| 01:33:43 10 November 2010
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
I stayed up until six AM trying to beat this sucker into shape. Enough is enough!|
The Battle Ground Cannot Be Changed
“It's a trap!”
Olga dove to the ground, while Tiger dropped onto one knee. Both went for their rifles. “Anton,” the woman hissed as the strangers raised their own weapons, “get down!”
“Don't shoot!” One of the intruders threw up his hands. “Hold your fire, we're on the same side!”
“They're mercs!” Southpaw yelled behind him. “Don't trust 'em!”
“Wait!” The one who'd spoken out suddenly jumped in front of the others before they could fire. “Tiger, it's me! It's Badger!”
“Badger...” Tiger had met a lot of people over his long years of stalking, and it took a few moments to match the name with the shotgun-toting mercenary he'd escorted during his last visit to these swamps. “Come over here,” he called, keeping that man in his sights. “Slowly.”
“Sure, sure.” Badger held his arms out from his sides as he walked, as if he were traversing a tightrope.
“Stop there,” Tiger commanded once the other man had reached the near side of the fallen bridge. “All right, now talk.”
“Okay...” The merc glanced to his right, towards the south. “You, um... Are you working with those guys from the outside? The ones from the foreign PMC?”
“No,” Olga answered in her partner's place. “Friends of yours?”
“No way.” Badger shook his head emphatically. “We came to clean their clocks.”
“There was a skirmish earlier,” the one in the hooded coat supplemented. “We killed three of them.”
“Then there's three less to worry about. Great!”
“Uh-huh.” Tiger's eyes flicked to the side just for an instant. “Wolfhound's not feeling friendly today?”
“It's not Wolfhound,” Badger corrected. “I got transferred.” He reached up and pulled off his gas mask, revealing a round face with sandy hair, watery blue eyes and crisscrossing razor scars. “Phew! ...Anyway, I'm glad to see you. This would be a lot easier with your help.”
His enthusiasm failed to sway Olga. “Your friends don't look like they agree.”
“They're just edgy, that's all. Lemme go talk to the boss and we can work something out.”
“You do that.” The Russian trained her carbine on the mercenaries' probable leader as Badger made his way back over the rubble. “How well do you know that man, Anton?”
“Not very,” Tiger admitted, watching carefully as the mercs convened. He couldn't make out their words, but the gestures suggested a lively debate. The loner had no doubts about the other side's stance: if Badger weren't here, the rest of the hired guns would have just as likely wiped out his fellow stalkers without a second thought. The odds didn't favor them if it came to an open fight now, either from perfidy or from a nervous trigger finger. With that in mind, Tiger turned his attention towards his allies. The sun was below the treeline, but the fiery glow it left in the sky still interfered with his sight. As far as he could make out, only Gosha and Vitka were in a position to deal significant damage...
It wasn't sunlight which caused the sudden sensory overload. “Olga,” Tiger gasped, pushing the white heat back into the periphery of his vision, “there's an emission coming...”
“Fuck.” The female spy pushed herself up on one hand and waved to the others. “Gonna be a blowout soon, stalkers!”
“Oh, really?” The mercenary commander broadcast his skepticism loud and clear. “When?”
Jagged streaks of lightning flashed across the diabolically red sky as booming thunder resounded amidst a terrible rumbling, tremors felt as much as heard by those huddled inside the workshop. There was an equally fearsome storm raging inside Tiger's head, the ferocious energy of the blowout overwhelming his sixth sense. It felt like sitting through a nuclear blast in slow motion: he was barely aware of Olga's arms encircling him, of Badger and Southpaw jockeying for the title of Most Concerned Onlooker, or of Gosha placidly munching on a sandwich nearby.
The rumbling rose to a crescendo. A lifeless crow plopped in the dirt just outside the doorway. Dmitry and Galina clung to one another, whimpering in mutual terror. For a few seconds, it looked as if the entire world was aflame outside the wrecked building.
And then, mercifully, the surge dropped off, leaving the Zone quiet once more. The merc commander was first on his feet, leaving the company of his juniors to cautiously probe an opening in the brick wall. “It's over,” he said gruffly. “Is everyone all right?”
Nods and murmurs all around.
Though none said as much, everyone seemed to understand that their common dilemma, whether to clash or to cooperate, had been resolved for them – resolved by the Zone itself. Tiger, for his own part, was glad to be saved the trouble. His head throbbed as he pulled away from Olga and stood up, swaying a little.
“Anton – ”
“I'm okay.” The pain lingered, but the words were true: Tiger made his way to the north doorway on unsteady feet and peered out, observing the new distribution of anomalies around the workshop.
The leading mercenary followed him. “How does it look?”
“Better.” The quiet loner motioned towards the west. “The emission cleared away most of the Dervishes.” Glancing over his shoulder, he beckoned to Galina and Dmitry. “Come and see this.”
