| 08:09:48 7 May 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
(Nothing special, just a trial run based off a vague idea I've been kicking around. I'm curious to know what people think of it. This chapter is set a few weeks before the beginning of Shadow of Chernobyl.)
“But that's just it,” Hunter was saying. “Sure, lots of crazy things happen in the Zone, but there's got to be a limit to what's possible out here, you know?”
“Of course there are limits,” Baldy retorted. “What's your point?”
It was chess night in the 100 Rads, and Sparrow and Baldy were playing at the end table. Despite their insistence that checkers was getting boring, neither remembered the rules of this other board game very well: their constant arguing over the legitimacy of moves and demands for arbitration by Snitch had turned the match into a spectator sport. At this late hour, however, the only other patrons left to watch were Lieutenant Ivantsov, on leave from Duty headquarters, and young Hunter.
“What I think Hunter means,” Snitch cut in smoothly, “is that the stories our fellow stalkers tell are, ahem... far-fetched even for this strange land.”
Hunter nodded. “That's it.”
“Anyone with half a bottle of sense knows that,” Sparrow opined, scooting a pawn forwards. “Your move, Baldy.”
“I don't mean the bragging,” Hunter insisted. “We've all seen stalkers come back from a day in the Wild Territory and say they found some artifact nobody's seen since Limansk blew up. I'm talking about the... the weird stories. The stuff that's even scarier than the Scorcher or the bloodsuckers.”
“Oh,” said Baldy. “You mean like what that guy claimed he saw over at the Agroprom during the winter, how some poor sap got sliced up with a knife held by nobody?”
Hunter nodded. “Exactly... Or how about the one about stalker ghosts in the old labs, how someone met one and it told him to stop disturbing their work. That couldn't be real, right?”
“I doubt it,” said Sparrow. “I remember back when Freedom was still set up in the Dark Valley, they had a guy in their bar who'd tell that one to everybody.”
“Yeah...” Hunter glanced at Snitch. “What do you think?”
“I have no special insight on the matter,” Snitch replied stiffly. “Unlike some people, I have no time to waste pursuing every rumor, myth and legend which passes through this place.”
“Never through I'd hear that from you,” Sparrow sniggered through his gas mask. “The one and only dealer of choice information passing up such hot stuff?”
”Ahem,” the man in the long coat harrumphed. “I'll thank you to remember that I deal in facts, not fantasies.” He cast a brief look at Ivantsov before taking a swig of his high-caffeine soda. “Speaking of which, I've recently received an interesting report about the cargo of a derelict Mi-Eight outside that little village south of the Dark Valley...”
“Not interested,” Ivantsov said curtly, keeping his eyes on the television set behind the bar. “We already know what's in it.”
Baldy moved a pawn of his own, sliding it diagonally and removing one of Sparrow's pawns from the board. “Your turn.”
“Oy, you can't do that!”
“It's called an 'in passing' capture.”
Sparrow looked to Snitch. “Can he do that?”
The one in the bandit coat nodded wearily. “He can do that.”
“Hey Barkeep,” Hunter called. “What do you think about the stories?”
“Me?” The burly proprietor rested a tattooed arm on the bartop. “You know I don't go out much. I hear the same stories you do, that's all.”
“But you've been here a while,” the rookie pressed. “You must have some idea of what's true and what's not.”
Barkeep shook his head. “I just run the place. Otter would be the one to ask.”
“Otter, huh?” Sparrow wiggled a finger under the lip of his mask and scratched his jaw. “Man's either a genius phantom or the world's luckiest absent-minded professor... Come to think of it, Barkeep, didn't you originally work the other side of the Zone perimeter? You must have heard some juicy tales back then.”
“Juicy isn't a good word for it,” Barkeep said gruffly. “Anyway, I did handle some transactions for the early stalkers, no secrets about that. Back in those days nobody was quite sure what to think of the Zone. Anyone could make a claim and someone else would believe it... I remember when word of the Monolith first started going around, that was quite something. Mind you, I was nobody important then - it was Sidorovich who ran that show.”
“Wow,” Hunter sighed wistfully. “I wish I could have been a stalker in those days. Fortunes from a single artifact, boldly blazing new paths into the unknown...”
“Hah.” Ivantsov's tone was scornful. “You have no idea, novice.”
Hunter ignored the jab. “Any true stories you could share, Barkeep?”
