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Tiger's Spring

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  21:17:34  26 January 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Status update: working on getting Call of Pripyat sooner rather than later for filler reduction purposes.
  04:51:26  13 February 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
It's-a back!

The Secrets We Keep

“Yeah,” the stranger replied tiredly. “Here are the documents from the Institute.” He unclipped the oblong white case which hung from the front of his suit and laid it on the bartop.

“Great work, Marked One.” Barkeep took the case, rapped it with his knuckles and then set it on the floor by the stove. “We have the documents at last... I need to have a look at them now, and maybe I’ll work out how to get north.” He took a scratched and scuffed PDA from a back pocket and fiddled with it briefly. “While I do that, if you have problems with money, you can fight at the arena. The owner of the arena is Arnie – I've uploaded his coordinates.

“Okay.” Marked One bent and lifted his two extra backpacks. “I have some things to sell,” he said hopefully.

“Yeah? Let's see what you've got...”

“Look at that,” Southpaw muttered. “What'd he do, pick up every single Jellyfish, Wrenched and Sparkler he came across?”

It looked that way to Tiger. “He's been quite thorough,” he remarked softly, watching as a mountain of low-grade artifacts grew atop the bar.

“Yeah.” Southpaw resumed eating, as did Tiger, though the former continued to sneak glances at the newcomer.

“Let's drink to him once more,” the patron in the far corner said suddenly, raising his bottle. “He was a good stalker.”

“I'll drink to that.” Southpaw took a long pull from his soda can. “Who are we drinking to?”

“Otter, probably.”

“Really? What happened?”

“He tried to get past the Scorcher.” Tiger shrugged. “Must have thought he'd found a weakness, but no luck...”

“Sounds nasty. I heard he was pretty smart, too.” The left-hander sighed. “It can really happen to anyone, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Man... Same thing day after day.” Southpaw briefly contemplated the ceiling. “People can't help but to take up booze with this life... They just want to forget everything.”

“That's right.”

Southpaw cocked his head. “I haven't seen you drinking, though. Guess that means you're not doing so bad, eh?”

“I never drink,” said Tiger solemnly. “It makes me stupid.” He glanced behind himself and saw that Marked One had finished his transaction.

He wasn't the only one watching: “Come here,” Snitch crooned. “I've always got something interesting for people like you.”

“The predator strikes,” Southpaw commented wryly. “No scruples at all.”

Tiger nodded. “He knows an easy score when he sees one.”

“Black raven,” Brome slurred in the background, “black raven... Circling – hic – above the gray...”

Southpaw finished his food before speaking once more. “So, uh... What's the story with your ex?”

“She was... very proud of her independence,” the mildly mutated one reminisced slowly. “She didn't want to rely on anyone or have anyone rely on her.” He examined his soda minutely. “I... had a bad spell once, and she... she left me right when I needed her most.”

“That's just wrong.” There was no doubting his companion's sincerity. “And you became a stalker after that?”

“More or less.”

“Leave me alone,” a patron somewhere in the back of the room grumbled. “Life is bad enough...”

Bad enough, Tiger thought wryly. It was bad enough before I went to the Red Forest, before I met Friar, before Olga came back into my life, before this whole damn mess was dumped on me... “Why do you want to know about her?” he asked aloud. “Has this happened to you also?”

“Not so far,” Southpaw admitted. “I never had time for women when I was a machinist.”

“Ah...” Tiger wondered where the strong-willed female was now. Coming into camp after a day of honest prospecting? She could throw a bolt as good as the rest of them, sure enough... Prowling the night in search of bandits, taking up the task Mantis had left unfinished? Her ruthless streak was compounded by a tough sense of justice, after all... Sitting on a log somewhere, watching stars twinkle above a deceptively tranquil landscape? She was fascinated by the Zone in a way few stalkers could comprehend... She can do whatever she wants, he decided at last, as long as she leaves me alone.

“Uh, Tiger...”

“Huh?” It took the stripe-haired stalker a few moments to realize Southpaw was alerting him to the fact that someone was trying to get his attention. Looking up, he found no less a personage than Marked One at his elbow. “What do you want?” he asked sharply.

The thin man regarded him curiously. “What did you hear?”

Tiger blinked. That's it? He just wants the news? Might as well chalk it up to the amnesia and humor the man, he thought. “There's a rumor going around that Duty and Freedom have made a secret ceasefire agreement,” he divulged. “I think it's good news if it's true. Fighting each other just wastes resources and lets the real problems spread unchecked... And if one did destroy the other, what then? Could Duty defend Rostok and hold the Barrier at the same time? Could Freedom?” Tiger shook his head. “Opposite extremes average out to an even balance, and that's best for us stalkers.”

