The Jeep rumbled across the rocky ground before slowing to a stop beneath the milky white sky above Pripyat. The clouds seemed angered by the events below threatening a storm as they unfolded.
From the passenger side door, a man stepped out, his heavy boots compressing the gravel and for a moment it seemed the whole world bowed to accommodate his gravitas.
Colonel General Bogdan Petrov strode away from the car, his coat leaving a cloud of yellow dust in the air as it skimmed the floor.
He was approached by a small man, bespectacled and wearing Army colours. The man saluted.
‘Colonel General, we were not expecting you,’ the man said.
‘At ease, Commander Vasilikov,’ the Colonel General replied in his clipped, well-spoken Moscow accent. ‘My visit here is not common knowledge. As far as anyone but you and your squad know, I am at Chernihiv with the rest of the command team.’
The man nodded and dropped his arm to his side.
‘You are here about… The discovery?’ Vasilikov asked. The Colonel General nodded, almost kindly. He was not an old man, but older, and his face was that of a man who had seen far too much in far too few years.
‘Yes, soldier, will you take me to it?’
‘Of course, sir. This way.’
They left the gaggle of canvas tents and quiet soldiers and began down the long, rough track towards a series of utilitarian steel buildings.
‘In here, sir,’ Vasilikov said, as they stopped in front of a large warehouse with a tall shutter, apparently designed to allow industrial vehicles through.
‘When did you make the discovery?’ the Colonel General asked.
‘At 3am, local time, after we had secured the area. The resistance here was unexpectedly fierce and well-coordinated.’
‘Were there any survivors?’
‘Yes,’ Vasilikov replied. ‘But no fighters, just-‘
The noise of a scuffle broke out back down the path and the two men turned to see someone bursting through the crowd of soldiers, his hands tightly bound with a rusty set of handcuffs.
‘Wait, commander wait!’ The man running towards them cried. The Colonel General put his hand on the handle of his MP-433, tucked securely into the hip holster beneath his coat, but he did not draw. The man was older, with white hair and a feeble frame, and unarmed.
‘Colonel General,’ Petrov corrected as the man arrived and bent over, gasping for breath. ‘What is it?’
‘You don’t know… What you’re doing…’ the man said between gasps.
‘Colonel General, this is the survivor I mentioned. He says his name is Mladen,’ Vasilikov said.
The man stood up and Petrov took his hand away from his gun.
‘What is it we do not know, Mr Mladen?’ He asked.
Mladen gestured to the warehouse.
‘This… Pripyat,’ he said. ‘There is darkness here, General.’
‘Colonel General,’ Petrov corrected, again. He decided to shoot the man if he made the mistake again.
‘Chernobyl is no longer radioactive to a dangerous degree,’ Vasilikov said. ‘We were issued Geiger counters before we entered the boundary.’
‘NO!’ Mladen screamed, taking both men aback. ‘This is more than Chernobyl. There are forces at work here you cannot comprehend.’
Colonel General Petrov laughed. It was a heavy, throaty thing, the laugh of a man that told others if they can join in. This was not a collaborative laugh.
‘I think you’ll find I know a lot more than it may seem,’ Petrov said. ‘Commander, open the door.’
‘No, stop, please-‘ Mladen gasped and rushed forward. Petrov struck him in the face with the back of his broad, rough hand. Mladen hit the ground hard, clutching at his face.
‘Now, commander, please open the door,’ Petrov said finally.
Vasilikov nodded and opened the nearby pedestrian door nestled next to the large shutters. Above them, the sky roiled, waves of dirty white.
Inside, the warehouse was a mess, and its previous occupant had chosen a strange colour palette of deep black for every floor and wall. Only, it wasn’t paint, but soot and scorchmarks. The entire room seemed as though it had contained a roaring, raging fire which burned every surface and then extinguished itself.
‘This place is dark,’ Mladen said, peering in through the door. The white light illuminated him and in that moment the Colonel General noted his strange outfit. It seemed like something out of a storybook, old Slavic robes, like a priest or even a wizard. ‘We tried to contain it, but…’
Petrov approached the centre of the room. There was a gnarled tree ahead of them, with branches that curled around a blood red flower.
‘It cannot be contained,’ Mladen finished.
Petrov smiled as he approached. Vasilikov looked on, perplexed but quiet with it. How has this tree survived the fire?
‘Mr Mladen,’ Petrov said. ‘This has been contained too long. All of this, this charade, this invasion. All of it for this.’
Mladen gasped. Vasilikov was too distracted by the tree to hear the conversation properly. The way it curled around and pierced the pale red flour in the middle was so… Unnatural. And the fire! No tree could have survived a blaze such as this.
‘You cannot wield this power! Tell your president it was not meant for mortal men!’ Mladen said.
This was no tree, Vasilikov decided, and it was no flower. It was something else. Definitely organic, but not flora, nothing from a wood or a forest that could be found near Pripyat or even on Earth. It was flesh.
‘General please!’ Mladen cried. In a smooth action, Petrov removed his handgun and fired one round through the old man’s skull. It left a smooth, red hole in his paper white skin and he fell to the dusty, black ground.
‘Colonel General,’ Petrov said, turning back to the horror in the middle of the floor.
Vasilikov had heard the gunshot but it took a moment for him to comprehend what had happened. Petrov had killed Mladen, the man who had called himself a Watcher.
‘I’m sorry you had to see that, Commander,’ Petrov said. ‘I know it must be a shock to see a superior officer kill an unarmed civilian. In my defence, however, I corrected him twice.’
Vasilikov swallowed hard. Petrov had just disregarded the conventions of war and seemed barely fazed by it. What kind of man was he?
‘If it settles your conscience, commander, he was no civilian,’ Colonel General Petrov said. He was entranced by the thing in the middle of the room.
His eyes moved slowly over it, like he was admiring a sculpture in an art gallery, and with the absurdity of it, it could have been just that.
The gnarled things Vasilikov had taken for branches were a material he had never seen before, as black as the room around them, but pulsing quietly and covered with a thin, clear film.
The flower was a man. Stripped naked and beaten bloody, it seemed, then placed into the strange bed of thorns to be pierced by them until he was dead. It grew in and out of his blackened flesh with no beginning or end. It was horiffic, something out of a Lovecraft novel, but Vasilikov could not look away.
‘He was right, though, it cannot be contained,’ Petrov said. ‘And we have no desire to. When we free it, it will secure Russian dominance across the world. For the motherland, Commander.’
Vasilikov managed to break his gaze from the horror show in front of him to look at Colonel General Petrov.
‘For the Motherland, Colonel General.’