“You really want to hear an old guy reminisce?” The pillar of 100 Rads rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “True stories, you say. Well, there's the tale of how I first encountered the Zone... But I'm a bartender, you know, not a storyteller.”
It was Baldy who took the hint and leaped to the occasion. “Another round of drinks for everyone,” he announced, stepping away from the chessboard long enough to place a fistful of rubles on the bartop. “I want to hear this.”
“If you insist.” Barkeep pocketed the money and set a row of fresh cans and bottles on the bar. “Help yourselves, men.” Once the others had taken their poisons of choice, he cleared his throat. “It was the middle of April, not quite six years ago now... I remember it very well because I was staying with my brother-in-law at this little clinic where he worked, a little ways up the river from Kiev. The second disaster at the station was on the twelfth and the first Zone expansion was on the sixteenth, so it would have been the day after that. We were trying to figure out what we should do when we got a visit from some military types, of all people, who requisitioned the place for their own use, treating soldiers who'd been caught when the perimeter jumped outward.”
“And they let you remain there?” Hunter asked.
“Yeah. I was no doctor, but they needed every hand they could get.” Barkeep frowned. “Some of those guys were real pushy. That hasn't changed... One of the patients was a sergeant named Nakhimov, like the admiral. He'd fallen into one of the first documented Burner anomalies and gotten pretty well roasted. His superiors didn't figure he'd survive, so they told me to just ease his pain until he let go of life.”
“And did you?”
“As best I could. He was a tough sort, though - stayed awake almost to the very end... And he shared something interesting with me.” Barkeep thought for a moment. “Maybe this would make more sense if I told it chronologically... Yeah. Back then, you know, there was interest in reclaiming the Chernobyl Zone for economic activity. The station had been shut down for a few years by then and the guys working on it knew their jobs wouldn't last forever... There was a survey team out working that day, three men from Slavutych. They were checking up on one of the equipment dumps just south of the station when the blast came. One was caught in the open and instantly charred to almost nothing. The second disappeared without a trace. The third, though... He was a young guy, right out of university. Son of a station veteran or some such. He was down in a ditch with a Liebson counter, checking the soil, and that must have saved him.”
“I'm impressed,” said Baldy. “I didn't know anyone that close to the plant survived. How'd he make it out?”
“Nakhimov didn't say,” Barkeep replied. “But two days later he and his squad were patrolling along the south edge of the Zone when they spotted this guy crawling through a field of gravitational anomalies on his hands and knees. The officers wouldn't risk a BTR or a Krokodil to save one guy, so Nakhimov handed his rifle and magazines to the grunt next to him and started filling his pockets with stones.”
“Stones?” Hunter echoed.
“Didn't have a bag of bolts handy, did he?” Barkeep opened a can of soda and took a sip. “It took the sergeant three quarters of an hour to work his way out there, and another ten minutes to follow his footprints back with the survivor over his shoulder. Carried him all the way to the APC, in fact. The higher-ups assumed the lucky man might know something, so they whisked him off right away and sent the soldiers back to the fringe. Then the fringe moved and Nakhimov got fried for his efforts.”
“A good man, no doubt,” the one Duty stalker present weighed in. “The survivor died as well, I assume?”
“That's the funny thing,” the tattooed man mused. “I gather everyone expected him to...”
The narrative trailed off as a newcomer walked into the room. He wore a long coat with a hood, which at first glance seemed to suggest that he was either a friend of Snitch or a bandit with no sense of direction. His face was that of a man not yet thirty years old, with bleak gray eyes. He had a Mosin-Nagant rifle slung across his back, just like the one on the old Soviet poster above the chessboard. As he quietly approached the bar, the others glimpsed the butt of a Browning Hi-Power tucked into the vest he wore under his coat and a black multipurpose detector clipped to his belt, a model which had been a hot item in the days when artifact collection was real work.
Barkeep nodded politely. “Good to see you, Tiger.”
“Sorry I'm late.” Tiger's voice was as soft and unobtrusive as his physical presence. “I have what you asked for,” he went on, indicating the metal strongbox under his left arm.
The owner of the establishment motioned to Garik, head bouncer of said establishment, who stepped aside long enough to give Tiger passage into the back of the bar. “As I was saying,” Barkeep said when he had gone, “everyone thought he would be irradiated or burned or who-knew-what, but he was actually okay apart from the cuts, bruises and dehydration.”
“Interesting,” Snitch commented. “How do you know this?”