“That makes sense,” Marked One replied thoughtfully... and wandered out of the Hundred Rads without another word or a second glance.

“Freaky.” Southpaw made a face as his wake dissipated. “He acts like... like some kind of robot.”

“Yes,” Tiger concurred.

“Memory loss sure can mess a guy up, huh? Glad it's not me... Anyway, what about this work Voronin wants done? Any ideas?”

“I don't know... Probably something to do with mutants or bandits – he knows I won't take jobs against Freedom.”

“That suits me fine.” Southpaw stifled a burp. “But no more bribing the punks, okay?”

“No more bribes,” Tiger assured him. “I'm through with that.”

“I hope so... By the way, do you know anything about artifact activation?”

“That's not something to be done casually,” the more experienced stalker warned. “What about it?”

Southpaw shrugged. “Just curious. I've heard others talk about it, but I never got the details.”

“Ah...” Tiger thought briefly. “It's simple in theory,” he explained, “but very dangerous in practice... Some types of artifact are inherently – ”

He didn't get further than that, as another visitor entered the bar. This one wore a gas mask and a suit in the red-on-black colors of Duty. After one look around the premises, he went straight to Tiger and Southpaw. “You're the ones looking for work?” he asked curtly.

Tiger knew him by his voice: he was the warrant officer, Duty's chief recruiter and an alleged veteran of the Ukrainian security service, the SBU. His name and other details were unknown. “We are,” he replied.

The warrant officer wedged himself in between them. “The situation is this,” he informed them in a lowered tone. “An unknown group has recently appeared in the southern swamps. They are attacking all stalkers who enter that area. You will join a group tasked with observing these marauders and, if possible, putting them out of action... If you're interested, go to the Garbage checkpoint at dawn tomorrow. You'll receive further details there.”

“The Garbage checkpoint at dawn,” Southpaw repeated. “Anything we should bring?”

“Sufficient food, ammunition and medical essentials for a few days in the field, plus functional artifacts if you have them.”

“The usual stuff, then. Got it.”

The Duty man nodded. “Good luck.” He departed on that note, leaving Tiger to wonder where he was going to get the cash for all the things he'd lost, or if he'd just have to plan on feeding himself with whatever he could scrounge or shoot along the way.

Southpaw came to his rescue. “I know that look,” said he, producing a wad of banknotes. “Here, use this to stock up.”

His companion wasn't used to such generosity. “I shouldn't impose – ”

“You aren't,” the sinistral one interrupted firmly. “Grub alone is hardly enough to pay you back after what you've done for me... Just keep doing what you do, hey?”

“I will... Thank you.”

“Any time, friend.” Southpaw rolled his shoulders. “We'll have to get up early... Guess I'll go find a mattress by a fire and get some downtime. See you later.” The left-handed loner made his exit, stopping just long enough to dispose of his soda can. Tiger remained at the table, full of thoughts.

Friend...

Tiger hadn't had one of those in a long, long time. It felt strangely comforting to hear the word now, when so much of his world was shadowed by doubt and insecurity.

***

It was at times like this that being in good standing with Barkeep truly paid off. He'd granted Tiger a hefty discount on his purchases of canned and dried rations, bandages, a replacement vodka flask and jackknife, and a couple of boxes of cheap ammunition for the Lee-Enfield. Tiger still lacked a pistol and a detector, but he could make do without the latter and would come by the former easily enough: even a bandit's Makarov would be adequate for his purposes.

He left the Hundred Rads with loaded pockets and quickly discovered that the predicted rain was now falling in full force. After stopping to tuck his rifles under his coat and pull his hood well down, he hustled across the deserted streets of the Rostok factory complex and into the nearest of the cavernous buildings which served as many a stalker's makeshift dormitory. Southpaw wasn't there, so he carefully made his way between the resting occupants and headed for the next one.

“Hold up,” a gruff voice called from his right. “That you, Tiger?”

Tiger turned to find Oleg 'Fiend' Gusarov regarding him from the far side of a barred window. “Yes?” he answered, moving so that he was sheltered by the overhanging edge of the roof.

“A stalker was asking around about you earlier,” Fiend grunted. “Never took the mask off, but the voice sounded female. Anyone you know?”

Damn it!

“I think so,” Tiger sighed. “What did she want?”

“Hideouts, hunting grounds, other places where you could be found... I told her I didn't know anything, so she thanked me and went on her way.”

“I see... Well, thanks for warning me.”

“Not so fast,” the veteran growled. “Since when do you hang out with spooks?”

“I don't. Why would you think I do?”

