| 01:19:46 5 May 2014
On forum: 07/30/2007
B sounds like a 'Burn Notice' episode.
I was thinking more like Red Heat.
I'll keep the poll running a while longer, in case any stragglers come by. In the meantime, it's not every day I get to post a chapter on the anniversary of the events depicted.
For the curious, Old Rostok is modeled on Build 1865's version of the factory. You can (sort of) see it in the final game's multiplayer as well.
“I can only confirm that the first R-16 missile killed, on average, more people without leaving the launch pad than did any ten V-2 missiles that struck London during World War II.” – B. Ye. Chertok
The Pit, Side A-2
Old Rostok was quiet. Too quiet. Just the way Tiger remembered it.
This was the point of no return. They had reached the tunnel's exit and were looking south, back towards the Wild Territory. Facing them was a large courtyard, filled with once-cultivated trees and small buildings divided by a lattice of pavement and wire fencing. There seemed to be no animal life in the place, not even a stray bird.
“This is it?” asked Goncharenko.
Tiger stepped forward. “This is it.”
The trio advanced along a sort of boulevard, two lanes divided by a line of streetlamp fixtures. Little sunlight fell on this ground, and soon Goncharenko and Degtyaryov could see why: the courtyard was bordered on its west and south sides by the Wild Territory's new construction, sheer concrete cliffs looming over the old factory grounds. The east was defined by a long hall, built of red brick with numerous windows. Here and there slender exhaust pipes jutted from its face and reached up to the sloping roof.
Coming to an intersection, they found the first trace of prior visitors. A handful of Kalashnikov magazines, rusted beyond use, were piled next to the curb. Dozens of spent cartridge cases lay in the grass nearby. One of the brick hall's third level windows had been shot out, leaving a few shards of glass in the corners of the steel frame.
Goncharenko bent to pick up one of the magazines. Tiger caught him by the shoulder. “Don't touch.”
“But – ”
“You heard the man,” Degtyaryov told him. “Leave it alone.” He turned in a slow circle, scanning the rooftops. “Where now?”
The loner headed for the hall. “This way. We'll try the other side.”
There was a crossover tunnel through the building's ground floor, wide and high enough for a truck to pass. Tiger flicked the switch on the submachine gun's handguard, cutting the shadows with a harsh blue-white beam. Moving inside, his light found only the squashed remains of a knapsack covered in yellow mold. For that alone, the respirators were a worthwhile precaution.
Something more interesting came into sight as he reached the exit. “I think we've found our helicopter.”
“Nothing. Not a goddamn trace.” Degtyaryov's head and shoulders appeared in the gunship's port door. “No bodies, no blood, no brass.”
Tiger offered a hand, assisting the major as he climbed out of the wreck. “They walked away,” the guide concluded.
“Seems like it,” Sasha agreed. “Took the crash kit and the machine guns and cleared out.”
And then where did they go? Tiger looked back at the brick hall, framed in the swath of destruction left by the plummeting aircraft. It must have barely cleared the roof before plowing straight into the construction site beyond, tearing off its wings and rotors as it knocked down the upper tiers of the concrete skeleton. The fuselage was mostly intact, resting nose up on a pile of broken columns, but there was no question of it ever flying again.
Degtyaryov was thinking along similar lines. “Third crocodile we've lost in two days... Stay put, I'm going to break silence.”
Moving away from the point of impact, he started to climb the one surviving flight of steps to the unfinished installation's north wing. Tiger took a moment to check on Goncharenko, who was keeping watch over the eastern front. The view on that side was dominated by a pair of colossal brick smokestacks: the alleged haunt of the gargoyles. “We used to call them the legs of Ozymandias,” Tiger remarked.
The professor grunted inside his opaque helmet.
“SBU reconnaissance calling Osprey One-Four,” Degtyaryov hailed. “SBU reconnaissance calling Osprey One-Four, do you copy? Over.”
Silence. He repeated the transmission, and then once more. Still no answer. The band's already grave mood darkened. “They would have headed for Yantar,” said Tiger as Sasha descended. “Right?”
“That's SOP,” the agent confirmed. “And they would know to avoid the psi-field. Best case is they got a head start and moved out of radio range.”
“And if they didn't?”
“Then they can't hear or won't answer.” Degtyaryov peered at the hulk below. “They left the flight recorder behind. I should get it out.”
He went down into the belly of the dead machine a second time. Goncharenko was beginning to get antsy, such that Tiger decided another visit would be prudent. “We won't be here much longer,” he informed the scientist.
“I know.” Goncharenko was silent for a few moments, then dropped an unexpected question. “Since you're the expert on this place, tell me: are there any turnstiles around here?”
“Turnstiles?” Tiger searched his memory. “I think there were some in the entrance to the bearings plant, why?”
“Oh, er... I like them, that's all.”
