| 14:12:46 17 September 2011
On forum: 10/21/2010
Message edited by:
to be honest, although everyone would prefer for stories of your calibre to stay here and free. if your trying to bridge over to professional then i'd recommend that, you have the ability to do so, and some of us would buy them, and enjoy them. (myself included)|
it'd be a shame to not get them here, but realistically it's in your best interest to give it a go, and these are obviously and easy way to do it. and worst case scenario, it doesn't work out and we get them back again, unlikely, but like i said, worst case scenario.
I Belong to the Warrior... in who, the Old Ways have Joined the New
Real Story from Afganistan:
a British Soldier atop a roof saw the red mist when Taliban soldiers surrounded the compound. he precided to fire his SA-80 single handed at them while lighting a cigarette. when asked "What do you think you're doing" by his CO, he responded "Sorry Sir", handed him the lit cigarette, Lit another and continued firing one handed!
| 01:14:18 25 December 2011
On forum: 07/30/2007
Old Saint Nick's got bourbon breath|
It's so cold you could catch your death
A cop sold me some crystal meth
It's a merry fucking Christmas!
The Hand of Zelenko
“Smirnov, Yevgeniy Maksimovich... That really your name?”
Yevgeniy nodded. Even speaking was painful after the assault's cumulative damage, and he wasn't quite sure how he'd survived that fall from the collapsing tower's stairs. He wasn't dead, at least, but he knew he might yet end up that way.
The man doing the interrogating wore the same blue and white camouflage as Yevgeniy's former assailants, plus a full-face gas mask, and carried a pump shotgun. “Looks as if somebody out here had it in for you,” he remarked coolly, turning the sheet of paper sideways. “Wrote 'fucking faggot' on the margin, then crossed out 'faggot' and wrote 'freak' under it.”
There was a bloodstain on the paper, a dark blot near the bottom. “Where did you find that?”
“In the pocket of a stiff back there.” The man with the shotgun waved towards the half-collapsed cottage. “Big guy with a ring through his nose.”
It could only be one person: the worst person to have a copy of Yevgeniy's file. “MacGruder...”
The penlight in the other man's hand wiggled. “Not a friend of yours, huh?”
Just considering it made the disarmed sniper's stomach turn. “I think he was going to kill me.”
“Yeah? What'd you do to deserve that?”
“I didn't do anything! I...” No, that wasn't true. “I missed.”
“I missed,” Yevgeniy repeated numbly. “Then MacGruder told everyone I was traitor.”
“No shit.” The guard planted a fist on his hip. “Maybe we did you a favor, coming in when we did... So, how about you do us a favor and tell me about your contract?”
“I don't know anything about the contract.”
“And I work for the SCP Foundation.” Man-with-shotgun crouched in front of Yevgeniy, placing himself on the same eye level. “Lemme tell you something, buddy. That guy who tied you up is gonna come back, and he's not gonna be happy with you. This is his home and we're his guests, see, and you homewreckers just got his friends killed.” With the glow of the eastern sky behind him, the victor loomed large over the vanquished. “So if you do know something, you might want to share it before he gets here.”
The wooden deck of the pumping station cracked and splintered, rusted nails shrieking as they were wrenched loose by Tiger's boots. He charged on relentlessly, a ray of atomic vengeance racing ahead of the blast wave. Over the walkway, down the ramp and into the thickets flew the enraged stalker, leaving a length of pipe dangling from bolts half sheared away. One of the broad planks slid off and dropped into murky water with a quiet splash, but there was no one left to hear it.
The loner turned left, then right, following the old footpath. The helicopter had gone down near the spot where the stalkers had rescued Galina and Dmitriy, the same spot where the first shots were exchanged and Bandicoot fell. There was now enough light for Tiger to see the machine as he came out of the bushes: a hulk silhouetted against the open expanse of pools and twisting boardwalks just beyond.
At this range, the loss of the clumsy night sight no longer mattered.
His first shot flushed out the men hidden along the Mi-24's sides. The patrols flew with crews of five: pilot, copilot, two door gunners and a gofer. Five became four as Tiger advanced, rapid-firing with grim purpose. Another fell, and then the carbine's bolt locked in the rear position. The shooter reloaded in stride, stripping rounds into the magazine and flicking away the empty clip as two of the airmen retreated behind the helicopter's nose.
The third dove to the ground, or perhaps tripped and fell, and lost control of his weapon. More bullets quelled him before he recovered it. Tiger dropped the empty SKS, reached behind his back for the Chinese Tokarev and moved to his left, ducking under the upthrust tail boom. The outboard rocket pod on the port wing had torn off in the crash, while the inboard pod gouged a deep furrow into the wet soil. The lone gunman circled around, giving that spilled ordnance plenty of room, and set upon the last of the interlopers from their rear.
He shot the nearer one in the back of the head from a few paces' distance, swung his arm to the right and emptied his pistol into the final flier. The body slumped, bouncing off the helicopter's forward canopy dome, and collapsed across the elevated barrels of the nose gun. Tiger's retribution was complete, but he felt no triumph at the bloodshed once it was done... only a cold hollowness and a rising dread. Killing was easy, going back to the fishing hamlet and those whom he'd led to their undeserved deaths was –
She followed him, just like she'd followed him into the Zone, followed him out to the Barrier, followed him back from Yantar. She followed him regardless of danger and regardless of his wishes... but this time he was grateful for that. “I'm here,” he called. “It's over.”
Olga was prudent, didn't relax her guard until after she closed the gap. “Are you okay?”
From his own perspective, Tiger wasn't the one who needed worrying about. “Gosha's dead.”
“I know... We lost German, Vitka and Southpaw too. The chopper got all of 'em.” Olga switched on her lamp and kicked one of the expired crewmen onto his back. “No way these fuckers couldn't see my flares... I'm not gonna let this slide. I'll have the whole goddamn airbase hauled up in front of a tribunal if that's what it takes.” She went around to the other side of the fuselage and pried open the pilot's hatch, muttering furiously under her breath.
Tiger listened to her for a couple of moments before refocusing. He dropped the Tokarev's magazine into the palm of his free hand and pocketed it. The pistol had gotten more use than he originally anticipated, and only eight rounds were left. “The mercenaries..?”
“Fine, I think. Didn't stick around for a head count... The missile knocked out all electrical systems. Nothing's working in here.” Olga slammed the canopy shut. “Another billion rubles down the drain.”
The last magazine slid in, engaging the pistol's catch with a sharp click. “Will you be in trouble for this?”
“Probably not,” the woman grunted. “The dead make the best scapegoats.” She turned away briefly, surveying the sky's violet hue at the boundary where it gave way to orange dawn. “We need to get back to the others.”
Southpaw still had a look of dismay on his face. One bullet, as wide as a little finger, had partially severed his left arm at the elbow. The other had gone through the Yugoslavian Kalashnikov's sheet metal receiver, through Southpaw's chest, and through the wall behind him. Even if Tiger had been right there, a Soul in his hands, he couldn't have reversed the damage.
Knowing that didn't make him feel any better.
There was still much to deal with, including a certain prisoner. Olga was already standing by that wretched individual when Tiger crossed the hamlet and rejoined her. “You found something?”
“Badger did.” Olga flicked a finger against the paper she held. “Our sniper here is a Latvian Russian... Yevgeniy Smirnov. Born in Riga, 1990. Stateless since 1991. Mother deceased, father in jail on a drugs conviction... The boy's an out-of-work team biathlete.” Yevgeniy flinched when she glanced at him, the headlamp's glare dazzling his eyes. “Not used to shooting at targets that move, are you?”
“I did get him to talk a little,” Badger volunteered, walking up with an armful of salvaged rifles. “But let's wait until we're somewhere safer. I'd rather not be here when the army comes looking for its lost crocodile.”
“We're shaking down the bodies for intel,” the merc went on, “but if this kid was telling the truth, we're not going to find much.”
“Here's to optimism,” Olga replied. “I'm going to call Hatchet and work out our next move, if that's all right.”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
Tiger watched his blond companion walk away in the half-light, alone with her radio. Above her on the upper deck of the boathouse, two mercenary sentries stood back to back watching the skies. A handful of surface-to-air missiles in long launch tubes were stacked between the timbers of the roof's stripped frame.
