| 06:51:43 24 February 2013
On forum: 07/30/2007
This is still taking a lot longer than it should. |
“We've got orders,” announced Gromyko, tapping the butt of his rifle against the doorframe. “Rise and shine, people.”
“Nnnnnf.” Dudorov rolled over and covered his head with his hands. “Sleep...”
“You can sleep when you're dead,” Gromyko needled. “We gotta patrol the woods west of the village, over to Novosyolki and back. Shulga's boys went yesterday, so now it's our turn.”
Mironyuk sat up, scratching at the dark hints of beard that had crept onto his choirboy face overnight. “What are we doing in Novosyolki?”
“Showing the colors... Artur, I'll count to five and then I'm gonna come over there and pee on you."
“I wish you'd pee on Shulga.” Dudorov propped himself up on his elbows. “When do we get some downtime, huh?”
“When I get promoted,” said Gromyko humorlessly as Mironyuk lit a cigarette. “Come on, get up. You're setting a bad example for the rookies.”
Dudorov grudgingly got onto his hands and knees, stretching like a lanky cat. “Food?”
“Next resupply is due around noon. You have any gum left?"
“Make it last.” The squad leader waited a few moments, watching as the rookies sorted themselves out, then turned his back. There was a nip in the air as the sun began to rise over Cherevach, and the derelict farm's long, low, half tree-choked buildings threw broad shadows on the grass.
“Nice day,” Mironyuk drawled behind him.
“Yeah.” Gromyko was about to say more when he heard a faint burst of gunfire to the north. “Red Forest?”
“I wonder if Freedom's bleeding as bad as we are.”
Gromyko heard the transports before he saw them. He sprinted up the last stretch of Kalinowski Street, hopping over puddles left by the morning rain, and came to the junction with the six-lane Minsk highway just as the first truck was rolling through the intersection. Cutting to the right, he closed the gap and overtook the flat-fronted GAZ. The driver was generous enough to wait until he'd climbed over the tailgate before accelerating.
There were twenty-odd people crammed into the open cargo bed: men and women, mostly young, in khaki Afghanka uniforms as ill-fit as Gromyko's own. He counted two other trucks following theirs in the convoy, which made his new unit either an overstrength platoon or an understrength company. Two more pulled out from the strip of grass on the left shoulder, where they'd been idling beside a line of parked tanks, and formed up parallel to the penal carriers. They carried a different kind of men, all wearing balaclavas and suits of red-trimmed black. The familiarity of the sight made Gromyko want to puke.
His fellow passengers regarded their escort with cowed alarm. “Who are they?” a white-haired man demanded of Gromyko.
The prisoners didn't know him, but they recognized him as a figure of authority. “Duty blocking troops,” he replied. “Your government doesn't trust its own grunts to watch us.”
That was how it worked now. Gromyko's condemned platoon was the spear's head, the Duty detachment its binding to hold it fast atop the shaft of the regular army – a Belarusian shaft thrust into the Zone by a Russian fist.
“They can't do this to us.” The mousy girl at his right elbow offered quiet defiance. “We're not criminals. We didn't do anything wrong!”
She had the initials of a banned pro-democracy group tattooed on her arm. Looking around, Gromyko saw that a few of the others carried similar marks. There was also a pair of boys huddled together at the front, holding hands.
“It's absurd,” the old man declared. “We aren't soldiers. What do they expect us to achieve?”
“Better stop that,” warned Gromyko. “Unless you want them to shoot you for defeatist agitation.”
The trucks slowed, weaving between anomalies outlined with rings of orange road markers. There wouldn't be any markers where the platoon was going.
The squad advanced in single file, Mironyuk on point and Gromyko behind him. The five rookies followed, with Dudorov bringing up the rear. Now and again they heard shooting in the distance, but for the moment their patch of forest offered only a beautiful tranquility.
Gromyko knew it wouldn't last.
The faction wars had raged across the southern Zone for fifteen days, with no end in sight. A week ago his squad was recalled to the Agroprom and gutted, half its men transferred to make up for losses on higher priority teams. To replace them he was given the rookies, fresh-faced idiots who heard the propaganda blaring from the loudspeakers and answered the call of Duty. Gromyko still couldn't keep their names and faces straight.
It went both ways. The rookies knew almost nothing about him, either – not his full name (Gromyko, Fyodor Pavelovich) or his age (31) or his old service unit (12th Battalion, 95th Airmobile Brigade). Those who survived would remember him as one grumpy sergeant among many, if at all. With Duty's casualty rates, that might be for the best.
Mironyuk halted, ducking into an alert, compacted posture. Gromyko signaled the rest with a raised hand. The detector on his belt wasn't reacting, but its silence meant little: he wasn't important enough to rate a fancy model with a full catalog of the rarer anomalies. That was what he had Mironyuk for.
A sudden pain informed the NCO that he'd just stubbed his fingers on the rifle's vertical foregrip – again. Gromyko gritted his teeth and clenched a smarting fist around the infernal furniture as Mironyuk took a steel nut from the pouch on his hip. The pointman tossed it underhand into the bushes ahead, provoking a whirring noise and a flurry of motion towards the right. The creature was gone amongst the trees before Gromyko could lift his gun.
“Pheasant,” said Mironyuk indifferently. “Good with lemon and pepper.”
Lemon and pepper and a garnish of isotopes, Gromyko thought. “Is it clear, Matvey?”
“Let's keep moving. Maybe they'll have some of Mitay's spam for us when we get back.”
It was poor discipline to vent his contempt so openly, but after two weeks of this bullshit neither Gromyko nor anyone else in the squad gave a damn. Mitay the misanthrope, who hated and was hated by nearly everyone, saw the faction wars as an opportunity to boost himself up the ladder. He had his eye on Major Zvyagintsev's job as head of training and equipment, a position which conveniently overlapped with Mitay's own duties as quartermaster.
The rack numbers were the first warning sign. Zvyagintsev organized his inventory with care and method, marking each weapon on the left side of its stock or frame in cleanly stenciled white paint. Mitay would have none of that. Instead he pestered his preoccupied superiors into letting him 'share the burden' and then applied his numbers in ragged freehand. Worse, he mostly daubed them across the top of the gun's slide or dust cover, where they distracted the user's eyes and were hard to read in a hurry.
Mitay's next blunder unhappily coincided with Gromyko's personnel shakeup. The faction wars put the Agroprom base into a state of near siege, with mutants flooding out of the uncharted underground, bandits and Freedom saboteurs infiltrating from the Garbage, and gaggles of zombies shambling down from Yantar. While Zvyagintsev and Gromov worked around the clock to help Duty's fighting men stay in the fight, Mitay leveraged a procurement coup by calling in a favor from one of the independent smugglers.
When the Romanian Kalashnikovs were delivered and uncrated, they turned out to be some kind of special issue. All of them came marked with a Latin 'G' on the side of the rear sight block – and without the critical bits needed for fully automatic firing. Some were restored using spare or salvaged parts and the rest relegated to emergency reserves. Unfazed by the snafu, Mitay saw to it that as many as possible were pushed into the hands of outgoing fireteams.
The repaired guns worked well enough, but Gromyko just couldn't get used to that stupid foregrip. It screwed up his muscle memory, and being an integral part of the lower handguard meant the only way to take it off was with a saw. Gromov, the chief armorer, dubbed it the 'horse dick'.
The trucks turned right and right again, onto a side road and then the grounds of an apartment complex. The old signage identified it as a care home for veterans and invalids. Its walls were the same weary gray as the sky above. “This is the last staging point behind the front line,” Gromyko explained to the prisoners. “Don't get out until they tell you.”
The blocking detachment was already disembarking. Soldiers swarmed out from the building's ground floor, some carrying large wooden crates between them. Together they and the Duty men herded the penal platoon onto the unkempt lawn and started a headcount. After a minute, a Dutyer in a black rubber gas mask corralled the conscripts' new leader. “Fedka Ambassador?”
Gromyko's oppressors had him on file under an alias he'd only used in the last few months before he quit stalking completely. His old paper trails were denied to them when the Zone engulfed Kiev and Zhytomyr. “That's me,” he said. “You're the handler?”
“I am Commissar Kuntsev. I will be ensuring your compliance with commands in the field.”
So they sent an extra stiff jackboot to breathe down his neck this time. “I suggest we get my people geared up first,” Gromyko offered, trying to make out the eyes behind the little round lenses. “Then I'll put the platoon in order and tell them what's what.”
“As you like.” The mask's filter didn't do much for Kuntsev's voice. “Do not forget that my people will be watching you closely. Do we understand each other?”
Gromyko wondered if Kuntsev realized the PBF's goofy balloon cheeks spoiled its intimidation potential... Or that wearing his mask behind the lines, wasting its filters where there was no gas or radiation to be protected from, was a rookie badge.
Looks like I have to babysit you too, tough guy. “...Perfectly.”
With that, Kuntsev walked away to rejoin the headcounters and left Gromyko standing alone beside the driveway. A buzz cut bulldog glowered back at him from the depths of the puddle at his feet, framed by stormclouds.
There was a storm over the Zone, all right – a storm three years in the brewing. Three years since the stalkers came out of their blowout shelters and became founding citizens of a country without a capital. Three years since Duty, shunned by the pro-west interim government in Lviv, began making overtures to Minsk. Three years since Gromyko realized he had to get out while he could.
“Ambassador!” Now Kuntsev was coming back with an armload of equipment. “Take these,” he ordered, thrusting the lot at Gromyko. “Hurry up!”
The bundle consisted of a Sudayev submachine gun, a magazine pouch, and a belt carrying a holster, a canteen and some other essentials. Gromyko quickly put the slings of the former over his shoulder, freeing his hands to buckle the belt around his waist.
The holster held a Nagant revolver, a disposable weapon for a disposable leader of disposable men. It had the telltale flat bluing of an arsenal refurbishment, but the Tula arrow-in-star and 1938 date stamp were still sharp. Gromyko made sure the cylinder was empty, then aimed at the ground and tried the trigger. The double-action pull was typical of its kind, long and heavy with some grit. He would have to use single-action if he wanted to hit anything.
“Good enough.” Gromyko had identified another problem, however. “Commissar, is that Glock all you have?”
“I don't need – ”
The PPS was shoved into Kuntsev's hands before he could finish. “Take this. If you can't fight, you're dead weight.” Not waiting for a reply, Gromyko cut past him and headed for the soldiers with the crates. “I'll get a rifle.”
He never thought he'd miss the old days so much. His big mouth and bad temper had kept him a sergeant his entire career, passed over each time there was an opening for advancement, but he could always count on his friends. They'd been together since the beginning – Matvey the eyes, Fyodor the brains, Artur the brawn. Not any more.
“Open them up,” he called out. The men guarding the weapons were Belarusian conscripts, kids who probably didn't want to be here any more than Gromyko himself. They boggled at him, a mere penal soldier giving commands in his unfamiliar Ukrainian accent.
“Hey, hey, hey! Where are you going, shit-eater?”
Either the action or the accent was drawing attention: a soldier with sergeant's stripes and a fish-fur hat broke away from the headcounters, moving to block his path. Gromyko stopped and sized up this new opponent. The noncom was a bit shorter than himself, with bad teeth, worse breath, and ears that stuck out like little radar dishes on either side of his head. Definitely hankering for a fight.
Gromyko didn't feel like obliging him. “You don't want to do this,” he said flatly. “Either you'll go down and I'll still have a job to do, or I'll go down and my bosses will put you in charge of the shtrafniks. If Freedom has any snipers out there, you'll be second to die. They'll shoot the Duty guy first, just on principle, and then it's you or me.”
Kuntsev caught up then, ending the confrontation. “Stand down,” he ordered the troublemaker. “This doesn't concern you.”
Gromyko didn't thank him.
The Zone's sky clouded over fast, forecasting either flash rain or blowouts. The sudden boom a few minutes later told Gromyko which one it would be. Then Shulga was on the radio, informing everyone in the sector that an emission was imminent and all personnel should seek cover at once.
“Hustle up,” Gromyko instructed the squad. “We'll wait it out in Novosyolki.”
In the Zone a location's strategic value depended on conventional factors, with one caveat. Beside considerations like defensible terrain and ease of resupply, commanders had to account for blowout protection. The faction wars drove that home for all parties. When the combatants weren't battling tooth and nail for control of the shelters themselves, they were making timed dashes after every eruption – each group racing to reoccupy the best fighting positions before their enemies could do the same.
That was the reason Gromyko and his men were here and not up at the Red Forest. The strongpoints they were fighting over used to be villages, farms, places where normal people led normal lives. Twenty-five years after the fallout drove the inhabitants from their homes, the brick and timber shells they left behind were often a stalker's only refuge from the weird storms. Holding Cherevach and keeping Freedom out of Yampol, Novosyolki and Rudnya Veresnya was vital to the success of Duty's operations in the north.
Crackling thunder sounded above the forest canopy. Gromyko saw light through the trees ahead. “Skirmish line!”
The squad spread out to either side. Mironyuk pressed himself against a gnarled trunk, making his suit hard to pick out from the shaded bark, and Gromyko did the same. Ahead the woods gave way to a field dotted with single trees and bushes. Among them stood a handful of buildings, maybe stables or pigsties, with gently sloping corrugated roofs and brick walls that showed rash-like blotches where the whitewashing had weathered off.
The nearest and largest of these structures was the squad's objective. Getting to it involved crossing an open space with limited concealment, and those rows of square windows made for good firing positions. Gromyko plotted an approach to the entrance on the northeast side and snapped his fingers, calling all eyes to himself. His next order was given in coded gestures: Matvey and Artur go with me, the rookies cover us from here.
They hooked to the right, running low and using the scant trees in the field to mask their movement. The door was open to them, one rotted half ajar and the other lying in the grass. No signs of life, but Gromyko wasn't going to take chances. He jinked to the left and rolled up beside the entryway, pausing to sling his rifle and switch to his sidearm. For clearing a dim space at close quarters, the CZ's night sights and underbarrel tactical light trumped the raw firepower of the AKM.
Also the CZ didn't have a horse dick.
More rumbling in the heavens. Not much time left now. The sergeant switched on his light and ran a visual countdown with the fingers of his weak hand: 3-2-1, go!
Turning left inside the doorway, Gromyko saw the first corpse immediately – a man in the gopnik's national costume of tracksuit and leather, lying on his back with his head pointed toward the door. The Dutyer raised his gun, throwing its cone of illumination deeper into the gloom. He tallied three bandits huddled at the south end of the building, their bullet-riddled backs facing him, and one more slumped against the wall to the right. The fifth man's mouth, chin and jacket were drenched in blood. The hand in his lap clutched a 6P9 pistol, slide locked open.
“Right side clear!” Dudorov reported smartly.
“...Left side clear,” Gromyko replied. “Matvey, check those bodies. Artur, watch the windows. I'll get the others.” Striding back to the door, he flagged the rookies and watched as they came running along the same path he'd taken. Green they might be, but they knew how to follow an example given. “Everybody inside,” their leader ordered. “You know the drill.”
Gromyko turned to find Mironyuk standing close by. “What have we got?” he asked his pointman.
“A sack of artifacts. I figure they mugged a neutral courier, coming down from Red Forest or the warehouses.” Mironyuk sidled over to the bandit nearest the door. “Put this guy on guard while they divided the spoils. He tried to cash out his buddies, one of them payed him back in kind. The bodies are still warm.”
“And we didn't hear a thing because they both had silencers,” Gromyko concluded somberly. “Dogs eating dogs.”
“Looks that way.” Mironyuk held up the betrayer's Sten submachine gun, its barrel enclosed in a long tube with a laced canvas shroud. “I'll take this, if that's okay.”
“Yeah, go ahead.” Gromyko nodded towards the bloody avenger. “Get his, too. We can use that.”
The rookies had split up in the meantime, a pair migrating to either end of the barren interior. The odd man out stood guard at the door... All just like Gromyko had taught them. Surely he could allow himself a little pride for that, he thought as he drifted across to Dudorov, who'd begun searching the massacred thieves. “Find anything good?”