Through all the chaos of recent days, Tiger had not forgotten what he learned from Olga. Goncharenko's sudden, inept evasiveness only roused his suspicion. “This is about the Zelenko case, isn't it?”
“The secret laboratories,” the loner pressed. “Or haven't you heard the army and the Security Service have been trampling all over the Zone to find them?”
“Oh, you know about that.” Goncharenko's demeanor changed in a flash. “Yes, a document recovered from X-Eighteen makes mention of a clandestine facility hidden beneath Rostok. Unfortunately the only specific information we have is that the entrance lies behind a set of turnstiles. Where's the bearings plant?”
Tiger pointed northeast. “Across the road. You can't see it too well from here.”
The professor tried to get a look anyway. “Why would there be turnstiles in there?”
“Rumor is they were making precision components for the Soviet military. It's never been confirmed, though.”
At that moment Degtyaryov resurfaced. “I've got the recorder,” he announced. “We can leave.”
Goncharenko was getting other ideas. “I'm not sure we should go yet.”
“He says there might be a hidden lab here,” Tiger filled in. “You didn't know?”
“News to me.” The visible half of Degtyaryov's face shifted from surprise to concern. “You're not cleared for that. Did the captain tell you?”
Tiger well understood that indiscretion now could have consequences for Olga. “Not exactly,” he replied. “It's a long story.”
“Give me the short version.”
This was not a good time or place for it. However, things would only get worse if Sasha started second-guessing the guide's decisions. “All right,” he acquiesced, “but let's not be conspicuous.” At his prompting, the three clambered down into the crashed chopper. Tiger stuck to the main points: Worm and Drifter, the electronic keys to the door in the Dark Valley, the Clear Sky document cache, and the tenuous link with a missing SBU agent.
“That clears up some things,” said Goncharenko when the tale was finished. “For instance, how stalkers were able to get into X-Eighteen ahead of the military.”
“Stalkers? Are you sure?”
“They were still inside when the army scouts entered. I gather there was a shootout, and the intruders escaped in the dark... As I was saying, a paper found in the laboratory suggests there is another installation here. I believe we are ideally positioned to look for it.”
“Too dangerous,” Tiger protested at once. “You need more people, better equipment. Isn't that so, Major?”
“Nnn.” Degtyaryov was staring at the cabin's aft bulkhead, brow furrowed in thought. “The second group of mercs, they all had lights and filters, didn't they?”
“I think so. I mean, they weren't all wearing masks, but they carried them.”
“Yeah... Professor, where's this new lab?”
“I don't know precisely. From what your friend tells me, it may be very close by.”
“I see.” Sitting on the tilted floor, Sasha laid down the LR-300 and wiggled out of his backpack straps. “We suspect the mercenaries are interested in this stuff. Those guys might have been snooping around, and we have to find the site before they try again.” He glanced up at the hooded stalker. “I get that it's risky, but this is exactly the kind of job I need you for.”
“Should have known,” Tiger muttered. “Can you tell us anything else, Professor?”
“So all we've got is that the entrance is behind some turnstiles, and some turnstiles are in the bearings plant... What about X-Eighteen? It might be a similar setup.”
“Ah, well...” Now Goncharenko stopped short, seeking Degtyaryov's approval.
Sasha had removed the magazine from his AK and was unscrewing the muzzle booster. “I haven't been briefed on this,” he said. “Give us the short version.”
“It may not be much use,” the scientist warned. “I've only seen the preliminary report. We were scheduled to fly out to the Dark Valley tomorrow.”
“Even scraps can be useful. Go on.”
“Yes, yes... X-Eighteen consists of four or more levels, arranged vertically around a central elevator shaft and linked by flights of stairs. Access to the lower parts of the laboratory is restricted by doors with numeric code locks. We don't know exactly how large the facility is, because the stairs below the third level are blocked by debris.”
Degtyaryov opened the backpack, taking out a pair of orange plastic magazines wrapped in blue tape. Setting them aside, he also retrieved a black metal cylinder with a knurled grasping band, its body tapering to a narrower section at one end: a sound suppressor. “What condition is the place in?”
“The security systems and emergency lights are functional, running off an unknown power source. There are active anomalies, some of which have damaged the structure, and isolated spots of severe radioactive contamination... The laboratory likely has a second entrance, though its location is not known.”
“How do you know?” asked Tiger.
“Because X-Eighteen was not completely sealed,” Goncharenko explained. “The search team found decayed remains of stalkers within it, as well as two probable members of the original staff and a number of mutants. The mutant corpses were new.”
“Killed by the stalkers who unlocked the outer door. The report does not list exact species, but one of the types was unknown to the military investigators.” The professor was distracted by Degtyaryov's preparations. “What's that for?”
“In case I have to shoot in a confined space.” A spring-loaded index pin under the carbine's front sight snapped into a corresponding notch on the suppressor tube. “You were saying?”
