? Hey, it’s all your achievement, man. You just jumped off the hook in time. Drugs are a bad thing. By beating the bad things in your inner self, you become a better man.”

“Hmm, who said it? The Dalai Lama?”

Steve chuckled. “Nope — Steven Harper Clayton.”

“I never thanked you, Steve.”

“No, you didn’t, Ramsey,” Steve said, sinking his teeth in a nice piece of pizza.

“Well, thank you.”

“I appreciate it, Rams. You’re a different man now.”

There was a commotion outside. Ramses turned his head. The door of the café burst open, and half a dozen noisy and laughing men filed in.

“Vassili,” Steve said. “Finally.”

The group of men came up to their table.

“Hey, what are you doing here on Valentine’s Day like two faggots?” Vassili said. He was a tall and jovial man. His English words pronounced with the thick Russian accent rumbled in his mouth like stones in a barrel. “We looked for you all over the city.”

“I called you half an hour ago,” Steve said. “And you left a note.”

“I’m just joking, Steve!” Vassili laughed. “Come to join us at the club party. We’re going to the Diorama tonight. The club manager is my best friend. He will let us in for free.”

“Looks like half of the town are your best buddies,” Ramses said.

“Are there many girls over there?” Steve said.

“As many as you can handle,” Vassili said and winked.

Ramses and Steve laughed.

Vassili’s friends roared with laughter, too, after Vassili translated the joke into Russian for them.

“Well, that sounds like a plan,” Steve said, standing up. “Whaddya say, Prima Donna?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ramses said. “Why not?” He raised his hand, calling the waitress.


Outside, a Peugeot minivan was idling, waiting for the group. It took them to a modern blue-painted three-storied building. The huge letters on the sign screamed, “DIORAMA. Night Club. Restaurant. Bowling”.

At the club entrance, the guard saw Vassili and the other guys and flashed a welcoming smile and shook their hands. The whole gang entered the club without passing any face control. The club boasted two spacious dance halls. A DJ girl in a ponytail was busy behind her equipment, flooding every nook and cranny with music. Striptease dancers were polishing the silver-colored poles with their half-naked buttocks, caressing their nipples. A bald barman in a crimson-colored shirt and with stylish sunglasses on his head was shaking a cocktail over his shoulder. Tequila, wine, and vodka were pouring down the throats of numerous customers. Pretty waitresses wearing pink miniskirts and cute white hats with bunny ears were going back and forth carrying trays and serving the guests.

Steve looked around. “Not bad.”

They sat on a long couch in a lounge.

Vassili introduced the Americans to his Russian friends they met in the club.

A waitress came up to them with bottles of champagne. Everyone helped himself and poured the champagne into glasses.

“Here’s to Steve and Ramses,” Vassili said, raising the glass. “The best fighters across the Atlantic Ocean!”

Steve chuckled and raised his glass. “And to Vassili, the best sports manager in Russia!”

They downed their champagne.

“Okay, guys,” Vassili said. “Again — welcome to Russia!”

“I’m happy we’re working together,” Steve said.

Vassili looked over Steve’s shoulder and spotted a dancing girl he seemed to like. He combed his hair with the palm of his hand. “Now you must excuse me. Enjoy your time here.”

A song with Russian folk rhythms was playing, and Vassili approached the girl doing the Cossack dance routine.

“Have fun, Romeo!” Steve shouted to him.

Vassili jumped up and joined the dancing girl. He said something to her, and she laughed. Other athletes went to the dance floor, too.

Steve put down his glass on the tray and thanked the waitress.

“Now, Baryshnikov,” he said to Ramses. “How about you? You ready to demonstrate your kung-fu, Russian ballet-style?”

“Get out.” Ramses smiled and gave him a slight punch in the shoulder. “Yeah, man. Let’s have fun.”

“Cowabunga!” Steve said and rose to his feet.

They went to the bar, sat at the counter and ordered cocktails. They did not want to get drunk that night. They had to be in top form in the morning.

A beautiful woman in a long black evening dress sat on a bar stool near Steve. She was a thirtyish brunette with curly hair.

“Well, hi, gentlemen!” she said.

Ramses nodded. “Privet!”

“You speak English?” Steve asked her.

“Just so much I have managed to grab at school and college,” she said. “So, my English is not good enough.”

“It’s not bad either,” Steve said. “But I’ll down my level of eloquence. Still, it’s always pleasant to be able to speak in a foreign country in one’s native language. What’s your name?”

He looked into her blue eyes, which were like two huge wells full of clear water.

“Lena,” she said.

“Nice to meet you, Lena. I’m Steve. And this big chunk of flesh here is Ramses.”

Ramses rolled his eyes. Lena smiled.

Steve dived into the conversation as he always did well, and it was obvious the evening was looking promising for him.

Ramses looked at them, a sad smile playing on his lips. He was drinking his cocktail and thinking about how he had met his ex-wife at a party like this. He shook his head and tried to wipe the sad look off his face.

The DJ announced a white dance, and Lena asked Steve to dance.

“What’s a white dance?” Steve asked her.

“It’s when ladies ask the gentlemen to dance,” Lena said.

“Oh, how nice,” Steve said and got up. “Okay, let’s go Sadie Hawkins.”

While dancing, he whispered something funny into her ear. She seemed to get his jokes and threw back her head laughing.

After the dance, Lena went to the bathroom. Steve sat on a high stool next to Ramses.

“Sorry, pal,” Steve said, “but I think I’m gonna leave this party earlier.”

“Listen up, man,” Ramses leaned closer to his friend. “You positive she’s not a hooker or something?”

“Why are you saying so? Can’t you see she fancies me?”

“All right,” Ramses said. “Just keep your eyes peeled.”

Steve is like a young horse after his divorce, Ramses thought with a smile. He’s shooting everything he sees.

Lena came back.

Steve stood up. “Okay. See you at the hotel.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” Lena said to Ramses.

“Yeah, you too,” Ramses said. “Be seeing ya!”

Steve said goodbye to his Russian colleagues and led Lena out of the dance hall.

Ramses was sitting alone at the bar counter like a deceased pharaoh in a sealed vault. There were people around him, but he was feeling lonely. Maybe the famous Russian spleen was taking over him as well? He glanced at the dancing people. Vassili was already making a play for another girl.

Ramses turned to the barman. “Can I get a martini, please?”

“No problem,” said the barman in good English. He made the drink in no time and set it before Ramses.

“What’s your name?” Ramses asked.

“It’s Roman.”

“Roman, like in Polanski?”

“Yep. You like his movies?”

Ramses nodded. “He has a couple of decent ones, all right. I like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ most of all.”

“A good flick. You’re from the States?”

“Yah, straight from California.”

“Wow. California rocks! From L.A.?”

“Was born there,” Ramses said, “but living in San Francisco now. I’m on a business trip here.”

“Well, enjoy your stay.”

“Thanks.” Ramses drank up his martini. “Okay, Roman, how much do I owe you? And can you call a cab for me?”

“No sweat at all,” Roman said. He picked up the phone receiver, dialed a number, spoke a bit in Russian, nodded and hung up.

“It’s settled, sir,” the barman said. “You can hang around here for a while. I’ll let you know when the taxi driver calls me.”

“Thanks again, friend,” Ramses said. He took out his wallet and slid a couple of crisp banknotes across the bar counter. “That’s for the cocktails and the cab.”

As he thumbed the banknotes from the roll, the barman’s eyes glinted like those of Gollum’s for a fraction of a second.

Ramses added some more cash to the pile. “And this is for you.”

The barman took the money and put it in his shirt pocket. “Thanks, man.”

He poured more martini. “And this is from me. On the house.”

Ramses dried the glass and put it on the counter. “Think I’m gonna catch some fresh air outside. See ya.”

“Have a good night.”

As Ramses went outside, the barman wiped the bar counter with a piece of cloth as if it had been covered with filth. He looked around, picked up his cell phone and punched the buttons.

“There’s some stinking nigger ape with a lot of cash on him,” he said in Russian, plugging his ear with a finger to hear through the noise. “He’s outside now, smoking maybe. A big guy. With dreadlocks. You can’t miss him.” He nodded. “Only do it far from this place.”


Ramses was outside. The snow was still falling. It was cold, and he made a mental note to buy a warm ski cap tomorrow.

People stood chatting on the barely lit sidewalk. Teenagers walked by, pointing at him and sneering. It was well after midnight.

Don’t they have a curfew time for kids?

He put on his leather gloves and took a stroll along the sidewalk, not straying too far and keeping the nightclub entrance in sight in case the taxi arrived.

He took his wallet out of his parka pocket and flipped it open. He looked at the photo of his baby daughter Cherrylyn. Cherry Berry, as he liked to call her. In the photo, she was sitting on top of the playground slide. He ran his index finger over her little smiling face.

Snowflakes slowly descended on the see-through plastic cover of the wallet. A gust of cold wind blew them away.

Ramses looked up. No passersby. No taxi yet. He was alone on the sidewalk now.

He turned around and bumped into a dark hunch-back figure, which had come up from behind quietly, ninja style. His heart leaped in his ribcage, as he saw a woman of uncertain age in a battered, dirty coat. She was homeless apparently. She stooped in walking, but she was not old.

“Jeez, lady.”

The woman said nothing and kept on walking. Ramses took a deep breath and exhaled a cloud of steam into the cold air.

A black BMW parked to a halt at the road curb. Three men got out of the car and started walking up toward him in tight formation. Having a certain purpose in mind.

Three long shadows approached Ramses. There was a tall athletic guy with a bottle of beer in his hand, a tough-looking man in his forties and a young short man wearing a sports cap.

Ramses returned the wallet back into the inside pocket of his parka.

The men came up.

The big man sipped at the bottle and said something in Russian to Ramses.

“Sorry, guys, but I don’t smoke,” Ramses said, having no idea of what the man was saying, but hoping he just wanted to bum cigarettes from him.

“And I don’t speak Russian,” he added.

The man in the sports cap took a gun out of his pocket and pulled it on him.

“Whoa, whoa, buddy!” Ramses said, holding up his hand, fingers spread. “What’s that for?”

The Sports Cap didn’t reply.

Ramses squinted at the weapon. It was a Makarov pistol. It could be the authentic heater or a replica. Could be a rubber-bullet handgun, as well. There are far fewer firearms in Russia than in the US. If Ramses were in San Francisco, Chicago or Detroit now, the authenticity of this baby wouldn’t be in question.

But he couldn’t take his chances now. One cannot be too careful.

“Money,” the big man said with a thick Russian accent. One of the few English words the guy probably knew. “Bistro.”

“Okay now,” Ramses said and raised his other hand. “You settle down, all right? Are you offering me your money? Well, you don’t owe me anything.”

The trio looked at him dumbly.

The young thug frowned. He looked at his comrades. He had probably never heard so many English words in a row before in his whole life.

The gun clicked. The safety was off.

“Give money.” Their elder companion seemed to be better educated and had a better command of English.

His surly face was covered with deep lines. There was a scar on his cheek. This one was definitely a former zek, a convict.

The zek drew out a big knife. Its blade glittered in the dim street lamp light.

“Give money, nigger,” the zek repeated.

“C’mon, guys. It’s late,” Ramses said. “I’m gonna cruise.” He turned his back toward them to walk away.

“Stop, bitch!” The Sports Cap shot in the air.

Ramses turned swiftly back to the hoodlums. His dreadlocks swooshed through the air. He hit the nearest of them, the zek, in the lower jaw.

The man cried out and coughed. He pressed his hand to the injured jaw and let loose of the knife. It vanished in a snowbank.

The Sports Cap fired his gun. Ramses ducked. The bullet zinged past.

He sent his fist in the man’s groin. The Sports Cap bent over. A dark stain spread across the front of his jeans. Ramses drove his knee into his attacker’s stomach. The man fell down and dropped the handgun.

The big guy went for the pistol. Ramses acted like a lightning. He gave a punch to the thug’s nose. Blood sprayed the snow. The big Russian guy groaned.

In a second Ramses grabbed the thug’s hand, which held the bottle. He used it as a weapon against the man and gave him a quick hit on his forehead. Then one more hit in the temple.

The bottle cracked with a wet sound. Ramses smelled the beer immediately. The thug collapsed like a cut tree.

The other two scumbags saw their comrade lying on the sidewalk and ran to their car. They jumped into it. The car screeched its tires and drove away.

Ramses wiped the sweat off his forehead. He was panting. He pulled off his gloves, bent down to the lying thug and felt his neck for a pulse. Nothing. He tried the wrist. No pulse either.

“Fuck!” he said.

A halo of blood was spreading around the hulk’s head. The snow absorbed it like a sponge.

The night sky got cleared, and the moon pierced through the clouds. He heard the wailing of police car sirens in the distance. He remained standing there on the sidewalk, waiting for the police car to arrive. He took out his cell phone and dialed Steve’s number. The line was busy.

“Damn! Unbelievable!”

He looked around, seeking for help.

A young couple went out of the nightclub, but when they saw what had just happened, they hastened to walk away. No one wanted to spend their weekend in a police station office as a witness or to be pulled out of their jobs, later on, to act as a witness in court.

The blaring sirens were close now. The police car turned around the corner with flashing lights. Four cops jumped out of the car onto the crunchy snow, handguns at ready.

They shouted at him in Russian. He did not understand exactly what they were saying, but he was a good guesser. He stepped away from the dead body and put his hands up in the air.

It stopped snowing.


The journey to the police station took about fifteen minutes. It was a noisy environment. People walked to and fro, shouting and slamming doors.

A bald policeman with a bushy walrus mustache emptied Ramses’s pockets. They took off his shoelaces and jeans belt. Then they made him go through mug shots and took his fingerprints. No one spoke English here, and his driver’s license was the only piece of information they could use.

The Walrus filled in his police charge sheet, put it before Ramses and offered him a pen.

Ramses pushed the document aside. “Dude, I ain’t signing anything until I get it translated for me, all right? Into English.”

The Walrus lifted his hands in dismay.

Ramses spent the night in a “monkey house”, as they called holding cells in Russia. It smelled of stale urine, puke, and disinfectant. Half a dozen prisoners sat with him on a long wide bunk. Boozers, thieves, abusive husbands.

At the crack of dawn, the door opened, and the Walrus pointed at him and gestured to step out. He clamped his wrists with handcuffs.

The cell door closed with a bang. Ramses winced. “Oh, what a dump!”

He turned and saw a young blond woman in the corridor. A strict suit. Modest make-up. An impenetrable face.

“My name is Ksenia Romanova,” the woman said in English in a cold voice. “I’m going to act as your interpreter.”

“Morning to you, missy,” Ramses said, offering his hand. “God, I’m thrilled to have someone speaking English here. You’re a godsend.”

She ignored his extended hand and started walking. The men followed her. They threaded their way through the five-storied building into the interview room. It was spartan. A table. Three chairs. A lamp over the table. No windows.

An old man in uniform was reading documents at the table.

The interpreter said, “This is Alexander Petrovich Romanov, the police chief of this police station. He will also be the investigator of your case.”

Ramses nodded and sat at the opposite end of the table. He looked at the old man and leaned back in his chair. “Hey, wait a minute. His last name is Romanov, too? So it’s your dad who’s running this funny farm here, ain’t he?”

Ksenia Romanova frowned and turned to her father to interpret the American’s words. The man frowned, too. Even the way they frowned was the same. Father and daughter, no doubt.

“Okay, I got it.” Ramses sat upright. The handcuffs clattered against the table surface. “I’m in no position to open my mouth here. I’ll keep silence, no worries.”

“That would be better,” the Russian woman said with no trace of emotion. She opened her notepad and uncapped her pen.

They asked him all kinds of questions about his name, occupation, relatives, place of residence.

“Did you kill that young man?” the police chief said.

“That heavy mob tried to rob me,” Ramses said. “There were three of ‘em. Armed. That was self-defense on my part. This is my first visit to this country, and it’s been a frosty reception, I gotta admit.”

“The man you killed was a minor. He was under eighteen years.”

Ramses glanced at the interpreter. “Well, a minor on steroids, then. The guy was bigger than a bear. Anyway, they didn’t show me their IDs. Introduced me to their gun instead.”

“We called the hospital. He died this morning.”

“Oh, shit.” Ramses looked at his big hands, which had gotten him in trouble so many times.

“We have already notified your consulate. We’re expecting a US consulate official to arrive soon.”

They kept asking him loaded questions to verify his statement against the information they had received from the US consulate. Then he was led to a solitary confinement cell.

Monkish solitude is all I need now, he thought.

They brought him cabbage soup with bread. He ate it all up.

In a couple hours, he was in the police chief’s office. On the wall, there was a big clock with President Vladimir Putin’s portrait. Ksenia Romanova was ready with her notepad and pen like a straight-A student.

A fortyish man in a suit was sitting beside her. His hair was parted at one side. He folded his hands on his chest and spoke with the American accent, “Are they treating you here well, Mr. Campbell?”

“Can’t complain. Thank you, sir.”

“My name’s Peter Rambler. I’m a US consulate official. Hope you realize that your current situation here is a grave one.”

Ramses gave a nod. “Yes, sir.”

“Let me tell you,” Rambler went on, “that American citizens abroad cannot invoke the U.S. Constitution to defend a criminal prosecution brought by a foreign government.”

“I can see that, sir.”

“But, according to an international treaty, an American individual detained abroad has the right to consular notification and representation.” Rambler paused. “That’s why I am here.”

Rambler put on his glasses and opened his files. He was looking like Clark Kent now. “You’ve committed a murder. On the crime scene, they found a knife with another person’s fingerprints. The Russian police are looking for him. There’s also a gun, but the snow erased all fingerprints. And they found the bottle with the young man’s fingerprints. You claim it was out of defense. But they have no witnesses.”

Ramses looked at the Romanovs. Ksenia was whispering interpretation of the consul’s words for her father.

“How come no witnesses?!” Ramses said with a booming voice that made Rambler sit up. “Did you check the CCTV cameras outside that club?”

“Really sorry,” Rambler said, “but the report says there were no witnesses. And the club hasn’t installed video cameras outside the property.”

“That’s unbelievable!” Ramses said. Then he remembered suddenly. “Ask Roman, the barman. He saw me that night.”

“He saw you leaving. Who saw what you were doing outside?”

The clock on the wall was ticking away the time. The Russians kept silence observing all this like a theatrical play. Birds sang in the trees outside, leaping from branch to branch.

Ramses sighed. “What’s the term of imprisonment gonna be?”

Ksenia Romanova translated the question and gave her father’s reply, “According to the Russian law, between three and five years. But everything will depend on the court adjudication.”

“What can you do for me in my situation?” Ramses asked Rambler.

“We’ll try to arrange for legal representation and find you a good lawyer. And we’ll keep looking for your assailants. But don’t worry. They have separate prison blocks for foreigners.”

Ramses slumped back in his chair. “Some consolation.”

Rambler turned to the Russians. “Please see to it that Mr. Campbell is contained in a single cell. We have to keep him away from more trouble.”