“That's the vibe I got from your lady friend. MVS would be my guess.”

“She's no friend of mine,” Tiger protested sourly. “Are you sure?”

There was an annoyed snort. “You know where I served, buddy.”

Tiger did know. Oleg Gusarov had served in the Belotserkovskaya Spetsnaz as a master sergeant, cross-trained in sniping and bomb disposal, and that meant he was a bonafide tough SOB. He'd seen more combat – and more state intelligence personnel – than Tiger probably would in his entire life. “I don't know anything about it,” the civilian stalker insisted.

“If you say so,” Fiend replied. “It ain't my problem, but don't say I didn't warn you.”

Tiger walked on through the rain, head beginning to spin again. He found Southpaw inside the next building, huddled with three more stalkers around a fire in a cut down oil drum. One of the others was attempting to tune a well-worn guitar.

“...So they dunk him in the well a third time and ask again: 'Artifacts? Money?' Now by this point the stalker is getting pretty fed up, so he says to the mercs, 'Guys, you gotta stick me in either deeper or longer – the water's so murky, how am I supposed to find anything?'”

“Hee-hee! That one never gets old... Eh, I guess it would if it happened to you.”

“Yeah, that would suck... Mind you, I had some trouble myself with Duty the other day.”

“No kidding. What happened?”

“They a-taxed me something awful... So I flew to the Freedom base and now I travel duty-free.”

“Bwahahahaha! Oh, man... Heeheehee... That was awful...”

“So guys,” Southpaw interjected, “how long before we start seeing 'GOP STOP' signs in the Garbage?”

“Dunno,” the stalker with the guitar quipped. “When Borov learns to read, maybe.”

“Read!? His thugs barely know how to speak... Hi, Tiger. You got everything?”

“Yes.” Tiger sat on a cinderblock by the fire, tucking his coat under himself. He watched the flames dance as the stalker with the guitar launched into an uneven rendition of a Firelake song which was often played in the Hundred Rads.

Why, he wondered, would the Ministry of Internal Affairs send a foreign national as their agent, let alone a woman? Had Olga's story about quitting her job to seek adventure been a big lie, or was Fiend simply mistaken? What had she been working on at the institute over these last five years? Was she following him as part of some mission, or was it purely personal?

He went to sleep without resolving any of these questions.

***

“One more, on the right... We're clear.”

“Phew.” Southpaw straightened as the pair emerged from the maze of Whirlygig anomalies which clogged the road to the Garbage. “Getting through those used to be such a pain...”

The checkpoint was built around the surviving concrete and steel edifices of a junction on the pipeline which once ran through the Garbage. The pipe itself was long gone, torn up and buried in the mounds of contaminated junk. There were usually seven or eight Duty guards stationed here, but Tiger also made out the figures of four free stalkers hanging around in the dim pre-dawn light. “Good morning,” he said to the sergeant in charge. “We're here to join the swamp raid.”

“You want Commissar Bandicoot.” The NCO pointed to a comrade in a black balaclava.

“You're punctual,” the highlighted man said when the duo came to him. “I appreciate that... Right, this is everybody – gather around, people.” Taking out a large map, he spread it over the face of a concrete slab and held up a penlight. “We were alerted to this problem by Trapper yesterday. He received a distress call from some stalkers who were under attack, but they were wiped out before he could reach them. He watched from a distance as the unknown group disposed of the bodies, then retreated and alerted us... We don't know the identity or disposition of the enemy, but it is likely that they are using an abandoned faction base in the southwestern swamps as their camp. Any of you know the place?”

“I do,” Tiger volunteered. “It's a service station in the middle of a dense thicket. There are only a couple of paths to it, and they're well hidden.”

“That's right... Trapper saw them dumping the bodies near the water-pumping station, here. He reported that the intruders seemed intent on minimizing their visibility and posted no sentries in obvious places... Current anomaly patterns in the area are stable, but not favorable. There are severe electrical formations around the pylons here, here and here, and some intermittent psi-fields in the same places. The eastern road is inaccessible due to heavy concentrations of gravity traps, which rules out the machine shop, church and southeastern farmstead as strategic locations. The farmstead in the northeast quarter by the rail line will be our primary fallback point, but we may do better to set up in the village ruins to the west or the boat park near the bridge.”

“So we're going wading,” one of the loners remarked succinctly.

“Perhaps.” Bandicoot pointed to the bank of the river at the west edge of the marshy region. “The approach to the back door is defended by a guard post here, with a watchtower.”

“The tower's gone,” Tiger corrected. “It collapsed sometime in February or March.”