“I'm afraid that's all I know about the layout and conditions.”
“And the lab's purpose?” Tiger interjected. “What were they doing in there?”
“Some sort of biological engineering, including experiments on humanoid subjects.” Goncharenko's tone hardened noticeably, despite the vocal distortion of his suit's filter. “The materials uncovered thus far suggest a flagrant disregard for standards of ethical conduct.”
“You don't say.” Rising, Sasha locked in one of the orange mags and racked the bolt. “That's enough intel to start with. Let's get going.”
Tiger reluctantly readied his own weapon. “I don't like this.”
“Look at it this way,” suggested the major. “Assuming we even locate the place, we don't have a key to get in. We'll go, find a door maybe, and come back.”
“I didn't mean that.” Tiger sucked in air, then blew it out all at once. His gas mask turned the sigh into a death rattle. “It's this whole business. Secret labs, experiments, hidden under our feet – ”
Degtyaryov put a hand on his arm. “Not now,” he said firmly. “I need you on point here.”
“Good... Hey listen, you never told the professor about your ability, did you?”
“No.” And he was in no mood to talk about it now. “You can.”
They already commanded Goncharenko's full attention. “Ability?”
“He's what the locals call a pathfinder,” Degtyaryov elaborated as he gathered his things. “Your colleagues call it 'extra-corporal proprioception' or something like that.”
“Oh!” exclaimed the professor, apparently familiar with such language. “That's good for us.”
“Yeah.” Sasha slung his trophy rifle, keeping the '74U in hand. “Lead on, Tiger.”
As the unfinished building was planted in an excavated crater and surrounded by a wall of prefabricate panels, getting out of it required the trio to backtrack to the exit from the long brick hall. Tiger made two right turns, bringing them onto a street between the construction site and a second brick hall, laid perpendicular to the first. Straight ahead, the legs of Ozymandias stood tall against a vast blue sky.
The street ended at another intersection. Halfway across, Goncharenko glanced down the road to the right and stopped abruptly. “Look at that,” he murmured. “As if it's watching us.”
“Those windows...” Now the major was staring at it too. “That can't be accidental.”
Tiger grabbed Goncharenko by the elbow and pulled him in the other direction. “We're wasting time,” he growled. “Move.”
The sudden aggression roused Degtyaryov from his reverie and he hastened after the others. The professor needed a few moments more: “What... what was that?”
“Machinery Hall Number Six.” The guide released his grip but kept a wary eye on his companion. “And this is the bearings plant.”
The pavement widened into an unevenly surfaced parking area, flanked by a pair of great gray aggregates. An enclosed bridge linked them, spanning the lot, and the giant chimneys were rooted in the complex to the south. On the north sat the bearings plant: two five-floor blocks with windows all around, and a smaller central section. The entrance was set lower than the level on which the visitors stood, and had a set of stairs cut into the ground at the front.
The explorers regrouped at the top of the steps. “It's gotten wet inside,” Tiger observed. “Storm drains must be clogged... Wait here.”
He switched on his light and descended to the entrance. The left hand doors were rusted shut and surrounded by a constellation of broken glass, but the passage on the right lay open. Some adventurous algae colonized the floor, a layer of green slime fed by weak sunlight and rain runoff. Angling his beam further into the cavern, Tiger made out the shape of a Saiga automatic shotgun mired in the muck. A jammed shell's red mouth protruded from the breech. Behind it, one of the turnstile rotors had been torn from its fittings.
He looked a little longer, then went back to the stairs and beckoned the others. “It's clear,” the loner reported. “Might be slippery underfoot, though.”
Degtyaryov put on his headlamp. “We can handle that. Got anything to take notes with, Professor?”
“Only my suit's voice recorder.” Goncharenko made some adjustments to the control pack mounted on his chest. “I have memory to spare for about half an hour.”
“Now's when we need it.”
SECURITY SERVICE OF UKRAINE
INTERNAL MEMO FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
TO: Col. V. M. Kruchelnikov, head of Project Truth
FROM: Lt. Col. A. N. Bogdanova, Analytical Department
Dear Vadim Maksimovich,
Enclosed is the abridged transcript of the Goncharenko recording which you requested at the last meeting. Please let me know if you require anything else from our department.
P.S. - Have you picked out something for Nastya's birthday yet?
RESTRICTED MATERIAL – DO NOT COPY
DATE: 4th May 2012
LOCATION: Agricultural Machinery Plant “Rostok”, Chornobyl Exclusion Zone
PERSONNEL: Prof. Goncharenko, I. I.; Maj. Degtyaryov, A. A.; Petanko, A. K.
G: We are passing the turnstiles and kiosks. The organic growth ends here, but everything is stained by damp. There are wide stairs leading below.
P: Standing water in the basement.
G: How deep?
P: We can walk in it. Just don't splash.
