Red Square, Moscow, nine days after the opening of the Russian portal
Major Rozhenko stepped in front of Budenny, his AK-47 automatic rifle raised. The major fired into the heads of the last six onrushing plot’ yedokov, bringing each down. The last fell in front of the major and rolled. Rozhenko stepped back so the carcass wouldn’t knock him over, ejected the weapon’s empty magazine, and loaded a fresh one.
Rozhenko’s eyes pleaded with his commanding officer to end this carnage. “You have to order a retreat.”
“No,” barked the general.
“We can do this.” Budenny added under his breath, “We have to.”
“We” referred to the five thousand soldiers of the Russian Ground Forces surging across Red Square to close the vrata that had opened in front of the State Historical Museum in the wake of the scientific accident at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, seventy miles south of Moscow. The portal measured seventy feet in diameter. The bottom five feet lay buried beneath ground level, melting the surrounding stones and forming a trough. Its circumference shimmered, creating a distorted boundary between the two realms. An endless column of plot’ yedokov stumbled through, their numbers stretching back into Hell as far as the eye could see. They had been pouring into Red Square and spreading out across Moscow since the portal first opened. The electromagnetic pulse generated during its formation had burnt out all electronic circuitry for thousands of miles, rendering most of the military equipment useless. Not that it mattered. Budenny had scoured armories throughout the Urals to find “old school” weapons to arm his troops—AK-47 Kalashnikov automatic rifles, Makarov semi-automatic pistols, and a dozen TPO-70 heavy infantry flamethrowers left over from the Cold War. He also possessed four ten-man squads, each armed with a Special Atomic Demolition Munition, more commonly known as a “suitcase bomb,” a portable low-yield nuclear weapon they would use to blast shut the vrata. The general had thought his command would be able to deal with this threat.
To paraphrase von Moltke, no battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy.
The plot’ yedokov threatened Budenny’s force by their sheer numbers. As his troops advanced up Red Square, they ran into a seemingly impenetrable wall of the creatures which slowed their pace. For every plot’ yedokov brought down, twice as many took its place. It had taken nearly an hour to move only a few hundred feet. Their left flank was anchored by Lenin’s Mausoleum in front of the Kremlin, with the line of advance stretching across Red Square before swerving north in front of Gum Department Store where the right flank pushed three hundred feet ahead. Two of the nuclear squads had fallen in behind this surge to get nearer to the portal. Budenny had used his left flank to distract the bulk of the plot’ yedokov and give his right flank a chance. As a hedge, he had ordered the remaining two nuclear squads to maneuver toward the mausoleum to make an end run if the opportunity arose. Budenny hoped this would work because his men had already expended more than half their ammunition. Once they were empty, the plot’ yedokov would overwhelm them.
A commotion came from the troops off to his left. Budenny focused his attention beyond the vrata toward the northeast corner of the Kremlin, expecting to see more plot’ yedokov bearing down on them. Rozhenko expressed the disbelief both men felt when he muttered, “Vy popali v trakhat'sya shutok.”
A dragon had emerged from behind the Kremlin wall and centered itself between the citadel and the State Historical Museum. It did not resemble the mythical creatures from the childhood fairy tales his grandmother had told him about dragons protecting the Motherland from foreign invaders. This monster had the shape of a lizard, albeit one that stretched two hundred feet from nose to tail, and did not have wings. Its colorization was a deep red streaked with tints of orange. The scales were as thick as armored plates, especially around the head where the chin, nose, and brows extended outward in bony structures, and along the chest and spine where the skin peeked into thick ridges that glowed crimson. The beast crouched as if to lunge, yet remained still and observed the battle through a pair of glossy, pitch black eyes.
Rozhenko moved beside Budenny. “General, we have to fall back now while we still have a chance.”
Before Budenny could respond, two soldiers, each carrying a flamethrower, raced up on the dragon’s flanks and doused it in flames, the one on the right aiming for its head, the other focusing on its massive chest. The behemoth reared up on its hind legs and screeched in agony. When the attack ceased, the dragon had not even been singed. It dropped onto all four legs, lowered the front part of its torso, and leaned its head forward. The glowing ridges along its chest and spine shone in intensity. Budenny sensed the panic that raced through his men.
