| 08:57:24 17 May 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
(Starting a longer story arc after this one.)
The walk up the road from the Cordon presented Tiger with no problems: though it was a main artery of human traffic in the southern Zone, he seemed to be the only one out and about. That would probably change once he came to the sprawl of radioactive junk mountains and vehicle graves collectively known as the Garbage. There were always a few people around the place, mostly lone stalkers poking about for a low-value artifact in the anomalies which seemed to breed like flies on the ionized scrap heaps. The area had been home to a sizable bandit operation once, but the shifts of power balance after the Zone's last fit of tremors and Duty's establishment of a fortified checkpoint where the road continued north had marginalized the marauders' influence.
Tiger, for his own part, didn't expect the status quo to last. Borov, unlike his predecessor Yoga, had ambitions far beyond petty mugging and extortion, a defensible base in the gloomy reaches of the Dark Valley to the east and a growing corps of cutthroats and corsairs who seemed eager to follow his lead. Duty, the self-appointed police of the Zone, theoretically had enough men and enough guns to give the bandit kingpin a solid thrashing, but the fools couldn't let go of their obsession with exterminating Freedom long enough to make good on that potential. One of these days the situation would boil over... but until then, the ordinary stalkers among whose ranks Tiger counted himself were the ones feeling the pressure.
The sun continued to sink towards the treeline as the loner took a left at the wrecked Zaporozhets and ambled through one of the smaller vehicle yards, passing between rows of cargo trucks, fire trucks, buses and a pair of sad-looking Mi-24 gunships. The helicopters brought back memories from his childhood, television pictures of identical machines prowling over the dusty landscape of a war-torn country far away. In the midst of this scene Tiger noticed that he was heading in the direction of the road to the Agroprom Research Institute, though he had made no conscious decision to that effect.
It didn't matter, really.
“...Retarded or something?”
Tiger was right about the bandits. Two of them had ambushed a fellow loner by the railroad tunnel at the western edge of the Garbage and were shaking him down, though apparently without much luck. “I told you already,” the exasperated stalker was saying. “I've got nothing of value with me. If you want loot so badly, why don't you cough up for a detector and go search for it like the rest of us?”
“Quiet, asshole!” The bandit doing the shakedown was a youngish punk in a drab windbreaker and tracksuit pants. Bottom of the food chain, Tiger thought. “Bet ya gotta nice stash somewhere, eh? Lemme see yer PDA!”
“Screw you, you parasite!”
“Wanna loose yer balls too?”
The stalker probably would have had a go at these two already if the other bandit weren't holding a battered MP5 to his head. That one looked older and wore a threadbare trench coat. “Cool it, brother,” he advised. “Let's not spill blood before it's the right time.”
“Gonna do worse if this moron don't cough up soon..!”
Tracksuit Pants turned to find Tiger standing close by. “What..!?” he sputtered. “Howdja get there, eh?”
“I walked here,” Tiger replied dryly. “Are you collecting road tolls?” he added with a mere phantom of a hint of sarcasm.
“We are as far as you're concerned,” Trench Coat retorted warily, Tiger's edge in firepower putting him visibly ill at ease. “You looking to contribute?”
The stalker in the long coat briefly eyed the irate loner with the flared nose and the leather jacket and carefully took out a bundle of notes, his entire pay for guiding Wolfhound and company through the marshes. “Is this enough for the two of us?”
Tracksuit Pants' eyes widened at the sight of the money. “Dude, yer shittin' us...”
“It'll do,” Trench Coat cut in quickly. “Toss it over here.” When Tiger did so, he flipped through the bundle with his thumb before dropping it into a pocket. “On your way, now,” he ordered, backing away from the cornered loner. “And no sudden moves.”
Tiger placidly strolled past the slack-jawed Tracksuit Pants and resumed his walk to the Agroprom. There came sounds of hustling and then the other stalker fell into step beside him, cursing under his breath all the while. “I don't believe it,” he muttered after a few minutes' travel. “Is your Kalash broken or something? Why didn't you just shoot them?”
“It would cause trouble.”
“Those horseflies cause trouble for everyone around here, don't you know? It's about damned time they got some trouble in return!”
“If we shot them, others would come after us.” Tiger shook his head. “Borov would make sure of it... And what are you so angry for? You were able to walk away unhurt.”
“Yeah, but... They took all your money, man...”
“Money can be replaced,” Tiger pointed out. “Most of mine ends up like this anyway.”
“Bribes and payoffs?” The stalker made a frustrated noise. “How do you stand it? Handing over your cash to every fucking leech who comes along, just to avoid trouble... There's got to be a point where it becomes cheaper to pay with bullets instead.”
“Maybe,” Tiger answered neutrally. “My way has worked so far.”
“Yeah, well... Nothing works forever. What if you ran into somebody totally implacable, some kind of psycho who wanted to mess you up no matter what?”
The answer was perfectly straightforward. “I'd kill him.”
“That's more like it,” the other man sighed. He still seemed put out, but his temper had cooled a little. “Well, thanks for getting me out of there. Name's Southpaw.”
That he was left-handed had already been deduced from the way his TOZ over-under was slung and the side of his belt on which he carried his Stechkin machine pistol. “Tiger,” the wandering stalker answered in kind. “I haven't seen a shotgun modified like that before,” he commented, judging it best to distract his companion from the bandit business. “Most people here cut the barrels very short and remove the butt at the same time.”
“Yeah,” Southpaw agreed, “but I thought something like a coach gun was a better compromise... Did the trimming, sight bead and screw-in chokes myself. Used to be foreman in a machine shop, see. The future was looking good until the owner bankrupted the place trying to support an affair.” A wry chuckle escaped his lips. “Been here almost four months now. Haven't struck it rich, haven't gotten cooked or crunched either. Guess my luck's about even... How about you?”
“The same,” Tiger said vaguely. “You came to the Agroprom to sniff out some Stone Flowers?”
“Not today.” Southpaw scratched his ear. “Actually, I thought I'd mosey over and see what I could score at the dig.”
“You didn't hear? I almost missed it myself,” the sinistral stalker admitted. “Seems one of those ecologist guys from Yantar showed up in Rostok yesterday and hired some of us neutrals to come out here and sniff around the underground tunnels.”
“Tunnels,” Tiger repeated. When Duty had their base here, they'd hired a mercenary to flood the buried complex. "Have they been drained?”