D: We've got something. A tunnel behind a false wall panel.
P: That wasn't open before.
D: You sure?
P: We would have checked it out.
G: Wait a minute, let me describe this for the record.
G: The tunnel is made of bare concrete, about two meters wide by three high. My light will not reach the other end from here. There is water on the bottom.
D: Let's see where this goes.
D: There's a door.
G: I see it. A steel pressure door. It's open. What's that blackening?
D: The deadbolts have been severed with a high-temperature cutter, right through the door and frame. Got some spattering on the wall and slag piles in the water.
P: Sasha, by your left foot. What is that?
D: It's a stub of a metal rod or pipe, about eight centimeters long. There's a threaded adapter at one end. The other is melted. It's completely covered in rust.
P: More of them on your right.
G: Can you see inside the door?
D: Sort of. Place is totally dark, no power. I'm going in.
D: It's dry on the other side. You can come through, guys.
G: We're in a small room similar to the entry level of X-18. There is a security booth, an elevator and a stairway. There are some objects placed along the right side wall.
P: This must be the cutting gear.
D: Serious toys. We've got an acetylene torch, six oxygen tanks, and some big metal rods. One of the tanks is connected to a rubber hose.
D: Correction, not big rods. They're tubes packed with bundles of small rods. Each is roughly a meter long. They have the same threaded end as the stubs in the tunnel. Tubes show surface oxidation, I'd guess from ambient moisture.
D: Hold on, what's this? Papers?
D: Order forms and invoices, looks like. I count four sheets.
P: Anything else?
D: No. Let's try the stairs.
P: Someone should stay here and watch the entrance.
D: I'll do it, I'm least essential. Shout if you need help.
G: After you, Tiger.
P: You're not pointing that at my back, right?
G: No, of course not.
G: We're going down the stairs.
P: Coming to the bottom now. Can you hear me up there, Sasha?
D: I hear you!
P: Wait, stop. That's not right.
G: There is a plastic bottle, er...floating above the floor.
P: That's not an anomaly.
G: Isn't it?
P: No energy. It's something else.
G: Let me think.
G: Perhaps it's a heavier than air gas.
P: Can you test for that?
G: Not with this kit. Got a long stick?
P: I can go back and bring down one of those pipes.
G: No, wait. I don't see any reaction products on the bottle or the floor.
P: Which means?
G: If it doesn't affect the bottle, it won't harm my suit.
G: You have to wait here. A dense gas, even inert, can be dangerous without a closed-circuit respirator.
P: If anything happens, I'll hold my breath and pull you out.
G: Appreciate it.
G: I'm stepping into the gas. No reaction.
G: The bottle appears to be transparent polyethylene with a screw cap, as is used for water and soft drinks. When dropped, it displays conventional fluid buoyancy characteristics. I estimate the depth of the gas to be seventy centimeters.
G: I will try to examine the next level of the facility.
P: Don't go far from the stairs. Stay where I can hear you.
G: Yes, yes.
G: There is a large room with openings in several places. I see another pressure door with a numeric keypad beside it. This door is closed.
G: More of the long tubes from upstairs, propped against the wall by the locked door. The upper ends show discoloration. The lower portions are clean, with a distinct boundary. This is an effect of the unknown gas displacing the regular air. They must have been here for some time.
G: The elevator doors are open, but I do not see the elevator itself.
G: Oh no.
P: What is it?
G: There is a red-brown stain or residue on the floor. I see smear marks, as if something was dragged through it.
G: They lead to the elevator shaft. Are you sure we're alone down here?
P: It's just the three of us.
G: All right.
G: I missed something. There's a rifle lying between the stain and the tubes.
P: Can you pick it up?
G: If you think it's necessary.
G: I have it. Moving on.
G: I can see something in one of the adjacent rooms. A pressurized tank on a wheeled cart. There is a paper tag hanging from the outlet valve.
G: I can't make out the tank's label. I need to get closer.
P: Be careful.
G: I know.
G: The tag says it needs servicing.
G: Wait. Oh god.
G: It's chlorine trifluoride. We need to leave. Now.
G: If it spilled, no suit would protect us. I'm coming back.
P: Sasha, chemical hazard! The professor says we have to get out!
G: Is the bottle still there?
P: It's here.
G: I need a sample of the gas before we go.
G: Come on, come on.
G: Got it.
P: We're coming up!
END OF FILE
SECURITY SERVICE OF UKRAINE
INTERNAL MEMO FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
TO: Yu. B. Garkusha, Analytical Department
FROM: K. L. Dotsenko, Analytical Department
Can I get a fact check on these appendices? It's for the briefing with the general tomorrow.
