Book 4 of the popular Zombies vs. Robots series is out today and we've got a free excerpt. "The world of Zombies vs. Robots is vast and varied, dangerous and disgusting, brutal and bloody," explains editor Jeff Conner in his introduction to this brand new anthology which sees zombies face-off with robots all around the world.
Read an excerpt of "Timka," one of eight stories that make up ZVR: Diplomacy
Contributor Ekaterina Sedia adds in her biography: “I grew up in Moscow, so it’s only logical for me to write a story set there. I remember the whispers surrounding the war in Afghanistan very clearly, the dread of my classmates before the draft—anything but Afghanistan. I remember how no official channel ever spoke about that war. So my mind went to the Afghan veterans and their chance to re-live the dread and paranoia of those times, and to realize that governments remain deceitful, and people get victimized no matter who’s running the show. Pessimistic? Perhaps, but in the character of Dr. Valentin Korzhik I tried to embody the value of remaining honorable even if you don’t believe in happy endings.”
TIMKA by Ekaterina Sedia (Excerpt)
Valentin Korzhik felt a familiar lump in his throat as he watched the black government Mercedes, tinted windows and all, pull up to the front of the Moscow State University’s Virology Institute. Those days are over, he whispered, not quite believing it. They were never over as long as the KGB or the FSB or whatever they called it these days drove around in cars with tinted windows and could show up out of the blue, at Valentin’s place of work, and spook him so much—as if he was guilty of anything.
The man with the stripe of a general on his trousers came out of the back seat, tugged down his uniform jacket, and looked up at the windows with his also tinted glasses, directly at where Valentin stood. Valentin ducked away and felt foolish—it wasn’t like the FSB general could see him through the glare, five stories up.
Maksim Vronsky gave Valentin a long, pointed look. “Seen a ghost?”
“Just about. FSB.”
Maksim made a face, but remained standing by his bench, watching the thermocycler with his usual quiet intensity, willing it to work well, without failure. A finicky machine, that, and they all had little rituals to coax it into working. Valentin said little silent prayers to imaginary and funny gods, Lida Belaya sang to her samples—beautifully, Valentin thought. He always looked forward to Belaya’s experiments, and today he was sad that she wasn’t here to soothe him and yet happy that she wasn’t, and wouldn’t have to face the FSB general.
It was a large building, and objectively Valentin had no reason to think that FSB was here to see him. The secret yet universal belief in his exceptional status was verified when the frosted glass lab door swung open.
“Lieutenant general Dobrenko,” the general said, and moved for Maksim. “Dr. Vronsky?”
“Yes,” Maksim said.
“Dr. Korzhik,” the general said to Valentin. “I’m here on business.”
Maksim shifted on his feet, leaning uncharacteristically away from the thermocycler. “For me or for him?” His fingers were white around the stirring glass rod he had no reason to be holding.
“Both.” The word plopped out of Dobrenko’s mouth, lumpy and dull like a toad. “You both are virologists with a military past and bio weapons experience. You both served in Afghanistan.”
Valentin did not know that about Maksim, and judging by Maksim’s quick look, the ignorance was mutual.
The general sighed. “Another life, yeah? Back then, who would’ve thought that the Americans will be bombing the Afghans instead of helping them? Anyway, I’m here to request your expertise.”
“What are you weaponizing now?” Valentin said. “Measles? Common cold? Herpes?”
“Nothing. In fact, we’re attenuating.” Oh damn it all to hell. Valentin managed not to say it out loud. Why can’t you just leave shit alone? The less you stir it, the less it stinks.
“Let me fill you in.” Dobrenko leaned against Maksim’s lab bench, kicking out one long leg, his narrow behind resting against the black composite edge. Yet it was clear to them that listening was not optional. “You of course heard about the quarantine.”
“I knew it!” Maksim whacked the glass rod against the palm of his other hand. “I knew it was a disease, not a food safety issue! Since when do they care about pesticide contamination, huh?”
