| 02:21:37 1 January 2014
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
A happy new year to stalkers everywhere.|
Yevgeniy awoke in panic. How could he have fallen asleep? Baxter's watch was over, and Ashpool or Mullins wouldn't cover for him if he nodded off while they were on duty. If MacGruder found out –
Yevgeniya blinked. This wasn't the tower and that wasn't Ashpool speaking.
“You all right?”
“Yeah.” The sniper turned over, reaching across the head of the bedroll for her canteen and the little waxed paper envelope of painkillers. She gulped one down and rolled onto her back with a wince, the hurt inside her proof positive that yesterday was no dream. “Did I wake you?”
“It's okay.” Puzzlement crept into Kondratenko's voice. “I've never slept so good in the Zone.”
That made two. Sitting up, Yevgeniya grabbed her pistol and scooted down to the open end of the shipping container. There was a faint light coming from outside, enough for her to find her way as she pulled on her boots and cinched up the laces. When she stepped out, she found Tiger was up already.
“Good morning, Zhenya.”
“Hi...” She could see now that dawn was breaking over the Zone. “I'm going to use the toilet, okay?”
“Me too,” said Kondratenko, crawling out behind the androgyne.
Tiger gave a nod. “Don't take long,” he cautioned. “There's something I want to show you.”
Galina and Dmitriy had risen and taken care of their needs before the remaining pair woke, then retired to their container for a little more quiet time. Tiger let them be until the late risers came back, at which point he mustered the party. “Leave the traveling gear in the containers,” was his instruction. “We're not going far.”
The stalker led his charges across the road to the brick annex that jutted from the north face of the arena, a feature sometimes known as 'the clock tower' or 'the bell tower' to Rostok's inhabitants. In fact it housed a gravity tank, as decrepit as the walls themselves. Tiger entered through the doorway at the foot, ignoring the corner which had broken away and seemed poised to collapse. Inside the tower, a staircase snaked around the inner frame of girders which supported the reservoir above.
Trust overcame trepidity, and the others followed him. At the top, the stairs exited onto a catwalk under the east side of the cistern, its grating partially laid over with nailed boards as part of an attempt to shore up the damaged shell. The walkway connected the tower to the arena roof, then doubled back and ran up a second catwalk along the concrete lip of the tank platform. Tiger went all the way. His companions gathered on the platform, facing a breeze barely felt on the ground below.
In the coming minutes, they stood together and watched the sky burn. First the highest layers lit up, long cirrus waves shining like gold dunes traced by an impressionist's brush. The scattered puffballs beneath them glowed violet and then orange as the approaching sun's rays dipped lower, sweeping over lattice gantries and trees further out. Soon the edge of the fiery disc itself appeared over the false horizon of the factory rooftops, warming the faces of those who had come to greet it.
Then Dmitriy leaned over and whispered in Galina's ear, and Galina – hard, driven Galina – giggled at it. As one they moved to the corner of the platform, turning straight into the wind. Standing behind his girlfriend, Dmitriy hugged her around the waist while she held her arms out to either side. Kondratenko and Yevgeniya looked at them in bewilderment for a few moments, but then comprehension showed on the Latvian's face. She breathed in, closed her eyes, and began to... sing?
Singing without words was the best Tiger could think of to describe it. He had never been a prodigious consumer of music, nor one of discriminating taste. It wasn't quite a chant and definitely not a wail, though it had a mournful quality. Looking at the young lovers with that haunting sound in his ears, something clicked. Oh, that's what it is.
The guide let them go on a little longer, but eventually he had to cut in: “I don't want to spoil the mood, but we need to go down before they start broadcasting.”
“Duty needs you! Join us in the heroic struggle against the Zone!”
True to his word, the loudspeaker on the side of the tower blasted out its morning greeting just after the group left. With the rest of Rostok now awake, Tiger went alone to fetch breakfast from the bar. Galina and Dmitriy secreted themselves in their sleeping space while Kondratenko hauled out the M60 for an inspection. Yevgeniya had wanted to exercise, but resurgent pain forced her to concede defeat after four pushups. She curled up next to the cold fireplace in the hangar, her ribs and uterus duking it out for center stage.
“What were you guys doing up there?”
She couldn't be sure if he was trying to take her mind off her troubles, or simply making oblivious small talk. Either way the distraction was not unwelcome. “It's the 'flying' scene... You know, from Titanic?”
“Never seen it.” Kondratenko had an expression like he was afraid he might have made a faux pas. “It's about a boat, right?”
“It's about a rich girl who falls in love with a poor boy.”
“On a boat.”
“And the boat sinks.”
“Galya and Mitya like that kind of thing?”
The Belarusian girl had heard him. “On special occasions,” she replied dryly. “The film got a second release for the disaster's hundredth anniversary. We saw it in a hotel in Babruysk.”
Yevgeniya must have missed this news. “When was the anniversary?”
