On the fourth morning of the expedition, Gorokhov realized that the soldiers were gone.
He’d risen at dawn and crawled out of the tent to relieve himself, his teeth chattering. The pitch-black Siberian sky was giving way to a deep blue in the east. Dim, gray light revealed a muddy trail leading from the campsite into the blasted valley ahead, clogged with dead, fallen trees. Low, ridged hills rimmed the horizon, their slopes covered in birch and pine. There was no sentry in front of the soldiers’ tent, no telltale ember of a cigarette. Gorokhov hesitated, lifted the door flap. The cots were empty, the packs and AK-47 assault rifles lined up neatly against the far canvas wall. The backpack radio sat on the sturdy foldable table. The interior of the tent smelled faintly of gun oil and unwashed bodies.
Gorokhov closed the flap and stepped away from the empty tent, trying to make sense of what he’d just seen. He scanned the devastated forest beyond the campsite, half-expecting to see the missing soldiers troop out of the stripped, blackened deadfall. Nothing but silence; the swamp seemed void of life.
The huge ZIL-135 truck stood on the other side of the camp, all eight tires slashed and sinking into the mud, an acrid-smelling stain spreading beneath it. Gorokhov rapped on the window of the cramped cab, straining to see into the murk. There was no response. A chill tightened Gorokhov’s stomach. He walked around the truck, but the survey equipment was in place and seemingly intact, mounted on crates in the ten-ton flatbed and covered with tarps stamped with the logo of the Krasnoyarsk Geological Institute.
From the front of the truck came a rustling noise, a strangled curse. Chertok, the other geologist, emerged from the second tent, his long limbs tangling in the cords.
“Mitya? Got a cigarette?” Chertok called in a low voice. Then his eyes took in the damaged truck and widened. He took a clumsy step in the direction of the soldiers’ tent.
“There’s no one there,” Gorokhov said. His legs felt heavy. He sat on a log and reached inside his jacket, passed the other man a cardboard-tipped Belomor. “They’re all gone. Driver, too. Someone has disabled the truck.”
“All of them?” Chertok reached for the cigarette slowly, like a man in a dream. “But where?”
Gorokhov shrugged and blew a circle of blue smoke. The air was heavy with the threat of rain. A thin white mist rose from the depths of the swamp, crept between the felled boles, the withered, leafless branches, the dead roots reaching into the sky like claws. He felt very small and very alone. Kilometers of marshy wilderness stretched between the camp and the nearest human habitation. Wherever the soldiers had gone, he didn’t think they were coming back.
A noise came from the tent and Bogolyubov appeared in the opening, followed by Yesentsin, the mineralogist. It didn’t take them long to notice the missing men, the ruin of the military truck. Gorokhov smoked in contemplative silence, the cold seeping into his bones, and watched the KGB officer scramble around the campsite.
“Who did this?” Bogolyubov opened the door of the cramped cab and popped the hood of the truck. Something had eaten through the engine block; the inside was a mass of twisted, corroded metal, covered in a dark brown sludge. The KGB officer’s small, dark eyes blinked rapidly behind thick glasses. “Where are the soldiers? The driver?”
“Gone.” Gorokhov stubbed out his cigarette. He tried to keep his face impassive, but his insides churned with raw fear.
“What do you mean, gone? Gone where?”
“Go look for them if you want,” Chertok said with a sneer. Bogolyubov was a minor KGB functionary from an obscure village near Bratsk, a petty bureaucrat with an inflated sense of self-worth who took an inordinate pride in his appointment as the official leader of the expedition. Over the course of the three-day journey into the Southern Swamp of the Tunguska River, he’d succeeded in antagonizing everyone but the thin, withdrawn Yesentsin, who seemed lost in his own world. Yet with Chertok there was something else, a black hatred seething just beneath the surface, barely contained. Gorokhov looked up at the younger geologist’s face and didn’t like what he saw there.
Bogolyubov’s mouth worked silently. His gaze flicked from the blasted trees to the distant hillsides, back to the empty tent. Anger and confusion were slowly giving way to fear.
“It’s not safe here,” Chertok said. “We have to go back.”
“To Vanavara?” Gorokhov inclined his head in the direction of the dirt road they’d come by. “On foot? Leave all this equipment behind? The Higher Echelons would eat us alive. Comrade Bogolyubov would probably end up in a corrective labor colony.”
“Maybe they’re on patrol,” said the quiet Yesentsin, staring off into the tangle of fallen lumber.