After a moment of thought, Ramses asked, “Can my relatives or ex-wife bail me out? Can’t they send me back to the States? My friend Steven Clayton is in this city right now. He could contact them.”

“I’m afraid, you can’t leave this country,” Rambler said. “You’re subject now to its laws.” He looked into his files. “Especially after you’ve served a similar prison sentence in the US. Sorry, but you’ll have to serve your sentence in a prison facility within this country.”

Ramses slammed his fist on the desk. “Damn!”

Rambler rose from his seat and started collecting his papers. “We’ll do what we can possibly do, Ramses. In the worst-case scenario, I’m not afraid for you. I watched a couple of your fights on HBO. They were great. In other circumstances, I’d ask for your autograph.”

“Yeah, man, thanks,” Ramses said. “For nothing.”

The light in the office became very bright.

Ramses looked at the lamps above, wondering what was wrong with the illumination. The lights were off. It was a sunny morning, and it was bright enough to do without switching the lights on.

The light was getting brighter. The Russians followed his glance and froze with surprise. Rambler looked up too. The blinding bright light reflected in the American consul’s spectacles and flooded the room. It was too dazzling to look at. Shadows moved around the room rapidly.

“The hell is that?” Ramses said.

A huge fireball streaked across the sky at a fast speed. Making no sound. The glowing orb was of irregular shape, and its contours were constantly shifting. It was brighter than the sun.

Rambler dropped his files on the desk and came up to the window.

All of them turned their heads toward the window.

In a few seconds, the monstrous fireball flew away at breakneck speed. It was gone as if it was just a trick of a magician.

In a moment the light became normal again.

“Un-fucking-believable!” Ramses said as the weird phenomenon vanished. He was seeing rainbows floating before his eyes. He blinked to adjust his eyesight.

“Oh, my God! What was that?” Ksenia Romanova said. It was the first time Ramses saw her showing any sign of emotion.

“A falling plane, maybe,” Rambler suggested. He looked concerned. Even anxious.

The Walrus looked in. He confirmed that everything was all right and closed the door. He probably had not seen a thing.

Ramses heard noise from the corridor. Someone was running. Heavy boots were shaking the building.

“Never seen anything like that,” Rambler said. “Hope it’s nothing serious. You guys better call the emergency and check if everything’s okay.”

Ksenia Romanova interpreted Rambler’s words for the police chief. He nodded and took out his cell phone. He pressed the cell to his ear, looking through the window. Then he clicked it shut.

He shook his head. No connection.

A deafening explosion broke out in the sky. The windows rattled in their frames. The birds soared up from the tree branches and flew away in panic.

The curtain blew in. Slivers of glass splashed over Rambler.

The police chief dropped his cell phone and swore in Russian. But he was not hurt.

“Shit!” Ramses ducked under the desk. Years of living in California taught him how to react during an earthquake to save his ass.

There came more explosions, three or four in a row. It looked like the city was being attacked by missiles. His ears were ringing. He felt the smell of sulfur in the air. Somewhere in the distance, car alarms started whining.

Rambler was screaming.

Ramses glanced at the windows. Some were shattered. Other window frames had withstood the shock wave but buckled.

Rambler pressed his hands to his cheek, which was cut by the flying glass. Blood dripped through his fingers on the floor littered with wooden splinters and broken glass.

The police chief sprang to his feet, rushed into the corridor and called out something in Russian. A medical officer came in.

Rambler took a handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it to his cheek. He backed away from the windows as far as he could. He tried his cell phone. No signal.

“There’s no cell service.” He turned to Ksenia Romanova. “How about trying the landline?”

The girl came up to the desk and picked up the receiver. “Nothing. It’s dead.”

“Shouldn’t we leave the building?” Rambler said.

“No,” the police chief said through the interpreter. “There could be a gas attack. It’ll be safer if we stay here.”

Ramses came up to the window. “Hey! Look at that!”

Their eyes glued to the window. The fireball had left behind a long white-and-yellow smoky trail. It was stretching across the sky.

Cars stopped on the curb. People got out of the cars and looked up at the sky in wonder. Everyone was pointing up at the double trail of smoke. Passersby yanked out their cell phones and started shooting videos and snapping pictures.

The police officers came out of the police station and joined them.

“Them dumb-ass aliens are trying to invade Russia,” Ramses said.

Ksenia Romanova looked at him ruefully.

The police chief opened the door and asked the duty officers to come in. They handcuffed Ramses.

“Where am I going now?” Ramses looked at Rambler.

“To a solitary confinement cell,” Rambler said and flinched in pain as the medic was treating his wound. “Until we receive further evidence, I can’t do anything for you. We’ll be in touch.”

The police officers convoyed him out of the office. The corridor was a mess. There were glass shards everywhere. One vent window had been completely knocked out off its frame. An overturned flower pot had scattered flowers, leaves and earth all over the floor.

In his cell, the Russian cops removed the handcuffs. The massive door banged shut behind him. The key turned four times in the lock.

Ramses turned around and looked at his cage. Heavy metallic door. A worn bunk on the dull gray cement floor. A john in the corner. Dark green walls. A tiny barred window under the high ceiling. There was a crack on the glass. Apparently, after the strange explosions. He could see the large trail of smoke coming across the patch of sky.

The morning sun shone brightly.

He sat on the bunk, clutched his forehead and closed his eyes.

“Welcome to Mother Russia,” he said to the empty cell.


In an hour, the phone connection had been restored and they had given Ramses permission for a brief conversation with Steve.

Their talk was being recorded.

“Hey, Steve!” Ramses said. “It’s Ramses.”

“What’s up, mi amigo? Still trying to hook up a Russian matryoshka doll in the Diorama?”

“I been busted, man.”

“Don’t worry about that seminar,” Steve went on chattering, paying no attention to Ramses’s words. “It was canceled. But, man, was I mad at you when you didn’t show up! That meteor strike was a perfect excuse for you, young man. Did you see it? It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!”

So, it was a meteorite fall, after all, Ramses thought.

Steve fell abruptly silent. After a short pause, he said, “You’ve been what?!”

“The police collared me and sent to jail.” Ramses looked at Ksenia Romanova, who was absorbing and analyzing his every word. “Some crackpots jumped me on the street outside the club yesterday. So I cracked the pot of one of ‘em.”

“Damn, Ramsey! Did the guy die?”

Ramses sighed and transferred the receiver to another hand. “Yes. I talked to a US consulate official this morning, and he said I’m gonna spend up to five years in prison.”

It was Steve’s turn to sigh now. He was speechless. He asked Ramses to give him the address and told him he would be in the police station first thing next morning.

“I’m in the police station on … hold on a sec … Prospekt Pobedy. But you better hurry, man. They’re gonna pack me off to another place tomorrow.”

His five minutes were up, and the Walrus took the phone from him. Steve’s voice was still booming in the speaker.

They led him in handcuffs back to his cell. It was not a Swedish-style prison. There was no TV there. No library. Only a tiny space, which measured barely two strides from wall to wall, and a stinking john in the corner.

There was enough room for push-ups, though. It was his only entertainment.

It got dark outside. The lights in his cell were switched off, too. He lay on the bunk and clasped his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes and fell asleep right away. In his dream, he saw his little daughter Cherrylyn. They were on Venice Beach flying a kite in the image of SpongeBob. They were laughing. His wife was sitting on a blanket under a parasol not far away from them. Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. A burning meteor reflected in them.

The sudden clang of the door tore him out of his dream. His eyes flew open. Saturday morning. The narrow slit in the middle of the door opened. An aluminum plate was put through it.

Zavtrak,” the guard said.

Breakfast time, Ramses assumed. He took the cold plate, a spoon and two pieces of gray bread. The slit slammed shut.

He ate the soup in one go and put the empty plate on the floor.

He came in his thoughts back to his daughter. After the divorce, he was allowed to see her only on weekends. And it was always painful to wait for the whole week. Now he would not see her for five years. Cherrylyn would have turned eleven by the end of his prison sentence.

He clenched his fist and hit the wall in powerless rage.

A beam of sunlight penetrated through the window under the ceiling and touched his face.

Nobody came knocking on the door, demanding the plate and spoon in an angry voice.

He started doing push-ups, as he heard muffled shouts in the corridor. Multiple boots tramped on the floor. A scream.

He pressed his ear to the door. He could only hear noise and was not able to decipher any sounds distinctly. The door was thick, and he had the feeling of being underwater.

“Hey! What’s happening out there? Are we on fire?”

There was no reply. But on some intuitive level, he understood that something was wrong. He knew everything about fires. He used to be a firefighter. He had been on the job for three years. But right now he could not detect the smell of fire. So there was no immediate danger.

He heard a gun report. Somewhere outside. Then a series of gunshots. A loud male voice amplified by the megaphone spoke up in a threatening tone. Then there was an explosion.

He looked at the bunk. It was bolted to the floor, and there was no way he could move it to the wall and climb on it to look through the window.

He picked up the plate and started banging it against the door. “Hey, anybody! Let me outta here!”

He heard an explosion and right after that the rattle of submachine guns under his window.

“You guys got another revolution there or what?” He started shouting louder. He tried to not let the panic creep up on him. But all his survival instincts were alert now.

He realized that shouting and making noises was useless because nobody heard him. He threw the plate on the floor.

An hour later, maybe more, the gunshots stopped. It was quiet again. Yet, not as before. He could hear a strange humming noise as if an electric generator kicked in nearby.

He sat on the edge of the bunk and thought of his next move. He went up to the door from time to time and kicked it. He did not know what else to do.

Hours passed. He tried to sleep, but then he woke up because of the weird humming sound. They were not so loud, but their monotone was maddening.

It got dark outside the window. He heard sobbing coming from the corridor. Soon it was gone. Three gunshots tore the silence. Somewhere near, in the corridor. He sat up on the bunk. The door slit slid open, and he startled. A needle of instant fear pierced his body.

Through the open slit, a flashlight beam struck him in the face. He shielded his eyes with the palm of his hand.

“Don’t move a muscle, or I’ll fucking shoot you!” a female voice said with good North American pronunciation.

The Russian chick, Ramses thought immediately.

He got up from the bunk. “Damn, Ksenia! What up?”

A gun blasted and the toilet in the corner exploded. Stench crept into his nostrils.

“I said, ‘Don’t fucking move!’” Ksenia said.

Ramses put his hands up. “Whoa, easy now! Maybe you can explain what the hell is going on here?”

“Shut up and listen to me. And don’t move if you want to live.”

Ramses sat on the bunk and put his hands on his lap. “Just stop acting so crazy. And take that light off my face.”

Ksenia lowered the flashlight and trained the beam on his hands. She sighed and said, “There’s been an attack on the police station. Many people are killed. My father’s killed …”

Ramses opened his mouth to say something but then closed it.

“I don’t know what is happening myself,” Ksenia went on. “Wish I knew. The building is surrounded by a group of psychopaths. They kill everyone they see.”

“Get the keys and let me out.”

“I got the keys,” Ksenia said. “I’m going to free you, and you’ll help me escape from this building safely.”

“Yee. It’s a deal.”

“But I’m warning you again — I got a gun, and it’s loaded, and I know how to use it.”

He nodded and his dreadlocks fell over his eyes. He didn’t risk brushing them away. His eyes were fixed on the cement floor. The dark fetid water from the smashed john was approaching his feet.

“All right,” he said. “No wrong moves on my part. Just get me out of this shithole.”

“Keep sitting still.”

The light disappeared, and he was submerged into darkness again. He heard the metallic rattle in the keyhole and the heavy door opened. The moaning noises could be heard more distinctly now. It was dark in the corridor, too. Ksenia had switched off the torch. The faint moonlight penetrating through a barred window and shining on the corridor linoleum was the only source of light.

Ksenia’s hair was disheveled, and there was a crazy shine in her eyes. She was wearing blue jeans, a white heavy pullover and a pair of black boots.

She made a step back into the corridor and motioned with the gun. “Come out.”

He stepped out of the cell. “What’s with the lights? Was there a power outage?”

“Sh-h,” Ksenia whispered. “Speak quietly. I turned off all the lights on this floor. We don’t need their attention.”

“Whose attention? You were firing that gun a minute ago. What ya talking about? And what’s that awful noise?”

“It was worse in the afternoon. There were more of them in the morning. They overflowed the streets.”

Sweet Jesus on a bike, Ramses thought. I’m talking to a lunatic.

“Take a look through the window,” Ksenia said, “and see for yourself.”

Ramses glanced at her in disbelief.

“Be sure no one sees you,” Ksenia said. The threatening tone disappeared in her voice. She sounded a little frightened now.

He walked to the frost-bitten window and looked down on the street. It was dimly lit by the moonlight. He could see dozens of people walking on the sidewalk and right in the middle of the thoroughfare. There were no moving cars, though. The dark figures were slowly shambling. The monotonous moaning was filling the air. It seemed as if the gates of the hell had been opened and all of its dreadful dwellers had crept out. He could not distinguish their faces but he could see there were young men and women and senior people among them.

“Oh. My. God,” he said. He turned and looked at Ksenia.

“When these crazy people appeared on the streets, my first thought was that it was some kind of flash mob, a joke, you know, or a political demonstration.” Ksenia chuckled. “Then they started attacking other people. With their bare hands. No guns. Just bare hands and teeth.”


“Yes. They bite people. My dad’s car drove into the parking lot. They got my father and literally ripped him apart.” She started sobbing.

“My God,” Ramses said and looked out the window again. Some people were wearing warm clothes, others only light office clothes. He strained his eyes. He was sure he was seeing a child clad in pajamas. He came to think he was going crazy. Or maybe he was still asleep?

“They killed my dad,” Ksenia continued. “And this bastard, his driver, left him there. And he himself escaped. Coward.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. “I’ve been hiding in my father’s office all day. When I came out, I shot a man because he tried to attack me, too.”

Ramses was speechless. Words didn’t come easily to him. He heard a gunshot from outside and backed away from the window. A car alarm started whining.

“All right, girl.” He tried to focus. “I gotta get a better handle on the situation here. What level are we on?”

Ksenia wiped her tears off. “On the fourth floor.”

“Good. What’s with the first floor? Can those weirdoes get up here?”

“Some of them are on the first floor. But I managed to lock the door leading to the staircase.”

Ramses tried to think straight. “Okay. Are there more guns in this place?”

“Sure, in the armory. It’s a police station.”

“Where’s the armory? D’you know that?”

“Sure,” she said. “You can say I’ve almost grown up here. The armory is on the second floor. But it’s locked.”

“Too bad,” Ramses said. “But let’s check it, anyway. You got any other weapons?”

“No.” She lowered the gun. “This is all I got.”

He nodded. “Still, it is something.”

“Look,” Ksenia said. “I don’t want to hurt you, but if you pull a stunt on me I will.”

“Lady, I got it already,” Ramses said. “I got other business to do except being dead.” He looked down at his shoes with no shoelaces. “Okay. One thing at a time. I need a faster pair of footwear.”

Ksenia clicked the torch on and shone it on the floor.

“Let’s go,” she said.

They went along the corridor. At the end of it, she stopped. “Wait. There’s a man on the staircase. I shot at him as he assaulted me.”

She handed him the gun. “You go first. Please. I’m scared.”

Ramses took the gun. “We’re gonna be fine. Is the safety on?”


“How many bullets are left?”

“It’s an MP-443 Grach pistol,” Ksenia said. “18 rounds in a magazine. I’ve spent four.”

“Aw, that’s coo,” he said, shifting the weapon into ready-to-fire position. “Okay, follow me. Light me through the staircase.”

They went down the steps. Ramses’s tall figure cast a long shadow, which looked like the silhouette of the alien hunter in the movie “Predator”. Walking in the shoes, which lacked shoelaces, was not comfortable, and he chose his step carefully so he did not stumble or fall.

They walked down two flights of stairs and saw the body. It was the bald police officer with the walrus mustache. He was lying face down on the stair landing, a pool of blood accumulating around his head like cherry liquor.

Ksenia gasped and pressed her hand to her mouth.

Ramses touched the dead man’s shoulder with the gun muzzle. “You knew him?”

“He was my dad’s friend,” Ksenia whispered.

“Sorry to hear that.” Ramses knelt down and searched the man’s pockets. He found a cell phone and a set of keys. He put both items in his pocket. Then he kicked off his shoes and started taking off the dead man’s leather boots to put them on. Ksenia looked away.

They went on. The third floor was under renovation. The dirty corridor was full of stacks of old heating radiators and bags of cement.

They passed the second floor. Their steps echoed in the stairwell. The security door cage, leading to the corridor on the first floor, was locked with a padlock.

The torch flickered in Ksenia’s hand. She shook it and it began shining normally. As she shone on the door again, they saw a female staring at them, her slimy manicured hands gripping the bars. She was wearing the dark blue police uniform. The red bubbly liquid was drooling from her mouth on her black tie and white shirt.

“Be careful,” Ksenia said.

Ramses approached the woman and stood within a safe distance. Her face was pale, and her eyes were bloodshot. The woman snarled and hissed and tried to reach him through the bars.

“Can you talk to her?” Ramses said to Ksenia. “I mean I don’t speak any Russian.”

“You might as well speak English with her,” Ksenia said. “Or Greek. Or Albanian. Or whatever. It’s all the same. They don’t respond. They’re like lifeless dolls.”

Ramses stepped forward to take a closer look. “What’s up with her?” He backed away as the woman attempted to snatch his face with her hands. “What’s your guess?”

“Maybe yesterday it wasn’t really a meteorite. I think it was some kind of nerve gas.”

“You think it was terrorists?”

“Kind of. And the chemical stuff made people insane and affected their speech.”

Ramses turned to Ksenia. “Why ain’t we gone crazy?”

Ksenia shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe we will. Sooner or later.”

Ramses shuddered at the thought.

“You got the keys to this door?” he said.

Ksenia patted her jeans pocket. “Right here.”

“Good.” He nodded. “Hold on to them.”

The woman opened her mouth and exhaled a loud groan which shot a surge of fear through his spine. They heard shuffling noises. A fat man in a police uniform shambled from around the corner and stood behind the woman. He snarled at Ramses and Ksenia, his white parchment lips parting in a ghastly grimace. His neck was torn open, and the blood mixed with gray matter oozed from the wound. He shoved the female aside and protruded his hands through the bars.

The monster versions of the police officers growled at them and started shaking the bars. What troubled Ramses was that if they had kept smashing the door, it wouldn’t have taken them long to rip it off the hinges. They pushed the door, spasms of fury shaking their bodies, but it did not budge. The door held.

Ramses stared at them blankly. He didn’t know those people, but he realized they had been persons just a couple of hours ago, persons who had families, kids, friends. His feelings were mixed. He was scared of them, and he wanted to kill them all, just to put them out of their misery. He looked at Ksenia. She was blinking, forcing her tears back.

“C’mon,” Ramses said. “We gotta get out.”

The noise was getting unbearable. One more policeman walked up, wearing a winter coat and a hat. The closed door stopped him. He grabbed a bar with his left hand and looked at them savagely with his red eyes. His right arm was missing.