“Never mind it, then... The other path of approach is via the pumping station and then the fishing hamlet just outside the base. The watchtower there is still intact, so we'll have to be careful... Questions?”

Nobody spoke.

“All right. Remember that this is a Duty operation – that means you take orders from me. If you have a problem with that, fall out now.”

Nobody moved.

“Very good.” Bandicoot packed up the map. “To the Cordon we go, then.” He pointed to a row of cardboard boxes in green cloth carriers with slings. “Every man take a box and move out!”

***

The boxes belonged to one of the other stalkers, a fellow who called himself Gosha Strongman. He wasn't especially large, but he carried a Vietnam-vintage M60 with duct tape around the grip and baling wire around the gas cylinder. Each box held a spare hundred-round ammunition belt for the mechanical monster. Their distribution provoked some grumbling at first.

The rest of the group's collective loadout was similarly eclectic. The wiry Vitka Meteorologist had a Shpagin submachine gun with a spare drum in a pouch on each hip, while German Fisher sported severe stubble and a late-model Thompson which he claimed to have bought from a retiring Serbian stalker. Anatoly Tourist packed a Mosin carbine with a folding bayonet and a Smith & Wesson Victory revolver in a holster under the bottom of his towering rucksack.

The only modern weapon among the raiders was the G36 carried by Bandicoot. “Won it from a Freedom member,” he said when Vitka asked about it. “Fair and square in a bare-knuckle boxing match.”

“Bet he wasn't happy about that,” Southpaw remarked.

“Oh, he was quite sporting,” the Duty man recalled placidly. “Of course I'm sure they had plenty of replacements.”

The conversation turned to speculation about the identity of the hostile group as they passed the rail hangar near the middle of the Garbage, interspersed with reminiscing about glorious feats of days passed. Tiger contributed little to the chatter: he was busy contemplating the future. Finish this job, build up some funds and start working his way towards the Dead City, that was the plan.

Plans are disconcertingly fragile when subjected to real-world conditions.
  20:54:29  15 February 2010
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NATOguns
(Senior)
 
On forum: 10/11/2008
 

Message edited by:
NATOguns
02/15/2010 20:56:59
Messages: 66
MOAR!!!
Wait let me write your next part! Here it comes.

Tiger: After the raid in the Swamplands we returned to the bar. There we splitted the loot and bought some more ammo from barkeep. All of a sudden every STALKER in the bar watched someone enter trough the door. He was... he was carying a dead bandit. When we looked closer, the one who held the bandit was the Marked One. Before we could ask why he brought a corpse with him, he moved and taking the corpse with him.
The bandits corpse twitched and danced in the air, it was both a gruesome and beautfull sight. We where all enchanted.

The next thing that happend was even stranger, he pulled down the pants of the bandit and.. and he pulled a AK-47 out of his ass. We thought how the hell did THAT goes in THAT?! Marked One wasn`t done thought, he pulled one after another out of the bandits ass. AK, grenades, ammo, medpack,vodka you name it and it came out of that. This went on for 30 minutes.

After these 30 minutes we were all speechless and then barkeep openend his mouth. Barkeep: Is that all Marked One? Yes, oke then. Is it me or is this less than the last time. The Marked One replied with ''Sorry barkeep, but they just don`t make em like they did''

With that out of his mouth Marked One collected his cash and left. Leaving the corpse behind. That night we made a deal with every STALKER in the bar, the deal was that if you die, the STALKER who was with you should trow you next to a whirler to prevent these kinde of things.

After this deal no one saw the Marked One ever again.

The End
  22:45:08  19 February 2010
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NATOguns
(Senior)
 
On forum: 10/11/2008
Messages: 66
Why does no one comment on the story of BobBQ? Its freaking epic!
Come on support or troop.... I mean writers!
  02:42:39  20 February 2010
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Petro Crowbar
(Novice)
 
On forum: 02/12/2010
Messages: 3
Its very epic, epic indeed. This is one of the best stories on the forum that I've seen so far, along with snorkbait. Lets see some more writing.
  16:24:49  20 February 2010
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
 

Message edited by:
PCDania
02/20/2010 16:25:46
Messages: 1825

---QUOTATION---
Its very epic, epic indeed. This is one of the best stories on the forum that I've seen so far, along with snorkbait. Lets see some more writing.
---END QUOTATION---


Agree, but I prefer not to post in a story thread as for not cutting the stories up thereby dragging people out of the story while they search for the continuation. IMHO, stories should have their own comment threads just like the mods have.
  18:49:47  23 February 2010
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HL2 Master
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 06/28/2008
Messages: 271
Tis a good story!!! Please, continue!