“Hey.” Badger hadn't budged. “You okay? I mean, relatively okay? Not hurt?”
“I wish there were something I could have done. That was a good try with the flares, but you gotta use parachutes if you're jamming IR.”
“Mmf.” Tiger looked down at Yevgeniy again, but the youth averted his face. The stalker heard a mumble. “What was that?”
“...Why did you save me?”
Why? There weren't any 'whys' when the tower fell. Now that Tiger stopped and considered it, maybe it wasn't that he'd deliberately chosen to pull Yevgeniy to safety so much as that he hadn't decided to leave him.
“What about the bodies?”
“We don't have time to bury them,” said Hatchet. “That's one favor the army will do us.”
“But – ”
“I don't like it any more than you do.” The merc commander picked up four Galils, lashed together with their slings, and laid the bundle across his back. “But the sun's almost up and we're carrying extra weight already. We can't afford to be slowed down any more.”
Tiger couldn't bring himself to answer. He turned away, towards the corpses laid in a neat row by the well: Southpaw, headless Vitka, German with his guts spilling out, and Gosha lying tangled in the crushed frame of his exoskeleton. He didn't want to leave them, but Hatchet was right and Tiger himself was already loaded down with a machine gun, five pistols, three night sights and a slew of miscellaneous magazine pouches, on top of his own equipment...
Olga materialized out of the crowd around him. “It's all right,” she whispered. “I'll make sure they're taken care of.” The cartridge belt draped over her shoulders clinked when she squeezed his arm.
“Final gear check, people! Two minutes!”
“Anton, turn around... Okay, you're set. Do mine now.”
Olga's load was all ammo, excepting the rifles salvaged from German and Vitka. “I don't see anything wrong,” said Tiger, tugging the straps one at a time.
“On me, team!” Hatchet clapped his hands and the mercenaries flowed into marching form, all of them except Badger, Tank and Spook. “We'll see you at the machine yard!”
Hatchet led off along the trail to the pumping station, and the men followed him. “Well,” said Spook stoically, “this has not been the best raid ever.”
“Tell me about it.” Badger came up behind Yevgeniy and pulled him upright by the collar. “We're going to take a little stroll,” the former announced. “Don't run, 'cause if an anomaly doesn't shit you out in chunks, the feral pigs will.”
“He's not joking.” Tiger started towards the footbridge. “Follow me, single file.”
The Zone had become eerily quiet, and the squeak and rustle of belts and slings seemed loud in the ears of those who carried them. They walked back along the stalkers' trail, detouring around the demolished watchtower. The old church lay on their right, the burnt farmstead on the hill to their left, and anomalies were scattered thick all around. The journey was a slow one, on account not only of the party's burden but also of Tiger's concern for those who hadn't come this way before.
As they crossed the foot of the farmstead hill, there came a noise from the north: a low groan which rose and fell over several seconds. Yevgeniy whimpered.
“Jesus,” Tank grumbled. “It's an animal in the woods, you jumpy runt.”
The insult didn't even register. “Are... are you sure?”
“It might be,” Olga chimed in. “Or it could be gas leaking from the swamp. Don't worry about it.”
They pressed on, crossing a shallow channel and weaving through the gravity traps and grinders on the uneven ground behind the hill. The sight of the machine yard ahead brought relief to the raiders, but instilled a new apprehension in their prisoner.
“This is the hardest part,” the guide warned him. “Watch closely.”
Olga stood watch over Yevgeniy while the others changed back into their loner garb and put away the Clear Sky uniforms. Hatchet's group caught up with them after a few minutes, coming in from the west with material plundered out of the helicopter.
“All right,” said Badger once the formalities were over with and the key players had gathered in the corner of the yard. “Now tell these guys what you told me about the client's man.”
“He gave all the orders,” Yevgeniy recalled. “He was rather short. Black hair with a bald spot... I never heard his name.”
“We found the body,” Hatchet interjected. “No identifying material on him, and he managed to burn his papers before we entered the camp... Go on.”
“He talked to someone a lot, using his own radio. I guess it was coded or something.” The Latvian cocked his head. “We thought he was keeping us on standby, waiting for some particular message. He wouldn't tell us what we were going to do here.”
Olga raised a hand. “Did he act like he knew the territory? Like he'd been in the Zone before?”
“I don't know... He brought anomaly detectors with him, but not enough for all of us. We had some briefings about mutants and stalker factions. He told us the stalkers weren't a serious threat, that the only words we needed to know were 'hands up!'”
“What about the army? Didn't he think putting a large camp next to the perimeter was dangerous?”
“Oh no.” On this Yevgeniy was emphatic. “He said the military wouldn't touch us. I thought he must have paid them off... MacGruder was the only person he talked to much, except when he had instructions.”
“MacGruder,” Badger repeated. “The guy in charge at the hamlet. He's the one who accused you of selling out, right?”
Tiger was interested in other things. “What about those stalkers who were shot a few days ago?”
“That was – some of the others were making bets on who would get the first kill, who would get the most kills. They went out on patrol and met the stalkers... I didn't actually see what happened, though.”
“Might have been racially motivated. We noticed some impressive graffiti.” Hatchet lit a cigarette. “Goddamn amateurs.”
“Uh-huh.” Badger folded his arms. “So, how many kills did you get?”
Yevgeniy swallowed. “Just one.”
“Bandicoot,” Tiger elaborated. “The man in the black suit.”
“Of course,” Olga remarked. “Target the leaders and specialists to destroy a unit's cohesion. That's basic sniping theory.”
Yevgeniy warmed a little to the show of sympathy. “He looked important, so I shot... But then there was the machine gun firing at me and I couldn't hit anything.”
“Be glad,” the woman advised him. “Otherwise those bloodsuckers might have come and snacked on you instead. What else can you tell us?”
“I had to stay up on the tower most of the time, always with one or two others. Sometimes they brought news from the camp... What bloodsuckers?”
The question was ignored. “What kind of news?”
“Nightmares. Almost everyone had them.” Yevgeniy stared at her nervously. “What did you say about bloodsuckers?”
“Never mind that. Keep going.”
“I don't remember the dreams very well. There were voices, shapes... It was all too vague.”
“If I want to hear about morons wetting their beds, I'll take a hike around the Cordon,” Hatchet growled. “Get back to the mission stuff.”
“I don't know anything else,” Yevgeniy protested. “It was my first job with Paladin. They didn't trust me enough to... enough to give me anything sensitive. Please believe me!”
The cigarette's tip bobbed up and down. “Fine,” said Hatchet after a second. “We're done here. You want us to dispose of him?”
Olga shook her head. “Thanks, but we'll take care of it.”
“As you like.” The cigarette dropped to the ground and disappeared under Hatchet's boot. “We've accomplished what we came to do,” he said to the circle, “and I don't want to sound anxious to leave, but we can't stay any longer. Mower, drop the artifact bag there... I know it's not adequate compensation,” the merc leader continued, “but it's the best I can do right now. Goblin, are the men ready?”
“Just about, boss.”
“Good.” Hatchet snapped his fingers twice. “Do it right the first time, people. Make sure those packs and belts are secure, we've got a long march ahead.”
As the group began to disperse, Badger sidled over to Tiger. “I, uh... I'm really sorry about your friends.”
“So am I.”
The pointman hesitated at Tiger's apathetic response. “Anyway, I wanted to return this.”
Badger was holding out the Zastava carbine when he looked up. “...Did you like it?” the loner asked flatly.
“Yeah, it was great. Really handy.”
“Keep it.” Tiger got up, brushing the dirt off his coat. “I'm going to pack up the generator.”
He found ways to stay busy over the next several minutes, putting away whatever materials were left over from the attack. Hatchet said his final goodbyes to Olga and then the mercenaries departed through the anomalies, one by one like a train of ants. With their passing the Zone became quiet once more. The sun was well up, though mid-morning had not yet come, and its warmth shone on all the marshes.
Soon a new circle formed around Yevgeniy, drawn by common purpose. “This is the moment of truth,” Olga announced. “Are you still certain you want to learn stalking?”
Galina and Dmitriy nodded together.
“Then I'll leave you in Anton's hands. Do as he tells you and you'll be okay... Kondratenko, you've held up your end of the bargain, so you're free to go. Get your things together and I'll take you across the perimeter.”
