The Advisor's Apprentice, страница 1часть #1 серии The Advisor's Apprentice
THE ADVISOR’S APPRENTICE
Copyright Boris Karpa, 2017
Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to Oleg Volk, without whose friendship and encouragement it would be difficult for me to write anything at all.
Writing a novel, some say, is a very solitary experience. This is true, of course – with a few rare exception, writers write alone. But it’s also not unfair to say that – in that way in which human beings are both an individual and a group species – it relies on the friendship and support of people around the writer. For me, it was Oleg Volk, Mechthild Czapp, Yuri Mataev, Maxim Popenker, and a few others, who made The Advisor’s Apprentice. I’d like to thank them for it.
Like my first novel, After, the Advisor’s Apprentice was written first of all to entertain. There are few deep truths here about the nature of mankind, or about survival after the collapse of civilization. It’s a novel about heroes who confront zombies, and – sadly more realistically – other men who are sometimes worse than zombies. But for about 90% of it, it is exactly what it claims to be. It’s a fun little adventure novel with zombies and it does what it says on the tin. I hope you enjoy it.
The advisor threw his bag down on the roof. It did not bounce – it was far too heavy for that, almost forty pounds packed in thick, black cloth. Wordlessly, he dropped on his knees, ripping off the object attached to the rear of the bag – a wide sheet of foamy plastic rolled up into a tube and held with a single strap. It came off easily, the strap opening with a loud tearing sound, the sheet unrolling into a square mat just long enough to lie down on. Without a word, he threw himself down on the mat.
Arthur had not been with the advisor for long – it had been only three days since his education began. But he already knew the rules. He followed every single motion the advisor made. Bag. Roll. Mat. Next to him, the advisor had already been preparing his rifle – a long contraption made of wood and blued steel, with a giant scope attached at the top. Not daring to look over the edge of the roof, Arthur began to prepare his own weapon – a far smaller rifle, a modern design of black plastic and anodized aluminum. He trailed the advisor's every action with perhaps a few seconds' delay.
Insert the magazine. Slap on it, once, from the bottom, make sure it enters its right spot. Unfold the bipod. Don't look over the edge yet. You don't want to look yet.
“Ears.” – The advisor whispered. Arthur blushed at his mistake – next to him, the advisor was already sporting a set of earphones – their giant, black-plastic pieces seemed to cover his ears and half of each cheek to boot. With shaking hands, he reached for his own set. It took him some time to find them in the bag, he hadn't quite packed right. He felt the advisor's eyes burning at his skin. He did not say anything, but Arthur already knew – the advisor understood that he hadn’t planned properly for the trip. With every second that Arthur fumbled, his estimate of the boy's ability would decline, and... here they were.
He slipped the earphones on his ears. They covered them entirely, the edges of the large, round earphones far wider than any human ears. Inside, they were soft – feeling like the sets of earphones Arthur's uncle had used with his custom stereo – in the world of six months ago. The world of Before.
Arthur moved a small switch on the side of the earphones. To his right, he heard the advisor's voice. He said, simply: “Good. Keep going.” The giant, soft earphones did not blunt the sound of his voice at all – rather, they seemed to make his whisper a bit clearer and louder. he knew it wasn't an illusion – the earphones were electronic, designed to augment human speech and weaken the sounds of gunfire.
It was time to get back on track. Safety off. Yank on the bolt handle and let go. Let the spring inside the gun do the rest. The bolt slammed forward with a loud clacking noise – not loud enough to be blocked by the earphones, loud enough to make Arthur tense up. he imagined that the entire world had heard it.
“Check them out.” – the advisor said. He was handing Arthur his binoculars – a massive, black set, its surface covered in protective rubber, the lens covers already removed. Arthur took them wordlessly – even though he wanted to scream out. You little bastard, he wanted to shout. You know I hate this part. Why must you make it so hard? he didn't, because he knew the answer to that, too. he wasn't stupid enough not to know – it's exactly because it's hard that he makes me do it again and again. By the time his brain had finished going over these thoughts, Arthur was already raising the binoculars to his eyes and peered over the edge of the roof. What Arthur saw made his heart skip.
Down in the square in front of the building, everybody was dead. And not the good kind of dead – the one that goes down and stays down. The bad kind of dead. The ones that didn't. Cold, unbreathing, even rotting – and still moving. They shambled meaninglessly, slowly across the square – one here, one there. They were slow enough that, had Arthur wanted to, he could probably jog across the square without being caught by one. Probably. The undead became agitated when they smelled the flesh of the living. Sometimes this made them just fast enough. This is how they got his uncle – the one that had the stereo.
Arthur shuddered, suppressing the memory, and moved the binoculars, looking now at the foot of the building across the square. There the dead were plenty – a crowd of about two hundred, by Arthur’s count, clumped around the building entrance. He wondered what drawn them there – but as long as they weren't here, it didn't matter much.