The adolescents approached with trepidation. This time their fear was unjustified: looking through the weathered portal, the pair were rewarded with a majestic spectacle. It should have been dark outside, the heavens above naught but an expanse of inky black dotted with twinkling stars, but there now fell a light brighter than the full moon. The sky was filled with a cold glow, sinuous ribbons of red, green and blue extending from a point somewhere beyond the northern horizon. As the Belarusians gazed in rapt wonder, Tiger sensed Olga at his back. Southpaw followed her, then German and Kondratenko. The rest joined them one by one, until the doorways and holes in the walls were packed with spectators.
“What is that?” Galina asked, still watching reverently.
“Some say it's the souls of all the creatures which died in the blowout,” Olga replied. “Others think it's atomic energy stirred up from the station ruins.”
“It's an aurora,” Vitka huffed unsentimentally. “Enjoy it while it lasts, kids, 'cause it's just about the only thing in here that won't try to kill you.”
Dmitry shivered. “Does this happen a lot?”
Olga cocked her head. “That was the first blowout in a few months,” she said, “but there were times when they hit almost daily.” The blond woman turned around, offering the teenagers a reassuring smile. “I don't think we'll see another for a while.”
“The glow is harmless,” said Tiger. “It gives us a few more hours of light to work with.”
“That's right.” The head merc snapped his fingers. “Mug, Kirzach, Tank, Goblin, Werewolf, Mower, Oak and Pianist – you're on first watch. Keep an eye on your detectors and don't wander off. Everyone else, dig in and take a breather.” As his men dispersed, he walked over to the free stalkers. “Let's talk business. Badger, you too.”
The commander went inside, and the others followed. There was a rustle of fabric and the rasp of a lighter. A tiny flame danced and vanished, leaving a cherry-red glow behind in the shadows. “Call me Hatchet,” the contractor announced. “This is a no-client mission. My bosses told me to get it done with no fuss and no loose ends.” He took a long pull and exhaled, projecting a smoke cloud which stank of cheap tobacco. “But they also told me to use my own discretion, so here we are. What's your story?”
“The outsiders have been killing free stalkers,” Olga began succinctly. “Duty hired us to investigate.”
Tiger would have hesitated to mention Duty's involvement up front, but Hatchet made no comment on it: “Go on.”
“We reached the marshes at about mid-morning. Near the sinking village we encountered three agents escorting two kids they caught trying to cross the perimeter.” The woman nodded towards Galya and Mitya. “The Dutyer who was with us made the call to rescue them... We pulled it off, but he was killed by a sniper. We pulled back to the boat park, were attacked by bloodsuckers, and then we stumbled across a deserting soldier. So far we've managed not to lose anyone else.”
“Who was the dead man?”
“One of the old guard.” Hatchet tapped the ashes off the end of his cigarette. “A shame... Your friends let slip something about a supply dump.”
“There's a cache,” Olga confessed with a trace of irritation. “Not a large one, but enough to level the odds.”
“Hm.” The merc took another drag. “Tiger – was that the name?”
“Badger tells me that you're a good guide and you've been here before. Can you get us close to the Paladin camp?”
“I don't have anything to pay you with up front, but we can work something out afterward. Is that all right?”
“It's fine.” Right now money meant nothing to Tiger anyway. “What's your purpose here, just to eliminate the outsiders?”
“Pretty much,” said Hatchet. “We have a good idea of what they're after, but we'd like to find out which one of those chickenshits on the other side of the fence helped them get in... Maybe we'll bring back some of their gear while we're at it.”
“I think our goals are compatible,” Tiger said. “Can we work together?”
“Badger thinks so,” Hatchet replied. “And me, I value the lives of my men. If cooperation gives me a better chance to keep them breathing, I'll go with it.” He cleared his throat. “But I think you'll agree that it would be in everyone's interest if we kept quiet about this.”
“Damn right,” Olga muttered, crossing her arms.
“So what do you say?” Badger prompted. “We clean house, then go our separate ways?”
Tiger looked at the other loners, their faces thrown into stark contrasts of light and shadow by the aurora. Everyone was waiting to hear his choice. “...I'm in.”
Olga's hand grasped his arm in the dark. “So am I.”
“I'm staying with them,” Southpaw volunteered.
“I don't like to leave a job half-done,” said Gosha. “Gotta settle things with that sniper.”
“I don't feel like striking out alone,” German remarked, “and I owe too much at Arnie's to go back empty-handed.”
“I'm stuck anyway,” Kondratenko mumbled morosely.
“Oh wow,” Vitka snorted, tearing the atmosphere of camaraderie asunder. “Suddenly we're a bunch of big damn heroes, huh?”
“Vitaly – ”
“Fuck off!” The outburst was vehement enough that Gosha took a step backwards. “The boss is dead, the mission's hosed, we've almost been eaten by mutants and now you guys want to buddy up with goons who'd just as soon knife you in the back? Am I the only one seeing something wrong with this picture?”
“You picked a hell of a time to back out,” Southpaw declared critically.