“Yeah.” Dudorov handed him a radio and an AK-47. “Have fun.”
Gromyko clipped the handset onto his suit, leaving it switched on so he could listen for enemy chatter. Then he pressed the rifle's butt against his shoulder and sighted through the closest window. This old-timer was noticeably heavier than Mitay's Romanian surplus, with a drooping stock – but no horse dick. “Thanks,” he grunted. “Ammo?”
“In the bread bag here. Lemme see... We got slabside, ribbed, orange plastic...”
“Take a couple and pass it around.”
The world outside was turning a fierce red color. Gromyko could feel a headache coming on: a symptom of imperfect cover. He might experience some blurred or double vision, but no need for worry unless his nose started bleeding as well. Tuning out the Zone's rage, he sat cross-legged and field stripped his new best friend. The blowout spent its strength in half a minute, leaving only a harmless overcast behind.
“Hey, Dima! Everything okay over there?”
Gromyko turned up the volume.
“Quit screwing around, you hear me?”
Fellow robbers, or maybe loot-carriers coming from the Garbage to make a pickup for Yoga. The squad had engaged two such bands of brigands in the last four days, with inconclusive results.
“The delivery boys ain't talking. Zhorka, go see what's up.”
“Yeah, yeah,” another bandit answered. “We're getting to it!”
Dudorov and Mironyuk had been listening. “What's the plan?” asked Dudorov. “Pull back, or wait for them here?”
“Here,” said Gromyko firmly. “You two up front, the rest as fire support. Let them get close and take out as many as you can with the silenced weapons. We don't go loud until we have to. Any questions?”
Mironyuk shook his head. “No questions.”
“Let's set the table.” Gromyko stood up, snapping the last pieces of the AK into place. “Then we can go back to camp and toast Shulga's next commendation.”
The Zone used to be so big, before its artificial wilderness was divided into a gory patchwork of fiefdoms and clan stakes carved out with bullets and bayonets, every boundary contested in a war effort paid for by wholesale plunder of unnatural resources.
To Gromyko's oppressors, the Mosin rifle was the penal soldier's ideal weapon: cheap enough to throw away, usable with even rudimentary training. The M91/30 he'd pulled from the crate was counter-bored at the muzzle, had a force-matched magazine floorplate and reeked of preservative grease. The Belarusian arsenal staff had cleaned out the working parts, but left the slick layer of red shellac applied to protect the stock over decades of storage. The rifle came with a sling, a bayonet, a cleaning kit and thirty rounds of ammunition on chargers, carried in a belt pouch – barely a third of a Duty fighter's minimum combat load for that caliber.
That was the point. This was a platoon of fodder, not fighters. They'd been given their gear and Gromyko had briefed them, briefly, on what to do and how to do it. Then they were left standing on the veterans' home lawn, waiting for a tardy unit to get into formation elsewhere on the line. Kuntsev had gone off to do something important.
The mousy girl with the dissident tattoo gravitated towards Gromyko in the meantime. “I heard Irving Berlin was born around here,” she remarked.
“So was Andrey Melnikov.”
“Got a posthumous Hero for defending a hill in Afghanistan. Bondarchuk made a movie about it.”
He could see that meant little to her. “So what else do you know about Mogilyov?”
“Just that it's an industrial center. That's why we're here, isn't it?”
“Politics,” Gromyko corrected quietly. “Politics is why we're here.”
At first the outside powers were too timid to push back against the Zone's sudden encroachment, willing only to cordon and patrol its fringes like they'd done before. Minsk and Bryansk became fortified front-cities as Russian and Belarusian armies locked down the northern perimeter. In the south, the Lviv government summoned its new NATO allies to guarantee the security of the placeholder state. Troops dug in behind barbed wire and waited, watching the quarantined land with fearful eyes while their presidents and prime ministers bickered in UN meetings.
NATO broke the stalemate after the last spring thaw, establishing a cautious presence in Rivne and Uman. Its hand forced, Moscow spent the summer marshaling its reserves and pumping resources into its teetering proxy Minsk. Their offensive was two-pronged, targeting Mogilyov in the north and Pinsk on the western edge – one for its factories and its port on the Dnieper, the other for its proximity to the Ukrainian border and the foreign line of control. No penal units were deployed in the Pinsk sector.
“How did you get mixed up in this?”
“I was a guide for a film crew,” Gromyko recounted. “Location shooting around the Kursk nuclear plant for Quatermass against the Monolith. The police arrested everyone two days before we were supposed to wrap, saying our permits were fake... The Brits were declared spies and deported. I was sent to the front. You?”
“Bryansk, street protest.”
“Busted under the same law you were protesting, right?”
The girl nodded. “They're doing it in Smolensk, too.”
“I'm not surprised,” Gromyko muttered. “Better stop now, Kuntsev's coming back.”
The commissar was as impatient as before. “The stragglers are in place,” he announced. “Get yours ready.”
A tank came lumbering down the highway just then, as if for emphasis. Gromyko clapped his hands. “Comrade shtrafniks, form up! It's time to move on and be heroes!”
He felt their reluctance, but it couldn't be helped: the Dutyers and regular troops were already closing in. The only way out now was forwards. They would advance southeast, through Microdistrict Sputnik's gauntlet of apartment blocks and construction sites, and then into the sprawling railway yard behind it. Either the penal units – eight in all, positioned at weak points up and down the front – would succeed in scouting the way for the oppressors' army, or the Zone would send them to a shallow grave.
The young dissident didn't move away. “I'm sticking with you,” she said before Gromyko could ask. “You look like you know what you're doing.”
It made no difference to him, but he was surprised when Kuntsev didn't object: “Very well,” the masked man answered, falling in on Gromyko's left. “Then I will show you how a man of Duty fights.”
“And I'll show you where the Silver Shields grow,” Gromyko retorted under his breath. “Comrade shtrafniks, after me... March!”
At the end he chose to hand in his resignation to Voronin directly, delivering it in person to the general's bedside. A futile gesture, perhaps, but he wanted to have closure, wanted to be sure his old commander knew why he was leaving. He'd watched Matvey and Artur die in front of him, and he'd watched an ambitious sycophant steal their honor. Duty had lost its direction and sold out to a dictator. Its ranks were full of power players, emboldened by the impotence of the ailing leadership. Skull the traitor and Morgan the embezzler had shown the way, even if neither lived to see the outcome of their malefactions.
Voronin asked Gromyko to reconsider, tried to assure the sergeant that his loyal service had not been overlooked, but Voronin was ill and dying, and Gromyko knew that once he was gone only Colonel Shulga would be left to check the hardliners. For all his flaws, Shulga had principles and he stuck to them – and that was why he had to go. The colonel was taken violently ill four days after the general's burial and succumbed within twenty hours. It was the perfect excuse for the hardliners to instigate a purge. Gromyko's departure was forgotten in the wake of the exodus which followed.
“Is that a flamethrower?”
Gromyko followed the mousy girl's gaze to the right, where one of their Duty escorts was walking. “Yeah.”
Flamethrowers weren't used in the old Zone. Aside from the obvious ethical problems and the risk of starting uncontrolled fires, there was a very real hazard of releasing radioactive contamination into the air. No such concerns here, clearly. The Dutyers seemed to favor the LPO-50 – a cumbersome thing, only able to deliver three shots from full tanks. Their role was primarily psychological, but that didn't mean they couldn't fuck up the platoon very fast if so wanted.
“They wouldn't use that on us, would they?”
“They will if you run,” Gromyko replied bluntly, “so don't run.”
The grass was tall on the other side of the road, where it hadn't been trampled under soldiers' boots. Even wet, it reached almost to Gromyko's waist. Here and there circular depressions marked the positions of gravity traps, with the added luxury of little orange flags on galvanized stakes. Apartment blocks loomed over the platoon on both sides, ten or eleven floors high. These buildings were new when the Zone washed over them, and three years of neglect hadn't taken the sheen off.
Neglect, not abandonment – a subtle but important distinction. After the surviving residents fled, the city was quickly colonized by Belarusian stalkers. Connections were made with the Ukrainians of the old Zone as they spread into the new. Freedom moved north, resettling its headquarters into Gomel Palace and sending emissaries all over the newly liberated territory. Duty's reactionary alliance with the forces of repression, and the damage it did to their standing with neutral groups, couldn't have come at a better time.
When Minsk and Duty came to take back Mogilyov, Freedom vowed to resist. They boasted of building their strategy on the lessons of Chuykov: pull back from the outskirts, draw their mechanization-dependent enemies into the heart of the city and destroy them in street fighting, or let them be bogged down by the onset of winter. So far there had been no overt contact between attacker and defender.
The front line's only demarcation was a sandbag emplacement at the foot of the apartments to the right, sheltering a Kord heavy machine gun manned by a few grunts. “Spread out,” Gromyko called. “Go slow and watch for shimmering. Shout if you're not sure.”
This was it. This was where their real work started, as human shields and minesweepers and live baits rolled into one. The Dutyers held back as the platoon widened into a broad ribbon, closing together behind the penal troops. They wouldn't expose themselves unless forced, not when they were so valuable to the invasion and so difficult to replace. They called it prudence. Gromyko called it cowardice.
“Commissar, did you volunteer to walk up front with us?”
“Of course,” affirmed Kuntsev. “What about it?”
“Anyone else offer to go?” This was playing with fire and Gromyko knew it, but if they wanted a yes-man they shouldn't have sent a paratrooper. He could take the heat if it got him some intel on his oppressors. “Your friends back there look a little – ”
He was interrupted by a blast of static from the radio on Kuntsev's hip. “Fourth platoon, stop your advance. Your Commissar Kuntsev is an impostor. Duty officers, place him under arrest and return to the staging area at once. Command out.”
“Shit.” Kuntsev's voice and posture changed in an instant. “They found the body... Sergeant Gromyko, if you want to save these people then listen very carefully.”
Gromyko was already signaling a halt, and he could see the Dutyers coming as his own men and women sank into the meager cover of the grass. “Talk fast,” he growled.
“Kill the guards and take the platoon to the railway station. There are friendlies at the customs training center – look for the airplane parked on the lawn.” The fake Kuntsev raised his hands. “I think you should stand back now.”
Three Dutyers closed in on the impersonator. Gromyko noted one of the flamethrower-bearers coming up on his rear as well. That left the other flamer, across from him on the left flank, plus several more Dutyers in the rearguard and then the soldiers and the machine gun, reinforced by tanks and helicopters. Was 'Kuntsev' just optimistic, or did he still have a wildcard to play? And how did he know who Gromyko was?
The Dutyers were visibly on edge. “Drop the weapon! Drop it!”
Not-Kuntsev complied, easing the submachine gun sling off his shoulder. He released the PPS at arm's length. Gromyko planted his hands on his hips in feigned annoyance and surreptitiously unfastened his holster flap.
“Now take off the mask! Slowly!”
Not-Kuntsev did so. He was young, mid-twenties at most, with chestnut hair and a face that was wholly incongruous to the tough persona he projected before. No wonder he'd kept it covered.
“Turn around,” the middle Dutyer ordered. “Hands behind – ”
No muzzle blasts, no supersonic cracks, only the muffled noises of impact. One of the men flanking the Duty chief fell to his knees, blood spilling from the side of his neck. The other stumbled backwards with a gurgling cough. The interrogator lunged at not-Kuntsev. The mousy girl leveled her Mosin at the flamethrower carrier behind Gromyko. Gromyko reached for his revolver.
And the fight was on! Gromyko aimed at the second fire-bringer, thumbing back the Nagant's hammer for an accurate shot. The gun bucked in his hands. His target doubled up and fell to the ground, screaming as Gromyko dove into the long grass and out of his enemies' sight.
Crawling forwards, he came upon the lung-shot Dutyer and dispatched him without ceremony. Now to find 'Kuntsev' and find out how he intended to get out of this mess. Nearby sounds of struggle gave Gromyko a fix on the substitute commissar. Shuffling bodily through the vegetation, he emerged into a crushed patch where not-Kuntsev and his nemesis were grappling, seemingly matched in strength. Never one for spectator sports, Gromyko seized the oppressor by the back of his balaclava and blew his brains out.
“Thanks,” coughed not-Kuntsev, pushing the corpse off himself.
Gromyko jammed the half-empty Nagant back into its holster. From the comm chatter on the dead Dutyer's radio, he discerned that the blocking troops hadn't clearly seen what just happened to their comrades. They were unsure whether it was facilitated by an outside party, or mere perfidy on the part of 'Kuntsev' and himself alone. “Now what?”
“We have to get the platoon away from here. Quickly, before the enemy comes in strength.”
Having relieved the interrogator of his life, Gromyko appropriated his pistol as well. “And how?” he wondered, stuffing the magazines into a tunic pocket. “Run away and hope they don't mow us down?”
“They won't,” said the fake Kuntsev, feeling around for his dropped submachine gun. “My people will make sure of that.” He rolled onto his side, unzipped his hip pack and shook out two waxed cardboard cylinders with pull-tabs at each end: smoke grenades. “We pop these, then move. You remember how they work?”
“They burn for a minute, minute and a half.” Gromyko press-checked the SIG-Sauer. “Not much time. What about the machine gun?”
“I took care of it last night. First round in the belt is stuffed with HE... You lead off and I'll bring up the tail. Don't stop until you get to the training center. Ready?”
The grenades arced away one by one, fizzling as they came down. Gromyko waited just long enough for the smoke to coalesce into a thick white pall over the grass. “PLATOON, FOLLOW ME!”
“Shoot them!” yelled a Belarusian somewhere behind him. There was a loud bang as not-Kuntsev's poison pill detonated in the Kord's guts, met with furious cursing from its crew. The prisoners balked, caught between the menace of their oppressors and the authority of their leader.
Gromyko fired a shot into the air. “NO FEAR, NO RETREAT! FORWARD TO FREEDOM!”
“Go, comrade shtrafniks!” shouted the impostor, borrowing Gromyko's mode of address without his sardonic delivery. “Go with Gromyko!”
The others misheard or misunderstood, yet from their confusion the whole platoon gained its own rallying cry: “For Gromyko! For Freedom! Urrraaaaa!”
Hardly the stuff of legends, but it worked. Gromyko plowed on, his rifle bouncing against his back. A road crossed in front of him a couple hundred meters ahead, backed by a strip of trees. If his wards could make it there before the smoke dispersed too much, they might get away. Automatic weapons chattered, steel dogs snapping at their heels. A bullet whizzed by, wasplike, there and gone in a blink.
“They're sending tanks after us!” not-Kuntsev called out between bursts of suppressive fire. “Hurry!”
Gromyko couldn't go faster without abandoning the most vulnerable members of the platoon, and the effort of pushing through the grass was steadily wearing them down. No chance of outrunning a T-72, even one feeling its way through anomalies in a sniper alley.
Then the tide changed.
He heard a foomp on the left, where another clump of trees separated the open grass from the tarmac strip of the Minsk highway, and a sharp crack to rearwards immediately after it. Gromyko looked behind himself and saw, over the bobbing heads of his platoon, a pair of the oppressors' machines. One was stationary, gray smoke gushing from the bore of its cannon. In another moment the turret was lifted off the hull and thrown into the sky on a column of orange fire. The concussion rattled Gromyko's teeth.
The other tank lurched as its driver stomped the brakes. He had no time to change gears before a second RPG impacted the glacis plate. It didn't go off like any explosive Gromyko had ever seen, instead emitting a blue-white pulse so intense that a shimmering blotch was seared into his retinas. He turned his back on the carnage, trying to blink away the afterimage from his smarting eyes. Ammunition cook-off soon consumed the moribund vehicle.
Still the fugitives ran, clinging to their weapons: over the road, under the trees and over another road. The shooting continued sporadically as they streamed past a pair of Quonset huts. “On your left,” the fake Kuntsev advised. “Between those white buildings.”