– “What do you think?” – the advisor asked.
“I think that there are too many for us to get all in go.” – Arthur replied – “Sure, we see just a few, and we've got plenty of ammo. But we don't know how many are in that building. What if the entire first floor is packed to the brim with them?”
The undead didn't really have a name. People sometimes called them “ghouls”, or “walkers”, or “infected”. Some even called them “zombies”. People – Arthur himself – preferred not to use that last word. Zombies were sort of funny. They were things that happened in horror movies Before. It turned out there was nothing funny about your own uncle's rotting corpse trying to eat your eyes and face ate nine in the morning. You couldn't use that word, made nonthreatening and meaningless with repetition for something that real, that menacing. So, in the end, people tried to invent new words. More often, they said “they” or “them”, and everybody understood.
“Good.” – the advisor confirmed – “So what are we going to do?”
“I don't know, Sir.”
“Don't call me Sir. My name is Martin. Your name is Arthur. That's all there's to it, really. You really don't know what to do?”
“Not the slightest idea, Sir... Martin.”
“We're going to shoot a few dozen of them and get out of here.”
“Why-” for a second, Arthur raised his voice to a normal speaking level. The advisor pressed his finger to his lips and the boy started whispering again. – “Why take the risk?”
“Up here there's not much risk. Perfect opportunity to pick off a few. Next guy through these parts will have a dozen less zombies to contend with. Maybe he'll reward us with doing the same somewhere. Or karma. Point is – each one you shoot, the entire bloody species is that closer to extinction.”
That, Arthur understood well. There was something wrong about the walking dead – a deep wrongness b
- “Let's get started, then.” – Arthur said.
- “Very good. No need for you to spot for me – it's close enough that I can do it myself. Just wait for me to make ten shots, and then start shooting with your own gun.”
Arthur nodded. This would be easy.
Next to him, the advisor seemed to almost completely forget that Arthur even existed. The long rifle shifted, Martin struggling to aim downwards from the flat roof – and then it barked. Even with the earphones, the sound was only barely tolerable.
For a moment, Arthur forgot to look down on the square. He was looking only on the advisor, as Martin moved the rifle from target to target, firing shot after shot, his face pressed against the rifle's stock, showing no emotion. It looked as if I was almost a range exercise for him – scan for targets – breath in – breath out – fire. Only after the third shot did Arthur remember to turn his attention, once more, to the city square.
Three of the dead things lay on the ground. Two had been shot in the head, blood splattering across the stone tiles that covered the square; the third had its left knee shattered, crawling helplessly along the ground, its empty, milky-white eyes raised towards the building the shots had come from. For a brief moment, Arthur saw it magnified in his binoculars. He jerked away – for a second, he thought that he had looked the creature in the eye.
The rifle roared again. Peeking into the binoculars once more, Arthur saw the undead creature sprawled on the ground. Part of its head was missing, the brains splattered across the ground. It was almost as if the advisor had known that Arthur had peeked into the creature's face – and instantly avenged Arthur's humiliation.
And another gunshot. And another. Peering through the binoculars, Arthur realized that the advisor continued his culling. He shifted to inspect the building across, where the larger crowd of the dead things had accumulated. They were slow to react – turning only now towards him and Martin. Or perhaps, he thought briefly, it just hasn't been that long-
Another gunshot! One of the dead creatures was thrown back, its arms flailing in mid-air like the arms of a rag doll. The undead were beginning to shift now, turning their horrific faces towards the edge of the roof from which the rifle rounds were scourging them. They still looked half-frozen, almost like the human beings they had once been – their faces blank, as if they had still not made up their minds as to what they should feel about this.
But they were not quite human. Human beings did not have milky-white, expressionless eyes. Human beings could not just stand there with open wounds on their faces, pecked open by enterprising crowd. Human beings would not growl in this way as they slowly edged across an open square under rifle fire.
The world seemed to have frozen into place – as if the universe entire had become undead, slowed down to the shambling pace of the creatures. The rifle roared, and a corpse in a three-piece suit collapsed to the ground, now well and truly dead, its jaw shattered like a champagne glass. Again – and a corpulent creature in denim coveralls fell onto the ground. Watching his fall through the binoculars, Arthur imagined he was hearing the faint echo of a thud as the body hit asphalt. One final shot rang out, and the advisor removed the magazine from his rifle.
This was his cue. Arthur laid down the binoculars, grabbing for his own gun – but the advisor laid a hand on his shoulder. “Look,” – he mouthed, and Arthur looked. And it was a sight to behold indeed.
The wave of the moaning, shambling dead had slowed down its advance towards the building on which Arthur and the advisor were perched. With a terrifying chill rising through his body, Arthur raised the binoculars to his eyes again. He looked now at the place where the fat ghoul had fallen – and saw several more creatures kneeling next to him.
