Our animals, they know. Way before we do.
Ever since we entered the Zone of Exclusion, she’s been uneasy. For me, it’s paradise. No people. Stores full of stuff. Apartment doors standing open, radios still on. One morning months ago a caravan of trucks showed up, ordering everybody out of a two-hundred-kilometer circle of Irkutskaya Oblast—centered on our test site, to provide total security in case one of our animals escaped. People took what they could carry and left what they could not. I’m stuffing my saddlebags full of books, and jewelry for my mother, and my megalosaurus is pawing at the dirt. She still smells the suffering.
Humans are dumb like that. We let so much come between us and what we know in our gut.
Right away, she knew. Last month—a morning like any other as far as I could tell—but as soon as we entered the long empty aircraft hangar, my megalosaurus could sniff it in the air. Something wrong. Something missing.
Not even now, in Nukutsky, this empty city smelling of rot and red rust, do I know what I’ll do. If I find him.
“Come on, girl,” I tell her, climbing back on board. “He’s close.”
“It wasn’t an attack,” Mayakovskaya told me. We were alone in her office. She was so much smaller, behind a desk. Moments before, in the hangar, giving us the briefing on the previous night’s security breach—almost certainly American spies—she’d seemed superhuman.
It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder whether she was telling the truth. It never did. One more thing Osip always made fun of me for. You’re so cute the way you unthinkingly believe everything you read in Pravda.
My skin shivered, remembering.
“It was treason,” she continued, and instead of anger I heard sadness.
She stood up. Her face gave nothing away. She’d been at Stalingrad.
“Someone stole a gate. And the plans for how to make more. And they’re heading for Okinawa to meet with an American scientist—a representative of the Owen Corporation.”
Her eyes were aiming out the window, to the long muster space where our monsters were trained. Armor-plated stegosauruses marched in a circle. Sauropods plodded. Raptors ran in packs; split off into pairs; brought down motorcars.
I knew by now. Why else would I be there?
“Sergeant Kalatozov,” she said, avoiding eye contact. Like she knew. What we were.
“How do you know he—”
“He took his ceratosaur. She would not have gone willingly with anyone else—and to get her to go unwillingly they’d have needed equipment and resources too big to have been missed last night.”
She was right, of course. How could she be otherwise? Silence seemed like the smartest course of action. It usually did. Or at least the least stupid one.
“We have several squads of highly trained soldiers tracking him down, of course. This project eclipses even the atom bomb in terms of its potential to determine the future of our war with the West. But no one knows him better than you. We want you in the field as well. You have two hours to develop a plan, and another hour to prepare for departure.”
I had never been so grateful for basic training. For those long brutal days and weeks drilling basic obedience into me, so that the response was out of my mouth before my brain could intervene:
“What?” I’d asked, when I put one sweat-wet hand on his bare hip and tugged, and he didn’t come.
“I’m tired,” he said, and sat up on the tarp we’d spread between two motorcycles.
True, we’d just finished, but Osip was usually good for three rounds. Sometimes four. Five, once, on leave in Odessa, when we’d had the whole wild city at our disposal but spent most of it in one tiny stinking gaslit room. Bellies gurgling the whole time, but we couldn’t bear to put clothes on and leave the bedroom to find food.
“What?” I said again, because words were not what I was good at.
He put on his Red Army cap. Naked, it made him look like a little boy playing soldier. Pterodactyls screeched in the black night sky above our tin roof. Scissor-wings snipped.
“You went somewhere,” I said. “Yesterday. On patrol. I couldn’t reach you for two hours.”
“Radio silence is part of the protocol.”
I poked him where he was still slick. “You aren’t always so fond of protocol with me.”
Osip stood up. He was magnificent. From the seat of his motorcycle, he took my pack of cigarettes. Lit one, tossed one to me.
Usually he lit them first.
“Do you ever think of leaving?”
“The Army? Eventually. What should we—”
“No,” he said. “Not the Army.”