REPORT ON THE INCIDENT OF 4 MAY 2012
DRAFT COPY – DO NOT DISTRIBUTE
Appendix IV – Materials recovered from site X-15 (provisional designation)
Object 8675309-72559: thermic lance combustion tube, depleted, rusted
Object 8675309-76559: 7,62-mm assault rifle, Czechoslovakian model 1958, serial number 18103g
Object 8675309-26643: 500-ml PET bottle with cap, containing uncompressed sulfur hexafluoride gas
Document 8675309-52843: receipt for delivery of a damaged “PerSeptive Biosystems Integral” unit to facility X-15
Document 8675309-54559: order form requesting additional soldering materials for facility X-15
Document 8675309-25423: notification that an “Alpha 433au” cracked motherboard received from laboratory X-11 cannot be repaired on site
Document 8675309-23889: reminder to Professor Chubko that unapproved food and drink containers are not permitted in facility X-15
Appendix V – Disposition of personnel following 4th May incident
Maj. Degtyaryov, A. A. - alive
Petanko, A. K. - alive
Unknown stalker, alias “Marked One” - alive
Crew of Pelican 3-1:
Lt. Gritsay, V. I. - deceased
Lt. Yefremov, P. N. - deceased
Capt. Polyanin, K. M. - deceased
Prof. Kruglov, P. Ye. - alive
Prof. Savchuk, B. V. - deceased
Prof. Lavrik, A. Yu. - deceased
Prof. Nikulin, K. R. - deceased
Prof. Goncharenko, I. I. - alive
Prof. Mamayev, F. G. - deceased
Prof. Korovin, L. R. - deceased
Crew of Osprey 1-4:
Lt. Muntyan, Ya. D. - missing
Lt. Orlov, N. B. - missing
Sgt. Prudov, A. A. - missing
Pvt. Kapuka, B. R. - missing
Pvt. Zinovyev, I. F. - missing
END OF FILE
| 05:58:43 28 April 2014
On forum: 02/26/2011
I'll say C as well. B sounds like a 'Burn Notice' episode. That would be weird here...I think.|
| 04:27:52 14 April 2014
On forum: 07/30/2007
This is only half the chapter I planned, but it's enough that I don't think I should make the readers wait any longer. The rest will come when it's ready.|
The Pit, Side A
Tiger turned right at the gate, cut left through the south hangar, then right again onto the main roundabout. By that time Sasha's wheezing had leveled off enough to permit conversation. “Is there some reason you can't leave this to Duty?”
“Voronin sent his reserves to sweep the Dark Valley. We're on our own.”
Indeed. It would take too long to recall those men from the field, and the guards here weren't allowed to leave their posts without having reinforcements on standby. “What's your plan?”
“Get to the crash site, stop the fighting, take it from there.”
“Right...” Tiger pulled down on the Winchester's lever loop, driving the breechblock backwards out of the receiver. A five round Mosin clip dropped neatly into the attached guide arms.
The pair passed Bonesetter's clinic, and still the shooting hadn't stopped. Next to the clinic, another gate funneled them onto the outbound road just before it took a left towards the Wild Territory. Tiger and Sasha ducked prudently as they came around the corner and arrived at Duty's northern checkpoint. Its three sentries were kneeling behind stacked sandbags, rifles aimed at the barricade on the other side of the crossroads ahead. Despite the commotion, they heard the stalkers' approach. “Where are you going?” demanded the ranking noncom.
“Over there.” Tiger snapped the action shut. “Has anyone else gone by?”
“Just one. There was heavy fire from the gallery right after he went in.”
The intersection's left path was a dead end, blocked by a welded up hurricane gate. The right path led out of the factory, north towards Freedom land. No way to go but straight through. “I'll take point,” Sasha volunteered.
Rostok's architecture formed an effective chokepoint here. First built as an open roadway, the stretch of grass and pavement connecting the factory's eastern sector to the rail terminal in the west was later partitioned at either end by the addition of elevated crosswalks sheathed in corrugated sheet metal. Some beast or force unknown had ripped open one of the sliding doors beneath the overpass on this side, leaving a space wide enough for a man to slip through. Duty shored up the wreckage, preserving the jagged edges of the torn steel to deter rushes against their defensive position.
Sasha and Tiger ducked through the barricade and under the walkway. Their view forward was blocked by a Kamaz truck, parked side-on next to a gutted sedan and a pile of junk pipes and ventilation ducts. “Anyone waiting for us?” queried the SBU man.
Tiger shook his head. “It's clear. Left or right?”
“Go right, there's better cover.”
They worked their way around the Zaporozhets and advanced past dead, twisted trees and stacks of prefabricated concrete slabs. The second crosswalk seemed to be deserted, even though the gaps in the upper level's sheathing made it the perfect vantage point to ambush anybody coming from the bar. The checkpoint guards said they heard shooting from near here, but were they mistaken?
Tiger was about to remark on that when his ears picked out a different sound from the gunfire. “Sasha, do you hear that?”