“Actually, um...” The soldier pulled off the doubled-up balaclava he wore as a cap and scratched his head. “I think I should stay.”
His words surprised all of those who had gotten to know him in the past twenty hours. “Stay?” Olga echoed. “Yesterday you were begging to get out.”
“I know,” Kondratenko admitted, “but if I go now, they'll be looking for me. Even if I went to the blockpost and said I got lost, they'd send me straight back here with the same lousy equipment.” He glanced at Tiger hopefully. “I've been thinking about what you said before, about controlling fear. If I stay in the Zone for a while, maybe I can learn to be like you and make enough money to start over.”
Olga looked to her partner for judgment. “It's your call, Anton.”
Tiger saw more pros than cons in the proposal, sudden as it was. Ordinarily he would have preferred solitude, but he'd already committed himself to looking after the adolescent runaways and one more follower made little difference. His impression of Kondratenko's character was positive enough, and there were plenty of others in the Zone who'd served in the military. Some had even walked patrols along its border before they went inside as trespassers. At the same time, the deserter had potentially compromising knowledge about Olga's employment by the Security Service and the alliance with Hatchet. Better to keep him close by, just in case.
“You can come with us,” said the stalker at last, “if you're absolutely sure that's what you want. I'll teach you as much as I can, but whether you make it or not will depend on your own ability, even when you're with me... That goes for all of you.”
“Such is life?” quipped Olga darkly.
“Such is life,” Tiger agreed. He went to the one pile of equipment which hadn't been stored and picked up the M60, somehow scarcely the worse for wear even after it was pried from its owner's lifeless fingers. “There are things in the Zone that can kill you without being seen or heard, things you can only run away from... But for men and monsters, you can use this.”
From the look on Kondratenko's face, one might think he'd just been handed the crown of a small kingdom and not a fifty year old machine gun. “This... I... I can use it? Really?”
“You've had training on guns like that, haven't you?” Tiger's hand dipped into a pants pocket and dragged out a loose bundle of creased, faded notebook pages. “Gosha wrote down some instructions for it. Study them while we deal with Smirnov.”
“But what?” Olga pulled back her tunic hood, showing the mussed hair underneath. “Settle down, kiddo. If we wanted to cap you, we'd have already done it.”
Yevgeniy couldn't settle down. “Then what's going to happen to me?”
“We'll take you back to the fringe and hand you over to the authorities. Your client may have bribed the army, but some of us have friends there too.” She fixed him with a calculating gaze. “You'll get off lightly if you cooperate... Four to six years, with a chance of early release for good behavior.”
“No...” The Latvian reacted with horror, not relief. “Please, no! I can't go to prison now, my father – ”
“Your father would die of shame?” Olga's patience was starting to visibly erode. “Maybe you should have thought about that sooner.”
“It's not like that! His sentence is up in fourteen months and his health isn't good. When he gets out, he'll have nowhere to go. I just wanted...”
Tiger wrinkled his nose as the captive's words trailed off, equally weary of the piteous pleading. “How,” he wondered aloud, “did someone like you even get a job at Paladin?”
“It was someone I knew from biathlon. He was recruiting for PMCs, working freelance on a per-head commission... I was so stupid.” Yevgeniy screwed up his face, trying to hold back the tears. “He said it was the perfect job for me. Not too far from home and I could already speak the language. They gave me two weeks' training at a camp, Vicovu de Sus, then they sent me here.”
“And you're sorry you came,” Olga sighed, “we get that. You don't want to die and you don't want to go to jail... So what do you want, other than for us to pretend we never saw you?”
“I – ”
“Why not take him with us?” Galina cut in, turning heads all around. “Why don't we take him? Make a deal like you did with Boris.” The Belarusian girl faced Tiger. “You told us the Zone doesn't care who we are, so long as we respect it. Let's give him a chance to learn that respect.”
“I'm okay with that,” said Kondratenko quietly, and Dmitriy nodded again.
That made it three in favor right away. Tiger's first impulse was to say no, but his reasons for accepting Kondratenko applied equally well to Yevgeniy. Whether the latter was worthy of trust had not been proven, but in his defense Yevgeniy didn't look like a thug. He was barely taller than Olga and of slighter build than her, with a figure that could only be called strongly effeminate. His features were likewise fragile, a cute boy's face reluctantly grown up. Green eyes stared back at Tiger under brown bangs with a prominent cowlick as he thought it over.
“...Olga, what do you say?”
“If we cut this idiot loose, he'll either die or end up as somebody's bitch,” said the Russian matter-of-factly. “Smirnov, how do you feel about working off your debt here instead of sitting it out in a cell? You might even earn some decent money while you're at it.”
“Earn... like a stalker? You'd let me do that?”
“Depends.” Olga waved in Tiger's direction. “You have to convince the nice man over there to forgive you.”
Yevgeniy gulped. “Um... W-wouldn't you want to do something if your father were – ”
“My father is dead.” Tiger rose and collected his rifle. “I'm not going to take you out of pity,” he said icily, “but worse people than you have redeemed themselves here. Don't disappoint me.”
The tears couldn't be held back any more. “I don't know how to thank you...”
“Then shut up.”
Dmitriy spoke for the first time. “Should we untie him?”
Olga knelt behind the prisoner. “Might as well,” she said. “He won't be much good without his hands...” In a flash her arm snaked around Yevgeniy's throat and jerked his head backwards. “But if you do anything that gets Anton hurt, anything at all, I will hunt you down. Do you understand me?”
“I do! I do, I promise!”
“Good.” Olga undid the rope, leaving Yevgeniy to meekly massage his wrists, and parted from the gathering. “I need to go back and make arrangements with the army, make certain there won't be reprisals. Anton, can you take me there?”
Tiger slung his rifle. “Yeah... The rest of you watch Smirnov until we return.”
Galina picked up the submachine gun left behind by Vitka and cocked it. “Don't worry,” she affirmed. “We'll be careful.”
The Zone was still quiet. Tiger expected as much: with an incident this close to the edge, the military would send reinforcements by ground rather than risk a second helicopter. He was more concerned by the pensive air from the woman behind him, and by the questions which lingered in his own mind.
“Let's stop for a bit,” Olga suggested as he was trying to think of a tactful way to probe her thoughts. She pointed at the burnt farmstead above them. “Can we get up there?”
They ascended the hill, zigzagging through windswept grass and sparse bushes. Here, too, nature had taken its toll since the faction wars. The charred shell of the outlying shed was falling in on itself and heaps of loose brick lay jumbled along the scorched walls of the farmhouse. Clear Sky had in more recent times erected a wooden watchtower nearby, and that, at least, was in better condition.
“Is it clear?”
Tiger nodded. The hilltop was bare of those anomalies which choked the lower terrain around it.
“Mm.” Olga took him by the hand and steered him into the farmhouse, to one of the inside corners where they couldn't be seen from the outside. Before he could say anything, she pushed him up against the wall, hands on his shoulders, and kissed him – hard. She wasn't pensive any more, but burning with repressed passion. “Do me.”
“Right here, right now.”
“After... after what's happened?”
“That's right,” Olga acknowledged. “Our friends died and we almost died with them. Who knows when we'll get another chance... Please,” she insisted. “Just your fingers would be enough.”
For Anton there was no question of refusal. This was the Olga he remembered: female but never feminine, open about her needs and feelings, and always there for him when he stepped off the last train from Slavutych. This was the woman he had loved, in his humble, unassuming way, during the happiest years of his life. “...Okay.”
“You really don't mind?”
“Yeah.” Tiger's hand moved to her waist, pulling at the belt buckle. “We can't stay too long, so... will this be all right for now?”
“Yeah... Yeah, this is great.” Olga closed her eyes as his fingers slid down her belly, through coarse hair and into a place unlike anything in the Zone. She breathed deeply, her pulse quickening as she clung to him. “Ooh...”
Tiger heard her not by listening, felt her not by touching. Something wonderful was taking place, something that he'd never before experienced in the six years since the Zone changed him. As he concentrated, he was able to draw out the nerve impulses taking form between Olga's legs and follow them as they rocketed up her spine, exploding into her brain like so many little fireworks. When she reached her limit, throwing her head back with a guttural, feral noise, she appeared to him like a flower blooming in hyperkinetic time lapse.