Gromyko turned, the platoon wheeling after him. Pushing through one more copse in the gap dividing the structures, he beheld his goal. The aircraft not-Kuntsev had spoken of was a small three-engine passenger jet, colored white with blue and red trim. Its chocked wheels were thickly overgrown, but the body looked well preserved. Next to it sat a railway carriage on a short length of track, clad in peeling green paint.
“Platoon, hold up! Are there any wounded? Is anybody hurt?” No affirmative replies. “Commissar to the front!”
The prisoners made way for 'Kuntsev' as he rejoined Gromyko. “Okay,” said the latter, “we made it. What next?”
“You'll see... Sveta! My armbands, please!”
One of the bushes under the jet's tail stood up and tossed out a small dark package. “Is that everyone?” she asked.
Not-Kuntsev nodded. “Tell HQ we need all the trucks.”
The woman in the ghillie suit dropped back into the grass. Gromyko scanned the open ground of the railyard surrounding the customs center, a broad sprawl of tracks and hangars and shipping containers. Then he glanced at not-Kuntsev and did a double take. That wasn't the green wolf's head of Freedom covering up Duty's red shield and bullseye on the other man's sleeve: the insignia on the armband was a pair of clasping hands, stitched in white.
“You're from Warden?”
“That's right.” Not-Kuntsev snugged up the matching band on his other arm. “Yefim Borisov of Special Detachment 'Jaeger' at your service.”
Gromyko could scarcely believe it. Stalker Cooperative Group 'Warden' was a young faction, first organized to coordinate rescue efforts in the frantic weeks after the Zone expanded. When the hardliners purged Duty, its exiled moderates brought their skill and discipline into the new group's ranks. If Gromyko had stayed a little longer, or kept a little more faith in his comrades, he might have gone with them.
Whatever its inheritances, Warden's mission was all its own: to protect and preserve human civilization inside the Zone. To that end it pursued a strict policy of defensive neutrality, remaining aloof from faction politics. Its men in arms defended the stalker citadels of the Inner Ring against beasts and banditry and secured the Dnieper Road, the vital trade route connecting the Ring to the Free City of Cherkassy. Their presence here, fighting an outside aggressor in Freedom's region of influence, signaled a radical shift.
“You seem to know all about me already,” he grumbled.
“I don't,” the mousy girl volunteered. “Who are you, Sergeant Gromyko?”
“Nobody import – ”
“He used to be in Duty,” Borisov interrupted. “One of the founding members. He left when it went bad.”
“Is that true?”
“Yeah.” Gromyko shot a dirty look at Borisov. “How do you even know this?”
“Commander Zulu told me,” the jaeger explained modestly. “We found your stalker name on a transport manifest.”
“Uh-huh... So you infiltrated the army camp, killed the real Kuntsev and took his place in order to sabotage their guns and lead us into an ambush. All to steal one penal unit?”
“It was worth it,” said Borisov with conviction. “We needed to show the government that we're serious, make them understand the consequences of ignoring our warnings... I really must thank you,” he added. “I couldn't have salvaged the plan without your help.”
“Some plan.” Gromyko cocked his head. “Thanks for getting us out of there, I guess. And thanks for watching my back, Miss – ?”
“Irina.” The dissident smiled. “You're welcome.”
Svetlana the sniper joined their circle. “Enemy units are pulling back all along the line,” she reported to Borisov. “Transport will be here in two minutes.”
From her paint-streaked face, Gromyko judged Svetlana to be around Borisov's age. “You're a jaeger too?”
“Amazon,” she corrected. “Joint operation.”
The exploits of Warden's rangers were much romanticized outside the Zone. The gossip about Special Detachment 'Amazon' conversely tended towards... baser topics. Rumor also tied the all female hunter-killer group and its elusive leader, alias Butterfly, to several high-profile incidents around the Inner Ring.
“Cheer up a little,” suggested Borisov. “This is a big day for us.”
“Good for you,” said Gromyko, feeling no cheer at all. “But for me it's Tuesday.”
The Zone used to be so small, before it grew into a blight spanning six hundred kilometers from end to end. Now stranger things trod the floors of Yanov Station and lurked in Rostok's dark vaults, beyond the reach of stalkers. The secret of it all was still in there somewhere, on the dirty floor of a derelict laboratory in a nuclear graveyard among the Polesian marshes.
| 05:42:36 8 May 2013
On forum: 07/30/2007
Four years and still going. To celebrate, here's a preview of things to come.|
When Gennadiy Rudenko was a child, the worst places he could imagine dying in existed only as figments and fictions compressed onto long ribbons of bootleg videotape. Growing up, he left his childish fear behind and discarded the fantastic menace of Hadley's Hope and Isla Nublar for the mundane danger of Baghdad and Tskhinvali. In time he wearied of fighting other people's wars in other people's countries, however lucrative, so he took a job closer to home.
Limansk put the fear back into him with a vengeance.
Squinting against the bitter wind, he searched the environment for landmarks. No good – there was just too much snow blanketing everything, knee deep in the street and piled high against every wall and doorstep. Visibility was down to twelve meters from all the flakes whirling in the air.
“Badger... Can't s-stay out h-h-here...”
He looked at the man beside him: a hunched, wretched figure staggering forward with his coat's tail snapping about his legs, hands tucked into his armpits because he had no gloves. “We have to keep moving,” Gennadiy shouted back. “If we stop now, you'll die!”
“Wind... Too much...”
Gennadiy knew it. The squad was gone and the survivors had no food, no ammunition, no winter clothes and nowhere to retreat. Rescue was out of the question. Even if the mercenary could keep his companion up and moving until the soporific venom in his system wore off, they had hours at best before exposure killed them both.
But damn it all, he had to try. “I think there's a crossroads ahead,” he called out, trying to sound optimistic. “We can put the wind behind us!”
For a while, at least. The way forward was narrow, a treacherous path between the blizzard's freezing eye over the center of Limansk and the... creatures in the fog-smothered outskirts. The storm seemed to be anticyclonic, and Gennadiy reasoned that a curving route through the west side of town would keep its force at their backs for most of the journey.
They turned left at the corner, struggling up the short incline at the foot of the brown-walled house on the high ground beside the intersection. Turning again at the rear of the house, Gennadiy plotted what he hoped was a northwest course. The structure's mass gave a brief but precious measure of respite from the wind. Trees loomed out of the whiteout ahead, branches stripped bare and trunks painted with driven snow.
“What's this part of town like, do you remember?”
“I... Apartments, I think.”
“Maybe we can find something to burn! I've still got my li – ” Gennadiy's descending foot met an obstacle and slipped sideways. He stumbled, teetered for a moment, and then his balance gave out completely. “...Bwamf!”
“I'm okay!” Gennadiy pushed himself up. “I'm okay, I just – Tiger, stop! I mean, don't stop! Walk around!” Going back over his last few steps, he turned away from the storm and started clawing away the snow in frantic handfuls, gradually exposing the form of a man lying on his back. “Looks like we weren't the first to come this way,” he observed. “Man, this guy was seriously well-equipped.”
“What faction is he?”
“I dunno, he's not wearing any patches.” The merc's eyes raced over the fallen stranger, picking out pertinent details. The dead man wore a white parka, zipped up to cover his face, and polarized goggles. His gear was carried on western-style webbing, with a heavy rucksack. “He didn't come in during the faction wars. I'm not even sure he was a stalker.”
Gennadiy set to pulling off the cadaver's gloves. “The town didn't freeze over until after the last big blowout, but this guy is dressed for severe cold. Either he came during the winter or he knew what to expect here.” The pointman straightened. “Put these on.”
Tiger pulled the gloves onto his shaking hands and quickly crammed them back under his arms. “How did he die?”
The body's posture was unnatural, the arms and legs too straight and even. A hunch led Gennadiy to check the cadaver's calves. “I think he got bitten by one of those dog-spiders, same as you, and his friends dragged him this far before they realized he was gone.”
“No way he got through that shit in the tunnel by himself.” Gennadiy pulled a USP from the stranger's thigh and crammed it into his own vacant holster. “There must have been others.”
“Then the rest were..?”
“Buried up ahead, maybe.” Lifting the mystery man's carbine off his body, the mercenary untangled and detached the three-point sling which held it fast. It looked pristine once he shook off the loose snow: an HK416 fitted with a suppressor and a foregrip. A glowing red dot greeted him when he peered through the Aimpoint sight clamped on top. “This thing still has power,” he reported. “Stand back, I'm gonna test it.”
Gennadiy squeezed off three rounds at one of the trees, seeing bits of frozen bark fly as the rounds punched into the trunk. The fat tube on the end of the barrel stifled the muzzle blast effectively, though not the snapping of the bullets in flight. The kinesthesia of the shooting stirred memories of old work, hot days walking the streets of Sadr City, but this was a far fancier piece of hardware than the worn out M4 he carried in the devil's sandbox. Whoever procured it even paid extra for matching HK-brand magazines.
“All right, it works. Let me grab the ammo and the pack and we can go.”
Whatever food the dead man had would likely be frozen solid, but easier for the living to thaw it out than to conjure more from thin air. Gennadiy stuffed the last magazine into his vest, gripped the corpse by one stiff shoulder and, with much grunting and grappling, rolled it over. “Sorry, friend,” he muttered self-consciously. “We need these more than you now.”
He had the rucksack straps halfway down the stranger's arms when he chanced to look up and saw his only ally had collapsed. A slug of panic bolted up his spine and pulverized his fragile optimism. “Oh shit... Tiger, wake up! No sleeping! Come on, back on your feet!”
“Up, up, up!” Gennadiy hauled him off the ground, breaking away only to tear free the rucksack and put his own arms through the carry straps. “No more stops,” he decided, grabbing Tiger's arm. “We'll keep going until we find somewhere to hole up so you can walk it off! If you die, nobody goes home!”
“I know.” Tiger's voice carried apathy laced with resentment. “You still n-need me.”
“That's right! We're gonna make it through this, you and me! And then I'm gonna fix everything!” He was babbling now, all his pent-up sorrow pouring out. “You were right about Zhenya, okay? You were right! I should have stopped it! But she got away, she still has a chance! You can go back for her! You can do what I couldn't!”
“I'm not gonna let you die out here! Not like Ruslana! Not like her!”
Two figures vanished into the storm, two voices fading in the wind. Snow soon refilled the stranger's shallow grave and erased the tracks of those who disturbed it.
| 09:01:42 10 October 2013
On forum: 07/30/2007
It looks like this thread is about to hit 44,000 views. That's pretty cool, but I wish y'all weren't such a quiet bunch. |
A couple of announcements before we get to the good stuff. First: to combat the increasing delays between updates, I decided to break down the next two planned chapters and publish them as smaller pieces posted more often. This was supposed to be the first installment under the new method, but it ballooned out of control and ran to 23 pages - the longest yet. I may have a problem.
Second: I have a friend out on the west coast who likes to draw. Usually she doodles anime stuff, but a couple of weeks ago she was asking for ideas and I impulsively gave her a vague description and some references pictures. She drew me a sad Yevgeniya, standing under a tree while she waits for the rain to stop: http://doujinpress.deviantart.com/art/Bob-s-OC-401431992
On with the program!
Neither High Nor Low
“I think so.” Tiger continued walking. “Anyway, it's gone now.”
Yevgeniy hurried after him, riding on a fight-or-flight response deprived of its threat stimulus. “What's the lonesome ghost?” he panted.
“A Zone legend,” Tiger replied. “A lone stalker meets an invisible presence which lingers for a few minutes and then leaves. I've never heard of the ghost approaching a group before, though. Did you feel it?”
The young sharpshooter swallowed. “I couldn't touch it. It touched – it touched me but I couldn't touch it back, like it wasn't solid. It went right through my clothes.”
“Any impression of intent?”
Yevgeniy gaped at Tiger for a moment until realization came. “It felt... friendly,” he divulged, praying he wouldn't have to explain just what the intruder had done to him. “Is that part of the legend?”
“Yes, the ghost is always benign.”
Galina spoke up from further back in the line. “So what is this ghost? Is it alive?”
“I'm not sure,” Tiger admitted. “From the stories I thought it might be similar to a poltergeist, but that seemed more like a weak anomaly.”
“An anomaly that seeks people out and interacts with them?”
“Maybe... In any case, I wouldn't worry about it. Nobody's ever met the ghost twice.” The guide motioned for the others to come forward. “We're here.”
The road before them ran down a shallow grade, winding through a grassy clearing dotted with gnarled trees, dry bushes and rusted vehicles. Across it sat the promised factory, a complex of dark outlines silhouetted against the twilight sky. Yevgeniy could hear an indistinct voice blaring from a loudspeaker. “There aren't any lights?”
“Only inside. Most of the fittings were stripped out after the nuclear disaster.”
“What did they make here?”
“Farming machinery. Tractors, plows and such.” Tiger led onward. “You have to watch your step going in,” he advised. “There's a trench lined with spikes.”
“Scents from the bar attract animals. The trench keeps the big ones from rushing the checkpoint.”
Yevgeniy kept his eyes glued to the ground from there on, until he was safely on the other side of the moat's junk metal bridge. The factory entrance was littered with flotsam: crates, shipping containers, even a truck with no engine, its cab wrenched loose and haphazardly dumped over the chassis. Past the detritus, in the pinched space between the first buildings, a few men stood behind sandbag barriers.
“Hold it,” a voice ordered. “Base, this is Checkpoint South. Tiger is here... Yeah, and a caravan with him... Roger. Checkpoint out.” The apparent chief guard jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “They want to see you all at headquarters. Go straight over.”
“We will.” Tiger sounded like he expected this. “Come on.”
He turned left at the end of the lane, steering the group through a hangar where a lone sentry with a headlamp patrolled the catwalks. “This is the central roundabout,” said the stalker, stopping at the exit. “That's the arena in the middle. The bar is through the garage to the left and Duty's ground is on the right. You can get to the Wild Territory and Freedom from the far side. I'll show you around in the morning.”
Tiger headed up the street as the loudspeaker sounded off: “Attention, stalkers! We need volunteers for dangerous but well paid missions. Come to the bar if you're interested.”
There was another sandbag checkpoint on the right side, and again the guards had anticipated their arrival. “The general is waiting,” one of them told Tiger. “Leave the guns with Ivantsov. You can pick them up on the way out.”
Behind the barricade lay a sort of courtyard, squeezed in among the towers of monolithic concrete. Its left side was partitioned by brick walls and a large gate topped with barbed wire. A fuel drum fire pit and a solitary electric bulb lit the scene. As the travelers entered, a man with narrow, sullen features appeared from the shadows. No exchange of words, only silent understanding: Tiger laid his ordnance in a neat pile at the other's feet, setting the example for the rest. Under the lonely lamp, the bunker's mouth stood open.
“When we get down there, let me do the talking.”
Renewed anxiety stirred in Yevgeniy as he followed Tiger down the twisting stairs, cement walls and barred steel doors pressing close on either side. The passage opened into a vault with red tiles scattered over the floor and mighty girders spanning the ceiling. Here the industrial barrens were broken up by rudiments of comfort: bedrolls, sofas, even a stove with a roasting spit. Maps and trophy plaques hung on the walls as if it was a hunting lodge.
Tiger turned left at the entry. Keeping close behind him, Yevgeniy came before a large alcove beside the steps, furnished with a map board, a couch and a desk with a folded laptop computer. In the alcove stood a man, hands clasped behind his back. His features were stern yet careworn, his dark hair thin and cropped short. Pitiless eyes flicked from one guest to the next as they instinctively formed a line.
“You've brought me bad news again,” he growled. “That's twice in two days, Petanko.”
“I'm sure you are... Batov, Dmitriy Gavrilovich!”
Mitya jumped. “I..!”
“Kondratenko, Boris Petrovich!”
Borya meekly snapped to attention. “I,” he whimpered.
“Purkayeva, Galina Mikhailovna!”
Galya stood firm. “I!”
“Smirnova, Yevgeniya Maksimovna!”
The Latvian's throat made a noise like a gearbox grinding. Oh no... no no no no no!
General Voronin turned his gaze upon Tiger instead. “You remember your orders, Petanko?”
“To observe the enemy group and destroy it if possible,” the loner recited. “Which we did.”
