| 02:47:10 3 June 2011
On forum: 07/30/2007
I wonder if anyone on the Russian boards is reading this.|
Children of a Broken Empire
Yevgeniy shivered. He was cold – because he'd been huddled at the top of this goddamned watchtower for twenty hours with almost no relief. He was anxious – because he'd overheard MacGruder talking openly about fragging him. He was afraid – because he'd dreamed.
It was punishment. Punishment. Yevgeniy had missed two shots out of three and now MacGruder was telling everyone that he'd sold them out, that he was playing for both sides. MacGruder, already enraged because the three men who died yesterday were his buddies, partners in his little circle-jerk of bloodlust and machismo. Yevgeniy had watched as they squatted around the stove, taking bets on who would be the first to get some, and he had watched as they fell to the stalkers' volley.
MacGruder might have killed him already, had 'Easy Eight' Miller not interceded on Yevgeniy's behalf. MacGruder was furious, but he also wanted to cover his own ass: it was he and his friends who gunned down that first group of stalkers, the luckless men who approached their patrol with hands raised in cautious offers of friendship. He and his cronies had gotten some, all right, and it only reinforced their attitude towards the Slavic natives – and towards Yevgeniy, the new meat on their own side.
For their losses MacGruder had nobody to blame but himself. He took it for granted that these Ukrainians – Yevgeniy suspected that he still didn't fully grasp the differences between them and their Russian neighbors – were a bunch of slovenly bumpkins, corrupt to the bone and eternally inebriated. Yevgeniy, for his own part, had quickly learned to discount MacGruder's opinions wholesale, doubly so after he first saw the needle marks on the other man's arms.
Still, the morning's encounter had rattled Yevgeniy as much as anyone else in the Paladin corps. These new stalkers hit hard, hit fast, and didn't stick around... Christ, they even brought a machine gun to the party – what was he supposed to do when there were bullets smacking against the tower's framework all around him? The briefings had led him to expect that the stalkers would scatter and flee after he shot the one in the black suit, their presumed leader. Instead they withdrew and regrouped, taking the hostage kids with them.
The emission sent Yevgeniy running for shelter, and MacGruder sent him running back to his post as soon as it ended. He was just getting resettled when the music started, and he realized the stalkers were still out there. Down in the fishing hamlet, MacGruder raised hell over it and was on the verge of leading an all-out attack on the upland swamp before Easy Eight and Novak somehow got him under control. Baxter gave Yevgeniy the depressing details when he ascended the tower for his turn as a lookout, recounting with hushed excitement how the men nearly came to blows.
Yevgeniy let Baxter talk – he spoke very fast and said 'ayup' a lot – and then Baxter let Yevgeniy catch some sleep. The music was still playing when he awoke, beyond the burnt farmstead on the hill, but the eerie light in the sky was nearly gone and Baxter was looking to the west through his night vision goggles. D'ja think they're ever gonna stop? he speculated re: the distant noise.
Yevgeniy honestly hoped not. The dreams affected everyone, but only he and the two others who spoke fluent Russian could understand the words to go with the images... Only he and they appreciated how a weak-willed man could be driven to madness just a few kilometers inside the Zone. Hearing the music, the songs of bloody deeds done by his grandfathers, gave him something else to focus on. He actually missed it once it ended, smiled when it returned after a long break, and sighed once it permanently concluded with one more track.
Baxter's shift ended a few minutes later. He was relieved by Edward Ashpool, 'Edward the Compressor' to his friends, and went back to the camp for some shuteye... No such luck for Yevgeniy. The Compressor didn't bother him, or even speak to him at all unless needed, but the man fidgeted something awful. He was smart, maybe too smart to be working a job like this, a high-tech guy who according to camp gossip had signed on with Paladin because he fucked up a high-stakes job for somebody else. Ashpool had restless hands, probably more accustomed to the contours of mouse and keyboard than of trigger and pistol grip, and he couldn't sit still for more than half a minute without compulsively finding some object for his fingers to manipulate.
Right now he was playing with his sidearm, flicking the safety up and down with his thumb. Paladin's standard issue was a nine millimeter Jericho: heavy matte black steel, slab-sided with clean lines. Not good enough for Edward the Compressor, who bought himself one that had a plastic frame with an accessory rail molded into it, on which he mounted a tactical illuminator that cost him more than the handgun itself. Like voodoo in a night fight, he'd bragged when he first showed it to Yevgeniy.