“Open your eyes.” Bogolyubov shot a baleful glare at Gorokhov, who remained unperturbed. “They’ve been ambushed in the woods. The enemy is near, waiting to strike, to pick us off one by one. Reactionary bandits, maybe even American saboteurs.” The politruk seemed to have recovered some of his composure. “They destroyed the truck because they want us to walk. If we leave, we’ll be playing right into their hands.”
“Not if we split up and scatter,” Chertok said. “The first of us to reach Vanavara could request an emergency extraction and wait for the others.”
“We stay here,” Bogolyubov said, squaring his shoulders, “and wait.”
“It makes no sense.” Gorokhov rubbed his eyes. The light was playing tricks on him; he thought he saw a hint of movement in the dead trees. “There are no signs of struggle. All the weapons and gear are still in the tent. They — whoever they are — even left us the radio.”
“Is it working?” asked Yesentsin.
“Haven’t tried it yet,” Chertok said and clapped Gorokhov on the shoulder. “Mitya was a radio operator in the war. He’ll know how to get it running.”
They gathered around the table in the soldiers’ tent. Gorokhov fiddled with the radio unit, trying to establish contact with the army base in Bratsk. The device appeared to be in working order, but the receiver yielded only static and strange hissing, whistling noises.
“Nothing.” Gorokhov pushed the headset away and stared at the others. “Interference, or the damned thing’s broken.”
“What could they want from us?” Yesentsin sat on a cot and buried his head in his hands. “We’re scientists, not spies. We don’t design rocket engines or nuclear bombs — we tap stones with a hammer.”
“Don’t be a fool.” Bogolyubov eyed him with disgust. “This expedition was commissioned by the Higher Echelons, organized in absolute secrecy. The First Secretary himself has expressed his support. I have it on the highest authority. A comrade from the Basement.”
“The Paranormal Research Directorate.” Bogolyubov huffed with indignant exasperation. “There’s something going on in the valley that’s got to do with a research program they’re running. The Directorate got wind of it from the Kulik expedition forty years ago. Reports mentioning strange lights at the impact site, glowing sod, odd, crooked saplings growing under the dead trees. Restricted documents, available only to those with special clearance.”
“Lights?” asked Gorokhov. “From the meteorite impact?”
“That theory has been discarded,” Yesentsin said. “There’s no impact crater, no trace of a meteorite in the area. The working hypothesis is one of a nuclear airburst, or an antimatter comet.”
“Whatever it was, it left something behind.” The KGB officer traced a stubby finger over a photoreconnaissance map with the Tunguska impact site outlined in red ink. “Some kind of radioactive energy in the soil — special kind, not like the one in the bombs.”
“He’s making it up,” said Chertok. His face was pale and beaded with sweat. “If this area was radioactive… they wouldn’t…”
“No one told us anything,” Yesentsin said.
“This is classified information. Strict need-to-know basis only.” Bogolyubov folded his arms; a smug expression crossed his face. “The enemy is stalking us to gather full intelligence. They are certain we’ll find something, but afraid of what that something could be. As long as we stay put, we have nothing to fear. So we wait. Someone will come for us.”
“I’m not waiting around to see what happens.” Chertok picked up one of the rifles left behind by the soldiers and moved toward the opening of the tent. Before the others knew what was happening, Bogolyubov barred his way, face flushed with fury.
“That’s an order, Comrade.” The geologist towered a head above the KGB officer, but Bogolyubov didn’t flinch. “If you so much as set a foot outside this tent, I’ll have you arrested.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, you’re in no position to give orders.” Chertok leveled the rifle at the smaller man’s chest. A strange calm had settled into his voice. “The situation has changed.”
“I’ll tell you what’s changed.” Blinded by anger, Bogolyubov seemed not to notice the weapon. “I won’t allow-”
The scream drowned out the last of his words, the high-pitched keening of an animal in agony coming from outside. Panic froze the four men in the tent, turning their bowels to liquid. The cry became a voice, babbling and pleading; it was too faint to make out the words, but there was no mistaking the raw anguish in it. Yesentsin blanched and shrank back against the canvas of the tent.
“That’s Semyonov,” he said, covering his ears. “The driver. He’s out there. They have him.”
“Nobody leaves this tent,” Bogolyubov said, but without conviction. He stared at the muzzle of the rifle in front of him as if seeing it for the first time. Chertok pushed past him and through the tent flaps. Gorokhov stepped in between them, rifle in hand.