It was the most beautiful thing he had ever witnessed.
“How do you feel?”
“I feel good.” Olga stretched her arms over her head, radiating contentment. “Just a few minutes, okay?”
“Mm-hm.” Tiger didn't want to break the tranquil mood, yet he was beginning to feel restless. “When you go home, tell Aleksey... tell our son I'm sorry I've never been there for him.”
“He understands,” the child's mother murmured. “He knows you had to come back here.” She turned around, hiking the heavy pants up over the curves of her hips. “Can I tell him you want to see him?”
“Tell him that I want to see both of you.”
“Okay.” Olga smiled. “He'll be really happy to hear that.”
“Mmf.” Tiger wanted to smile with her, but the papers burning a hole in his coat wouldn't let him. “Before you leave, there's something else I want to ask.”
“Can you tell me anything about these?”
“Hm?” Olga took the photographs from his extended hand, unfolding them delicately. “Well, this looks like the radar site beyond the Barrier.”
Tiger nodded. “There's something written on the back, but I couldn't make it out.”
“I can't either.” She looked at the other photo. “What's this round thing? 'Same as at AES'?”
“I never saw anything like it,” Tiger told her. “Not at the nuclear plant or anywhere else. It must be pretty big, so either it was hidden... What's the matter?”
“This.” Olga tapped the back of the picture with her fingertip. “Where did you find these?”
“In a dead man's pocket.” The stalker briefly recounted how he had stumbled upon the trail of Worm and Drifter. “Did you recognize something?”
“Maybe. I'd have to show it to an expert to be sure, but I think this is Zelenko's handwriting.”
“Someone you know?”
“Not exactly.” Olga beckoned him closer, lowering her voice. “You absolutely have to keep this to yourself, all right?”
“Good.” Olga sat down again. “Andrey Zelenko was an SBU undercover agent. He worked here before the second Chernobyl incident, investigating rumors of illegal research being conducted in the Zone. After the incident, he was presumed lost along with everyone else... But then a few people made it out, people like you. The government set up listening posts around the perimeter, hoping they could receive distress calls from inside.”
“I remember that,” said Tiger, sitting beside her. “I thought they never heard anything.”
“They never heard what they were listening for,” Olga replied. “Seven weeks after the incident, posts on the south and west sides picked up a weak signal. It was a man's voice reciting strings of numbers, interrupting periodically to spell out Zelenko's code name. The broadcast was recorded, but they were only able to get a partial fix on the transmitter.”
“Yeah... They plotted it somewhere along a line passing across the west side of the Zone, straight through Limansk. The experts think it was a dipole antenna, maybe improvised, so it could have been any point on that line with high ground.”
“What did they do about it?”
“Nada. Even if it had been feasible to get into the Zone at that time, the government wouldn't authorize an operation just on that evidence. Zelenko was written off and the file on him closed.”
Tiger frowned. “Then why do you know so much about him?”
“We've been playing catch-up with his notes,” Olga divulged. “A couple of months ago the SBU's lab guys got some new diagnostic software. They ran the Zelenko recording through it and cleaned up the audio, enough to confirm his identity from comparison to archived videos... Speech analysis indicated he was suffering heavy stress, possibly exhaustion.” She shook her head. “For all we know, he could have spent his last breath getting that message out.”
“Go on,” the loner prompted. “What does this have to do with those photos?”
“It's the numbers, Anton. We think they're geographical coordinates of sites he was checking out – ”
“Sites like the Agroprom? That's what the military raid was about, wasn't it?”
The question startled Olga, just for a moment. “Yeah,” she said warily. “How did you know?”
Tiger shrugged. “It just seemed obvious after what you said... The institute's not worth much to the army as a base and they should know better than to antagonize stalkers when conditions are peaceful.”
The woman nodded. “They should know better. If the brass had left it to us deep cover agents, we could have gotten the stuff without hurting anybody... Now everyone's dead except Boris back there, and whatever the team found is in Barkeep's hands. He'll probably sell it to us after he's made copies for himself, but...” Her voice suddenly cracked in frustration. “Why am I even here if they won't fucking use me?”
Anton's hand settled on her arm. “Olga,” he said softly, “stay focused. The photographs, what do they mean?”
“I don't know. Zelenko must have stumbled onto something big, but I don't know what it is.” Olga held up the images side by side. “You said these were mixed in with Clear Sky documents. Are there any more you can show me?”
“Just these.” Tiger gave her the other papers. “And this,” he concluded, adding Drifter's PDA to the pile. “This one is secured. There might be information on it that could hurt stalkers.”
“I'll take care of that.” Olga flipped through the files. “Have you followed up on any of these?”
“I talked to Nimble. He told me someone betrayed the group after its founders went to the center, and eliminated those who stayed behind. There was supposed to be a rally point in the Dead City, but he got scared and didn't go.”
A crow flew over the pair, cawing rancorously. Olga didn't seem to hear it. “I don't like this,” she said. “We know Clear Sky was investigating areas of interest to us. If the photographs are really Zelenko's work, that means they found something he'd stashed... We'll need a miracle to recover any of it now.”
Tiger had to agree with her pessimistic assessment. “What should we do?”
“We have to keep moving.” Olga pulled out Suslov's note, folded up the rest, and pocketed them along with the PDA. “I need to take these back, but you keep that one.”
“You're going to leave Nimble alone?”
“Yeah, he's safer where he is.” The Russian got up hastily, hot with newfound determination. “This could be a big break for us, Anton. The Security Service will definitely pay you for it.”
“I don't want their money.” Tiger's voice was indifferent as he straightened his long coat. “I want to know the truth.”
“We all do,” Olga assured him. “Look, um... I know you don't trust the SBU, but would you consider working with us as an independent adviser? Our guys could use the help and I'd feel better knowing I could rely on you in a pinch.” She waited a beat to see how that went over. “You don't care about money, all right, but how about an official pass? You could leave and enter the Zone freely.”
“I could visit you in the Big Land?”
“That's right.” Chips of mortar crunched underfoot as she moved to his side. “You don't have to answer me now. I can send someone to find you in Rostok in a day or two, okay?”
“I'll think about it.” The Lee-Enfield's safety swung forwards under the pressure of his thumb. “Come on.”
Tiger's new group hadn't sat idle while he was away: the four who came out to meet him when he returned to the machine yard were fitted for a march and armed to the teeth. “Welcome back,” Galina hailed. “Where is Olga Ivanovna?”
“She's not coming with us,” the stalker informed his charges. “She made a deal with the soldiers, so we shouldn't have any trouble leaving.”
Disappointment darkened the Belarusian's face. “Will we see her again?”
“I hope so.” Tiger squeezed the AKS-74's grip, imagining that the warmth in it still belonged to her. “Right now she has things she needs to do outside the Zone.” The veteran looked the novices over one by one, evaluating their preparation. He saw that Olga's advice to Galina and Dmitriy had been shared among all and served each well. “Do you feel that you're ready?”
“I think we are,” Dmitriy answered. “Choosing supplies wasn't hard, but we weren't sure which weapons were best.”
Kondratenko still carried the M60, and had Southpaw's Stechkin in his belt and Olga's M44 on his back. The weight didn't seem to bother him. Galina had taken Vitka's PPSh and the SKS used in the night attack, while her boyfriend chose German's Thompson and Southpaw's Mauser. Acceptable selections for inexperienced users, Tiger judged.
“There's no 'best' here,” their teacher declared. “There's only 'good enough'.” He looked to Yevgeniy, who was self-consciously cradling the SSG-82 from the underground cache. “What are you doing with that?”
“I – it's similar to the rifles I used in biathlon. I thought it was better to use something familiar... Is it not alright?”
“It was Olga's,” Tiger replied. “But she didn't like it, so I guess that doesn't matter.” Turning away, he took out the .38 Smith & Wesson and handed it to Galina. “She wanted you to have this. We can get cartridges for it from Sidorovich.”
There was one weapon left over: Bandicoot's trophy. “We're returning this to Duty,” said Tiger, picking up the G36 with his empty hand. “Smirnov, you'll carry it until we get to Rostok. I'll give you the ammunition if we run into serious trouble.”
