| 13:34:12 8 May 2012
On forum: 11/21/2008
Interesting stuff there, mate. Maybe it's a writerly thing, maybe it's just because I can be a nosy 'bar-steward', but for me it's always interesting to get a peek behind the curtain.|
From a reader's POV, 'Tiger's...' had me hooked from that first scene. Here were 2-D characters familiar from the game acting in 3-D ways, and the fact you'd created this 'stuff in game is just part of their life' vibe so well was enough to make me want more.
And yes, I know I've been very slack in reading and commenting. No promises except for another promise to get round to it sooner rather than later. OK?
Ghosts of Limansk sounds interesting...and maybe like it could still be done, if tweaked to take it away from what's already been covered. (Possibly as 'the full story of Olga'?)
I know what you mean as well about losing entire sub-plots, arcs becoming diverted, etc. In my case - and maybe yours too - that happens more or less organically during the writing: characters just don't want to do or say the things you thought they might (or wanted them to); other times it's just that a better(?) idea comes along anyway.
I guess it depends on how much you plot, and how rigidly you stick to it.
(Personally, I don't have some megalith-type Plot That Must Be Obeyed. I might have guidelines and reminder notes - again, the period of writing means some things slide or get forgotten about - but ultimately it goes where it will. Revisions and rewrites, now...I've had to put in long loops to haul everything back to where it originally went on numerous occasions.)
But...hell, three years? Doesn't seem that long (mind you, SB will be 3 in September! Not too bad considering it was meant to be a 'long short' story of about 20-25k words).
For my money, anyway, 'Tiger's...' is one of the best - if not the best - STALKER stories out there. It might have been a long haul, but you've also done a good job.
Join the Army! See the world! Meet interesting people! Shoot them!
"Constant exposure to dangers will breed contempt for them" - Seneca
"An unruly mob is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house" - Socrates
It's story-time! - http://alturl.com/3xof5
| 22:01:44 7 May 2012
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
Thinking out loud|
It's been a long three years.
I didn't have high hopes for Tiger's Spring when I impulsively hammered out the first four pages in a single afternoon. I wasn't sure if I would continue it or let it sink and move on to another project. The encouragement of the readers made that choice for me.
For me it's interesting (and a little surreal) to look back today and see how the story evolved beyond those first pages, growing from a series of linked vignettes into a narrative with an overarching plotline and a consistent set of characters.
It could have been very different.
Tiger's Spring wasn't the story I thought I'd be writing. The first chapter was essentially a pitch for a character I'd come up with, having no plot and no purpose beyond the scope of that pitch. The rest fell into place as I worked out the next few chapters.
There were two other contenders before Tiger. One was White Sun of the Garbage, an affectionate parody of the famous Vladimir Motyl film. It placed Wolf in the role of Sukhov, tasked with protecting a harem of scientists from the dastardly Black Borov.
The other, Ghosts of Limansk, would have been the tale of a young woman entering the Zone in search of ______, guided by a mysterious stranger in a SEVA suit. The protagonist's arrival in the Cordon became the basis for Olga's first appearance in Tiger, while Tiger himself inherited most of the stranger's personality.
Behind the scenes, Tiger changed drastically over the first chapters.
Tiger was originally envisioned as a more aloof and mysterious character, always seen only from the perspective of others. He was one of a group of mutated humans called 'strangers' (not to be confused with the stranger NPC faction assigned to rookie stalkers in alpha builds of the game), who represented a middle ground between ordinary human stalkers and hostile mutants.
The idea of strangers as an organized group was discarded, but some references to Tiger being in contact with others like himself made it into the final cut. The Red Forest pseudogiant hunting mini-arc was originally drafted as the scene of a meeting between Tiger and fellow strangers.
An entire subplot was cut to make way for the Worm+Drifter arc, involving Tiger journeying east to the bank of the Pripyat River in search of Baker, the stranger responsible for all the bread in the Zone.
The storyline stabilized around chapter seven, though some scenes in later installments were shortened or dropped due to time constraints or problems with pacing.
-Tiger's interaction with the half-zombified Worm in The Social Life of Zombies was longer. Worm's babbling implied that he made it into X16 and saw the vat-brain before he succumbed to the psi-emissions.