“We’re going to help him,” he said to Bogolyubov. “You can stay here and wait for the soldiers to return, or for the extraction team to arrive from Bratsk. But you’ll stay here alone.”
The KGB agent glared at him, but said nothing. The dying man screamed again, closer this time. Yesentsin moaned and curled up on the cot. There was a dull, vacant gleam in his eyes.
“Get up, Alexey.” Gorokhov pulled the mineralogist to his feet and thrust a rifle in his hands. “We can’t stay here.”
“You know nothing,” Bogolyubov said sullenly. He fiddled with the catch of his Makarov pistol. For a moment Gorokhov thought the little man meant to threaten them into staying, but Bogolyubov kept his head down and walked outside without meeting his eye.
The sun was up when they left the campsite, the slopes of the hills flaming with autumn colors. They picked their way slowly through the maze of uprooted, pulped trees. Huge Siberian birches and pines, leaf-stripped and burnt, lay scattered like matchsticks. The outline of the devastation zone was etched into Gorokhov’s mind, a scorched stain on the landscape, seventy kilometers wide at its broadest point. He took his bearings by the hills ringing the valley: the compass they found in the soldiers’ tent was broken, the needle spinning wildly. The driver’s screams were growing weaker. Gorokhov hoped the man would be dead before they found him. They had nothing to treat his injuries with and the nearest hospital might as well have been on the moon. Yesentsin was close to breaking; Gorokhov didn’t think his mind would survive the shock of seeing the driver tortured.
Mud squelched under their boots. Black, charred branches dripped with moisture. The mist had burned off, but Gorokhov could still see thin, pale tendrils crawl through the undergrowth, hover in the corner of his vision. Twisted, stunted plants sprang up from the piles of deadfall; flesh-colored lichen colonized the dead, broken trunks. He wondered about what Bogolyubov had said — the glowing mud, the malformed vegetation, the radiation. It was too late to turn back now.
An hour or so later they halted for a meal of cold rations taken from the tent. The cries had ceased; poisoned silence lay over the swamp like a shroud. Gorokhov decided to go east. He thought that was where the screams had come from last, but he couldn’t be sure. The dead forest played tricks with sound, pulling him in deeper, confounding his senses.
“Which way?” asked Chertok, gripping the stock of the rifle.
As if in response, a thin, high wail tore through the silence, setting their teeth on edge. Gorokhov motioned with his head. He’d been right. East, and much closer now, coming from behind a stand of toppled pines.
They scrabbled on all fours under immense trunks scarred and scorched by the explosion, through misshapen ferns and drapes of nacreous moss. Gorokhov rose first, blood roaring in his ears: a mud-covered, ash-blackened apparition, sighting down the barrel of the AK-47.
The clearing behind the trees was empty.
The four men exchanged a bewildered look. Bogolyubov prodded the desiccated boughs with the stock of his rifle, his face blank, eyes vacant. Gorokhov turned to look back the way they’d come, but the fallen trunks seemed to grow closer, to change shape. Shadows stretched across the forest floor, pooled in hollows and recesses like tar.
Out beyond the trees something gave voice again: the timbre was the same, but now a low, mocking note had crept into it, a low, gurgling chuckle that made their skin crawl.
“We’re going back,” Gorokhov said, fighting back the terror that surged into his throat, threatening to choke him.
Chertok jerked his head in the direction of the sound. “The driver-”
“That’s not the driver.” Gorokhov moved quickly, motioning for the others to follow. His mind dimly recognized they were in a trap; they had to get out before it closed around them. He focused on the thought, pushing back the questions squirming at the back of his brain. Monstrous piles of deadfall loomed around him, so similar as to be indistinguishable. His gaze sought the blue contours of the hills, trusting his sense of direction to take them back to the campsite.
They walked on for what seemed like hours. The pale sun had crossed the autumn horizon; wide streaks of indescribable color arced across the sky, waves welling up from an unseen ocean of light. A dull, sickly yellow luminescence seeped from the dead trees. Gorokhov saw it strip the flesh off the men’s faces, exposing the grinning skulls beneath. He closed his eyes, but the image persisted. Delirium, he thought. Wherever the maze led them, there seemed to be no way out.
Chertok had been bringing up the rear, lost in thought; suddenly he crouched down and picked up a small, shiny object half buried in the mud. He held it up for the others to see: an empty ration can that had once contained peaches. Yesentsin glanced down in despair, turned over another can with his boot.