When I look back now I can see what I should have seen. But when it was happening all I could see was how my heart hurt.
Osip said: “When they opened the first gate, it led to outer space. Sucked sixty scientists in, along with half of a Leningrad University research center. Would have kept going forever, probably, if it hadn’t swallowed up its own power source and shut down.”
“When was that?” I asked, not because I ever fully understood or remembered what he said, but because it made him happy to talk, to sound smart. Making him happy made me happy.
“1944. That’s when they shifted research outside of the cities, set up the Zones of Exclusion. Gate science has come a long way since then.”
Our dinosaurs blinked slow in the unaccustomed sunlight. My megalosaurus was slightly bigger than his ceratosaurus. Nowhere near as smart. And it lacked the awesome horn halfway between her eyes and nose. But either one of them could have killed an elephant in an instant, or gobbled down a human in two snaps of those knife-tooth-filled jaws.
Command said tyrannosaurs were still too difficult to find. Osip said he bet they were easy to find, but too difficult to capture.
“We’re close to opening a gate right onto where the Americans keep their atomic secrets—but General Mayakovskaya thinks the A-bomb is not the future of warfare. These are.”
We walked them through the familiar drills. Stop; go; squat; attack. Mount; dismount. Dismember.
He leaned forward, and kissed the top of his monster’s head. “What do you think they do with these little ladies, once we train them?”
“Homeland defense,” I said, exactly like the General always said it.
And all at once, like the sun swallowed up by a cloud, Osip’s smile was gone. He laughed, but made me ask:
“They get assigned to labor camps. Patrolling perimeters. Hunting down escapees.”
“How do you—”
“I’ve heard stories. Guards terrorizing prisoners. Siccing our girls on the weak ones, or the troublemakers, in front of everyone. Or throwing three men into their pen, and putting bets on what order they get eaten in.”
I shrugged. Sad for those poor souls, but good people did not end up in prison camps. Everybody knew that. Pravda said so.
Three more hours on our training shift, and Osip did not say another word the whole time.
“Don’t be scared.”
“She sees your hand shaking,” Osip said. He wasn’t Osip, then. He was Sergeant Kalatozov. My superior; my trainer. The man with the electric eyes, whose voice set fire to my insides, who moments before had guided me through a door into a repurposed stable, where an animal that was supposed to have died a hundred million years ago was waiting for me.
“How did we—where did she—”
“We went to where she lives, and brought her back.”
“Gate technology. In the West they call them wormholes, but they’re still purely theoretical. The mighty Soviet state has made them real.”
“Don’t be scared,” he said, standing between me and the monster—and his eyes were locked on mine, like he knew, like he was her, like he could smell it on me—how afraid I was, of him, of how he made me feel, of what the smell of him set off inside me.
“Poor thing,” he said, “you can’t be, what? Six weeks away from the Moscow slums?”
“Four weeks,” I whispered.
He grinned, and grabbed hold of my shoulders. We were both of us war orphans, but so was everyone else.
“It’s okay to be scared,” he whispered in my ear, and felt how I shivered when he did so.
“Okay,” I said.
“It’s okay to be homesick.”
“Okay,” I said.
“This is okay, too,” he said, and kissed me on the mouth. On the neck.
“Okay,” I said.
So many people had told me it was not okay, what I wanted. I thought to myself, what else will he show me? What other lies have I spent my whole life believing?
It would not stop screaming. Three stab wounds in its sides—one leg broken—and the allosaurus still fought and snapped and bit and thrashed.
We have to know, General Mayakovskaya had told us, that morning, when we got the assignment. Not just how they fight—how they suffer, too. How long it takes them to bleed to death. How pain changes their behavior. These are weapons—not friends. We can always go back through the gate to get more.
“Come inside,” I said.
“No,” Osip said, sitting on the metal railing watching our prize pupil die.
“Let the scientists do their job. They’re documenting everything. We don’t need to watch th—”
“You can go if you want to,” he said, and what I heard in his voice was hate. Not for me, but the knowing that didn’t make his hate hurt any less.