Ksenia pointed at him and shouted, “That’s him, the bastard!”

Ramses looked at Ksenia. “Why are you shouting? Don’t we have to be quiet?”

“He left my father to die out there. Kill him!”

“You must be kidding, yeah?” Ramses frowned. “I’m being convicted of murder and going to spend five years in some shitty prison in Siberia. You want me to become a cop killer now?”

“Can’t you see they’re not humans anymore?” Ksenia said. She was on the verge of crying and her eyes were full of rage. “At least they’re not acting like human beings to me. They’re like rabid animals. They attack what they see and use their teeth and nails.”

Ramses said and gripped his gun firmly. “Girl, you’re nuts. Totally. I can see you’ve been through a lot today but I just don’t buy this shit. Man, it’s crazy!”

“I knew we couldn’t go through this door. I just wanted you to see what we’re dealing here with. You didn’t see the half of what was going on here.”

She pulled a handgun from under her sweater and aimed it at the one-armed man.

Ramses hastened to step away. “Jeez, missy! You told me you had only one heater!”

Ksenia did not listen to him. She concentrated her gaze on the police car driver, who had left her father outside to be killed at the hands of dozens of brutal creatures with reddened eyes and hungry mouths.

“God forgive me.” She pressed the trigger.

The bullet hit the man in the chest but he did not even wince. The loud bang nearly made them deaf in this closed area.

Ramses looked at her gun. “Are you sure it’s not a training pistol?”

“The gun’s real. It belonged to my dad. You just have to aim at the head.”

Ramses cast an inquiring look at her. “Are we in a fucking weird lesson?”

Ksenia put the torch carefully on the floor. She gripped the gun with both hands, pointed it at the driver and squeezed the trigger again.

The bullet made its way through the man’s forehead, chunks of flesh and bones flying out from behind his skull. The echo of the gun report was deafening. The man collapsed on the floor. His ex-coworkers stumbled over the lying corpse. They got up and started shaking the door more violently.

Ksenia squinted and killed the fat man with one single shot in the head. Then she directed the gun at the female and fired. The contents of her skull were scattered around.

It was quiet for a second.

Then a crowd of psychos came shambling. A dozen hands clawed at them through the bars. The rusty door began to creak ominously under their weight.

She sent another bullet into the mob without taking aim. It hit the bars and twanged away in a ricochet. She tried to send another round, but the gun was giving only dry clicks. The magazine was empty.

Tears smeared Ksenia’s mascara.

“Don’t call me missy,” she said. Her cheekbones flushed red.


Ksenia thumbed the release and ejected the empty clip into her hand. She put it in her pocket, took out a fresh clip and sent it home into the handle. She wedged her gun under her belt and stamped her feet upstairs.

Ramses looked through the bars and saw more monsters coming up to the closed door. He picked up the torch and ran after Ksenia. She stopped on the second floor and wiped her tears with the sleeve of her sweater.

“We have to leave this place,” she said. “The sooner, the better. The door won’t hold forever.”

“What are you up to?”

“We’ll break into the armory and arm ourselves.”

Ramses looked at Ksenia quizzically. “Sounds like a plan but please remind me next time to ask you who taught you to shoot and where you learned your good English.”

“Okay. Follow me.” She stepped into the dark corridor. The faint growling of the crazies was reaching them from the first floor. Ramses lit their way.

“Say,” he said. “Why didn’t those cops shoot back? They didn’t shoot back. Can you believe this? They all have a gun holster on their hips but none of ‘em were shooting at us.”

“They are robots,” Ksenia said, “not humans. Now you know what to do to survive.”

She halted in front of a heavy metallic door. She turned the handle, but the door was locked. She hit the door with her palm. “We have to find a way to get inside! We need those weapons!”

Ramses shook his head. “You’re looking really on edge.”

He searched in his pocket and fished out the keys he had found on the dead policeman. He put them into the torchlight. There was the Opel logo on the key fob. Car keys. No use for them at the moment. They had to escape from this place first before searching for that Opel in the parking lot. He put the keys away.

“Are you trained to pick locks by any chance?” he asked. “‘Cause I’m no expert here.”

“Unfortunately, no. The keys to the armory were on the first floor with the duty officer. Before this chaos began, that is.”

“We’re gonna have to use physical force, then.” He took a closer look at the three door hinges. “I’m thinking to try breaching it at the hinges.”

He touched the hinges, which were luckily not hidden from the outside. Easier to break. The latch side was strong, but he decided to break it too.

They went to the third floor, which was packed with various construction tools because of all renovations going on. They did not turn the lights in the corridor on and used the flashlight. Ramses picked a sledgehammer and a crowbar off the floor.

“Look around for some power-driven tools,” he said. “Like a drill or something.”

They rummaged through the tools, dispersing the darkness with the torchlight. Trickles of moonlight flowed through the windows and helped them see better in the dark. They found smaller hammers, cement spatulas and paint cans. Ksenia spotted a bulky plastic case under a stepladder and brought it to Ramses.

“That’s nice,” he said, opening the case and looking approvingly at the perforator. “Better than a drill.” He scanned around. “But we need the drill bit.”

“What’s that?”

“The drill bit?” He scratched the back of his head. “The thing, that’s attached to the business end of the perforator.” He looked at her tired face. “You know, to perform the drilling?”

“Ah.” She nodded weakly. “I got it — sverlo.”

Ramses felt a relief. “Yeah, whatever. Get a drill bit. Look around the place where you found this case.”

All the tools left by the construction workers were in disarray. There was an extension cord on a windowsill which Ramses added to his pile of items. Ksenia was lucky to locate the drill bits. She took an ax, too. They grabbed all the stuff and went back to the armory. There was a power source in the corridor, but the extension cord was not long enough to reach the armory door, and Ksenia had to go on a search for an extra cord. She came back with the cord and Ramses connected the two cords together. Then he plugged one of them into the power socket.

“Okee-dokee.” He revved the perforator, and it started buzzing loudly. “All systems are go, Houston.”

Ksenia gave him a tired smile.

“You drill near the latch,” he said handing her the tool. “Once you start, the plaster will crumble like a cookie. I’ll go at the hinges.”

He took the sledgehammer and hit it against the upper hinge. A loud buzz instantly filled the building. It was numbing and it was continuous.

He put the sledgehammer down and looked at Ksenia.

“We’ve triggered the security alarm system,” she said. “But no one is coming to arrest us.”

“It’s gonna attract more deadheads from outside,” Ramses said. “Let’s hurry up.” He raised the sledgehammer and launched another hit against the hinge.

Ksenia pressed the drill bit to the wall surface near the door frame and began working, too. Pieces of paint and plaster crumbled to the floor. Dust and cement particles, barely visible in the faint light, were floating in the air. In a quarter of an hour, the instrument got very hot, and they switched it off to give it a rest. Ksenia sat on the floor.

It took Ramses nineteen hits to break the upper hinge. He took a break, wiped the sweat from his forehead and sat down beside Ksenia. He looked at her dirty face and dusty clothes, and he felt sad. His mind had not fully absorbed the irrationality of the things happening to them.

He said, “You’d make a great construction worker, for sho’.”

She smiled and coughed. “Yeah, you bet.”

He looked around the place. “Air-conditioning wouldn’t be such a bad idea around here. I’m dying.”

“You hang on in there,” Ksenia said standing up. She picked up the perforator and continued drilling. Through the ceaseless noise of the alarm system, she heard a gnashing sound of metal against metal and stopped.

“Damn!” she said, looking at a stump of the drill bit. “I’ve broken it!”

She put the perforator down and knelt beside the tool case to look for a replacement for the broken drill bit.

Ramses took a swing and smashed the sledgehammer against the middle hinge. The hinge did not move.

There was a distant clang coming from the first floor. Ramses stopped working and raised his head. Ksenia stood up and listened, but she could hardly hear anything.

She took her gun and the torch. “I’m going to check it.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.” She tucked the pistol under her sweater and picked up the ax. “Don’t worry about me.”

She turned to leave as Ramses said, “Wait … Ksenia.”

She stopped and glanced over her shoulder.

“Please be very, very careful there,” he said.

She weighed the ax in her hand. “I will.”

“When this is all over, I’ll take you to the Aziza restaurant. Best place in San Francisco.”

She snapped the torch on and smiled wearily. “Sounds like a deal. I’ll take you up on that.”

As Ksenia had left, Ramses got back to the middle hinge. With half a dozen powerful blows he broke it off. His muscles were tensed and beads of sweat dripped down his forehead but he was glad that he was winning this battle. He rested the sledgehammer against the wall and removed the broken mountain screws. Then he inserted the crowbar into the gap between the door and the doorjamb. He used some force to spring the door away from the frame. The metal resisted, but he maintained pressure on the tool and soon heard faint creaking. His hands were shaking and his T-shirt was damp. Useless. The gap was too narrow yet.

He moved the crowbar side to side to free it up and tried to separate the lower hinge but the weight of the heavy door was pressing on it. Using the perforator, he broke part of the masonry around where the lower hinge was anchored into the wall. In a minute, in the middle of the process, the perforator howled to a stop. The wailing of the alarm system ceased, too. There was brief silence, followed by the sounds of running feet. He squeezed the tool trigger multiple times, unplugged the cable and reconnected it into another socket of the extension cord. To no avail. There was no power.

The darkness of the corridor was torn by the beam of the flashlight and he saw Ksenia dashing toward him on the linoleum punctuated with moonlit patches. As she ran up to him, he saw fright and panic reflected in her exhausted face.

“It’s no good.” She was breathing heavily. “They’ve broken through!”

“Shit!” Ramses said. “I haven’t finished here yet.”

He heard deep growling echoing in the hollow space of the stairwell. The shuddersome sounds got under his skin.

“Then do something!” She was on the verge of hysteria. “They’re coming up!”

He dropped the tool and grabbed the edge of the door.

“I’m gonna make a gap,” he said. “And you try to squeeze in.”

“Okay!” Ksenia put the torch into her jeans pocket.

He pulled at the door using his entire force and wrenched it until the gap was wide enough for Ksenia to slip in.

Inside the armory, Ksenia took out the torch and had a look around. It was a tiny room with no windows. There was a rack of weapons on the wall and two rows of lockers.

Ramses put his head through. “What do you got?”

“Not much,” she said, opening a locker. “Most of the weaponry was taken away when the pandemonium began.” She took out a backpack and threw it at Ramses. “Here. Take this!” He caught it with one hand.

She gave him four hand grenades, which he put into the backpack. One by one. Quickly. But very carefully.

“And this,” she said, handing him an AK-47 assault rifle, a shortened variation used by the police.

The morbid moaning could be heard more distinctly now. Ramses turned his head to the left and saw dark creatures lurking at the threshold of the corridor. He held his breath and gulped.

“Get the mags!” he said in a loud whisper. “The dead ones are here!”

Ksenia was slamming frantically the locker doors in search of the ammunition. Her torch beam grew feeble, and the light terminated. It was pitch dark in the room again. She beat the flashlight against her palm and flipped the switch on and off, but it wouldn’t function.

“The cell phone!” she said. “Give it to me!”

He took the cell phone out of his pocket, turned it on and gave it to her. She cast the scanty screen light around and kept on looking. Her face was glowing in the white light of the display. For a second he imagined she was a distant lighthouse showing the seaway in the blackness of the night.

A young woman clad in blood-stained pajamas made shuffling steps along the corridor in the vanguard of the ghastly procession. The moon threw its silver light on her disfigured face. Her bare feet were leaving filthy undulating trails on the floor. She raised her arms and gave a hoarse moan. A police officer in a tunic was walking behind her, his jaws clacking. A group of other automatons followed them slow but steady. Nearer with every step.

Ramses’s heart grew sick. Blood was pulsing in his head. He aimed the Grach pistol and squeezed a round into the civilian woman’s face. There was a wet sound and the female collapsed.

Ksenia’s frightened face appeared in the gap. “This is all there is.” She slipped three banana-shaped magazines into his hands and then pushed through a sniper rifle. Ramses shouldered the rifle, never taking his eyes off the approaching monsters.

“We got no time to be choosy,” he said, attaching a magazine to the AK-47. He fired a series of shots. The hot spent cartridges propelled through the gloomy dark and fell down with a ringing sound. All the bullets hit the policeman’s chest, which did not stop him. “We gotta fall back!”

The crazies were advancing. Frenzied hunger was pushing their unsteady feet forward. And their prey was so close.

Ksenia put her right leg through the gap. The rough edges of the door tore the front of her sweater and scratched her cheek as she tried to shove herself out. The cell phone dropped to the floor. The screen shattered and faded out. Her leg was caught in the narrow space between the door and the door frame, and tongs of pain squeezed her thigh.

“I’m stuck,” she cried out, cold claustrophobia gripping her. “Ramses, I can’t move!”

For a nanosecond, Ramses was bewildered to hear Ksenia say his first name. He pulled the door away with one hand and used the other hand to wrestle her leg out of the metal trap.

The group of the undead was nearing. He fired a series of slugs into the approaching robotic creatures. Two of them sprawled to the floor like logs, others stumbled and fell on top of them. He switched the firing mode of the AK-47 to single shot to use the ammo sparingly. The created pile of bodies bought him some more time. He snatched the cell phone off the floor and shoved it into his backpack.

“Get down on the floor,” he said to Ksenia, “with your head in the far corner of the room.”

“What? But I—,” Ksenia said.

Ramses didn’t try to explain what he was up to. Every second was at stake now. The pile-up on the floor started to untangle. He cast a worried glance and was paralyzed with horror. A living corpse of a teenage boy had risen to his feet and was pushing his way toward him. He was wearing a black Nike woolen cap with a piece of advice saying “Just Do It” written in white letters.

Ramses turned to Ksenia. “Just do it, baby,” he said suppressing a nervous chuckle in his throat. “I’ll get to you pronto.”

“Okay,” Ksenia gave a quick nod and disappeared in the depth of the armory.

Ramses grabbed all his gear and made a crazy dash to the end of the corridor. He looked back. The ghouls walked up to the armory door and slammed their fists trying to break through. More dead visitors were seeping into the corridor through the entrance.

Now, this is a real fuck-up, Ramses thought.

He turned the corner. It was an L-corridor, and he faced a dead end. He put the backpack and the sniper rifle down on the floor, shouldered his AK-47 and clutched a lemon-shaped hand grenade. He pulled out the safety pin and took a wide swing, sending the grenade into the midst of the deadheads. He dived for cover behind the corner just a moment before a loud blast roared in the darkness, tearing the dead meat into shreds and breaking the window glass out. He looked around the corner and saw twitching body parts on the floor. The rearguard ghouls were still advancing.

Ramses grabbed another hand grenade, yanked the pin out and threw it as far as he could. The throw was not successful. The grenade hit the wall, bounced away and rolled right up to the armory door. He hid behind the corner, adjusting the backpack and gripping another bomb in his hand. The bang was humongous and it shook the corridor. The metal door caved in.

The sniper rifle was too clunky to carry around, and he had no ammo for it. He made a quick decision to ditch it. He detached the scope, put it in his backpack and ran toward the living dead.

Ramses stood within the safe distance from the dead and discharged his bullets into them. Bodies covered the floor.

There was one living dead policeman standing. He locked his dead gaze on Ramses. Ramses fired at the dead man’s skull. Dark blood spurted out in a fountain and the dead cop collapsed.

Total silence reigned for a couple seconds. Even the wind outside was still. Then the broken door moaned and came crashing down.

“Ksenia! You okay?!” he shouted, turning in the direction of the noise.

He heard coughing and Ksenia’s voice: “Yes.”

He shuddered, as out of the corner of his eye, his peripheral vision registered a movement in the pile of bodies. His eyes widened, seeing the dead teenager creeping out of it. Or rather the upper half of him. The grenade blast had torn his torso off from the lower part. Coils of guts were unrolling out of his abdomen. He clawed the floor in front of him and moved forward. His moonlit face was contorted with rage.

Ramses pulled the trigger pad, but the AK-47 mag was empty. He took out his Grach but the dead boy was already at his feet, ready to bite him with his bleeding mouth. Ramses kicked him in the head while he was fumbling with the machine gun.

There was a sudden gunshot and the living dead boy’s face exploded.

In the doorway, two-handing her Makarov’s pistol stood Ksenia. The smoke was rising from the muzzle. Ramses took a deep sigh and gave a nod of appreciation to her.

The place was reeking of rotten flesh. The cold wind blew through the broken window and carried away the stench. Outside, the sky was getting pink. The morning was coming. Ramses cringed. He was getting used to the protection of the dark.

“Quick!” Ksenia shouted. “Upstairs!”

They ran to the exit at the end of the corridor. A female creature was standing on the floor landing, blocking their way. Ramses slammed her on the head with the butt of the assault rifle. The creature fell down the stairs on top of other ghouls.

Ramses slapped a fresh magazine into his Kalashnikov and they ran all the way up to the fifth floor.

“The ladder,” Ksenia said, pointing at the fire ladder outside the double windows. Without thinking twice, Ramses opened the first window. The second one was barred, and they had to use their last hand grenade to break the bars.

When the way outside was free, they stepped out of the window onto the narrow ledge, coming along the building wall.

A horde of moaning psychos appeared at the beginning of the corridor just at the moment when they started descending down the ladder. Ksenia was the first to go. Ramses followed her. Ksenia’s long hair was blowing about in the icy wind. She lost her footing on one of the rungs, slipped and nearly fell off the ladder.

They got down into the police station parking lot and had a look around. The parking lot was surrounded with a high brick fence, razor wire running along its perimeter. They crouched behind a black Lada.

Ramses fished out the car keys. “Let’s locate that Opel.”

It was not so hard. They spotted an old and well-used blue Opel Corsa in a distant corner of the parking lot. Two dead ones were shambling about as if drunkards shopping for cars in a dealership. Dispatching them would attract undesirable attention, and Ramses and Ksenia walked around them in a wide arc, hiding behind the cars and vans.

They opened the driver’s door and switched off the alarm system.

Ramses turned the key to warm up the engine. “Stay inside,” he said to Ksenia. “I’ll check the gates.” He left the backpack on the passenger seat and slammed the door shut.

The first sun rays shone shyly on the city. It was a clear morning, and it was not snowing. He went the length of the fence to the gates. He was shaking with cold and his body temperature was dramatically falling. He could feel the frost was compressing his heart muscle. His T-shirt was a bad protection against the severe winter cold. He started running to get warm.

As he reached the gates, he saw they were closed. Though the power was out, he could open them manually with ease.

He entered the checkpoint. It was empty. Plastic cups and newspapers littered the floor. Puffs of his warm breath filled the small gatehouse. He took a little break from the harsh wind and then went out into the cold again.

He crawled under the gates on his stomach and elbows and hid behind a lamppost. He peeked cautiously around it. The street was swarming with the dead. Lots of abandoned cars. An emergency vehicle was sitting in the middle of the street. Two cars had crashed into it. The lights of the emergency vehicle were still blazing, but there was no sound of the siren. It must have broken during the collision.