Maybe the real problem wasn't that Kevin MacGruder was a drug-fueled sociopath, but that the client's representative actively encouraged him.
Yevgeniy shivered again.
“Hold up, guys... Anton, how are we doing?”
“There are no more anomalies,” Tiger replied, matching Olga's whisper. “We are close to the tower... There are two men on the top level. I can't feel any others.”
“All right, good enough.” The lone female among the raiders unpacked a compact radio, loaned to her by Hatchet, and held it to her ear. “Roman-Shura-Mikhail, this is Ivan-Vasiliy-Semyon. Am in position and standing by, over.” She listened briefly, then signed off: “I copy. Ivan-Vasiliy-Semyon out.”
“So?” Gosha prompted.
“We do this like we planned it,” Olga answered, laying her borrowed rifle on the ground. “Anton, set up the launcher. Gosha, watch the footpath. Southpaw, watch the tower. German, Vitka, give me your rifle grenades.”
Tiger unlatched the bottom of the SKS's magazine, dumped out the cartridges and dropped them into an empty pocket. Pressing it shut again, he drew the bolt back, ejecting the tenth round, and pocketed that too.
“I don't have a clear shot through the reeds,” Southpaw warned. “I'm moving to the left a little.”
Olga busied herself unscrewing safety caps and arming pins. “If they look this way, hit the dirt.”
The NSPUM slid off its mounting rail with a faint scrape of metal on metal when Tiger pulled out the locking lever. Setting down the carbine for a few moments, he seated protective caps over the night sight's lenses and tucked the device into his largest vest pouch. “Blanks?”
Olga dropped four fresh cartridges into his upturned palm. “Here.”
Tiger pressed them into the magazine one by one, checking the crimped mouth of each with his fingertip, then reached over the barrel and raised the grenade launching sight, engaging the gas system's cutoff valve automatically. “Launcher ready,” he reported, handing the weapon over to his companion.
The fishing hamlet consisted of a cottage, a boathouse and a covered jetty arrayed around a well and an open fire pit. According to Galina and Dmitriy, the Paladin men only slept in the cottage, as the other buildings were too far decayed to protect them from inclement weather. From this information Olga devised a stratagem to awaken the enemy in the rudest of fashions: Tiger picked up the first of the grenades she had arrayed on the earth between herself and him, a high explosive fragmentation charge with a bluntly truncated conical nose, and pushed it down over the Simonov's muzzle spigot. “One ready!”
“Last call,” Olga warned, tucking the Yugo's butt under her arm. “Is everyone set?”
“We're waiting on you,” Vitka hissed back. “Do it.”
The bolt snapped into battery. “Iacta alea esto.”
Tiger thought he saw a momentary streak of white from the grenade's plastic tail fins as the projectile sailed off into the dark. Snatching up another, he rammed it onto the launcher. “Two ready!”
Olga smartly racked the bolt carrier, loading a new blank as the first detonation's thunderclap rolled across the marshes. Pomf!
Yevgeniy inhaled the gob of saliva he had been about to launch over the edge of the platform. He fumbled for his weapon, coughing violently as more explosions rocked the fishing hamlet. His heart pounded in his ears, adrenaline surging, confused fingers sliding over the anodized housing of the light amplifier strapped to his head.
“We're hot, we're hot.” The Compressor's voice was strangely calm. “Contacts north-northea – ”
Yevgeniy turned his head to the right and felt a heavy wetness spray across his face, spattering the lenses of his night vision rig. The G3ZF slipped from his hands, clattering on the tower platform as its owner recoiled with a shriek.
“One's dead. I think the other is wounded.”
“Good.” Olga handed the empty SKS back to Anton, listening intently all the while. Between the wailing on the tower and the screams from the fishing hamlet, she could hear bursts of automatic gunfire in the west. “Hatchet's team is moving in,” she said, giving herself a quick pat-down to make sure her array of hand grenades were still in place. “Let's move.”
Anton and Gosha cut to the right and made a beeline for the tower, skirting the reeds on the near side of the old footpath. “I'll go first,” the former offered, drawing his backup pistol.