“Yeah?” Vitka's eyes were dark slits in the weak light. “If mercs wanna fight mercs, let 'em. If Duty wants to play activists-and-basmachi, let 'em. It's got nothing to do with stalkers anymore.”
“No?” German sounded politely incredulous. “Next you'll be telling us you don't give a damn if New Russians start swarming in here.”
“Why should I give a shit about New Russians?”
“We don't have time for this cold-feet crap,” Olga growled. “If you want to go, then go already... But keep your big mouth shut, Meteorologist, or I swear – ”
“Olga, wait.” Tiger gently eased past her. “Vitka, what did you do before you came here?”
“Where did you work? What kind of job did you have?”
“I worked in an electronics plant,” Vitka replied with ill grace, “making instruments for jets. Then there was the recession and I took up stalking. What about it?”
Tiger didn't answer that. “German, how about you?”
“Game warden,” Fisher reported smartly.
“And Gosha, you were a teacher?”
“Translator, actually,” the machine gunner corrected. There was a crinkle of plastic as he peeled open another food package and offered it to Badger. “It paid better.”
Gosha wouldn't be rich if he'd stuck to academia, but the Zone would have remained a remote danger yet. “You all came to the Zone because you were out of work,” Tiger continued. “For you this is a place to make some money, get yourself on a good footing so you can start over in the Big Land, am I right?”
Nods and noises of wary agreement. Hatchet fidgeted subtly.
Mindful of the mercenary's rising impatience, Tiger decided to push on and finish his spur-of-the-moment ploy. “I thought so,” he said, looking from one face to the next. “I... came back here because it's my home.”
“Wuh..?” A half-consumed jerky strip dropped from Gosha's mouth. “You came back – ?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Badger interrupted. “Your home?”
“I was born here.” Tiger gave the announcement a couple of seconds to sink in. “I don't mind sharing it with other people – the Zone doesn't care who you are, whether you're from Russia or Poland or whatever, as long as you respect its rules. Stalkers, mercenaries... even the bandits understand that.” He swallowed. “These 'paladins' think they can just come in here, free to kill whoever they want and take whatever they want, and that... that really bothers me.” Gray eyes met brown. “Maybe you're right, Vitka. Maybe it isn't your problem. You won't still be here a year from now, so you can afford to just keep your head down and let someone else take the bullets until you have enough loot to get out.” Tiger shrugged. “If you're absolutely sure you want to leave, then I'll guide you through the anomalies. I only hope you understand why I have to stay.”
“Yeah, well...” Vitka looked down at his feet. “Normally I'd say that's a bunch of sentimental crap, but yannow... it was actually kinda profound.” The free stalker squared his shoulders awkwardly. “So, uh, how're we gonna do this? You got some kinda plan, boss lady?”
“Of course I do,” said Olga primly. “Is everyone else on board with this?”
“I'd say that's a yes.” Hatchet snapped his fingers again. “Spook, play something unifying.”
“Look at it this way,” German advised Vitka in a stage whisper. “Just imagine you've been thrown into a penal battalion with some fifty-eights, some whites and some gangsters.”
“Into the motherland the German army marched...”
The ominous pronouncement was followed by a bombastic thrashing of guitars: Spook's MP3 player was crammed with songs of a Swedish heavy metal band, and every one of them would blast from the mercenary's portable speakers before this night was over. There wasn't much point in worrying about noise discipline with the portable generator roaring away outside, and the pounding music lent a certain rhythm to the stalkers' work.
So far so good, Tiger thought as he flipped up the lid of a deep-bellied ammo can. Olga and Hatchet were working out the finer details of the attack plan while the others cleaned weapons and zeroed sights. Once the battery packs were charged, there would be group training in the use of the night sights.
“Hey.” Badger dropped through the opening of the storage pit, bypassing the ladder. “I finished my scrubbing, thought you might need a hand.”
“Mm.” Tiger pointed to a stack of sealed cans of 5.45mm ammunition, yellowy brown with stenciled markings in smudged black. “Can you start on those?”
“Sure.” The merc picked up a flat, hook-tipped can opener. “Your girlfriend is pretty smart,” he remarked, stabbing it into the lip of the first can.
“We – it's not like that.”
“Sorry.” Badger turned the oblong container ninety degrees and kept cutting. “The way she kept looking at you, I thought – ”
“Mmph.” His own can emptied, Tiger began stripping the plastic wrap off the Chinese ArmaLite magazines. “Why were you transferred?” he asked impulsively.
“Asked for it.” With the lid peeled back, the 5.45 looked like an oversized can of sardines. “Got mags for these?”
“The gray box with the snap fasteners.”
“Gotcha... Like I was saying, I asked.”
The 5.56 rounds came on stripper clips in musty-smelling cardboard sleeves: ten gleaming brass rounds per clip, three clips per charcoal magazine. “Why?” Tiger inquired, fitting a clip guide onto the first mag.