-Olga's reminiscence about the faction wars at the end of Arms and the Man was slated as a flashback scene from her point of view, exploring her thoughts and feelings as she covertly supported Tiger while in disguise.
-The reconciliation scene in Seven Six Two included Olga giving Tiger more details on the birth of their son.
-An alternate ending to Children of a Broken Empire was considered, in which Olga died and Southpaw lived.
-After storming the Clear Sky base, the mercs and stalkers would discover that the Paladin commanders had been listening to a numbers station seemingly located in _______. The mystery broadcast element was ultimately worked into Zelenko's backstory.
-The love scene between Tiger and Olga was longer (though not more explicit). In addition to the Zelenko affair, Tiger and Olga were meant to discuss the SBU's suspicions about Lebedev, its view of Tiger as both a threat and an asset, and what Tiger actually saw on the day the Zone appeared.
-A large scene was cut from the end of The Hand of Zelenko, in which Tiger escorted Olga back to the Clear Sky base, had a wary encounter with the reinforcement troops, and made a final farewell to Southpaw and the other casualties.
-____ would ________ in ___ ______ on the way to _____ after Tiger ______ Limansk.
I might still use that last one.
Now that I've rambled enough, I'd like to thank everyone whose support has made this happen, and I hope you'll keep supporting it until the bizarre and bitter end.
| 06:59:13 24 April 2012
On forum: 07/30/2007
We aim to sneeze.|
The West is a Delicate Matter
The cartridge belt in the box under Tiger's arm jingled as he stepped from one concrete tie to the next. A few paces before him walked Yevgeniy, sweeping the tracks with Southpaw's shotgun. Galina and Dmitriy followed after the stalker, and last came Kondratenko. Rusting rails framed their path, dotted with green shoots poking up from the coarse gravel ballast below. On both sides, the railway embankment sloped gently into the surrounding woods.
The combat in the swamps cost Tiger one friend and three comrades. Its upheavals gave him the best partner he could have asked for and then tore her away, granting him barely time enough to repair their relationship. He didn't dwell on the casualties: harsh experience had fortified him against lingering grief, leaving a detached regret for those who would not return. To expand on Olga's metaphor, he'd lost his Sayid and his Katerina Matveyevna, and gained a brace of Petrukhas and a harem of two. Now he had to think forward, about his responsibility for his pupils, for Olga, and for the son he'd never met.
The trek was going well, though he could feel the others' stamina beginning to wane as they advanced towards the broken bridge. He'd tried to spread the load equitably, allotting the heaviest shares to Kondratenko and himself, but there was simply too much they needed to carry: German's fishing rod, Vitka's detector, machine gun ammunition, rifle grenades, night sights... Once they made it to Rostok, he could rent a locker at the Hundred Rads and lay up the excess weight. The hard part was getting there.
“We'll take a break at the rookie village,” Tiger told the party. “It's not much farther.”
Strong as Galina's determination ran, her relief at the news was evident. “Are there many villages around here?”
Only one,” the loner replied. “Inhabited, I mean... It's not really a village, just some houses and an old bunker. There's a trader, and a couple of veterans who run things.”
“Can we get food there?” asked Kondratenko hopefully.
“Yes, we can get food.” Food and whatever else they lacked. The bag of artifacts inside Tiger's coat, harvested by dead men for a battle in which they were never needed, would pay for everything. For his own part, he wouldn't be sorry to see the baubles gone.
The sun disappeared behind a raft of clouds, leaving the travelers in shadow. Here the trees on either flank thinned out and the gradient dropped off more steeply. “We've reached the Cordon,” said Tiger. “Zhenya, stop.”
The Latvian looked back at him, nonplussed. “We're not going to the bridge?”
“Not yet.” The stalker pointed to the right, where a barbed wire fence partitioned the boulder-strewn hillside below them. “The village is that way. Follow me.” He left the rails and headed for a round outcrop of rock among the scattered evergreens. “This fence was damaged in a storm last year,” the guide narrated, “and boars marked a trail over it. Every time the army fixes the fence, the boars knock it down again.”
It was just as he said. Past the rocks, one of the fence's uprights had been ripped out of the soil and lengths of severed wire lay twisted in the grass. Tiger stepped across the gap, waited for the others to rejoin him, and started towards the village, keeping the derelict grain elevator and the main road on his left. The ground in front was uneven, with bushes and small anomalies crowning a broad ridge.