“I met him,” Barkeep replied. “He came to me a few years later, when I was knee-deep in this business. Wanted to know the best way to get past the army patrols and into the Zone.”
“Into the Zone?” Hunter repeated. “After what happened to him out here?”
“Seemed he couldn't fit into society in the big land after his experience. When the stalkers started making inroads, he decided to become one of them.”
“And now?” If Hunter had been sitting down, he would be on the edge of his chair. “Is he still alive?”
“Yeah.” Barkeep paused to finish his drink. “Don't know what he gets up to most of the time, but he's around. Kind of a solitary fellow, though he supposedly did scouting work for the Clear Sky faction at one time. Anyhow, that's all I know for sure.”
“For sure?” Snitch perked up a little. “There's more?”
Barkeep shrugged. “Only a rumor which I heard once... It was said that the blast changed this guy, that afterwards he developed a sort of sixth sense like the mutant crows have. Because of this sense, he can find his way through anomaly fields with his eyes closed and no living thing can sneak up on him... But that's hearsay. Make what you like of it.”
“Wow...” Hunter shook his head. “Either way, thanks for telling us all that.”
“My pleasure,” Barkeep grunted. He turned as Tiger reappeared. “Good man. You want the usual?”
“Yes.” Tiger wandered over to the bulletin board and scanned it placidly.
“Sixth sense that picks up anomalies, eh? Sounds like somebody who'd fit in with that druid bunch.” Sparrow made his move. “Check.”
“All set.” Barkeep placed a bundle wrapped in waxed paper on the bartop. “Anything else?”
“No, thank you.” Tiger picked up the bundle and walked out, quietly humming Your Excellency Lady Luck. Had the patrons been watching the chess game and not Barkeep, they might not have noticed his coming and going at all.
“Oh, one thing I didn't mention,” the barman said suddenly, maybe a minute later. “That survivor - when I saw him, his hair had changed color. Originally it was a reddish brown, but after he came out of the Zone it developed streaks of black and white.”
“Black and white on red,” Snitch pondered. “What, like a tiger's stripes?”
“Yeah,” said Barkeep. “Like a tiger's stripes.”
| 07:46:56 10 May 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
(In which we meet some recurring characters.)
Getting to the marshes wasn't as easy as it once had been, Tiger reflected. The footpath south from the Agroprom, his preferred route of old, was now so radioactive that he doubted even the pricey SEVA suit would get a stalker through that gauntlet unscathed. Since the military had dynamited the abandoned tunnels which connected the swampland to the perimeter area, the only practical option left was to follow the rail line west from the Cordon. That required careful planning, good weather and a hefty bribe to Major Kuznetsov for the sake of diverting the random gunship patrols elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Tiger didn't have much incentive to visit the marshes on his own, and it had been a long time since the parade of odd jobs on which he lived provided him with a reason.
“Halt,” he called softly, raising a hand. The mercenaries behind him, ten of them in crisp black-and-blue uniforms, froze. Tiger stood in silence for a moment, then pulled his binoculars – a compact birdwatcher's pair, not the bulky military type which most stalkers used – from their case beside the electronic detector and panned across the wide landscape below the railroad embankment. He could see the old pump station to the south, a rickety wooden structure amidst the reeds and pools, and past it a watchtower looming in the haze. Turning his eyes towards the east, the stalker could make out the ruins of a farmstead, a derelict garage and, further off, the collapsed shell of an orthodox church. He could also make out an angry shimmering in the air over the dry land between them.
The mercenary commander, Wolfhound, stepped towards him. “Well?”
Tiger shook his head. “The road is impassible. I can see the anomalies all the way from here.”
“Damn,” the merc muttered. “What about the middle?”
“It doesn't look so bad,” Tiger replied. “But we may not be able keep our feet dry all the way.”
“We can handle it,” Wolfhound asserted. “Let's go.”
To Tiger's mind, Wolfhound's impatience and arrogance were typical of mercenaries in the Zone today. The loner hadn't been around to see the very first stalkers at work, but he did remember a time when the mercs were more respectable. The founders of their faction had begun as ordinary stalkers whose experience and ability allowed them to take specific requests from clients and operate in an efficient, goal-oriented manner beyond the reach of the solitary opportunists who pioneered stalking. The mercs traditionally made ends meet with precise raids into the depths of the Zone, returning with a specific artifact or mutant corpse as the customer ordered. Occasionally they had also taken on security work, defending others from marauder elements. Success brought strength for the mercenaries, so much strength that they could afford to operate from a base well inside the Zone and arm themselves with exotic foreign equipment. Unfortunately, it also brought a swelling of their collective ego. The mercs were little better than high-class hitmen, Tiger thought, now that they were willing to attack and steal from others for the sake of their profits. One certainly couldn't trust a merc to share his last can of meat or spare medical kit any more, treatment a stalker in need could have expected as little as six months ago.