There was a long sigh. “I've been doing this for a while,” Badger replied after a thoughtful pause. “I can remember a time when being a mercenary was something to be proud of... I miss those days, Tiger. We were the pros, the specialists. Stalkers were glad to have us around.” He pried a cartridge packet out of the can, tearing the stapled paper with his teeth. “Pthht! ...Wolfhound's gotten too aggressive for his own good, tries to solve all his problems by shooting 'em. He's gonna push somebody who can push back harder, one of these days, and we... we realized we had to get off his team while we still could – Lynx and me, I mean.”
“I see.” Tiger hadn't forgotten the rough-spoken tomboy from Sevastopol. “How's Lynx?”
“She's, uh... she's gone.”
“Would have been better if she had,” the merc muttered, thumbing green cartridges into a green magazine. “She was put into another unit, got sent on a raid up to the Red Forest.” He shook his head. “They ran into Monolith – a whole platoon, near as we can figure. Backup crew found some bodies, but not hers.”
“I'm sorry to hear that.” Tiger glanced at the other man momentarily, then reached for a fresh clip. “You were friends?”
“She... she looked out for me.” It appeared that was all Badger had to say about Lynx. “I'll tell you one thing for sure,” he added suddenly. “There'd be no deals if Wolfhound had gotten this mission. Hatchet can be grumpy, but he's an old hand. He'll see this through.”
“I hope so.” One stack grew, one stack shrank.
The mercenary was evidently eager to move off the topic of his coworkers. “So... you came from this area originally, huh? Where exactly?”
“Pripyat.” Tiger added an empty stripper to the growing discard pile. “We lived on Friendship of Peoples Street, across from the hospital... I was too young to remember any of it, though.”
“Ah.” More tearing of paper. “Did you ever go back? Before the second disaster?”
“A few times. There was nothing left – the looters had already come and gone.”
“And now the place is Monolith turf.” Badger fumbled and dropped a cartridge. “If it's still there at all,” he amended, stooping to retrieve it. “Must be tough for you.”
“Not just me.” Tiger held a half-loaded magazine under the lantern and took a close look at the feed lips. “There were fifteen thousand other children in Pripyat. Someday, I – ”
“Down here, Tank.” Badger went to the ladder and peered up through the hole in the shop floor. “Aren't you supposed to be walking the perimeter?”
“Hatchet pulled me off the line to help you,” the second merc answered. “You guys are missing a great light show.”
“I've seen it before,” said Tiger indifferently.
“It creeps me out,” Badger declared. “The less I see, the less I'll worry.”
“Suit yourself... Tiger, your lady friend wants you to check out the anomalies on the east side, see if there are any artifacts we can make traps with.”
“There are certainly artifacts,” the loner told him, “but getting to them will be very difficult.”
“Yeah, she knows.” Tank clambered down the ladder, the wood creaking under his boots. “Your buddy with the big mouth says he has a gizmo that can help.”
“All right, I'll go up.” Tiger stepped back from his workspace and shook the dust out of his coat. “See you later, Badger.”
So Lynx had been with the group which attacked Tiger and Leshiy during the pseudogiant hunt, unless the mercenaries had somehow suffered two devastating Monolith attacks in the time since their last excursion to the marshes. Had she known Tiger was there? Would she have cared if she did know?
The wandering stalker dismissed those thoughts: Lynx was dead and out of the picture, while the woman who really troubled him was close at hand – and very much alive.
| 07:56:52 23 April 2011
On forum: 07/30/2007
Okay, so I was wrong about it being soon.|
Seven Six Two
“Am I doing this right?”
“Yeah, you're good... Turn around.”
German did so. “Here's the man,” he said, spotting Tiger coming out of the workshop. “Just in time.”
Tiger blinked at the spectacle before him. German was wearing a large framework on his back, supported by a complex harness, with multiple spindly arms projecting upward and out to each side. The assembly was plainly electronic in nature, with dozens of wires snaking through its structure. Tiger's eyes traced them to the large box on the other stalker's hip, and from there to the keypad in his hand and the bulky goggles resting on his forehead.
“Oh good,” Vitka grunted, his earlier resentment pushed aside by an air of subtle determination. “Hold on a sec, I gotta – ” Snap! “...That's better.” He stepped back, looking at the contraption with unabashed pride. “How do you like it?”
More blinking. “A detector..?”
“Damn straight.” Vitka folded his arms. “I got fed up with the shitty pocket scanners, so I bought some computers and junk and knocked this together... I call it 'Svarog'.”
The only connotation Tiger could think of was an obscure pagan deity. “Why Svarog?”
The inventor shrugged. “It sounded cool... Anyway, it's fancier than those things you can buy from the traders or the nerds. It shows stuff in three dimensions, see?” He pointed to the goggles. “Way more efficient than a Veles.”
Vitka's alternative looked neither elegant nor rugged to Tiger, but he didn't say so. “You're going to use that to find the artifacts,” he concluded. “But why is German wearing it?”