HL2
  18:49:47  23 February 2010
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HL2 Master
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 06/28/2008
Messages: 271
Tis a good story!!! Please, continue!

HL2
  18:11:06  24 February 2010
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Hazapuza
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/27/2008
 

Message edited by:
Hazapuza
02/24/2010 18:11:54
Messages: 73
I was planning to go to the local library and get something to read, but reading this was certainly a better choice. Is the next chapter coming up anytime soon?
  05:06:20  25 February 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
You picked a good day to ask.

Swamp Safari: The Second Encounter

“There's the northern farmstead.” Bandicoot motioned for the others to halt their march and spread out. “Tiger, Fisher, Meteorologist – go check it out.”

Tiger had anticipated the assignment. He led the way down the embankment from the tracks, carefully stepping through a gap where the farmstead fence was falling to bits. “Doesn't look like anyone has camped here,” he observed. “No footprints, and the fire pit is empty... Let's sweep the buildings, just to be sure.”

“I wish I'd known about Bandicoot before I signed on to this,” Vitka quietly complained once the three were inside the farm's main house. “Can't read him at all.”

German evidently sympathized. “If he's a good commissar, it'll be fine. If he's not... Well, I'd rather know before we get into any shooting.”

“How do you tell a good commissar from a bad one?”

“Oh, that's easy – when trouble starts, does he stand at the front or the back?”

Tiger didn't have anything to add. He knew Bandicoot was a survivor of the faction wars, but that was about all. “It's clear,” he said at last. “Keep moving.”

The rest of the search turned up nothing more besides some ancient cigarette butts and rusted-out food cans. It seemed that the marauders hadn't yet come to this corner of the swamps. “Good,” said Bandicoot once he'd heard the investigators' report. “We're moving on. There should be a path to the village ruins just past those boxcars.”

Onward they walked. The boxcars and the locomotive which once pulled them sat roughly halfway between the east and west borders of the swamp. In former days these derelicts had been a landmark for stalkers taking the path north to the Agroprom, but not anymore: the way was overgrown and choked with fallen trees. The visitors passed it by, striding resolutely across tracks torn up by long-exhausted anomalies and down the grassy slope to the marshes proper.

Bandicoot abruptly signaled another halt. “I see the village,” he said in a soft voice. “Spread out, stay low and watch your step. Tiger, you're on point.”

“Got it.” The stripe-haired stalker took his battle rifle in hand, easing the safety off as he navigated between patches of thick reeds. The ground was soft and moist, but his boots were up to the challenge.

The ruined village was as he remembered it: a cluster of structures still mostly intact – apart from the one which an anomaly had taken a large bite out of – bordered by a fringe of crumbling foundations and bare chimneys already claimed by the creeping waters of the swamp. On the north side, a few stalwart trees offered shade. A dirt road led east to the machine yard, while a winding series of footpaths and wooden walkways offered access to the boat park a short distance northwest. Another path ran due south across sandy islets and clumps of scrub to the pumping station.

“Nothing here,” Tiger informed Bandicoot. “Nothing living, at least.”

“Anomalies?”

“Clear.”

“All right... Pair up and search the houses. Tread lightly.”

The others did so, though not without commentary. “Tread lightly?” Gosha stage-whispered. “I don't see any grave markers. Are there ghosts here?”

“No,” Tiger deadpanned, “but the swamp bloodsuckers do a good impression.”

“Oh... What's the difference between a swamp and a regular sucker, anyway?”

“Swamp suckers are sneakier,” the commissar growled, “and the bastards can jump... Tourist, you got something?”

“Not sure,” Anatoly answered, his voice muffled by his sturdy gas mask. “Wait... Yeah, I see a group coming up from the pumping platform.”

Bandicoot was already sprinting into the roofless house on the south side by the time Tiger turned around. “Form up on me and find cover,” he barked. “Lock and load!”

The stalkers hustled into the house, taking up positions at the windows and gaps in the wall facing the broad marshlands. “What is it?” Southpaw questioned anxiously, kneeling beside Tiger. “What do you see?”

“Five, approaching slowly.” Bandicoot cursed under his breath. “The two in front are prisoners, civilian kids... The three in back are the ones we're after.” He lowered his binoculars. “No others in sight. They haven't spotted us.”

“So what are we up against?” German Fisher took out his own set of optics. “Holy shit, they're Monolith... What the hell are fanatics doing this close to the perimeter?”

“They're not Monolith,” the Duty stalker corrected tersely. “Similar pattern, but the Monoliths' camo has a brown hue.”

“Then who'd want to be mistaken for them?”

“Someone who doesn't know better... or just doesn't care.”

Anatoly Tourist appeared among the shadows on Southpaw's left, perhaps looking for a better firing position. “What do we do now?”