“A few weeks ago... The fourteenth or fifteenth?”
“Fifteenth,” Dmitriy confirmed.
“Funny,” said Kondratenko, so quietly that it was nearly lost as the teenagers sat down. “That's three days after...”
“After what?” asked Yevgeniya.
“Six years since the Zone appeared.” The former soldier put aside the machine gun and rubbed his hands on his knees. “I guess it's too early to make a blockbuster out of that.”
“Hollywood is making one,” Galina remarked. “Well, not a blockbuster. It's about a group of tourists going into Chernobyl.”
“Naturally, American tourists.”
“The Zone is a disease which threatens the whole world! Enlist in Duty! Be a part of the cure!”
Kondratenko shifted the subject. “Have you seen any good movies lately, Zhenya?”
She shook her head. “Not since winter. The last was on a date... I mean, I was supposed to go on a date. The weather turned bad, so we stayed home and watched The Mummy instead.”
Dmitriy perked up. “Universal, Hammer, or Universal remake?”
Yevgeniya had been too queasy to pay much attention during the end credits. “Um... I think Rachel Weisz was in it?”
“Ah,” said Dmitriy knowingly. “The remake. Did you like it?”
“It was okay. I'm not really into horror stuff... You?”
“The history and geography were all wrong. Still, I – oh, here's Tiger.”
“Here's me,” said Tiger, his hands occupied with a large bundle wrapped in paper and string. On his back he carried a lever-action rifle which Yevgeniya hadn't seen before. “They're talking about you in the bar,” the stalker told the androgyne. “About your gender and... Anyway, I'm not sure what started it.”
Repeated exposure was starting to dull Yevgeniya's sense of alarm. “How much do they know?”
“So far it's only speculation.” Tiger parked the package. “Snitch is interested, though. Could be trouble.”
The name sounded like trouble. “Who's he?”
“Information broker. Lurks in the bar most nights, dealing in stolen secrets and contraband erotica.”
“Contraband... You mean, nasty stuff?”
“Just regular porn, as far as I know.” Tiger pulled at the string's knot and the paper fell away, leaving a stack of toast and a deck of candy bars on top of canned fruit. “Even the regular is banned in this country.”
“What does he want?” Casting about for a rationale, Yevgeniya seized upon the incriminating magazine. “Did Voronin give him the photograph?”
“Unlikely.” From his pocket, Tiger produced a matchbox and a packet of white fuel tablets. “Snitch is suspected of Freedom sympathies,” he explained, “and Duty would run him out of Rostok for good if he weren't under Barkeep's wing... He's probably fishing for a scoop he can take advantage of, not knowing what he'll find.”
“Can we stop him?”
“Not easily. My advice – keep a low profile until he and the others lose interest.”
Kondratenko cut in. “What about Galya and Mitya and me? We're all wanted.”
“Seems like they're all so fixed on Zhenya that you haven't been noticed yet. Let's try to keep it that way.”
“Agreed,” said Galina. “So, what else is new?”
“I got vitamins for everyone. Wait a few minutes and you can take them with your coffee.” Tiger handed out pills sealed in tiny silver pouches. “I also got this, for after the shooting practice.”
He showed them a device with a pale gray plastic case, like a pocket calculator but thicker front to back. Instead of a number pad, the front panel had a cluster of switches surrounded by arcane glyphs and tables. A brand name, PRIPYAT, was painted on the top right corner above the LCD readout.
“My dad had one of those when I was a kid,” said Kondratenko with a hint of happy nostalgia.
“So did mine.” Tiger put the radiometer away. “It'll have to do until Barkeep has newer models for sale again.” Reaching among the fruit cans, he plucked out a piece of sheet metal with cuts around the edges. “Any questions?”
Dmitriy's hand went up. “Won't people notice that Zhenya's the only 'man' here who doesn't shave?”
“Oh...” Now that he mentioned it, Yevgeniya felt like a real idiot for forgetting that problem. “I'll do what I did before,” she offered hastily. “Play with a razor all the time, so they think I'm fussy.”
Tiger nodded. “All right, so we need four razors.”
“Five,” corrected Galina. “Unless somebody wants to share.”
Kondratenko looked at her as if she'd grown a second head. “You don't have a beard.”
Galina looked at him as if he'd declared she was a witch. “You do know women grow hair in other places, right?”
“Four razors and one extra.” Tiger bent the metal square into a flower shape. “You should pack your things while I finish this.”
Fortunately for Yevgeniya, Bonesetter's remedy had gotten the hurt back under control and there wasn't much packing to do: she started at the bottom of the bedroll and was nearly done tying it up when Kondratenko shared an idea. “What if you just tell them?”
“Those guys won't chase you if they know you have a... I mean...”
His naivete would be endearing if not for the potential need to entrust him with her life. “Most people don't take it as well as you did, Borya.” Then she thought of Sanya Deadeye. “And some of them take it too well.”