“Because I've got my own specialty,” Fisher replied. “The big problem with harvesting artifacts here is getting close enough to pick them up, right?”
“So what we're going to do is, we're going to extend our reach... Pass me the rod, Vitka?”
“Coming right up.”
It was quite literally a fishing rod, with a reel and line attached. “I got the idea for this after finding a rookie who fried himself near that tunnel under the embankment in the Cordon,” German recalled. “He'd found a Sparkler and tried to roll it out with a stick... Poor kid didn't understand the danger, I guess.” The loner pulled out a length of his line, a simple nylon monofilament strand. “You and I know that anything big will trip the anomaly as soon as you stick it in, so a net or scoop won't work either.”
“Yes.” Tiger's interest was now solidly piqued. “That line is light enough not to upset them?”
The dry-land angler nodded. “That was the first hurdle. It took some trial and error, but I've found a weight that works.” He quickly wound up the excess length. “The second hurdle was, what kind of hook can snag half a kilogram of magic scrap metal? I scratched my head over that for a while.” German reached into one of his suit's hip pockets. “But I finally figured it out with some insight from a bottle of homemade vodka... The answer is Gumdrops.”
The Gumdrop artifact, like the Maiden's Delight which Tiger had helped Wolfhound's team recover during the previous swamp raid, was of little direct use to stalkers. It formed when plate glass was exposed to a powerful electrical discharge in the presence of corrosive fog – the natural sources of energy were Electro anomalies and occasionally lightning strikes, though Sakharov and his colleagues had partially replicated the process by means of a Van de Graaff generator. The glass melted and reformed into dull marble-sized blobs, which changed color when subjected to weak electric currents. It was said that the semiconductor industry was interested in the properties of the Gumdrop, but the sheer scarcity of samples for research meant that no breakthroughs had yet been coaxed out of the little artifact.
Two years ago Tiger could find handfuls of Gumdrops lying in the open on windowsills beneath empty frames. Back then they were regarded merely as pretty curiosities, trinkets to make your girlfriend a nice necklace out of... but not anymore. “Those are your... your lures?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Drawing out the fishing line again, German affixed one to the end of it. “I could talk all night, but I'd better not. I'm ready when you two are.”
“I'm good too,” said Vitka. “Tiger, I designed the Svarog to display both artifacts and anomalies, but I'm still crunching numbers for the anomaly tables. I need you to get German into a good position to do his thing, see, and hopefully I can collect enough data to make fine adjustments in the meantime.”
It wasn't just Vitka's attitude that had changed: his manner of speech was more precise, more educated. The shift made Tiger wonder if his previous tough-guy persona was all for show. “Just tell me where you need to go,” said the guide.
“We'll try our luck along the road down there, if it's safe.”
Tiger went around to German's other side, mentally mapping the obstacles ahead. “It's safe enough.”
“Great... Boss lady, we're going hunting now!”
“All right!” Olga had to shout to be heard over the background music. “Watch your step out there!”
The three men started out in single file, Tiger leading and Vitka at the rear. From the north end of the workshop they zigzagged north-northeast, past an overturned tractor wreck and down the pockmarked slope to the road which in safer times had been the main route over the marshlands. The glow of the aurora still fell brightly all about, illuminating the ground as good as any flare or flashlight. “Let's stop here for a minute,” Tiger suggested when they came to the eroded track.
Vitka looked to either side, sweeping the rocks and bushes with his submachine gun. “Any beasties around?”
“Good to know.” There was a Springboard softly pulsing a couple of meters to the left, with a Dervish lurking just behind it: German took out his personal detector, a Bear like Olga's, and waved it at the anomalies. “...So,” the stalker concluded, switching the device off and bringing a sudden end to its shrill beeping, “where do we start?”
“We don't have enough protection to approach the pylons,” Tiger warned, pointing at the line of skeletal steel frames which jutted from the rough, scrubby ground to the east. “Let's start with the truck over there, or maybe the Boiler.”
“I vote for the truck,” Vitka opined.
“Works for me,” German agreed. “Lead on.”
They walked northwards now, back towards the corner from which they had first entered these swamps in the morning. A broad pool of Electro anomalies spread across the road ahead, the truck in question lying among them like a stricken ship trapped in a maelstrom. It was a two-axle GAZ, in far better condition than the mangled Kamaz or the scattered scraps of the ZiL to the west... apart from there being more holes in it than a colander's bottom.
German whistled when he saw the damage. “Somebody did some serious target practice.”
“Not practice,” Tiger corrected, deviating towards the right to avoid another Springboard. “It was a flashpoint.”
“A flashpoint?” Vitka's incredulity was conveyed by the wrinkling of his balaclava. “Who'd fight over a jalopy out in the fucking boonies?”
“They called themselves that.” Tiger made a sharp turn, moving at an oblique angle to the vehicle. “The renegades were a bandit group who broke away from Yoga's gang at the start of the faction wars.” Five paces, another turn and a quick stop to let the others catch up. “They came down here from the Agroprom and Garbage, trying to drive out Clear Sky and take over the swamp route across the perimeter.”