“We go in and get those kids.” Commissar Bandicoot swapped his binoculars for his rifle, glancing at Tiger, Tourist and Southpaw. “You three, can you all hit a man at this range?”

“No problem,” Anatoly replied crisply.

“I think I can,” Tiger hedged. “I could with my old rifle.”

“I'll give it my best shot,” Southpaw declared gamely, his eyes fixed on the figures in the distance.

“Good enough.” There was a faint click as Bandicoot's gloved thumb stroked the G36's fire selector. “On my signal, drop 'em. Strongman, you provide supporting fire in case the enemy brings up reinforcements. Do not hit the prisoners... The rest of you follow me.” He positioned himself for blastoff. “Wait for them to come a little closer.”

Anatoly swung out the M44's bayonet and locked it. “I'll take the first on the left,” he announced coolly.

“First on the right,” Tiger replied.

“First on the, uh... middle.” Southpaw peered down his Mauser's sights as its hardwood stock rested against the barren windowsill, his face screwed up in concentration. “I hope this thing is accurate enough...”

“When in doubt,” Anatoly advised, “aim for the waist. These old rifles are usually zeroed to shoot a little high.”

“Thanks.” The left-hander made a minute adjustment. “Okay, I'm ready.”

Tiger hadn't been acquainted with the rechambered Lee-Enfield for very long, but the humble 7.62x54R military ball cartridge had been his mainstay since his first days in the Zone. He knew what it could do, and where it needed to be placed for maximum effect. Any second now, he thought as his opponent's vest filled the sight's aperture. Come on, come on..!

“They're stopping,” Bandicoot hissed. “Now!”

Bang! Boom! Kerblam!

Bandicoot flung himself into the breach. “GO!”

Tiger overestimated the degree of force required to open the rifle's action, his fingers still accustomed to the different geometries and tensions of his lost Mosin. The empty casing ejected with a puff of acrid smoke and fell somewhere in the dirt underfoot, its role fulfilled. The stalker rammed the Lee's rear-locking bolt forward vigorously, meeting unfamiliar resistance on the last stage as the heavy striker spring was compressed. A hot 7.92mm shell tumbled across his field of view as Southpaw chambered his own next round with gusto.

“Come on, slowpoke!” German yelled as he and Vitka scrambled after Bandicoot. “Keep up or the suckers will get you!”

The three marauders were down, but not necessarily out: Tiger could see one of them thrashing on the ground even as Bandicoot charged towards the group. There was a brisk ratatat-ratatat as he finished them off, while the two prisoners huddled together on the side. With shouts and hand motions the Dutyer directed that pair towards the village ruins, then sent Vitka and German to check the corpses.

“Watch your fire,” Anatoly muttered, probably for Gosha's benefit.

The loner in the long coat felt a twinge of pity as he observed these two strangers, stumbling along on jittery feet with their hands tied behind their backs. They were just teenagers, a boy and a girl, in clothes woefully unsuited to conditions even in the borderlands of the Zone. What were they doing out here?

Bandicoot was looking back over his shoulder, watching the youngsters, when the bullet entered one side of his chest and exploded out the other. He toppled reluctantly, like a huge tree coming down, and lay unmoving. There was a discernible gap between the sight and the sound of the shot.

“Sniper!” Tourist cried. “Get out of the open!”

A heavy tatatatatata saturated the air as Gosha opened up on the distant watchtower. “OOOAAAAAAAAAHHH!”

The M60's chatter startled the teens: the boy lost his balance and fell on his face, leaving the girl helplessly standing over him. Tiger tried to will himself into going out to help them, but Anatoly beat him to it. “Go on!” the other stalker commanded the girl. “I've got him!”

Southpaw peeked out from behind the wall as Anatoly pulled the boy onto his feet and propelled him to safety. “We can't stay here!”

“I know,” Anatoly wheezed. “Let's get to the boat park!”

“Which way?”

“Follow me,” Tiger grunted, backtracking through the house. “Gosha, come on!”

“I'm coming, I'm coming...” Sprak-k-k! “YOU MISSED, SHITFACE!” Tatatatatata!

The others had already gathered on the sheltered side of the house across the road. “A knife won't slice this,” Anatoly informed the group as he examined the girl's bound wrists. “Anyone got wire cutters?”

Vitka plunged his hands into his pockets. “I never leave home without 'em!”

“Thanks.” Tourist chewed through the youths' restraints while Gosha fired one more burst from the hip and dashed to safety. “Okay, done. Top off your magazines and follow Tiger's lead!”