“Which you did. And now you return with a pack of fugitives.”
Galina bristled. “I think we could at least be considered refugees.”
“So run away to Switzerland,” Voronin retorted. “This isn't an embassy and we don't grant asylum here.”
“Of course not,” the girl shot back. “I'm sure my father has ordered you to send us home in any case!”
“Galya, don't – ”
“Let her speak, Petanko.” Even as Galina got angrier, Voronin's temper seemed to cool. “No doubt General Purkayev would be delighted were I to repatriate the Batov boy and yourself,” said he, “but if he thinks he can demand favors from me, he is mistaken. In any case, sending you back would create an unacceptable precedent.”
“What else, then?”
“Perhaps a few days in the Zone will convince you of your foolishness. If not, I can only wish you well... As for you, Kondratenko, I don't care what you do with yourself so long as you don't make trouble for me. You should know however that the Security Service put out a contract on you, over at the Hundred Rads. They think you conspired to steal classified information.”
The deserter blanched. “What? No! I didn't steal anything!”
“I know you didn't. That's your problem, not mine.” Voronin leaned forward. “My problem is standing beside you... Were you going to tell me about her, Petanko?”
“I thought about it.” Tiger's apparent indifference did nothing for Yevgeniya's panic. “There are some things we may need to discuss alone, General.”
“Yes, there are.” The supreme Dutyer was in no hurry to get to them, however. “Was it fun, Smirnova? Playing at soldiery with real bullets, real lives?”
The best Yevgeniya could give was a dry whisper. “Not fun.”
“Then why did you stay? You had a chance to get out, but you spurned it. Or weren't the swimsuit spreads exciting enough?”
“Spreads?” Galina interjected. “What are you talking about?”
Voronin raised the laptop's screen. “See for yourself.”
Tiny lights blinked above the keyboard as the computer exited sleep mode, fans revving up with a soft whine. A picture appeared, but its colors were wrong: Tiger had to move left, towards Yevgeniya, to compensate for the display's limited field of view.
Voronin's surprise was a photograph of a group of young women, seven in all, lined up on a grassy overlook with blue ocean and open sky behind. Nearly all of them wore bikinis, variously accessorized with sarongs and sashes. The arrangement would pass for a vacation snapshot if the girls weren't posing with some very sophisticated rifles, each adorned with stickers bearing city names and emblems. The one outlier was Yevgeniya, standing at the center in a pair of low riding woodland camouflage short-shorts. She was topless, her nipples concealed by crosses of black electrical tape, and a stripe of dark paint under each eye rounded out the ensemble.
This, Tiger supposed, was what they called 'military chic' fashion.
“What's that?” Dmitriy asked.
“Swedish sports magazine,” Voronin grunted with disdain. “Last year's August issue.” He went back to glaring at Yevgeniya. “Did you take off the tape for the inside pages?”
Tiger had heard enough. “Zhenya,” he prompted. “Give him the necklace.”
“Necklace...” Spurred to action at last, the androgyne dug into her pockets. “That's right, you said...” The dog tags clinked against one another, swinging to and fro. “Here.”
Voronin took the tags and twine from her with manifest suspicion, withdrawing into the alcove to inspect them minutely. Then his voice got very quiet. “Where did you find this?”
“In the Garbage. There was a bandit... Fritz. I killed him.”
“You knew who he was?”
Yevgeniya nodded. “Tiger told me. He said to take Fritz out first.”
The general looked to Tiger. “You can confirm this?”
“I checked the body,” the stalker answered. “Zhenya has Fritz's hat. I can also give you names of witnesses.”
“Show me the hat.”
Yevgeniya obeyed. Producing the gray cap from another pocket, she pressed it into shape with her fingers and surrendered it for Voronin's approval. Tiger watched as he turned it in his hands, testing the seams and stitches as though he were looking for something.
Suddenly Voronin flipped the cap back to Yevgeniya. “I'll speak with Petanko now,” he declared. “The rest wait outside.”
The apprentices somberly filed out. Yevgeniya went last, still clutching the sinister headgear. She cast a furtive, frightened look towards master and tormenter just before she disappeared up the stairs.
As their footsteps faded, the commander of all Duty sank onto his couch with a protracted sigh. “You've been playing a dangerous game,” he said, contemplatively spreading the relics of dead men across an open palm. “Consorting with mercenaries, with the Security Service... I don't recommend you make a habit of it.”
“I don't plan to.” The Yevgeniya on the laptop screen stared back at Tiger, as if pleading to be released from that frozen sliver of her past. “Did the SBU give you the photo?”
“No, only the girl's basic information... You didn't seem surprised.”
Tiger shrugged. “Naturally the SBU would expect an after action report. I can guess why they shared it with you.” His eyes wandered to the stuffed and mounted venomous cat on the shelf above the couch. “They would have gotten Zhenya's details from that paper we found, except the paper listed her as a man and we didn't find out otherwise until after we left the swamps. How did you know?”
“We do have an uplink here,” said Voronin pointedly. “I did some searching while I waited for you. The name, age, nationality, profession – everything matched except her sex.”
It seemed the general had not discovered Yevgeniya's defect, at least. “Anything else?”
“Sporting news articles and links to a deleted VKontakte page. A few months ago she was a student with a promising athletic career. Then she vanished from the record.”
“Why do you think that was?”
“Caught sleeping with a professor, I'm sure.” Voronin gave a derisive snort. “Does it matter?”
“Maybe not.” Back to business. “General, did you know there would be a government agent going on the raid with us?”
“They sprang it on me at the last minute,” Voronin grumbled. “Told me their man would be one of the volunteers, but not which one. That's all I can say.”
“All right.” Tiger folded his arms. “So, what now?”
The general looked at his guest directly for the first time since he sat down. “You intend to keep your present company.”
“And you want me to pay out Fritz's bounty to that girl, an enemy combatant who killed one of my best men.”
“I would appreciate it,” Tiger agreed. “I know it's a difficult request.”
“I'm glad you understand,” said Voronin with a touch of sarcasm. “Are you certain she's worth it?”
“Certain enough to give her a chance. I'll admit my first impression wasn't positive, but she has potential. She just needs a push in the right direction.”
“And if you're wrong? Will you take responsibility?”
Tiger heard the implied challenge and accepted it. “Of course. Same as I would for the others.”
“Hmf.” Voronin got up, went to the desk and took out a notepad and pencil. “The record will show,” he began, writing simultaneously, “that Commissar Bandicoot died in the line of duty. Would you disagree?”
“Not at all.”
“Good.” Voronin laid down his pencil and tore the page out. “The record will further show that the bandit Fritz, a notorious brigand and murderer, was found and eliminated thanks to free stalker A. K. Petanko. The due reward shall be disbursed accordingly... Collect the bounty and your job payment from Colonel Petrenko.”
Tiger claimed the payment note, which was written in some kind of coded shorthand, and pocketed it. “And Zhenya?”
“By her own admission, she was a willing participant in a hostile mercenary incursion and directly responsible for the death of a Duty officer. According to the code, this mandates a capital penalty.” The general reverted to his former posture, hands behind him. “But I'm curious to see whether you can make good on your word. The sentence is suspended on your recognizance.”
“Thank you, General.”
“Don't think I'm doing you a favor,” Voronin cautioned. “I expect to see a return on this investment.”
“So do I,” said Tiger. “We were able to recover Bandicoot's weapon from the enemy camp. Do you want it?”
“Yes, turn it in to Petrenko.”
“I'd also like to take the group out on the firing range tomorrow. Would that be a problem?”
“No, we have no drills scheduled.” The general fixed a calculating look on him. “I assume you'll introduce your new friends to the anarchists as well?”
“Are you telling me not to?”
“I'm telling you to be careful,” Voronin replied sharply. “Colonel Skull and his men deserted their post a few hours ago. If you happen to see them, stay away. Understand?”
“One last thing.” Voronin's voice abruptly softened a little. “Galina Mikhailovna has inherited her father's temper, as well as his looks. Keep her safe.” He turned his back on the loner. “That's all. Dismissed.”
One fact was clear to Tiger as he left the bunker: it was all too easy. Behind the pretty words, Voronin had given him everything he wanted and not even made him beg for it.
Tiger came out at a quickened pace, or so it seemed to Yevgeniy. The guide stopped only to pick up Bandicoot's rifle before he headed into another part of the Duty base, telling the novices he would be back soon. Yevgeniy spent that interval aimlessly toying with the cap. He didn't dare put it on – not for the evil of its last owner, but because the death's head on the front and the eagle over swastika on the left side dispelled any doubt of its origin.
He was greatly relieved when Tiger reappeared after only a couple of minutes. They collected their things and went out to the right, following the roundabout as it turned left and ran along the north foot of the arena hangar. Across the road, steel gantries and brick pillars of industry loomed behind a broken fence. Here there were no working lights, nor any sign of habitation.
It was Kondratenko who popped the question: “How did he know?”
“The general. He had our names, Zhenya's picture, everything. How did he get it?”
“Olga told her bosses,” Tiger explained, “and they told Voronin. He found the picture on the internet.”
“Bosses?” echoed Yevgeniy blankly. “Who are the bosses?”
“Ah... That's right, you weren't with us yet.” The stalker shook his head. “We're almost at the clinic. I'll tell you later.”
Continuing westward, the paved path led to another hangar, smaller and open-ended. Beside the hangar, a ramp ran down into a rectangular depression. On the arena side it was bordered by a tangled mass of decaying pipes and tanks, on the other by a third hangar with boarded up windows. Tiger cut straight across to the corner of the latter, where a set of steps hidden behind a cement wall led back to high ground.
'Here' was a boxy little two-floor concrete installment crammed in among the bigger buildings, roofed with corrugated metal. The sheltered entrance was lit by a fluorescent tube in an uncovered wall bracket. The door displayed a hand-painted red cross and a pinned list of available hours.
Tiger gathered his flock around the front step. “Let's settle the accounts. Zhenya, here's your bounty.” He handed over a thick wad of banknotes, Russian rubles wrapped with a rubber band. “Minus the share we paid to Sanya in advance... These are for in case anyone needs something when I'm not around.” Smaller amounts were passed out to the other rookies. “Ready to go in?”
Yevgeniy didn't feel ready. “Is there really a doctor here?”
“Yes, Bonesetter is certified. Just don't agree to try any of his pharmacological experiments.” Tiger went to the door and knocked firmly three times.
“It's open!” shouted a voice within.
Yevgeniy took a deep breath and followed his teacher into a room that was bright and spotless. Squinting at the sudden glare of harsh lights on white walls, he made out a gray metal desk and rows of lockers and filing cabinets. The man behind the desk had broad, genial features and hair that was just starting to grow back after being shaved off.
“Bonesetter at your service,” said the man. “One patient or two?”
“Just the one,” replied Tiger. “Go ahead, Zhenya.”
“It's my... my period.” Yevgeniya avoided eye contact. “Can you help with that?”
“Sure I can,” answered Bonesetter confidently. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Bad cramps and lots of blood, not like I usually have. It started this morning.”
“I'll need some medical history to begin with.” Rolling his chair over to the cabinets, Bonesetter took a blank form sheet from one of the drawers and attached it to a clipboard. “Can you fill this out for me?”
It was a simple questionnaire: medications, vaccinations, whether or not she'd ever had certain illnesses. Taking the attached pen, Yevgeniya began at the top of the list.
Tiger headed back to the door. “While she does that, I need to go check in with Barkeep.”
Yevgeniya's hand stopped mid-word. “You're leaving?”
“Just for a few minutes. The others will wait for you outside.”
The door clicked shut behind him, leaving the Latvian alone with Bonesetter and her own smothering unease. She went back to the top of the page, where she'd left one space blank on the first pass. Now she filled it: F?
“I'm going over to the bar to sort out a few things,” Tiger announced to his remaining novices. “Stay here until I come back.”
Galina and Dmitriy took it in stride. Kondratenko didn't. “What about the contract on me?”
“I'll figure something out,” Tiger promised. “Until then, sit tight. I don't think anyone will be desperate enough to attack you inside the secure territory.”
Even so, he made sure the .45 was close at hand as he walked south through empty lanes. “The world fears the Zone's expansion,” the loudspeaker asserted as he went by. “Join Duty, and save the innocent!”
Inside the bar's entrance, Zhorik was at his usual post. “Keep it down,” he warned in a hushed tone. “The movie just started.”
The Hundred Rads hosted a full house this evening. Most eyes were on the TV behind the bar, which was showing a grainy montage of antiwar protestors accompanied by gentle music. Tiger ignored it and went to the end of the counter where Barkeep and Garik were loitering.
Like Voronin, the bar's owner had been expecting him. “I heard the news from Sidorovich,” he said quietly. “What do you need?”
“I need a loc – ”
A voice from the television cut him off: “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold...”
“I need a locker,” Tiger finished. “And access to the one Olga rented from you.” He presented a small piece of wrinkled paper, a parting gift from the woman he loved. “She authorized it.”
Barkeep tucked away the note. “She put your name on it when she got it. Paid for six months up front.”
“Then I'll do the same.” The stalker counted out some bills. “There.”
“You want the things from the other one?”
“No, I'll get them later.”
Barkeep took the money and went into the back rooms. Inside the film, a pair of visibly deranged men were driving through a desert in a bright red convertible. Tiger had seen this one before, but he kept watching half-attentively until the barman returned. “All set,” Barkeep told him. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Not yet. I have to pick up my trainees, then I'll come back.”
Barkeep nodded. “I'll be here.”
Tiger quickly looked around one more time. The number of people in the place could be a problem, he realized belatedly: how long since any of these patrons last saw a woman? Galina and Yevgeniya were going to have to deal with whatever unwanted attention came their way, they knew that, but this might be too much and too soon. Hopefully the movie would distract the men, and the staff would keep things from getting out of hand. If not, the group would eat takeout tonight.
Tires screeched behind him. “Wait! We can't stop here, this is bat country!”
Someone else was waiting when he returned topside, a stranger in the garage beside the bar. “Hello, Tiger. Could I have a word?”
Tiger kept a guarded distance as he checked out the other man. He was good looking in a forgettable way, with brown eyes, black hair and the beginnings of an accidental mustache. A basic detector hung from his belt, an AKS-74U at his side. In appearance he seemed a regular stalker, the kind who might have crossed Tiger's path a hundred times and never once drawn notice.
“This isn't a great time,” Tiger replied tersely. “Is it important?”
“Very important,” said the stranger. “I have a message for you from Captain Cherenkova.”
“And you are..?”
“My tab at the bar says I'm Sasha Machine-gunner.”
An ordinary alias to go with his ordinary guise. That figured. “This way,” Tiger muttered. “Let's get out of the open.”
Tiger retraced his steps halfway back to the clinic, stopping beside the storage tanks. Catwalk grates ran between them, connected by ladders. Once they provided access to valves, long ago seized in place. Now they provided cover for discreet meetings. The loner indicated the lowest platform, at the center of the assembly. “Will this do?”
Tiger climbed up, felt his way across to the other side and sat down with his back against the guard rail. Sasha settled on his left. “All right,” said Tiger. “Show me the message.”
A small light clicked on. “Here... Read carefully, I have to burn it when you're done.”
The words on the sheet were written in dull pencil, with a tidy, efficient hand. Their brevity supported Tiger's impression that the note had been transcribed from a radio signal.
Back at base. Lyosha very happy re: us working together. HQ impressed by your present. Intel says Latvian sniper is female. Don't let her get ideas. Will talk to you as soon as I can.
All my love, Olya.
It wasn't much, but it was enough. Tiger read it all over again, then returned it to Sasha. A cigarette lighter clicked. Yellow flame wicked across the paper.
Sasha switched off his light, shrouding the pair in darkness. “The captain said you're willing to help the SBU's investigations.”
“Depends on what kind of help you want.”
“Escorting small teams in and out of potentially dangerous areas. That's all I can tell you right now.”
Not much different from Tiger's usual work, by the sound of it. “And when do you need me?”