“Huh... But Clear Sky pushed 'em back?”
“Eventually, yes... The renegades dug in at that first farmstead we searched, after Clear Sky's people recaptured the machine yard. There was fighting back and forth for a while, but never any clear wins or losses.”
“And the truck was the halfway mark between them,” said Vitka. “Now I get it... I know Clear Sky is gone, but what happened to the renegades?”
“Most of them joined Borov when he overthrew Yoga.” Tiger came within rock-chucking distance of the truck's rust-streaked snout and halted again. “There's a clear spot here. Is it near enough for you?”
“Yeah, this is great.” German made a flicking motion with the tip of his fishing rod. “Vitka?”
“Gimme a second to hook up.” The engineer unzipped a suit pocket and withdrew a scratched Casio PDA with a length of thick cable plugged into its top. “Mind the wire,” he prompted, bending forwards and connecting the cable's other end to the Svarog's logic box. “...Okay, ready.”
Pulling down his hood, the fisherman checked his aft leeway and placed the detector's goggles over his eyes. “This is pretty radical,” he remarked. “I don't think they have such sensitive instruments even in Yantar yet.”
“Nah,” said Vitka dismissively. “The anomaly stuff is all in software, brute-force algorithms and shit. It's the three-dee display that will make it sell, I'm telling you.”
Olga's voice rolled down to them from the machine yard: “Heads up, crew! We're making some zeroing shots, aiming southwest!”
“Here goes.” German slowly swung the rod upward until most of its length extended back over his shoulder. He hesitated for a few moments, listening to the first snaps of small-caliber rifle fire, and then straightened his arm in a brisk motion.
The sight of Vitka working nearby, his nose almost pressed to the pocket computer's screen, reminded Tiger that he still had Drifter's iPAQ tucked snugly inside his own coat. He needed to get it unlocked soon – maybe Vitka could do it for him, if he asked nicely enough... Strange to think that only a day had passed since he was diverted from his personal quest: it felt as if the interval were much longer.
“The sound of the mortars, the music of death – we're playing the devil's symphony... Our violins are guns, conducted from hell!”
Spook had kept on laying down the heavy metal, both sonic and solid, in their absence: the tarpaulin square spread at his feet was covered edge to edge in gleaming black Tokarev pistols, and he was polishing another with a rag as the trio of gatherers walked past him and into the workshop.
“Where do the Chinese shooters come from, anyway?” Vitka wondered aloud.
“Albanian arms dealers based in Turkey.” Olga had taken her headlamp off and was holding it in her hand, shining it down on a map spread over a wooden tool shelf cum strategist's table. “They're shipped through the Suez, up the Bosporus or maybe overland, and then across the Black Sea.” She lifted her face. “How did it go?”
“Compared to a day on the Garbage?” Vitka hoisted up the bag containing the booty and set it on the shelf. “Pretty friggin' good.”
“We searched the Electro field and the gravity traps around the Boiler,” German added. “Are these what you wanted?”
Pale waves of yellow and blue-white rippled over Olga's face as she opened the bag. “That's good, that's very good.” The Russian zipped it back up. “Thanks a lot, guys. Take ten.”
German and Vitka departed with nods of acknowledgment. That left Tiger alone with his former lover. “Problem, Anton?” she queried.
“No... I just don't feel like sitting around.” Tiger moved around to the open side of the shelf. “You're still planning?”
“Adding final touches, tying up loose ends... Composing victory speeches.”
There was a soft, self-deprecating laugh, then a long sigh. These were not familiar noises to Tiger, but Anton remembered them. “Is everything going all right?”
“Have there been any transmissions from Duty? Hatchet has a man posted on his radio, right?”
“Yeah, but there's been no contact. Probably won't be any before morning.” The map Olga had been looking at was seven or eight years old, compiled by Tiger's colleagues before the second eruption. The one she laid over it now was pushing thirty, a Soviet military chart with pencil scrawls all over. “I think we're going to have to leave Kondratenko behind.”
“You mean, leave him here with Dmitriy and Galina?”
“Yeah. He's been really helpful with setting up equipment, but his nerves – he's not going to hold up under fire.”
Tiger's own assessment of the stray soldier was comparable, so he had nothing to add. “What do you think of Hatchet?”
“You know, he kind of looks like Aleksey Serebryakov. I'll start calling him 'Kom-Batt' if I'm not careful.” Her smile suggested that she wasn't overly concerned about the mercenaries' leader. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about the kids...”
Here it comes. “You want me to take them into the Zone.”
“If we send them back, they'll be picked up and extradited. You know what will happen after that, don't you?”
“Yeah... Yeah, I know.” Tiger shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “There's still a lot they'll have to learn.”
“You're the best one to teach them.” Olga bent over the map once more. “If you're not going to rest, could you check on those two for me? They should be down at the other end.”