“I don't think so,” said Southpaw, “but I gather the scientists are interested in something down there... Dunno what it could be, though. Everyone tells me the whole place was gutted ages ago.”
Tiger nodded. “There's nothing left worth carrying away.”
“Yeah. I figure that if they aren't going to call in the military to clear the place, they probably just want to collect samples or run an experiment.” The leftie looked around as the pair came to the top of a rise. “Almost there.”
“Weird... Place seems awful quiet.”
Quiet in more ways than one. While Southpaw had been tipped off by the stagnant atmosphere about the area and the lack of any lookout from the prior stalker party, it was the absence of that inexplicable awareness of others which alerted Tiger. Now, walking along the tracks which ran towards the eastern complex, its brick chimney looming high in the twilight, the stalker began to suspect that the place was simply deserted. “Are you sure it was here and not the southwest facility?” he asked in an undertone.
“Pretty sure.” Southpaw cocked his head. “Could have mixed it up, I guess.”
“Try your radio again,” Tiger suggested.
“What if they still aren't taking calls?”
“Then we look for them.”
“Nor here.” Tiger swept the AKMS' muzzle over an expanse of crumbling wall, following the beam of the light lashed to its forearm with a length of twine.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Southpaw complained. “I hope there aren't any bloodsuckers around.”
It was the right habitat for those fearsome mutants, but even they couldn't elude the stripe-haired stalker's extra sense. The suckers were absent, it seemed. “There's nowhere left to search inside,” he stated. “Let's check the back door.”
“This used to be a stalker base. The gap in the collapsed wall on the west side was called the 'back door' because mutants and the odd bandit would attack through it.”
“Gotcha.” Southpaw glanced back over his shoulder. “The place is kind of like a fort, isn't it?”
That had been the belief of those who once settled here, Tiger remembered. For a time, their belief had paid off... Then what? A change in the wind brought a better fort within their reach: the Rostok factories where the Hundred Rads bar and Duty headquarters were now dug in beside the aptly named Wild Territory, a maze of concrete and steel teeming with anomalies, mutants and worse things. “It is,” he concurred. “A fort without a garrison.”
“Why'd they leave, anyway?”
“Duty was relocating and they were tired of fending off the swarms of dogs... There were also more and more zombies wandering down from Yantar.”
“Zombies? I've been out here a few times, but I've never seen one.”
“You wouldn't. The old path is buried.” Aiming his light around the corner of the end building, Tiger spotted a flash of green fabric. “I see a body. Come here, slowly.”
Southpaw did so, adding his headlamp to the meager illumination of the scene at the back door. “Shit,” he hissed. “They're all dead!”
It didn't take long to reconstruct the scenario. The advance party had been six in number. Five of them lay crumpled around a maintenance hatch leading to the underground, one of several on the Agroprom grounds. The round steel aperture had been welded shut by the old Duty guard and the stalkers had not succeeded in opening it before they met their end. It appeared to Tiger and Southpaw that the sixth stalker had fallen behind the others and then, without apparent provocation, gunned his companions down. “I don't get it,” said Southpaw, inspecting the killer's empty RPK-74. “He just opened up on his own buddies?”
“So it seems.” The attacker had finished his work by discharging two bullets from a Makarov, one into his PDA and one into the underside of his chin. The dead told no tales, and this one's effects would tell none either. Letting the shattered pocket computer fall from his hand, Tiger gingerly reached out and lifted the corpse's gas mask. What he saw prompted a sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth.
“You know the guy?”
“His name was Razorback,” the long-coated one explained. “He used to work the Limansk side of the Red Forest, just outside the Scorcher's range.”
“So was he, you know... unstable?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, then... Maybe a controller got them?” The idea put Southpaw even more on edge.
“I don't think the average controller would be able to take this many stalkers by completely surprise.” Something on the dead man's right arm caught Tiger's attention. Turning up the sleeve of his suit revealed a black mark burned or tattooed onto the skin: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
“I'm not sure.” Most stalkers heard about it sooner or later, about the apparent initialism which occasionally appeared on the arms of corpses. Most of the marked ones were loners, but Duty and Freedom had both reported a few cases. Perhaps other factions had experienced the phenomenon as well, but Tiger knew of no specific incidents. “Let's camp in the top floor for the night,” he suggested, rising to his feet. “It's too dark to find anything more.”
“Yeah,” Southpaw said reluctantly. “Don't know if I'll sleep much after this, though.”
Tiger could sympathize with the sentiment, though it was by now a remote one for him. “I'll stand first watch,” he volunteered. “In the morning we'll deal with the bodies.”
| 07:22:47 20 June 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
To Slay a Giant, Part 1|
It was a serious set of stalkers who walked into the 100 Rads the next day, Tiger in the lead. Behind him came Southpaw and the three loners who had arrived at the Agroprom early in the morning. Garik was at his usual spot, but Barkeep appeared absent – in his place stood Garik's cousin Zhorik, who usually lurked in an alcove by the entrance and menaced passers-by with a pump shotgun. “Come in, come in,” the substitute called impatiently. “Don't stand there!”
Tiger and Southpaw went to the bar while the others clustered around the table by the door. “I understand a scientist came here and hired some stalkers to go to the Agroprom Institute,” the former began.
Zhorik cocked his head. “Yeah, what about it?”
“We found the bodies last night,” Southpaw chimed in. “One of the guys wigged out and capped his buddies, then himself. We buried 'em up the hill from the factory.”
“Yes,” Tiger confirmed, placing a large, thick-walled bag with a heavy zipper on the bar. “They had a few common artifacts among them,” said he, adding the bag of boar hooves to the assortment. “Two thousand for all of this.”
The man across from him opened the artifact bag and briefly looked over the collection of fist-sized lumps inside. ''Eighteen hundred.”
“Nineteen hundred,” Southpaw pressed.
“Done,” said Tiger before Southpaw could protest. Ignoring the other's disappointed look, he rested his hands on the bartop and placed his gaze on the television set while Zhorik rummaged about for the stalkers' payment. Today's feature entertainment appeared to be a bootleg of an American film Tiger had seen at university years before, about a group of soldiers being sent behind enemy lines to find one of their own and send him back to the States. The bootleg's Cyrillic subtitles, he noted, were rife with translation errors.
“There you go.” Barkeep's underling set a bundle of notes and coins on the bar.
