Warning: Contains Graphic Violence, Gore, Suggestions of Suicide
“It’s just… I’m worried about the drinking. You know?”
A gasp of static from the phone: a sigh, long and stratified.
“Again? I thought she quit?”
“She did, but…” A pause. How much to burden them with? It was a well-trod road, but she had no one else to talk to. And Obert at least could claim some experience in this department, coming into a decade of clean living—so long as one overlooked the smoking, that was. “You know it is hard for her, with her job and all—”
Obert’s tone shifted; brittle. “That’s an excuse, Ani. Plenty of cops cope without abusing substances. It’s called therapy. Did she even look at the recommendations I sent?”
Ani twisted the phone cord between her ringed fingers. Tried for a response that would soften the blow and wondering why. Obert sighed again.
“Lord above—look, I don’t mean to sound hostile, but your roommate actually needs to work to get her shit together. And if she’s not interested… I don’t understand why you put up with her.”
Ani almost said, “Because I love her,” but that would have been painting a target on her back. The State had just increased the civilian bounty for turning in “aberrants”, and while she’d known Obert for years, she knew better than to trust him with such sensitive information. Clean though he was, he still struggled to find work; the money, not to mention the merits he could earn from turning her in, would go a long way towards improving his standing.
Instead, she swallowed the thorns in her throat, the ones that tore at her day and night, that screamed for her to bleed openly and honestly—“We’re in love!”—and found a compromise.
“Vanya means well,” Ani said on a rush of breath. “She just has trouble expressing herself emotionally, without—”
“You’re enabling her,” Obert snapped. “She’s forty-four years-old. At some point, she needs to learn to handle her shit. Has she been seeing anyone?”
Ani froze. There was a thread of insinuation in Obert’s question that put her hair on end. “‘Seeing’ someone?”
“Like… another woman?” Obert almost sounded embarrassed to ask, and the honesty of it briefly sparked in Ani an urge to trust this man with their secret… until he continued: “They say that sebs struggle with depression far more than normal folk; most of the cases brought to the Institutes have a history of alcohol and drug abuse. And I don’t think I’ve seen her with a man—”
Anger flared, and Ani responded the only way she knew how.
“How dare you—Vanya’s going through enough without you accusing her of being a sexual aberrant.”
Outside, it started to rain.
“Look, I’m just saying.” Obert was on the defensive now: Ani knew how much he liked her. “Something to consider. What time is she off work?”
“I don’t know. She left early today; some kind of hostage situation at the Kolstovo building.” Her eyes burned, and she stepped away from the receiver a moment to compose herself. “Look. I’ve known her all my life, okay? I think I would know if she was… different. This is depression, that’s all. She sees the ugliness everywhere, a-and it’s hard for her to do otherwise. The things she talks about: the world ending, how hopeless it’s all become… I’m just worried about her, is all. I don’t want her to”—She swallowed the lump in her throat—“to do anything… permanent.”
Now, she started to cry; the thought of Vanya hurting herself too much for the charade to bury. Ani struggled to rally herself but the will buckled. “She’s all I have,” she blurted.
The rain grew louder.
She expected sympathy; maybe an offer for her to visit. Obert’s methods of comfort were predictable ones—this was hardly their first time discussing Vanya’s troubles, after all. At this point, she would have welcomed sitting in that faded blue chair, sipping lukewarm coffee while he chain-smoked and made ineffectual passes at her. Anything to help her refocus.
Instead, all she got was silence.
The metal phone was cold against her ear; the dead tone colder. She toggled the call, fingers turning the rotary with practiced speed as she redialed Obert’s home number. The dull clicks of the machinery were overly loud in the eerie still that had befallen the peeling kitchen.
No response. Not even a dial tone.
The line was dead.
A chill ran down her back, and she felt suddenly claustrophobic; the kitchen walls lurched forward with odious intent, the welcoming colors running with sinister undertones to her panicked mind.
It’s nothing, she told herself. Just a downed line. She let the steady drum of the rain outside convince her. Hung up the phone and wandered into the living room.
Ani caught herself before she passed the window overlooking the front yard; she withdrew her boot from the wedge of gray light spilling through the partially opened curtains. In spite of the rational voice telling her everything was fine, Ani crept forward to peek through the opening, careful not to expose too much of her person to the light. Her throat was full of webs; her heart thundered against a chest gone tight with nerves, bass kick-loud in her ears.
“First, they isolate you; no phone, no internet, no way to reach out for help. Then, they come for you. Fast, without warning, offering no escape. You’ll have maybe thirty seconds to react. Enough time to get below. You’ll want to use the gun; anything else is too slow. They have ways of bringing you back, otherwise. You don’t want to come back.”
Vanya’s warning rolled under the groan of the storm. It had been a lesson drilled into her since the day it became obvious that what they had was serious.