“Circles.’ His voice was high, strained. “We’ve been walking round in circles.”
Bogolyubov howled with laughter, the sound shrill and immense in the silence. He doubled over and sat down on a stump, removing his spectacles to dab at his eyes with a dirty hand. Chertok stepped forward and raised his rifle, his face a pallid mask of terror and hatred. The sight of the weapon sent the KGB officer into new convulsions, tears sliding down his stubbled cheeks.
“Quit that, you son of a whore.” The geologist’s finger tightened on the trigger.
“You don’t understand.” Bogolyubov’s elation was spiraling into hysteria, laughter and sobs coming in equal measure. “It’s a sham, all of it, a joke. I took inventory before we loaded the truck in Bratsk. The lading list came signed, but I did it anyway. I’ve always been thorough, you see.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Gorokhov. The little man had lost his mind – that much was clear; still, his words stirred up a vague unease.
“The equipment.” Bogolyubov was babbling now, his chin wet with spit. “The excavators, the radiation counters, the surveying instruments. Oh, it looks like the real thing when it’s under tarps, all right, but it’s worthless — junk and scrap metal, held together with old cables.” The KGB officer’s eyes were glassy and red, his lips stretched in a rictus grin. “A Potemkin’s Village, if you will. Nothing that the Higher Echelons hate more than a waste of socialist property. The comrades of the Basement didn’t plan on us coming back. I should have known — I read your files.”
“What about our files?” The rifle slipped from Yesentsin’s fingers. He made no attempt to retrieve it. “What was in there?”
“Expendable!” The KGB officer cackled. “All of us. We’ve been selected with great care. No family members to ask unpleasant questions. A transfer memorandum or two, a note scribbled into a labor booklet, and it’ll be as if we never existed.”
“You’re a lying bastard,” Chertok said through clenched teeth.
“Am I?” Bogolyubov stared up at the younger man. Slowly, almost languidly, his hand went to the Makarov at his side and released the holster catch. “Maybe I am. Or maybe I’m the only one here willing to face the truth.” He waved the snub-nosed pistol absently, pointing it in no particular direction. “I think there’s only one way to find out.”
Before the stricken scientists could react, the KGB officer pressed the muzzle to his temple and pulled the trigger. There was nothing but a dry click. Bogolyubov stared at the black hole, a dazed look on his face. He squeezed the trigger two more times, then collapsed into a fit of thin, shrieking laughter.
“What does this mean?” Yesentsin’s frantic eyes raced between the two geologists. His face was working with horror.
“It needs us.” The KGB officer clawed at his eyes, tittering with idiot glee. “The thing from the swamp — it’ll be here soon. The Comrades want us to stay alive — to be changed — remade-”
Chertok swung his rifle like a club and struck the KGB officer on the side of the head. Bogolyubov rolled off the stump and landed in the mud with a wet, heavy thump. Dark blood seeped from the wound, but the little man was laughing; he made no attempt to protect himself from the blows that rained across his back. Chertok flung himself atop the prostrate figure, bellowing like a savage, pinning him to the ground. He grabbed a jagged rock with both hands and brought it down on Bogolyubov’s skull with all the strength he could muster. There was a sickening sound, like overripe fruit thrown against a wall. The rock rose and fell, over and over again. Chips of bloody bone spattered Chertok’s face and arms. Bogolyubov’s brains gleamed gray in the black mud.
Gorokhov staggered backward, feeling his mind sideslip. Yesentsin was on his knees, retching; jumbled words, a sort of prayer, came out between long spasms. There was no end to this but madness.
Chertok rose from the bloody heap, a filthy, gore-slick revenant, teeth bared in a snarl. He held the dripping rock in one hand. Gorokhov lifted the useless rifle; he tried to stand straight, but his limbs were filled with lead. Behind him came the sound of running feet, Yesentsin plunging into the tangled undergrowth, crashing through the brittle branches.
“He was right,” Chertok said with a wry smile. “Did you know there are other theories about what happened here? That the explosion didn’t come down from the sky, but up from the ground — a microscopic black hole, a doorway to some other universe? No one would admit it, not officially, but there is talk. Strange radiation. Unexplainable frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. Could it be that the Committee is keeping secrets from the Higher Echelons?” He advanced a few steps, his bloodied face pensive. “That there’s something in this swamp older than man, maybe older than the Earth itself — something that must be fed from time to time, if it’s to remain buried?”