Southpaw quickly divided the money and slid a few coins from his portion back to Zhorik. “Pass me a bottle,” he said. “I need to get off my feet for a bit.”
Zhorik placed a Cossacks bottle before his customer. “And you?”
“Nothing for me,” said Tiger. “I must be going.”
“As you like,” Zhorik replied with a shrug. “Come back any time.”
“...Never mind, I found it.”
“Man.” Smartass shook his head as the Freedom trader's cursing – broadcast far and wide over the base loudspeaker – rolled past the loners' camp just down the road from the former military warehouses. “Screw really went and did it this time... You sure you want to go up there just now?”
Tiger was undeterred. Picking up his Mosin, he stepped between the campfire and Oleg Gusarov, the latter idly swabbing the bore of his Abakan, and made his way to the road. “I'll risk it,” he said in passing. “An angry Skinflint is less dangerous than an empty stomach.” A new electrical anomaly had appeared on the road itself, crackling around the derelict Moskovich near the camp, so the loner detoured up the hillside below the warehouse complex's crumbling wall, following the barrier until he arrived at the entrance to the facility.
As usual there was a Freedom stalker in orange power armor standing at the gate, performing the dual functions of lookout and greeter. “Hey!” he called when Tiger approached. “Welcome back, walkabout man!”
Tiger wondered how the other remembered him. “...Hello.”
“What'll it be, dude? Looking to crash at our joint?”
The reply was solidly noncommittal. “Perhaps.”
“Cool.” The Freedom man waved back over his shoulder. “Don't let me keep you waiting.”
The loner resumed his walk with a nod, heading down the long overpass which crossed the unusable rail lines, past the abandoned tank and then to the first building on the right. This had once been the administrative center of the army warehouses: now it was headquarters of the Freedom faction, featuring such luxuries as an upright piano and a pool table.
On the front steps sat Max, a faction trooper of considerable skill but no certain rank. When the visitor drew near, he dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his boot. “Well now,” said he, “who's rolling his wheels over to us today, eh?”
“I'd like to see Lukash.”
“He's busy right now.” Max rubbed his chin. “Can I take a message, or were you looking for work?”
“Okay, I got an easy one for you... You know how the Barrier is these days, right? We got people out watching it, all day and every day. Those guys gotta eat sometime – thing is, Chef's gone and sprained his ankle. He's got enough booze in him right now to shrug off a snork's kick, but the silly bastard is in no shape to be making deliveries... I gotta hang around here until the boss gets out of his meeting, so if you wanted to haul some grub to the boys at the front I'd definitely make it worth your time spent. Deal?”
“Good man. Pick up the goods at the kitchen and bring 'em straight to Cap – I'll radio ahead so he knows you're coming, and he'll take care of the rest... Oh, and no shortcuts through the minefield, got it?”
Chef turned out to be well and truly tanked. Coherent speech was above his current capabilities, but he'd at least had foresight to do what was needed before hitting the bottle. So it was that Tiger found himself leaving the Freedom base with a long pole across his shoulders, a large sack hanging from each end. Following the road straight out, he took a right at the first turn and walked north, passing between the high ridges which dominated the immediate landscape.
The Barrier had been here for as long as stalkers controlled the area. The military, loners, mercs and Duty had all manned its barricades at one time or another, but now it belonged to Freedom. It was an ominous place, the gnarly trees further up the cracked and cratered road standing as silent portents of what lay beyond: the impassable realm of the Brain Scorcher, overlooking the eastern Red Forest and blocking the way to Pripyat and the Zone's center. Past here, none but zombies and Monolith troops could survive. The ten Freedom fighters on guard all had their muzzles pointing north, including one lurking in the wooden watchtower with a Dragunov and another with an elderly Degtyarov machine gun nestled among the sandbags halfway up the left hill.
Tiger made no particular effort to be stealthy, but the defenders didn't detect him until he was almost right behind them. “Whoo-hoo!” the first to notice yelled. “Cap, supplies came through!”
“Coming, coming...” In a place where the average age was twenty-six, a man already into his fifties was uncommon enough. One who spent his days in the field rather than behind a bar or trader's desk was rarer still. Such a man was Cap, his bristly beard as gray as a pseudodog's back and his skin as weathered as the grim terrain itself. “Set it down there, stalker,” he ordered as he came down from his observation point. “Thanks a lot.”
“You're welcome.” There was no reason for Tiger to stay here: pulling duty as a Barrier gunner was too sedentary for his liking. Quickly excusing himself, he retraced his steps.
Max was standing outside Freedom HQ when the loner arrived. “Here's your earnings for the delivery,” he announced, handing over enough rubles to keep a frugal stalker fed for a few days. “Go inside and see the chief – he might have a bigger job for you.”
Tiger did that, steering well clear of Skinflint's office as he went to the stairs. Muttered expletives were still creeping about behind him while he ascended to the second floor. Lukash was in his office, accompanied by a faction lieutenant named Pavlik, a veteran trooper called Leshiy and the standard pair of bodyguards. There were also two other guests shoehorned into the narrow room: a sturdily-built man a little younger than Cap, with a thick mustache and high boots, and a narrower, hawkish individual. One look at their clothing told Tiger the pair were outsiders.
“Aha,” said Lukash when Tiger appeared. “Here's just the man you need – walks the land and isn't afraid of anything!”
The hawkish visitor leaned in towards the other's ear and murmured something in English. Tiger had studied the language during his years of education, but subsequent disuse wore away much of his command of it and left him able to comprehend only fragments. He guessed that the man who had spoken was functioning as an interpreter.
When the others' conference was over, Lukash cleared his throat. “Here's the situation, stalker... The one with the whiskers there is a fellow named Lugard: apparently he's a pro game hunter out in the Big Land. He's bagged everything he can out there, Africa, Alaska, you name it, and he's got all the trophies lined up at home. Now he's looking for a new challenge, and he seems to think our mighty pseudogiant can give him one... He wants a guide to take him up to the western Red Forest, where the last giant sightings were. Sidorovich sent him our way: he's got this Stuart guy here to speak the lingo for him and Leshiy knows the ground, but I'd feel better if they had someone good at, eh... spotting hazards with them. They'll pay generously, of course.”
