The wind and constant creep of knee-high dust obscures the opening of the pit as we pull within sight, but clearly something has disturbed it. Splintered wooden lath creates ragged jaws around its edges.
“No one rushes in, Pete!” I yell over the growl of the engine and the constant drowning hush of sand washing past the fenders. I pound the top of the cab three times. Pyotr kills the engine and slams on the breaks twenty-five yards from the pit. “Leo, perimeter. Mik, cover. Pete…” all three boys are out of the truck crouched and ready.
Pyotr flicks his battle ax from underneath the seat and spins it from hand to hand. I switch the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun to single fire and rotate my perch on Leviathan for a clear shot at the pit, over Pyotr’s left shoulder. “Pete, for God’s sake, take it slow. They could be playing us.”
“Or just thirsty. I doused this one yesterday. Knew those damn twitchers couldn’t resist a little drink.”
Leonid spits, visibly upset. “Ruddy hell, Pete. Now you’re inviting twitchers?”
“Boys! Eyes up.” But I know the conversation is nervous prattle. They’re on game. Mykola shifts deftly to Pyotr’s left with the shotgun, keeping out of reach and out of my line of fire, while maintaining tight cover. His eyes are on the terrain around him while his aim is on the pit. Leonid, like a spider with the eyes of an eagle, quickly covers fifty yards to our right, his back turned to the pit. In recent months we’d seen secondary pairings waiting nearby in ambush. The twitchers were getting more sophisticated, and more violent.
I test the gyros on Leviathan to 90 degrees either side of the pit and use my higher vantage to take one last look over the horizon. No other alarms have gone off and nothing stands out. No smoldering plumes of fire sign either. Maybe it’s just a wayward pairing or a thirsty loner after all.
“Twitcher!” Pyotr confirms visual contact. Everyone freezes. The gyros come to rest with the barrel of the .50 cal. aimed directly at the yawning mouth. At first there is no sound above the wash of rushing sand. I strain my ears. A faint moan curls up from the pit, followed by a nearly fleshless arm, striated red and brown and spasming violently.
“Spouse?” Mykola calls for a confirmation on pairing.
“Negative.” Pyotr maintains an alert crouch, creeping forward, now within 5 yards.
“Good boy,” I whisper to myself before keeping my eyes vigilant, scanning our broader surroundings. I have to trust Mykola to cover Pyotr now. Everyone does their job and we all survive. Remain a family and there’s something worth fighting for.
“Could be a loner—” Pyotr’s cut off by a gargling scream—blood cry. It’s a bluff I tell myself, keeping my eyes diligent on the horizon. But there’s nothing. Screw it. I focus on the pit in time to see a head lurch up from its dust enshrouded confines. Dark red and frothing, it’s a dominant.
“Where’s the wife?” Mykola dances closer, keeping a clear line of sight.
“Dammit, it’s a loner, and it’s gonna’ get out! I’m going for the kill.”
“Pete!” I’m too far to stop him. He lunges, spinning the double-sided ax back and above his head for a quick kill. A cocky move, leaving himself open. But the twitcher doesn’t lurch from the pit. He crows angrily, struggling as if held back by something, until the ax falls—removing his head cleanly at the neck before burying deep into the edge of the pit.
A volcanic spray pulses twice from the carotid before the twitcher’s tense body sags, its bright red blood slipping silently beneath the dust. “Mik, did you see that? Damn, that one was high strung.” Pyotr laughs as he steps on the twitcher’s shoulders for leverage to pull his ax free.
I notice Mik is frantically wiping the twitcher’s blood from his goggles, his shotgun lowered. Something isn’t right. Why would a dominant be out this far at midday by himself? And why hadn’t he lunged— “He’s not a loner! Pyotr, there’s another—“
In sickening slow motion I watch a second hand clutch Pyotr’s ankle and yank his feet out from under him.