Satisfied, Tiger stepped back. “Well... Galya, Mitya, Borya and Zhenya, your first lesson starts now.”
Death comes easily in this place. You can catch a bullet for speaking out of turn, stepping on the wrong toe, or possessing something of value. You may share bread with a man one night, and be forced to kill him in self defense the next day. You must face peril in every place and at every hour, from the watchful machine-gunner who decides the fates of those crossing the perimeter to the most horrifying creature which lurks hungrily in every ruin. Your friend may go out for a day and never come back, vanishing in woods filled with gnawed corpses still clutching rusted guns. If you survive, good for you. If you break even, well done. If you make it out, don't look back.
Such is life in the Zone.
| 06:59:13 24 April 2012
On forum: 07/30/2007
We aim to sneeze.|
The West is a Delicate Matter
The cartridge belt in the box under Tiger's arm jingled as he stepped from one concrete tie to the next. A few paces before him walked Yevgeniy, sweeping the tracks with Southpaw's shotgun. Galina and Dmitriy followed after the stalker, and last came Kondratenko. Rusting rails framed their path, dotted with green shoots poking up from the coarse gravel ballast below. On both sides, the railway embankment sloped gently into the surrounding woods.
The combat in the swamps cost Tiger one friend and three comrades. Its upheavals gave him the best partner he could have asked for and then tore her away, granting him barely time enough to repair their relationship. He didn't dwell on the casualties: harsh experience had fortified him against lingering grief, leaving a detached regret for those who would not return. To expand on Olga's metaphor, he'd lost his Sayid and his Katerina Matveyevna, and gained a brace of Petrukhas and a harem of two. Now he had to think forward, about his responsibility for his pupils, for Olga, and for the son he'd never met.
The trek was going well, though he could feel the others' stamina beginning to wane as they advanced towards the broken bridge. He'd tried to spread the load equitably, allotting the heaviest shares to Kondratenko and himself, but there was simply too much they needed to carry: German's fishing rod, Vitka's detector, machine gun ammunition, rifle grenades, night sights... Once they made it to Rostok, he could rent a locker at the Hundred Rads and lay up the excess weight. The hard part was getting there.
“We'll take a break at the rookie village,” Tiger told the party. “It's not much farther.”
Strong as Galina's determination ran, her relief at the news was evident. “Are there many villages around here?”
Only one,” the loner replied. “Inhabited, I mean... It's not really a village, just some houses and an old bunker. There's a trader, and a couple of veterans who run things.”
“Can we get food there?” asked Kondratenko hopefully.
“Yes, we can get food.” Food and whatever else they lacked. The bag of artifacts inside Tiger's coat, harvested by dead men for a battle in which they were never needed, would pay for everything. For his own part, he wouldn't be sorry to see the baubles gone.
The sun disappeared behind a raft of clouds, leaving the travelers in shadow. Here the trees on either flank thinned out and the gradient dropped off more steeply. “We've reached the Cordon,” said Tiger. “Zhenya, stop.”
The Latvian looked back at him, nonplussed. “We're not going to the bridge?”
“Not yet.” The stalker pointed to the right, where a barbed wire fence partitioned the boulder-strewn hillside below them. “The village is that way. Follow me.” He left the rails and headed for a round outcrop of rock among the scattered evergreens. “This fence was damaged in a storm last year,” the guide narrated, “and boars marked a trail over it. Every time the army fixes the fence, the boars knock it down again.”
It was just as he said. Past the rocks, one of the fence's uprights had been ripped out of the soil and lengths of severed wire lay twisted in the grass. Tiger stepped across the gap, waited for the others to rejoin him, and started towards the village, keeping the derelict grain elevator and the main road on his left. The ground in front was uneven, with bushes and small anomalies crowning a broad ridge.
“Nearly there... Just over this – ”
The shooting came from straight ahead, pistol reports and shotgun blasts and overlapping bursts of automatic fire in a ragged volley that lasted only a couple of seconds. Tiger was down on one knee, his assault rifle readied for immediate action, before it ended. The novices hesitated at the sudden tumult, wasting precious moments in their confusion.
Kondratenko recovered his wits quickest. He scooted to the head of the formation, raising the machine gun's ladder sight. “What is that?”
“Ha-hah!” A triumphant shout rang loud in the distance. “That'll teach 'em to stay out of our camp!”
“Settle down, Tolik... Is anyone hurt?”
The second voice was Fanatic's. “They're friendlies,” Tiger breathed, relaxing his stance. “Let's go around to the back, just to be safe.”
He led his followers west and then south, taking a route which arced past the anomaly-choked garbage pit. The village looked and sounded perfectly normal when they reached it – normal except for the six dead men in blue and gray who had been laid in a row outside the high wooden fence. A rookie stalker stood watch at the back gate, cradling an AK-74 with a prominent smear of blood on its stock. Narrow eyes peered out from under the hood of his fawn jacket, checking the visitors with jaded wariness.
“What happened here?” Tiger asked him.
“Mercs.” The rookie jerked his head backwards. “You want details, go see the boss.”
“I will.” Tiger motioned for the others to close up behind him and moved on.
He counted two rookies patrolling the dirt track between the rows of houses, one posted at the front entrance facing the road, and two more perched on the roof of the center house in the north row. All of them carried matching Kalashnikovs. The remainder were clustered around the fireplace. Looking over their heads, Tiger identified Fanatic's stubble-dark round face, but not the leaner features of Wolf.
The older man nodded at him. “Morning, Tiger.”
“I heard you went on Duty's swamp raid. Find out who's been killing our guys?”
Tiger nodded. “It looked like a foreign PMC,” he explained, circling the fire. “We skirmished with them a couple of times, then the army came in. The rest of our group was lost.”
“All of them? Damn... What about the bad guys?”
“Out of action.” Seeing that his replacement companions were waiting for guidance, Tiger turned away momentarily. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
“That's a nice litter you brought back,” Fanatic opined, examining the strangers' mosaic of civilian clothing, uniform fragments and Clear Sky trappings with bemusement. “Where'd you find them?”
“We rescued a pair from the enemy and the others wandered into the swamps after us,” said Tiger, extending Kondratenko's story to cover Yevgeniy. “I'm taking them to Rostok.”
“Getting to Rostok is tricky right now,” Fanatic warned. “You might be better off waiting.”
“Does this have something to do with the dead mercenaries back there?”
“I hope not.” The veteran settled himself on his milk crate stool and brushed off the makeshift chair beside it. “Have a seat.”
Tiger sat. “I haven't heard any news since I left for the raid. What's going on?”
“I'll start with the mercs... They showed up yesterday afternoon, saying they were going to take over this place and make a camp. The bastards gave us until morning to pack up and get out.” Fanatic reached under the stool and picked up a soda can. “They camped up the road overnight, but without Wolf here we didn't have enough good fighters to face them in the open.” The can gave a serpentine hiss as he popped its top. “So I decided to nail them with an ambush, right here in the village. Told our boys to hide and aim at the mercs' legs, where they don't wear armor... Luckily Marked One showed up at the last minute.”
The name stirred up a feeling of unease in Tiger. “Is he here?”
“Nope.” The other loner noisily slurped his drink. “He dropped in to see Sidorovich, stayed long enough to help with our defense, and took off straight after. Busy as a bee, that one.”
“Mm.” Tiger disentangled the ammo box and set it on the ground. “Where's Wolf?”
“He went north to make a delivery. Won't be back for a few days.” Fanatic clamped the soda between his knees. “Great timing,” he grumbled. “Mercenary greed today, bandits on our backs tomorrow.”
“Borov is launching an offensive?”
Fanatic shook his head. “Spetsnaz raided the Dark Valley last night... Went in with helicopters, right after the blowout. They hit the factory and the bandit base, blocked off the trail to the Garbage, but ignored the stalkers at the pig farm. Most of the grunts pulled out after three, three and a half hours.”
“I see,” said Tiger thoughtfully. “So the army finally shut Borov down?”
“Guess so. Word is that the man himself ate a bullet.” Fanatic drank from his can again. “Trouble is, some of his thugs got away, laid low until the soldiers left, then crossed the Garbage right under our noses. They joined up with the bandits at the Agroprom and came back in force... Now those sons of bitches have retaken the checkpoints on the western road and the old track, and I don't expect they'll stop there.”