Tiger looked at Lugard and Stuart. The former had a heavy-looking double-barreled gun across his back and a huge silver semiautomatic pistol strapped to his hip. The latter was packing some sort of bolt-action sniper rifle. Getting all of that into Ukraine most have taken one hell of a bribe, never mind getting the gear into the Zone itself. “You can't kill a pseudogiant with a shotgun,” he told Lugard flatly. “The last one I saw took eleven slugs to the face and walked away.”
Stuart translation this statement brusquely. Lugard's reply sounded rather contemptuous, an attitude not wholly lost in translation. “This is not a shotgun,” Stuart expounded in Russian. “This is a Westley Richards elephant gun. Finest in the world, do you understand?”
When Tiger's skeptical expression didn't immediately give way to the look of fawning comprehension the foreigners seemed to expect, Lugard produced a cartridge from some pouch or pocket on his person and tossed it to the stalker. It was huge, with a fat bullet and a case length many times its diameter. The number .577 on the headstamp was plain enough, and the loner could infer a rough idea of what NITRO EXPRESS was all about.
On the face of it, this was many a stalker's dream employment: a straightforward contract to escort some snotty but rich tourists around the countryside for a day or two, shoot a few animals and come back. Tiger knew better: Lugard's cannon looked impressive but it was a sportsman's weapon, carefully crafted and precisely adjusted. The Zone wasn't a place for such things – it was a place for loose tolerances, scuff-resistant finishes and generous magazine capacities. The clients' rudeness he could deal with, but the notion of going to a place like the Red Forest to kill a veritable walking tank with a millionaire's anachronism seemed a surefire formula for great trouble. It was also exactly the kind of work Sidorovich catered towards, which made Tiger even more wary... On the other hand, the prospect of having more than pocket change and bribe allotments to his name held a definite appeal. That kind of money could buy a lot of supplies. A lot of supplies meant he could take a break from his barrel-to-hand-to-mouth existence and just get lost for a while.
In the end, the desire for freedom from monotony won out. “It's these two, Leshiy and myself?” he asked Lukash.
Tiger tossed the big cartridge back to its owner. “When do we leave?”
“Pay attention,” Leshiy instructed as he and Tiger led the way out of the Freedom base. “We will do our best to keep you out of danger, but in this place everything is dangerous. Your survival ultimately depends on your own ability to react to hazards. Do exactly as we tell you and you should be fine, otherwise you're on your own.” When Lugard finished listening to the translation and looked as if he were about to protest, Leshiy held up a hand. “Let me tell you something, gentlemen. I used to be a mercenary, a good one, but just being good doesn't cut it in the Zone... Last year my old team and I almost died in the area we're heading for now. We walked into a spot where space was twisted into a loop – every direction we tried led back to the place we started at. Our fellow mercs and some Freedom guys found a way to get us out after a few days, but that's not an experience you forget in a hurry... So you see, this Zone you've come to for your picnic is not something to sneer at. Always keep that in mind.”
“If you've been to this forest before,” Stuart complained, motioning towards Tiger, “why do we really need him?”
“Good question.” Leshiy slung his L85 under his arm and flexed his fingers. “Do you believe in miracles?”
“Not particularly, no.”
There was a wry chuckle behind the Freedom stalker's gas mask. “You will, buddy. You will.”
| 12:46:32 11 July 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
To Slay a Giant, Part 2|
Leshiy signaled a halt when the entourage came to a tree-shaded gate on the road, briefly checking around the abandoned bus stop before slouching against its concrete face. “Last chance for an equipment check,” he said. “Anything you need to fix, fix it now.”
Ignoring the impatient looks from Lugard and Stuart, Tiger took advantage of the break to adjust the slings which supported his rifles and the AK's magazine pouch. Leshiy was entirely right to make the call here, he thought: this checkpoint sandwiched between a bloodsucker-infested village and a rocky hill marked the border of Freedom territory. Past this place they would be on their own.
“How far is it to this Red Forest?” Stuart asked, again translating for Lugard.
“In the old days, not far.” Leshiy shrugged. “There were roads running right to it... Now it depends.”
“On what's in the way,” Tiger supplied.
Leshiy nodded. “If we're fortunate, we'll arrive before dark.”
“We'll have to camp,” said the Freedom stalker. “There should be a few good places to hole up, provided the critters haven't claimed 'em.” When Tiger appeared ready to move on, he straightened. “Let's go.”
The Red Forest had been an eerie place even before the Zone's present mysteries erupted six years ago. It took its name from the disaster twenty years before that, when massive deposits of radioactive material thrown out by the exploding nuclear plant killed wide swaths of the region's pine forests. Those trees were long gone – bulldozed, buried and planted over by the tireless Soviet liquidators – but their dying colors inspired a name which was passed down to the scavengers and adventurers who came to the poisoned land afterward. The modern Red Forest was infested with the deformed boars and wolves which appeared after the second incident, of course, but the surviving trees themselves were truly first-generation mutants: even when Tiger made his first survey trip to the forest many years ago, there had been some which did not extend towards the sky and others which grew far larger than they should.
He'd had it easy back when the biggest threat was mere radiation: today the Red Forest was one of the most dangerous parts of the Zone for a stalker of any skill level to visit. Beside the ravenous mutants and fanatical Monolith troops, some of the most frightening anomalies occurred here. To the northeast lay the Brain Scorcher, the final barrier that so many fools still thought they could slip past. To the west were the ruins of Limansk, a closed town dating from the early Cold War. There had once been a route south to Yantar, but the swarms of zombies and strange phenomena around the abandoned factory there precluded its use.
The forest's own terrain wasn't going to make things easy for Tiger and Leshiy: the ground was uneven and rocky, with few reliable paths. The deserted ore mines in the south and northwest parts of the forest offered potential shelter to any takers who didn't mind clearing out a den of snorks, though the lookout post across the river from Limansk offered superior advance warning of unwanted company. There was a large clearing in the middle of the western forest where a past outburst of the Zone's deadly energy had plowed a twisted furrow in the ground, seeding a raging cloud of anomalous activity. Somewhere to the north of the crater was a tank, a nearly pristine T-80 sitting inexplicably among the trees, and past that was the old home of Forester.
“Well?” Stuart demanded after some hours of walking, following Tiger's meandering path among whatever menaces lurked just out of sight. “How much further?”