Kondratenko looked genuinely crestfallen. “But...”
“Trust me, okay?”
“Okay.” Then he dropped a non sequitur. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Yevgeniya pulled the strap much too tight. “...What?”
“You said you were dating, so I thought maybe you could give me pointers.” Where he fell short on tact, he made up in shame. “I'm not good with girls.”
“I don't have anyone.” And as much as she might pity him, this was not a conversation the sniper wanted to be having right now. “Maybe we could do this later? I need to eat.”
“Okay...” Kondratenko put on his trophy helmet and sunglasses for one last try. “How do I look?”
“Straight out of Checkpoint Charlie.” Yevgeniya pulled her kit together and went outside, only to find Galina waiting.
“We need to talk, Zhenya.”
Over her shoulder, Yevgeniya could see Tiger heating water on the Esbit stove. Beside him the unclaimed toast beckoned. She hoped this would be quick. “Sure.”
Galina all but marched her into the empty container. “We have to find a better way to deal with your bleeding. Can't afford a repeat of yesterday.”
“Oh!” Another thing Yevgeniya had forgotten in all the confusion. “Bonesetter gave me tampons. I was going to tell you... Uh, do you need some?”
“Not for a couple of weeks.” Galina's eyes narrowed. “Why does he have those?”
“He said stalkers buy them for their medkits, to plug bullet holes.”
“Interesting.” Perhaps it didn't sound so absurd to the hard-faced girl. “I'll have to remember that.”
The meal, once they got to it, was low-key. When it was over, Tiger proposed a revision of the team loadouts. By his count this group of five possessed nineteen firearms in twelve calibers, some redundant and some specialized, and everyone was over the comfortable weight limit. His new plan called for Galina and Dmitriy to consolidate by replacing their paired rifles and submachine guns with the two AK-74s. Kondratenko would give up the spare Mosin and focus on his role as the support gunner. What they didn't keep with them would go into the lockers as a reserve.
For her part Yevgeniya was told not to become reliant on the SSG-82, since Tiger intended to replace it with something more effective as finances allowed. That left the Chinese Tokarev and the assault rifle he had given her in the bar, an M16A1 made by the Hydra-Matic Division of General Motors. Unlike the factory fresh pistol or the seldom used sniper rifle, this piece showed wear from a life in the field. The stock bore a faded rack number, CAP 811, and someone had etched the initials N.C.R. and a picture of a bear on the right side of the magazine well.
Next Tiger laid out the day's itinerary: basic technique and weapon familiarization, lunch break at noon, then cross-training on the M60. As inspiration, he told the story of Mantis the bandit hunter and passed the tsarist Winchester around the circle. After giving time for questions, the guide wrapped up by distributing pairs of yellow foam earplugs.
Soon they were heading south, reversing last night's course into the factory. At least Yevgeniya thought it was the same course, since she hadn't seen very much of it in the dark. She definitely hadn't seen that gate behind the Duty checkpoint at the spike trench, wide enough to drive a truck through with room to spare. Inside the gate, a side road ran past a loading dock and hooked around the corner of the final building on the left.
At the front of the dock, three Duty men sat in folding chairs behind a folding table. Three pairs of eyes sized up the guests, and Yevgeniya felt a tightness in her stomach as she saw recognition on their faces. The one in the middle had flat, surly features, as if mashed into shape by a shovel, and dark hair buzzed short. He was flanked by a beanpole with a ponytail and an angel with a dire case of five o'clock shadow.
The ugly one shoved back his chair and stood up.
The first thing Gromyko noticed was that Galina Purkayeva had grown up to look a lot like her overbearing father. The youth glued to her like a second shadow would be that boyfriend Voronin had spoken of, which meant the other guy with the shades and the belt-fed shooter was the army runaway. Last but not least, he noted the Smirnova girl lurking at the back with a hangdog demeanor.
His orders were to observe and report, and so he would. “Welcome to the Rostok Factory Weapon Training Range named for B. S. Tachenko,” he recited, opening with the rote spiel. “I'm Sergeant Gromyko. I am not a diplomat. These are Privates Dudorov and Mironyuk, and we're your range safety officers today.” He pointed to a sign on his left. “Please follow the posted regulations at all times.”
The novices studied the list closely while Tiger and Mironyuk, whose turn it was to man the desk, handled signing-in and rental of high impact safety glasses. Responsibility for the range's activities proper fell to Gromyko himself, assisted by Dudorov. “All set?” said he when Tiger came away from the table. “Right, let's get this Komsomol outing underway!”
“Eye and ear protection on! Is everyone ready? The range is HOT!”
Standing behind the firing line between Yevgeniy's and Kondratenko's positions, Tiger watched his pupils lie down on brick-weighted tarpaulins and take up their rifles. Several paces to his left, Sergeant Gromyko was doing the same for Dmitriy and Galina. A hundred meters to their north, a line of black and white painted targets stood alone below the berm's dirt crest.