“I don't know yet,” the agent admitted. “How long will you be here?”
“Tomorrow for sure. After that we'll be in and out during the daytime.”
“Fine. I'll leave a note with Barkeep if I can't find you.” Sasha stretched out his legs. “Deal?”
“I need something from you first,” Tiger countered. “Voronin says your people sponsored a hit on one of my rookies.”
“Private Kondratenko, right? The captain's report said he was clean... Still a deserter, of course. Normally we don't waste time on small fry, but my bosses are feeling vindictive. If they don't call off the bounty in the next day or two, they've probably decided to make an example of him.”
Tiger took the hint. “If he's with me and I'm with you, they would reconsider?”
“They might,” answered Sasha. “I would call in a favor from my handlers, but lately I've been bending the rules too much... Did the captain say anything about me?” he added suddenly.
“No, not that I recall. Why?”
“Just curious. I was supposed to go on the mission to the swamps,” the operative confided. “She asked me to trade places after Duty hired you.”
It came as no surprise to Tiger. “Will Olga be in trouble for this?”
Sasha made a shrugging motion. “The brass overlook procedural violations as long as we give them results. They aren't pleased that her cover was compromised, obviously, but her experience and skills are too valuable to let go... Most likely they'll give her a reprimand and make her cool her heels until they figure out where to send her.”
“She said they won't let her come back here.”
“Afraid I can't comment.” Sasha pulled up his sleeve, exposing the cyan glow of a wristwatch. “I'm sorry, but I need to cut this short. What's your decision?”
“I guess I'm in.”
“Good man.” Sasha picked himself up and ground the charred remnant of Olga's note under his heel. “I'll be in touch.”
He slipped away towards the bar, leaving Tiger to ponder what freedom was left for him after taking on all these dependents and responsibilities. With Sasha gone and no one else nearby, he left the platform and went back to the clinic. Galina, Dmitriy and Kondratenko were right where he'd left them, except now Dmitriy was talking.
Talking eagerly, in fact. “...His original tomb might have been KV Twenty-Five, an unfinished stairway and corridor in the West Valley. Obviously he never used it himself, but a set of mummies were dumped there hundreds of years – ”
“Did we get to King Tut yet?” Kondratenko interrupted. “I want to hear about the curse.”
“There isn't a curse,” Dmitriy retorted. “Anyway... In 1907, Edward Ayrton started excavating another unfinished tomb in the floor of the main valley near – ah. You're back.”
Tiger eased into the circle between Kondratenko and Galina. “You were saying?”
“Oh yes.” The boy cleared his throat. “This tomb, KV Fifty-Five, contained a jumble of objects damaged by water exposure, including parts of a shrine and a decorated coffin. The coffin's face was torn off and the owner's name chiseled out...”
“...According to some theories, a woman called Neferneferuaten also ruled as pharaoh for a short time in between them. Her identity isn't clear from the surviving evidence, but she could have been either – ”
The clinic door swung open, cutting Dmitriy off again, and Bonesetter appeared. “Tiger, I've finished. Could I trouble you to look over some paperwork?”
Once inside, Bonesetter handed Tiger another clipboard. “Your friend listed you as her guardian, so I'll need you to sign off on this.”
The form was short and showed impeccable penmanship, though jargon ran thick in the medical summary. Tiger worked through it line by line. “Your diagnosis is that Zhenya's problems were caused by her contraceptive?”
Bonesetter nodded. “While the copper-based implants are highly effective, there can be unpleasant side effects. She chose to have it extracted.”
“Was it difficult?”
“Not especially, no. We're just waiting for the painkiller to kick in. I used a local analgesic for immediate effect, but she'll need more general relief during the next few days... She still has to go through her normal cycle, of course. If there are any complications, bring her back at once.”
“I will... 'Strictly no unprotected sex'? Are you worried about infection?”
“I'm always worried about infection,” said Bonesetter. “That's not my only concern. Owing to the basal structure of the phallic clitoris and the posterior fusion of the labia – what I'm saying is, her birth canal can't open as wide as a typical woman's. If she becomes pregnant and delivers without surgical intervention, both mother and child will die.”
“Does she know this?”
“She does. I need to be sure you do as well.”
“I'll remember it.” Tiger signed and dated the bottom of the form. “How much do I owe you?”
“Your friend paid already,” the physician replied, taking the clipboard from him. “She can leave as soon as she's comfortable.”
“All right. Thank you.”
“Any time.” Bonesetter tucked the form into one of his filing cabinets. “You're due for a checkup yourself, by the way.”
“I'll try to make time for it.” At that moment the patient emerged from the examination room, pale yet steady on her feet. “How are you feeling?”
“I'm okay.” Yevgeniya gave Bonesetter a tired smile. “Thanks, Doctor.”
“You're very welcome.” Bonesetter removed her rifle and pistol from one of the lockers and handed them across the desk. “Don't forget, no alcohol while you're taking the pills.”
“...If this other lady-king had the royal fake beard and stuff, did she only wear shorts too?”
“No, Borya,” Dmitriy sighed, “she wore a dress. And they're kilts, not shorts.”
The reappearance of guide and androgyne ended this doorstep discussion. “Zhenya!” Kondratenko exclaimed happily. “Are you better now?”
In truth Yevgeniya was still sore and the numb spot between her hips didn't help, but the drug was acting fast. “Getting there. Sorry you had to wait so long.”
“It's fine,” said Tiger. “Mitya's been giving us lessons in archaeology.”
Dmitriy shied away from the limelight. “I was just explaining the Amarna succession...”
“It was so weird,” Kondratenko expounded, making up for the other's reticence with gusto. “Heretics, hidden mummies, people tearing down statues and marrying their own sisters.”
“Yes,” concluded Tiger dryly, “wonderful things. Anyway, we're done here. I suggest we move to the bar and drop our luggage. Any questions?”
There were none for him, though Galina posed one to Yevgeniya as the group started to move: “Was the doctor good?”
The details of the procedure didn't bear repeating. “He was very nice,” she said, and left it at that.
“I think he was glad to have a case out of the ordinary,” Tiger remarked, waiting for the rest to make their way down the stairs into the depressed area. “Bonesetter has steady work here, but it's a tedious job.”
How could any job be tedious in the Zone? “What does he usually get?”
“Gunshots, animal bites, radiation sickness, alcohol poisoning, STDs – everything you'd expect in a place like this.”
“STDs? People catch those here?”
“Not here,” Tiger corrected. “Stalkers get money, sneak out to the Big Land for some fun, and the symptoms only appear once they come back... By the way, Zhenya, my name is spelled with an 'e' and an 'a'.”
The sniper's cheeks burned. “Sorry.”
If the loner took any offense at her error, he kept it to himself. Instead Kondratenko filled the silence. “The general called you... Petanko? Is that right?”
Tiger did a quick impression of Voronin's bark: “Petanko, Anton Konstantinovich... Unusual, isn't it? My grandfather was a Petrenko until someone misprinted it during the war. Every time he applied for a correction, they would look at his papers. 'It says here your name is Petanko, that's good enough!'”
Yevgeniya hadn't the bravery to laugh at the anecdote. “What did he do in the war?”
“He served in the VVS, flying shturmoviks for Comrade Stalin. Probably could have fixed his name after he got out, but then he decided there were enough Petrenkos already.”
They came to the south end of the depression. Passing another dismembered truck, Tiger turned left and ascended a second flight of concrete steps. Climbing them as well, Yevgeniya saw that the band had come full circle and were facing the same garage Tiger had pointed out when they arrived. Now he led them into it, only to exit again through an opening on the right side. The path didn't go far before it brought them to the door of a bunker, much like Duty's in construction.
“Here we are,” said Tiger. “Toilets and showers are around the corner if you need them.”
The zigzagging passageway within also resembled that of the Duty headquarters, except with warmer lights and a few Soviet era posters to liven up the walls. Going down, the group came to a booth with a barred door, in which sat a masked man with a shotgun. He said nothing, merely watching as they passed. The murmur of voices ahead grew louder. Yevgeniy turned a corner and was in the bar before he knew it.
This chamber's architecture was different at least, having vaulted ceilings and brick pillars down the center. Looking around, he saw a bulletin board just to his left and the bar proper, towards which Tiger was moving, on the right. One corner was closed off by chain-link fencing and filled with sacks and barrels. There were no chairs, yet the simple tables jutting from the walls were all occupied. A strange and marvelous array of smells permeated the place, unwashed bodies and bottles of vodka and sizzling meat and mouthwatering sauces blending together.
With a guilty start, the androgyne realized he was bottling up the others and hastened after Tiger. There was one man behind the bar, waiting for these visitors to come closer. He looked to be in his fifties, with a large nose and stubbled jaw, and wore a sheepskin vest over a dark sweater. A pattern of blue-gray tattoos extended down his forearms and up the sides of his neck.
“These your friends, Tiger?” His voice was deep, like Voronin's without the contempt.
“They are. Guys, meet Barkeep. Barkeep, this is Yevgeniy, Boris, Galina and Dmitriy.”
“Welcome to the Hundred Rads.” When he placed his hands on the wooden counter, Yevgeniy saw the name 'Anna' spelled across the knuckles. “What'll it be?”
“We need to unload some weight first, put our spares into the lockers.” Tiger addressed his rookies. “Drop all your extra kit. Tomorrow we'll sort out what you actually need.” As they complied, he switched back to Barkeep. “Do you have any spare Kalash stocks in the parts bin?”
“I got a few, yeah. What kind do you want?”
Tiger showed him the damaged AK-74. “Anything that will fit this. I have the screws.” The guide glanced up at the TV on the shelf over the stove, screen covered in snowy noise. “Did the movie end?”
“Nah, trouble with the VCR. Nitro's looking at it.” The barman went into a door in the back wall. After half a minute he was back. “Will this do?”
He held up a plywood buttstock with a dark red stain, aesthetically mismatched to the very blond material of the rifle's handguards. Tiger fitted the replacement under the receiver tang and checked for wiggle. “Perfect, thanks.”
Balancing the Kalashnikov in one hand, he passed Barkeep some money. Barkeep counted it, handed back one bill and began gathering the equipment cases which the others were stacking along the bar. Tiger went to work with a screwdriver and Yevgeniy, who had finished his own unburdening, let his attention wander. The patrons here were definitely of the same breed as the men he'd seen in the Cordon and Garbage, with the same jackets, knapsacks and purpose-made stalker suits. Many had their eyes fixed shamelessly on Galina, but a few looked as if they might be checking out Yevgeniy himself.
“I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! Somebody was giving booze to these goddamn things. Won't be long now before they tear us to shreds.”
The picture on the television defied comprehension. Yevgeniy quickly looked away. The man screamed something about golf shoes and the sound cut out. When Yevgeniy looked again, the screen had become a blank blue.
Barkeep came out again several seconds later. “Sorry boys, the movie's off for tonight. Nitro says I gotta swap out some tape rollers.” There were groans of disappointment, though nobody left the tables. Their host walked over to the right side of the bar and switched on the radio atop the refrigerator, replacing the interrupted film with a slow flute melody backed by guitar and percussion. “Well, that's that. You kids hungry?”
Yevgeniy was, despite the generous stew he'd made during the Garbage stopover, and it seemed he wasn't alone. “What have you got?” asked Tiger, picking up the group mood.
“The daily special was grilled boar with potato salad, but it sold out quick. I do have plenty of staples.”
“All right, we'll take two baskets. And could you bring me the automatic from Olga's locker, please?”
“Two baskets and an automatic coming up.”
Then Barkeep was gone. Yevgeniy leaned forward, resting his forearms on the counter as he tried to ignore the gut feeling that he was being stared at. Contemplating the TV, a question occurred to him. “How do they get electricity here? I didn't hear any generators.”
“I heard it comes from the nuclear plant,” Kondratenko told him solemnly. “Like, the reactor cores are still hot and connected to the old power lines.”
“It doesn't work that way,” said Tiger. “The station's machinery was shut down long ago.” He leaned against the bar as well. “All of this was repaired by stalkers, spliced with salvaged wire. They use electrical artifacts as batteries.”
That reminded Yevgeniy of something he'd heard while he was with the American mercenaries. “But it's true they kept the station running after the disaster, isn't it?”
“Yes, for another fourteen years. The AES supplied more energy than the government could afford to replace. It paid for my childhood, too.”
His closing remark went unexplained as Barkeep returned, balancing a circular baking pan in each hand. “Two baskets,” said he, sliding them onto the counter. “I'll be right back.”
Yevgeniy sized up the nearer 'basket'. By his estimate the contents would feed three people at a sitting, the bulk of it in cans and foil-sealed tubs: preserved meats, cold cereals, fruits and vegetables. Nestled among them were crackers sealed in plastic, candy bars, and ready-mix drink packets. On top lay a diet chicken sausage, so labeled on the wrapper, and a loaf of white bread. That the fare was plain and prepackaged didn't matter after all the ration shares he'd missed when MacGruder marooned him on the watchtower. Throw in a mug of strawberry kvass and he could even call this a good time.
Tiger had more cash in hand when the barman brought what he requested: an assault rifle and a pile of loose magazines. The exchange was made and Barkeep settled in to watch over his customers. Tiger made a quick inspection of the rifle, a spindly shape rendered in gray alloy and black polymer, and handed it to Yevgeniy. “You take this.”
The Latvian had assumed he would get the spare AK once it was repaired, but he did as he was told and slung his new weapon. The mags fit neatly into the front pockets of his vest. “Can we eat now?” he queried.
“Go ahead.” Tiger broke off the end of the bread and picked out a flat can. “So what's new, beside mercs in the Cordon, bandits in the Agroprom and soldiers in the Dark Valley?”
“Oh, about the same as before.” Barkeep crossed his arms. “Nitro says he picked up the Phantom Bomber signal after the blowout.”
“Hm.” Tiger pried up the can's pull tab and tore away the lid, exposing some sort of meat spread. “We ran into the Lonesome Ghost on the road from the Garbage.”
Barkeep appeared neither skeptical nor credulous. “The ghost, eh? What did it do?”
“Just like in the stories – hung around for a bit and left.”
Yevgeniy picked up the sausage, revealing three beverage cans hidden on the other side of the basket. “What did you say about a bomber?” he asked, anxious to move on to another topic.
“That's another of our local legends,” said Barkeep. “Sort of a 'Flying Dutchman'. The story goes that an old airplane was sent into the Zone and never returned, and if you tune a radio to the right frequency, you can hear the crew calling for help. People even say they've heard the engines as it flies over.”
Tiger bent the can lid into a U-shape and used it to scoop out the spread. “Why don't you tell them the original story?” he suggested, applying the meat paste to his bread. “They might find it interesting.”
“Mm... It's kinda long, though.”
Yevgeniy had meanwhile been trying without success to unwrap the sausage. Tiger took pity and gave him the penknife. “We've got time,” said the guide.
“Well, why not?” And so the tale began. “First I heard about the bomber was pretty soon after I opened the bar. There was a guy who came in here, he told me about it while I cooked his dinner...”
Yevgeniy sawed off the end of the sausage and cut another slice for Kondratenko. Biting into the end piece, he found it was a half-and-half mixture of chicken and soybean substitute camouflaged with spices. Scarfing down the rest, he decided to do as Tiger was.
“He said he'd been a flight controller in the air force. Talked the talk and everything. Asked me if anyone had overheard strange aircraft transmissions inside the Zone...”
Kondratenko helped himself to one of the soda cans, exposing a brand label – NON STOP. Yevgeniy picked up a tub capped with gold foil, only to find the embossed text was in German. It turned out to be liverwurst.
“He got a little maudlin then, said he came to bring his lost boys home. I knew he'd had some vodka earlier, so I didn't pay much attention...”
The bread's core was moist, fluffy. It must have been baked here, or close by.
“He wandered a bit, went on and on about how things were when the Zone formed. As if I didn't know it myself! But then he started telling me about the bomber, said it was a... 'Superfortress', that's what he called it. When they were retired back in the sixties, one was given to some design bureau for research use. Supposedly they put it into storage and forgot about it...”