A white Subaru was parked near the gates. He made out corpses inside the car. Mutilated. A kid seat had been dragged out of the car and thrown on the snow-covered ground. Blood splatters all over the seat. No sign of the kid anywhere. He cupped his mouth with his hand. A scanty tear froze instantly on his manly cheek.

“What the fuck is going on here?” he said slowly.


Just when Ramses and Ksenia pulled out of the parking lot into the infested street, the piercing shriek of an air-raid siren choked off the monotonous wailing of the triggered car alarm systems and made a flock of sparrows take wing off trees and inactive trolleybus wires.

The traffic in the city was paralyzed. There were stranded cars sitting even on the sidewalks. Ramses maneuvered the Opel around the cars and the debris, looking frantically for gaps between the vehicles. They nearly hit a couple of survivors, a man and a woman, who whisked past them, riding a motorbike. The undead stretched out their hands toward the riders, but they were too slow to capture their prey. In only one day, the city streets were filled with fear and death. Hundreds of hungry eyes were pointed at the old blue Opel Corsa, which was making its way through the ravaged city.

“Where are we going now?” Ksenia asked. They had not had the time for discussing this issue before. Now it was the most vital one.

“I really don’t know,” Ramses said. He looked at Ksenia. She was huddled on the passenger seat and hid her hands under the sweater sleeves. It was still freezing in the car. “How about your place? To rescue your family?”

Ksenia lapsed into silence. She was sad and shivering with cold.

“Dad was … everything I had … in my life. He was my family.”

“I’m sorry,” Ramses said. In a minute he asked her, “You have any other relatives?”

“No.” She paused. “An aunt. In Moscow.”

Ramses said, “We’ll head to my hotel then. Let’s hole up there if the place is safe. My friend Steve must be still there.” He turned the steering wheel to avoid a bump against an attacking living dead. He was driving on the separating strip now. “I hope he is. We gotta stick together.”

They drove into an area where the power was obviously on. Some traffic lights kept on functioning, blinking only yellow lights for the indifferent immobile vehicles and the uncaring pedestrians from hell.

Ksenia gave Ramses the directions to the hotel.

“The Arkaim Hotel is half an hour ride from here.”

A pair of red fuzzy dice was dangling from the rearview mirror. There were distracting Ramses from driving and he took them off and tossed them on the back seat. He looked through the windshield at a burning car.

“I wish it were a dream,” he said. “And I wish I snapped out of this dreadful nightmare.”

“Can murderers be afraid?” Ksenia said with sudden anger.

Ramses breathed out a sigh. “It was an accident. I haven’t murdered anyone. I mean … This is all about self-defense. That kid pounced on me himself. Now, this,” he waved at the chaos outside, “is worse than what I’ve done.”

“Sorry,” Ksenia said. “I just don’t know where to go, who to trust.”

“I see. Sure thing, I’m afraid. I’m scared shitless. You don’t see dead people every day, you know. Especially the sort that walk around the streets and devour other people using no kitchen utensils.”

Ksenia opened the glove compartment covered with hot babe stickers and fished out an apple, two stale cheese sandwiches, a gas lighter, a pack of cigarettes and a penknife. She put everything into the backpack.

Ramses could feel the welcome warmth gradually returning to his body and numb extremities thanks to the heater.

“Brr! What a cold! Why did you choose to live here?” he said without taking his eyes off the road.

“I didn’t. I was born here.”

She dug into the apple greedily. She handed him one sandwich, and he wolfed it down in one go.

The danger was scattered around the city. Here and there, groups of creatures were moving around. A female monster wearing an expensive fur coat sat on the sidewalk, eating a piece of flesh. Blood and drool streamed down her chin. Ksenia closed her eyes and turned away from the window. Then she opened them and shoved the half-eaten apple into the backpack in disgust.

“Right there.” She pointed in the direction of a bridge. “Behind that bridge. The hotel is on the riverbank.”

An overturned bus had blocked a large portion of the road through the bridge.

“Uh-oh,” Ramses said and applied the brakes. “Not good. We can’t drive through this jam.” The car shuddered to a halt in the middle of the bridge.

“Let’s go back,” Ksenia said. “There might be crazies in that bus.”

Ramses strained his ears.

“Wait,” he said, letting out tendrils of vapor through his nose and raising his hand. “Think I can hear something.”

The ambient sounds were a cacophony. It was composed of the banshee-like scream of the air-raid siren, car alarms and incessant moaning of the horrid creatures. Now another disturbing sound added. It was a rumbling noise coming from behind the bus. Ramses could not see what it was because of it. The thunder was getting louder.

Ksenia said she could hear it, too, and looked at Ramses, hoping to find the answer to her questions on his worried face.

There was the screeching metal sound, and the body of the bus was burst open by the brutal force of an army tank, rushing along the bridge at full speed with the turret facing backward.


Andrew Thomas woke up at 5:00 a.m. sharp. He switched off the alarm clock and got out of bed. His head was clear, as always. He felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep. He walked into the living room. The motion sensor lights kicked on. He took the remote control, turned on the CD player and selected Bruce Springsteen’s album, “The Rising”. He was into Bruce Springsteen this week. He pushed a button, and music filled the room. He opened the window to let the winter morning air in and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. It was still dark outside.

When the room was cool enough, he closed the window and started doing his morning exercises — push-ups and sit-ups. His body began functioning at full capacity, blood rushing in and filling each cell of his body with energy. While the music was still playing, he turned on the FM transmitter on the CD player and left the living room. In ten seconds, the lights went off automatically. He had always been a thrifty person like his father and saved every penny he could save. That was why he got the motion sensor lights installed in his apartment.

He went along a spacious hallway and stepped into the bathroom. The lights went on there. He touched the screen in the shower stall and activated the radio receiver tuned to the wave of the CD player, which was now transferring Bruce Springsteen’s music into the shower stall. Standing under the hot shower was a way of meditation for him. Like exercises, a hot shower is also good in the morning. Makes the blood circulate better. Especially in the brain. Which again increases efficiency. He took a shower trying not to think of the plans for the day. In eleven minutes he got out of the shower stall, wiped himself with a big bath towel and got dressed.

He had his breakfast quickly but savoring his meal. While he was eating, he listened to his home radio station in Sheffield.

After the breakfast, he put on his black suit and a white shirt and slipped a tie around his neck. He looked in the mirror. A thirty-year-old man with green eyes and light brown hair was looking at him. He smiled, and the young man in the reflection smiled back.

Andrew Thomas, General Manager of the Arkaim Hotel, was ready to face the new day.

Andy went out of his penthouse apartment, which was on the fifteenth floor of the hotel and walked into the elevator. Bruce Springsteen’s song “Worlds Apart” started playing there. The elevator technician had replaced the Cher album that had played in the elevator last week. Andy smiled. He liked it when the things ran smoothly. Even such a small detail as having the staff change the elevator music in time brought him a smile.

He pushed a button on the panel, and the elevator started descending to the first floor.

Andy had ambitious plans. He wanted to build an empire of his own and expand it from the east to the west, though an ordinary Western businessman would have done it just the other way around — from the west to the east. But the market in Western Europe had been saturated. And Russia was full of opportunities. Though the economy was shaken during the 2008 crisis, when he opened his hotel, Andy managed to pull through. Part of the success was due to Andy’s excellent team, which he had handpicked and built personally. One of the requirements for his staff was to have a good command of English. The people working at the hotel were mostly Russian, and though Andy had learned the Russian language quite handsomely, the working language among the hotel staff was English. He did not think the English courses were a waste of time, and he encouraged his employees to practice English constantly. The most capable ones were regularly sent to attend hotel management courses in the UK, Austria, and Switzerland. And all this brought added value to the quality of service in his hotel and raised its standards. His father, Henry Thomas, a guru in the world of hotel management, was proud of him. Andy felt frustrated he could not call him today. Last night, the Internet and phone connections went down almost simultaneously.

Andy looked at the display, humming to the music.

At some point, it was difficult to conduct business in Russia. Kickbacks, bribes, and all such things were an inseparable part of it. In many respects, Russia was an Asian country. Cronyism was a usual thing here. But nevertheless, he tried to risk it. He decided to start his business in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk. The city was big, over a million of residents in the metro area, more than fifty thousand tourists visiting the city every year. The city also boasted world sports events and attracted business people from all over the world. An ideal place to start a chain of hotels in Eastern Europe. On Valentine’s Day, they celebrated the fifth anniversary since the official opening of his hotel, and business seemed to be looking swell. Until recently …

His face darkened as the memories of the past thirty hours flashed in his mind. But he ought to focus and stop worrying. He pressed his hand to his forehead and tried to calm down.

For every problem there is a solution, he reminded himself. Always.

The display showed the number “5”.

He snatched a gun out of his shoulder holster and held it in front of him.

The second floor. Safety off. Andy was ready to face the new day.

On the first floor, the elevator clinked, flashing number 1 on the display, and the doors opened before him.

A large poster on the wall said, “Welcome to the Arkaim Hotel — your home away from home.”

He stepped out of the elevator and walked past the front desk. The reception clerk was not to be seen anywhere. Not good. The face of the company, as they say. One of the key figures in his business.

Andy walked past a fountain. The flowing red carpet led him to the lobby where the security guards were doing their routine. Andy nodded at them and concealed the gun in the holster.

A man was standing at the second set of entrance doors, which had been barricaded with couches, coffee tables, and vending machines, and looking at something through the gap in the door glass. Andy felt the cold air coming in from outside.

“Good morning, Goran,” Andy said.

The man turned around. He was in his early forties. Good-looking. Raven black hair and brown expressive eyes. Goran Pavic was the best executive chef he had ever met.

“Hi, Andy,” Goran said in English in his Serbian accent.

Andy came close to the heap of furniture, which was blocking the entryway. He could see that the front door was ajar.

“Is it getting any better?” Andy asked.

He almost jumped up as a hand smashed against the glass panel. A female looked at them through the glass, her right eye hanging on bloody tendrils and resting on her cheek. Half a dozen other anthropomorphic entities stared at them through the glass covered with cracks. They snarled and tried to break through.

Andy made a step back. “Bloody hell! I guess not.”

“I hoped it was all a bad dream when I woke up today,” Goran said. “I came down here and saw it was not a nightmare.” He looked at Andy. “We’re not sleeping.”

“This is all crazy,” Andy said. “But no, Goran. You’re not sleeping. You’re not Alice, and this is not Wonderland.”

An obese man in his late forties walked up to them. He was wearing a black suit with a name tag, which said, “Igor Sorokin, Security Manager.”

Dobroye utro, Mr. Thomas,” Sorokin said. There was a portable radio set in his hands. “Your walkie-talkie. The mobile connection is still down.”

Andy could smell whiskey on the man’s breath, but said nothing about it. He took the device from him. “Spasibo, Igor. How’s the perimeter?”

“The front door is secure,” Igor tapped on the door glass, and a male monster snarled at him behind the glass. “The space in the lobby is too tight for these customers here, so they don’t get enough leverage to break in. They’re packed like sardines.”

“Still, one cannot be too careful,” Andy said. “Reinforce the barricade.”

“We’re on it,” Sorokin said.

“And we’d better clear the yard and close the gate,” Goran said. “Knowing that these sorry sickos walk around and can break in any minute just gives me the creeps.”

Sorokin nodded. “Yes, but we’re short of firepower.”

“What else?” Andy asked.

“The underground parking lot is gone,” Sorokin said and rubbed his eyes wearily. He seemed to be in desperate need of sleep. “And we need to have the parking lot door welded to make it more stable. But it’s holding. So, we’re golden here so far. Like we put it in Russia, we’re under Christ’s armpit.”

“That’s good to hear,” Andy said. “Give me two of your boys for a tour around the hotel.”

“Won’t be a problem.”

“Good,” Andy said. “And will you check on Diana, please? Tell her I’ll do the tour around the hotel myself today.”

Diana Grinina was Andy’s deputy manager, his right hand. She was so devoted to her job that after the shock wave had shattered the hotel windows and glass splinters nicked her cheek, she got four stitches and was back in business in an hour.

“Sure,” Sorokin said. “See you in three hours in the conference room.”

He left and Goran took a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Andy. “Here. I’ve translated your speech into Russian. It’s pretty good.”

“Thank you so much. This is my first emergency speech.” Andy took the sheet of paper and put it in his breast pocket.

Goran looked at his watch. “Okay. I’m gonna check the kitchen now. Keep in touch. And take care.”

“I will,” Andy said.

Goran left.

Andy looked at the vacant reception desk, frowned and turned to the guards, “For chrissake, find that front desk clerk, will you? Whose shift is it today?”

“It’s Pyotr’s.”

“Get him back asap. We’re a five-star hotel after all. I want the things to remain the way they had been before.”

Andy heard a rumble outside the hotel. He came to the window and saw a battle tank, trundling along the street and sending stranded cars flying.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Thomas?” One of the guards named Viktor stood by the window. “The world is going to pieces. Things are not going to be the same again.”

Three more tanks rushed down the street.

Andy sighed and kept silent for a bit. Finally, he said, “Is the radio ready?”

“It always is,” Viktor said.

Andy went to the security operations room. It was small. It does not have to be large. There were two desks, two chairs. CCTV monitors, and the armory. Generally, the room was occupied by one guard on duty. Sometimes the security manager sat at his desk, busy with paperwork. The work of a security guard was all about legwork.

A young guard with a bowl cut was watching the monitors.

“Any suspicious activity, Ivan?” Andy asked him.

“It depends on what you call suspicious,” Ivan said. He pointed at a screen. “There’s a man taking a piss on the stairwell between Level 5 and Level 6.” He pointed at another screen. “And there’s a woman in the parking lot, who has just eaten her poodle.”

“Good heavens,” Andy muttered and turned away.

He noticed that one of the monitors was switched off. So, it was impossible to see what was happening in the backyard.

“What’s with this one?” he asked the guard.

“That was on Friday. Kids broke the video camera on the western side of the building. With a pneumatic rifle, can you believe that?”

On a normal day it would not be a problem to have the technician fix it immediately, but with the yard swarming with these cannibalistic ghouls, the mission was next to impossible.

Andy took out his notebook and scribbled some notes. The walkie-talkie on his belt gave a hiss of static. He took it and pressed the button. The walkie-talkie crackled in Andy’s hand and a grumpy voice of the sanitary engineer told him that a pipe burst down in the basement. The water was cut off, but there was a decent puddle of water on the basement floor.

Andy clicked off the walkie-talkie. “Problems just keep piling up.”

Back in Harvard Business School, Andy received his MA in conflict management. He was trained to work under pressure and deal with various problems and conflicts.

For every problem there is a solution, he kept saying to himself. New situations, new solutions.

Andy sat in the chair, pushed buttons on the control panel to switch on the radio equipment. The loud-speaking communication system kicked in. He placed his note with the Russian text of his speech in front of him and spoke into the microphone.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!”

Though I doubt that it’s good, of course, he thought, but he did not say it aloud.

He cleared his throat and went on, “My name is Andrew Thomas. I’m General Manager. As you very well know, we’re witnessing a bit of a complicated situation in this city. No one seems to know what’s going on at the moment. Apparently, the local authorities cannot shed light on the current situation either. The national news abounds only in reports of the recent meteor crash. But no information whatsoever is available on the true causes of the acts of violence we’re seeing in the city streets. There are some rumors of a contagious infection. On behalf of the Arkaim Hotel, I ask you to remain calm and not to attempt leaving the hotel. The building is surrounded by murdering insane persons. So I repeat — for your safety, and the safety of other employees and guests, do not try to leave the building. For further information, there’ll be a meeting in the conference room at 10:00 a.m. this morning. Once again, I’m Andrew Thomas, General Manager. Please enjoy your stay at the Arkaim Hotel — your home away from home.”

He read his speech aloud again, this time in English, and went out into the corridor. He saw Viktor, the guard, who stopped him and said quietly, “We found Pyotr, Mr. Thomas. He’s dead. Hanged himself.”


The news of Ramses’s imprisonment shattered Steve Clayton. He called Vassili Koshkin at once and asked him what to do. Vassili had a good lawyer in mind, but it was a weekend, and the least they could do for Ramses was to bring him some clothes and food.

Their taxi arrived at the hotel at around 10:00 a.m. and parked in the underground garage. The driver, whose name was Boris, helped Steve and Vassili pack their things into the trunk, and they sat in the backseats.

There was a jam at the exit, and the taxi dragged slowly behind a huge Coca-Cola truck. It moved forward a bit and then stopped. The taxi driver got very impatient.

Behind the cab, there was a long motorcade, ten or twelve cars, which had been decorated by colorful balloons and bright ribbons. Steve looked through the rear windshields at the white limousine following them. Their driver was edgy, too.

“Saturday,” Vassili said. “Wedding day. I pity those folks.”

Boris swore under his breath when the taxi had to halt again. This time they had to wait too long.

The limo driver leaned out of the window. “Hey!” A cloud of steam came out of his mouth. “What’s going on there? Why did we stop?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He shoved his door open and got out. A tiny beep signaled that the door was not closed. He walked past the cab, clenching and unclenching his fists.

Three strange-looking people showed up from behind the truck. They spotted him and began walking toward him. Steve could see there was something weird about them. Their gait was robotic and their appearance was dirty.

As the trio approached the limo driver, they stretched their hands toward him as if they wanted to charge and strangle him. The man made a step back and slammed onto the asphalt. He made an attempt to scramble to his feet, but the attackers surrounded him. Their backs blocked the view for the men in the cab who could only see the man’s feet drumming on the shiny asphalt for a couple of seconds.

“The hell is going on?” Steve looked puzzled.

Boris gave a honk. A white poodle ran out of the limo and started yapping. The bride in a white wedding dress came out, calling the dog.

Four more strangers appeared from behind the truck. The poodle stuck its tail between his legs and hid underneath the cab. The bridegroom went out of the wedding car and went after the bride.

The strangers shambled up to the taxi and started thudding on the car hood with their fists. They had ragged clothes on. Steve’s first thought was that they were hobos, but as they approached closer, he could see the clothes were new, just dirty, torn and crumpled in places as if their owners had been in a fight. Boris honked the horn to disperse the gathering crowd, but it had no effect on them. More people rushed into the garage.

The newly-weds ran away, stumbling and falling over the scattered traffic cones.

Boris rolled down the side window and asked a hatless man wearing a torn overcoat what was up, and the man grabbed Boris’s head in his hands. The attack was so sudden that the driver could not wrench free from his grip, and the psycho gouged his eyes out with his thumbs. Boris screamed and jerked his legs in a desperate try to release himself from the attacker’s deadly embrace.

The newcomers grouped near the fallen taxi driver. He was still screaming, when they yanked him out of the car, ripped into his abdomen, twisted his arms and tore them off the body. It was all a matter of ten seconds. And they started chewing on the bloody wads of flesh they were holding in their hands.

Steve pressed his back into the seat. He felt his bladder was ready to give out.

There were screams and shouts everywhere. People locked their doors and windows in panic. The assailants kept on pounding on the cars trying to get inside.