“Chopper coming from the perimeter.” Sasha darted forwards and to the left, heading for the side door to the crosswalk. To get through the second partition, they had to enter at one end and cross lengthwise to the exit on the other side. “Bug lamps are on,” the agent observed, referring to the series of interior fixtures, powered by an artifact battery, which Duty maintained to repel light-fearing creatures. He started to take a step, then froze. “Something's dripping.”
Tiger saw it too. “It's coming through the ceiling,” he said, back-tracing the droplets' path from dark stains on the dirty floor to cracks in the sheet metal overhead.
“Yeah.” Sasha raised his gun and kept moving, hugging the tunnel's left wall to avoid being splashed. “There's a corpse over here.”
Tiger couldn't see it past the orange glare of the bug lamps. “Fresh?”
Sasha disappeared into the shadows at the end of the passage. “As fresh as they come,” he replied grimly. “And it's a merc.” He looked at the hatch opening above his head, through which one could climb a ladder to the higher level. “The rest are up there.” At that moment the rescue helicopter opened fire with its nose gun. Almost at once there was a retaliatory blast and the machine was knocked out of the sky like its predecessor. “Shit! Forget the stiffs, let's go!”
The shooting finally began to die down as the stalkers reemerged into daylight. To their left was a garage. To the right, the first loading platform for the railcars. Straight ahead, the industrial boulevard and a thick pillar of gray smoke rising beyond the freight hangars. The pavement close by was littered with spent cartridges, and Tiger spotted two more bodies lying by a derelict truck further out.
No time to investigate them now. Sasha hooked right, slipping between the end of the platform and the foot of the adjacent watchtower. Tiger stayed on his tail as the shortcut brought them to the eastern tip of the switching yard, a field of overgrown tracks and rusting freight cars bordered along its north side by towering machinery halls. Immediately to the west lay another platform with an overhead crane straddling the rails beside it. The smoke and the shooting were coming from the south side of that platform, though the stalkers' view was blocked by a pair of hopper cars.
Sasha ran that way, darting through the electrical anomalies which flickered on the grass. Only at the hoppers did he stop. “How many?”
“Seven,” Tiger replied, ducking into cover next to him. “Four on the near side, two going around to the right, one more on the far side to the left.”
“Okay, you take the runners. Go.”
Their attack was concealed from the enemy by a final line of barriers: storage tanks on the left and an overturned loading hopper on the right, with a shipping container blocking the middle. Hustling up to the tanks, the stalkers got their first clear look at the situation. The helicopter had slewed around as it came down, and Tiger could just make out its nose pointing towards him out of the leaping flames. The six men in his sight were more mercenaries, and at least twice that number were already dead on the ground. Those still alive were fixed on something behind the burning aircraft, their unguarded backs facing the latecomers.
Tiger snugged up the Winchester, drew a bead on one of the flanking mercs, and squeezed. The target jerked as the bullet plowed past his spine and punched against the back of his sternum, pitching him forwards onto the pavement. His wingman dropped and threw himself sideways, sheltering behind one of the containers on the platform as Sasha raked the others with full auto fire. Tiger cranked the lever down and up, flicking an empty casing over his shoulder.
The last of Sasha's targets fell, down but not out. Sasha dropped his empty carbine, letting the sling catch it, and drew a Makarov from the holster on his leg. The wounded merc went for his sidearm as well. He was struggling to undo the retaining flap when the coup de grace hit him under the chin.
“I still have one,” warned Tiger, pointing with his rifle. “Over there.”
“Keep him covered.” The other man put away his pistol and grabbed a replacement AK magazine. “What about the seventh?”
“He's not moving.”
“Fine.” Sasha snapped the mag into place, tipped the '74U sideways and pulled the cocking handle with his weak hand. Then he took out a grenade. “Get down.”
Tiger did. Catching the safety pin ring with the thumb of his gun hand, Sasha tore it out and launched the bomb on a plunging trajectory. Tiger heard part of a shouted expletive just before it went off. “He's gone,” the loner reported, feeling the enemy's life signs fade.
“Good.” Sasha retrieved his empty magazine. “The last one might be friendly. Either way, I want him alive.”
They would have to go the long way. The heat of the helicopter's pyre was such that Tiger could feel it where he stood. “Over there,” he indicated.
This part was easy: go left between the ruined shacks and then right past the dead trees and the small cargo hangar, tracing an arc around the loading station's south side. The end of that arc placed the stalkers next to the frozen hulk of an electric locomotive, directly above the entrance to a blocked underpass which formerly allowed vehicles to cross beneath the yard's tracks. Tiger sensed numerous anomalies in the tunnel below – and his own objective behind the brick wall in front of him. “Right there,” he muttered, pointing to the exact spot.
“Easy does it.” Sasha crept along the side of the locomotive, leaving Tiger to guard his back. With the wall on one side and the engine servicing shop on the other, their quarry could flee only in two directions. The guide had both of them covered. “It's over,” his companion called. “You can come out now.”