Neither did Tiger. There was an undeniable prudence in sitting out the crisis, here in the relative comfort and safety of the Cordon, but staying meant leaving his charges within easy striking distance of any enemies they might have outside the perimeter.
Better the threat you know than the one you don't.
“I'll risk it,” he told Fanatic. “If we make it to Rostok before dark, I can double back and help our people.”
“Up to you.”
“I'd better talk to Sidorovich and buy supplies.” Tiger got up, his muscles protesting their interrupted recovery. “By the way, is Nimble around?”
“No, he's out on a job. I can take a message for you.”
“I'd appreciate it... Tell him the stash is in the usual place. I took what I needed and the rest is his.”
“...If you do encounter a bloodsucker, or you think one is near, the best thing to do is find a wide, open space and keep moving. Force it to chase you – even if you can't see it, you'll hear it panting.”
Yevgeniy, walking at his elbow, was close to panting himself. “Why?”
“Running while cloaked puts a heavy load on its metabolism, making it use up oxygen very quickly.” Tiger let the anxious youth digest that for a few seconds. “An exhausted bloodsucker gives itself away with every breath.”
“But I heard bullets go right through them when they're invisible...”
“Not true,” said the stalker firmly. “If you shoot at a bloodsucker and it doesn't go down, you're not hitting it hard enough or not hitting at all.”
“We heard the same thing,” Dmitriy volunteered. “I don't believe it after what I saw yesterday.”
“It's a common superstition,” Tiger admitted. “Has been since the faction wars.” He halted. “We're here.”
So far, so good. He'd sold all the artifacts to Sidorovich as planned, along with Olga's customized suit. Tiger would have found a use for that, but it had been his partner's final request: a last favor to give the death of her Tourist persona legitimacy. In any case, he couldn't complain about the way Sidorovich's rate of exchange tipped in his favor once he offered the trader that unique loot.
It was nearly midday when the party left the rookie village, following the road north. There was nobody posted at the bridge, saving Tiger the expense of a bribe, nor anybody camped at the pig farm. The weather was mild, partly cloudy with a light wind that sighed through the trees. Now and then it settled down, replaced by the distant barking of blind dogs.
What a nice day for fighting.
Tiger wasn't eager to fight again, not while he had these neophytes to care for. It was their good luck to have missed out on the ambush at the rookie village – if only that luck would hold out a little longer, until they'd put the Garbage behind themselves... If not, there would be a trial by fire for all of them. It remained to be seen whether Kondratenko could keep his fear under control, and whether the Belarusians' resolve would hold up when the bullets started flying.
The biggest variable in the equation was Yevgeniy, a bundle of nerves strung tight as piano wire. At first the veteran let him be, giving him a chance to calm down on his own. When that didn't help, Tiger called a brief rest at the upper checkpoint and confronted him pointblank. The Latvian soon folded under pressure and confessed his preoccupying terror of bloodsuckers.
Tiger resolved to set him straight quickly, and dispel whatever absurd rumors this hapless youngster had picked up outside the Zone. He started with a concise account of his former team's run-in with, and slaughter of, the hunting pack in the marshes, then shifted into a lecture on the bloodsuckers' preferred habitats and the methods of escaping them. Further lessons would have to wait, however: in front of the would-be stalkers stood a broad gate, half-open, nestled between two hills.
“This is the Garbage?” asked Yevgeniy, looking at it with almost an expression of reverence.
“This is where it starts.” Tiger picked up the pace anew. “Keep your voices down.”
Several meters behind the gate sat a box truck, lying perpendicular to the road with its driver door hanging open. Tiger headed right for the derelict. “Okay,” he said as the group joined him beside it, under the shade of the looming trees. “There's a stalker camp nearby. I'll go alone to make sure it's safe.” Working methodically, he divested himself of inessential weight. “Stay here until I signal you.”
He ducked around the vehicle's forward end and covered the first stretch in a low sprint. Behind the box truck sat an open bed cargo truck, an Ulyanovsk jeep and an armored personnel carrier – remnants of an army convoy caught in a blowout and surrendered to the strange elements. Tiger took cover by the APC's yellow hull, ignoring the old bloodstains on the ground around its tires. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary ahead, only the ribbon of cracked tarmac and chain of utility poles winding northward among the junk heaps.
There was no cover to be had in the next part. Tiger dashed to the left, anticipating the turnoff to the vehicle yard, and beheld the yard itself in a few moments. There were six stalkers dug in around the campfire pit, poised to intercept an attack from the west. The southern path to the Agroprom lay in that direction, below the ridge at the far end of the yard, but it was open to attack by bandits coming down from the Agroprom road as well.
“Bes!” The man's voice carried barely far enough to meet Tiger's ears. “Friendly, coming from behind!”
Seeing that he was recognized, Tiger hustled around the white Zaporozhets at the yard gate and ran to the fire pit. The brooding, mustachioed visage of Bes greeted him with a curt nod. “Right on time,” the camp leader remarked. “Fanatic said you're bringing up some newbies with heavy weapons.”
“A handful.” The new arrival sought refuge behind the skeletal chassis by the pit. “What are we up against?”
“Eleven bandits at the trail, fifteen or so on the road. Lenka Hunchback is holding the hangar with five men. Seriy organized a relief crew at the Hundred Rads, but they ran into a big pack of dogs coming out of Rostok. They got chewed up pretty bad and had to carry back three of their guys.”
Tiger tugged at his rifle's magazine, assuring himself that it was fully seated. “And Duty?”
“Sitting on their asses up at the pipeline,” Bes snorted. “We're on our own here... Suits me fine! If we left it to them, we'd never hear an end to the gloating.”
“Mm.” Tiger looked about, gauging the strength of the stalkers' defense. “I can give you food and ammunition,” he offered, “but I don't know if my group can handle a fight.”
“We've got supplies here,” said Bes. “Take whatever you can spare to Lenka's boys. If you could stick around for a while, that'd be even better.”
“I'll try,” Tiger declared. “What's your plan?”
“Haven't agreed on that yet,” Bes conceded. “Either we attack them before the sun's in our faces, or we hunker down and get set for a night battle. I'd strike now if I had more men.”
“What about the bandits' objectives?”
“Same as last time... Take the hangar, cut the Garbage in half, keep Duty tied up until Freedom makes a move. They must figure we've gotten soft, having Duty around.”
“They figure wrong.” Tiger made ready to move again. “I'll go and see how things are with Hunchback, then we'll work out what to do.”
“All right. Don't take too long or we'll lose our daylight window.”
The guide fast retraced his steps back to the truck. “They want us to meet with the stalkers at the railway hangar up the road,” he explained to the rookies as he grabbed his ammo box. “Stay behind me and don't talk.”
Ahead, the first of the junk piles, a great mass of atomic dirt and tangled industrial wreckage, loomed over the vehicle yard. The forlorn husks of a couple of Chelyabinsk bulldozers lay on the man-made mountain's slope, awaiting the touch of operators who'd never come back. The road curved to the right, snaking around the foot of the heap. Tiger stayed on the pavement, walking well clear of the gravity anomalies shimmering above the weeds, and the rest followed him single file.
The pain in Yevgeniy's abdomen was getting worse.
It was a sharp pain, unlike the aching in his legs and shoulders, and it hadn't gone away when he rested. He tried to hide his discomfort, anxious not to aggravate Tiger's distaste for his company. Galina noticed something was wrong after the senior stalker went ahead to meet his comrades, but Yevgeniy had waved her off with a feeble excuse of stomachache.
He was already regretting that foolish bluff, though he didn't dare speak up now. They were back on the road, and Tiger seemed even more humorless after he returned from the meeting. He must have gotten bad news, or heard something that upset his plans. Until he gave a clearer sign of what those plans were, Yevgeniy could only march after him and hope that the pain would not become unbearable.
He could have taken the easy way out, the sniper reminded himself as he cast about for something else to occupy his thoughts. He could have accepted the blond woman's offer to guide him out of the Zone. He could have been cozy and sheltered as a guest of the Ukrainian penal system. He could have spared himself this ordeal... But he hadn't, because taking the soft route would condemn Maksim Smirnov to a lonely, impoverished twilight.