The M16 jumped, muzzle blast slapping down the grass under the flash hider. A puff of dust erupted from the backstop's scarred face. Yevgeniy took a slow breath, let it out, and squeezed again. A green 5.45mm casing rolled up to his elbow. Following its path back to the source, Tiger saw smoke jetting from the side ports of the brake on Galina's weapon. The AK kicked out another spent cartridge and he watched it bounce across the tarp.
Gromyko lifted his binoculars. “Lane one, you're almost dead center now,” he advised Dmitriy. “Keep working on your follow-through. Lane two, you're doing fine.”
Better than fine, in Tiger's opinion. Galina had turned her previous couple of bullseyes into fist sized clusters of holes and was on her way to making another sieve out of this one. Likewise for Yevgeniy. Meanwhile Kondratenko plugged away with the SKS, getting competent though not outstanding results. Dmitriy started at a disadvantage, having studied the theory without chance for practice, but he was catching up admirably under Gromyko's supervision.
It was obvious from the get-go that Voronin had given his underlings prior warning of the group's visit, and the most Tiger allowed himself was to hope they would keep it professional. Mironyuk and Dudorov stayed on the sidelines, giving no cause to complain. Gromyko, however... Tiger knew him by sight, and knew his name from gossip in the Hundred Rads – mostly to the tune of Sergeant Gromyko called Lieutenant So-and-so a bootlicker to his face. Given his reputation as a grouch with a careless tongue, his volunteering to help Dmitriy came as a happy surprise.
Kondratenko took a stripper clip form the pile at his side and refilled the carbine, mashing down the cartridges with a clumsy motion. Yevgeniy dropped an empty twenty-round magazine. Tiger was tallying the steel and brass cases strewn between the pair when, in a short lull amid Galina's and Dmitriy's shots, he heard it.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!”
“Cease fire!” Gromyko echoed. “The range is COLD!”
The trainees laid down their weapons. Tiger pulled out his earplugs, letting the deadened sound enter clearly. “There's a helicopter coming.”
The last time a chopper came his way, it slaughtered his comrades. That fact was evidently uppermost in Yevgeniy's mind as well. “Is it a raid?”
Gromyko didn't share their wariness. “If they were gunning for us, there'd be more of them and they'd come from the south. One bird, flying low and slow? That's an ecologists' ride.” He scanned the treeline behind the berm. “It's going to cross over our lines of fire. Sit tight while it passes.”
Tiger knew he was almost certainly right, but he couldn't shake off his own ill feeling as the gunship came into sight, bearing southwest toward Yantar. Whether or not it had scientists aboard, the aircraft was unmistakeably armed. The stalker tracked it hawkishly, poised to pull his companions out of the open should it veer from its course, until it disappeared behind the factory buildings.
Then there was an explosion.
The turbines' whine and the steady thrumming of the rotors were suddenly cut off. Seconds later the spectators heard a terrific bang as the heavy machine collided with solid ground. “That's not good,” said Kondratenko.
“No shit.” Gromyko twisted a dial on his personal radio. “Mainline, this is Range Safety One. You copy that impact?”
A new set of noises distracted Tiger from listening for the reply: automatic small arms fire in the direction of the Wild Territory. Yevgeniy's face lost its color. “They're shooting...”
“Oh, you fucking halfwits,” Gromyko snarled. “Not you, Mainline! I mean the assholes starting a war over there!”
To speak of 'starting a war' was not exaggerating by much, Tiger realized with a moment of grim clarity. The relationship between stalker and scientist was many things – illegal, indispensable, amiable, profitable – but it all relied on mutual trust. The stalkers trusted the scientists not to turn on them or betray them to the military, and in turn the scientists trusted the stalkers not to make provocations. Somebody, for some reason, had broken that trust... and broken it on the stalkers' very doorstep.
“What do you mean, there's no one available!? We're available!”
Tiger tried to reorient himself towards what was happening around him, only to be quickly diverted again: his special sense detected a person sprinting through the front gate and onto the range grounds. Briefly he wondered if he should retrieve one of his guns from the table where the party's arsenal was spread out, watched over by Private Dudorov. Such a precaution proved unnecessary once the intruder came flying around the last corner and slid to a stop, completely winded.
It was Sasha Machine-gunner, the Security Service agent. “There you are,” he panted, fixing on Tiger.
The pathfinder had a pretty good idea what he wanted, but he asked anyway. “What's going on?”
“We...” Sasha pointed to the ongoing battle, struggling for breath. “We have to go. Now.”
So this was it, time to work. Tiger looked at Gromyko, who was still arguing with his radio, and then at his own rookies. “Keep practicing. I'll be back.” Going to the table, he snatched the Winchester and a fistful of loaded clips off the nearest end. “Let's move.”
| 06:30:47 20 November 2013
On forum: 02/26/2011
This story is utterly amazing. Hopefully it won't go too long between updates, because I'm finding myself looking forward to more chapters as much as I'm (oh so very patiently) waiting for Lost Alpha. I'm especially appreciating how deftly you intertwine your story with certain spots in the game.|
| 08:49:20 15 November 2013
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
I don't always post chapters.|
But when I do, I post them here.