Tiger paused mid-step. “What?”
Olga abruptly turned away. “Never mind. I'll tell you about it later.”
Tiger waited a couple of seconds to see if she would reconsider, moving on with a mental shrug when she didn't. Walking through the gloom of the machine hall, he passed Southpaw and two mercs hauling boxes up from the underground store.
“...Advertised for new meat pretty aggressively,” one of the mercenaries was saying. “Shit, even the bandits were throwing in a recruiting pitch with every shakedown... Yeah, put it right there... Like I was saying, everybody took big losses. Freedom probably imported that Yugo kit for their second wave going into Limansk, before the emission wiped out all the vanguard parties... After the faction wars cooled off, there was no more use for 'em.”
Southpaw waved to Tiger and dropped back into the hole. “...So they sold off the new stuff first?” his muffled voice inquired.
“Seems they did.” The merc squatted, reaching out to take the next case from the loner's raised hands. “I dunno, maybe they were worried about quality or something.”
“I haven't had any problems with mine.”
“I bought a shooter from a Freedom guy once,” the other mercenary volunteered. “Looked great on the outside, clean and everything, but it didn't work... Opened it up, looked at the trigger group – ounce of weed taped inside.”
“Kirzach, you find ounces of weed in everything.”
Moving on, Tiger rounded the inner corner of the building and walked west. Galina was sitting on a crate near the end wall while Dmitriy stood behind her, cutting away his girlfriend's hair with a small pair of scissors. From the side he'd already cut, the onlooking stalker guessed that he was using Olga's boyish style as his pattern. It was a practical choice, Tiger had to admit: long locks would be nothing but a liability here.
Galina regarded him with dark, wary eyes. “What is it?”
Tiger cleared his throat softly, realizing too late that he should have better prepared himself for this. “Are you sure you want to stay in the Zone?”
“I'm not going back to Minsk.” Her tone left no room for dissent. “And I'm not giving up Mitya.”
“I understand that,” said Tiger, taking note of the look on Dmitriy's face when Galina affirmed her commitment. “But why here? Vitaly wasn't joking about the danger.”
“We're like you.” The girl's face was as stubborn as her tongue. “We have nowhere else to go... Olga Ivanovna said you could help us. We'll find a way to pay you back somehow.”
Tiger shook his head. “I wouldn't do it for money,” he replied. “I can take you as far as Rostok. After that I'm probably going to be in places that are too dangerous for you.”
The name appeared unfamiliar to Galina. “Rostok?”
“It's to the north,” Tiger explained, “beyond the Agroprom and the scrap heaps. It used to be a tractor factory, but now it's a crossroads for the southern Zone. The Duty base and the biggest free stalker camp are both in Rostok.”
“It's a safe place?”
The stalker hesitated, visions of Ananko's last stand, the Orekhov raid and the Plague Well parading before his eyes. “...Mostly safe,” he conceded, as the silhouette of Machinery Hall No. 6 loomed large in his memory.
The following hours passed in a blur, while the wavering aurora gave way to constellations and wisps of errant cloud. Tiger worked, rested, and then worked some more. He planted marker sticks so the others could find their way out of the anomaly maze. He sorted the artifacts which German and Vitka gathered. He even managed to sleep for a bit after Spook took a break from MP3 jockeying, the generator cooling off in quiet.
The uneasy alliance was holding together, the battle plans coming together without snags or stumbles. Tiger, however, had a new worry: Olga had been avoiding him since their conversation over the maps. It wasn't an overt or pointed avoidance, but he felt it every time their paths intersected, every time she suddenly needed to 'check on' somebody else or go find something she'd 'forgotten' about. This development left Tiger wondering what he'd said or done – or not said or not done – to upset her, and the irony of the reversal didn't occur to him until near the end.
Now the projected time of departure was drawing near, and it seemed to him that the only way he would get Olga to talk was to pin her to the ground again. Being in this frame of mind, he was more than a little surprised when out of the blue she asked him to stand watch over the trapdoor while she changed out of her Sunrise and put on one of the Clear Sky uniforms. Standing here, able to sense every move she made in the chamber beneath his feet, he caught himself wandering back to happier moments... Olga walking barelegged through her little apartment in Kiev, an unbuttoned shirt threatening to slide off her shoulders –
“Hey, Anton? I could use a third hand here.”
“Uh... Yeah, I'll be right there.” Nice timing, Tiger told himself on the way down the ladder. Reminiscing about their old relationship was surely more wholesome than giving himself flashbacks of the shadow among the turret lathes, but that didn't make it appropriate for this time and place. Reaching the bottom, he could see firsthand the outcome of the others' labor in the new emptiness of the secret room.
Olga wore the faded black pants, boots and knee pads, but the mottled blue and white tunic and the green tactical vest still lay draped over a crate beside her. She was naked above the waist, save for a long strip of fabric wound tightly around her upper chest. “One of the straps got jammed up in a buckle,” she explained, holding up the vest. “I was afraid it would break if I tried to force it.”