“Nearly there... Just over this – ”
The shooting came from straight ahead, pistol reports and shotgun blasts and overlapping bursts of automatic fire in a ragged volley that lasted only a couple of seconds. Tiger was down on one knee, his assault rifle readied for immediate action, before it ended. The novices hesitated at the sudden tumult, wasting precious moments in their confusion.
Kondratenko recovered his wits quickest. He scooted to the head of the formation, raising the machine gun's ladder sight. “What is that?”
“Ha-hah!” A triumphant shout rang loud in the distance. “That'll teach 'em to stay out of our camp!”
“Settle down, Tolik... Is anyone hurt?”
The second voice was Fanatic's. “They're friendlies,” Tiger breathed, relaxing his stance. “Let's go around to the back, just to be safe.”
He led his followers west and then south, taking a route which arced past the anomaly-choked garbage pit. The village looked and sounded perfectly normal when they reached it – normal except for the six dead men in blue and gray who had been laid in a row outside the high wooden fence. A rookie stalker stood watch at the back gate, cradling an AK-74 with a prominent smear of blood on its stock. Narrow eyes peered out from under the hood of his fawn jacket, checking the visitors with jaded wariness.
“What happened here?” Tiger asked him.
“Mercs.” The rookie jerked his head backwards. “You want details, go see the boss.”
“I will.” Tiger motioned for the others to close up behind him and moved on.
He counted two rookies patrolling the dirt track between the rows of houses, one posted at the front entrance facing the road, and two more perched on the roof of the center house in the north row. All of them carried matching Kalashnikovs. The remainder were clustered around the fireplace. Looking over their heads, Tiger identified Fanatic's stubble-dark round face, but not the leaner features of Wolf.
The older man nodded at him. “Morning, Tiger.”
“I heard you went on Duty's swamp raid. Find out who's been killing our guys?”
Tiger nodded. “It looked like a foreign PMC,” he explained, circling the fire. “We skirmished with them a couple of times, then the army came in. The rest of our group was lost.”
“All of them? Damn... What about the bad guys?”
“Out of action.” Seeing that his replacement companions were waiting for guidance, Tiger turned away momentarily. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
“That's a nice litter you brought back,” Fanatic opined, examining the strangers' mosaic of civilian clothing, uniform fragments and Clear Sky trappings with bemusement. “Where'd you find them?”
“We rescued a pair from the enemy and the others wandered into the swamps after us,” said Tiger, extending Kondratenko's story to cover Yevgeniy. “I'm taking them to Rostok.”
“Getting to Rostok is tricky right now,” Fanatic warned. “You might be better off waiting.”
“Does this have something to do with the dead mercenaries back there?”
“I hope not.” The veteran settled himself on his milk crate stool and brushed off the makeshift chair beside it. “Have a seat.”
Tiger sat. “I haven't heard any news since I left for the raid. What's going on?”
“I'll start with the mercs... They showed up yesterday afternoon, saying they were going to take over this place and make a camp. The bastards gave us until morning to pack up and get out.” Fanatic reached under the stool and picked up a soda can. “They camped up the road overnight, but without Wolf here we didn't have enough good fighters to face them in the open.” The can gave a serpentine hiss as he popped its top. “So I decided to nail them with an ambush, right here in the village. Told our boys to hide and aim at the mercs' legs, where they don't wear armor... Luckily Marked One showed up at the last minute.”
The name stirred up a feeling of unease in Tiger. “Is he here?”
“Nope.” The other loner noisily slurped his drink. “He dropped in to see Sidorovich, stayed long enough to help with our defense, and took off straight after. Busy as a bee, that one.”
“Mm.” Tiger disentangled the ammo box and set it on the ground. “Where's Wolf?”
“He went north to make a delivery. Won't be back for a few days.” Fanatic clamped the soda between his knees. “Great timing,” he grumbled. “Mercenary greed today, bandits on our backs tomorrow.”
“Borov is launching an offensive?”
Fanatic shook his head. “Spetsnaz raided the Dark Valley last night... Went in with helicopters, right after the blowout. They hit the factory and the bandit base, blocked off the trail to the Garbage, but ignored the stalkers at the pig farm. Most of the grunts pulled out after three, three and a half hours.”
“I see,” said Tiger thoughtfully. “So the army finally shut Borov down?”
