Town of Urus-Martan, Chechen countryside

Denichen Khamid looked at his watch for the tenth time. The Americans were coming; they said they would, they knew where he was. He rubbed his temples. Now, he guessed, came the hard part — staying sane. He needed to try to remain calm and be patient. He looked at his watch again.

He started at the sound of the floorboards creaking, and turned so quickly he made his neck crick.

‘No, thank you.’ He shook his head, now with some pain, as the steaming cup of sweet black tea was offered to him. He rubbed his neck. His stomach was in too much turmoil for him to consider eating or drinking anything. He smiled up at Zezag: a good woman, he thought, just like his wife.

Laila! He still felt the agony inside. From the laboratory he had fled to Katyr-Yurt, laying field flowers on the spot where his mother’s house once stood. The town had been rebuilt, and he had recognized nothing in the streets of new concrete and fresh wood. All that was left of the centuries-old town was a layer of ash below the cold bitumen and new pine floorboards.

He lived on the run now, directed by the Chechen underground. Each day, he was moved from house to house, a new family taking turns to secrete him for twelve hours, putting themselves at risk for him — a Chechen fleeing from Russians would always find a bed in the Chechnya villages. Tonight it had been the Saidullay family. He tried his warmest smile on their small boy, who clung to Zezag’s leg and stared at him as if he had just dropped from the sky. It didn’t work and the child slid a little farther behind Zezag’s ample bottom.

Khamid looked at his watch again. Must stop doing that, he thought. They would come soon, surely, before his luck ran out. The Russians would find him eventually, and if they got him back to the Ministry of Security, he fully expected to spend his last few miserable days being pulled apart — psychologically and physically. His remains would eventually be fed to squealing pigs in some remote farm on the outskirts of Moscow.

Doubts, doubts, doubts — I did the right thing… didn’t I? He wished he had prepared more, and thought again of the package he had risked everything for — only the size of a large button, but its shielded container weighed as much as a large dog. He had carried it for many hours, and his shoulders had been rubbed raw. He rolled them; they felt better now the thing was off his back. If he had needed to move quickly, it would have been his undoing. An odd tingling remained; he hoped it was just from muscle strain, and not from the strange radiation the object gave off.

He cheered himself by imagining the look on Dr. Gennady Millinov’s face when he returned to discover the disk gone… straight after he contacted the president. Serves them right, he thought. He hated them all. They had vaporized his family and the entire village a decade and a half ago, and he had always dreamt of an opportunity to make them pay — to rob them of something as they had robbed him.

He wondered if they had worked out who he really was yet. In a way, the Russians’ ability to make people and places disappear without a trace had worked in his favor.

Like most Chechens, he had two identities. His Russian one, paid for on the black market and cultivated over the years. This allowed him the ability to work and travel in and out of Russia. And his real one — his birth one, which was hidden from all except family and friends. For all Russia knew, he had died with Amiina, Laila and Timur and like them was now nothing but scattered ash beneath the Katyr-Yurt soil.

There would always be some record, perhaps buried in one of the Ministry of Security Service’s databases, but for a science bureaucrat like Millinov, Khamid would be of pure Russian origin and anything else would be hidden from his superficial analysis. He doubted anyone would know of his links to the obliterated town, his destroyed family or why he would have such a volcanic hatred.

‘Zezag, I will take my tea now.’ The small boy’s face half appeared from behind the door. Khamid smiled again; this time the boy’s lips curled a fraction.

His original plan had been to use his physics expertise to create some sort of dirty bomb and detonate it outside the Kremlin, or at least as close as he could get to a large military base. He was glad he hadn’t gone through with it. Time has a way of cooling hot blood. If he had killed a single innocent while blowing a hole in the corrupt beast, he would be no better than the president who ordered the release of the vacuum bombs over Katyr-Yurt. Besides, it may also have caused another crackdown on his people — they were stoic, but they couldn’t endure much more.

But what he could not do, would not do, was allow a great power to fall into the hands of people who had proved that they could not properly manage such a responsibility. Using his scientific network, he had managed to get a message to a colleague in Turkey, who had passed it on to the NATO base in Incirlik, and then on to the Pentagon.

They would help — of course they would. He wasn’t vain enough to think they valued him, but they would come for the power cell. And if the Americans turned out to be no better than the Russians? He groaned and rubbed his spine on the back of the chair, trying to relieve the itching tingle. The boy smiled a little wider at his antics. Khamid shrugged.

‘We all have to trust someone, sometime, right?’

Khamid’s small cell phone pinged quickly three times. Three: his heart pounded in his throat — they’d found him!

* * *

The night-black hunters moved silently through the village. With their single-lens night-vision goggles and exoskeletal armor, they resembled a horde of alien creatures, hunting for prey in the dark.