A slim girl with long uncombed blue hair smashed her hands with broken nails against the windshield. She did not even twist her lips in pain, as cobweb cracks ran across the glass. She was wearing a Santa Claus cap, though Christmas was over a long time ago. She pressed her face against the glass and growled like a hungry dog.

“What the fuck is going on?!” Steve shouted. Vassili acted fast, climbing over to the driver’s seat and locking all the doors and windows in the car. He honked the horn to make the attacking people scatter.

“Get out of here!” Vassili yelled at the top of his voice at the Santa girl.

Steve flipped open his cell phone. His hands were trembling. The indicator was showing that there was no phone connection. He punched “911”, but heard only short beeps.

He turned around. Three attackers, a teenage boy, an old woman and a bearded man, who had been beating the limousine behind them, left it and took an interest in their cab instead. The man climbed on top of the hood, squatted and gazed at them blankly through the windshield. His beard was smeared with blood. The madman’s stare was glued to them for a while. In a split second, he hit the glass with his forehead. The glass cracked but did not break.

The teenage boy was tugging at the door handle madly. He was growling, and there was foam at his mouth. The old woman crashed her fists against the windows, spreading cracks all over the glass.

Steve exchanged glances with Vassili. “Jeez, this is gross, man. This is really gross.”

Blood ran down the bearded man’s forehead in rivulets as he hit the windshield harder. He kept banging his head against the glass until it collapsed inside and he was able to put his hand through the hole. He snatched Vassili’s hand and started pulling it out toward his mouth.

The glass edges cut Vassili’s hand, and he gave a scream. The bearded psycho sank his teeth in the captured hand. Blood droplets, dark like cherry juice, sprinkled on the windshield and ran down the back of Vassili’s arm.

“Fuck!” Steve shouted in desperation.

He cast a quick glance around the interior of the cab and searched under the seat. His fingers clasped around a metal thing, and he pulled out a tire iron.

He unlocked the passenger door and opened it, hitting the old woman. She lost her balance and fell on her ass.

Steve gripped the tire iron firmly in his hand. He slammed the door shut and ran around the cab giving out the swipes here and there with the cold forged steel. Then he smashed the curved end of the tool across the bearded man’s face. A spray of blood mixed with teeth blew out of his mouth. The Beard slackened his grip, and Vassili freed his hand. Another hit on the head and the Beard slipped off the hood. Steve sent a forceful kick in his knee and broke it with a crunch. The man did not even scream with pain.

“What’s wrong with all of you?!” Steve said.

He heard a snarl behind his back and turned around. The teenage boy. Steve kicked the approaching kid in the chest and sent him flying on the ground.

There was a tumult in the parking garage.

Steve opened the door. “Vasya! Quick! We gotta get out!”

Vassili scrambled out of the car. His right hand was a bleeding mess.

“Over there!” Steve said, pointing to the attendant’s room. They bolted for the door, Vassili’s blood leaving zigzagging trails after them but as they reached it, it was slammed shut right in their faces.

Steve banged his fists against the door. “Open up! Let us in!”

He could see the attendant’s terrified face through the little round window set in the door. Then it disappeared inside the room.

Steve looked back. A group of attackers was shuffling toward them. Sitting next to a wall, there was a bus with the hotel logo running across its side. Steve tried the door handles. Locked.

The looneys were closing in. Steve and Vassili ducked behind a car. The elevator was too far, and they had to make a decision fast, or their chasers would spot them. They could hear snarls and heavy footsteps getting nearer.

“Under the bus!” Vassili said. They sneaked along the car and slipped under the belly of the bus.

Vassili was the first to go. He was leaving blood trails behind. The men crawled until they faced the wall into the farthest corner. The demented crowd walked past the bus without noticing them. Vassili groaned painfully, and Steve clamped his hand over his mouth, casting a fearful glance at the space between the ground and the bus bottom.

Steve saw a shadow on the lit patch of the neighboring stall. A male stopped near the bus and dropped on his knees to lick the little pool of blood left on the cold asphalt. He dried out one puddle of blood and spotted another one among patches of leaked oil under the bus. He licked his gray lips and started creeping under the vehicle. If this ghoul crawled a little farther, he could see them. Steve hardened the grip on the tire iron, getting ready to stick it into the man’s eye socket if he had to.

There was an electric whirr in the distance. The automatic gates were being closed. The psycho’s attention refocused and he turned his neck in the direction of the noise. He was going to leave, as Vassili moved his leg and the heel of the boot scraped noisily against the concrete. The man slowly turned his head to them and his eyes narrowed, trying to pierce the semidarkness of the bus’s underbelly. He gave a soft growl.

Vassili’s eyes widened, and he held his breath.

An alarm system got activated nearby.

The weirdo crawled back and got on his feet. In a moment he shuffled away. Vassili sighed. His face was covered with perspiration, and he started shivering with cold. Steve tore off a piece of his shirt and stopped the bleeding on his friend’s hand. He had lost a lot of blood.

They lay under the bus motionlessly for more than five minutes. The blaring of the alarm system was irritating, but they were safe there.

Vassili was not looking well. His forehead was hot, and he was feeling shivery.

“Okay,” Steve whispered. “This is what we’re gonna do. We’ll climb on top of this bus, all right? These nutcases, whoever they are, are pretty dumb and slow. You can’t stay here, or you’ll catch your death. Do you think you can manage?”

Vassili nodded silently.

Steve crawled out and looked around. He could hear low growling and snarling sounds in the depth of the garage, but no berserks could be seen in the vicinity. He hauled Vassili out from under the bus, and they trudged around it.

Vassili stood on Steve’s back and used the wall as a springboard to climb on top of the bus. He slipped once, as his legs refused to obey him. Steve threw the tire iron, and Vassili caught it with his left hand.

Steve stepped on the running board of the bus and held out his hand for Vassili to pull him up. Just as Steve’s foot pushed away from the side mirror, a hand from below grabbed the air where it had just been. A maniac, his mouth gushing blood, was standing on the ground, looking at his prey he had just missed. Steve looked around the parking lot and saw in despair more weirdos coming up to the bus from everywhere.

“Crazy bastards!” he shouted at them, standing on the bus roof.

Vassili sat down on the trapdoor and let out a cloud of breath in the chilly air. He undid the bandage and looked at his hand, which had turned gray. The wound was deep and its edges were yellow and slimy.

“Not good, Vasya,” Steve said. “Hold on.” He tore another piece of his shirt, wadded it and made a fresh bandage.

“I’m feeling dizzy,” Vassili said and lay on his back. There were specks of foam around his mouth, and he had trouble breathing.

Steve tried to open the trapdoor, but it was locked from the inside. There was no way in.

Vassili moaned, and his eyes rolled in his sockets. His breath was shallow. He shut his eyes, and Steve slapped him on the cheeks.

“No, man,” he whispered. “Stay with me! Don’t close your eyes. You hear me? Vasya! Don’t fall asleep.”

Very slowly Vassili half opened his eyes and said something gibberish. Steve could not tell whether he was speaking Russian or was being delirious. After that, he closed his eyes again and stopped breathing.

“No!” Steve said in a loud whisper. “Oh, God. Please, no!” He rummaged in his pockets for the cell phone. His hand found nothing. Must have lost it in the confusion. Black fear was gnawing him.

He stood up in full height, waved his hands in front of an overhead camera and shouted. No one was coming to rescue. He looked desperately around. The crowd of psychos below started shaking the bus. He got on his knees, trying not to fall off the cold slippery roof. He wiped the foam off his friend’s mouth with his sleeve and was ready to perform CPR on him, as Vassili snapped his eyes open. They were bloodshot.

Steve let out a sigh of relief. “Shit, man! Don’t you fucking scare me again.” He smiled and said, “And don’t you dare die on me, you lazy Russian ass.”

A threatening growl formed in Vassili’s throat and he reached out to touch Steve’s face with his hand. Steve pulled away in shocked surprise. His fingers gripped the edge of the trapdoor to prevent him from falling off the roof.

He lost a second to adjust his spectacles on his nose, as Vassili lunged at him and tried to bite him. Steve gave him a hard hit with his elbow in the head. He clamped Vassili’s neck with both hands and threw him to the roof.

Vassili struggled, his fingers plucking at Steve’s torn shirt but Steve was holding him firmly.

There was half a second when Vassili’s neck muscles were relaxed, and Steve used that moment to make a fatal swift twist. The spinal cord snapped under Steve’s strong hands. Vassili’s body got limp, and he ceased fighting.

Steve held him for a while in his deadlock embrace and then pushed him off the bus top. Vassili fell to the ground like a sack of wet meat. On the ground, dozens of raving lunatics were scratching and hitting the bus.

Steve was on his knees, covering his face with his hands.

The lights went out abruptly, and the CCTV camera was unable to record Steve’s sobbing in the darkness, which enveloped the garage.


Ramses and Ksenia had grabbed their gear and jumped out of the car just in time before the tank rammed into it and crushed it like an empty beer can. The sound of metal scraping against metal was deafening. They ran down the stairs under the bridge. The tank rumbled above their heads without stopping. Then two more battle tanks followed.

“This city is a damn war zone,” Ramses said.

Ksenia’s face was pale. She did not believe they had just narrowly escaped from death. She just stood there, the freezing cold nibbling on her uncovered body parts.

Ramses shouldered the backpack. “We gotta haul ass to the hotel.”

Ksenia said nothing. Her body was trembling with cold. She nodded silently, and they started walking. They reached the river. The sun rays glinted on its snow-covered surface.

“The ice is still hard enough this time of the year,” Ksenia said. “We’ll get across safely.”

They started running across the river. Their legs got tangled in the snow, and Ksenia fell down twice. Ramses grunted heavily. The load on his shoulders was not too heavy, but he hated running. He was a fighter, not a runner. He remembered his days when he worked in a fire department. He used to carry heavy loads of hose during fire drills under the hot Californian sun. But running across a river on a winter morning with not many clothes on was extreme for him.

When they crossed the frozen river and came to a small supermarket, their feet were soaking wet. Ramses’s hair and eyebrows were covered with white frost.

“How much longer?” he asked Ksenia.

“The hotel is behind this supermarket,” Ksenia said. She started coughing.

“Let’s roll,” Ramses said, “or we’ll catch our death here.”

Or death will catch us, he thought gloomily.

He craned his neck around the corner of the building. A trash container was burning, and the black smoke blocked his vision. The stench of the burning trash reached his nostrils, and he fought to hold back the urge to throw up.

He was stunned by the sight. Through the curling smoke, he saw a large group of the undead moving toward them about three yards from them. He recoiled and made a gesture for Ksenia to halt.

“Step back!” he mouthed.

A male living dead staggered around the corner. Ramses hit the creature in the nose and knocked him off his feet. He didn’t have time to finish him, and they sprinted across the supermarket parking lot.

The monsters moaned loudly behind their backs. Other demonic creatures, which had been lurking in various places, crawled out and joined the sickening choir.

A female ghoul appeared from behind a stranded car. She tilted her head at a weird angle, staring at them and made a fast step forward, reaching her hands toward them. Ramses placed a bullet between her eyes. She fell on the ground with a heavy thump. Ramses jumped over her body without stopping. Ksenia was running behind him, panting. Her sweater was not much protection against the cold, which was burning her lungs.

They ran up to the street with paralyzed traffic. In the middle of the street, two deadheads got in their way. Ksenia shot a bullet and missed. Ramses fired and one ghoul collapsed like a bag of flour. Ramses relocated his gun to the other hand and pointed it at the next target. The shot knocked the creature down.

“Aim more accurately,” Ramses said to Ksenia. “You don’t want to become their breakfast.”

At this moment a corpse hiding under a car raised himself on his elbow and tried to bite Ramses’s ankle. Ksenia put the gun to the head of the dead man and squeezed the trigger. The head exploded like a rotten pumpkin.

“Lesson learned,” she said.

Ramses nodded and shifted the load on his shoulders.

When they finally got to the hotel, they saw that the front gates had been crushed. Crowds of moaning maniacs were roaming in the hotel yard. They were pounding on the closed doors.

“Damn!” Ramses said.

They were sitting behind an overturned car, their guns ready to spit fire. The morning sun was shining in the sky.

They saw a man wearing a brown overcoat moving toward them across the street. He was running, which meant he was alive. But he was shouting loudly and waving his hands, which was putting them all in danger. Which meant the killing creatures could get them sooner than later.

The man didn’t make it to them.

He slipped on the sidewalk and tumbled down. It took the swarm of the dead ten seconds to reach their prey and engulf him.

Ksenia looked away. Ramses looked at how the beasts feasted on the lying man, shredding his clothes with their claws.

The ghouls separated the man’s head from the body and started devouring his legs and arms, raging while having their breakfast and jerking their heads like hungry dogs over some chunks of beef.

“It’s hell on Earth here,” Ramses said, tightening his grip on his gun.

Ksenia hugged her elbows. She was shaking with fear and cold.

“Let’s run along the fence to the backyard,” she suggested.

At the back of the hotel, there was a small parking lot for employees. It was nearly empty, only four cars. Ramses took the backpack off his shoulders and threw it over the fence. It landed with a thump on the soft snow on the other side. He bent down, and Ksenia stepped on his back. She held the metal bars of the fence. Ramses stood up, and Ksenia shifted her position on his shoulders, pulling her body up and grabbing the edge of the fence. She thrust her body upwards and sat on the small column between the fence parts like on a horseback. She jumped down and looked around.

Ramses grabbed the bars and climbed over the fence.

There was a green armored cash-in-transit vehicle parked at the corner. They ran toward it.

An undead male appeared around the corner. He saw the humans and opened his slobbering mouth. A horde of the walking dead was catching up.

Ramses took out his gun and pointed at the coming crowd. “We ain’t gonna make it,” he said. “They’re too close, too soon.”

Ramses started firing. He was spending the rounds wisely, shooting only at the closest attackers.

A group of six creatures came staggering to the cash-in-transit vehicle. Eight shots, seven bodies down.

Ksenia heard dry clicks of her gun.

“I’m out,” she said.

Ramses gave her a magazine. “This is the last one. Let’s get to that van.”

Ksenia replaced the mag in her gun. She ran, slipped and fell to the ground. She winced in pain as she attempted to stand on her feet and fell again. A reanimated corpse was walking slowly toward the place where she was lying.

Ramses used his leg to sweep the monster and pressed him to the ground with his knee. He took the wriggling dead thing’s head in his hands and snapped its neck. The wild red eyes of the monster stopped moving in their sockets. Ramses bashed the corpse’s head against the ground to be sure and let go of it in disgust.

“You okay?” Ramses asked Ksenia, helping her to get on her feet.

Ksenia cringed with pain. “No. I think I’ve injured my ankle.” She rubbed her leg.

The moaning was getting louder. A score of things was walking up in uneven formation.

“Can you walk?” Ramses said, looking anxiously at the approaching threat. Ksenia tried to make a step and her legs buckled.

The living dead were getting nearer. And nearer.

“Come, quickly!” Ramses shouted. “Get into the van!”

He stood Ksenia up and got her hand around his neck.

Ramses pulled the door handle on the driver’s side. It was locked. They limped to the passenger’s seat side. Some luck was theirs. They had opened the door and crept inside just before a woman with a rotting face reached Ramses. He slammed the door in the undead thing’s muzzle.

“Not today, sister!” Ramses said. He locked the door and released a sigh of relief.

The dead driver of the cash-in-transit van occupied the driver’s seat. He was wearing a dark khaki uniform and a black woolen cap. A bullet hole yawned in the middle of his forehead. His stomach had been ripped open, and the spilled guts were all over the seat.

“Jesus and Mary!” Ramses said, looking at the corpse.

More automatons came up to the van and started pounding on the vehicle with their fists. The sounds of their hits were barely audible in the soundproof cab of the van.

“They won’t get in,” Ramses said as he looked at the inside of the van. “This baby was made zombieproof.”

He turned to Ksenia. “How are you?”

“Could be worse,” she said pointing to the sitting dead man.

The van key was in the ignition. Ramses turned it and set the engine in motion. This attracted more dead people with hungry eyes.

Ramses turned on the heater. The blessed warmth enveloped them.

Ksenia could not hear the ghastly moaning of the creatures, and she closed her eyes not to see them as well. In a couple minutes, her eyelids drooped, and she fell asleep exhausted.

Ramses drove the van, hitting the dead things with the bumper and rolling over them. When he turned the corner of the hotel building, he saw that he would not be able to drive around the abandoned cars and the fir trees lining the driveway. They were trapped in the backyard. He brought the vehicle into a halt.

Ksenia was sleeping, her chin on her chest and her matted hair covering her face.

At least we are inside a fortress on wheels, Ramses thought.

He searched the dead driver and found a plastic credit card, a wad of chewing gum wrapped into a sticky note, a passport, a bundle of assorted keys and a shiny separate key. No weapons. He took the items and shoved them into the glove compartment.

Then he pushed the corpse out of the van.

“Sorry, pal. Three’s a crowd.”


Room 317 was quiet, but it was not lifeless. Goran Pavic was lying in the bed, his hands clasped behind his neck. He was looking at the ceiling. A young woman was lying beside him. Naked. Her rosebud nipples were half covered with a cascade of red hair. His semen was drying on her belly. Her chambermaid’s black-and-white uniform was in a heap by the bed.

“Goran?” She stroked his raven black hair. He kept on staring at the ceiling. Saying nothing.

“Are we all going to die?”

He closed his eyes and said nothing.

“I’m scared.” She put her head on his chest. “Talk to me. Please.” He felt hot breath on his skin.

He sighed, and his hand touched the shock of her red fluffy hair. But he kept silent.

She looked at the watch on his wrist. “It’s ten already. We’re late. Everyone must be looking for us.”

His lips parted. “Let them.” He opened his eyes.

She smiled. She liked the way he spoke Russian with his funny Serbian accent.

Silence followed his words again.

“Was the war in Yugoslavia worse than this?” she said.

He looked at her but kept silent. It frightened her. A couple minutes ago he was so warm when he was inside her. Now he was as cold as an iceberg.

“Will you kiss me?”

His eyes turned into slits. He brushed her hand away and sat on the bed.

“Time to go,” he said, looking at his watch. “The meeting’s in the conference hall in fifteen minutes. And I need to check the things in the kitchen once again.”

“Goran … Won’t you kiss me?”

He went up to the chair where his clothes were hanging, and started to get dressed. He turned his back to her.

“Why are you so silent all of a sudden? You’re acting like I’m not here.” There was sadness in her voice.

“Can’t see anything wrong in silence,” he said, without looking at her. “Do we have to fill the air with chatter all the time?”

“It’s not just chatter.” She pouted, sitting up. “What kind of a man are you? Can’t you even pretend you have some feelings?”

He put his shirt down and turned to her. “I don’t love you, all right? Straight and simple. These are my feelings. Is that what you want to know?”

She looked at him with her big gray eyes. The right words died on her lips.

“And I don’t want to pretend,” he said. “It was just a fuck. Like a handshake. Now I need to go.”