Valentin nodded. Nothing ever changed—the newspapers lied just like they did in the eighties, and of course everyone guessed that the sudden stop of trade with the west was due to more than violations of environmental pesticide guidelines. Valentin groused that it was great Russia was not a WTO member, because if it was, who would let it boycott products like that? He realized that he was leaning forward, just like Maksim, eager to learn a secret, no matter how bad or distasteful, no matter how beholden it would leave him. Not like he had a choice anyway.
“There’s a disease.” Dobrenko’s words slipped out measured, safe. “We believe it started in the US, and of course took little time to spread elsewhere. Of course, it’ll take a while to burn through Western Europe—now that everyone is quarantining. Poland, the Czech Republic—they closed their borders too.”
“How dangerous is it?” Maksim said. “What’s the mortality rate? How does it spread?”
“Hundred percent,” Dobrenko said. “Airborne, or at least we think so.” Voice flat, face flat. “Of course, you can also say that the mortality rate is zero percent—it’s all in how you look at it. According to our data, people who die from it don’t stay dead too long.”
“What, zombies?” Valentin grew irritable again, and heard his voice rising. “Next you’ll be asking us to make you a vaccine for lycanthropy? Antibodies for vampirism?”
“This is serious,” Dobrenko said. “Look.”
He pulled out an envelope from his pocket. The pictures inside were of good quality: and depicted some unknown town, likely European judging by how clean the streets were—if one ignored the dead on the sidewalks, in the roadways. More disconcerting were several people standing—they all had an unusually slouching posture; some had missing limbs, others—ruined faces, bruises, long streaks of gore smeared on their clothes. And yet they stood.
“What do you want, a vaccine?” Maksim said.
“Sure, a vaccine would be nice. What we do want, however, is an attenuated virus—to grant immunity, and maybe produce…a milder illness, I suppose.”
Maksim and Valentin traded a disbelieving look.
“Even if we could do that—and I doubt we can since viruses are tricky, and how many viral vaccines do you know anyway?” Maksim sucked in his breath. “Even if we could, what makes you think it’s a good idea?”
“The election is coming. The virus seems to make people…brainless is not what we’re after, of course, but more docile, easier to speak to. Easier to convince. Suggestible, I guess is what we’re after. And if it’s not airborne, it probably should be.”
“This is United Russia’s idea,” Valentin said. “No way they’re taking the majority of the Duma seats this time around.”
“There is a way,” Dobrenko said softly. “This is what I’m trying to explain to you—with your cooperation we might yet save the motherland.”
Maksim shook his head and Valentin marveled—at Maksim’s stubbornness, at his own impotent hate, at the ability to refuse to collaborate while simultaneously accepting the inevitability of doing so.
“Think about it.” Dobrenko unfolded from his slouch by the bench and left. And why wouldn’t he? Not like they had anywhere to run with the borders closed.
“Well?” Maksim was on him before the door closed behind the general all the way. “What’s with you? You stand there and don’t argue, and you were doing bio weapons before and never told me?”
“You didn’t tell me either.” Valentin sighed. “And arguing…you can’t argue with the FSB. Not if you want to live or have any relatives.”
“So we just let them infect people? This is just…I knew they were evil, but this is just ridiculous! Even they have to realize how bad this is, and we…”
“I didn’t say we do it,” Valentin said. “I said you can’t argue. You have Lida’s home number? Better call her, warn that poor soul.”
As little as Valentin enjoyed reminiscing about his military service, there were parts of him shaped by it—as much as he managed to forget them at times, at others they manifested, almost violently, against his will, like claws and fur and teeth sprouting out of a werewolf. Valentin thought that maybe he was a were-soldier, like one of those shell-shocked vets that flipped out at loud noises and flashes of light. Only his flipping out was quiet, more orderly.
“So you served in Afghanistan,” he said to Maksim. “Still remember any of it?”
“Every night.” Maksim breathed through his mouth, suddenly slow and cautious. “I don’t understand how they could do this to us—you can’t just draft kids—eighteen-year-olds!—and toss them into hell. I don’t care what Dobrenko said about the Americans—at least those are trained soldiers who volunteered to join the military. We…how could they?”