“Stay close behind me,” Tiger chimed in. “We're going to have to cross an open area, so don't hesitate once we start moving. The boat park is surrounded by thick reeds and the sniper shouldn't be able to see us as long as we stay low.” He swapped battle rifle for assault rifle, inspiring Southpaw to do likewise. “Is everyone ready?”

The two teens nodded, wide-eyed both. Gosha closed the machine gun's feed cover on a new belt and thumped it for good measure. Tiger pulled his Zastava's bolt carrier back halfway, slightly reassured by the faint gleam of brass visible inside. Anatoly took out his .38 and briefly inspected the primers.

“Somebody once said nothing's more exciting than being shot at,” Southpaw remarked suddenly. “I wonder what was wrong with him.”

“He was an English politician,” Anatoly replied. “It's true, though – being shot at is lots of fun unless you get hit.” Vitka, German and Gosha laughed at that, but the escaped prisoners just looked sick. “Don't worry,” Anatoly chuckled wryly, giving each a comforting pat. “Just stay on our asses and we'll get you outta here... Tiger?”

“Right.” Tiger brought the Kalashnikov's stock up to his shoulder. “Three... Two... One.”

They didn't run. They didn't sprint. They didn't even dash. They were too heavily loaded for such things, and so the man in front set the pace at a stiff but sustainable jog. The rotting boardwalk creaked and cracked as boot after boot – and the odd sneaker – pounded down its length. A bullet whizzed in front of Tiger as he reached damp ground.

“Ignore it!” Anatoly yelled. “He's just wasting ammo!”

Tiger had barely noticed it to begin with. The next boardwalk was partially submerged, and the muddy water thrown up by the stalkers' footfalls spattered all over their legs. The pointman could feel the added weight of his coat's soaked hem as he veered sharply to the right and plowed through the gap between two banks of reeds. The footpath was almost impossible to see, but he knew the route without its help. A couple more twists and turns brought the group into the boat park. The shack was still standing on its rickety stilts, as was the pier with its own little roof, but the inverted boats lying about the place looked rather less than water-worthy.

“Spread out and watch the sides.” Anatoly's voice was authoritative, yet carried a high note born of stress. “Keep a lookout for movement.”

The surroundings were clear as far as Tiger could feel, but he decided not to draw attention to himself. “Is everyone all right?” he asked instead.

“Aw shit,” Southpaw moaned. “Lost my radio again...”

“I think we're all good,” German answered, ignoring him. “Can we take a breather now?”

“As long as you don't fall asleep, yeah.” Anatoly walked over to the liberated captives, numbly sitting together on the shack's steps. “Sorry for the scare,” he said quietly. “How'd you two get mixed up with those guys?”

“We heard there was an... an easy way past the soldiers,” the girl quavered, “but those people were already inside.”

“Can you tell me anything about them?”

“They were foreigners,” the boy spoke up. “Only a couple of them spoke our language... The others all talked in English, called us 'fukkin rooshins' all the time.”

“Fucking Russians, huh?” Tourist almost sounded amused. “If their geography's that bad, it's a wonder they found the Zone at all... German, Vitka, did you get anything off the bodies?”

“Didn't have time,” Vitka grunted. “Sorry.”

“I got a good look at their gear,” German offered. “They had NATO-style vests like the mercenaries wear, with a funny logo.” He squatted and drew a picture in the dirt with his fingertip. “This.”

Anatoly cocked his head. “I can't tell whether that's a knight's helmet or the top of a chess bishop.”

“I can't either,” Fisher admitted, “but I'm pretty sure I've got it right... I didn't recognize their rifle type, but it was definitely an AK of some kind.”

“I saw.” The stalker who had taken charge returned to the teenagers. “I assume you didn't learn anything more about their identity or objectives?”

“Nothing,” the girl confirmed.

“How many were there?”

“About thirty... Um, but that was just in the base.”

“Thirty more of those assholes?” Gosha made a face. “How'd they all get in?”

“I bet somebody with a beret scored a bribe big enough to retire on,” Southpaw speculated sourly. “Ain't that right, Tiger?”

“Could be.” Tiger looked at Anatoly. “In any case, we need to decide our next move.”

“That's obvious,” Vitka cut in. “We should get the hell outta here.”

Anatoly shook his head. “We're not leaving. Not yet.”

“Why not? Bandicoot's dead and we've got shit to show for it.” Meteorologist rolled his eyes. “Dude, you want us to take on these psychos by ourselves? Who put you in charge, anyway?”

“Stop that,” Southpaw interrupted vehemently. “Stop it right now. Can't you see you're doing exactly what the enemy wants?”