The summons provoked irate and rather fuzzy shouting: “You're wasting your time! I haven't got the data, damn you!”
“Never mind your data. I'm not a mercenary, I'm here to help.” Sasha produced an identification wallet, very much like the one Olga carried, and held it out past the corner of the brick wall. “See?”
“...Security Service? What are you doing out here?”
“I work here.” The operative cautiously moved until he was visible to the third party. “Come on. I can take you back to Yantar.”
“Better not be tricking me...” The figure which appeared wore an orange hazard suit and clutched a submachine gun. His grip on it tightened when he noticed Sasha's escort. “Who's that?”
“I'm Tiger,” said Tiger. “I live here.”
“He's with me,” Sasha assured. “What's your name?”
“Goncharenko, Ivan Igorovich... Professor of chemistry.”
“Nice to meet you.” At that, the pleasantries ended. “We need to find the other crash site and look for survivors. Do you know where the machine came down?”
“It flew over the buildings.” Goncharenko pointed north and Tiger suddenly got a bad feeling about where this was headed. “I don't think it went far.”
Sasha followed the line of the scientist's finger. “I've never been to that part of the factory,” the former admitted. “Tiger?”
“Not in a while.” Their guide turned away and started back along the arc. “If we're going in there, we need air filters and spare weapons.”
“I've got a half-mask. How's your suit, Professor?”
“I have positive pressure. All readouts are nominal.”
“Good. While we have a minute, can you tell me what happened here?”
“Of course... It was an expedition to evaluate new instruments and collect biological and chemical samples. There were six of us visiting from the institutes in Kiev, along with Professor Kruglov from the Yantar laboratory and a military stalker, Polyanin. Everything was going well until the mercenaries shot us down... Polyanin was knocked unconscious in the crash. The jackals killed Savchuk and Nikulin as they tried to pull him out. Then the whole thing went up in flames.”
“You said something about data,” Sasha cut in. “That's what the mercs wanted?”
“Yes, they contacted Kruglov by radio and demanded he hand over all our findings. Naturally, he refused. We tried to fight our way out, though our position was bad from the beginning. We would have all died if that stalker hadn't showed up... He took the mercenaries by surprise, but after he got through to us, a second group came in behind him. Kruglov and the stalker made a break for it with the data and the rest of us stayed to buy time.”
Tiger looked back at Sasha. “Think it's the same guy?”
“Has to be. Did you get his name, Professor?”
“Unfortunately, no. I barely saw him myself.”
Sasha passed a hand radio to Goncharenko. “Try and raise Kruglov. This is an unsecured unit, so keep it short, don't ask where he is, and don't tell him where you are. Just let him know you'll catch up when you can.”
By now Tiger was between the shacks again. Glancing into the one on his right, he was startled to see a familiar face staring back at him. “Sasha..!”
The SBU man was at his side in a flash. “Wolfhound,” he said coolly, eying the body propped against the inner wall. “I'll frisk him. You find a mask.”
“Yeah.” Moving away, Tiger lowered the Winchester's hammer to half cock and slung the long rifle. Badger, he thought, was right to leave the team when he did. Not that it would make much difference once word of this assault spread through the stalker community.
He had only checked three bodies when Sasha came out of the shack. “That's a bust,” the agent announced. “No PDA, no papers. Just three rounds to the chest in a nice tight group. And his sidearm is missing.”
“Maybe our mystery man wanted a trophy.”
And why not, after taking down a top-rank merc commander and his entire company? Tiger moved on to another corpse, still searching for a clean respirator. This one wore a balaclava, but the stalker found what he needed in a waist pouch. In keeping with the mercenaries' procurement preferences, it was an American model sporting tinted lenses and a green filter canister mounted on the left side.
As he sorted out the straps, Goncharenko came calling: “Major Degtyaryov? I'm finished.”
Sasha, who had meanwhile commandeered Wolfhound's rifle, answered to that name. “Kruglov is safe?”
“For the moment, yes... The stalker with him is called 'Marked One'. Do you know who that is?”
Tiger and Degtyaryov exchanged knowing glances. “I haven't met him,” replied the latter, taking back his radio. “But I hear he's really getting around lately.”
Whatever his agenda, that strange loner was obviously no friend of the hired guns. “Yesterday another group of mercs tried to take over the rookie village in the Cordon,” Tiger supplied. “Marked One helped the stalkers defend it.” Pressing the mask against his face, he snugged it up and took a breath. “This'll do.”
“Great.” Sasha fiddled with the LR-300's collapsible stock, adjusting the length of pull to his liking. “There's a bunch of nine millimeter rifle casings over here. I think our friend got the drop on these guys with a Val or Vintorez.”