“They could and they did.” Valentin stared out of the window overlooking the apple orchard planted by Michurin himself—or so the rumor had it. “And they’ll do it again too. That virus…if they’re talking to us about it, it means they brought samples for us, from god knows where. How long will those remain contained? How long until someone sneaks across the border? How many were incubating before the quarantine started?”
“You sure Dobrenko’s right that it’s airborne?”
“So what is it that you want to do? If you can’t say no to the FSB and we’re all gonna die anyway?”
“It’s going to get bad. Can you imagine what it would be like, with millions of people turned into…”
“Zombies? You believe that?”
“I always believe FSB.” Valentin managed a smile with one side of his mouth. “Even if they succeed and attenuate the virus, and release it….”
“We’ll still be overrun with a horde of zombies.” Maksim smiled too. “I’m starting to see your point. What do you suggest then?”
“We have to go into hiding. We can’t run, and we cannot work for them, and I’m scared of what’s going to happen. What we can do is to get armed and hide.”
“Underground. Vorobyovy Gory subway station is closed now, it’s under renovations. I know there’s a side tunnel—a friend of mine works on the construction.”
Maksim must’ve been taking Dobrenko seriously too, because he neither argued with Valentin nor called him insane. “Weapons,” he said eventually. “We will need something.…”
“The Biology Department used to have the ROTC program. There were Kalashnikovs, ammo, medical kits—the whole deal.”
“And we’ll get it how? Oh, don’t tell me—you know a guy.”
Valentin nodded. “I do. He used to run the program, Major Sechenov. He’s old now, retired. But he has the keys—when he retired, he took them with him. The question now is, what are you bringing to the table? Do you still remember how to handle a Kalashnikov?”
“I can pull it apart in under eight seconds. And yes, I still remember what to do with it. And…” Maksim paused—as if a new life was being born in him right that minute, out of their fear and disgust, the bleakness that never seemed to lift away in this cursed place. “I think I can get us some heavy artillery.”
“I know a guy too.”
In the following days, Valentin came to appreciate what his classicist ex-wife Lyudmila referred to as “Cassandra syndrome”. He struggled. On one hand, one had to be careful while spilling classified info and yet trying to maintain the facade of collaboration with the government; on the other, as remote and cold as Valentin tended to be, there were people he cared about. He assumed the same was true of Maksim, but he never asked, allowing his colleague to negotiate the difficulty as he saw fit. The world was about to die, and Valentin hoped to hang on for a while. There was no news from Europe on TV, and he took it seriously. It would be good to have company, but ultimately it wouldn’t matter: he never believed in a happy ending of the post-apocalyptic stories. If he did, he would’ve tried harder.
As it was, Maksim and he sequenced the viral genome to waste time during the day, and at night they sneaked into the old storage room of the Biology Department’s ROTC. These back rooms, walls of gray cinder block and long shelves along the walls, housed so many relics of another time that Valentin wanted to linger, to look at the student-made posters satirizing Yeltsin’s ascent, and to pet bald heads of the Lenin busts. Instead, they sorted through the boxes with Kalashnikov’s parts, ammunition, handfuls of tracer cartridges. They also grabbed medical supplies and rubber gas masks, their trunks nestled embryonically in dark-green canvas bags. Detachable bayonets, poncho-tents, miners’ helmets with mounted flashlight, cans of pre-Perestroika pork and condensed milk—countless forgotten treasures.
They made one trip per night, and took only what they could carry comfortably, using wooden crates they collected near supermarkets. Valentin hugged his crate to his chest and felt like crying over every item familiar on such an intimate level, like a shape of a lover’s hand, carved into his heart by nostalgia for that lost time. He assumed Maksim felt the same. They walked then to the closed metro station, where Valentin’s friend, Dmitry, left unlocked the side door leading to a set of service stairs and then a short side tunnel, with an abundance of warning signs and an empty electric shed. On their first night, Valentin took off the shed’s padlock with the bolt cutters, and hung instead the one he bought. So far, no one seemed to have bothered to discover that the lock had been changed.