Across the glass, our animals stood patiently and let the mechanics strap their armor on. Gun turrets; saddlebags packed with munitions. Helmets to shield their eyes from the blinding flash of a nuclear blast.
Osip lay on his back on the dirty stable floor, smoking. Holding up a document with both hands.
“What’s that?” I asked. Innocently. Paper was just paper. How could a pamphlet change anything, let alone everything?
He handed it to me. THE OWEN CORPORATION
“Where did you get this?”
“Found it in one of the empty Zone cities. Nukutsky.”
I opened it. All the other words were way too small. I handed it back. “What does it say?”
He shook his head, disappointed in me for not trying harder. They didn’t spend a ton of time teaching slum kids how to read back in Moscow, I’d said to him not long after we met, to which he’d said You’re not in the Moscow slums anymore.
“They want to bring technology to the people. Use it for everyone.”
My mouth came open. Would not shut. What he was saying could not be said.
“Educate people. Entertain them. Imagine if our monsters could be used for something other than killing.”
Now I know. American companies don’t translate anything into Russian unless they’re trying to talk somebody into treason.
“Osip, stop,” I whispered, or anyway tried to.
“All finished, Sergeant,” the shorter mechanic said, entering.
Osip squirreled away the pamphlet. Got up off the floor. Made his grin go away. With the other soldiers around we were aloof. He was as gruff with me as with anyone else. A testament to her leadership, that Mayakovskaya could tell we were more to each other.
He saluted. She saluted, and left. Osip shrank, when he exhaled.
“You’re happy?” he asked.
I didn’t answer right away. Because the question had to be a trick. Because how could I not be?
“You’re happy here?” he said.
“Of course,” I said. “What even—what alternative would there even be?”
“It’s a big world,” he said, and my stomach sank. My bladder swelled. The animal in me was afraid, terrified for the strange creature my beloved had become.
“You’re happy having to hide this?”
“It’s no better in America,” I said. The name felt like thorns on my tongue—a provocation, a plea for him to refute that’s what he’d been contemplating.
“How would you know that?”
So. America it was.
Heart breaking, on brute animal instinct, like the kind basic training had drilled into me, I asked: “How would you know otherwise?”
And here, for once, it was Osip whose open mouth had nothing to offer.
How had he done it? Contacted that corporation, communicated to them what we’d done—what we had—set up an encounter? But Osip was smart like that. He could do things. All September long, that must have been what he’d been doing. And I’d been so oblivious. The kind of oblivious that can only be intentional. Only be me trying my hardest not to know something.
That’s the human in us. The thing that acts against every instinct.
Supper, and we sat on long benches, ate over-salted slop. Osip’s hand on my thigh, sometimes. The briefest of caresses, of squeezes. Summer was over. The wind from the steppes was already sharpening.
“Red Lizard Boys,” someone said. “That’s what they should call our brigade.”
Six separate women groaned as one. “Red Lizard Soldiers,” someone clarified, and there were cheers, general consensus achieved, and we spent the whole meal discussing it, writing the songs they would sing about us, when our monsters had won us the war with the West.
Only Osip’s laughs were empty, his smiles silent. None of us could see what he’d accepted long ago. How no one would ever know our names, tell the stories of what we’d done.
I could see, then. In the way he hid the pain from his face. What courage it took to contemplate escaping. To even imagine something so blasphemous. So dangerous. I tried, and I couldn’t.
What a weird thing about humans. How the imagining something is so much harder than the doing it.
But then—late that night—alone in my narrow barracks bed—Osip asleep three bunks over—an image came into my head. Something from a movie we’d seen in Odessa: a clandestine, tattered print playing in someone’s improvised basement cinema. Sixty sailors and whores and railroad men and street vendors crammed together, watching something we weren’t supposed to watch. An American movie, set in Los Angeles. Untranslated; incomprehensible. Osip says that’s the point. Not the story, not the words. The people. Their superhuman faces; their perfect teeth and smooth hair sculpted from black or white marble. Walking smiling holding hands beneath palm trees seven stories high.