A hand patted Yevgeniy's shoulder, startling him. He looked up to find Kondratenko walking at his side. The gesture of stoic solidarity lifted his mood a little, bringing a timid smile to his face: Borya was a kindred spirit, a man who chose to stay and confront his fear of the Zone head on.
Then Yevgeniy heard the gunfire, and his fragile cheer evaporated.
Suddenly Tiger was running. “It's started! Come on!”
Kondratenko ran after him. Yevgeniy tried to catch up, but Galina and Dmitriy overtook the sniper even as his lungs burned. He finished a distant last, all but staggering around the bend in the road. The way forward was blocked by a small bus, its blue and white paint stained with reddish brown, and the others were huddled along its side.
“Zhenya...” The leader was short of breath too. “You all right?”
Yevgeniy nodded, his heart racing inside his chest. Ahead and to his left, the shooting continued.
“We have to join the defense.” Tiger shook off one of his ammo packs and pushed it towards the Latvian. “Have your automatics ready,” he instructed. “If they catch us in the open, use the trees for cover.”
Inside the pack were translucent plastic magazines, nestled in pairs and fastened together by studs molded into their sides. Picking up the G36, which until now had only been dead weight on his back, Yevgeniy unfolded its stock and inserted a magazine.
Tiger heard the poomf of a grenade detonating as he tore open the mag pouches on his vest. “The hangar has catwalks,” he called. “All around the inside, with stairs up to the roof. There's a control booth on a platform at the far end – it's a good firing position.” The loner tucked his rifle into the crook of his arm and crawled to the right, towards the front wheel. “Stand by to move!”
“Scared?” murmured Kondratenko, falling in behind him.
“Yeah,” Yevgeniy replied quietly. “You?”
“I'm not afraid of any bandits.”
“Let's go,” Tiger ordered tersely. “After me!”
From here, nothing looked out of place: the second junk heap on the right, the hangar on the left, and the road, lined with sturdy trees, passing between them. Sensing that the watchtower outside the hangar and the lean-to across the road were both empty, Tiger made a beeline for the east gate in the hangar complex's outer wall, a solid brick barrier too high to climb and topped with barbed wire.
There were still living bodies in the hangar itself: he couldn't tell which side they were on, but the unabating gunshots meant at least some of them were allies. Tiger was almost halfway to the gate when four bandits appeared from around the far corner, coming straight at him along the south side.
The AKS-74 roared. One of the criminals dropped like an unstrung puppet as his mates scattered. An enemy bullet flew low and landed short, throwing up clods of dirt. “Get into the hangar!” the guide yelled between bursts. “Go! Go!”
Galina reached the gate first, and the others stacked up behind her. “Attention!” she hailed. “Stalkers, help is coming!”
“Awesome!” came the reply. “Hurry up!”
“Come on!” The girl and boy led the way, submachine guns at low ready, and Yevgeniy and Kondratenko followed them. Inside the hangar's cavernous maw, a pair of men were crouching behind a barricade of cement blocks, metal crates and similar debris. One wore a gray windbreaker and the other was clad in camouflage fatigues, armed with a long-barreled automatic rifle. “You!” Galina barked. “Where are the rest?”
“All gone!” The man in the windbreaker fired his pistol. “It's just us and the scum out there!”
“Damn it... Urrraaaaaaaa!”
Galina cut loose with the PPSh, its muzzle flash blazing like a strobe in the gloom. To the left of the barricade lay a large wooden cable spool: the Belarusian knelt behind it and fired again as Yevgeniy hastened after her, cringing at the noise. Lifting his rifle, he sidestepped until he had a clear line of vision down the hangar. Peering through the little window of the reflex sight, he saw slumped and huddled bodies but no movement.
All of a sudden the shooting stopped completely.
“They're retreating.” The rifleman spoke with a strong accent, very different from either the native speech or Yevgeniy's Baltic dialect. “Perkele, that was close!”
“Don't relax yet,” his comrade warned. “What group are you guys with?”
“Mine,” said Tiger, coming in after the vanguard. “We came up from the Cordon. Bes told me Lenka needed supplies.”
The stalker aimed his Beretta at the ceiling and decocked it. “Lenka's dead,” he told the veteran. “The bandits gave us a real mauling... I'm Sanya Deadeye.”
“Jussi Salonen,” the other added.
“Call me Tiger.” The selfsame man went to the barricade and stood behind Dmitriy and Jussi. “What happened?”
“First they picked off Denis, our lookout,” Sanya recounted, “and then they rushed us. Lenka went forward to head them off at the gate with Romka and Fyodor, but the gangsters killed them.”
“The bandits have a machine gun and a grenade launcher at the roadblock,” Jussi supplemented. “I thought I heard shooting on our south side as well.”
“We intercepted a detachment trying to sneak around to your rear,” Tiger confirmed. “I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner.”
While the others talked, Yevgeniy took a few seconds to orient himself. A pair of railroad tracks ran into the hangar through its west end, terminating at the bottom of the U-shaped loading platform on which he stood. There was a drab boxcar at the end of the left track, behind the barricade, and the platform and rails were littered with steel drums and more spools. Outside the hangar's far end, another boxcar sat on the right hand track, surrounded by square steel cargo containers. Over the doorway hung a platform, one side enclosed by corrugated green walls.
“...Who had radios?”
“Only Lenka,” Sanya replied. “It's on his body, unless the bandits took it.”
“I'll see if I can find it,” Tiger decided. “Meanwhile I want the rest of you to drop all your non-critical gear – keep only weapons, ammo, canteens and medical kits. Put everything you don't need in the pit over there. Zhenya, leave that shotgun too.”
He ventured forth and the others went to work. Shedding some of his load brought Yevgeniy blessed relief, despite the ache in his belly. “Galya,” he asked softly, “did you get your man?”
“He was running away,” she answered candidly. “I shot to make him run faster.”
“Oh...” Tiger hadn't said it clearly, but Yevgeniy was sure that he intended to keep the group here for a while. If that bandit didn't take this chance to quit the battleground, Galina's mercy would be in vain.
“How much ammunition do you have?” Kondratenko queried as the Latvian walked past, carrying his unneeded equipment to the pit.
“About thirty rounds of seven-six-two, and forty-five of nine millimeter.” Jussi moved over to the middle of the barricade and sat down with his back to it, laying his FAL across his lap. “Sanya?”
“One full magazine and one half empty. I'll have to take a bigger shooter from a corpse.”
Yevgeniy went back to the spool, taking Galina's place while she made her own gear drop. She didn't come back immediately, stopping for a few moments with her boyfriend instead. Listening to them, Yevgeniy felt a pang of envy and then a flush of shame. To have that kind of bond, so simple, so normal, even in a place like this...
Sanya's voice intruded on his thoughts. “You okay, dude?”
“Mmf.” Yevgeniy lifted his face reluctantly and got a rude shock for the effort: up close, Sanya's right eye was an unremarkable brown hue, but the iris of the left had a pale, washed-out color. “Eep..!”
“Oops.” Sanya seemed amused by his reaction. “Didn't notice the dead-eye before, huh?”
Tiger came back at that moment, sparing Yevgeniy from prolonged embarrassment. “What's the problem?”
“No problem,” said Sanya. “Did you find the radio?”
“Yes, I found it. There's some shrapnel damage to the outer case, but it powers on.” Propping his Kalashnikov against the barricade, Tiger squinted at the device's LCD display. “I hope this is the right channel... Tiger calling Bes, Tiger calling Bes, are you receiving? Over.”
“Zhenya, come here.”
Yevgeniy had to crawl on his hands and knees, the G36 swinging under him with its sling clamped between his teeth – like a dog bringing a stick to his master. The platform was rough and cool under his palms. Wouldn't it feel nice to just drop the gun and stretch out, letting that coolness flow into him until he couldn't feel the pain anymore?
Tiger wasn't even looking at him. The leader was busy with his little binoculars, his coat's hood pulled low over his face to help him blend into the shadows. Reaching Tiger's side in due time, Yevgeniy bowed his head until the assault rifle's plastic frame rested on concrete, dark gray over light.
“Take a look.” Tiger handed him the binoculars. “The bandit with the cap, do you see him?”
