Artemi stared at the Bloc beyond the iron gates crowned in signage: KEEP OUT! DANGER! UNSTABLE – the rest faded to glyphs. Rust-woven fences corralled the perimeter and long abandoned guard towers still menaced from above. Farther still, a gallery in red silhouette; splintered asphalt, congealed cars, buildings flayed to the marrow.
The glow of Artemi’s cigarillo. Smoke from his enormously bearded mouth into his nostrils and out through his mouth once more. His bandaged hands shook. Unsteady legs stood.
The threshold to the Bloc loomed closer as he waded through the pulp of the scarlet river, solid footing eventually lifting him to the gate. Artemi noted the perimeter fence wrapped around the Bloc in steel panorama, feeling more like a hedgemaze than a metropolis.
He gritted his black teeth through the climb, burgundy seeping through ill-bandaged fingertips. Sweat flew from his forehead as he dropped on the other side. The red needle wavered North with nervous anticipation. He pocketed the dented compass, fumbling twice as he marched onward.
Artemi glanced at the sniper towers, now mere scaffolding for rot and feathering mold. Something like a barracks passed by his right, equally decrepit with its broken windows – and a darkness beyond invitation therein.
The uneven crunch of footsteps stopped. Somebody had left a note on the second gate, writhing on the wind as if pinned by some phantom nerve. It read:
God is inside. The body is still warm.
He crumpled the note and threw it inside the darkness of the barracks.
Artemi took his time with the taller second gate, bounding to the other side with alien shadows. Here the ground was firm and packed, though the lingering stench of the river (borne on spider-white particulates) haunted him with the wasteland beyond.
Ahead in panorama, the Bloc shaped red symmetries that faded by the light of the tempest-touched sun. Tumbling ruin made mountains of otherwise flat terrain and all around, the unforgivable scent of rust.
For hours and a moment, Artemi’s footfalls echoed down the impossible road. Idly distracted by the surrounding dead in faceless repose, he took out his compass for what felt like the first time.
The needle spiraled.
Artemi’s face became a mangle of dark lines. He slapped the compass, but the mad whorl could not be stopped.
He too turned frantically, seeking with trembling eyes: A car, a body, a mound of debris, another body, a red wall, a-
The voice was musical with a velveteen hush. A solitary man stared from above, wreathed in the shadow of a window. He dangled a false leg under a long tan coat and held what looked like an apple-sized object in hand.
“Is that it?” Artemi asked through cracked lips. The sound of his own ragged voice caught him by surprise.
“It is.” The man said dreamily. He eyed the apple-object with affection before returning it to a somewhat concealed position by his lap. Artemi noticed a strap over the man’s shoulder and the barest hint of a shadow over his back.
Artemi found himself at a loss. “I… I can give you food. Water. Tar.”
“You can have this for nothing.”
“…Pretty cheap for a miracle.” Artemi probed.
The Stranger laughed, nodding to what Artemi assumed were the errant dead, “I’m not hearing many counter-offers.”
“Have you used it?”
“Of course.” The Stranger pointed with fingerless-gloves, “That’s what brought you here. I wished for it, and here you are. That’s how you know it works.” He flashed a Cheshire grin.
Artemi barely noticed his hands shaking as he stroked his beard in thought. He gummed at nothing. Nodded at nothing.
“I know this is all rather personal, but… What are you going to ask for?” The Stranger supplicated. He tossed the spheroid into the air, caught it and pointed in one smooth motion, “No, wait! Don’t – let me guess.”
The Stranger rolled his body out the window, sitting legs akimbo like a child in a large chair. He supported his weight with his arms overhead, letting the red object rest perilously on his lap.
“Lost your family in the culling or they got Tarkov in the second wave, and you’re here to bring them back. Or…” He glanced to his left, tasting the breath of the oncoming storm. “You’re going to bring it all back to the way it was. The old Earth with the old…” He nodded his head this way and that, then stared at the horizon for a time. “Maybe you’ll wish for it all to end. That would be a righteous kill.”
“Does it matter?”
The Stranger remained fixated on the pinpoint of crimson sunlight. The roll of thunder. Dark mists fell from the crown of towers. “No, I suppose not. I asked to be rid of this thing and here you are.”
“How does it work?”
“Oh, well you just…” The Stranger shrugged, “and it happens.” As an afterthought, he amended, “Eventually.”
“So how do you know it works at all?” Artemi prodded. At this, the Stranger merely smiled.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s a Miracle, not a guarantee.”
“Then it’s hardly a Miracle.”
“I agree!” the Stranger said brightly as he swung himself effortlessly back into the building. He leaned forward on his elbows and now Artemi could see two enormous black rifles rising over his shoulder blades.
The Stranger smiled, but his voice broke ever-so-slightly, “I guess you’ll just have to Believe.”
The object rolled from his hands. Falling, tumbling, twirling until it landed in Artemi’s palms with the lightest thud.
The Miracle was as ruby red, faceted with what looked like a thousand-thousand screaming faces inset with as many milky eyes. Warmth seeped into his palms.
“Thank you.” Artemi looked up.
Artemi pocketed the prize, scanning all around to see if anyone had glimpsed the exchange. There was no one. He turned away from the crimson clouds and their reaching, seeking fingers of light.
Numb to the passage of time or spaces, Artemi lay in his shelter by the mouth of the Bloc Gate. The lean-to mercifully shielded him from each horrible pop-sizzle the rain left upon the earth. Absent firelight, random strobes of lightning illuminated the Miracle in searing afterimage.
The shape, the heft, the flesh, the albinism of those horrid eyes. What a hideous, nightmare thing, he wondered between smokes. What a thing to kill for. To die in tearful adoration of.
But it was the thousand faces; warped and mangled into a tapestry of rictus that made him shudder. It was ugly, and it only served to reflect even more of the ugliness all around him. It was the rain, it was the river, it was the spores, it was the Tarkov, it was the dying and all the men that would not be killed.
And suddenly, he knew what he wanted.
In the morning, all was as it ever was; a rot that seeped from the heart to the skin of the world. The lean-to was now long abandoned, the city gates untouched (for a time). An uneven pair of footprints led to the bank of the rust-colored river. Trapped on eddies of foam and filth, the Miracle drained, a remnant red stain the only sign of its passing here on Earth.