Not having a lid of his own, Yevgeniy used the Swiss Army knife to spread his liverwurst.
“Seven or eight years ago, somebody rediscovered it packed away in the back of a warehouse. The man told me the generals decided to have the bomber secretly restored, so they could whip it out on Victory Day and upstage the Russians. Damned showoffs...”
Bread and spread was good, but it made Yevgeniy thirsty. A peek at the ingredient list on Kondratenko's soda can put him off that choice and he took a packet of instant lemonade instead.
“I'm sure you remember the panic after the Zone appeared. Government didn't know what to do, people were demanding action. Couldn't go near the Zone on foot and the satellites didn't give a clear view... It fell to the air force to get a closer look, or so the fellow said. Now they have special shielding for the helicopters and they fly in and out as they please. Wasn't so easy back then, with the interference scrambling their electronics...”
For the main course, Kondratenko fetched a can of beef ravioli. Yevgeniy filled his aluminum canteen cup with water and added the powder. Wiping off the knife blade with the clean side of his bread, he used it to stir the mix.
“The bomber and its crew were moved to the Zone crisis group after someone got the idea that obsolete instruments would be less susceptible, all those vacuum tubes and such. Their plan was to load the plane with scientific gizmos and take off when the next blowout died down. The guy who told me the story claimed he was on the ground control team for the mission...”
Kondratenko had been clever enough to store his fork where he could reach it. Yevgeniy's was in the top of his pack. If he wanted to eat something more substantial, he would have to dig it out once Barkeep's tale was over. He settled for another cut of sausage in the meantime.
“At first it went as planned. The bomber launched with ten airmen and scientists aboard, reached the Zone and made a pass along the perimeter to test the instruments. Then the commander back at base ordered the pilot to take it inside, flying along a spiral path... They were heading northeast towards Chernobyl town when the plane's radar signature broke up. The pilot reported seeing the Duga complex on his right, when it should have been to the left, and something about a problem with the compass. After that, the messages became too garbled to make out more than fragments...”
Yevgeniy had raised his cup to drink. Now he set it down untouched.
“Ground control couldn't resolve the radar data or get a direction fix. They considered scrambling a jet to try and make visual contact, but the commander wouldn't allow it... So they just kept calling, all through the night and the next day, getting back faint signals even after the plane should have run out of gas. Eventually they realized they were listening to echoes. The bomber was gone.” Barkeep rubbed the back of his neck. “That's the original story.”
Galina, hidden on the other side of Kondratenko's shoulders, didn't quite buy it. “Would the military really be desperate enough to use an aircraft like that? Didn't they have anything at all more suitable?”
“Who knows?” replied Barkeep. “Supposedly the electronics weren't the only criteria. The bomber was also ideal because it had a pressurized cabin and a body large enough to carry the equipment they wanted... My visitor said he was sure the brass knew it was a suicide run and didn't want to deal with the red tape from losing an active duty machine.”
“Bastards,” Kondratenko mumbled.
“What happened to the man who told you about it?” asked Yevgeniy.
“I never saw him again. He didn't strike me as the kind who would last long here. I figure either he died somewhere or gave up and went home... He must have told someone else, though, because I heard the bomber tale from others later on.” The barman cocked his head. “Well, maybe it wasn't even his story to begin with.”
One of the stalkers at the back tables spoke up. “I've heard another version of it, where the bomber was sent to drop a nuke at the center of the Zone.”
“I heard that too,” another chimed in. “Some of the Dutyers tell yarns like that, about their heroic founders being sent to deliver a warhead into the sarcophagus... What bullshit! And where would the government even get a nuke?” He picked up his bottle. “Ah, to hell with them. Let's have a toast!”
The man beside him did so as well. “To all the guys who didn't make it?”
There were sounds of approval all around. Yevgeniy watched Tiger for cues on how to react and went through the motions as he did. The bar slipped back into its ambiance of soft music and a low buzz of chatter.
Then Kondratenko raised his can. “To German and Gosha,” he proposed quietly.
“To Vitka and Bandicoot,” Galina added.
“To Anatoliy,” concluded Tiger. “And Mykola.”
The group finished their meal without disturbance, packed up the leftovers and took their leave. After a quarter hour for brushing teeth and a bathroom stop, Tiger shepherded them back to the open-ended hangar next to the clinic. The fire pit inside had burned down to embers, and a piece of heavy-gauge sheet metal was laid across the top to trap sparks. Taking out the penlight he'd gotten from Sidorovich, he marked the way for the others.
“You can place your bedrolls by the fire,” he said, “or in there, if you want privacy.” The loner pointed the beam at the empty cargo containers along the back wall. “Watch out for damp spots.”
His students chose the containers, and the light was passed from one to another as they unpacked. Yevgeniya brought it back to Tiger when they were done. “Where are you sleeping?” she asked him.
“I'll stay here. Got to keep an eye on the ashes.” He sat by the fireplace, motioning for the androgyne to join him. “You wanted to know about Olga's bosses.”
Tiger kept it simple: “She works for the Security Service of Ukraine – that's our successor to the KGB. They use agents like her to investigate incidents in the Zone.”
Yevgeniya took the revelation pretty well, or else she was too worn out to be shocked any further. “...Why did she let me go?”
The loner shrugged. “It was what the others wanted.”
“But not what you wanted.”
“Not then,” Tiger agreed. “Olga was right, though. We couldn't send you off on your own.”
Yevgeniya hugged her knees against her chest. “Are you really okay with having me around?”
“You haven't disappointed me yet.” The guide briefly studied his unlikely protege's body language. “Something else on your mind?”
She hesitated for a moment, as if gathering her courage. “Is it true, what Brewer said about pathfinders?”
“More or less. I would have made it sound less dramatic.”
She also took that pretty well. “I'm sorry I was nosy.”
“Never said you couldn't ask.”
He had forgiven her, but it appeared she wasn't ready to forgive herself. “I got you in trouble with the general, too.”
“Voronin always finds reasons to be unhappy. If not you, it would have been something else.”
That brought Yevgeniya scant comfort. “Did he find out any more about me?”
“Didn't seem like it.”
“I guess he would need a subscription to see the rest of the pictures...” She paused again, in that way which suggested she was afraid to speak out. “You must have thought it was lewd.”
“Pin-ups aren't really my thing,” Tiger admitted. “But I do wonder how you got into it.”
“It was part of the deal. The magazine sponsored us at events and we posed for photos in return.”
“I figured it might be like that. Why was your costume different?”
“That was... The editor decided I should have a 'soft butch' look. He said it would appeal to the Danish readers.”
“I see.” Tiger held out a hand, feeling the residual heat radiated by the coals. “Go get some sleep now. Tomorrow you have to show me the best you can do.”
“Nn.” Yevgeniya stood up. “...Tiger?”
“Were you the one who shot me?”
Tiger's memory replayed their first meeting on the watchtower, when he charged up the stairs in the dark, pistol in hand and Gosha close behind. Then it skipped forward to the moment when her true form was laid bare, and the incidental uncovering of the bruises left by the Tokarev slugs pounding against her body armor. “Yeah, I was.”
“I thought so.” She sounded as if she had come to a decision of some kind. “You killed me and brought me to Hades... I know it's selfish, but can I ask a favor?”
Suddenly this conversation was taking a turn for the weird. “Yes..?”
“Pray for me.” Her voice was deathly serious. “There's no one else who can.”
“Don't get the wrong idea, Zhenya. What happened today... I would have done the same for anyone else.”
“But you didn't do it for anyone else. You did it for me.” Yevgeniya might have been smiling. “I don't know whether you're angel or devil, but... thank you for showing me what a miracle is.”
She walked away without waiting to hear his answer, going back into the container to lie beside Kondratenko. Tiger was left to ponder her odd pronouncement alone.
“Chernobyl veterans, join Duty! We have a huge responsibility – to protect the world from the expanding Zone!”
“Sergeant Gromyko reporting as ordered.”
“At ease.” Voronin turned the laptop so his subordinate could view the screen. “Look at this.”
The sergeant saw guns and bikinis. “I can think of better ways to boost morale, General.”
“I look forward to your written proposal,” Voronin replied icily. “The short-haired girl in the middle, study her face.”
Gromyko did. It was a soft, innocuous face, in contrast to the toned abs and thighs below it. “What's this about?”
“Her name is Yevgeniya Smirnova,” the commander explained. “She entered the Zone with a group hostile to us, then went over to the stalkers. Now she's tagging along with that stripe-headed mutant Petanko.”
“Stripe-headed... Oh, him. Is he on our shit list now?”
“No.” Voronin crossed his arms. “Do you remember Mikhail Purkayev?”
“Thirty-Eighth Mobile Brigade, Belarusian Army. We used to do joint exercises with them.” Gromyko frowned. “Wasn't Purkayev the general who would make his kid daughter come and watch?”
“The same. Recently he was promoted to minister of defense. Then his daughter got lovesick and ran away with her bleeding heart boyfriend. They've joined Petanko as well... There's also a deserter from our army, but I don't care about him.” The general stopped to clear his throat. “You are the assigned range safety officer for this week, correct?”
It was a rhetorical question. Voronin himself had given the assignment, to punish Gromyko for speaking of the late General Tachenko without proper reverence. “Mironyuk, Dudorov and I have that duty, yes.”
“Good,” said Voronin. “Tomorrow Petanko and his new friends are going to use the shooting range.”
“And you want me to do what, exactly?”
“I want you to carry out your designated task,” Voronin snapped. “But watch them, Sergeant. When they're finished, I want a report: how they performed, their strengths and weaknesses... Especially Smirnova, you understand? She'd be hanging from a tree by the road if I didn't think she might be useful to us.”
Gromyko thought it over for a few moments. “Permission to speak freely?”
“If you're going to keep giving me the special jobs, you need to get Ivantsov off my back.”
“I'll see to it. Anything else?”
“You have your orders. Dismissed.”
| 08:49:20 15 November 2013
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
I don't always post chapters.|
But when I do, I post them here.
Seven Moments of Stalking
“We run out of food tomorrow unless we cut back to quarter rations or start eating what we kill. Water from local sources cannot be guaranteed safe. Lytvyn and Prasolov are going to die unless they get specialized medical treatment. Our maps of the region are useless. Our long range radios are inoperable.” Sergeant Gromyko waits for questions, but there are none. “I think we should stick to the plan,” he concludes. “Wait for daylight and keep heading south.”
His opinion doesn't get a warm reception from the handful of officers and noncoms gathered around the campfire. He understands their reluctance: several meters behind him, Privates Dudorov and Mironyuk are covering the mine's entrance with a machine gun while the weary and wounded rest deeper inside. Outside lies the Red Forest, and the scattered bodies of those who fell during the retreat. There will be more bodies if the march continues, but the alternative is to sit and wait for an unlikely rescue.
For the moment, Captain Voronin sides with his junior. “We must proceed with caution, but we must proceed. Krylov has occupied a tolerable position and made contact with some of the local looters. He may be able to barter for supplies... Perhaps these so-called 'stalkers' can provide more powerful weapons as well.”
Gromyko doesn't see the point, though he's seen firsthand how the army issue 5.45mm rifles are barely effective against the monsters which swarm upon this dwindling corps from every direction. The only potent defense they have is the PKM in the tunnel, with a belt and a half left to feed it. “By the time we get close enough to make any deals, we'll be hours away from the perimeter.”
“We can't leave.”
Gromyko's eyes turn to Captain Tachenko, who until now seemed content to let Voronin speak for their shared leadership. “What?”
“I said we can't leave.” The second captain gets up. “The government has never competently confronted the threat of the Zone. The best they could do is throw us into the grinder and leave us to die.”
Gromyko knows the other men are beginning to share these bitter sentiments. He didn't expect to hear them given voice by the ambitious Tachenko, however. “What are you suggesting?”
“The freaks in this place won't be deterred by barbed wire or searchlights, once they become bold enough to approach the fence and smell fresh meat on the other side. Containment will not succeed unless the beasts are dealt with proactively, culled before they escape their breeding grounds.”
Gromyko cuts to the chase. “You want us to desert.”
“The politicians and generals deserted us. We owe our duty to the people, not to squabbling nomenklatura in Kiev.”
“I agree with Tachenko,” says Voronin gravely. “The duty is ours now.”
There are twenty-odd bodies piled along the bottom of the ditch, limbs splayed and tangled. Their wounds suggest a sudden end by gunfire, followed with bludgeoning and stabbing. The ones who haven't been stripped wear black and red.
Gromyko turns his back on the shallow grave. “What happened?”
It isn't lack of sleep that makes Sergeant Kitsenko look so haggard. “Bandits started marching the prisoners out of camp during the night,” he explains. “Brought them this far, then opened up with automatics. They missed one guy in the dark and he crawled away while they were finishing the rest. We picked him up on dawn patrol.”
“The witness says a skinhead with an accent was running the show, plus eight or nine thugs. They took off toward Zapolye when they were done.”
“Further north, huh?” Couldn't have gone too far without putting themselves in the sights of the Monolith crazies, though. “What do you have, Matvey?”
“Spent cartridges indicate at least three shooters,” Mironyuk reports dispassionately. “I can't tell much from the footprints... There are no tags on the corpses, only broken chains.”
Gromyko's eyes narrow. “The bandits took their tags?”
“That's right,” says Kitsenko. “All except for a couple that were clipped by bullets... It gets better,” he adds. “Voronin's coming up here.”
A harsh blow has been struck against Duty: those who were seized in the raid on Cherevach were mostly raw novices, sent to hold territory so that experienced fighters like Gromyko himself could move to the front lines. Replacing them will be difficult, more so as news of the slaughter reaches potential recruits in the south.
“Yeah, I heard.” Gromyko faces the trench again. “I told my people to expect marching orders.”
Gromyko is ten paces from the door when the hostiles on the other side kick it open. He fires four rounds into the pointman's heart before his rattle-trap L85 jams for the third time. Automatic fire sprays past as he dives for cover, rolling to the left behind an empty fuel drum. Turning the rifle on its side, he discovers the latest malfunction is worse than a simple stovepipe.
They're coming for him and he has no backup. Gromyko drops the weapon without hesitation and draws his pistol. He blind fires half the magazine around the side of the barrel, then goes over the top. The second gunman is already down with multiple leg hits and the next in line has taken a round to his strong side forearm. Gromyko finishes him with a center mass double tap and he falls to the right, arms flailing.
That leaves one more. Gromyko squeezes and feels recoil, but doesn't feel the trigger reset. Brass glints in the ejection port: another stovepipe stoppage. Snarling in frustration, he whips back his hand and flings the Glock at his final enemy. It strikes low in the chest as Gromyko springs up to finish the fight with his bare hands.
Then the buzzer sounds. “Cease fire, cease fire, cease fire,” Major Zvyagintsev commands through his megaphone. “Gromyko, don't abuse the equipment. Dombrik, where did you learn to breach and clear?”
Dombrik looks up at the observation platform, where the major and several others have been watching the exercise. “I thought we were evaluating the marker ammunition,” he protests.
“That doesn't mean you can fool around,” Zvyagintsev chides. “The drill is over. Secure all weapons before leaving the firing range. We'll have a review after you clean up.”
Gromyko lets out a breath of relief. The sooner he can get out of this gas mask and sweltering coveralls, the better. In front of him, the casualties of his last stand pick themselves up off the kill house floor and put their equipment in order. The fronts of their uniforms are peppered with spots of bright green paint. “I'm going to call you the frog squad from now on,” Gromyko quips as he bends to collect his rifle.
Dombrik isn't amused. “You didn't have to throw your damn gun at me,” he complains, pulling the magazine out of his MP5. “I was already hit.”
“Not critically,” Gromyko counters. Turning away, he sees the other half of Dombrik's team and all of his own people gathering in the roofless room via its other doors. His men are marked with yellow paint, and panic fire has covered the plywood back wall in an identical hue. “How the hell did you go down so fast?” he needles, picking out Mironyuk and Dudorov from the group.
“It was worth it to see you do the John McClane thing,” says Dudorov cheerfully.