His sperm was feeling cold against her skin now. She stood up, wiped her stomach and started putting her clothes on.

“Oh, you’re such a bastard,” she hissed through her teeth.

“Hey, woman,” Goran said and pointed his index finger at her. “You watch that mouth of yours! What the heck do you want from me, huh? I told you, I like you, but enough only to sleep with you. We’ve made an agreement, remember? That was pretty sincere. To my thinking.”

“I just feel like a whore.”

Goran looked up at the ceiling. “Nobody says you’re a whore.”

The cufflink he was holding slipped through his fingers and fell to the floor. He looked at her.

“Look, Marina, I am really sorry. I thought we had agreed.”

“You’re a freak. You know that?” Disappointment clouded her eyes. “A fucking freak.”

He sighed and looked at the ceiling again. “Oh, Lord! Chicks are just impossible sometimes.”

Marina adjusted her chambermaid’s uniform in front of the mirror and burst out crying. She was about to leave the room, when he came up to her and said, “Please wait.”

She stopped and turned to him. “What now?”

He took her by the hand. “You’ve taken the pill, haven’t you?”

Tears instantly smeared the mascara on her face. Without saying anything, she rushed to the door and slammed it behind her. The door banged shut like a rifle shot.

Goran stood in the sudden quietness of the room. He got on his knees and tried to find the cufflink but failed.

“Jebo te patak!” He took off his other cufflink and threw it against the wall.

Then he went into the bathroom.

“Ah, whatever,” he said and spat into the toilet bowl.


Andy was sitting at a desk on the stage of the conference hall. Diana Grinina, his deputy manager, was sitting near a flip chart opposite him. She was a cute young woman in her early thirties. It was unusual for Andy to see her wearing casual clothes today instead of a strict suit.

“You slept well?” Andy asked her, looking at people seeping into the spacious room one by one.

Diana nodded to a short Chinese man, who came into the room, escorted by a tall Chinese teenage girl, who had sunglasses on. They sat near Goran Pavic, who was having a lively conversation with a blonde woman.

“I was worried about my mother all night,” Diana said. “She lives in Yekaterinburg. I hope she’s well. But then I slept like a baby. All this stress and fear … My God.”

“Let’s hope this disaster is being stopped,” Andy said, putting his hand on her hand. “I saw tanks in the street. The military are trying to contain it.”

She nodded silently.

He looked at her scars. “How’s your cheek?”

She touched her cheek and said, “It’s all right. The pain is gone.”

“I hope it’ll heal before your wedding,” Andy said. “Is that the Russian expression?”

She smiled. “The doctor said there won’t be any scars left once the stitches are removed. Though, I have to look like Chucky the Killer Doll for a couple of weeks.”

Andy sighed. “It’s a miracle we’ve survived this nightmare.”

He flashbacked to the moment, when mutilated corpses started slamming against the main door, foaming at their mouths, and felt a snake of terror uncurling in his stomach.

Two big guys wearing camouflage uniforms sat in the front row. One of them had a snub-nosed Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. Cash messengers. They were in the lounge removing the money from the ATM when the chaos broke loose, and they sealed the main entrance in time before the crazies could rush inside the hotel.

Andy looked at his Piaget watch. 10:10 a.m. He glanced around the room, which contained two hundred seats. It was the best conference hall in Chelyabinsk, and it was packed with all modern high-tech equipment. A large LED screen was installed above the stage. It could even boast a simultaneous interpretation booth. The only one in the city.

He had tried to contact the owner of the hotel who resided in Vienna but failed because there was no phone and Internet connection. Now it was up to him to make all the decisions.

Not all the seats were taken in the hall.

Less than a third here, Andy thought. Maybe even less than a quarter. The rest are in their rooms, asleep or afraid to go out.

The Arkaim Hotel could accommodate up to four hundred guests and it had been ninety percent filled before the zombie crisis. Some people had checked out on that harrowing Saturday morning and gone to the airport or the railway station. Some of them had gone outside and never returned. Or they had come back as frenzied cannibals and shredded both of the doormen into pieces of bloody flesh. Half of the staff had escaped from the building.

Andy was looking at the people entering the hall and doing his mental calculations. There were about two hundred people in the hotel all in all. The item on Andy’s current to-do list was the headcount.

The people talked quietly, coughed, shuffled their feet, or sat silently. A man with disheveled hair had brought sandwiches and a thermos flask and was eating, looking thoughtfully through the window at the morning sky.

Andy looked at the gathering audience. In a span of two days, they became not just his customers and employees. He was feeling a personal responsibility for all these people.

When everyone was seated, Andy came up to the front of the stage. Diana stood next to him to interpret his speech into Russian.

“Please put up your hand if you don’t understand Russian at all,” Andy said in English.

Four hands were raised. An old bearded man, a young man with Nordic features and the Chinese man, and the teenage girl, apparently his daughter.

“Khorosho. That means I can risk speaking Russian instead. Hello everyone,” Andy said in Russian. Diana was taken aback a little, as she was ready to interpret from English to Russian and not vice versa. “My name is Andrew Thomas. I am the General Manager of this hotel. Er … I can’t find the right words now, firstly, because Russian is not my native language. Please excuse me. And, secondly, the situation we’re presently in is very dire.

“But I’m happy to see all of you here. Safe and alive. Hopefully, everything is going to be all right with you and with your relatives and friends.”

He paused and scanned the hall. He saw despair and hope in people’s faces.

“As you see,” he went on, “the hotel is officially closed at the moment. We accept no check-ins.”

He tried to smile. Some of the guests chuckled nervously.

He dug out a piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at it. “We have two issues of primary concern on the agenda today: protection and food supply.”

One of the two cash messengers, a big guy with a round face, rose from his seat to be seen and said, “The garage entrance is not going to hold for long. It’s giving way. Maybe a couple more hours. Give or take.”

“Thanks,” Andy said. “We’ll reinforce the barricades. What’s your name?”


“Okay, Marcel. We’ll talk about it.”

The cash messenger sat down.

“Can you tell us what’s going on?” said a woman with a little boy sitting in her lap.

“I don’t know how to describe what I’m feeling right now,” Andy said. “What exacerbates everything is the fact that we know nothing about what is really happening in this city. It could be a war or a coup. It could be anything. Our main goal here is to survive till the government and the army restore order in the city. So that we’ll be able to see our loved ones. I realize you all have families out there. And I hope they’re safe and sound. The same your families would wish for you — to save your lives, to be able to see you, to be able to hug you again someday.”

The woman with the little boy started crying and left the hall. Andy asked one of the security guards to accompany them to their room.

“And we’ll survive only if we pool our forces together,” Andy went on. “We have safety in numbers. We have people of different occupations, qualifications, and expertise here. Well, I honestly hope you did not come to this town as a delegation for a stockbroker convention.”

People laughed in the audience. Diana looked at Andy and smiled.

“I hope we have medical doctors here, engineers, mechanics, electricians.” Andy made a pause. “Who else will we need? Athletes, welders, hunters, cooks … Hopefully, an assassin or two is present among you.”

More people laughing.

“With your knowledge, you can survive and help others to survive.”

Andy picked up a big book with the green cover from the desk. “I’m asking all of you now to come up and check in again. In this log book. It’s a paper book, as I anticipate power outages.”

“That’s a good idea,” Marcel said. His partner nodded in agreement.

Andy took a pen out of his breast pocket and invited everyone including the staff to go through registration.

“Please state your name, the number of your room and your useful skills. As of now, you’re free of charge. Let’s stay together and let this place really be your home away from home.”

People started clapping their hands.

Diana whispered to Andy, “You’re making progress in Russian.”

Andy rolled his eyes.

Goran stood up and roared with laughter. “Nice speech, William Wallace!”

Andy thanked everyone for their support.

“Now, as for protection,” he said, looking around the room in search of his security manager. “Where is Sorokin?” he addressed the guards.

The guards looked at each other. One of them flicked his finger at his Adam’s apple. Drunk.

“Great,” Andy muttered through his teeth.

“Andy,” Goran said. “How many times have I told you that you shouldn’t have hired an ex-cop!”

Andy frowned and went on. “I have to warn you that whoever’s outside the walls of this building,” he pointed at the windows, “are not human beings anymore. You can’t talk to them. You can’t beg them or please them. You can’t cooperate with them. Obviously, all they need is to feed. On whatever comes in their way. I know it’s not logical, but let’s face the bitter truth.”

People were absorbing each word Andy was saying.

“For how long are you going to keep us here?” A red-faced man with a big belly asked him. He held a beer can in his hand. There was a towel around his neck.

“No one’s keeping you here, brother,” Goran said. “You can hit the road any time you want. I can open any window for you to jump the hell out!”

“Hey, shut your trap!” The man’s face got redder. He leaned forward. “Who do you think you are?”

“No, you shut up!” Goran said.

The man got angry and stood up. He was about to attack Goran like a ferocious pit bull. Andy gave a silent sign to his guards, and they rose threateningly from their seats.

Diana held her hand up. “That’s enough, everybody! We’re going to stay here as long as deemed necessary. It’s not our choice. The hotel just happens to be the safest place around here so far. Mr. Pavic is right. We’re not forcing you to stay. But please do not try to leave this building. You’ll put everybody here at risk.”

The man slumped into his chair and seemed to calm down. He slurped his beer, clenching his jaws in anger. He crumpled the empty can and tossed it on the floor.

Andy’s eyes turned into slits but he did not say anything.

We’ll have to close the bar and withdraw all the liquor from rooms, he thought.

Goran got upon the stage. “We’ll check all the possible holes, through which these schizos could get into the hotel. We have to check the food supply as well. As far as I remember, it’s going to be enough for two weeks. If we ration the food, we’ll be able to not worry about it for over three weeks. I just need the exact number of people staying at the hotel. The data at the reception desk are messed up. We’re going to check every room in this building. Door-to-door. Each of the fifteen stories. I guess, the government is not going to help, so we have to keep up somehow until the air is clear. But, people, I’m telling you, the situation is crappy.”

Just as he said those words, the lights in the room went suddenly out.

“See?” Goran said.

“As if we haven’t had enough,” grumbled one of the hotel guests.

Goran turned to Andy. “Shit just keeps piling up.”

Andy cringed at the swear words. He looked wearily at others. “Goran, would you be so kind as to not swear? Save our ears, please.”

“Okay, no problem,” Goran said. “Pardon my French, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll swear in my native tongue, then.”

The conference room had been designed so that it was in the northern wing of the hotel and it wouldn’t be so stifling hot here during summer meetings without air conditioning. The sun was up, and the light was sufficient in the room. But Andy did not want to think about the time when the sun would go down.

“Let’s hope the power outage is temporary,” Andy said.

A dark-complexioned man in his forties raised his hand, “Sir? Do you have a power generator in this facility?” He spoke in English with a heavy Turkish accent.

“Yes, right,” Andy said. “Actually, we do but we haven’t got it installed yet. They delivered it to us two weeks ago.”

“Well,” the man said. “I’m a trained civil engineer. I could be of some help here.”

“Thank you, sir,” Andy said. “What’s your name, please?”

“Erkan Zorlu.”

“It’s a stroke of luck that we have you here, Mr. Zorlu.”

The man nodded and smiled. “Call me Erkan. Glad to be of service.”

“Fuck!” Goran exclaimed and slapped his forehead with his hand. “I mean, sranje! The fridges! Of course!”

Andy looked at Goran. He didn’t frown this time. He started getting used to Goran’s cussing. “What about them?”

“The perishable food supplies will go rot soon without the power if the outage is permanent. We have to do something about it.”

Andy nodded. “Yes, you’re right.”

“And also water,” Goran said. “Back in my teenage years, I was in the siege of our city during the Yugoslav Wars, and we suffered from lack of water.”

“Yes,” Marcel said worriedly.

“Yeah,” Goran said. “We gotta fill all the bathtubs and all the receptacles we can find with water.”

“Besides, there is the water in the pools,” Andy remarked.

“We also have to keep the drinking water and non-drinking water separate,” added Erkan.

“So, water won’t be a problem,” Andy said.

“But we have to do it fast,” Goran said. “Who knows what will happen next? Water supply cutoff?”

“I’m afraid to even to think about it,” Diana said. “And also about the heating cutoff.”

People got agitated about the current problems, and it was getting noisy in the audience. It took Andy five minutes to call everybody to order.

A young man raised his hand. “Can you give me a gun so I could protect myself and my family?”

The red-faced troublemaker snorted. “A gun! One gun won’t help you much if you come across a crowd of those bloodsuckers. You’re walking meat for them.”

“Now this is really a big problem,” Andy said. “We have only five firearms in the hotel. They’re with the security guards.”

The family man looked disappointed.

It’s six, actually, but they don’t need to know about my shoulder holster, Andy thought. Besides, it’s still a drop in the ocean.

“We never needed so many weapons,” Andy said.

“Nine firearms,” said Marcel’s partner, a tall guy, wearing a black sports cap. He showed his Kalashnikov and a handgun and pointed to Marcel’s same set of arms. “Count us in.”

“And what shall we do then?” said the family man. “I got a wife and two kids in my room.”

“Oh man,” the tall cash messenger said. “There’s a lot of stuff you can use here for killing— knives, forks, table and chair legs, hammers, screwdrivers, pool cues. Take your pick. Hell, you can even kill using a fucking mascara pen eyeliner.” He tossed a pellet of chewing gum into his mouth.

Marcel said to the man, “Gleb, you’ve always been a professional.”

Gleb sat back, smirked and started chewing the gum.

“What are you talking about?” said the red-faced beer drinker. He had opened another beer can already. “Without arms, we’re all going to be fucking fodder for those freaks in no time!”

There was a general commotion again, and Andy had to dismiss the meeting.

“We’ve had enough of talking,” Andy said. “The sooner we begin doing something, the better.”

After the meeting, everyone was given a task to do. Some people helped to reinforce the barricades near doors, dragging all the sofas, tables, chairs, hassocks, and whatnot from the upper floors to block the doorways. Erkan Zorlu went into the basement to install the power generator. The sanitary engineer and two technicians helped him. The garage door had to be sealed, and Erkan could handle a welder’s equipment. He did his job in three hours.

The chambermaids continued to serve in the rooms. Some of them sought to escape from fear and depression, and they wanted to be around people. They were glad to be useful again. The guests were supportive and helped the maids. It seemed ridiculous to be complaining about dirty linen or dirty pillows in a critical situation like this when everything was falling apart. Some of them put their rooms in order themselves.

The waiters and waitresses went back to their duties. Due to the shortage of waiters, some of the guests volunteered to help out at mealtimes.

None of the guards were gone during the beginning of the chaos. Many strong men among the guests offered to be guards.

Andy understood that the people were close to panic, and it was necessary to go on acting as if everything was normal to keep their spirits up.


Ivan, the guard whose presence was not necessary anymore in the CCTV room because of the power outage, was standing near the window, as Andy walked along the corridor. There was a shade of worry on the man’s face.

“What’s wrong, Ivan?” Andy asked him.

“I don’t know, sir,” the young man said. “I just remember clearly that the cash-in-transit truck was at the north of the building. Now it has moved here.”

“Are you sure?”


“Keep watching,” Andy said. “If you see something unusual,” he held up his walkie-talkie, “let me know.”

“Sure.” Ivan nodded. “Right away.”


Goran ran his kitchen like a general in a battlefield. He was barking out orders to his cook assistants, those of them who hadn’t yet lapsed into depression and had come down into the kitchen to make meals. Some of them had come wearing jeans or other casual clothes, but Goran had made them put on their uniforms. He himself had his immaculately white chef hat on. It gave him extra power in the kitchen.

“Why do we need this outfit?” one of his assistants asked him. “Who cares? We could be dead in an hour.”

“Remember the Second World War history?” Goran asked him. “What was the first sign, which showed that concentration camp prisoners weren’t going to make it and die soon?”

The cook shook his head and looked quizzically at him.

“They stopped cleaning their teeth,” he said.

Nobody said a word.

“And besides,” Goran said. “We’re the Arkaim Hotel. We gotta be goddamn classy at all times.”

Not all of the cooks agreed, but they donned their uniforms anyway.

They hadn’t been so busy since the preparation for St. Valentine’s Day and were bustling in and out, washing dishes, bringing and taking away the trays. There had been no cooking since Saturday when all the employees and guests had had to fight against the unexpected visitors who were thirsty for their blood.

Goran treated his job as an art. This was one of the conditions, on which Andrew Thomas chose his staff: a person should see what he or she does as an art performance. Three days ago he had had twenty cooks under his command. Some of them had been carefully picked by Goran himself. He was a great team builder. But this Sunday he had a skeleton crew — only eight cooks. But he hoped to get some help from volunteers soon. After all, they were going to get the food, too.

A male cook came up to him with a plate in his hands. “It’s a pity, Goran. The fromage blanc is off.”

Goran took the plate, smelled at the cheese and handed it back with a wince. “You know what to do with it. Dispose of everything that is rotten. But don’t get rid of the expired food yet. We don’t know for how long we’ll be trapped here.”

The power had been out for three hours now, and Goran turned a suite on the second floor into an ad hoc fridge storage by bringing all the food there and keeping all the windows open to let the cold February wind preserve the perishable products longer.

Goran came up to the table where a huge cake sat.

Darya Petrakova, a slim woman in her thirties, who worked as a dessert cook, was covering the cake with white chocolate ganache.

“Hey, Dasha,” Goran said, smiling. “That’s a nice job! Yummy!”

He looked at her but she lowered her eyes — blue ice.

She said nothing. She finished the icing and went to the sink to wash her hands.

Goran and Darya had been dating for a week until this new redheaded chambermaid Marina appeared on Goran’s horizon. Naturally, he lost his interest in Darya, who was modest and a bit shy and whose kiss he had managed to steal only twice during this week, and focused his attention on Marina’s head-spinning boobs.

That Friday morning, when the meteorite arrived, he was standing in the middle of the little windowless locker room and kissing Marina on her naked breasts, which burst out her blouse like two ripe honey pomelos.

They heard a key being inserted into the keyhole. It was turned twice, and the door opened.

The couple stopped doing what they had been so passionately doing and looked at Darya, who entered the room. It was her day off, and she dropped by to get some stuff she had left in her locker.

Darya clutched her purse she was carrying and gave a gasp of surprise. Marina let out a trickle of laughter and began hiding her delights. Goran looked angrily at Darya. Darya’s eyes narrowed to pinpoints, and she threw the purse at them. Goran ducked, and the purse caught Marina’s earring. A red droplet of blood fell from the bleeding ear on Marina’s white blouse.

“Are you fucking mental, you fucking cow?” Marina said. She was beside herself with anger. There was a vehement exchange of altercations in rude Russian.

Finally, Darya said, “Look. I don’t want to fight either of you. I’m tired. My mother is ill and needs medicine. Just let me grab my stuff and I’ll leave this place for good. I have to go to the drugstore.” She looked at Marina. “I don’t care about you, poor bitch. The same will happen to you after this womanizer finds a replacement for you.”

She clenched her fists and her nails left pale crescents on her palms.