I could see us, Osip and I. Under the palm trees.
Now you’ve done it, I told myself, knowing I’d not be able to sleep that night. Now you’ve imagined yourself there. Now you’re really screwed.
The pearl necklace clenched in my fist must have come from Paris. Nothing this nice has existed in our country since the time of the tsars, and the Whites took it all with them when they left. What they left, the Reds sold to buy tractors. Weapons. The ones that won them the Civil War, kept the Soviet state from being strangled in its crib.
Who was she, I wonder, the woman whose abandoned dresser I’d snatched them off of? How had she gotten them? Not through a gate—opening one onto a hostile country was still strictly forbidden until First Strike, with all gate traffic strictly logged and scrutinized. No, these were older. Passed down, kept safe. And how much money would they get for me? Enough to buy a building, I think. A house. A life for two. But I don’t know how much anything costs, not really. All I know is that dreams are not enough. From the hurt in my very human heart I know that this will be true no matter where we run to.
Run to. Like I’ve decided already. But I haven’t. Because every option in front of me makes me sick to my stomach.
Nukutsky feels like the future. Like full winter is already upon us, when back at base autumn had still been beginning. We’re close enough now, that my megalosaurus can take us the rest of the way to Osip. She has his scent; stomps past the streets that stand between us.
He is sitting in the middle of the street, in the middle of the city. He’s dragged a comfortable armchair out of one of the houses. Books are stacked beside him. He’s been waiting.
“You came,” he says. His ceratosaur is nowhere to be seen.
“Of course I came. Where is she?”
“On the boat,” he says. “Waiting for us.”
“Boat?” I say, but I already knew, and do not want to know.
“The one from the Owen Corporation.”
“Osip,” I say. “What have you done?”
He doesn’t say, because here too his vocabulary fails him. Whatever the word is, for whatever’s beyond treason—that’s what he’s done.
“You gave her to the Americans.”
“Not the Americans. An American corporation.”
I blink. I do not know the difference.
“I’m going to join her,” he says. “We both are.”
I climb down from the saddle. Already the tears are coming. Because I am weak. Because I am still that broken slum kid. Because I had hoped that he would change me, but he hasn’t. He can’t. We are what we are. I’d believed him to be perfect, but that was bullshit. None of us are. Not if we’re human.
“Please tell me you’ll come too.”
“Come back to the base with me,” I say, aware already of how absurd this sounds. “We can say you were attacked—your animal was captured—you—”
“I stole her from the base,” he says. “You know what they’ll do to me.”
I do. I gasp, from how much it hurts. How badly I want to die.
“Then go,” I whisper. “
“I won’t,” Osip says. “Not without you.”
He smiles. He waits. He thinks he knows me.
“Please go,” I whisper. The steppes swallow up the sound.
“My fate is in your hands.”
He picks up three rocks. Throws one at my megalosaurus. She barks. Looks at me. For permission. I put my hand on her haunch and she lowers her head obediently.
“We can be free,” he says. “We can be together. You know that’ll never happen here.”
“You don’t know that it’ll happen anywhere.”
He throws a second rock. My monster is extremely confused. She will obey me, but not for very long.
“Run,” I say. “Run now.”
He says my name. But I know by now that he knows.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, possibly out loud. “I can’t.”
The third rock strikes her chest. She roars.
I take my hand off. Step back. My monster steps forward.
Sure, she knows him. But she is still an animal.
Osip screams, but not for more than second.
My human brain believed that doing it this way would feel like it was out of my hands. Like it wasn’t me, deciding. So it would hurt less. So eventually it might stop hurting. But it’s still a choice, choosing to let our animals decide.
(Editors’ Note: “Red Lizard Brigade” is read by Heath Miller on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 23A.)
© 2018 by Sam J. Miller