Seven Moments of Stalking
“We run out of food tomorrow unless we cut back to quarter rations or start eating what we kill. Water from local sources cannot be guaranteed safe. Lytvyn and Prasolov are going to die unless they get specialized medical treatment. Our maps of the region are useless. Our long range radios are inoperable.” Sergeant Gromyko waits for questions, but there are none. “I think we should stick to the plan,” he concludes. “Wait for daylight and keep heading south.”
His opinion doesn't get a warm reception from the handful of officers and noncoms gathered around the campfire. He understands their reluctance: several meters behind him, Privates Dudorov and Mironyuk are covering the mine's entrance with a machine gun while the weary and wounded rest deeper inside. Outside lies the Red Forest, and the scattered bodies of those who fell during the retreat. There will be more bodies if the march continues, but the alternative is to sit and wait for an unlikely rescue.
For the moment, Captain Voronin sides with his junior. “We must proceed with caution, but we must proceed. Krylov has occupied a tolerable position and made contact with some of the local looters. He may be able to barter for supplies... Perhaps these so-called 'stalkers' can provide more powerful weapons as well.”
Gromyko doesn't see the point, though he's seen firsthand how the army issue 5.45mm rifles are barely effective against the monsters which swarm upon this dwindling corps from every direction. The only potent defense they have is the PKM in the tunnel, with a belt and a half left to feed it. “By the time we get close enough to make any deals, we'll be hours away from the perimeter.”
“We can't leave.”
Gromyko's eyes turn to Captain Tachenko, who until now seemed content to let Voronin speak for their shared leadership. “What?”
“I said we can't leave.” The second captain gets up. “The government has never competently confronted the threat of the Zone. The best they could do is throw us into the grinder and leave us to die.”
Gromyko knows the other men are beginning to share these bitter sentiments. He didn't expect to hear them given voice by the ambitious Tachenko, however. “What are you suggesting?”
“The freaks in this place won't be deterred by barbed wire or searchlights, once they become bold enough to approach the fence and smell fresh meat on the other side. Containment will not succeed unless the beasts are dealt with proactively, culled before they escape their breeding grounds.”
Gromyko cuts to the chase. “You want us to desert.”
“The politicians and generals deserted us. We owe our duty to the people, not to squabbling nomenklatura in Kiev.”
“I agree with Tachenko,” says Voronin gravely. “The duty is ours now.”
There are twenty-odd bodies piled along the bottom of the ditch, limbs splayed and tangled. Their wounds suggest a sudden end by gunfire, followed with bludgeoning and stabbing. The ones who haven't been stripped wear black and red.
Gromyko turns his back on the shallow grave. “What happened?”
It isn't lack of sleep that makes Sergeant Kitsenko look so haggard. “Bandits started marching the prisoners out of camp during the night,” he explains. “Brought them this far, then opened up with automatics. They missed one guy in the dark and he crawled away while they were finishing the rest. We picked him up on dawn patrol.”
“The witness says a skinhead with an accent was running the show, plus eight or nine thugs. They took off toward Zapolye when they were done.”
“Further north, huh?” Couldn't have gone too far without putting themselves in the sights of the Monolith crazies, though. “What do you have, Matvey?”
“Spent cartridges indicate at least three shooters,” Mironyuk reports dispassionately. “I can't tell much from the footprints... There are no tags on the corpses, only broken chains.”
Gromyko's eyes narrow. “The bandits took their tags?”
“That's right,” says Kitsenko. “All except for a couple that were clipped by bullets... It gets better,” he adds. “Voronin's coming up here.”
A harsh blow has been struck against Duty: those who were seized in the raid on Cherevach were mostly raw novices, sent to hold territory so that experienced fighters like Gromyko himself could move to the front lines. Replacing them will be difficult, more so as news of the slaughter reaches potential recruits in the south.
“Yeah, I heard.” Gromyko faces the trench again. “I told my people to expect marching orders.”
Gromyko is ten paces from the door when the hostiles on the other side kick it open. He fires four rounds into the pointman's heart before his rattle-trap L85 jams for the third time. Automatic fire sprays past as he dives for cover, rolling to the left behind an empty fuel drum. Turning the rifle on its side, he discovers the latest malfunction is worse than a simple stovepipe.
They're coming for him and he has no backup. Gromyko drops the weapon without hesitation and draws his pistol. He blind fires half the magazine around the side of the barrel, then goes over the top. The second gunman is already down with multiple leg hits and the next in line has taken a round to his strong side forearm. Gromyko finishes him with a center mass double tap and he falls to the right, arms flailing.
