Vasily had but one customer that day, a Prague tourist whose breath reeked of old meat. Vasily waited in the jeep while the other man checked his equipment. Like most tourists, he had brought too many gadgets. Vasily picked his teeth in the mirror.
They were parked at a side path, at a place where Dymtrus had snipped the barb wire two years before. Now Dymtrus rotted in a Minsk jail and Vasily waited for the Czech to finish taking iodide tablets.
The first leg of the journey carried them by a small apartment bloc, usually a photo opportunity for the more excitable tourists in love the with the images of abandoned toys and floors paved with fallen books. But the Czech indicated they should keep walking deeper into the zone, and so they did.
Security had been stepped up in recent years; at first Vasily thought the hoofbeats he heard to be the horseback patrol not scheduled for another hour. But then they found the elk.
The beast had its head lowered and it breathed hard. Its eyes were filmed-over white, and its nostrils pulsed dangerously. Before Vasily could call warning, it charged.
The elk butted him in the shoulder. Vasily dropped his geiger counter, clapping a hand to the injury. The other man let out a screech, flailing his arms and flapping his cap. The elk ignored it and steeled itself forward again. Vasily met it with an iron bar that he grabbed up from the ground. The first hit did not seem to have an effect, but at the second, the elk shook its head and took a few drunken steps. Vasily swung again, downing the beast. The elk dropped to its knees. Vasily caught hold of the Czech before he could dash off in any direction and pulled him along a side path.
They took rest on a bus bench.
Normally, tourists would insist on pacing through the amusement park and one of the primary schools, but though he was shaken, the other man kept insisting on seeing the plant. Vasily had stated several times up front that he would never go near the sarcophagus, that he could not find enough recompense for what trespassing would incur. The Czech remained staid: he had seen internet videos of the internal structure. He wanted to go. Vasily took him to a swimming pool to assuage him. While the other man snapped photos of beached floaters and fallen birds littering the tile, Vasily fiddled with the counter. The plastic face was smashed, and no matter how he adjusted the contacts, it would not beep.
They would visit the park next.
The skeleton of the Ferris wheel loomed over all, an easy landmark. Somehow they had wound up going too far south. Vasily could find the park using dead reckoning with the wheel, but he had no idea how to get back out undetected.
They passed by a stand of sunflowers. A gap in their bright smiled formed of black and crisped bodies. The Czech bent low to poke one with a mechanical pencil.
A low grunt came from behind the flowers.
Vasiliy hefted his flashlight, wishing he had not dropped the iron bar somewhere behind them. A great old boar nosed out from the stand of sunflowers, its face a gnarled mass of tumors. It had a single sow trailing behind it, white-eyed as the elk. The boar’s tusks were yellowed with age and very, very sharp.
The Czech drained of all color and shouted, “Bůh!”
He ran, and the boar ran after him. Vasiliy jumped and caught hold of a tree limb, bringing his legs up just as the sow sailed through the air beneath him. Her head impacted the trunk with a dull thud, the aftershock shaking Vasily from his perch. He landed awkwardly on the sow’s back. The pig emitted a rusty-nail squeal as her legs collapsed beneath her. Vasily heaved to his feet and was off and running before she could recover. Low branches whipped him in the face. He no longer heeded direction, getting picked up would be a welcome intrusion. Jail was preferable to this.
The trees cleared suddenly. Vasily halted, skidding so that his body would not pitch over whatever drop lay before him. He landed on his elbow with a crunch, the jolt sent a shock up to his teeth. Vasily rolled to his back, winded, cradling his arm.
Something crackled nearby.
Vasily jerked his head up to find the Czech, shoe off and nursing a bleeding blister.
The other man blinked owlishly. “I guess we go reactor after all?” He pointed.
The drop before them was a slope, and the slope terminated in a shore. They were beside one of the plant’s cooling lakes, and beyond that was the coffin bulk of the plant itself.
Vasily sat up, heart hammering. He had never been this close before. Though he knew it illogical, he found himself taking shallower breaths. He would have to shower when he got home, and burn his clothes. The geiger counter at his waist was smashed and lost. The Czech dug a fancier German model with a digital readout from his pack. Vasily fumbled with it. The background radiation was higher, but not fatal. They would have to move quickly, he told the tourist, and stay briefly as possible. The other man nodded, staring awestruck off at the plant. Together they hobbled along the perimeter of the lake.
The plant itself had been shut down completely in 2000. but where was the security? Where were the patrols? Vasily knew he and his jeep were not the only fringe operators in the zone of alienation.
The sarcophagus loomed over their future. Just looking at it raised the hairs on Vasily’s neck.
Vasily had no outset intention of getting anywhere near the plant, but curiosity drove precaution from his mind. Gates were open and empty, streets white and bare. The two men walked abreast, Vasily carried his flashlight in his uninjured hand, the tourist carrier the geiger counter.
The perimeter fence was topped with barbed wire. The gate hung open.
The Czech broke away, jogging lightly and waving for Vasily to follow. Vasily considered leaving him, but if he were picked up the man would probably blab Vasily’s name in an instant. He was stuck either way.
They headed not for a reactor, but one of the other buildings. The Czech excitedly overturned debris, snapping pictures with his phone. Vasily kept on lookout. Was there truly no one?
Before Vasily could stop him, the tourist darted through a half-open door. On following, Vasily found the man stopped dead.
They were in a lobby or reception room. The walls were piebald. Paper? No, Vasily could see the mottling on furniture too. A black mold. The walls were teeming with it.
The Czech had been snapping pictures, now he held the little screen up to his face, cursing softly. Vasily could see over his shoulder. The pictures were fuzzy and marred by yellow-orange bleed. The tourist shook the phone.
Vasily took a sudden breath, and then clapped his hand over his mouth. He must breath no more in this room. Something was wrong. It was too warm.
He tried to catch his charge’s arm, but the Czech wheeled forward and evaded his grasp.
The mold patch before them was as big as a classroom map. The Czech got a foot from it and prodded the surface with his pencil. There was a blue-white flash and a sudden rush of heat.
Vasily finally lost his nerve and ran out, shrieking. He could hear the Czech behind him, blundering into things, screaming. Vasily ran shouting, stripping off his clothes, to the coolant lake. He scrubbed ineffectually at his skin.
They did not let him talk to anyone. When Vasily had come into the hospital vomiting blood, he was immediately quarantined. Two days later, after his body had used the last of its blood cells, Vasily died insisting on what he had seen. They could not explain how he had taken a 1,000 rad dose outside of the reactor, nor could they explain the Czech tourist, found wandering cataractous and weak through the brush. The hospital turned his body over for study but refused to offer further facilities to the investigation. They had more patients to service and didn’t want a reputation.
And besides, the room where Vasily stayed had gained the most persistent black mildew…