Rather than fire, the dragon exhaled a cloud of lime green smoke tinted with thousands of crystals. The behemoth swung its head from side to side, producing a cloud that stretched for five hundred feet and expanded above Red Square, forming above the heads of plot’ yedokov and humans. It floated for several seconds before settling onto the troops. When the first crystal touched a hard surface, it ignited a flame no larger than the head of a lit match, yet it kindled the lime green gas around it. The cloud became a raging inferno that burned itself out within seconds, incinerating plot’ yedokov and Budenny’s men, leaving thousands of charred corpses sprawled across the square. A few remaining green crystals smoldered on the blackened skeletons and scorched pavement.
The left flank of Budenny’s front panicked and broke into a horde of terrified men, including one of the nuclear squads, all of whom dropped their weapons and ran for the Moskva River. Colonel Yurchenko, who led the other nuclear squad, headed for shelter behind Lenin’s Mausoleum. Budenny, Rozhenko, and a dozen soldiers followed, stopping only when they reached the relative safety of the tomb’s southern wall.
Several of his men stood their ground inside the square, many aiming for the ridges along the dragon’s chest and spine. The behemoth glared at them. A guttural growl emanated from deep within its throat. One of the flamethrowers circled to its right and released a stream of fire that engulfed its head. The growl became an agonized screech. Budenny braced himself for another gas attack. Instead, the dragon lifted its left leg and smashed its foot on top of the flamethrower. The fuel tank exploded, splashing liquid fire on the nearby troops. Those not burnt alive were crushed, as the behemoth lowered its head to the pavement and swung it sideways, flinging a score of Budenny’s men into the air to be smashed against the Kremlin walls. One brave comrade rushed forward and emptied his AK-47 into the dragon’s face, only to be scooped up in its mouth. As the man screamed in pain and terror, the dragon lifted its head and swallowed. The final shreds of discipline among Budenny’s left flank collapsed, and a panicked escape ensued. Surging ahead, the dragon rampaged through the fleeing men, crushing them under its weight or hurling them aside.
The right flank remained intact and took advantage of the confusion. Moving toward the center of Red Square where the dragon’s fire cloud had cleared away the plot’ yedokov, the other two nuclear squads, protected by one hundred troops, raced for the vrata. A handful of new plot’ yedokov had passed through the portal to replace those wiped out, more than enough for the Russians to handle. They had closed to within fifty feet when a roar came from Nikolskaya Street, which ran alongside Gum Department Store and entered Red Square near Kazan Cathedral. A second dragon thundered into the square. The ridges along its chest and spine glowed crimson. Upon seeing the humans, it exhaled a lime green cloud over the advancing troops. The two nuclear squads rushed ahead, trying to plant their devices in the few remaining moments left to them. The crystals struck a hard surface and ignited. In seconds, the cloud became an inferno that incinerated another two hundred troops and plot’ yedokov. An explosion erupted from the fire cloud as one of the nuclear devices detonated with the equivalent of between ten and fifteen tons of high explosives.
Budenny and the others ducked behind the wall moments before the shock wave slammed into the mausoleum. The entire structure shook. Chunks of red marble broke loose and fell on them. Budenny felt his internal organs compress, fearing for a moment that they might rupture. The mausoleum took the brunt of the force, and the general suffered nothing more severe than a ringing in his ears. Leaning with his back against the wall, he shouted, “Is everyone okay?”
“Yes,” Rozhenko responded. Budenny didn’t hear the words but instead read his aide’s lips.
“Yes,” Rozhenko responded. Budenny didn’t hear the words but instead read his aide’s lips.
“Wait here.” The general made his way to the corner of the mausoleum and checked on the situation in Red Square. The blast had devastated everything within a two hundred foot radius. Those soldiers on the right flank not killed outright had been crushed or maimed from the concussion. Every plot’ yedokov in the square had been ripped apart, the blue light of their life forces mixing with black smoke as both drifted skyward. Even the dragon had not come through unscathed. The blast had thrown it against the front façade of Gum where it lay amongst a pile of debris. A gaping wound in its abdomen oozed blood and the torn remnants of internal organs. It tried to raise its legs and swing its tail, an effort that ended in a pathetic mewl before the behemoth went limp. For all the destruction it caused, the blast had one positive effect. It had cleared away all obstacles between them and the portal.