“Stay away,” Gorokhov said, hearing the quiver in his voice. The insane sky spun around him, the scorched forest shimmering in the lurid radiance of the day. He started to back away, half expecting Chertok to come after him. But the other man simply stood with his hands hanging at his sides. Droplets of blood from the stone pattered on dead leaves.
“That’s what they needed us for,” he said, staring into the middle distance as if seeing something Gorokhov couldn’t. “To feed what waits inside.”
Gorokhov had a sudden vision of a line of soldiers marching through the blasted woods, staggering through the mud, their limbs moving automatically. A hillock at the epicenter of the blast zone, a wet hole gaping at its center. The men vanishing into it one by one. Inside the hole, galaxies dying and being born in nebulae of blazing gases, hollow, long-dead stars careening through the frozen void. A terrible fire spreading from the hillock, incandescence without end, illuminating the world in one last, fierce light.
“Ever hungry.” Chertok knelt in the mud and began stuffing his mouth with leaves. He chewed methodically. Shadows lengthened, danced around him; the woods closing in, shedding all pretense of concealment.
Gorokhov turned and ran.
Night came and went, or what he thought was night: mad auroras rolling across a purple sky, stars shuddering in their wake. He stumbled on aimlessly over the fallen trees, letting the forest take him where it wanted him to go. Crude, unfinished faces formed in the ravaged bark of the trunks, gazing upon him with terrible mirth. The voice they’d thought was the driver’s had returned, gibbering and chanting, forever out of sight. Gorokhov recalled the photoreconnaissance map: forty-odd kilometers from the campsite to the epicenter of the blast. A long walk by any reckoning, but he was in no hurry.
He found a rill of a stream and lapped water like a dog. The image of Chertok cramming leaves into his mouth came to him; he rose on unsteady feet and moved on, shaking with silent hilarity. Reality was melting in long smears of fantastic color. The feet churning the mud and the bleeding hands clawing through the deadfall belonged to someone else, a billion light years away.
Small fires burned in the distance, nomad tribes from beyond the valley gathering to take part in the age-old ceremony. In his reading about the 1927 expedition, he’d learned that the native Evenks and Yakuts shunned the devastation zone, but still engaged in singing and dancing revels in strange circles of stone on the surrounding hills — ancient rituals held to appease their savage gods. The notion struck him as absurd. This god needed no appeasing: a blind, primeval force, a demiurge creating or destroying at random, black chaos pouring over the rim of the universe.
He came upon the corpse face down in a puddle and turned it over. The mineralogist had gnawed his wrists open; the dark stickiness beneath him wasn’t water. There was a bluish bruise at the back of his head, a clotted puncture wound at its center. Gorokhov felt a twinge of pity — to have come so far, only to be denied the revelation. A change was coming; his nerve endings thrummed with the expectation. The agony would be unutterable, the pleasure far more so.
Minutes passed, or days. He gazed upon the epicenter of the blast. The trees on the small rise stood upright amid the devastation, bark-stripped, naked pillars reaching up into the bilious sky. A structure reared between them — a dolmen of two flat upright stones supporting a huge flat slab, blanketed with moss. Stunted, deformed vines and pale lichens spread through fissures in the stone. Grotesque vegetation grew around the monument with hideous vigor. At the center of the dolmen lay the pit from his vision. There was movement in the entrance, a figure not quite like a man, unfinished: a whirl of crimson inside a dark cloud, thousands of eyes watching from the dead trees.
Gorokhov walked up the hillock, the last vestiges of sanity sloughing off him like a snakeskin. The hole yawned beneath his feet, oozing darkness, a dark, dank cavity that smelled of moist, decaying leaves and earth. Constellations swirled in its depths, a luminous veil cast across the abyss of the outer dark. The unbound anatomy of time and space unraveled like a frayed fabric. He could sense the mindless hunger of the thing below, its madness blowing across the starry gulf like a fetid wind. He took one step, then another, across the threshold into the warm darkness.
Damir Salkovic is an aficionado of weird and macabre tales, presently residing in Arlington, Virginia. His reading interests range from horror and fantasy to pulp and science fiction. His short stories have been published on the Tales to Terrify podcast, in the Schlock! bimonthly magazine and in anthologies by Schlock! webzine, Parasomnia Press, Apokrupha, Miskatonic Press, the Mad Scientist Journal, Horrified Press and other publishers. He earns his living as an accountant, a profession that lends itself well to nightmares and harrowing visions.
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Story illustration by Dave Felton.