- “Oh my God.” – he whispered – “So it is true.”
There was no need to say what 'it' was. It was a rumor in the retreats, in the underground shelters, secluded camps, and wherever else survivors like Arthur gathered. Some clung to it because it gave them a sense, if not of hope, then of karmic justice. Others opposed it because it seemed to be far too good to be true – too fair for a world gone painfully, viciously unfair. But either way, the rumor had been true.
- “They do eat each other.” – he whispered, almost fearing that uttering this phrase will make the scene go away. For the boy who had outlived the apocalypse by six months, it was beautiful.
Even now, the undead creatures were rending open the belly of the oversized ghoul. They ripped and tore at its rotting guts, disgusting, worm-like lengths of intestine rolling out. One of the creatures came down on all fours, gnawing and tearing at the body with its teeth. Elsewhere, other undead surrounded the other corpses, viciously assaulting them with tooth and claw. As they came nearer to the corpses, their movements accelerated. No longer the mere shambling terrors they had been minutes ago, they bit and gouged at the carrion with all the speed of a living thing.
- “Now, Arthur!” – the advisor shouted out, throwing all caution to the wind. Arthur sat up in an instant. For what he was about to do, lying down was not very comfortable. He propped one elbow on a knee, preparing to shoot downwards and peered through the scope.
Arthur's rifle had never been a sniper's gun. The scope had been intended for use at a short range, and did not provide the enormous magnification than his binoculars, or the scope on the advisor's rifle – but at this range it was enough. He could still see them – the undead things that were still wolfing down large chunks of rotten, blackened human flesh. But for these few minutes, he did not fear them. He had just discovered one more weakness that they had – and his advisor seemed to have hinted at a fine way to exploit it.
The rifle made a sound like a whip being cracked. Recoil was almost unnoticeable. A splay of black blood went up from a creature's shoulder where the round had struck it, blasting clear through and creating an exit wound that one could put three fingers through. The creature rocked slightly, as if it had been punched – and then Arthur fired again, this time putting a round in its head. He shifted his aim at another dead creature, even as it seemed to ignore the bacchanalia its comrades started around the corpses, continuing to shamble towards the building that was his sniper perch.
It took three rounds to put this one down. By sheer reflex, Arthur put the first round into its chest. The zombie twitched slightly as its dirty blue shirt tore open, black blood squirting from the wound, but made another step – its shoulder disintegrated from a rifle shot – and then another, before Arthur finally struck the top of its head with a third and final rifle round. He needed to fire the gun almost vertically this time, shooting through the top of the creature's head, its palate, and its throat.
Now it was easier. Shift the rifle through the crowd. Aim at the heads. Fire! Fire! Sometimes Arthur missed. Then he stopped to hit an already-injured creature – the holes that his rifle tore through their torsos, necks, or practically any body part other than the head did not even seem to slow the monsters down.
But even with Arthur's bad aim, more and more of the creatures were going down. Next to him, his advisor had opened fire again. His long, heavy rifle fired rare, measured shots, aimed at those creatures that walked in the rear. And with every one that fell, a few of the living dead stopped, kneeling to feast on his flesh – flesh that had merely minutes ago fought on their own side of the Apocalypse.
Arthur simply fired and fired, shot after shot. He missed some of the shots, of course – some because he was too nervous, some because he hurried too much, and others simply because of bad luck – an undead creature shifting slightly as Art
Remove the magazine. Slap a new one into the rifle. No complexities here – just insert it vertically until you hear a click. Slap it upwards again to make sure it seats and slap the side of your rifle. The bolt slams forward on its own. Within half a second, the rifle is ready to fire again.
Arthur caught the forehead of yet another ghoul in his cross hairs. Even in life, this man was unsympathetic – balding, with brown hair stretched across the wide bald spot in thin reed-like strikes, trying and failing to make it seem as if the bald spot was far narrower than it actually was. Now, with the pale corpse-skin clammy and cold, he had become outright disgusting. Even through the scope of his gun, Arthur could see the top of the undead man's head covered with large droplets. He did not dare to hazard a guess at what they were – clearly not perspiration, dead people don't sweat – probably some kind of product of the rot that had, in some measure or another, affected all of these dead creatures. He did not wish to consider how, exactly, that had occurred.
Instead, he simply centered the cross hairs on the bald spot itself and pulled the trigger. The skull exploded like an overripe watermelon. The body, dressed in a cheap jacket and suit, fell onto the ground, brackish blood and brain matter soaking the ghoul's shirt and the top of his jacket. And before this creature had finally hit the ground, Arthur raised his gun to meet a new target. He fired again, and again. Most of the time he aimed at the creatures' heads. Sometimes, however, he took aim at their knees. They were still moving, of course – but with these shattered kneecaps they could not walk. They merely crawled towards the building, pulling themselves up painfully on their arms.