“Yurchenko,” Budenny ordered. “Move while you have the chance.”
The colonel did not waste time responding. He circled Budenny and rushed into Red Square, knowing the others would follow. The general watched as the squad raced toward the vrata, confident they would make it.
As Yurchenko’s squad approached the portal, half a dozen plot’ yedokov wandered through onto their side, only to be taken down by a barrage of automatic weapons fire. The squad stopped twenty feet from the opening, most providing suppressing fire against the plot’ yedokov that came through. Yurchenko slid off his backpack, lowered it onto the pavement, and unzipped it to reveal a cylindrical-shaped device eighteen inches in length by four inches in diameter. An LED display and keypad was built into one side. He would set the timer for two minutes, place it against the vrata, and then get as far away as possible before the one kiloton explosion detonated and, in theory, blasted shut the portal. Yurchenko unlocked the keypad. The six spaces on the LED device lit up in a series of 0s. Once he typed in 120, he would—
A distorted roar shot across Red Square. The way his squad backed away from the portal told Yurchenko in which direction the sound came. A third dragon raced toward them from inside Hell. It rushed the opening, though still a thousand feet distant, crushing or pushing aside the plot’ yedokov heading in the same direction. Another roar came from behind him near St. Basil’s. The first dragon had reversed direction, abandoning its pursuit of the fleeing humans to defend the portal. It had already approached to within one hundred feet, the ridges along its chest and spine a radiant crimson. The behemoth stopped, crouched low to the ground, and exhaled a cloud of lime green gas.
Yurchenko had a few seconds at most to close the vrata. He set the timer on the LED display to 1. Picking up the device, Yurchenko stepped up to the portal and initiated the countdown.
The first crystal touched one of Yurchenko’s men, erupting into a spark that ignited the expanding cloud.
The LED counter switched to 0.
Budenny shut his eyes and ducked behind Lenin’s Mausoleum as blinding light flashed across Red Square. Rozhenko scrambled over and threw himself on top of his commanding officer.
The dragon reared back, screeching as wisps of smoke formed on the skin and scales exposed to the fireball. A moment later, the shock wave slammed into the behemoth, tearing it apart and flinging the shattered carcass across the square to land in a bloody heap in front of St. Basils.
The same shock wave slammed into the mausoleum, shearing off the top layers of marble and the reviewing stand, and dropping the fragments onto those hidden along the southern facade. Rozhenko groaned when a chunk fell on him. Budenny did not hear the major, being only vaguely cognizant of his surroundings for the next minute, sliding in and out of consciousness. When he regained his senses, he heard a low rumbling, and immediately knew what caused the sound.
“Rozhenko, get up. It’s over.”
The major did not respond. Budenny reached up to shake his shoulder. A warm liquid covered his palm. Rozhenko’s body slid down the general’s back and onto the marble debris surrounding them. Blood flowed from the torn skin around his crushed skull. His blank eyes stared up. Budenny placed two fingers over the major’s lids and closed them. When the general stood, he could not see out of his right eye, and the skin on that side of his face felt warm and numb. He would worry about his wounds later. Right now he needed to confirm that Yurchenko had closed the vrata. Placing his left hand against the mausoleum’s wall, Budenny stumbled through the debris until he reached the corner of structure.
Smoke and dust shrouded most of Red Square. The rumbling came from a cloud that billowed skyward, the top forming into its familiar mushroom shape. Budenny could not see the section of Red Square where the portal once stood. He leaned against the wall and waited as the dust around its base settled. His heart sank when he saw something shimmer on the other side of the smoke. The blast had not affected the gate. The explosion had penetrated the opening because the dragon and the closest plot’ yedokov on the other side had been cut down. The vrata, however, remained intact. He had committed almost five thousand men to seal off this portal into Hell and had been unsuccessful.
Budenny slid down the wall and sat on the rubble from the mausoleum. He laid his head back and closed his eyes, wishing he had died along with the rest of his men. His failure meant that nothing would stop the underworld demons from flooding into Moscow.