Tiger leaned forwards. “It looks pretty well stuck... If I put my fingers here, does that help?”
“Yeah, hold it flat... Ready, one-two-three!” Olga yanked on the other side and the wrinkled nylon webbing popped free. “Thanks.”
She turned her back on him, but this time Tiger wasn't willing to let himself be ignored. “Isn't there something else?” he prodded.
“Look, um... Whatever I did, I – ”
It wasn't a word, more like a sob made of vowels and consonants. Looking down, Tiger saw Olga's hands balled into trembling fists. “Uh... I just thought... Olga..?”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“What – ”
He reached out to her at the same instant she spun around. Her cheeks glistened in the lantern's light, her exposed belly flexing with every strained breath. “Anton...”
“Olga, why are – oof!”
“I don't want to go back.” Her fingers dug into Tiger's flanks through the coarse weave of his coat as she clung to him, her face pressed against his shoulder. “I don't want to tell Lyosha his father hates me.”
Tiger might have pushed her away. Anton swallowed, took a deep breath and put his arms around her. Olga's skin felt hot to the touch, and she shivered as if in the throes of high fever.
“Don't send me away,” she whimpered. “Don't leave me alone...”
Her breakdown had taken Tiger completely by surprise, leaving his own composure in tatters. “Olga,” he fumbled, “Olga, stop this. Everyone is counting on you...”
“No.” The distraught woman lifted her face. “They need you, not me.”
“I – ”
“They only trusted me because you let them.” Her arms tightened convulsively. “You were right, Anton. You don't need me anymore... But I can't let go, I can't pretend I don't feel anything...”
Tiger flinched. Having those words, his parting shot at the end of the pair's first reunion, come back to him this way hurt more than being punched in the face by the bandits... But then he remembered the pain and the bitter loneliness of five years past, and he still couldn't quite accept what she was trying to say. Why are you doing this, Olga? What do you want from me?
Olga seemed to understand the questions from his expression, without hearing them spoken. “I want it all back... Everything we had together – ”
“Hey, Tiger?” That was Southpaw, standing over the trapdoor. “Is everything all right down there?”
“Everything's fine. I'll be up in a minute.”
Somehow Tiger had to get Olga to pull herself together. Let's talk about it later, he wanted to say. You can't put the whole mission at risk, he wanted to say.
But Anton didn't say that. Hugging Olga tightly, he raised a hand and carefully, almost reverently, stroked her tousled golden hair. “...I wouldn't mind if you stayed.”
Suddenly it was very quiet in the rough little room.
“I don't hate you.”
The words coming out of Tiger's mouth were honest, but just one day ago they would have been unpalatable even with his modest sense of pride. “I don't hate you,” he repeated, fervently hoping this was the right thing to do. “So please... Please don't cry...”
At first Olga didn't respond, seemingly no less conflicted about the confession than Tiger himself, but her outpouring of emotion gradually settled. “Anton,” she murmured, her voice quavering, “I know I'm being selfish and I know... I know I don't belong here, but... give me one more chance and I promise I'll make it all up to you.”
“Okay.” As her grip loosened, Tiger picked up the tunic and held it out. “Come on,” he encouraged. “You have to show the others how to wear this correctly.”
“ATTERO – DOMINATUS!”
Oak high-fived Mower.
“Berlin is buuurrrning!”
Gosha peered into the murk of the surrounding thicket through the humongous night sight atop his machine gun.
“DENIQUE – INTERIMO!”
Vitka bumped fists with German.
“The Reich has faaalleeeeen!”
Hatchet approached Olga and thrust out a grimy, callused hand. “GOOD LUCK,” he roared over the fury of the music. “WE'LL SEE YOU IN THE DAYLIGHT!”
The female stalker shook his hand with gusto. “TREAD CAREFULLY OUT THERE!”
“ALWAYS DO!” Hatchet turned to his fellow mercenaries. “ARE WE READY, MEN?”
“WE'RE READY, CHIEF!”
They departed in a winding line, following Tiger's markers through the anomalies. The loners stood gathered in the machine yard, witnessing in silence until the marching cadence faded into the west.
“Well, guys,” said Gosha, the servos of the exoskeleton strapped to his limbs whirring faintly with every move, “it's our turn now.”
“That's right.” Olga looked to Kondratenko, Galina and Dmitriy. “You remember what to do if we can't come back for you, right?”
“We should take your note to Wolf or Fanatic in the Cordon,” Galina recited smartly.
Olga nodded. “Good girl... Anton, will you do the honors?”
Tiger rolled his shoulders, feeling the unfamiliar weight and tightness of the Clear Sky scout's outfit, the hard outlines of the Tokarev behind his back and the Mauser resting against his hip, and finally the top-heavy mass of the night scoped SKS in his hands. These mattered not to him, now that the weight on his conscience was so light by comparison. Reaching out in the dark, he found Olga's soft hand and squeezed it gently.