Marina kicked the purse lying on the floor and sent it flying. Then she went to the door, setting her blouse straight. The door slammed behind her.

“Dasha,” Goran said.

“Please don’t say anything,” Darya said, interrupting him. “Just leave. Have it your way in your life. As you always do.”

She burst out crying. He came up close to her and put his hand on her shoulder. She pulled away from him.

She opened her locker and took out a plastic bag and a watch. As she was trying to lock the locker, her fingers disobeyed her, and she dropped the key. He bent down to pick it up.

“Just leave me alone!” she shouted and slapped him across his face.

As she did it, Goran’s face exploded. For a split second, he thought some explosive hidden inside his head detonated. But his face did not disintegrate. The room shook two or three times. Then it was normal again.

“Sranje!” he exclaimed. He always swore in his mother tongue. He looked at her. “What the hell was that?” He looked astonished, and his face was funny to look at.

Darya stopped crying suddenly. “How do I know?”

The dramatic situation was turning into a comic one.

Goran could not see what was happening outside as there were no windows in the locker room. Darya looked a little frightened. She picked up her purse, and they hurried out of the room.

After Darya had bought the medicine for her mother, she came back to help around in the hotel. And she helped to build the barricades around the main entrance and sealing back entrances and emergency exits the next day, too.

This Sunday morning Darya returned to her duty as a dessert cook. She was glad to be useful again.

There were half a dozen kids in the hotel, and they were to be fed in the first place. Andy wanted to keep everyone’s spirits up, and Goran decided to make a huge cherry cake for them. Cherries were expensive in winter, and with the power outage, they were getting bad pretty soon. That would be a waste of good ingredients.

“All right, guys.” Goran clapped his hands like a teacher in the classroom. “Let’s bring all the sweets up.”

His cooks took the ice-cream cones, bottles of Irn-Bru and boxes of chocolate and went out.

Darya drove a trolley with empty cups and saucers to the door.


The trolley squeaked on its casters and pushed through the door.

He was left alone in the kitchen. He came up to the cake, removed the cherry from the top, threw it into the dustbin and replaced it with a fresher one.

He nodded in approval. “Much better now.”

That very instant, the vent tube above his head broke apart, and a man covered in soot and dirt fell out of its torn womb, flailing his hands in the air as he fell. He landed on top of the cake like a shot bird, splashing the white chocolate around the shiny kitchen. His tattered shirt was speckled with blood.

The man tried to focus his gaze at Goran’s face looking through the dark gray cobweb covering his spectacles, rolled his eyes, and his head smacked against the table surface.


Ramses was having a dream. He often had dreams about his family since the time he had got divorced. He had had both good and bad dreams. Most of the good dreams were about his little daughter. And most of the bad ones were about his wife. He wasn’t sure if this dream was good or bad.

He found himself sitting on a dirty prison bunk. But he wasn’t in a prison, at least not the conventional one. He was in a strange cage, which had been placed inside a huge bell jar. There were glass walls instead of the bars surrounding him and keeping him from the outside world. All the sounds inside the room were hollow as if the air had been sucked out of it, and all there had been left, was a vacuum. The surroundings were dim and foggy. Only some dark contours of trees were visible. It looked like this glass thing was in the middle of a forest. There was a starless night sky above his head. The moon was the only source of light.

He looked at his hands. There was a syringe in his right hand. The point of the needle was glistening with a transparent liquid. A spoon, a can, a bottle cap, cotton swabs, and other drug user’s paraphernalia were scattered on the floor.

He pressed the needle to the crook of his elbow, under his left bicep, where it punctured the skin and penetrated into the vein. He jacked back the plunger and saw his ruby-colored blood in the barrel. He started pushing the plunger slowly, letting the liquid flow into his body. Soon he felt that his head began swimming, and everything became like in slow motion. Sweet poison. He smiled. He grabbed the edge of the bed not to fall over.

A prison guard slowly came up to the bell jar and said something, which Ramses could not hear through the glass. He could read the guard’s lips perfectly, though.

“Hey, Campbell! Your wife has come to see you,” the guard said.

“Is it Sunday already?” Ramses said, trying to focus his gaze on the man in front of him.

The guard said nothing and left.

It did not surprise Ramses that the guard hadn’t done anything about the drugs or hadn’t even said a word. He wasn’t even confused that he was inside a glass prison built in some swampy forest in the dead of night.

He saw his wife coming up. Her gait was graceful. There was a certain noble elegance in the way she was walking through the clouds of mist. She was wearing a black evening dress. The movements of her lithe body reminded him of a snake. Or a voodoo priestess. He recalled that she had Haitian roots.

She stood in front of him and stared at him coldly.

“Hi, Ayana!” He smiled to her and waved his hand, the syringe dropping out of his hand on the floor. “How you been, baby?”

Her face turned into a distorted grimace of fury. She started shouting, though her words could not get through the glass and reach his ears. He mentally blocked his ability to read her lips and did not understand what she was talking about. She was accusing him as usual. Of wasted love, wasted expectations, wasted life … The standard kit of accusations, with which former lovers generally exchange with one another before and after a separation.

“Just shut the fuck up!” He waved impatiently at her, fatigue in his voice. “You hear me?”

She kept on screaming, pointing at him furiously and gesticulating. She was so enraged that the bulging veins showed in her neck.

But he didn’t care. He lay down on his bunk. Warmth was flowing through his body, and her presence did not bother him.

As she realized that her shouting was useless, she began pounding on the glass with her fists. He was looking dumbly at her. She was like a wildcat now. There was so much hatred in her eyes. But she was unable to unleash her anger on him. He felt safe behind the glass.

“Leave me alone,” Ramses muttered. “I’m fed up with your shit! Can’t I have a life of my own?”

He looked around in search of more drugs, but there was nothing left.

It started snowing. His cell was like a snow globe now. Only the snow was outside his dome. But in his vacuum he was warm.

The snowflakes tangled in Ayana’s curly hair. She was crying now. A small figure appeared behind her back. Cherrylyn. Her face was pale. It was whiter than the falling snow. Her mother did not see her coming. The little girl bit her in the stomach, ripping the beautiful dress with her teeth. Blood splashed on the glass and on the white snow. Ayana lost her balance and fell down. Pain settled in her eyes.

“Cherry Berry, no!!” Ramses held his hand up. “What’re you doing, honey?”

His daughter turned her head slowly and looked him straight in the eye. Pieces of torn flesh and the dress fabric were trapped between her teeth.

Ayana made an attempt to get up, but Cherrylyn dug her teeth into her throat.

Ramses cupped his mouth with his hand. He was feeling drowsy. He rose to his feet as he was watching his daughter killing his wife. In a minute Ayana’s eyes got cloudy, and she pressed her eyelids shut.

Cherrylyn came up to the glass and pressed her face against it. Her hands were leaving blood smudges on the glass. When she bared her blood-stained teeth, Ramses woke up.

He opened his eyes and shuddered. A zombie female had flattened her ugly face against the glass window of the cash-in-transit truck. He jerked away from the driver’s window.

The monster was snarling at him but Ramses could not hear her through the thick bulletproof glass.

He shivered, the dreadful visions from his dream still lingering. He tried to get rid of them but failed.

He wiped the cold sweat off his forehead and looked at the clock on the dashboard. 3:25 p.m. He had been sleeping for more than three hours.

It was daylight, but the sun had hidden behind the clouds. It was snowing heavily. Harsh gusts of wind were blowing. The blizzard was covering the truck with a blanket of snow, hiding the people inside from the ugliness of the outside world.

He tapped the fuel gauge. It read almost empty. They had spent all the gas on heating. Soon they would run out of gas, and they would freeze in the truck.

He glanced at Ksenia. She was deeply asleep. The groaning of the zombies did not disturb her sleep due to the soundproof windows. Her hair was disheveled. Her once white sweater was torn and covered with patches of filth. As if she had gone on a drinking binge last night. Ramses took a look at his own clothes. The pants were totally ruined, and he looked as if he had been dragged through a muddy puddle. He touched his hair. He could go for another four days without washing his dreads, though.

He wanted to take a leak so badly he was in pain. He picked a helmet off the floor and pissed in it, covering himself and trying not to wake Ksenia up. Then he opened the roof escape hatch and threw the helmet contains out. The moaning outside was so loud that Ksenia heard the noise and shifted in her sleep, muttering something. He closed the hatch and sealed off the noise and disturbance coming from the outside.

They had eaten and drunk everything there had been in the truck driver’s lunch box — the mashed potatoes with gravy and meat rissoles in a container, the milk in a half-liter carton, bread and a pack of yogurt. Ramses had also eaten the cheese sandwich and finished the half-eaten apple from the backpack. But the feeling of hunger came back again.

The undead woman walked away from the vehicle to join other restless souls wandering around the hotel yard.

Ramses started thinking of possible ways to get inside the hotel but he was so exhausted that he zonked out again. No dreams this time.

In half an hour, Ksenia’s sobbing woke him up. He opened his eyes and saw her weeping, covering her face with her hands.

“Ksenia? What up?”

She stopped crying.

“Nothing,” she said and wiped her tears off her cheeks. “Just woke up and came to realize that the world is going to hell. And my father’s dead … Get me out of here. Please. My leg hurts.”

“You gonna be all right,” Ramses said. “That I promise you.”

He looked through the window. After a lot of gainless efforts, the undead had lost their interest in the truck. But they stuck around.

“Give a honk again,” she said.

“We’ve done this like a million times. The battery’s gonna be dead soon. It’s useless. Just attracts more creatures to us.”

“Just do something to get us out!” Ksenia shouted. “I don’t want to die here!”

Ramses looked at her face — contorted with fear and anger — and sighed. He honked the honker. It was the best he could do.

“Maybe they’re all dead there?” Ramses said.

The walkie-talkie, which was sitting on the dashboard, crackled and started spitting out static. It gave Ksenia a start. Then a male voice spoke in Russian.

Ramses glanced over at Ksenia, a question in his face.

“They want us to respond,” Ksenia interpreted the Russian speech.

He met her glance, grabbed the radio and handed it to her. “Then what the hell are we waiting for?”

Ksenia clicked the button, introduced herself in Russian and said a greeting. There was a moment of confused silence at the other end. Ramses was listening with impatience, a hopeful smile on his face. If it were not for his lack of knowledge of Russian, he would’ve snatched the radio away and spoken himself.

Ksenia interpreted for him what was being said. The man on the radio said his name was Ivan, and he was a security guard.

“Oh thank God,” Ivan said. “We were afraid there’s nobody there. Are you alone there? Over.”

“No,” Ksenia said. “There’s another survivor here. His name is Ramses Campbell. He’s a citizen of the United States.”

“Good!” Ivan said. “Wait a second … The hotel manager wants to talk to you.”

There was a noise in the background, and then a pleasant baritone voice said in English, “Hello there! My name is Andrew Thomas. I’m the General Manager of the Arkaim Hotel, and you are in its territory at the moment.”

“Hi, Andrew,” Ramses said. “I know who you are. I’m your return customer. Checked in a couple days ago.”

Andy chuckled. “These are bizarre circumstances but I’m glad you’re back, Mr. Campbell.”

“Go for Ramses.”

“What kind of name is that? Egyptian by any chance?”

“As a matter of fact, it is,” Ramses said. “But I’m from Cali.”

“Oh, that explains a lot,” Andy said. “All right, guys. How are you holding up there?”

Ramses looked at the fuel gauge again and replied, “We’ve almost run out of gas. And Ksenia has twisted her ankle.”

“How bad is it?”

Ramses turned to Ksenia. “How’s your leg?”

Ksenia tried to stand and grimaced with pain.

“Her leg hurts real bad,” Ramses said into the mike. “She can’t walk.”

“That’s not good,” Andy said. “Here’s what you’re going to do. Drive your vehicle up to the windows. We’ll lower you a stepladder, you climb up and get inside.”

“Sounds too easy,” Ramses said and frowned. “But okay. We’ll try.”

“It should work,” Andy said.

“Copy that.”

Ramses started the engine. The truck moved a couple of meters and stopped.

Ksenia looked at the fuel indicator, which had sat at the zero.

“Damn!” Ksenia said. “We’re out of gas.”

Ramses picked up the walkie-talkie and told about it to Andrew Thomas.

“Roger that,” Andy said with a sigh.

Now the heater stopped functioning, it was going to be cold in the cab soon. A crazy thought crept into his mind — of them freezing and starving to death in this tomb of a truck. Thank God he would have a concubine to accompany him in his life after death. Like a pharaoh. For a brief moment, he could not think straight.

“Just hold on there, Ramses,” Andy said. “We’ll get you out of there. Stand by. Andrew Thomas out.”

In five minutes, a window opened on the first floor, and a young man wearing a business suit looked out. He waved to Ramses, holding his walkie-talkie in his hand. He and another man put a stepladder through the window and placed it on the ground below. Ramses fished out the scope out of the backpack and took a closer look at the windows.

At the other end of the building, another window opened. Right above the crowd of the flesh-eating things. Two men looked out the window.

The Englishman lifted the walkie-talkie to his mouth.

“Hi there! We’ve come up with a rescue plan here,” Ramses heard him say. “Courtesy of Ivan and Goran.” He pointed at the guy with a shortcut and an Italian-looking man.

“When I give you a signal,” Andy went on, “get out of the van and run to this window. You’ll hear a series of explosions. Be not afraid. That’ll be the pyrotechnics. For distraction. We’ve put the stepladder down for you. You’ll use the ladder to climb inside through this window. Our guys will distract the crazy bastards over there.”

About thirty yards between the truck and the windows. We gonna make it, Ramses pondered and pocketed the scope.

“Okay,” he said over the radio. “Let’s give it a try.”

“Just let us know when you’re ready,” Andy said.

“Yeah, I will,” Ramses said.

He turned to Ksenia. “Firecrackers, huh? Can you believe it? They’re gonna use firecrackers to save our asses.” He shook his head. “I like this guy.”

Their preparations did not take much time. They zipped up the backpack, and Ksenia slipped her arms through its shoulder straps to put it on. Ramses gave Ksenia both pistols.

“I’ll give you a piggyback,” he said.

Ksenia smiled. “Nice — never done it since school.”

He looked through the windshield and confirmed that the horizon was clear. Ksenia glanced at the hotel and saw people looking at them through the windows on the second and third floors.

“We got an audience,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, looking up. “I was worried nobody’s gonna see me in action in this town.” He turned to her. “We gonna make it.”

She cocked the guns and nodded. “Then let’s do it.”

He pressed the button on the walkie-talkie. “Okay. Flying in.”

The radio crackled. “Go! Go! Go!”

Ramses put the radio in his pocket, thrust the door open and jumped out of the truck.

Cold wind pierced his body. He leaned down, and Ksenia climbed his back. Once he started running, he heard the crack of the firecrackers coming from the hotel building. With his peripheral vision, he saw a rocket dancing a wild dance on the snow-covered ground, hissing and sending white and blue sparks everywhere. It finally hit the nearest walking dead and set its clothes on fire. Some zombies took the bite and went toward this strange fest. But some of them headed toward Ramses and Ksenia.

Ksenia chose not to wait until they would come close to them and started shooting.

A female undead, a former paramedic, stood in their way. Ksenia pointed both guns at her and knocked her off her feet with two powerful blasts. The gunshots were louder than the pops of the firecrackers, and in a moment more zombies turned the corner of the building staggering on their feet and raising their arms.

Ksenia’s father’s Makarov started giving dry clicks, and Ramses had to make a big arc around a group of six ghouls.

The people in the building understood their distraction strategy had turned out not too successful, and they started using firearms on the undead monsters, too.

Ramses was close to the ladder now. There were half a dozen of the living dead blocking the way to it. Ksenia’s second gun fell silent now.

“I’m out!” she said.

“Don’t scream into my ear,” he said, panting. “I can hear you loud and clear.” He kept carrying her, though her weight was putting him down, and the thirty yards seemed like a hundred now. He remembered his firefighter years again.

A couple of shots from the friendly side sent two zombies falling down on the crispy snow. A dead man approached Ramses and Ksenia with a drunken gait. He lifted his gnarly hands and walked to them. Ramses put Ksenia on the ground and delivered a kick to the creature’s face. The deadhead fell and stayed down, his spinal bones shattered.

Ksenia was reloading her guns with trembling hands.

Two more creatures stood between them and the stepladder. Ramses heard two pops and both the zombies sprawled on the ground.

Ramses looked up and saw Andrew Thomas, standing at the window, a curl of smoke rising from his gun.

Ksenia jumped on one leg toward the ladder. Ramses grabbed the backpack and threw it at the window.

Damn, Ramses thought belatedly. There’s still a hand grenade there.

“Watch out!” he shouted.

Ivan caught the backpack and started to help Ksenia climb in. After she disappeared through the window, Ramses began climbing up the ladder.

He got off the ground just in time before a zombie snapped at his boots. He kicked the creature in the gray face with a delightful smacking sound. The monster let go of the ladder and fell off.

Ramses crawled on the windowsill and pushed the ladder away, which crashed down on and buried the ghoul under its weight.

Ramses’s leg got caught in the jalousie, and he collapsed on the floor head down. Ksenia was fast enough to move away.

He sat up beside Ksenia and looked around. It was an office room. They were safe now. He tried to get up but slipped on the office linoleum and fell down. This made him laugh, and he broke the wind. But he was not embarrassed at all. It was really a moment of relief.

The security guard shut the window.

“Oh, thank God,” Ksenia said through the pain in the ankle to the people who were standing surrounding them. “Thank you, whoever you are.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Andy said. “Privet! And welcome to the Arkaim Hotel — your home away from home.”

And he extended his hand toward her.

Ramses rose to his feet and looked out the window. The crowd of the living dead had become bigger. They were raising their hands toward him and scraping the wall.

“Damn! That was close!”

He shut the window and started shaking everyone’s hand. He was beside himself with joy.

Ivan, the security guard, helped Ksenia to her feet and sat her on the little couch.

Ramses had the strange feeling that he had lost touch with reality. They had escaped death by the skin of their teeth. Now they were surrounded with people. Living people. Who were here to help them. And who did help them by saving their lives. He could not believe they were safe again.

The hotel people brought them steaming coffee in thick clay mugs with cookies and snacks. They gave Ksenia a warm blanket, and she wrapped herself into it.

It got noisy in the hallway, as people were curious about the newcomers and tried to look into the room. Andy asked Ivan to wait outside and not let anyone in.

Drinking the coffee and digging hungrily into the food, Ramses gave a glance around the room. It was spacious. A heavy mahogany desk sat in the middle of the room. Certificates on the wall. Bookcases full of books with gold spines. A woven rug on the floor.

“This is my office,” Andy said. “My former office, to be more precise. We don’t use the rooms and offices on the ground floor anymore.”

The moans of the living dead roaming outside reached their ears. It was getting dark.

“Too dangerous,” Goran added, though there was no need to say the obvious.

Ramses nodded. “The fuckers.”

Ksenia briefly told their rescuers about their adventures.

“I’m very sorry about your father,” Andy said.