“Stay behind me,” he said aloud. “Follow in single file and step where I step. Don't talk loudly or fire your weapons unless you absolutely have to.”
The bolt began to fizz before it even landed in the dirt, corruption spreading over its surface within a few seconds. “This way,” said Tiger, cutting to the right. “We are fortunate.”
“We are?” one of the mercs asked. “How's that?”
“The corrosive fog is common here,” the stalker explained, “but in strong sunlight it evaporates from open places... There are also gravity traps ahead, however.”
Wolfhound frowned. “Can you get us past them?”
“Okay.” The merc leader slung his LR-300 and took out a dogeared map. “Let's get to the pump station.”
Tiger nodded. “It's clear.”
“Good. Five minute break, people.”
Tiger would have been perfectly happy to press on, but he didn't mind a brief stop. Taking advantage of it, he climbed to the roof of the pumping platform and took out his binoculars once more. He could see the watchtower better now, as well as the tumbledown fishing shacks in the hamlet behind it. The smaller watchtower to the southwest must have collapsed since his last visit, since he could make out no trace of it.
“How's it look, stalker?”
Tiger tore his eyes away from the vista to find the mercs' sharpshooter, Lynx, peering up at him. “I don't see any problems,” he answered noncommittally. “Wait... Some boars in the hamlet ahead.”
“Oh?” The mercenary ascended the steps to where Tiger stood. “Lemme see.”
Lynx was the first woman Tiger had seen in the Zone in the better part of two years, the last having been a research assistant in the Yantar scientists' bunker. She spoke in a rough, curt voice with a faint Sevastopol accent and Tiger imagined her having a short, masculine haircut to match, a notion bolstered by the unfeminine figure she cut in her gas mask and tactical vest. Her L1A1 battle rifle with its SUIT optical sight and jungle-taped magazines was an additional novelty, unlike the surplus L85s which had flooded Europe's black market in recent years. The mercs fielded a large number of the distinctive assault weapons, but in the last year they had begun buying American LR-300 carbines to supplement the finicky British pieces. In this squad, however, everyone except Lynx and Wolfhound still used the old model. Badger, the merc pointman, also carried an indigenous Fort-500 pump shotgun with a folding stock.
“There's a big male in the pack,” Lynx commented, peering through her sight. “Wolfhound!”
“What is it?”
“Four boars on the path. Want me to take 'em out?”
“I don't care,” Wolfhound grunted. “If it'll make our job easier, go ahead.”
Lynx nodded. “Well, guide? You can have the hooves as a job bonus.”
Tiger watched the mutated animals for a few seconds. He had kept himself alive this long on a single principle – the less trouble you cause, the less trouble you get – but the alternative to culling the four-eared creatures was a twenty-minute detour through dense vegetation. He had no special love for boars, and they were hardly endangered anyway. “Are you a fast shot?” he asked, swinging the Mosin off his back.
“Pretty fast, yeah.” Lynx was probably raising an eyebrow behind her tinted lenses. “You can hit 'em with iron sights from here?”
“I think so.” Either way, he needed the practice. The loner twisted the old Izhevsk rifle's cocking piece to the ready position. The stock's varnished wood was cool against his cheek. A deep breath, hold and...
“Not a bad shot,” Lynx remarked in an undertone as Tiger led the mercenaries through the fishing shacks. “I was faster, but the placement is nice.”
“Yeah,” said Badger. “Prime hooves there, too. We'll have to collect those on the way back.”
“No such luck,” Lynx corrected. “I promised them to the guide.”
“Cut the chatter,” Wolfhound ordered. “Well, stalker?”
“Just ahead,” Tiger replied, motioning towards the thicket in front of the group. “The going is treacherous, so stay close.”
The roof of the mechanic's workshop in the abandoned Clear Sky base had collapsed since Tiger last entered this secluded place. The old bar wasn't looking too solid either, but the main building and the trader's garage appeared relatively sound. The defunct UAZ by the garage was sinking into the sand, the campfire spot nearby almost wholly erased by the tide of time.
