“Did you see that?” Pyotr winces as he sits up.
“What the hell was that thing?” Mykola whispers.
“Screw that. Did you see the way I knocked it out of the air with my ax?” Pyotr pokes Mykola in the chest. “I saved your hide.”
“After you put all of us at risk with your impulsive behavior.” I come down hard on him, angry that he behaves irrationally to prove himself. “It takes a man to know the difference between courage and stupidity.” But I vaguely remember what it was like to be fifteen and how a boy needs affirmation from his father, so I smile and try to soften the rebuke. “It also takes a man to hold his own with a twitcher and keep his wits.”
“Yeah, you did good, you dillweed.” Leonid shoves him and they both laugh.
But I can tell he’s still upset. I wish I could embrace him to put force behind my words. Instead I use his Russian name, “Pyotr. Look at me.” I set all joking aside, desperate to hold my struggling family together. “It was an amazing shot. You did good.” He crinkles his eyes with the smallest of smiles and they begin to glisten, so he looks away.
Mykola changes the subject. “Are you alright?”
Pyotr regains himself. “Yeah. That thing scratched me up good, but nothing’s broken.” He gestures to his brothers and they pull him to his feet. “Speaking of the devil. What the hell was that, anyway?”
Leonid returns to his normal dispassionate self, “boiler. Tar baby.”
“What? That nonsense Bertie’s always prattling on about?” Pyotr objects as he walks toward the remains of the darkest twitcher I’ve ever seen.
“How else do you explain it? We all saw it. I the least, and only right at the end.” Leonid turns toward me as we follow Pyotr to investigate the corpse. “Papa? Have you ever seen a twitcher move like that?”
I shake my head. “No, son.”
“Six years?” Pyotr kicks the body. The whites of the twitcher’s eyes are larger than half-dollars, its pupils gone. “Boilers really exist, and we haven’t seen one for six years?”
“Most people who see one don’t survive,” Leonid says.
Pyotr straightens. “Well, I guess we’re the dust zone’s new elite.”
I reverse the right tread and spin Leviathan toward the pit. The thing unsetting me from the start comes back to roost. “The real question is why. Why today? Pete, you said it yourself. We haven’t even seen a loner in over a week, and today this.” I stop as close to the pit as I can get and stretch over the armrest to see the bottom. “And how come both of you weren’t sliced to mincemeat rolling around in there?”
Pyotr looks over the edge and shakes his head. “It’s all gone. I sharpened two dozen pieces of sheet metal to put in there.”
Leonid stomps his boot creating a loud clatter. He sweeps away dust revealing a stack of discarded sheet metal just the other side of the hole.
“They knew about the trap?”
I swivel the gyros to scan the surroundings, suddenly feeling uneasy. “Did you see the way the wife struggled before you killed it?”
Pyotr bends down to take a closer look at the headless twitcher still clinging to the side of the pit. “Yeah, it was stuck on something. That’s why I went for the quick kill.”
“Not something. Someone. Look.” I gesture with a nod and all three boys look further into the pit.
Leonid spots it immediately. “Its legs were bound. They disarmed our trap and tried to use it against us. But if they were coming for us, why not just bring the hunt?”
I finally make the connection myself. “Because we aren’t the prey. This was only an attempt to keep us busy.”