“Guess so. Word is that the man himself ate a bullet.” Fanatic drank from his can again. “Trouble is, some of his thugs got away, laid low until the soldiers left, then crossed the Garbage right under our noses. They joined up with the bandits at the Agroprom and came back in force... Now those sons of bitches have retaken the checkpoints on the western road and the old track, and I don't expect they'll stop there.”
Neither did Tiger. There was an undeniable prudence in sitting out the crisis, here in the relative comfort and safety of the Cordon, but staying meant leaving his charges within easy striking distance of any enemies they might have outside the perimeter.
Better the threat you know than the one you don't.
“I'll risk it,” he told Fanatic. “If we make it to Rostok before dark, I can double back and help our people.”
“Up to you.”
“I'd better talk to Sidorovich and buy supplies.” Tiger got up, his muscles protesting their interrupted recovery. “By the way, is Nimble around?”
“No, he's out on a job. I can take a message for you.”
“I'd appreciate it... Tell him the stash is in the usual place. I took what I needed and the rest is his.”
“...If you do encounter a bloodsucker, or you think one is near, the best thing to do is find a wide, open space and keep moving. Force it to chase you – even if you can't see it, you'll hear it panting.”
Yevgeniy, walking at his elbow, was close to panting himself. “Why?”
“Running while cloaked puts a heavy load on its metabolism, making it use up oxygen very quickly.” Tiger let the anxious youth digest that for a few seconds. “An exhausted bloodsucker gives itself away with every breath.”
“But I heard bullets go right through them when they're invisible...”
“Not true,” said the stalker firmly. “If you shoot at a bloodsucker and it doesn't go down, you're not hitting it hard enough or not hitting at all.”
“We heard the same thing,” Dmitriy volunteered. “I don't believe it after what I saw yesterday.”
“It's a common superstition,” Tiger admitted. “Has been since the faction wars.” He halted. “We're here.”
So far, so good. He'd sold all the artifacts to Sidorovich as planned, along with Olga's customized suit. Tiger would have found a use for that, but it had been his partner's final request: a last favor to give the death of her Tourist persona legitimacy. In any case, he couldn't complain about the way Sidorovich's rate of exchange tipped in his favor once he offered the trader that unique loot.
It was nearly midday when the party left the rookie village, following the road north. There was nobody posted at the bridge, saving Tiger the expense of a bribe, nor anybody camped at the pig farm. The weather was mild, partly cloudy with a light wind that sighed through the trees. Now and then it settled down, replaced by the distant barking of blind dogs.
What a nice day for fighting.
Tiger wasn't eager to fight again, not while he had these neophytes to care for. It was their good luck to have missed out on the ambush at the rookie village – if only that luck would hold out a little longer, until they'd put the Garbage behind themselves... If not, there would be a trial by fire for all of them. It remained to be seen whether Kondratenko could keep his fear under control, and whether the Belarusians' resolve would hold up when the bullets started flying.
The biggest variable in the equation was Yevgeniy, a bundle of nerves strung tight as piano wire. At first the veteran let him be, giving him a chance to calm down on his own. When that didn't help, Tiger called a brief rest at the upper checkpoint and confronted him pointblank. The Latvian soon folded under pressure and confessed his preoccupying terror of bloodsuckers.
Tiger resolved to set him straight quickly, and dispel whatever absurd rumors this hapless youngster had picked up outside the Zone. He started with a concise account of his former team's run-in with, and slaughter of, the hunting pack in the marshes, then shifted into a lecture on the bloodsuckers' preferred habitats and the methods of escaping them. Further lessons would have to wait, however: in front of the would-be stalkers stood a broad gate, half-open, nestled between two hills.
“This is the Garbage?” asked Yevgeniy, looking at it with almost an expression of reverence.
“This is where it starts.” Tiger picked up the pace anew. “Keep your voices down.”
Several meters behind the gate sat a box truck, lying perpendicular to the road with its driver door hanging open. Tiger headed right for the derelict. “Okay,” he said as the group joined him beside it, under the shade of the looming trees. “There's a stalker camp nearby. I'll go alone to make sure it's safe.” Working methodically, he divested himself of inessential weight. “Stay here until I signal you.”