Stay safe, Olga prayed. Picking up her own weapon, she reactivated the sight and snugged the butt against her shoulder. “Follow my lead,” she commanded.
“Right behind you,” Southpaw confirmed as he, Vitka and German fell into an uneven flying wedge, all moving with the same hunched hustle as the woman at their front. Their eyes roved constantly, on the alert both for enemy silhouettes ahead and telltale signs of mines underfoot.
They were coming for him now. Yevgeniy huddled up against the sandbags stacked along the platform's edge, pointing his sidearm at the top of the stairs with shaking hands. The attackers' boots clanged against corrosion-streaked steps as they ascended, zeroing in on the cornered mercenary.
A ball of dirty white flame popped out of the darkness in front of him. The bullet failed to penetrate his vest, but the transferred force of impact felt like a hammer blow to his sternum. Yevgeniy squeezed convulsively, the Jericho's backstrap slamming into the web between thumb and forefinger.
His assailant wasn't content with shooting him once, or twice, or even thrice: eight rounds pounded Yevgeniy's body, leaving him wheezing in breathless agony. As he slumped, a vicious silhouette looming before his teary eyes, he suddenly realized that he'd never gotten a chance to swap out the depleted batteries in his radio.
Then he fainted.
Gosha's voice pushed through the chaotic ambiance. “The tower is ours! We've got your backs!”
Perfect timing. Olga would have preferred to use hand signals, but in the dark, with teammates who didn't have time to thoroughly learn all the combinations, it was too risky. “Two by two, guys! Southpaw, stick with me!”
The hamlet was just ahead, on the other side of a rickety wooden bridge. The grenade barrage had done a nice job on the cottage, smashing the split-log wall and collapsing the roof above it. Chunks of plaster and jagged timber splinters littered the ground.
“Where are the sentries?” Southpaw whispered, taking the right side of the bridge. “Did we get them all?”
Olga also expected more opposition: by the sound of things, Hatchet's fifteen man squad had gotten into a serious firefight outside the back door to the abandoned base. “German,” she instructed, “Vitka, move up. Use that truck for cover.”
The upper strut of the rifle stock's steel frame remained firmly pressed against Olga's jaw as the pair slipped between her and her wingman, angling towards the belly of the overturned wreck which lay to her right. Her fingers danced on the Kalashnikov's purple plastic handguard, expressing an agitation she couldn't put into words. Come out, come out, wherever you are...
“Olga, there are a few in the back of the house!”
Thanks, Anton. “Southpaw, we're gonna put some grenades into those left-side windows. Ready?”
The cottage interior was divided by a lateral wall, built around a brick oven and chimney. Olga's bombardment had brought down part of the chimney along with the roof, choking the front room with debris and blocking the entrance. Anyone still alive in the back room would have to dig their way out, or else shimmy through the windows. Job well done.
Not that she intended to give them that chance: ghostly obstacles stretched and contracted as they passed in and out of the piggybacked sight's grainy fisheye image. The blond woman circled around to the cottage's outer side, body tensed like the proverbial spring. Her heart soared inside her tightly bound chest, fueled by the same excitement which perhaps once gripped another Cherenkov when he passed through this land in the driver's seat of a lumbering tank destroyer, pushing back a former generation of invaders.
Olga crouched, pressing herself against the wall, and laid her weapon against it. Ordering Southpaw to stay put via the sign of a raised hand, she crept forwards alone. The back room had two windows on this side, with shutter hinges rusted open and moldering frames which had long ago lost their panes. As she crawled under the first window, the prowler's ears picked up a furtive voice from inside the structure: “...Are still with me. I've got no contact with the tower or the men posted outside, no idea of enemy strength or position. Need urgent backup, over!”
The Bulgarian-made grenade's steel shell was cool to the touch, its shape a smooth ovoid except for the crimped lip around the middle. Reaching an optimal distance, Olga pulled the pin, raised her arm and neatly pitched the RGD-5 over the second window's sill. She withdrew immediately, hearing a percussive pop when the fuze ignited. Grenade number two went in through the first window moments later, as the grenadier backpedaled towards Southpaw.