That leaves one more. Gromyko squeezes and feels recoil, but doesn't feel the trigger reset. Brass glints in the ejection port: another stovepipe stoppage. Snarling in frustration, he whips back his hand and flings the Glock at his final enemy. It strikes low in the chest as Gromyko springs up to finish the fight with his bare hands.
Then the buzzer sounds. “Cease fire, cease fire, cease fire,” Major Zvyagintsev commands through his megaphone. “Gromyko, don't abuse the equipment. Dombrik, where did you learn to breach and clear?”
Dombrik looks up at the observation platform, where the major and several others have been watching the exercise. “I thought we were evaluating the marker ammunition,” he protests.
“That doesn't mean you can fool around,” Zvyagintsev chides. “The drill is over. Secure all weapons before leaving the firing range. We'll have a review after you clean up.”
Gromyko lets out a breath of relief. The sooner he can get out of this gas mask and sweltering coveralls, the better. In front of him, the casualties of his last stand pick themselves up off the kill house floor and put their equipment in order. The fronts of their uniforms are peppered with spots of bright green paint. “I'm going to call you the frog squad from now on,” Gromyko quips as he bends to collect his rifle.
Dombrik isn't amused. “You didn't have to throw your damn gun at me,” he complains, pulling the magazine out of his MP5. “I was already hit.”
“Not critically,” Gromyko counters. Turning away, he sees the other half of Dombrik's team and all of his own people gathering in the roofless room via its other doors. His men are marked with yellow paint, and panic fire has covered the plywood back wall in an identical hue. “How the hell did you go down so fast?” he needles, picking out Mironyuk and Dudorov from the group.
“It was worth it to see you do the John McClane thing,” says Dudorov cheerfully.
“Very funny.” After Dombrik and his comrades clear the door, Gromyko recovers his sidearm. The Glock is a dedicated training model with a blue plastic frame, easy to spot on the ground. The L85 is a surplus service weapon fitted with a conversion bolt. Neither merits a passing grade today. “This may be good enough for the Kiev police,” Gromyko declares, “but damned if it's good enough for us.”
“Save it for the review,” Mironyuk counsels. “Let's get out of these straightjackets.”
“They're coming up the sides!” Gromyko is shouting, but his voice sounds distant to his own ears. “Get to the surface and report what's happened!”
Sorokin takes to his heels at once, running for the passageway that will carry him to blessed daylight. Gromyko turns back to the yawning maw of the cargo elevator shaft, rifle readied as he approaches. The yellow beam from his headlamp catches movement twelve meters down: a seething tide of flat eyeless bodies and spindly limbs. If his ears weren't shot, he would hear the dry rustle of their papery off-white skin.
Gromyko's finger tightens. The AK-47 shakes in his hands, transmuting his fury into a deadly hail. Bullets punch through organs and sever tendons, throwing out showers of sparks when they hit the shaft's steel lining. Shrieking monstrosities peel off the wall in sprays of gore and tumble into the pit. The magazine runs empty. Gromyko yanks it, flips it over and inserts the feed end of the second mag taped to its side. He circles the lip of the shaft, sweeping the other walls. In seconds the rifle is empty again.
Thirty rounds at a time isn't cutting it. Gromyko tears open the pouch on his left hip, which holds a pair of seventy-five round drums. They were spares for Dudorov's RPK, but Dudorov and the RPK lie somewhere in the maze below, together with Mironyuk, Gunko, Zamosenchuk, Izhenko and Korovin. Gromyko feels the magazine catch snap home, racks the bolt and keeps circling, pouring fire and thunder into the hole.
His hearing is totally gone now, his vision half burnt out by muzzle flash, and the troglodytes just don't stop coming as he expends the first drum, then the second. The rifle's handguard is becoming painfully hot to the touch, and he realizes his meager ammunition reserve isn't enough to drive back these myriad abominations. Gromyko retreats from the shaft, hurriedly reloading, and bolts for the exit.
It takes a brave man to land a four engine aircraft on a country road. It takes another brave man to stand at the end of that road, holding a rag in each hand to guide that aircraft as it comes barreling towards him. Gromyko is glad to be neither of these brave men, though he feels honest relief when he sees Pilot make a successful touchdown.
“Let's go!” he yells to his followers. “Your ride's here!”
His ears have recovered, helped by judicious application of healing artifacts, but the tinnitus which was a faint annoyance for the last few years is getting harder to ignore. It's not yet enough to muffle the panting and wheezing as Professors German and Ozyorskiy struggle to keep up, shooting out clouds of vapor with every breath. Poplar and his team come close behind, porters for a precious cargo of laptops, hard drives, documents and sample containers from the mobile laboratory.
Old School is taxiing along the roundabout by the time the evacuation group arrives. Five roads converge here among open fields, but only one is straight enough, and clear of anomalies and trees, to serve as a runway. It leads south-southeast through the contaminated vehicle dump at the former 'Chernobylservice' garage and into the town of Zalesye.