Thursday night was likely to be the last. They were almost done gutting the cinder block rooms, and Valentin looked forward to maybe spending the next night in his bed instead of skulking in the shadows and walking with a heavy crate for a good three kilometers. He breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the shed, and then almost jumped out of his skin when a shadow stepped from behind the shed.
It was a blessing that his hands were occupied—otherwise, he would’ve struck out blindly, before the figure said in an uncertain voice, “Dad?”
“Yes honey,” Maksim answered.
Valentin’s crate clanged to the ground. “You could’ve warned me.”
“I’m early,” the shadow figure said. “I was supposed to be here tomorrow, but I finished classes early, so I caught an early train.”
In the dim light, Valentin was barely able to make out a face—a sharp chin, jutting bangs, a curve of a young cheek. “Your daughter?”
“Estranged daughter,” she said with some emotion. “From St. Petersburg.”
“Alisa,” Maksim added.
Valentin didn’t pry; other people’s affairs interested him little, and he considered questions impolite, especially if they touched on such intimate topics as family and children. So instead he just nodded to Alisa and assumed that she would join them in their bunker. “Hope you like condensed milk,” he said after they settled the crates inside the shed, and Alisa had a chance to appreciate the abundance.
“Now what?” she said.
“Now, home,” Maksim said. “Tomorrow night, we’re getting the heavy artillery.”
Alisa nodded—apparently, her father already had told her about the museum. “I’ll come with you,” she said.
“All right.” Maksim extended his hand, shook Valentin’s. “See you tomorrow.” He and his sudden daughter walked to the bus stop, while Valentin sighed and hoofed it back to the University metro station.
Valentin had always had an ambivalent relationship with viruses: they were the worst of those pseudo-Zen koans, not really alive and not really dead. Finding a virus that could turn people into something like itself was both terrifying and a little thrilling, and Valentin couldn’t help but get occasionally carried away, as the new bits of code came off the sequencer, and Maksim searched the databases for closest matches.
The samples Dobrenko gave them were all heat-killed, harmless, but still they worked with every Level 2 precaution. He couldn’t help but wonder where the live specimens were kept, and how long it would take before they escaped. If there was one thing Valentin learned in his scientific career, it was that pathogens can never be contained. No matter how cunning the facilities and the locks, no matter what precautions, every microscopic life form would eventually break out of its confinement and run through the streets, chasing the shrieking throngs. He guessed that that moment wasn’t too far off: newspapers wrote about contamination of produce with E. coli, necessitating the cordons all around Moscow. No one but the military had left or entered the city in the past week or so. Everyone complained about lack of eggplants in the market.
Maksim wandered over to Valentin’s bench, to peek at the long strip of paper coming off the sequencer like a seismogram, with four colored lines, flailing up and down into peaks and valleys. “Pretty A-T heavy, huh.”
“Yeah. What artillery did you have in mind?”
“I told you, a friend of mine is a museum guard. About to retire, so he doesn’t give a shit. And they have a nice collection of old military technology. We can find what we need and walk away with it.”
“So nothing too heavy.”
“Or at least nothing without wheels.”
“Your daughter…she can handle all this?”
Maksim nodded. “Yep. Bright kid, studies engineering in St Petersburg’s University. Computer networks and all this jazz. She’s certainly better at new technology than we are.”
“We don’t have new technology. Don’t need it—what are we going to do, launch rockets from your laptop?”
“Do you mind?”
Valentin shook his head, then laughed. “Sorry. I just argue sometimes.”
That night after work, they went to scope out the museum Maksim had been talking about. This time, they didn’t have to walk too far. The museum was located near the metro station, a small building that looked like it was meant to be the part of the university but fell by the wayside somehow, and became one of those small, dinky museums that served as depositories of random specimens and donated junk no one had the heart to throw out. This one seemed to have received its fair share of WW2 relics, uniforms and helmets and rusted Katyusha shells sleeping under the glass. Most people clustered in the wing that had exhibited some porcelain dolls—Valentin thought with dismay that unless the exhibit closed soon, obtaining artillery would be difficult. He really was hoping for a sleepy, empty museum.