“Very funny.” After Dombrik and his comrades clear the door, Gromyko recovers his sidearm. The Glock is a dedicated training model with a blue plastic frame, easy to spot on the ground. The L85 is a surplus service weapon fitted with a conversion bolt. Neither merits a passing grade today. “This may be good enough for the Kiev police,” Gromyko declares, “but damned if it's good enough for us.”
“Save it for the review,” Mironyuk counsels. “Let's get out of these straightjackets.”
“They're coming up the sides!” Gromyko is shouting, but his voice sounds distant to his own ears. “Get to the surface and report what's happened!”
Sorokin takes to his heels at once, running for the passageway that will carry him to blessed daylight. Gromyko turns back to the yawning maw of the cargo elevator shaft, rifle readied as he approaches. The yellow beam from his headlamp catches movement twelve meters down: a seething tide of flat eyeless bodies and spindly limbs. If his ears weren't shot, he would hear the dry rustle of their papery off-white skin.
Gromyko's finger tightens. The AK-47 shakes in his hands, transmuting his fury into a deadly hail. Bullets punch through organs and sever tendons, throwing out showers of sparks when they hit the shaft's steel lining. Shrieking monstrosities peel off the wall in sprays of gore and tumble into the pit. The magazine runs empty. Gromyko yanks it, flips it over and inserts the feed end of the second mag taped to its side. He circles the lip of the shaft, sweeping the other walls. In seconds the rifle is empty again.
Thirty rounds at a time isn't cutting it. Gromyko tears open the pouch on his left hip, which holds a pair of seventy-five round drums. They were spares for Dudorov's RPK, but Dudorov and the RPK lie somewhere in the maze below, together with Mironyuk, Gunko, Zamosenchuk, Izhenko and Korovin. Gromyko feels the magazine catch snap home, racks the bolt and keeps circling, pouring fire and thunder into the hole.
His hearing is totally gone now, his vision half burnt out by muzzle flash, and the troglodytes just don't stop coming as he expends the first drum, then the second. The rifle's handguard is becoming painfully hot to the touch, and he realizes his meager ammunition reserve isn't enough to drive back these myriad abominations. Gromyko retreats from the shaft, hurriedly reloading, and bolts for the exit.
It takes a brave man to land a four engine aircraft on a country road. It takes another brave man to stand at the end of that road, holding a rag in each hand to guide that aircraft as it comes barreling towards him. Gromyko is glad to be neither of these brave men, though he feels honest relief when he sees Pilot make a successful touchdown.
“Let's go!” he yells to his followers. “Your ride's here!”
His ears have recovered, helped by judicious application of healing artifacts, but the tinnitus which was a faint annoyance for the last few years is getting harder to ignore. It's not yet enough to muffle the panting and wheezing as Professors German and Ozyorskiy struggle to keep up, shooting out clouds of vapor with every breath. Poplar and his team come close behind, porters for a precious cargo of laptops, hard drives, documents and sample containers from the mobile laboratory.
Old School is taxiing along the roundabout by the time the evacuation group arrives. Five roads converge here among open fields, but only one is straight enough, and clear of anomalies and trees, to serve as a runway. It leads south-southeast through the contaminated vehicle dump at the former 'Chernobylservice' garage and into the town of Zalesye.
Zalesye, or Zalissya, straddles the route between Chernobyl and Freedom's army warehouses. Gromyko thinks it was probably a nice place to live before the local economy's greatest pride turned to poison. Now unchecked woods engulf the empty community. For stalkers too young to remember life in the Soviet Union, it's a glimpse into the world of their parents. The town hall, dating from 1959, still bears a hammer and sickle over its porticoed entrance. The school is a couple of years newer. Nearby, a weathered icon of a mourning mother reminds visitors of the community's sacrifice during the Great Patriotic War. On the main road, gaudy fixtures extol the bright future of peaceful atomic energy.
The overcast sky gives a dull sheen to Old School's silver skin as it completes its maneuver and rolls to a stop, engines idling. From this angle Gromyko can see the name and accompanying artwork on the nose: a reclining woman in a vintage pilotka cap – and nothing else. Muskrat the ground controller, conspicuous in his Freedom colors, starts walking around the airplane to check for problems. Gromyko heads for the starboard side of the tail, shaking off his backpack.
The machine is eerily quiet up close, save for its whirling propellers. A hatch at the rear swings open and the disheveled face of Cardan emerges. He slides out a folding ladder as Gromyko wades through the cold, odorless prop wash. “I brought a little more fuel,” the Dutyer calls, holding out the pack. “Compliments of the third defensive line!”
Cardan sets it inside the hatch, unzips the top and takes out a Moonlight. “Thanks,” he grunts, sliding the pack to someone behind him. “All for Lviv, get aboard!”
Up the ladder go the professors, their accessories, and their assistants. Up goes the ladder and the hatch closes. Ozyorskiy appears in the observation bubble behind the wing, waving goodbye. Gromyko gives a salute and stands back to watch Muskrat finish his inspection. Soon the signal comes: all clear. The engines hum as Pilot brings them up to full power and releases the brakes. The plane gathers speed fast, lifts its nose, and just a moment later the big balloon tires rise off the pavement.
Artur would love this.
It's at quiet moments like this, between the surges, that the grief begins to well up. Somehow Gromyko always assumed Matvey and Artur would outlive him, or else they'd all buy it together, and being the only one left hurts more than he ever imagined. He's kept a lid on it by keeping busy, putting on a stoic face and throwing himself into the greater crisis. Not everyone is handling it so well: two days ago Sorokin sat down at breakfast and served himself a Makarov's muzzle.
The Freedom fighter called in a radio report while his Duty counterpart was reminiscing. “Morlocks have occupied the Jupiter factory,” he informs Gromyko. “Stalkers are pulling back from Yanov.”
Not much choice. The railway station is too far from the next stronghold, too isolated to withstand a siege. “Pulling back to where?”
“Dunno yet... You want a smoke?”
Muskrat lights up, takes a drag, leaves the cigarette between his gloved fingers. “There's something else,” he says softly. “Our hunter outpost at Krasne – it's gone.”
Krasne is a hamlet on the edge of a boggy woodland twenty kilometers west of Pripyat, deep in the badlands. On a map, one could get there by following the tracks from Yanov to Tolstyy Les and turning northwest. In the Zone it's never so easy. “What happened?”
The other man shrugs. A gust of frigid wind sweeps over the pair and both of them shrink from it. “Maybe winter will stop the mutants,” says the Freedom stalker optimistically.
“You ever seen any of the old ones?”
Gromyko has heard of the Quatermass serials, but he hasn't watched any. It wasn't in the job description. “No.”
“Shame.” Nigel chews the end of his hoodie's drawstring, staring at the squat green ISU-152 on the stone pedestal in the park's center. “...What is that, anyway?”
“Tank destroyer,” Gromyko says. “A monument to the Battle of Kursk.”
“Huh.” Nigel slouches, the bench not having a back to rest against. “Why's it here?”
Exterior filming has wrapped for the day and the cast and crew are taking something called 'afternoon tea'. Gromyko thinks his command of English is pretty good, but the reverence his employers display towards this custom suggests he's overlooked some deeper meaning. Nigel does not care for afternoon tea, or rather he does not care to attend afternoon tea if he has to share a table with Simon Russet. Russet plays the eponymous Quatermass in this production, and Gromyko would much rather share a table with him than with 'Nervous' Nigel.
Sadly Nigel doesn't speak any Russian, so Gromyko has to chaperone him when he goes out. “Why..?”
“Why not Kursk?”
“This is closer to the front,” Gromyko points out. “They have monuments in Kursk too.”
Nigel chews on the drawstring some more. “Not many tourists here, are there?”
Though Gromyko is not privy to the details of the Nigel-Russet dispute, he suspects the former's attention deficit problem is a factor. “Not anymore.”
Chernobyl tourism gave Kurchatov's economy a shot in the arm after the real thing became inaccessible: of three RBMK type nuclear power plants still operating in Russia, Kursk AES most closely resembles its Ukrainian sibling. Smolensk AES and the associated town of Desnogorsk benefited from the morbid fascination as well, but neither they nor the Leningrad installation on the Baltic coast could offer that iconic backdrop for the perfect holiday album. The boom is all over, now that the Kursk and Smolensk plants are both less than a hundred kilometers from the Zone's perimeter. Only hardcore enthusiasts still wade through the red tape to come here.
“Sod it,” says Nigel suddenly. “Let's go back to the hotel.”
One more week, Gromyko tells himself. One more week and then he can find another job for the rest of the summer.
“Take a seat. The commander will see you soon.”
Svetlana the sniper goes out, leaving Gromyko to his own devices. He's too on edge to sit down, however, and it's not long before his eyes start roving. He knows from gossip on his journey that an invitation into these chambers is a rare event, and the abruptness of the summons made him wary from the start.
The apartment is modest and sparsely furnished, with an air of being owned yet not inhabited. Its living room hosts a table with four chairs and a writing desk in one corner. A simple wooden gun rack hangs on the wall by the bedroom door. At first Gromyko only glances at the rack, but then a sense of familiarity draws him back to it. The lower slots are filled by an aged M16 and a Mauser with a telescopic sight and a photograph of a young Kim Wilde glued to the stock.
As he takes in more of the room, his sense is confirmed by another object: a sketchbook drawing in an unpretentious frame, hung on the wall across from the rack. To a careless eye, it's merely a figure study of a young woman. A more attentive viewer won't miss the central motif of the piece, the element which reveals a provocative purpose. The work is signed 'Arkadiy' in the bottom right corner.
One detail has changed since Gromyko saw the drawing when it was new. The original title is obliterated, covered by a smear of black paint that leaves only the framing quotation marks. There's a new caption now, in a hand not the artist's: Ye. M. Smirnova | 25 March 1990 – 3 May 2012
Gromyko is pondering this when the bedroom door opens and the one who summoned him enters. For a long moment they stare at one another, until she breaks the standoff. “Sorry for the delay,” says Butterfly, her voice quiet. “I had to take care of Zoya.”
“One of my apprentices. She hasn't been sleeping well.”
This isn't how Gromyko anticipated the meeting would start off. “It's no problem,” he fumbles. “I just got here.”
“It's good to see you again.” She doesn't seem angry or bitter, which was what he feared. “I hope you didn't think I was avoiding you in Mogilyov.”
Gromyko did suspect it, but he's willing to believe he was wrong. “I was pretty busy myself.”
Butterfly nods. “You made a good impression on the jaegers. Borisov especially.”
She sits at the table, he follows suit. “I wish they would stop with the hero worship,” Gromyko admits.
“Are you afraid of disappointing them?”
He contemplates the tabletop. “I don't know. Maybe.”
“I understand how you feel.”
Gromyko won't disagree. “You have it worse than I do,” he offers guardedly.
“Do I?” Butterfly laces her fingers. “Isn't it easier to surpass a low reputation than meet a high one?”
“People out there say you're a nymphomaniac. They say you treat the amazons as your personal harem. How do you stand it?”
“It doesn't matter.”
So she says, yet her face hardens. Gromyko lets the subject drop. “Can I ask why you wanted to see me? I don't mind chatting, but your message made it sound like there's something urgent going on.”
“Somewhat urgent.” Butterfly tips her head. “I don't know if anyone told you, but you were called to Chernigov for an offer of reassignment. The personnel committee thinks you would be more useful assisting the ring defense.”
“And you want me to take the offer.”
“No.” Butterfly leans back in her chair. “I would like you to consider another option.”
“You probably know that our position is being threatened by militant sects which have established themselves in the Zone – mujahideen from the Caucasus, doomsday cults, the renewed Monolith movement... Warden is assembling a precision strike team to deal with these groups, a unit which can interdict their supply routes, destroy their camps.”
“Stalker spetsnaz,” Gromyko elucidates. “You're saying I should sign up for this?”
“You should try.” The chief amazon folds her arms. “Either way, the program is going forward with my support. I will not sit and wait for a video of some goat-fucker mullah cutting off my girls' heads.”
Gromyko can't help but grimace. “I don't really think I'm qualified, but I'll look into it.”
“That's all I ask.” Butterfly relaxes a little. “You won't have to be a sergeant much longer, you know.”
“Mm.” In all honesty, Gromyko has been one for so long he can't picture himself any other way. “There's something else I'd like to ask you, Commander...”
He points at the drawing. “Why?”
Butterfly's expression saddens. “A reminder,” she says. “I promised I wouldn't forget the short time we had together... The four of us who were with Tiger.”
Even after three and a half years, Gromyko understands her meaning. “But the dates?” he wonders. “Isn't that a bit morbid?”
“It's part of my promise.” Her eyes seem to look right through the paper. “To remember there was once a girl called Zhenya, who wanted more than anything to be loved.”
| 06:30:47 20 November 2013
On forum: 02/26/2011
This story is utterly amazing. Hopefully it won't go too long between updates, because I'm finding myself looking forward to more chapters as much as I'm (oh so very patiently) waiting for Lost Alpha. I'm especially appreciating how deftly you intertwine your story with certain spots in the game.|
| 02:21:37 1 January 2014
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
A happy new year to stalkers everywhere.|
Yevgeniy awoke in panic. How could he have fallen asleep? Baxter's watch was over, and Ashpool or Mullins wouldn't cover for him if he nodded off while they were on duty. If MacGruder found out –
Yevgeniya blinked. This wasn't the tower and that wasn't Ashpool speaking.
“You all right?”
“Yeah.” The sniper turned over, reaching across the head of the bedroll for her canteen and the little waxed paper envelope of painkillers. She gulped one down and rolled onto her back with a wince, the hurt inside her proof positive that yesterday was no dream. “Did I wake you?”
“It's okay.” Puzzlement crept into Kondratenko's voice. “I've never slept so good in the Zone.”
That made two. Sitting up, Yevgeniya grabbed her pistol and scooted down to the open end of the shipping container. There was a faint light coming from outside, enough for her to find her way as she pulled on her boots and cinched up the laces. When she stepped out, she found Tiger was up already.
“Good morning, Zhenya.”
“Hi...” She could see now that dawn was breaking over the Zone. “I'm going to use the toilet, okay?”
“Me too,” said Kondratenko, crawling out behind the androgyne.
Tiger gave a nod. “Don't take long,” he cautioned. “There's something I want to show you.”
Galina and Dmitriy had risen and taken care of their needs before the remaining pair woke, then retired to their container for a little more quiet time. Tiger let them be until the late risers came back, at which point he mustered the party. “Leave the traveling gear in the containers,” was his instruction. “We're not going far.”
The stalker led his charges across the road to the brick annex that jutted from the north face of the arena, a feature sometimes known as 'the clock tower' or 'the bell tower' to Rostok's inhabitants. In fact it housed a gravity tank, as decrepit as the walls themselves. Tiger entered through the doorway at the foot, ignoring the corner which had broken away and seemed poised to collapse. Inside the tower, a staircase snaked around the inner frame of girders which supported the reservoir above.
Trust overcame trepidity, and the others followed him. At the top, the stairs exited onto a catwalk under the east side of the cistern, its grating partially laid over with nailed boards as part of an attempt to shore up the damaged shell. The walkway connected the tower to the arena roof, then doubled back and ran up a second catwalk along the concrete lip of the tank platform. Tiger went all the way. His companions gathered on the platform, facing a breeze barely felt on the ground below.
In the coming minutes, they stood together and watched the sky burn. First the highest layers lit up, long cirrus waves shining like gold dunes traced by an impressionist's brush. The scattered puffballs beneath them glowed violet and then orange as the approaching sun's rays dipped lower, sweeping over lattice gantries and trees further out. Soon the edge of the fiery disc itself appeared over the false horizon of the factory rooftops, warming the faces of those who had come to greet it.
Then Dmitriy leaned over and whispered in Galina's ear, and Galina – hard, driven Galina – giggled at it. As one they moved to the corner of the platform, turning straight into the wind. Standing behind his girlfriend, Dmitriy hugged her around the waist while she held her arms out to either side. Kondratenko and Yevgeniya looked at them in bewilderment for a few moments, but then comprehension showed on the Latvian's face. She breathed in, closed her eyes, and began to... sing?