After a knock on the door, a desk clerk entered the office and gave Andy two keys.

“Your room is still free, Mr. Campbell,” Andy said handing him one of the keys. “It’s an ordinary key. We’re currently out of power. So no key cards so far.”

“It’s a massive power outage,” Ksenia said. “Around the whole city, I guess.”

Andy nodded. “So I see. We’re accommodating new guests, though.”

Ramses smiled and clutched the key. “Thanks, man. But we won’t be able to pay you for the next week. With the situation around.”

“It’s a civil war out there,” Andy said. “What are you talking about? Like I said before — welcome. We’ll have to think all together how to get out of this mess and survive.”

Ramses shook the key in his hand and said, “I really appreciate that. I guess I have to earn my stay here now. I’m pretty good at lots of things. I can be useful.”

Andy flashed a smile. “We’ll think about it tomorrow. How does that Russian proverb go? The morning is wiser than the evening. Sleep on it. Tidy yourselves up and have a little rest.”

“Yeah,” Ksenia said wearily. “We sure need it.”

Andy turned to Ksenia and gave her the second key. “And this one’s yours, Ma’am.”

“Thank you,” Ksenia said. “I hope there’s a shower there.”

“There is,” Andy said. “One more thing. Mobile connection is down too. So don’t lose your walkie-talkie.”

He gave them other important instructions and told them the nurse was not in the hotel. Her shift had been over before the chaos started, and she had gone home. All staff members were trained in basic first aid procedures, and they could save a choking person in a restaurant but their skills did not include treating ankle injuries. There were two medical doctors among the hotel guests. One of them refused to help, though. The other one was in Steven Clayton’s room. Ramses was happy to hear that his friend was still alive.

Ramses looked impatiently at Ksenia. “Let’s go.”

He helped Ksenia to walk up the stairs to the fifth floor. She was limping very badly. The desk clerk and a floor concierge helped Ksenia go up to her room.

“My room is on the right, next to yours,” Ramses said. “Just knock on the wall if you need something. I’m a pretty good masseur.” He winked.

“You better get me that doctor,” she said.

“Yeah.” His face got serious. “I’ll try.”

Ksenia closed the door and went straight to the bathroom to take a shower.

Ramses left the backpack in his room and went out again. It was dark in the hallway. He came up to Steve Clayton’s room and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” a raspy male voice said in English. But it didn’t belong to Steve.

Ramses opened the door and stepped into half-darkness. In the dim light of burning candles, he saw Steve lying in the bed, his eyes closed, his face covered with lacerations and bruises. An old man about seventy years old, with a gray beard and mustache, clad in a gray tweed suit and wearing spectacles, was sitting in a chair beside Steve and reading a book with a golden cross on the cover. The Holy Bible.

“Hi,” Ramses said. “Who are you?”

“My name is Dr. Erich Brodde,” the old man said, without getting up. He spoke with some European accent, which Ramses could not yet place. Dutch, maybe?

“What are you doing here?” Ramses asked.

“I’m a priest,” Dr. Brodde said.

Ramses’s heart sank and skipped a beat.

“Oh my God,” he said. “What has happened? Is he dead?” He came up to the bed.

“No,” Dr. Brodde said. “He’s unconscious right now. He has a head trauma. But he’s breathing. He’s alive. I hope he’s going to be all right. He has a chance.”

“Thank God,” Ramses said.

“Yes, he’s in God’s power now,” Dr. Brodde said and closed the Bible.

“You’re a medical doctor too?”

“Yes. I used to work for the Red Cross.”

Ramses felt relieved to have a physician around his friend.

“Was he bit? Is he infected?”

“No,” Dr. Brodde said. “No cuts or bites.”

“Did you check his eyeballs?”

“What?” Dr. Brodde looked bewildered. “Why?”

“‘Cause if they’re bloodshot, he might be infected.”

The old priest lifted Steve’s eyelids carefully. The man’s eyeballs were milky white.

Ramses breathed out a sigh of relief. “No infection. Thank goodness.”

“So you know something about this disease, don’t you?” There was a curious look in the old man’s face. “You must tell me about it.”

“There isn’t much to know,” Ramses said. “You get bit — you better start taking harp lessons.”

Dr. Brodded nodded. “Ja.”

Ramses sat on a chair. “You have a European accent, right?”

“Right. I come from Germany,” Dr. Brodde said. “What’s your name, please?”

“Ramses Campbell. I am from San Francisco.”

They shook hands.

“Well, Mr. Campbell, Mr. Clayton here needs a rest now. I’ll let you know about his state of health as soon as something changes.”

“Thank you, Doc. He means a lot to me. He’s my friend. Please keep an eye on that mofo, will you?”


Ramses jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “My room is right across the hallway. Call me, if he comes to.”

“Oh ja, ja. Sure.” The old German adjusted his spectacles and took the Bible.

Ramses went out of the room and closed the door quietly behind him. He looked at his dirty outfit and went to take a shower too.

When he walked out of the bathroom, he saw flashes of fire through the window. An apartment house across the street was in flames. A moving mass of the squirming creatures, which had flooded the street, was visible in the light of the burning building. There were hundreds of them. He could hear the roaring of helicopters somewhere in the distance.

There was a hollow knock on the wall. Ramses went to the door, drying himself with the towel. Ksenia stood outside.

“You shouldn’t have gone out yourself,” Ramses said to her.

“I need my gun. And the mags.”

He brought her the Makarov pistol and the spare magazines.

“Well, I’m going to turn in now,” she said. “I’m totally exhausted. See you in the morning.”

“Scream if you need me,” Ramses said and closed the door.

He changed his clothes and went out to the floor lounge, where people were sitting in armchairs and chatting.

The power generator had been installed, and the power was restored so the lounge was lit. There was no power in the rooms, though.

Everything seemed to be normal in the hotel as before, when he arrived, except for two things: the barricades near the entrances, because of which the guests were not able to go sightseeing or to visit their business partners, and the constant, ceaseless monotonous moaning of the living dead, searching for prey outside. For some people, though, the moaning had a hypnotic effect, and they fell asleep with no trouble.

One of the guests had brought out a portable radio set with batteries. There was only one federal radio channel functioning. No local stations. Static hissed like a scared cat on other channels. After a merry program for kids, there was a news bulletin. Ramses asked the floor concierge to translate the news for him. The concierge, a man in his early twenties, whose nametag said his name was Denis, retold him the news in broken English.

The first report was about the city of Chelyabinsk being under attack of terrorists. There was an emergency situation in the city. No one was allowed in. No one out. The special forces were looking for the terrorists, who had allegedly blown up the zinc plant, but in general, the situation was “under control.”

This statement aroused a wave of indignation among the hotel guests. A plastic glass flew past Ramses, hit the radio set and ricocheted splashing coffee droplets to the floor. People in the lounge were shouting out curses. Ramses asked Denis to explain what was happening, and Denis explained.

“What a piece of bullshit!” Ramses said in an angry voice.

“This is how Moscow always treat us,” an elderly woman said. “As if we’re shit or something. We’re going to die here, and nobody in the Kremlin would give a piece of shit.”

She went to her room, in floods of tears.

The next report was about the meteorite which had recently crashed in the Lake of Chebarkul. The news flash was followed by a silly talk show hosted by a silly pop star.


At midnight, before going to sleep, Ramses came to check on Steve.

He could hear Steve’s roaring laughter behind the door.

When he came in, Steve was sitting in the bed upright with his back propped against the pillow. He was eating soup with noodles. A candle was burning on the table, casting long shadows on the floor and walls.

“… really amazing! Haha!” Steve was laughing. “And what did then the skunk do?”

“It just crept into my sleeping bag and died there,” Dr. Brodde said.

“Yuck,” Steve said and stuck out his tongue. He squinted his eyes, put on his glasses and saw Ramses standing in the middle of the room. He smiled a wide smile. “Ramsey! I’ll be damned! You’re alive!”

He put the dish away and gave Ramses a big hug.

“No,” Ramses said. “I’ll be damned! Look at you. Where have you been? Helping out a janitor?”

“We got trapped, man,” Steve said slowly. “Vassili and me. Vasya is dead.”

Ramses sighed. “Oh shit, man. I’m so sorry.” He was silent for a moment and then said, “Is he dead proper, or is he … like one of them?”

Steve looked at Ramses and then at Dr. Brodde. “He is deadly dead. I took care of that.”

They lapsed into silence again.

“Ramsey,” Steve broke the silence, “please meet Dr. Brodde. He’s been telling me great stories about his years in the Red Cross.”

“Oh, we’ve already met,” Ramses said.

Dr. Brodde looked at his watch. “I have to go now. There’s a young lady who also needs my help.” He turned to Ramses. “Is the girl you’ve come with in her room now?”

“Yeah,” Ramses said. “But she must be sleeping now.”

“Good, then I’ll see her in the morning,” Dr. Brodde said.

He put a bottle of pills on the table.

“Mr. Clayton, if you have a headache, take these. They are mine, but you need them more than me.”

“Thank you, Father,” Steve said.

As Dr. Brodde left, Steve looked at Ramses. “You’re one lucky crazy sumbitch.”

“You know what your problem is?” Ramses said. “You don’t take life seriously. Otherwise, you’d be a great mentor.”

“Never wanted to be a teacher. What do we do now?”

“You know, I’m starting to miss those burritos.”

Steve laughed. Then his face became serious. “Okay. We have to get out of here.”

“But how?”

“One problem at a time,” Steve said. “First off, we have to admit we’re in deep ass.”

“I concur, we’re there,” Ramses said. “What next?”

“Secondly, we gotta be sure this place is secure.”

“This place does look pretty secure to me.”

“This place consists not only of bricks and mortar,” Steve said.

Ramses said wearily, “Okay, Yoda. You’ll clear this up for me in the morning. I’m tired as shit.”

Steve told Ramses about how he and Vassili had been locked up in the parking lot by the scared garage attendant.

Then Steve said, “Thanks for staying alive again.”

“Happy to oblige.”

They talked for half an hour, and Ramses could see Steve was tired and said good night. He was exhausted himself.

“Remember, my friend,” Steve said as Ramses went to the door. “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.”

Ramses frowned and thought. “Errr … Let me guess … Steven Harper Clayton?”

Steve smiled. “No, the Dalai Lama.”

Ramses smiled back. He turned the door handle but then halted. “Say, where’s Lena? The girl from the Diorama club?”

“Oh, that one,” Steve said. “You were right about her, Ramsey. She took off in the middle of the night when I refused to pay her. Then she threatened to file a report to the police. Rape and stuff.”

“Fuck, man.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Was a pretty good fuck, though.”

“Okay, buddy, have a good night,” Ramses said. “Cowabunga!”

Steve clenched his fist and shook it in the air. “Turtle power.”

On his way to his room, Ramses knocked on Ksenia’s door. No one responded. He opened the door and came in. “Hey, Ksenia,” he said in a whisper, “you okay?”

In the light coming from the hallway, he could see Ksenia was fast asleep. He closed the door as quietly as he could and left.

In about five minutes there was a knock on his door.

He opened it. Ksenia stood in the dark hallway. She was wearing a waitress’s uniform. She held a pillow and a blanket in her hands.

“Room service,” she said.

“Hey, hey,” Ramses said and whistled. “Cute outfit.”

Ksenia looked at her new clothes and smiled. “Just my size.”

She looked at him. “Please let me stay in your room. Just for one night. I’m scared to be alone.”

“All righty,” Ramses said. “My home is your home.”

“But don’t get any fancy ideas,” she said, holding up her gun.


Sitting in a military helicopter, General Petrov was looking down on the city below. He was old and gray but his sight was still keen enough to pick out burning cars and smoking buildings. Chelyabinsk was rapidly turning into a graveyard. The deadly virus had broken loose and created havoc and chaos. The Government was fast enough to assess the situation and to realize that it was grave and would not come under control easily. Drastic measures had to be taken quickly. They decided to isolate the threat and contain the virus in the city which had become the epicenter of the outbreak. The general had to take under control the territory, which was over a hundred square miles.

Today was Wednesday, and it was the fifth day of the military campaign called Operation Steel Ring, which was under General Petrov’s command. The primary goal of the operation was to seal off the city. No one was allowed to leave it. As the Russian saying goes, not even a fly should cross the border.

One of the first flies to cross the borderline was the Mayor, who had made an attempt to flee from the infected city by helicopter. One missile hit and the five million dollars budget money had been burned in the air. Together with the pilot, the Mayor, his wife, their two adorable blonde daughters, and the Mayor’s mother-in-law.

The general was leafing through documents with updates on the current situation in the city. The origin of the disease was unknown yet, but there was no doubt that it was a disease. The analysts had found links between the contagion and the meteorite fall. On a Friday morning last week, in the vicinity of the meteorite impact on Lake Chebarkul, they found a man, who was lying unconscious on the ice. There was a dog bite on his leg. They found out that the man was a local forester, Pavel Bandurov, forty years old. Nobody knew exactly what he was doing at the lake. Obviously, he was attracted by the spectacular celestial show and came to see the place where the meteorite had fallen. The police found the dog which had presumably bitten him. It was chained in the yard of the forester’s house. It was very aggressive and foaming at the mouth. These were indicators of rabies. The dog was shot dead when it tried to attack a police officer.

The forester needed urgent medical attention, but the Chebarkul hospital was really poorly equipped for critical patients. People died in the intensive care unit of this hospital like flies. So he was taken to a hospital in Chelyabinsk.

The next day the chaos began. The city residents just became berserk all of a sudden and started killing each other. The traffic in the city and the metro area collapsed and became nonexistent. Thousands of cars were stranded on the streets, curbs, and sidewalks. Even pizza delivery guys on scooters would have found it hard to maneuver around the abandoned vehicles. Hospitals were overcrowded. All police and army units were activated. Tanks were rumbling through the city streets. Battle helicopters hovered overhead.

On the first day of the crisis, the police failed to regain order in the city. The military planners too were unsure how to act. There was no protocol, no military strategy for these new circumstances. The military were unwilling to shoot unarmed civilians. They applied non-lethal weapons against the targets first. That was how General Petrov and his Headquarters Staff related to the infected ones — targets or enemy.

The general put the documents away and closed his eyes. He wanted to catch some sleep before he arrived at headquarters. For the past five days, he had only been able to sleep two hours a day. He tried to sleep but thoughts battered his mind. He recalled the Saturday’s battle at the bridge on Sverdlovsky Avenue. He was personally in the middle of the war zone. It had been carnage.

First, they tried tear gas, which proved to be useless. Then water cannons went into combat. The water supply was in abundance. They pumped the water for the cannons directly from the river Miass, which flows under the bridge. For plain human beings, a hard jet of icy water in the chest on a cold winter night would be lethal. But those were not plain human beings they were dealing with. High-pressure streams of water knocked the targets off their legs. They fell down in a pile, breaking their arms and legs, but still continued to crawl. It was a tangle of shambling and coiling creatures. More targets climbed on top of them. The water was mixed with pink dye, and the attackers were colored pink. The picture was surreal. Pink undead walking and falling but keeping coming at the soldiers, without blinking in the bright light of the searchlights. And hunger was their leader.

Up to the last minute, the soldiers believed that their fellow citizens would stop, look around them in surprise, dust down and go away. But that was not happening. These things were not going to stop. What could only be seen in Hollywood movies was now a morbid reality. Their friends, neighbors, kids, and relatives were coming at them to make a hearty dinner out of them. Some of the soldiers had panic attacks and abandoned their positions. The rest of them opened fire and the meat grinder was turned on.

It was not clear what further actions the military should take, and they decided to just blockade the city until further orders from Moscow. Curfews were introduced. All the roads were blocked by soldiers. They cut off all railway connections. All connection to the outer world had been severed. The airport had been closed too. With passengers trapped inside the building.

There were block posts every two miles. Of course, there were leakages, but the military combed forests and nearby villages with a fine-tooth comb. There were posters advising villagers to report on any strangers and outsiders to the police or the military immediately because of the terrorist threat. If anyone managed to escape and break through the police and military cordons, or they found a gap in the border through the woods, they were stopped by the outer posts. They were accommodated then at one of the four ad hoc quarantine facilities set up on the city borders — in the north, in the south, in the west and in the east.

The media were shut down. The reporters were told the city was under the terrorists’ attack. People were deprived of Internet usage within the boundaries of the city. The Government did not like the idea of someone making videos of soldiers and police officers shooting at civilians and posting them on YouTube or social media to show what was going on around here. On Sunday, power supply was cut off as well.

General Petrov noticed that there were a lot of military men working on the operation who were from other parts of the country. He himself had come here from Moscow last Saturday.

There were lots of snipers stationed in the city and along the city borders. There was a sudden demand for snipers. Even reserve snipers were mobilized for service. But still, that was not enough. They started employing civilians, mostly students of shooting schools, as snipers. The snipers had taken their positions in trees, on the ground, in abandoned apartments and on top of office buildings. They were told that there had been numerous jailbreaks all over the city, and their goal was to kill the convicts, who were trying to escape from the city.

Lots of the newly enrolled snipers were hunters from Siberia and the Far East. The perfect candidates among them were those who stated in their military questionnaires that they had no relatives among the city residents. These guys pressed the trigger without thinking twice. No regret. No remorse. They hesitated, though, when they saw children among the targets but kept doing their job. The pay was good.

The snipers’ role was crucial at the city borders. They were the first to spot the targets. It came as a surprise to them that the targets did not try to hide or duck or take cover or drop to the ground when they were being shot at. They did not even try to run away. They just kept shambling on like drunken people coming home from a good party.

The snipers were ordered to shoot the targets in the head. When they shot them in the chest or any other body part, they just kept on walking as if nothing had happened.

Another order was to take no prisoners, though General Petrov’s men saw that the targets carried no weapons, and they could easily be arrested. The snipers were also forbidden to come close to the places where the dead bodies had fallen. They had to be sure that the targets had been hit in the head and lay motionless. They had to double check too — with another bullet in the head. Once in an hour guys in hazmat suits approached the bodies and dragged them to the truck, which transported the carcasses to a crematorium. General Petrov had never issued such weird orders before in his career.

There was a series of suicides all over the city after the plague had started. Among the police and troops as well. People were denying reality. They were not ready for this and could not believe this was happening. They thought that this was all a myth, a legend, a Hollywood sci-fi movie. They were so stressed and overwhelmed that they could not find the strength to fight and survive.

The officials were also unable to accept the reality. They could not take a dump without authorization from the Kremlin. The plague had spread all over the city before the people in the Government realized they had to do something about it.

And now they needed General Alexander Petrov to rake this big stinking pile of dung.

In fifteen minutes the helicopter landed in an open snow-covered field. General Petrov collected his papers together and stuffed them into his briefcase. The sun was going down on the horizon. A town was seen in the distance. The road to it had been cleared by bulldozers. He opened the door, and a cold wind rushed into the cabin. He got out of the helicopter and went to the car which was waiting for him at the roadside. It was snowing heavily, and the thumping rotor blades scattered the snowflakes whirling in the wind.


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