Alisa, who they had picked up by the metro, didn’t seem impressed. Valentin studied her out of the corner of his eye, and she did the same. An alien, a small sharp-elbowed alien with a sagging backpack on her shoulder, barely covered by a shredded shirt. She seemed a bird with her ruthless bright eyes. “I want to see the dolls,” she told her father.
“Go for it.” He slipped a folded hundred into her hand and she sauntered off, in the direction of human voices and soft music, and flashing of theoretically prohibited cameras.
They wandered away, into the cavernous halls with the dangerously apathetic military technology. “Whoa,” Maksim said, and pointed.
It was an entire T34, sitting, uncovered by glass or any other impediments, in a shallow niche. Far as tanks went, this was a lightweight, but maneuverable. “How are we supposed to get it out?” Valentin said.
“I used to drive one,” Maksim said. “I think I probably still can.”
“It’s a tank,” Valentin said.
“Precisely.” The tone of his voice was not unusual, but the subtle setting of the jaw told Valentin that Maksim would accept nothing less.
“You have your heart set on it?”
Maxim nodded. “I doubt there will be anything better.”
“Or more conspicuous.”
When they left the museum, Maksim whispered into Alisa’s ear, urgent. In response, Alisa only jerked her shoulder, not bothering to hide her distaste for the proceedings. Contemptuous, like her entire generation. Kids were such shit these days. A sudden sound interrupted Valentin’s fuming. A low, throbbing cry came from somewhere up ahead, at the entrance to the metro station. A small knot of people snagged at something, thickening and wrapping, and growing around the invisible epicenter from which the cry came. A drunk or an epileptic, Valentin thought.
“A woman’s not feeling well.” Some busybody whispered to Valentin, and went back to rising on tiptoes and craning his neck.
“No reason to hold everything up,” Valentin said, and pushed ahead, his shoulder habitually plowing through the crowd.
He didn’t have to push too hard: to his surprise, the crowd opened up around the alleged sick woman, as people stepped back. The woman in question, still thin and young-looking despite graying curls, wailed, but without much volume or enthusiasm, her cries interrupted by sobs like hiccups. She bent over, her arms raised behind her back, as if in some bizarre game of the airplane. She tottered a little, as if one of her heels had come detached, and then clutched a bloodied hand to her chest. Only then did Valentin notice that her temple was bleeding too—heavy black drops oozed from two semicircles imprinted just above her ear.
The onlookers hushed, a thing unusual in itself, as the woman continued to sob and grunt, and each sound grew more inhumane as she went. The sounds stopped eventually, the silence as alien to the usual thrum of the crowd as the stillness. It would make more sense if it was snowing. Valentin shook his head to chase away an unbidden thought. Someone ought to do something.
One of the onlookers who watched the woman with the same blank intensity as the rest of them, took a step toward her, reaching out with his knobby, sinewy hands—Valentin noticed these hands before everything else, the concave face and too-short jacket sleeves, peeling threads on the checkered cuffs of the shirt. One of the knuckles bore a bright crescent mark, slowly seeping blood. For a moment, Valentin was relieved that someone had stepped up so he wouldn’t have to, but the man in the checkered shirt and old jacket growled and grabbed at the woman, his jaws opening wide. Before a few men in the crowd had a chance to step up, he bit the woman in the face, his face blank all the while.
A few people gasped, a few backed away.
“What is it?” Alisa hissed into his ear.
“I…I don’t know.” Valentin looked over his shoulder, seeking Maksim’s input.
He wasn’t far behind. “Shit. This doesn’t look like anything…”
“I know,” Valentin said. “Do you think…?” Maksim took a step back, tugging Alisa’s sleeve. She followed him, too scared to get an attitude. “I think,” Maksim said, “that the farther we get away from this, the better.”
Read the rest of the story in ZVR: Diplomacy edited by Jeff Conner. Read More about the ZVR: Diplomacy here