“The sun was low in the sky,” Leshiy intoned, describing the group's surroundings in a solemn voice, “and its rays shone dimly between the twisted branches overhead. 'Almost there,' thought Stirlitz.” When nobody laughed, he let out an annoyed sigh. “This is the edge of the forest. The real hazards are straight ahead... Right, Tiger?”
“Yes.” The lone stalker hadn't needed to resort to his guns or his detector once since setting out, but it occurred to him that some display of wariness might encourage Lugard and Stuart to put up or shut up. Slipping the AKMS' sling off his shoulder, he pulled out the folding stock and moved the fire selector to the automatic position with a swipe of his thumb. The latter's muted clack guaranteed his clients' attention.
The path led into a narrow pass, the steep slope on either side crowned by dense vegetation. A gravitational anomaly lay ahead, sitting just to the left where the pass gave way to more open ground, its presence betrayed to the casual observer only by a subtle rippling in the air. For Tiger this was no challenge, and Leshiy could probably get past it without incident as well, but not so for the outsiders. “Stop,” the loner commanded, bending to pick up a stone from the path. The foreigners might well have had one of their prior guides demonstrate something like this, but that wasn't an assumption he could make safely. “Watch carefully.”
Classical physics dictated that the stone would follow a downward arc upon leaving his hand. Zone physics scoffed at that and instead sent it spiraling into a tight vortex: a hissing filled the air as the upset anomaly pulled in all the loose leaves, pebbles and clumps of soil within reach, the force of its suction drawing a harsh wind over the onlookers. The noise grew to a fevered pitch, then ended altogether with a sharp crack as the accreted matter exploded. Within a few moments the anomaly had reverted back to its idle state as Tiger, satisfied with his lesson well taught, placidly cut to the right and walked past the patch of warped space.
“So,” Leshiy muttered once the anomaly was behind them, “where shall we pretend to pitch our tent? The mines or the river outpost?”
“The outpost,” Tiger opined.
“Fine by me if you can justify the extra distance.”
“The edge,” Leshiy answered curtly. “The edge of the world, as far as we're concerned.” He turned away from the churning fog beyond the embankment and the rusted drawbridge which disappeared into its swirling whiteness. “Stay away from it.”
Stuart wasn't quite ready to give up. “What's over there?” he demanded, looking to Tiger.
“There used to be a town.” The loner was no more verbose than his Freedom companion. “Now nobody knows.”
The Russian-speaking tourist looked across the river thoughtfully. “We heard talk of a 'dead city' on the way up,” said he. “Is that it?”
“No.” Tiger's boots make a dull clanking noise as he ascended the decaying steel steps of the outpost's watchtower. It had weathered the winter well, numerous bullet scars regardless, and it appeared that no other party had already staked a claim to the structure – he'd been right to prefer this place over the mines. “It's clear,” he reported to Leshiy. “We can settle ourselves.”
“Guess it's my turn,” Leshiy sighed. “Can I wake you if anything funny happens?”
“Thanks... I'll see you at oh-four-hundred.”
There had been no question of Lugard or Stuart standing watch: even if they had deigned to participate, they possessed none of the qualifications. Now they were sound asleep, having brought a pair of absurdly thick bedrolls with them. Tiger needed no such luxuries – he merely settled into a corner and drew his long coat close around him. Sleep, however, was not prompt in visiting the stalker. Instead he found himself thinking back to Stuart's earlier questions.
Tiger had only ever been to Limansk once in the old days, and then only because the man originally assigned had fallen ill. He'd never known what all those scientists actually did in the place, though he assumed that the huge antenna complex on the hill overlooking the community had something to do with the Zone's long-obsolete missile radar. Whatever its purpose, the sprawling town had not been evacuated when Pripyat, Chornobyl and the other populated areas were emptied in 1986. To hear the old-timers tell it, in fact, that crisis hadn't changed Limansk much at all: when Tiger visited nineteen years later, the aloof behavior of the residents and the suffocating layers of red tape both convinced him never to volunteer for work in that sector again.
Between the twin impenetrable walls of old secrecy and new anomalies, it was not surprising that even now many stalkers had never heard of Limansk or thought it a mere legend. The place had been completely inaccessible until less then a year ago, when the largest blowouts in living memory shook the Zone. Tiger had been on the far side of known territory when the town reappeared, drawing swarms of stalkers eager for a shortcut past the Brain Scorcher. It was just as well that he missed out on the action – the last of the super-emissions resealed the path over the bridge by the watchtower, taking all who rushed into the unexplored urbs with it. The Duty and Freedom platoons, the military strike force, the bandits, the mercenaries and the entire Clear Sky faction... None of them were seen or heard from again. A fog shrouded Limansk during the following night and remained as the months passed, neither spreading nor dispersing. Those who walked into it never walked out. Even the Monolith stalkers, who marched with impunity where none else could survive, forsook the town.
Why did Forester go there?
The loss of so rare a kindred spirit still haunted Tiger. Forester was already living out here when the loner was born, and neither an exploding reactor nor a fundamental deformation of reality could displace him. It was the Chernobyl Zone that connected the pair, the graybeard veteran and the NPP worker's son: “Another youngster comes to dedicate his life to the cause,” the warden had chuckled when the two first met. “What can an old man do for you?”
The coming of the new Zone was both a blessing and a curse for the likes of Forester and Tiger. The abilities it bestowed gave them a competitive edge in a place where death was a daily occurrence, but the gift also cost Tiger his job and left him unable to cope with the bustle of Ukrainian society. Forester had done the smart thing, shrugging off the changes and going on with his life inside the perimeter... And yet, sometime during the last winter, even Forester of all people had taken a final walk down that bridge into nothing.
Maybe he'd seen the end coming and chosen to leave his domain on his own terms.
Maybe he'd known something the others didn't.
Maybe he'd just had enough.
“There.” Leshiy pointed across the wide clearing as the thicket on the far side began to move. “It's coming out.”
Lugard was already in position, Stuart backing him up. They'd let Tiger get the bait for them, in the form of the three mutant pigs heaped near the well-eroded anomaly crater, but at least the skeptical looks the tourists had given his humble Mosin earlier were no more. It'd taken ten minutes to set the offering out and nearly two hours for the real target to show itself. The pseudogiant was huge, of course – a thick lump of a body with a vaguely hominid face, it stumped about on overgrown arms. Supported by dense muscles and denser bones, the monster moved with startling agility and could survive more hits than an armored car. Sakharov and his colleagues at the scientists' bunker had long debated how the rare creature sustained the massive diet its prowess logically required.
