“Wha… is tha...?” asked the savage, pointing at Julia’s heart-shaped locket. Moments before, she stepped into the sunrays breaking through the dense Taiga evergreen pines, making sure the golden locket on her neck reflected the sunlight into the monster’s face to distract him. It did, as he stopped in his tracks from charging to attack Julia, blinded by the bright light and covering his eyes with his right hand. Julia noticed “AV-91” code branded on his arm. It should have also been branded on his forehead, but Julia couldn’t see it yet behind the mane of his dirty hair.
“This?” she asked, looking at the locket and opening it up, taking out a small bag of white powder. “Salt,” she said, dangling the bag in front of him.
AV’s face crooked into an evil smile. Salt was precious for the savages, more so than the pure gold of Julia’s locket. They could easily kill for salt, as they often did. Isolation from organized work did not erase their memory of how salt made food taste better, and the Matreshka factory scouts like Julia still stumbled upon rotten salted meat stashed in the ground holes and forgotten by AVs years ago. “Norwegian herrings,” Julia remembered them called but didn’t know why. Neither did she know why the savages couldn’t figure out how to mine salt from a mountain about three miles away from where they stood now. “Complete and utter degradation,” Julia thought, “Hard to believe this thing was once human.”
“Gimme!” AV-91 said, tearing the bag away from her hand and grabbing Julia’s arm. He then pulled it forcefully toward his mouth, ready to sink his sharp brown teeth into Julia’s flesh. “Pine bark makes their teeth and gums stronger,” Julia thought randomly.
“Wait!” she said, pulling her arm back and spinning out of his reach. Her young well-trained body was agile and quick, and even though the AV was much stronger, her latex suit was too slippery for his grip. “I have something better!”
Surprised by her move, AV-91 froze, watching Julia.
She took her backpack off her shoulders and pulled out a piece of bread from it. It smelled as if it was just baked. Julia took a pinch of salt from a small container, spread it all over the bread and handed it to AV-91, “Here!”
“Breaaaaa!” the savage said, grabbed it from her hand and quickly stuffed it into his big mouth. While he was greedily chewing on it, Julia sprinkled another piece of bread with salt, set it on the pine stump nearby together with a bottle of water, took several steps back and sat down on the cold ground to look around. She didn’t see any other AVs yet, so she pulled a small camera out of her backpack, set it up to record what was about to unfold and wrote in her notebook: “Nov. 23, 2099: AV-91. Single digits soon?”
Julia threw a quick look at the savage, whose movements now were much slower, as if the bread in his belly made him happy and content. She knew AVs were incapable of happy feelings; they were driven by pure survival instincts and violence. But it happened every time: The first take of the AV killer powder relaxed their muscles and slowed them down. She had about 10 minutes before the bang. Staying alert, Julia started the recording. She felt safe enough to come up to the savage, move his hair off his forehead and take a clear snapshot of “AV-91.” The more evidence, the better for their mapping, especially because this one was highly ranked. They haven’t seen the numbers higher than a thousand in years, which meant that only the original first AVs remained alive. To think of it, just a little over a decade ago, there were millions of them. Progress.
“The others will be here soon,” Julia thought, and moved faster. While AV-91 was nibbling on the second piece of bread and chasing it with water, she set multiple traps with other salt-sprinkled “edibles”– cookies, beef jerky and potato chips – in three consecutive circles around him. AV-91 watched her lazily, wondering why she was leaving all these goodies around. In the summer, AVs lived off whatever the Taiga was giving them – berries, mushrooms, pine nuts, squirrels, and small game when they could catch it. In the winter, when the Taiga was barren and frozen, tired of eating pine bark, lean, strong and starving AVs would venture into Matreshka factories at night, kidnap as many factory workers as they could, cut them alive and eat them.
Still setting the traps, Julia shivered when she imagined the slow, horrible death by AV cannibals. They had a lot of practice: Before attacking the factories, AVs devastated labor camps with thousands of lumber workers China had sent to the Taiga through a secret bilateral agreement with Russia. It got so bad that China suspended the agreement until the Russians took control of the situation. The camps received enforced security and moved around often so that the savages couldn’t track them. Desperate for food, AVs turned to the domestic factories. When they started pillaging, savages still knew how to cook meat and would take everything edible they could find; with time and degradation of their mental abilities, they started to eat people raw and stopped taking cooked food and veggies that factory workers had left for them in the open. Addicted to human flesh, AVs quickly grabbed people and disappeared into the night. But they always longed for salt and the factory security came up with the idea of producing salt-looking AV killer powder. They left it around the factories in containers clearly marked as “salt,” the magic word AVs still recognized. Similar to the vaccine, the powder worked in two doses: the first one relaxed them, and the second one exploded them from within, like fireworks.