“They distract you, get you on the phone with a neighbor, someone you think you can trust… but they’ve already got to them. And they’ll have you soon, too.”
They’d run the drills so many times that Ani could deploy them with her eyes closed: three-to-five seconds to cross the hallway into the closet—“stay low in case they have eyes on the windows”; five more to pry out the false wall; drop down the ladder, through the tunnel to the panic room: seventy-two steps total, any more than ten seconds at the inner lock and she was done for. Maybe fifteen seconds earned if she got the door closed—unless they brought satchel charges. The sawed-off was above the desk, shells in the left drawer.
“No hesitation, love,” Vanya had said after showing her the proper way of things… but the cold touch of the barrel under her chin had frightened Ani and she’d tossed the gun away, tears streaming.
“This is wrong!” Ani protested. “You are asking me to kill myself!”
Vanya retrieved the ten-gauge, ejected the shell and set it on the desk. Her gray eyes glinted like bits of smithed bone in their abused hollows. The thin lips tightened.
“Ani.” There was no anger—never anger, only a cold sorrow that made Ani think of cemeteries. A resignation that ached of death. “I know how this seems,” Vanya said. She cupped Ani’s face. “But believe me when I say that there is no life after the Institutes. What they do to those people, people like us… At least this way, you choose to die whole.”
“Dead is dead,” Ani replied. The bitterness in her own voice shocked her. She reached up to touch those calloused hands. Tipped her head against Vanya’s until she was lost in those eyes. “And that is no choice. No way to live.”
Tears hemmed the bruised lids. The hands holding Ani’s face trembled, and some of that lonesome mask cracked. A gust of whiskey colored Ani’s senses. Vanya said nothing; she simply wept silently. Ani pulled her close, held her; she could feel Vanya’s scars beneath the uniform; like braille to the blind, she felt the story of the woman she loved play out beneath her fingertips, one penned in blood and punctuated by sacrifice. Entire chapters dedicated to suffering, State-covered hospital stays and surgeries: the prices she paid to protect their love.
“You’ve given so much for them.” Ani stroked a muscular forearm, fingers hitching on the raised plate buried in the marrow. “For us.”
Vanya squeezed her hand. “And I will give more, if it means you are safe.”
“And what happens when there is no more to give?”
Ani would never forget the way Vanya looked then in the damp, sepulcher air of the panic room: wrapped in black, pallid, body strained from too many goes under the knife and far too many times downwind of a terrorist’s iron sights; a fractal of a human being, held together by bolts of surgical steel and grit.
The snap of the breech startled Ani from her observations.
Vanya offered her the shotgun.
“Then I need to know you can do this.”
How long had it been since the call?
Maybe it’s nothing. Just the storm.
Ani wanted to believe it. On some level, she did… but it wasn’t enough to override the screech of instinctual panic that woke her body up and kicked off the adrenaline.
A heavy thump sounded from the roof, followed by another.
A muffled keening reached her ears, blunted by the thick concrete but still sharp enough to draw blood from her nerves. She covered her ears out of habit, ducked and ran, all the while trying to recall if Vanya had said anything about the Institute sweepers using sonics. Prayed to gods she didn’t believe in that some marksman with a long-tase wasn’t camped out in the copse of trees across the street from their scrappy little one-story in the Volstov suburbs. Told herself it was impossible to actually feel the heat from a laser sight dancing across her back.
More pounding on the roof. As she passed the kitchen, on her way to the hallway closet, something flashed by the large bay window. It was blurred by fear, distance, and the torrential rains, but Ani thought it might have been a man.
Was he… naked?
The thought was so absurd that she stopped. It was a moment’s hesitation, but already she could hear Vanya scolding her.
“Run, Ani! Run!”
Yet, still she stared out the window, incredulous at the sight of the pale figure standing in her yard. His lanky form was distressed by the weather—Ani surprised herself with the relief at the accidental censorship—and he twisted about in a fit, arms flailing around his lithe, nude body, head snapping side-to-side like one might when imitating a predatory creature.
“What the hell?”
The man in the yard spun, eyes scything through the obfuscation to somehow, impossibly, find her. He tucked his head and began to sprint—
—and Ani barely had time to feel her heart drop into her stomach when the sound of the living room window exploding reached her… along with the unfiltered shrilling of something crazed.
She was halfway in the closet when something slammed the door into her and shoved her the rest of the way. Stars burst across her vision as her head connected with the hang bar, but fear iced the pain and survival demanded her attention. She lunged for the door to close it; it had a dual-lock that enabled it to seal from inside, a safety measure Vanya had insisted on after Ani’s trial runs hadn’t netted the results she’d wanted. Ani got a hand around the knob.