Zalesye, or Zalissya, straddles the route between Chernobyl and Freedom's army warehouses. Gromyko thinks it was probably a nice place to live before the local economy's greatest pride turned to poison. Now unchecked woods engulf the empty community. For stalkers too young to remember life in the Soviet Union, it's a glimpse into the world of their parents. The town hall, dating from 1959, still bears a hammer and sickle over its porticoed entrance. The school is a couple of years newer. Nearby, a weathered icon of a mourning mother reminds visitors of the community's sacrifice during the Great Patriotic War. On the main road, gaudy fixtures extol the bright future of peaceful atomic energy.
The overcast sky gives a dull sheen to Old School's silver skin as it completes its maneuver and rolls to a stop, engines idling. From this angle Gromyko can see the name and accompanying artwork on the nose: a reclining woman in a vintage pilotka cap – and nothing else. Muskrat the ground controller, conspicuous in his Freedom colors, starts walking around the airplane to check for problems. Gromyko heads for the starboard side of the tail, shaking off his backpack.
The machine is eerily quiet up close, save for its whirling propellers. A hatch at the rear swings open and the disheveled face of Cardan emerges. He slides out a folding ladder as Gromyko wades through the cold, odorless prop wash. “I brought a little more fuel,” the Dutyer calls, holding out the pack. “Compliments of the third defensive line!”
Cardan sets it inside the hatch, unzips the top and takes out a Moonlight. “Thanks,” he grunts, sliding the pack to someone behind him. “All for Lviv, get aboard!”
Up the ladder go the professors, their accessories, and their assistants. Up goes the ladder and the hatch closes. Ozyorskiy appears in the observation bubble behind the wing, waving goodbye. Gromyko gives a salute and stands back to watch Muskrat finish his inspection. Soon the signal comes: all clear. The engines hum as Pilot brings them up to full power and releases the brakes. The plane gathers speed fast, lifts its nose, and just a moment later the big balloon tires rise off the pavement.
Artur would love this.
It's at quiet moments like this, between the surges, that the grief begins to well up. Somehow Gromyko always assumed Matvey and Artur would outlive him, or else they'd all buy it together, and being the only one left hurts more than he ever imagined. He's kept a lid on it by keeping busy, putting on a stoic face and throwing himself into the greater crisis. Not everyone is handling it so well: two days ago Sorokin sat down at breakfast and served himself a Makarov's muzzle.
The Freedom fighter called in a radio report while his Duty counterpart was reminiscing. “Morlocks have occupied the Jupiter factory,” he informs Gromyko. “Stalkers are pulling back from Yanov.”
Not much choice. The railway station is too far from the next stronghold, too isolated to withstand a siege. “Pulling back to where?”
“Dunno yet... You want a smoke?”
Muskrat lights up, takes a drag, leaves the cigarette between his gloved fingers. “There's something else,” he says softly. “Our hunter outpost at Krasne – it's gone.”
Krasne is a hamlet on the edge of a boggy woodland twenty kilometers west of Pripyat, deep in the badlands. On a map, one could get there by following the tracks from Yanov to Tolstyy Les and turning northwest. In the Zone it's never so easy. “What happened?”
The other man shrugs. A gust of frigid wind sweeps over the pair and both of them shrink from it. “Maybe winter will stop the mutants,” says the Freedom stalker optimistically.
“You ever seen any of the old ones?”
Gromyko has heard of the Quatermass serials, but he hasn't watched any. It wasn't in the job description. “No.”
“Shame.” Nigel chews the end of his hoodie's drawstring, staring at the squat green ISU-152 on the stone pedestal in the park's center. “...What is that, anyway?”
“Tank destroyer,” Gromyko says. “A monument to the Battle of Kursk.”
“Huh.” Nigel slouches, the bench not having a back to rest against. “Why's it here?”
Exterior filming has wrapped for the day and the cast and crew are taking something called 'afternoon tea'. Gromyko thinks his command of English is pretty good, but the reverence his employers display towards this custom suggests he's overlooked some deeper meaning. Nigel does not care for afternoon tea, or rather he does not care to attend afternoon tea if he has to share a table with Simon Russet. Russet plays the eponymous Quatermass in this production, and Gromyko would much rather share a table with him than with 'Nervous' Nigel.
Sadly Nigel doesn't speak any Russian, so Gromyko has to chaperone him when he goes out. “Why..?”
“Why not Kursk?”
“This is closer to the front,” Gromyko points out. “They have monuments in Kursk too.”
Nigel chews on the drawstring some more. “Not many tourists here, are there?”
Though Gromyko is not privy to the details of the Nigel-Russet dispute, he suspects the former's attention deficit problem is a factor. “Not anymore.”