Fastening the camera to a pine tree for recording, Julia heard the explosion. She turned around to see AV-91 body parts flying in all directions. In about ten minutes, the sweet rotten odor of his powder-enhanced pheromones will attract other AVs, who will start devouring him and set a chain of explosions in motion. Julia will be back here in a couple of days to take the tally and her camera, but right now she needs to get out fast.
Suddenly, someone yanked Julia’s locket from behind with such force that she could not breathe. Falling onto the ground she saw the Taiga enclosing around her like a living being. She plunged into darkness…
It was the Third Global Pandemic that turned Russia into a wild Taiga. The country did not learn its lessons from the 2019 (Second) Global Pandemic, continuing its laissez-faire mass vaccination policies and only slightly improving its original Sputnik V vaccine. Meanwhile, devastated by the GP2, the developed world prepared itself better for the inevitable Third Global Pandemic. Coronavirus jumped onto humans with a vengeance in 2085, sooner than expected. Spreading from China again, it enveloped the entire globe in just three months of its first wave, killing over a billion people.
The world governments pulled their resources and developed a powerful vaccine within three months, effectively stopping the pandemic spread in the GWS – Global West and South – which now included South America, Africa, Middle East and India. GWS was in a fierce technological race with China, whose shady GP2 vaccine diplomacy exposed it as a bad-faith international actor. Disillusioned, the Global South aligned with the West in 2025, under the renewed US-EU leadership. The competition with China resulted into the GWS developing nuclear fusion technology, which made Europe independent of Russian gas and oil and facilitated space exploration.
Proud Great Russia led by President Putin decided to take a different course in 2085. Yes, Putin was still in power and still looked 65. Russians dubbed him Putin 3.0 based on the persistent rumor that this was the third clone of the original Putin, who had died in 2011 in a freak accident, while extracting two ancient Greek urns his loyal archeologists had planted for a TV stunt in the Black Sea shallow waters. Apparently, he choked on a fugu fish that swam into his mouth, open in astonishment at the sight of the amphorae. The whole thing was on camera, but obviously kept secret. Russians made sardonic jokes that every subsequent Putin clone lived shorter and was a lot more creative in exerting violence onto his country’s population. When GP3 claimed three million Russian lives in the first wave, having reduced the already declining population to 110 million, Putin annexed Belarus in the attempt to give Russians a distracting spectacle of a war. The GWS finally got fed up and decided it was time to isolate Russia. Putin was summoned to the G-35 summit and given the ultimatum: “Russia is now a Zone of Exclusion. You can do whatever you want within, as long as you don’t export violence. We’ll build a security wall on the European Russian border.”
“But how am I supposed to feed my people, if you don’t buy my oil and gas?” Putin asked with his trademark smirk. “I still have enough nuclear weapons to kill you all, you know.”
The GWS offered to buy Russian Matreshkas (nesting dolls) for souvenirs and pine nuts for global consumption, as long as Russia did not partner up with China. Putin was also forced to allow GSW drones survey the Russian nuclear weapons stockpiled in a secure Tundra location. Putin quickly converted the Russian economy to produce Matreshkas and pine nuts, while secretly selling gas, oil, and timber to China. Great Russia turned into a never-ending and quickly replenishing Taiga. Pines took over everything, even the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, making the cities appear swallowed by pine woods.
Only those Russians who got vaccinated were allowed to work at the Matreshka factories. Initially, they were well fed, given decent healthcare and minimal education, and lived in clean and protected compounds. Those who refused vaccination were expelled into the Taiga, but not before they were branded with an AV (AntiVaxxer) code indicating their number among the expelled. In 2087, there were over 20 million of them, today’s savages.
In 2091, Putin 4.0 permanently moved to his impenetrably fortified Gelenjik Palace. Matreshka factories were left to their own devices. Pillaged by the savages, the workers formed their own security forces and trained scouts like Julia to lay out AV traps in preventative missions like today…
When Julia came to, she saw an old woman kneeling nearby, peering into her locket. She looked like a Baba Yaga from the Russian fairy tales: Thin and hunch-backed, with veiny arms and knotted fingers, crooked nose, gray disheveled hair and two front teeth sticking out from her old wrinkled mouth. Good thing gold was a soft metal: Rather than chocking Julia to death, the yanked chain knocked her out and broke, landing the locket in the witch’s hands. She was busy trying to pry out the two portraits encased on each side of the locket.
Julia sprang from the ground, shouting “Mine!” into the witch’s face. She then stuffed a salted edible into the woman’s shocked mouth, took the locket and made sure the portraits of her parents – the “salt” inventors – were still intact. She carefully zipped the locket and broken chain into her suit’s pocket and looked at the lumped Baba Yaga. “Wow, AV-21,” she said, reading her branded arm, “My lucky day.”
As Julia moved toward the factory compound, she heard a low buzz. Looking up, she saw a GWS/SpaceX surveillance drone right above her, as if showing her the way home. She winked at it and whispered, “One day, we’ll all be free. We just need to take care of AVs and clones first.” She could swear the drone winked back at her.