“AND THE TROGDOR COMES IN THE NIIIII – ”
Yevgeniy thought he heard 'Mad Matt' O'Toole's voice in the distance, just before the double blast shook his pain-fogged mind out of its stupor. He was still on the tower's platform, facedown with his wrists tied behind himself, and his ribs hurt so badly that he couldn't even begin to guess how many of them might be broken... And yet, somehow, he was still alive.
“Enemy reinforcements coming up from the right!”
The machine gun chattered. Yevgeniy pressed his face into the deck, squeezing his eyes shut.
German made way as Olga and Southpaw dashed to the truck. “How'd you make out?”
“Never saw us coming,” the woman panted, checking her fire selector by touch. “Look alert, guys. We got – ”
“Olga!” There was another burst from the M60, punctuated by the SKS, and then an answering fusillade from the other side of the hamlet. “Right side, guys! Right side!”
“Southpaw, with me! You two, hold down the flank!”
“Let's go!” Olga rolled out of cover and sprinted up the middle, towards the well. German and Vitka headed for the outside corner of the boathouse as she put the hamlet's fire pit behind her.
“The outpost is overrun!” The enemy was close, close enough that Olga could hear a rough voice barking orders beyond the boathouse. “Frag it!”
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. Thus wrote Congreve, but a woman scorned was nothing beside a mother defending her mate. The Russian whipped around the southwest extremity of the moss-blotched ruin, pulled in the slack and aimed for center of mass as the silhouette among the bushes coiled to launch the object in its hand. The AKS-74 delivered her counter-prescription perfectly, injecting the specter with five doses of hot metal in precise 5.45 millimeter increments.
“Grenade on the ground! Baxter, roll up, roll – ” Bam!
“Goddammit, I'm hit!”
“White's down! He's bleeding out, somebody help me!”
“Stay in defilade, don't give them targets... Lewis, med kit! Lewis!”
“YEEEAAAAAAARGH!” The vanguard stalkers ducked as a swarm of bullets bit into their cover, throwing out chips of sun-bleached wood. “FUCKING COMMIES!” the gunman screamed, his voice cracking as he emptied his magazine. “I'LL KILL YOU, YOU SLAV SHITS! AAAAAAAAAAUGH!”
The outburst dispelled whatever fragile pity Olga might have felt for her foes' predicament. “Screw this,” she spat, waving Southpaw forwards. “Hit 'em again.”
That was the eighth explosion since the attack began, if Yevgeniy was counting right.
Not much else to do but count, he thought despondently as the machine gun roared anew. Count the blasts, count the bullets, count the bodies. It was only a matter of time before the stalkers finished with his comrades and turned their fury on him, battered and trussed up so they could play with him at their leisure. They would know it was he who shot the man in black, and what they might do to him for that didn't bear thinking about.
They spoke Russian, but with an accent that sounded utterly alien to Yevgeniy's ears. Turning his head, the defeated sniper could see the one on the left doing something with his weapon. “You stay put,” the man said coldly, throwing a look over his shoulder and startling Yevgeniy again.
“He's awake?” the machine gunner inquired.
“Yeah.” Kachak! “Sounds like Hatchet is wrapping up.”
“Didn't take long.”
“Less than ten minutes.” The first stalker raised his carbine and scanned the battleground. “I don't see any more movement.”
“Did we get them all?”
“Maybe.” Olga leaned around the corner, cautiously scoping the reeds. “German, you got anything?”
“Nothing over here!”
“All right... Anton, are you guys okay up there?”
“We're fine,” came the returning call. “We've got a prisoner!”
“Good!” Olga checked the corner again. “Okay,” she muttered to herself, “okay... Give it another minute and then we'll regroup.”
“Mm.” Southpaw was looking the other way, back towards the cottage. “Do you hear that?”
“I thought I – wait!”
The shooting from Hatchet's frontline stopped for a few moments, and in that brief interval Olga also heard the distant thudding. “Sit tight,” she told Southpaw, backtracking towards the hamlet's entrance. There was no mistaking the noise once she turned her face towards the pale glow which was beginning to spread over the treeline. “Helicopter coming in from the east!”
“Great,” Vitka complained. “Now what?”
“I'm gonna signal it.” Olga slung her rifle and unzipped the pouch on her left hip. “Let 'em know we're the good guys.”