Singing without words was the best Tiger could think of to describe it. He had never been a prodigious consumer of music, nor one of discriminating taste. It wasn't quite a chant and definitely not a wail, though it had a mournful quality. Looking at the young lovers with that haunting sound in his ears, something clicked. Oh, that's what it is.
The guide let them go on a little longer, but eventually he had to cut in: “I don't want to spoil the mood, but we need to go down before they start broadcasting.”
“Duty needs you! Join us in the heroic struggle against the Zone!”
True to his word, the loudspeaker on the side of the tower blasted out its morning greeting just after the group left. With the rest of Rostok now awake, Tiger went alone to fetch breakfast from the bar. Galina and Dmitriy secreted themselves in their sleeping space while Kondratenko hauled out the M60 for an inspection. Yevgeniya had wanted to exercise, but resurgent pain forced her to concede defeat after four pushups. She curled up next to the cold fireplace in the hangar, her ribs and uterus duking it out for center stage.
“What were you guys doing up there?”
She couldn't be sure if he was trying to take her mind off her troubles, or simply making oblivious small talk. Either way the distraction was not unwelcome. “It's the 'flying' scene... You know, from Titanic?”
“Never seen it.” Kondratenko had an expression like he was afraid he might have made a faux pas. “It's about a boat, right?”
“It's about a rich girl who falls in love with a poor boy.”
“On a boat.”
“And the boat sinks.”
“Galya and Mitya like that kind of thing?”
The Belarusian girl had heard him. “On special occasions,” she replied dryly. “The film got a second release for the disaster's hundredth anniversary. We saw it in a hotel in Babruysk.”
Yevgeniya must have missed this news. “When was the anniversary?”
“A few weeks ago... The fourteenth or fifteenth?”
“Fifteenth,” Dmitriy confirmed.
“Funny,” said Kondratenko, so quietly that it was nearly lost as the teenagers sat down. “That's three days after...”
“After what?” asked Yevgeniya.
“Six years since the Zone appeared.” The former soldier put aside the machine gun and rubbed his hands on his knees. “I guess it's too early to make a blockbuster out of that.”
“Hollywood is making one,” Galina remarked. “Well, not a blockbuster. It's about a group of tourists going into Chernobyl.”
“Naturally, American tourists.”
“The Zone is a disease which threatens the whole world! Enlist in Duty! Be a part of the cure!”
Kondratenko shifted the subject. “Have you seen any good movies lately, Zhenya?”
She shook her head. “Not since winter. The last was on a date... I mean, I was supposed to go on a date. The weather turned bad, so we stayed home and watched The Mummy instead.”
Dmitriy perked up. “Universal, Hammer, or Universal remake?”
Yevgeniya had been too queasy to pay much attention during the end credits. “Um... I think Rachel Weisz was in it?”
“Ah,” said Dmitriy knowingly. “The remake. Did you like it?”
“It was okay. I'm not really into horror stuff... You?”
“The history and geography were all wrong. Still, I – oh, here's Tiger.”
“Here's me,” said Tiger, his hands occupied with a large bundle wrapped in paper and string. On his back he carried a lever-action rifle which Yevgeniya hadn't seen before. “They're talking about you in the bar,” the stalker told the androgyne. “About your gender and... Anyway, I'm not sure what started it.”
Repeated exposure was starting to dull Yevgeniya's sense of alarm. “How much do they know?”
“So far it's only speculation.” Tiger parked the package. “Snitch is interested, though. Could be trouble.”
The name sounded like trouble. “Who's he?”
“Information broker. Lurks in the bar most nights, dealing in stolen secrets and contraband erotica.”
“Contraband... You mean, nasty stuff?”
“Just regular porn, as far as I know.” Tiger pulled at the string's knot and the paper fell away, leaving a stack of toast and a deck of candy bars on top of canned fruit. “Even the regular is banned in this country.”
“What does he want?” Casting about for a rationale, Yevgeniya seized upon the incriminating magazine. “Did Voronin give him the photograph?”
“Unlikely.” From his pocket, Tiger produced a matchbox and a packet of white fuel tablets. “Snitch is suspected of Freedom sympathies,” he explained, “and Duty would run him out of Rostok for good if he weren't under Barkeep's wing... He's probably fishing for a scoop he can take advantage of, not knowing what he'll find.”
“Can we stop him?”
“Not easily. My advice – keep a low profile until he and the others lose interest.”
Kondratenko cut in. “What about Galya and Mitya and me? We're all wanted.”
“Seems like they're all so fixed on Zhenya that you haven't been noticed yet. Let's try to keep it that way.”
“Agreed,” said Galina. “So, what else is new?”
“I got vitamins for everyone. Wait a few minutes and you can take them with your coffee.” Tiger handed out pills sealed in tiny silver pouches. “I also got this, for after the shooting practice.”
He showed them a device with a pale gray plastic case, like a pocket calculator but thicker front to back. Instead of a number pad, the front panel had a cluster of switches surrounded by arcane glyphs and tables. A brand name, PRIPYAT, was painted on the top right corner above the LCD readout.
“My dad had one of those when I was a kid,” said Kondratenko with a hint of happy nostalgia.
“So did mine.” Tiger put the radiometer away. “It'll have to do until Barkeep has newer models for sale again.” Reaching among the fruit cans, he plucked out a piece of sheet metal with cuts around the edges. “Any questions?”
Dmitriy's hand went up. “Won't people notice that Zhenya's the only 'man' here who doesn't shave?”
“Oh...” Now that he mentioned it, Yevgeniya felt like a real idiot for forgetting that problem. “I'll do what I did before,” she offered hastily. “Play with a razor all the time, so they think I'm fussy.”
Tiger nodded. “All right, so we need four razors.”
“Five,” corrected Galina. “Unless somebody wants to share.”
Kondratenko looked at her as if she'd grown a second head. “You don't have a beard.”
Galina looked at him as if he'd declared she was a witch. “You do know women grow hair in other places, right?”
“Four razors and one extra.” Tiger bent the metal square into a flower shape. “You should pack your things while I finish this.”
Fortunately for Yevgeniya, Bonesetter's remedy had gotten the hurt back under control and there wasn't much packing to do: she started at the bottom of the bedroll and was nearly done tying it up when Kondratenko shared an idea. “What if you just tell them?”
“Those guys won't chase you if they know you have a... I mean...”
His naivete would be endearing if not for the potential need to entrust him with her life. “Most people don't take it as well as you did, Borya.” Then she thought of Sanya Deadeye. “And some of them take it too well.”
Kondratenko looked genuinely crestfallen. “But...”
“Trust me, okay?”
“Okay.” Then he dropped a non sequitur. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Yevgeniya pulled the strap much too tight. “...What?”
“You said you were dating, so I thought maybe you could give me pointers.” Where he fell short on tact, he made up in shame. “I'm not good with girls.”
“I don't have anyone.” And as much as she might pity him, this was not a conversation the sniper wanted to be having right now. “Maybe we could do this later? I need to eat.”
“Okay...” Kondratenko put on his trophy helmet and sunglasses for one last try. “How do I look?”
“Straight out of Checkpoint Charlie.” Yevgeniya pulled her kit together and went outside, only to find Galina waiting.
“We need to talk, Zhenya.”
Over her shoulder, Yevgeniya could see Tiger heating water on the Esbit stove. Beside him the unclaimed toast beckoned. She hoped this would be quick. “Sure.”
Galina all but marched her into the empty container. “We have to find a better way to deal with your bleeding. Can't afford a repeat of yesterday.”
“Oh!” Another thing Yevgeniya had forgotten in all the confusion. “Bonesetter gave me tampons. I was going to tell you... Uh, do you need some?”
“Not for a couple of weeks.” Galina's eyes narrowed. “Why does he have those?”
“He said stalkers buy them for their medkits, to plug bullet holes.”
“Interesting.” Perhaps it didn't sound so absurd to the hard-faced girl. “I'll have to remember that.”
The meal, once they got to it, was low-key. When it was over, Tiger proposed a revision of the team loadouts. By his count this group of five possessed nineteen firearms in twelve calibers, some redundant and some specialized, and everyone was over the comfortable weight limit. His new plan called for Galina and Dmitriy to consolidate by replacing their paired rifles and submachine guns with the two AK-74s. Kondratenko would give up the spare Mosin and focus on his role as the support gunner. What they didn't keep with them would go into the lockers as a reserve.
For her part Yevgeniya was told not to become reliant on the SSG-82, since Tiger intended to replace it with something more effective as finances allowed. That left the Chinese Tokarev and the assault rifle he had given her in the bar, an M16A1 made by the Hydra-Matic Division of General Motors. Unlike the factory fresh pistol or the seldom used sniper rifle, this piece showed wear from a life in the field. The stock bore a faded rack number, CAP 811, and someone had etched the initials N.C.R. and a picture of a bear on the right side of the magazine well.
Next Tiger laid out the day's itinerary: basic technique and weapon familiarization, lunch break at noon, then cross-training on the M60. As inspiration, he told the story of Mantis the bandit hunter and passed the tsarist Winchester around the circle. After giving time for questions, the guide wrapped up by distributing pairs of yellow foam earplugs.
Soon they were heading south, reversing last night's course into the factory. At least Yevgeniya thought it was the same course, since she hadn't seen very much of it in the dark. She definitely hadn't seen that gate behind the Duty checkpoint at the spike trench, wide enough to drive a truck through with room to spare. Inside the gate, a side road ran past a loading dock and hooked around the corner of the final building on the left.
At the front of the dock, three Duty men sat in folding chairs behind a folding table. Three pairs of eyes sized up the guests, and Yevgeniya felt a tightness in her stomach as she saw recognition on their faces. The one in the middle had flat, surly features, as if mashed into shape by a shovel, and dark hair buzzed short. He was flanked by a beanpole with a ponytail and an angel with a dire case of five o'clock shadow.
The ugly one shoved back his chair and stood up.
The first thing Gromyko noticed was that Galina Purkayeva had grown up to look a lot like her overbearing father. The youth glued to her like a second shadow would be that boyfriend Voronin had spoken of, which meant the other guy with the shades and the belt-fed shooter was the army runaway. Last but not least, he noted the Smirnova girl lurking at the back with a hangdog demeanor.
His orders were to observe and report, and so he would. “Welcome to the Rostok Factory Weapon Training Range named for B. S. Tachenko,” he recited, opening with the rote spiel. “I'm Sergeant Gromyko. I am not a diplomat. These are Privates Dudorov and Mironyuk, and we're your range safety officers today.” He pointed to a sign on his left. “Please follow the posted regulations at all times.”
The novices studied the list closely while Tiger and Mironyuk, whose turn it was to man the desk, handled signing-in and rental of high impact safety glasses. Responsibility for the range's activities proper fell to Gromyko himself, assisted by Dudorov. “All set?” said he when Tiger came away from the table. “Right, let's get this Komsomol outing underway!”
“Eye and ear protection on! Is everyone ready? The range is HOT!”
Standing behind the firing line between Yevgeniy's and Kondratenko's positions, Tiger watched his pupils lie down on brick-weighted tarpaulins and take up their rifles. Several paces to his left, Sergeant Gromyko was doing the same for Dmitriy and Galina. A hundred meters to their north, a line of black and white painted targets stood alone below the berm's dirt crest.
The M16 jumped, muzzle blast slapping down the grass under the flash hider. A puff of dust erupted from the backstop's scarred face. Yevgeniy took a slow breath, let it out, and squeezed again. A green 5.45mm casing rolled up to his elbow. Following its path back to the source, Tiger saw smoke jetting from the side ports of the brake on Galina's weapon. The AK kicked out another spent cartridge and he watched it bounce across the tarp.
Gromyko lifted his binoculars. “Lane one, you're almost dead center now,” he advised Dmitriy. “Keep working on your follow-through. Lane two, you're doing fine.”
Better than fine, in Tiger's opinion. Galina had turned her previous couple of bullseyes into fist sized clusters of holes and was on her way to making another sieve out of this one. Likewise for Yevgeniy. Meanwhile Kondratenko plugged away with the SKS, getting competent though not outstanding results. Dmitriy started at a disadvantage, having studied the theory without chance for practice, but he was catching up admirably under Gromyko's supervision.
It was obvious from the get-go that Voronin had given his underlings prior warning of the group's visit, and the most Tiger allowed himself was to hope they would keep it professional. Mironyuk and Dudorov stayed on the sidelines, giving no cause to complain. Gromyko, however... Tiger knew him by sight, and knew his name from gossip in the Hundred Rads – mostly to the tune of Sergeant Gromyko called Lieutenant So-and-so a bootlicker to his face. Given his reputation as a grouch with a careless tongue, his volunteering to help Dmitriy came as a happy surprise.
Kondratenko took a stripper clip form the pile at his side and refilled the carbine, mashing down the cartridges with a clumsy motion. Yevgeniy dropped an empty twenty-round magazine. Tiger was tallying the steel and brass cases strewn between the pair when, in a short lull amid Galina's and Dmitriy's shots, he heard it.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!”
“Cease fire!” Gromyko echoed. “The range is COLD!”
The trainees laid down their weapons. Tiger pulled out his earplugs, letting the deadened sound enter clearly. “There's a helicopter coming.”
The last time a chopper came his way, it slaughtered his comrades. That fact was evidently uppermost in Yevgeniy's mind as well. “Is it a raid?”
Gromyko didn't share their wariness. “If they were gunning for us, there'd be more of them and they'd come from the south. One bird, flying low and slow? That's an ecologists' ride.” He scanned the treeline behind the berm. “It's going to cross over our lines of fire. Sit tight while it passes.”
Tiger knew he was almost certainly right, but he couldn't shake off his own ill feeling as the gunship came into sight, bearing southwest toward Yantar. Whether or not it had scientists aboard, the aircraft was unmistakeably armed. The stalker tracked it hawkishly, poised to pull his companions out of the open should it veer from its course, until it disappeared behind the factory buildings.
Then there was an explosion.
The turbines' whine and the steady thrumming of the rotors were suddenly cut off. Seconds later the spectators heard a terrific bang as the heavy machine collided with solid ground. “That's not good,” said Kondratenko.
“No shit.” Gromyko twisted a dial on his personal radio. “Mainline, this is Range Safety One. You copy that impact?”
A new set of noises distracted Tiger from listening for the reply: automatic small arms fire in the direction of the Wild Territory. Yevgeniy's face lost its color. “They're shooting...”
“Oh, you fucking halfwits,” Gromyko snarled. “Not you, Mainline! I mean the assholes starting a war over there!”
To speak of 'starting a war' was not exaggerating by much, Tiger realized with a moment of grim clarity. The relationship between stalker and scientist was many things – illegal, indispensable, amiable, profitable – but it all relied on mutual trust. The stalkers trusted the scientists not to turn on them or betray them to the military, and in turn the scientists trusted the stalkers not to make provocations. Somebody, for some reason, had broken that trust... and broken it on the stalkers' very doorstep.
“What do you mean, there's no one available!? We're available!”
Tiger tried to reorient himself towards what was happening around him, only to be quickly diverted again: his special sense detected a person sprinting through the front gate and onto the range grounds. Briefly he wondered if he should retrieve one of his guns from the table where the party's arsenal was spread out, watched over by Private Dudorov. Such a precaution proved unnecessary once the intruder came flying around the last corner and slid to a stop, completely winded.
It was Sasha Machine-gunner, the Security Service agent. “There you are,” he panted, fixing on Tiger.
The pathfinder had a pretty good idea what he wanted, but he asked anyway. “What's going on?”
“We...” Sasha pointed to the ongoing battle, struggling for breath. “We have to go. Now.”
So this was it, time to work. Tiger looked at Gromyko, who was still arguing with his radio, and then at his own rookies. “Keep practicing. I'll be back.” Going to the table, he snatched the Winchester and a fistful of loaded clips off the nearest end. “Let's move.”