Yevgeniy saw the blurred sill of the window in front of him and the intersecting safety bars affixed to the catwalk outside. An electrical insulator came into focus, dangling from the gantry over the tracks. Panning right, he saw a locomotive sitting at the arched mouth of a tunnel, beyond the gate in the west wall. That was the wrong way. Going back to the insulator, he spotted his quarry on the second pass.
The bandit was a big man, with a lantern jaw and broad back. He wore high boots and a leather jacket, cut differently than the others Yevgeniy had seen, and a field cap tipped well back on his head. A submachine gun hung under his arm, bouncing against his side as he paced one way and then another. “I see him,” said the sniper, taking shelter once more. “Who is he?”
“Fritz,” Tiger muttered. “He fits the description, anyway.”
“He's a Volga German. Used to be a skinhead, came here after his old gang got busted. During the faction wars, he massacred Duty prisoners and made a necklace out of their dog tags. General Voronin offered a bounty to whoever kills him and brings back the tags, but then Fritz disappeared for a while.” Tiger reclaimed his binoculars. “Can you do it?”
“Me?” This was a trick, it had to be. “Don't you want..?”
“I don't need the money.”
“Then...” Yevgeniy looked behind himself, where Sanya sat outside the control booth with Kondratenko's carbine in his hands. “Shouldn't they take it?” he protested. “Those bandits killed their friends.” Turning the other way, he could see Jussi perched inside the roof hatch on the catwalk above Tiger, watching the hole in the north side of the outer wall. “I'm sure Jussi could do this.”
Tiger was unmoved. “You can split the bounty,” he said bluntly, “or give it all to them if you like.” He lifted the second rifle off Yevgeniy's back. “But I want you to make the shot.”
“I – ”
“You know what these bandits will do to Galya if they catch her. They'll do it to Mitya, and to you too, just because they can.”
Yevgeniy finally understood. “All right,” he whispered. “All right. I'll do it.”
The sun was still high in the sky, favoring a shooting position in the shadows at the rear of the platform, so Yevgeniy backed away from the wide gallery windows before he began his preparation. The SSG-82 felt curiously comfortable in his hands, its shape so alike to the old Suhl 150 which had been his favorite practice gun. Familiarity brought calm as he removed the lens caps and sighted in. The scope offered limited power, with a simple crossbar-and-post reticule in the German style, but was of good quality. It showed its pedigree in white letters atop the elevation knob: Carl Zeiss Jena DDR.
Fritz was still pacing, full of pent up energy. It looked as though he was arguing with someone hidden behind the slabs of prefabricate concrete which blocked the road, the vehemence of the gestures making up for whatever the dispute lacked in volume. Did Fritz not realize how exposed he was? Did he think he faced only a few under-gunned and demoralized neutrals? Or did he simply not care?
The marked man wouldn't pace much longer: Yevgeniy wrapped the sling around his supporting arm, taking up the slack. Cupping the ball at the bolt handle's end, he lifted it and chambered a round in almost perfect silence. His slender body straightened as he found his balance, his breathing deep and slow. He followed his target's motion, mentally comparing the flatter trajectory of the 5.45mm ammunition against the ballistics of the .22 rimfires he'd grown up on. The question of the money was gone from his mind entirely. So was the pain. Only the shot mattered now.
The bandit stopped abruptly, extending his arm as he turned. Yevgeniy squeezed, felt the trigger break cleanly, and heard the crack of a fifty-five grain Barnaul hollowpoint closing the gap in a millisecond.
Fritz swayed on his feet, staring at the wound in his side. The brigand met his death like many who perished in the Zone before him, struggling with his last thoughts to comprehend his own mortality. After a long moment, he fell backwards into the grass behind the concrete and vanished from sight. Another bandit appeared, carrying a rifle with an underbarrel launcher. He rushed to the slain chief. Tiger raised the Lee-Enfield.
The bullet impacted low and left, pulverizing the second bandit's hip. He toppled sideways with a howl. Tiger ducked, ejecting the spent cartridge from his gun. They'd kicked the nest – now to see whether the hornets came out. At any moment Bes and his group would begin their assault on the trailhead, and the bandits' reaction to it could determine the next move.
“Get up!” a hoarse voice bellowed. “Get up, you cocksuckers, or I'll kill you myself!”
Tiger peered over the window's frame. A bandit in a long coat seemed to have taken charge, a silvery pistol glinting in the sunlight as he goaded his cohorts forward.
Here we go.
“Vanya, cover us!”
The enemy advanced in an amorphous wave. At the same time, the elusive roadblock machine gunner showed himself among the slabs and pipes. Tiger centered the silhouetted head and shoulders in his sights. “Borya, go!”
Kondratenko rose from his crouched concealment under the rightmost window, planted the M60's bipod on the sill, and took aim.
Tatatatatatatata! Tatatata! Tatatata!
The hostile gunner pulled his head down just as Tiger shot, narrowly escaping a full metal jacket haircut. He blind-fired in return, blasting chunks of brick out of the wall above the stalkers. When he came up again, the loner was ready. This time his aim was true: dark matter sprayed into the air and the opposing machine gun slipped backwards off its perch, still discharging as its master fell.
“Tiger!” Kondratenko cried. “The gate!”
Three bandits had broken away when the deserter's gun swept the killing field. One reached temporary shelter under the wall to the left of the railway gate, while the others dashed to the right. “Jussi!” Tiger shouted, anticipating their course. “Look alert!”
The nearest thug must have heard him. “Hey, ass-face!” he crowed. “Here's a lemon for you to suck on!”
Tiger lunged to the window and fired at the voice behind the gate's rusted panels. He wrenched the bolt open, not daring to wait for sensory confirmation of a hit, but it wouldn't close when he tried to push it forward. The loner discarded his jammed rifle, snatching up the nearest substitute. A small object sailed over the gate, struck the roof of the boxcar and deflected to the left.
The hand bomb exploded at the hangar's threshold, throwing fragments against the platform's underside and drawing a cry from Yevgeniy. There was a quick boom-boom-boom as Jussi stopped the flanking bandits at the breach, and the last one standing took to his heels. Tiger brought the AK to bear, aligned his eye with the notch and post, and dropped the running man with a perfunctory burst in the back. As the last empty casing rolled away and the last echo of muzzle blast faded, his beleaguered ears heard long-stroke thunder rolling in from the southwest as Bes and his people did their part.
“What now?” wondered Kondratenko.
“Now we wait.” Looking back, Tiger saw Galina watching him from the barricade. She gave him a thumbs-up. “Reload and keep your eyes open,” he advised, pulling the partly depleted magazine out of his own weapon.
Sanya spoke up suddenly. “Hey, what's-your-name... Zhenya. You okay there?”
Yevgeniy was on his knees with a hand pressed over his lower belly, eyes shut tight and teeth clenched. He was plainly in agony. “Zhenya,” Tiger prompted, “are you hit?”
He received no reply. Sanya put aside his gun and crawled over to the sniper. “Come on, dude,” he said impatiently. “You gotta say someth – oh, shit. Tiger, his crotch is bleeding!”
Tiger yanked out the bandage stored in the Kalashnikov's stock. “Shrapnel or a bullet?”
“Put him on his back. Hurry!”
Yevgeniy reanimated as Tiger and Sanya laid their hands on him. “Wait,” he mumbled. “Stop...”
Not good. Was he already going into shock? “Hold his arms,” Tiger grunted, forcibly extending the squirming casualty's legs. “Where's the entry wound?”
“Couldn't see it!”
“No..!” Yevgeniy strained against their grip in blind panic. “Nooooo!”
“Zhenya! Zhenya, you have to calm down!” Tiger couldn't see the injury's location either – only the dark stain of the blood seeping though the younger man's clothing. “We need to get his pants off!”
Modesty be damned. A bleeding wound, even a minor one, had to be staunched and cleaned quickly, or else it would leave the victim open to deadly infection. The belt's tongue slipped free of its buckle, and then Tiger's fingers hooked into the waistband.
“Stop!” A sob shook Yevgeniy's pinioned body. “Stop! Don't look!”
Too late. “You're a girl?” Tiger blinked. “No, you're not... What are you?”
“Dude...” Sanya was slack-jawed. “What the fuck.”
The only answer was a wail of despair.