“Good God,” Lugard breathed. It didn't take linguistic fluency to understand the sentiment. As he raised the Westley Richards to his cheek, the blissfully unaware giant just beginning to feed upon the bait, Tiger quickly jammed his fingers into his ears.
The pseudogiant rocked backward, blood running from the hole in its forehead. It swayed on its feet for a moment or two, then let out a roar and charged up the hill.
Stuart, Leshiy and Tiger all opened up at once, firing head-on at the raging mutant, but sixty-five rounds were not nearly enough. Lugard broke his ornate double rifle open while the two stalkers yanked out their empty magazines. Whatever his sundry other faults, the wealthy hunter was at least a good shot and a quick reloader: the .577 was up and on target before Tiger's hand had reached the Kalashnikov's charging handle. There was a double blast that left his ears ringing, and the giant finally broke off its assault. It seemed to wander aimlessly for several seconds, then lost its balance and crashed down the hill.
“Fuck,” Leshiy muttered hoarsely, eying the twitching carcass. “That secondary brain or whatever it's got, that's really something... Shoot it again, just to make sure.”
Stuart's translation of the request was made in a tone which suggested he seconded the motion. Lugard merely nodded and loaded up his fifth and sixth rounds as Tiger took cover, silently praying that the clients would hurry up and finish having their fun: by now the entire Red Forest probably knew they were here.
“All right,” Stuart announced once the final shot's echoes had died away. “Now we just need a picture.” He produced a camera from somewhere on his person and handed it to Leshiy. “If you'd be so kind...”
“Go ahead,” Tiger murmured. “I'll watch your back.”
The Freedom man nodded, turning the Leica over in his hands as he followed the foreigners down to the crater. Lugard and Stuart quickly struck their poses beside the fallen mutant, the former cradling his elephant gun and grinning nearly ear to ear, while the stalker peered through the viewfinder. “Uh... Okay,” he announced in terrible English. “Say cheese!”
Something at the edge of his sixth sense's range caught Tiger's attention, a faint signature across the clearing behind the others. It ceased moving and was joined by a second, then a third. That smaller animals would be drawn to the kill was nothing strange, but even in the Zone few beasts had the courage to approach so soon after the gunfire. That meant it was probably either snorks or pseudodogs... Or else...
“Leshiy,” he called, pointing over the others' heads. “Company!”
The first two shots came at nearly the same instant, hitting Lugard and Stuart neatly between their shoulders. They went down with barely a sound as Leshiy tossed the camera aside and dove behind the pseudogiant, swearing incoherently when light automatic fire whizzed around him. Tiger jumped into the cover of a large rock, frantically wondering when and where the Monolith's servants had taken a level in subtlety.
Below him, Leshiy popped up long enough to squeeze off a burst with his L85. The return burst hit only flesh that was already cooling and gave Tiger a better fix on the attackers' position. “Leshiy,” the loner shouted, fumbling with the Mosin, “can you shake them up?”
“Just a sec...” The other stalker swapped his magazines and took a deep breath. “Freedoooooom!”
The suppressive fire worked admirably, forcing one of the enemies to displace as Leshiy's bullets zipped through the concealing bushes. Aiming over the top of his rock, Tiger zeroed in on the flurry of motion, tracked it briefly and squeezed.
The lone stalker was already slamming his bolt closed on a fresh round as the struck assailant fell and tumbled down into the clearing. He wore not the brown vest and mottled urban camouflage of a Monolith adept, but the gray and blue of a mercenary. Tiger wasn't sure which made less sense: that a neutral loner and a respected Freedom member had been ambushed by mercs, or that said mercs had first targeted the party's vulnerable clients instead of the far more dangerous stalkers.
In any case he and Leshiy wouldn't be the ones getting paid generously today.
| 01:29:40 31 July 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
To Slay a Giant, Part 3|
There were some in the Zone who would mistake Tiger for a pacifist. He preferred to think of himself more as something akin to a one man Switzerland, stubbornly neutral despite all his firepower. His statement to Southpaw on the way to the Agroprom had been entirely accurate: on those occasions when he found himself absolutely unable to ward off trouble with manners or money, he paid up front in spitzers instead.
This was just such an occasion. “Leshiy,” the loner shouted, “fall back!”
“Working on it,” the other grunted, reloading again. “Okay, get ready!”
Tiger laid his Mosin against the rock's well-weathered face and snatched up the Kalashnikov. “Now!”
Leshiy broke cover, zigzagging up the hill while Tiger fired short bursts at the mercenaries and enemy bullets peppered the dirt under the runner's heels. “Nice work,” he panted, rolling behind the shielding rock. A bullet promptly glanced off it, flinging chips of stone at the pair. The ex-merc swore under his breath as he pushed the L85's muzzle over the top. “Those clowns better not be from my old crew!”
Tiger didn't expect it to make much difference, the mercenaries of today being who they were. “Let's retreat to the mines and try to shake them off,” he suggested.
“Good by me.” Leshiy fired a burst, then another and ducked. “Hang on, I'm jammed...” Shakka! Click-click-click! Wathunk..! “Oh shit – not jammed, broken!”
Tiger passed him the AKMS. “Use this.”
“Thanks.” Leshiy snuck a fast peek around the rock's flank. “They're advancing... This is gonna be fun.”
'Fun' wasn't the word Tiger would use. There was no adequate cover between the rock and the mine entrance which offered the pair's best – if not only – path of escape: they'd have to make that dash completely exposed. The mercs – at least ten of them – were rapidly closing the range of engagement, breaking cover but spread so wide that a thirty-round magazine wasn't enough to effectively suppress all of them. The loner leaned out and pulled a snap shot with the Mosin, narrowly missing his mark. Leshiy must have come to the same realization, since he switched from suppression to aimed fire and dropped two opponents in rapid order before the first of the survivors made it to the cover of the cooling pseudogiant. As he smacked his palm against the Mosin's bolt handle, Tiger wondered what had become of the mercenaries' second sniper. Had he been taken out by a lucky hit from Leshiy's hail of projectiles, or was he still lurking until he had a clear shot?
“I'm almost out of ammo,” the Freedom stalker warned. “Soon or never, buddy!”