From time to time they stopped to listen to the instructions that flowed directly into their small earpieces, or simply to pause to examine their surroundings. Members of the Spetsnaz Vympel death squads, this group were the Wolverines — a creature from the weasel family, known for its frightening ferocity and strength. The name suited these men perfectly.

The Wolverines were the most feared of all, simply because of who led them — a brutal assassin renowned for stopping at nothing in the pursuit of his objective — Uli Borshov. The black-bearded giant stood well over six and a half feet tall, and weighed two hundred and eighty pounds. The man was a psychopath, but a useful one, let loose by the Russian Federal Security Services on jobs that needed doing by any means.

The area around the town and surrounding forest was alive with standard Russian military forces. But they would keep their distance once they realized Spetsnaz GRU were in the area. More so if it were the Vympel, rumored to think nothing of putting a bullet into the brain of any overenthusiastic soldier who got in their way.

At a signal the men darted forward another hundred feet and melted back into the shadows. Their goal was simple: find a man — just one, but one important enough to have a mission launched in person by the president.

Care had to be taken. The people of Chechnya hated everyone and everything of Russian origin, and Russia had given them good reason. As long as the mainly Muslim country was disorganized and fragmented, it was less of a threat — Russia expended significant and brutal effort keeping it that way.

The Spetsnaz sprinted another hundred feet. They didn’t know or care what the man they sought had done. The president wanted him, dead or alive. Borshov was leading the infiltration and search, and Borshov preferred him dead.

The giant pressed one large blunt finger into his ear as he listened to the updated information — an address was received. He nodded, and then changed frequencies to talk to his team.

The net pulled a little tighter as the killers closed in.

* * *

Millinov walked slowly around his two assistants. Doctors Yelena Mutko and Anatoly Lavrov were dressed in thick, polymer contamination suits. The hermetically sealed outfits were extremely tough but lightweight, and their perspex face shields gave them good, but not unrestricted vision.

They both looked pale and nervous. Good, he thought — keep them sharp. He ran his hand over Yelena’s back, feeling the huge metallic lump beneath the plasticized material. Each suit had its own oxygen supply, so they were effectively quarantined from gas, liquid splatter, radioactive dust, and even some spectrums of rays for a period of time. However, they traded mobility for safety in the cumbersome suits.

Satisfied with the seals, Millinov patted Anatoly on the shoulder, and rested his hand on the access panel that would open the outer door to the isolation chamber. Nodding at them, he pressed the recessed button. The door slid back with the small sigh of sucking air — the negative air pressure was designed to draw anything in, rather than allow anything to float out.

Yelena hugged a large glass jar to her chest and Anatoly held a pair of large forceps. Millinov rushed back to the viewing screen and watched as the inner door to the chamber opened and his two assistants stepped in. They paused. He knew what they were experiencing; it was an unsettling sight — the things now infested the inside of the chamber. Ceiling, floor, walls, the capsule — everything was covered in the mucoid blobs. Some areas of the chamber looked polished, as though they had been scoured with an industrial solvent.

Millinov spoke into the microphone: ‘Proceed.’

Anatoly looked toward the camera, his face still pale behind the visor. He nodded, a little jerkily, and then motioned with the forceps toward one of the shapeless blobs hanging from the side of the capsule. He paused again.

I know… they’re ugly, aren’t they, my friend? Millinov zoomed in on Anatoly’s selection. Up close, the things were even less appealing, if that were possible — the gray glutinous mass had a darker center, like an internal organ or central nervous system.

Anatoly lifted the forceps and Yelena held out the jar. Millinov blinked. Did the darker inner mass of the blob shift toward them? It was as if it were focusing, like an eye. Anatoly shuddered.

He glanced questioningly at Yelena, who motioned with the jar. Millinov could imagine what she was thinking: let’s get this over with, and get out of here. Anatoly reached forward with the forceps.

At that moment, the blob slid down the side of the capsule and oozed viscously to the ground. Yelena’s yecch was clearly audible through the speaker. Millinov breathed hard as he watched them crouch for a second attempt.

‘Careful.’ He licked dry lips, swallowed. Anatoly reached forward again, and this time managed to grasp the edge of the blob. It lifted easily and he maneuvered it toward Yelena’s jar.

The blob quivered slightly, but held fast. Anatoly shook the forceps as the thing clung to its metal tips. He shook harder, swearing as he tried to prise it free against the side of the jar. Instead, the blob balled up for a second before dislodging, oozing over the rim and down onto Yelena’s hand and wrist.