The door burst open. It felt like a truck had barreled through it, the force jamming her wrist and knocking her off her feet. There was a brief moment of weightlessness, her senses dialing in to hypersensitivity: the pulse in her wrist burned like a sun; a miasma of smells: the sourness of mothballs, the tang of sweat, and a rancid meat-stink that guillotined the air.
And she saw the source: a pale face, the mouth ringed in red, naked body lean and muscular, hairless but far from sexless. He screamed at her, eyes dark and vivid with bloodlust, a Pale Man—
She struck the false wall then; the sensation jarred her out of the frame-by-frame. The wood gave way against her and in her panic she sought the rungs of the ladder, hooked her fingers through the metal. Her shoulder groaned, something popped; then she was impacting the ladder, the rungs jarring her ribs.
Coughing, wracked with pain, Ani forced herself to scramble down, slipping the last few rungs to the damp concrete. Above, she heard the Pale Man continue to howl, and it was joined by another, the rumble of feet like thunder in the subterranean space.
Ani was twenty of the seventy-two steps to the panic room when her pursuer dropped to the ground behind her. A bestial snarl echoed. An insurmountable fear took her, flooding her battered body with a fresh surge of adrenaline that burned away the pain. She reached the thick metal door at the tunnel’s end, tugged it open—it only locked from inside—and was halfway through when a vise grip closed around her arm.
A searing, tearing pain erupted from her shoulder as the man lunged and sank his teeth into her.
Ani wailed, and the weight of him against her back pushed them both into the room. They rolled; he was clamped to her like a dog, thrashing her about on the cold cement even as she flailed against him. Blood ran hot down her chest and back but she couldn’t think about that now. All thoughts were on freedom, muscle-memory usurping the hysterical animal mind.
“They will come for you, love. You must be ready to fight.”
She was not Vanya Kraz; she did not have twenty years of combat drilled into her DNA by a ruthlessly efficient State. She doubted heavily that she’d learned enough to face off against the type of trained men they would send for her, soldiers like Vanya.
“You do not need to beat them—simply hurt them.”
Levering herself with her arms, Ani rolled onto her back, pinning the Pale Man beneath her, then reached over with her free arm and jabbed a thumb into his eye, hard.
It was enough: the man screeched, jaws separating from her savaged shoulder. Ani pulled her arm free, lunged to her feet and dropped a booted heel into the exposed genitalia. Then she was moving, limping past the rows of ration-stocked shelves to the lone worktable at the room’s end. The shotgun waited, the oiled metal catching in the buzzing fluorescents.
Ani grabbed it, the wood grip worn smooth in all the right places. She grabbed a shell from the box in the drawer and slotted it home, the ritual of their training runs inoculating her to the single-celled dread seeking to make her fumble. The breech snapped closed, the weight of the weapon like a closely-held promise.
Don’t hesitate, love.
She brought the gun up—
Behind her, an animal screech
—and fired into the man’s chest.
At close range, the shot took him off his feet. He rag-dolled across the room in a fireworks display of watery blood and viscera. The Pale Man left a red starburst against the flaking concrete wall, where he dropped to the floor in a tangle of limbs and organs, the ten-gauge shell having practically blown him in half.
Ani took a breath, choked on the acrid mixture of gun smoke and cooked meat, bent over and dry-heaved. Her whole body was sour-sick with adrenaline; she wanted it out, wanted to wake up and discover this was all a terrible nightmare… but the corpse beside the open door—the man I killed—acted like a magnet, pulling her into reality until she finally had no choice but to accept it. To do otherwise would threaten complete insanity.
She closed her eyes, waited for the nausea to pass. Opened them—
And saw at least three more of the Pale Men racing down the tunnel towards her.
She scrabbled forward, threw herself against the door and slammed the lever down. One of the Men howled. The thick metal shuddered. Ani fell back. She ejected the spent shell, raced to the worktable and grabbed a handful more from the box. Thumbed a new one into the breech and snapped it closed, filled the pocket of her hoodie with the spares, knowing it would never be enough if they got in.
Vanya’s words came to her.
“I need to know you can do this.”
The pounding continued. Dust settled on her shoulders, her throat nearly as dry. She thought of the steel pressed under her chin, her finger slipping behind the trigger guard. It wouldn’t take much…
She thought of Vanya then, and knew she couldn’t. Not if there was a chance of holding her again.
The shelter had enough resources to last her several years. Assuming she didn’t go insane from the incessant beating on the door, she’d be fine. And if the creatures did eventually break through, well…
“Vanya, please be safe,” Ani hoped; a brittle thing, but all the more valuable when weighed against the brutal promise of the shotgun clutched to her chest. Tears slipped from swollen eyes, but even as her knees shook, her heart beat firm.
“I’ll be here when you get home, Vanya.”