“I know.” Tiger's next shot struck a crouching merc's exposed shoulder, putting him out of the fight. By his reckoning that left the odds at two against seven. “Let's – wait... Leshiy, do you hear that?”
Somewhere in the distance, a horn was blowing. The mercenaries could also hear it, per the sudden lull in their shooting. “Monolith!” someone yelled. “It's the Monoliths! Where's our damn overwatch?”
“Time's up,” Leshiy muttered. He bent to pry a fist-sized stone from the soil beside his boot, then wound up to pitch it. “Let's play... catch a grenade!”
It was a brilliant feint: Tiger heard a startled yelp as the 'grenade' landed and saw a merc dive away from the assumed center of blast – leaving him wide open to the loner marksman. The Mosin's seventy year old butt thumped reassuringly against its wielder's shoulder, a hundred and forty-eight grains of copper-jacketed Soviet power blasting through the flank of the unfortunate man's charcoal-tone vest like a fist through a wet paper bag. The stalker's nose was filled with a sulfurous stench as he cycled the fired casing out and a fresh one in, swinging the barrel towards his next target.
Then he realized that Leshiy wasn't at his side any more. The Freedom stalker must have started moving as soon as his decoy was in the air, running for shelter while the enemy was distracted. Tiger felt like an idiot: he'd squandered his chance to retreat so that he could get a few more measly shots off. Worse, he now realized that he had neglected to pay attention to what his sixth sense revealed about his surroundings – Leshiy had moved out of range, which put him well inside the mines if not out the other side already, and new company was coming in fast from the north.
“Glory to the Monolith!” The battle cry rang out clear as a brazen bell among the trees. “Punish the heretic! Crush the unworthy!” The fanatics never skimped when it came to launching raids against the outer parts of the Zone, always attacking in great numbers with nary a care for their own survival, giving no mercy and expecting none. There was one rule for dealing with the faction: kill them before they kill you.
And now the odds had seesawed from two against seven to one against twenty and counting. A bolt-action rifle and a single handgun weren't up to this task: Tiger waited just long enough for the Monolith followers pouring from the woods to engage the remaining mercenaries, then started running. He covered all of three and a half meters before a soft pocket in the ground caught the toe of his boot and sent him tumbling. A projecting rock jabbed into his ribs as he landed, the impact only partially dampened by his thick coat and vest.
The loner rolled over, gasping in pain, and was greeted by a dumbfounding sight: the Monolith troops weren't shooting at him. They weren't even aiming at him. In fact, the nearest one was raising a hand as if in greeting. Tiger simply sat where he was, completely baffled, as the apparent leader of the group directed his companions with a series of hand signals. Half of them spread out, taking up defensive positions around the clearing while the remainder began checking over the bodies of the fallen. The commander watched these proceedings briefly before approaching the confused stalker, the muzzles of his AK-74 and attached grenade launcher aimed at the ground. He was followed by an adept with a Simonov carbine.
“You're not hurt.” The Monolith captain's voice was deep, in a way which reminded Tiger of an opera singer. “What happened here?”
Tiger just blinked, wondering if he hadn't actually hit his head and knocked himself silly. The adept, however, didn't look the least bit silly when he flipped out the bayonet of his SKS and locked it. “Answer him, unbeliever,” he spat impatiently.
It made no sense. When did Monolith followers ever care about talking? “I was a hired guide,” said Tiger hesitantly, too muddled to concoct a plausible lie in a hurry, “for a couple of foreign tourists. They wanted to hunt a pseudogiant... We came out here and the mercenaries attacked us, and then you came. That's all.”
The adept's expression of contempt and revulsion only expanded. The captain's face was hidden behind a sturdy gas mask, but he actually seemed satisfied. “This is in accordance with what the Monolith showed us,” he said, nodding to himself. “You speak truly.”
“Tch,” the adept snorted. “What does it matter if he speaks the truth? There is no good in letting a filthy outsider remain alive to blaspheme the – ”
Something abruptly clicked in Tiger's mind. “Save your breath,” he cut in flatly. “I know the Monolith exists.” Might as well say his part while he was still alive, he reasoned. The one round left in the Mosin couldn't save him now, nor the contents of the Hi-Power.
The confrontational man had obviously made up his mind before the fact. “You are no less a blasphemer if you seek the granter of wishes, vermin.”
Tiger had never been one to be easily insulted, but that retort pushed exactly the wrong button. “I have no wishes to be granted, ” he muttered dangerously. Raising his head, the loner glared straight into the junior fanatic's hardened eyes. “Your beloved Monolith erased them.”
The adept's breath hissed through clenched teeth as he drew back his carbine. He would have stabbed Tiger for sure had the captain's arm not blocked his path. “Enough,” the latter ordered. “Forgive this brother: it is yet not long since he was enlightened, and the Monolith does not bestow its wisdom all at once.” Turning to the adept, the higher-ranked follower addressed him like a father correcting an errant child. “You are right – our duty is to protect the Monolith from all who seek it with impure intent... But we never harm those who were chosen for paths apart from our own.”
“What..?” The adept looked from his commander to the equally nonplussed Tiger and back again. “Brother, what do you mean?”
The captain didn't answer directly, instead bending to gently pull Tiger upright. “It pains me to see one chosen reduced to living in such a way,” said the former, “but that is the path which the Monolith has set for you, and its reasons are its own.” His voice, while respectful, became serious. “We cannot remain here. If there is nothing you require, we must depart. I ask only that you not speak of this to those who are unworthy.”
“Fair enough... Uh, can I ask you a few questions before you go?”
“You may ask,” the captain replied graciously, “but I cannot promise that I will have answers.”
“All right.” Tiger cleared his throat. “Do you know what happened to Forester?”
The Monolith soldier shook his head. “Regrettably, I do not. It is said that he walked into the deathly fog, though I hate to believe a man capable of such madness could be the same graybeard who dwelt in this forest.”
“I see... Then you don't know what's in Limansk either?”
“It is a cursed place,” the adept interjected darkly. “If you seek a long life, have nothing to do with it.”
“Indeed,” the captain added. “We know not what dwells there now. I fear the town has been claimed by the sinners.”
“Sinners,” Tiger repeated. His impression had been that the Monolith loyalists held all others – himself included – to be in that category, but the captain evidently had a narrower definition in mind.