Her superiors in the Security Service generally took a hands-off stance about the equipment used by their deep cover agents inside the Zone. The list of mandated items was short, its most important contents being the agent's proof of identity and a set of colored signaling cartridges. The choice of launcher was left up to the men in the field: Olga's own was a Polish copy of a single shot Red Army model which she, as Anatoly Tourist, had bought from Sidorovich.
Green, then white... Green, then white...
To identify herself for military forces, she had to launch two flares according to a sequence which was rotated every month. There were three sets in the pouch, bundled in pairs for quick access. Extracting one set, Olga opened the ungainly pistol's breech, rammed in the green shell, and pointed it into the darkest heavens.
Yevgeniy blinked as the sudden, lurid brightness washed over him. Why was that woman trying to draw the chopper's attention? These guys couldn't be tied into the military – the client's man had assured his fellow mercenaries that the army and security forces wouldn't interfere with their mission.
The client's man...
A second pyrotechnic went up, a pure white one. Yevgeniy looked at his captors as it passed, seeing them clearly for the first time. Those uniforms, with camouflage that might look more suitable on marines storming a beach, were unlike anything he'd seen in the briefings.
“Who are you p – ”
“Mug! Do it!”
Badger saw/heard the flash/pop as the Stinger was ejected from its launch tube, but the hiss of the missile's rocket motor was blotted out by a wave of juddering blasts to the north and east. “That's a hit,” Mug reported, his customary air of clinical detachment unshaken. “Bogey is going down.”
“Get another launcher and stand by,” Hatchet ordered. “Badger!”
The pointman jumped to attention. “Here!”
“Reinforce the stalkers. Take Pianist, Tank, Greaser and Goblin.”
“Roger!” Badger headed for the gate in the encampment's overgrown perimeter fence, tweaking the night vision goggles he'd swiped from a Paladin casualty on the way in. The others fell in behind him as he pushed the gate aside and headed into the surrounding thicket.
“Nice time for the army to show up,” Goblin griped. “Way to fuckin' kill the buzz, yeah?”
“Never mind your buzz,” said Tank sourly. “Why did the baddies have a pile of anti-air missiles lying around? What is this, Chechnya?”
“Hush!” Badger pushed out of the bushes, his shotgun trained on the ground several paces ahead. “Watch your step, boys!”
A corpse lay draped across the middle of the plank bridge which spanned the first of the marsh's many channels. Badger counted seven more on the slope of the low hillock beyond it, strewn over churned and ripped soil. All of them were enemies. “Hey, stalkers!” the mercenary called. “Friendlies coming in!”
There was no answer, so he gritted his teeth and pressed onward through the thick reeds. The watchtower, the monolithic obstacle which he had marked on his map and furtively observed from a distance, now rested parallel to the ground in a twisted heap of corroded girders, its foundation rent asunder by the helicopter's rockets. “I hope nobody was on that thing,” Tank murmured, putting Badger's own somber sentiment into words.
The mercs turned right and headed for the boathouse. They found the first friendly casualties there, huddled at the foot of the north corner. Poor bastards, thought Badger. The Mi-24s which patrolled the Zone's perimeter were fitted with thermal imaging gear: even if the stalkers had run, they couldn't have hidden from it for long. “Meteorologist and Fisher are dead,” he announced curtly. “Well, I think it's Meteorologist.”
“Huh?” Pianist pushed to the front of the group to get a look, recoiling sharply when he realized one of the bodies was missing most of its head. “Oh fu – ”
“Don't puke in your gas mask.” Battlefield humor kicked in as Badger walked around the fallen. “It's unprofessional.”
In truth, Badger felt pretty nauseous himself as he turned right again and entered the hamlet, noting another dead Paladin slumped over the pile of sandbags at the threshold. He found the third stalker sprawled beside the inner wall of the boathouse, the wall itself stained dark with blood liberated by the flying reaper's massive bullets. The fourth member of the party was huddled nearby, evidently in shock. “Killed instantly,” the survivor mumbled. “Nothing I could do...”
Badger decided he'd seen enough and picked up his radio. “Badger calling Hatchet... I'm in the fishing hamlet, over.”
“How does it look? Over.”
Badger swallowed. “It's, um... it's pretty bad.”
He was trying to think of what to say next when a cry of anguish sounded amongst the tower ruins. “Olgaaaaaaa!”