Tourist nodded. “It's the obvious tactic: take out the leader and let the rest undo themselves with squabbling... I'm not saying we should try to fight those guys, but we definitely can't go back to Voronin empty-handed.”

“We don't have much choice about this,” Tiger pointed out. “We can't get far without that sniper tracking us, not before dark.”

“And that's assuming he doesn't have a night sight,” Anatoly added gravely. “Does anyone else have a high-output radio?”

There were no answers to the affirmative.

“Then we're stuck here, like it or not... Let's wait a bit and make sure those guys aren't following us, then we'll work out our strategy.”

“At least we have food and ammo,” Strongman offered, trying to put an optimistic spin on the situation.

“Yeah,” German laughed ruefully. “All that action and I never fired a shot...” His expression turned to a frown as he regarded the pair of strangers. “What about the kids?”

“We'll take them to the Cordon,” said Anatoly. “Maybe Kuznetsov can smuggle them back to the Big Land.”

“That won't be cheap,” Tiger warned. “It's more work than he likes to do.”

“We're not going back.” The girl trembled, but she gazed at the men with defiance. “We're going to become stalkers. There's nothing left for us on the outside.”

The stalker with the large backpack didn't hide his skepticism. “Then you can go to Wolf or Fanatic,” he said, “but I won't blame you if you have second thoughts.”

“That's all well and good,” German interjected, “but who's going to feed 'em in the meantime? We only brought enough grub for ourselves.”

“I packed extra food,” said Tourist unconcernedly. “Always do... So anyway, what are your names?”

“I'm Galya,” the girl answered, divulging only a diminutive, “and this is my boyfriend Mitya.”

“Galya and Mitya, got it. You need anything, just find me.” Anatoly looked around, taking in the surroundings as the morning sun climbed higher over the swamps. “We'll stand watch in turns. Can I get two volunteers?”

Tiger was too wound up to sit idle and he doubted the others would take up the task in good humor. “I'll do it.”

“Me too,” Southpaw added.

“Great. The rest of you find some shade, check your gear and rest up. We'll rotate the watch every thirty minutes.” So saying, Anatoly sat on a decaying log, took out a map and spread it across his knees.

“Bleh,” Vitka grumbled, sticking a finger under the balaclava which covered the lower half of his face. “This thing is starting to itch.”

“Might as well take it off,” German opined as the pair wandered over to the pier. “Hey, is my face paint smudged?”

“No, it's fine. Why?”

“Just checking.”

“Tiger,” said Southpaw quietly, “are you sure about this?”

“It's not what we bargained for,” Tiger admitted, turning his back on the others, “but Tourist seems to know what he's doing.”

“I hope so... Hope those kids will be okay, too.” The left-handed stalker threw a furtive glance at Gosha, who was humming merrily as he rubbed a rag up and down his weapon's barrel. “You know what I mean?”

Tiger did know, having pondered that very problem in relation to Olga. “We'll have to keep an eye on them,” he said at last. “We don't need any more problems.”

“Yeah.” Southpaw fiddled with the grenade launching sight on his Zastava. “Six against thirty... No way that would work.”

“That depends,” Tiger mused. “I saw some pretty uneven battles during the faction wars... If we could just take out their sniper, we'd be free to come at them from any direction.”

“Any direction?” Southpaw repeated quizzically. “You mean there's a way through the anomaly fields after all?”

“Probably.”

“I guess we'll find out.” Click... Snap! “Wish I knew who we're up against...” The lefty blinked as Tiger tensed. “What is it?”

“Someone's coming.”

“Tch.” Southpaw flagged down Anatoly. “Tourist, we've got company!”

“Where?”

“South of us.” Tiger's eyes narrowed as he focused on the blobs of energy. “Two, three... five total. They're close together.”

If Anatoly knew Tiger wasn't basing his assessment on sight and sound, he didn't acknowledge it. “Stand by for contact,” he ordered tersely. “Use those boats for cover.”

Gosha stuffed the rag into his pocket and unfolded the M60's bipod. “Nice of them to come to us.”

Southpaw crouched at Tiger's side, waiting with bated breath. “Where are they now?”

The long-coated loner pointed with his hand. “About thirty meters away.”

“What are you doing?” Anatoly hissed. “Fall back!”

Southpaw ignored him. “Been saving this for a special occasion,” he muttered, taking out an RGD-5 hand grenade. “I hear a pineapple a day keeps the doctor away...” Ching! “Hup!”

The blobs split up fast – too fast. Tiger rose, grabbed Southpaw by the collar and dragged him backwards to the center of the clearing as a ferocious howl rolled over the marshes.

Gosha was already there. “Bloodsuckerrrrrrrs!”
 
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