“Makes sense.” Leaving the mask in place, the guide scanned the ground for a usable weapon. The merc squads were armed differently, with the second team favoring submachine guns over the larger assault rifles carried by Wolfhound's elites. Locating one that hadn't been drenched in its last owner's blood, Tiger picked it up and put the safety on. The MP5 looked new, much cleaner than the black market castoffs available to stalkers. Those didn't usually come with holographic sights or built in flashlights either.
It nicely filled Tiger's need for a compact automatic. That left Goncharenko. “Come here, Professor.”
The scientist came, though not quietly. “Is this really necessary?” he protested. “Aren't we're just going over there?”
“Over there is Old Rostok. We go prepared, or we don't go.”
“Old Rostok?” Goncharenko repeated quizzically. “What's that?”
“This wasn't all built at once,” Tiger explained, stuffing magazines into his vest. “Most of what you see was added when they modernized the plant in the seventies. Then there was a second expansion going on when the nuclear accident happened.”
“The old factory isn't like the Hundred Rads or the Wild Territory. It's darker, quieter. Not many anomalies or mutants.” The loner noticed that Sasha was following their exchange with great interest. “You haven't heard about this, Major?”
Degtyaryov shrugged. “I know Old Rostok has a bad reputation, but I thought that was stalkers telling scary stories. You're saying it's not?”
“Not all of it.” With nearly half his pouches still empty, Tiger moved to another body. “I've been there twice,” he recounted. “When stalkers first settled in Rostok, an independent group went to survey the older parts. They vanished. Barkeep hired some others to look for them, and we searched but found nothing. Three days later it happened again.” He straightened, loaded with enough ammo to kill all of these mercs and then some. “After that, Barkeep let it be known that anyone else going into Old Rostok was on his own.”
Goncharenko was skeptical. “That's it?”
“Almost. Stalkers still go now and then, looking for loot or trying to prove something, who knows... Some of them come back empty-handed. The others don't come back at all. Old Rostok may seem peaceful, but it's not safe. Remember that.”
The ecologist turned to Degtyaryov. “Do you believe this?”
“I can,” Sasha replied mildly. “That's more plausible than gargoyle sightings.”
“There's a couple of big chimneys in the old factory, you can see them from the rooftops around the bar. People claim they've seen winged creatures roosting on them at night... I wouldn't take it too seriously. If anything perched up there, someone would have shot it by now.”
“Probably,” agreed Tiger. He gestured at Goncharenko's weapon. “Could I see that?”
“If you insist...”
The professor's submachine gun was stamped with a Colt logo and appeared to be built from M16 carbine parts. Ironically it was accessorized in the same manner as the enemy's arms, having a tactical light clamped under the barrel and a red dot optic on the carry handle. “Never seen one of these before,” Tiger remarked. “Does it shoot well?”
“The bullets go where the dot is,” replied Goncharenko indifferently. “Are you satisfied?”
Not yet. “Is it reliable? Have you practiced with it?”
“We had mandatory training before we entered the Zone. And yes, it was reliable.”
“Hm...” Perhaps it was good enough. Tiger had to keep in mind that Goncharenko wasn't a stalker, and surviving one fight didn't make him an experienced combatant. “All right,” said the former, handing back the SMG. “We're ready.”
Sasha wasn't. “Can I have a word before we go?” He withdrew behind one of the containers and Tiger joined him. “I need you to be honest,” the major began, keeping his voice low. “Is there anything else I should know about this place?”
The guide removed his mask, lest it interfere. “I told you what I know for sure. The rest is superstition and rumor.”
It was evident from Degtyaryov's expression that he'd heard some of the uglier legends about Old Rostok, and was taking them more seriously now. “I hope you're right,” he muttered. “Don't make me regret trusting you.”
“Same to you,” said Tiger pointedly. “You never showed me your ID, by the way.”
“That's right.” Sasha did show it now. “Can't go whipping this out at the bar, you understand.”
“Mm.” The photograph matched Sasha's face perfectly. “Degtyaryov, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich... Thus Machine-gunner. You didn't tell me you outrank Olga.”
The major shrugged again. “Rank doesn't count out here. Experience does.”
“True.” Tiger returned the wallet. “One more question. If we're supposed to look for survivors, shouldn't you try to contact them?”
Degtyaryov shook his head. “Radio discipline. Strictly speaking, I shouldn't have even let the professor make that call.” He unpacked a personal respirator, without protective goggles. “I'm keeping an ear open to the standard frequency. If they ask for help, I'll hear it.”
“Assuming they're alive.” The loner put his mask back on, and Sasha did the same. “Let's go.”
Being left alone hadn't improved Goncharenko's patience. “Well?” he interrogated his rescuers. “Which way are we going?”
Tiger pointed to the far end of the platform, where the tracks ran under a chain-link gate and turned north. “There's a service tunnel around the corner. Stay close to me and don't make unnecessary noise.”