Smoke rose from the polymer sleeve of her suit — and then, in an instant, the blob had disappeared through a hole in the material. Yelena screamed and dropped the jar, which shattered into a thousand pieces. Anatoly tried to grab her, but she danced madly, swatting at her lower arm as if there were a swarm of wasps underneath the thick plastic.

‘It burns!’ she screamed, and fell to the ground, where her body performed a sort of convulsive dance for a few seconds. Anatoly grabbed her bicep and squeezed, perhaps to stop the thing from climbing any higher, or to try and hold her still.

He turned to the camera, yelling for Millinov to get help, but all the scientist could do was recoil in horror, too shocked to react.

The screaming and violent, spastic movements ceased abruptly and Yelena lay still. Anatoly wiped at the visor over her face, and Millinov zoomed the camera in for a close-up, but both efforts were useless. The perspex was completely clouded with perspiration, saliva and smoke. Millinov shuddered to think what the caustic blob had done to her flesh.

He pressed the comm. button. ‘Is she… dead?’

Anatoly looked up at the camera briefly, then back at Yelena. Her hand shot out and wrapped around his wrist.

Anatoly’s yell made Millinov jump back a foot. He scrambled forward and watched as Yelena rose slowly to her feet, dragging Anatoly with her, even though the much bigger man was frantically trying to pull away. By the way he scrabbled at her fingers, Millinov guessed that he must have been in pain.

Yelena straightened, unnaturally at first, as if unfamiliar with the joints and muscles of her body. She reached up and started to pull the head covering from her suit. Millinov quickly pressed the comm. button.

‘Don’t do that! Don’t… Anatoly, make her stop; we have no idea of the contamination…’

It was too late. Yelena tore free her head covering and let it fall, scanning the room until her gaze finally rested on the camera. Millinov squinted at the screen. Her eyes were strange, milky, as if covered over by cataracts. She opened her mouth, wide, and spoke.

‘Let us out.’

Millinov blinked: her lips hadn’t moved. She had opened her mouth and the words just… bubbled up and out. He pressed the comm. button again.

‘Ahh, I can’t do that just yet. Please be patient. . Dr. Mutko.’ He licked his lips. ‘How… how are you feeling?’

Beside her, Anatoly grunted with pain, but she ignored him and continued to look around, slowly taking in every inch of the chamber. Her eerie calmness was a stark contrast to her panic just minutes before.

Again, Anatoly cried out, and it was as if Yelena noticed him for the first time. She turned in that slow-motion fashion she had newly acquired, and reached toward him with her free hand. Taking hold of the toughened polymer fabric at his throat, she tore it away like tissue paper and wrapped her fingers around the back of his neck.

Millinov watched, frozen in horror, as Yelena twisted Anatoly around as if he were a child. His arms flailed wildly, and he managed to grab at a tray of instruments, seizing a metal probe, pointed at one end, and roughly a foot long. He lashed out and buried it in her stomach.

Yelena didn’t flinch. She continued to drag Anatoly across the floor. Millinov watched the probe fall from her stomach as though it had been pushed back out. There was no blood — only a small wisp of smoke, as though the wound was being cauterized.

Forcing Anatoly to his knees over one of the slimy blobs, she pressed his head down, face first, toward it. The thing on the steel floor quivered.

Anatoly shrieked with terror. He beat his fist uselessly against Yelena’s legs as the blob, contracting and expanding, inched closer. The man’s terrified eyes were as round as those of a startled horse, his teeth gritted in terror.

‘Stop! Ms. Mutko, stop — this is a direct order. You must stop now or…’ Millinov shook his head as he had no idea how to finish his threat. Anatoly grunted in either pain or exertion as Yelena finally pushed the bigger man down.

The thing’s destination was now clear — Millinov reflexively placed a hand over his mouth. Anatoly must have also realized the threat, clamping his lips shut as the thing slid up over his chin.

‘No, please no. .’ Millinov whispered.

The blob spread itself over Anatoly’s mouth, his skin beginning to smoke. Shaking with pain and shock, he parted his now ragged lips to scream. The thing immediately disappeared down his throat.

Millinov retched into his mouth. He backed away from the screen, blubbering, his mind a mess of revulsion and confused thoughts.

The capsule was never a probe, and the things inside were no contaminants picked up from our own prehistory, or from space. The cylinder’s arrival had been no mere accident. It had been some sort of incubator, waiting patiently for a hundred thousand years for the right conditions. For the right… hosts.

While his mind raced to try to make sense of it all, Millinov noticed that Anatoly now stood beside Yelena. The two stared milky eyed at the camera. Together their mouths fell open.

‘Let us out.’

He needed to call someone — the president, the army, anyone. After all, what better way to invade a territory than to find a way to infiltrate directly into its center?

No, this was no accident; this was an invasion.


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