Chernobyl tourism gave Kurchatov's economy a shot in the arm after the real thing became inaccessible: of three RBMK type nuclear power plants still operating in Russia, Kursk AES most closely resembles its Ukrainian sibling. Smolensk AES and the associated town of Desnogorsk benefited from the morbid fascination as well, but neither they nor the Leningrad installation on the Baltic coast could offer that iconic backdrop for the perfect holiday album. The boom is all over, now that the Kursk and Smolensk plants are both less than a hundred kilometers from the Zone's perimeter. Only hardcore enthusiasts still wade through the red tape to come here.
“Sod it,” says Nigel suddenly. “Let's go back to the hotel.”
One more week, Gromyko tells himself. One more week and then he can find another job for the rest of the summer.
“Take a seat. The commander will see you soon.”
Svetlana the sniper goes out, leaving Gromyko to his own devices. He's too on edge to sit down, however, and it's not long before his eyes start roving. He knows from gossip on his journey that an invitation into these chambers is a rare event, and the abruptness of the summons made him wary from the start.
The apartment is modest and sparsely furnished, with an air of being owned yet not inhabited. Its living room hosts a table with four chairs and a writing desk in one corner. A simple wooden gun rack hangs on the wall by the bedroom door. At first Gromyko only glances at the rack, but then a sense of familiarity draws him back to it. The lower slots are filled by an aged M16 and a Mauser with a telescopic sight and a photograph of a young Kim Wilde glued to the stock.
As he takes in more of the room, his sense is confirmed by another object: a sketchbook drawing in an unpretentious frame, hung on the wall across from the rack. To a careless eye, it's merely a figure study of a young woman. A more attentive viewer won't miss the central motif of the piece, the element which reveals a provocative purpose. The work is signed 'Arkadiy' in the bottom right corner.
One detail has changed since Gromyko saw the drawing when it was new. The original title is obliterated, covered by a smear of black paint that leaves only the framing quotation marks. There's a new caption now, in a hand not the artist's: Ye. M. Smirnova | 25 March 1990 – 3 May 2012
Gromyko is pondering this when the bedroom door opens and the one who summoned him enters. For a long moment they stare at one another, until she breaks the standoff. “Sorry for the delay,” says Butterfly, her voice quiet. “I had to take care of Zoya.”
“One of my apprentices. She hasn't been sleeping well.”
This isn't how Gromyko anticipated the meeting would start off. “It's no problem,” he fumbles. “I just got here.”
“It's good to see you again.” She doesn't seem angry or bitter, which was what he feared. “I hope you didn't think I was avoiding you in Mogilyov.”
Gromyko did suspect it, but he's willing to believe he was wrong. “I was pretty busy myself.”
Butterfly nods. “You made a good impression on the jaegers. Borisov especially.”
She sits at the table, he follows suit. “I wish they would stop with the hero worship,” Gromyko admits.
“Are you afraid of disappointing them?”
He contemplates the tabletop. “I don't know. Maybe.”
“I understand how you feel.”
Gromyko won't disagree. “You have it worse than I do,” he offers guardedly.
“Do I?” Butterfly laces her fingers. “Isn't it easier to surpass a low reputation than meet a high one?”
“People out there say you're a nymphomaniac. They say you treat the amazons as your personal harem. How do you stand it?”
“It doesn't matter.”
So she says, yet her face hardens. Gromyko lets the subject drop. “Can I ask why you wanted to see me? I don't mind chatting, but your message made it sound like there's something urgent going on.”
“Somewhat urgent.” Butterfly tips her head. “I don't know if anyone told you, but you were called to Chernigov for an offer of reassignment. The personnel committee thinks you would be more useful assisting the ring defense.”
“And you want me to take the offer.”
“No.” Butterfly leans back in her chair. “I would like you to consider another option.”
“You probably know that our position is being threatened by militant sects which have established themselves in the Zone – mujahideen from the Caucasus, doomsday cults, the renewed Monolith movement... Warden is assembling a precision strike team to deal with these groups, a unit which can interdict their supply routes, destroy their camps.”
“Stalker spetsnaz,” Gromyko elucidates. “You're saying I should sign up for this?”
“You should try.” The chief amazon folds her arms. “Either way, the program is going forward with my support. I will not sit and wait for a video of some goat-fucker mullah cutting off my girls' heads.”
Gromyko can't help but grimace. “I don't really think I'm qualified, but I'll look into it.”
“That's all I ask.” Butterfly relaxes a little. “You won't have to be a sergeant much longer, you know.”
“Mm.” In all honesty, Gromyko has been one for so long he can't picture himself any other way. “There's something else I'd like to ask you, Commander...”
He points at the drawing. “Why?”
Butterfly's expression saddens. “A reminder,” she says. “I promised I wouldn't forget the short time we had together... The four of us who were with Tiger.”
Even after three and a half years, Gromyko understands her meaning. “But the dates?” he wonders. “Isn't that a bit morbid?”
“It's part of my promise.” Her eyes seem to look right through the paper. “To remember there was once a girl called Zhenya, who wanted more than anything to be loved.”