“Wow,” said Badger. “This used to be a faction base? Must be some good stuff around here.”
“You're about to see plenty of it,” Wolfhound answered, flashing hand signals rapid-fire. “Let's get a perimeter guard set up. Lynx, check if that roof is sturdy enough for you. Stalker, you and Badger check the garage. Call if you find anything.”
“We're up, then.” Badger motioned to Tiger and advanced on the designated target, shotgun at low ready. “These Clear Sky guys, would they leave booby traps?”
Tiger thought back to his limited contacts with the reclusive faction. His work for them had almost always been conducted through proxies, but he felt he had a decent picture of their methods. “I don't think so,” he replied cautiously, “but if anyone else has been here...”
“Good point.” Badger switched on the electric lamp attached to his vest and moved inside. “Ah, shit. Wolfhound, got a body here!”
“Fresh?” the leader called from across the central clearing.
“Not at all... Stand back, stalker.” The mercenary moved towards the nearly skeletal corpse which lay against the front of the trader's counter, an open medical kit in its rotted lap. It wore the tattered remains of a typical stalker suit. A worn AKMS leaned muzzle-up against the counter, a canvas magazine pouch and an Echo anomaly detector beside it. “Poor bastard,” Badger muttered. “Must have crawled in here and bled out before he could treat himself... Ugh, I can smell him even through this damn filter.”
Tiger had smelled worse – there were places in the Zone where death's stench hung eternal. Ignoring the body, he took out a pocket flashlight and shone it about. “There's not much left,” he observed.
“Guess not.” Badger straightened, lifting the orphaned Kalashnikov. “Here,” he said. “You take this... Wolfhound, this guy walked into a bullet somewhere outside. There's nothing else here.”
“All right. Come help me with the main building, will you?”
Tiger kept the AK in his hands as he followed the merc. “Are you certain the artifact you want is here?”
“No idea,” Badger returned cheerfully. “But the client insisted it was and if the client wants to pay us to look for it, more power to the client.”
“I hope he was right, though. Clear Sky must have really run things on a shoestring – there's no loot in this dump at all.” Badger climbed onto the main building's skirting walkway and helped Tiger up. “And to think, the whole faction just up and vanished. Straight to the station and not a word more... Guess the Monolith goons took them out, eh?”
“Badger,” Wolfhound called from above, “there are a couple of PCs in the front room down there. See if you can get the hard drives out of them.”
“Uh oh,” the mercenary whispered. “I'm no good with computers.”
“I know someone who is,” Tiger offered. “I think I can do it.”
“...And there you have it.” Wolfhound held up a small, roughly cylindrical artifact with a glassy violet sheen for the others to see. “Maiden's Delight, they call this.”
“Oh?” Lynx inquired. “Doesn't look like much.”
“It's nearly useless,” Tiger commented. “Nothing but a curiosity. Even though it's quite rare, stalkers don't usually look for it.”
“That's not what they say in the big land,” Wolfhound chuckled. “I hear that if you stick this up your arse when you're with a lady, you can go all night!”
“I wouldn't try it for anything,” one of the other mercs declared, prompting a smattering of laughter.
“I'm sure the client will be happy to know that,” the mercenaries' leader remarked dryly. “We've got what we came for and a little extra to boot. Time to go, everyone... And you, stalker, you've earned those hooves.”
“All's well that ends well,” a merc sighed as the expedition walked off the railroad embankment and descended into the Cordon. “Man, we gotta celebrate this.”
“All in good time.” Wolfhound motioned for a halt. “We'll take our leave of you here, stalker. Here's your payment.” He produced a bundle of rubles and tossed it to Tiger. “Let's go, people.”
Badger gave the loner a clap on the back as he passed. “Hey, thanks again,” he said. “Saved us a lot of trouble, you know? When I get my own squad, I ought to hire you.” Moving ahead, he waved over his shoulder. “Don't get plugged by the grunts, now!”
Tiger almost smiled. As long as he made the token goodwill payment to Kuznetsov every so often, being shot by the soldiers probably wasn't his greatest problem. Turning north, he pondered his next move on this fine afternoon. Through the Garbage and up to Rostok to sell these boar hooves? Or perhaps a visit to the stalker camp at the Agroprom? He didn't feel picky – after all, his custom was to wander as circumstances directed.