“I think some unbelievers also call them 'dark' stalkers,” the officer explained. “They are the worst kind of men here, betrayers as well as blasphemers. The Monolith chose them as it chose you and the graybeard, but they rejected its purity and used their gifts to satisfy their own greed... All this occurred long ago, when the Monolith was young in this world and we were not yet enlightened. We ourselves saw nothing of them until the winter which just passed, when they began to attack our brothers in the buried hospital not far from Limansk. While you walk among the unworthy and pretend to be one of them, the sinners' evil nature shows plainly in their mutilated faces: it seems they hide in secret lairs, practicing sorcery I wish never to experience and preying upon all who stumble into their traps.” The captain looked over Tiger's head at the trees looming above. “That is all I can tell you of them. There has also been movement in the dead city recently, but the Monolith has yet to advise us regarding it. I suggest you avoid that place as well.”
“Thank you,” Tiger returned, hoping he sounded sincere. “One last question.”
“Have you... ever seen a hole in the sky?”
“Ah.” His tone of voice suggested that the Monolith captain had indeed seen or heard of this. “That I cannot answer. Forgive me.”
“It's all right,” the loner replied quickly. “That's all I wanted to know.”
“Then we part ways here.” The captain stepped back and, surprise on top of surprise, saluted. “Fare well, chosen.”
The other Monolith stalkers had already stripped everything from the corpses and made off with the elephant gun and the rest. It was only a matter of minutes before his gift told Tiger that he was quite alone in the clearing. After reloading the Mosin and collecting the empty magazines from around the bullet-chipped rock, he made for the mines.
The flashlight on the AK clicked on, dazzling eyes accustomed to the gentle green of an old glow stick. “Tiger?” the addressed hissed, aiming around the bottom of an overturned mine cart. “It's just you, right?”
“It's just me,” Tiger confirmed. “The fanatics didn't linger.”
“Phew,” Leshiy breathed. “I thought you were right behind me – how'd you get away from them?”
“I fell on my face.” It was technically true, and the amount of dirt on Tiger's already earthy-hued clothing lent credibility.
“Lucky bastard.” The Freedom stalker shone the flashlight around the mine tunnel. “Let's not wait for them to make a second pass, eh?”
Tiger reversed direction, Leshiy following. “I'm not looking forward to the flak back at base,” the latter admitted. “Lukash will be pissed 'cause I blew the mission, Screw will be pissed 'cause I broke my shooter and Skinflint will be pissed 'cause he'll have to get me a replacement.”
“It wasn't your fault,” the loner pointed out. “Anyway, there's nothing around now. Let's hurry while we can.”
“Home, sweet home,” Leshiy sighed as the watchtowers of the Freedom base came into view, painted warm orange by a sun plunging towards the treeline. “Guess we'd better go straight to the boss... Oh, and you can have this back,” he added, surrendering the AK.
Tiger had no objections to the plan, and the walk up the road passed in silence. The exoskeleton-clad greeter at the gate immediately inferred that bad news was on the way and stood aside as the pair entered. The first to break silence was Max, once again loitering on the front steps of headquarters. “You're back,” said he, “and you don't look happy.”
“You'll hear all about it before long,” Leshiy replied. “I need to see Lukash.”
Max scooted out of the way. “Go right in.”
Leshiy led the way up the stairs without more ado, Tiger following. The lone stalker could feel eyes on his back as he ascended, the eyes of Max and Skinflint and the armory guard all watching him together. It was a familiar feeling. If Leshiy experienced the same, he didn't show it. “Boss, we're back,” he announced, perfunctorily knocking on the doorframe of the faction commander's office.
“So I see.” Lukash raised an eyebrow when Leshiy and Tiger entered, alone. “Where are the guests?”
“Kaput,” Leshiy answered bluntly. “We got attacked by mercenaries.”
“Snipers and skirmishers,” Leshiy went on. “We went to the big clearing in the forest, set out some bait and got the pseudogiant, just like the clients wanted. They asked me to take a picture of them with the kill, and suddenly – bang! Our rich friends took a bullet each, and Tiger and I had to make a fighting retreat of it... Even better, a bunch of Monolith goons showed up.” He shrugged. “Ran like the wind, didn't look back. No loot, no cash.”
“A narrow escape, huh?” Freedom's leader eyed Tiger. “But surely you, er, noticed the mercs?”
“Not soon enough,” the loner revealed. “They stayed out of... out of my range until just before they began firing.”
“He warned us,” Leshiy chimed in, “but there wasn't time to do anything.” His eyes narrowed behind the round lenses of his mask. “They weren't just sitting there waiting for us to come along. It's like they knew where we would be, and that Tiger was with us.”
Lukash frowned. “You're saying the mission was compromised.”
“It's all I can think of, unless the punks were watching us when we camped at the river outpost,” Leshiy said. “I know the mercs ain't what they used to be, but have they sunk so low as to attack anyone they just stumble across?”
“I hope not... And you said they shot Lugard and Stuart first?” When Leshiy nodded, Lukash stroked his chin thoughtfully. “It sounds like a hired hit gone wrong, but who could have leaked the intel? The only people who knew the full details of the job were you two, my guards here and myself.”
“And Pavlik,” Tiger amended. “He was here.”
“And Pavlik, yes. I'll have to ask who he's been talking to.” Lukash cocked his head. “Stalker, I need a few words with Leshiy alone. Would you mind waiting outside?”
“Sure.” Tiger backed out of the office and went downstairs. Leshiy joined him in a couple of minutes, bearing a slim bundle of rubles.
“Compensation for your time,” he explained, handing it over. “Not as much as was promised, I know, but dead clients don't pay.”
“Thanks.” Tiger pocketed the money. “What now?”
“I'm on perimeter duty until further notice,” Leshiy replied glumly. “You can stay the night or head out, whatever you like.”
The loner stood up. “Then I'll move along.”
“Okay... See you around, I guess.”
Heading back to the Hundred Rads seemed like the best thing to do now: Tiger needed a safe place to sleep and mull over what he'd learned today. He still wasn't entirely sure how he could be alive and free at this moment, but he knew that his experience was quite probably unprecedented. He also knew that he could speak of it to no fellow stalker, however trustworthy.
The loner was disappointed that the Monolith captain had refused to answer his most important question, and yet relieved by the confirmation inherent in the other's reaction to it: after six long years of torturous self-doubt, he'd finally found proof.