He ducked around the vehicle's forward end and covered the first stretch in a low sprint. Behind the box truck sat an open bed cargo truck, an Ulyanovsk jeep and an armored personnel carrier – remnants of an army convoy caught in a blowout and surrendered to the strange elements. Tiger took cover by the APC's yellow hull, ignoring the old bloodstains on the ground around its tires. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary ahead, only the ribbon of cracked tarmac and chain of utility poles winding northward among the junk heaps.
There was no cover to be had in the next part. Tiger dashed to the left, anticipating the turnoff to the vehicle yard, and beheld the yard itself in a few moments. There were six stalkers dug in around the campfire pit, poised to intercept an attack from the west. The southern path to the Agroprom lay in that direction, below the ridge at the far end of the yard, but it was open to attack by bandits coming down from the Agroprom road as well.
“Bes!” The man's voice carried barely far enough to meet Tiger's ears. “Friendly, coming from behind!”
Seeing that he was recognized, Tiger hustled around the white Zaporozhets at the yard gate and ran to the fire pit. The brooding, mustachioed visage of Bes greeted him with a curt nod. “Right on time,” the camp leader remarked. “Fanatic said you're bringing up some newbies with heavy weapons.”
“A handful.” The new arrival sought refuge behind the skeletal chassis by the pit. “What are we up against?”
“Eleven bandits at the trail, fifteen or so on the road. Lenka Hunchback is holding the hangar with five men. Seriy organized a relief crew at the Hundred Rads, but they ran into a big pack of dogs coming out of Rostok. They got chewed up pretty bad and had to carry back three of their guys.”
Tiger tugged at his rifle's magazine, assuring himself that it was fully seated. “And Duty?”
“Sitting on their asses up at the pipeline,” Bes snorted. “We're on our own here... Suits me fine! If we left it to them, we'd never hear an end to the gloating.”
“Mm.” Tiger looked about, gauging the strength of the stalkers' defense. “I can give you food and ammunition,” he offered, “but I don't know if my group can handle a fight.”
“We've got supplies here,” said Bes. “Take whatever you can spare to Lenka's boys. If you could stick around for a while, that'd be even better.”
“I'll try,” Tiger declared. “What's your plan?”
“Haven't agreed on that yet,” Bes conceded. “Either we attack them before the sun's in our faces, or we hunker down and get set for a night battle. I'd strike now if I had more men.”
“What about the bandits' objectives?”
“Same as last time... Take the hangar, cut the Garbage in half, keep Duty tied up until Freedom makes a move. They must figure we've gotten soft, having Duty around.”
“They figure wrong.” Tiger made ready to move again. “I'll go and see how things are with Hunchback, then we'll work out what to do.”
“All right. Don't take too long or we'll lose our daylight window.”
The guide fast retraced his steps back to the truck. “They want us to meet with the stalkers at the railway hangar up the road,” he explained to the rookies as he grabbed his ammo box. “Stay behind me and don't talk.”
Ahead, the first of the junk piles, a great mass of atomic dirt and tangled industrial wreckage, loomed over the vehicle yard. The forlorn husks of a couple of Chelyabinsk bulldozers lay on the man-made mountain's slope, awaiting the touch of operators who'd never come back. The road curved to the right, snaking around the foot of the heap. Tiger stayed on the pavement, walking well clear of the gravity anomalies shimmering above the weeds, and the rest followed him single file.
The pain in Yevgeniy's abdomen was getting worse.
It was a sharp pain, unlike the aching in his legs and shoulders, and it hadn't gone away when he rested. He tried to hide his discomfort, anxious not to aggravate Tiger's distaste for his company. Galina noticed something was wrong after the senior stalker went ahead to meet his comrades, but Yevgeniy had waved her off with a feeble excuse of stomachache.
He was already regretting that foolish bluff, though he didn't dare speak up now. They were back on the road, and Tiger seemed even more humorless after he returned from the meeting. He must have gotten bad news, or heard something that upset his plans. Until he gave a clearer sign of what those plans were, Yevgeniy could only march after him and hope that the pain would not become unbearable.
He could have taken the easy way out, the sniper reminded himself as he cast about for something else to occupy his thoughts. He could have accepted the blond woman's offer to guide him out of the Zone. He could have been cozy and sheltered as a guest of the Ukrainian penal system. He could have spared himself this ordeal... But he hadn't, because taking the soft route would condemn Maksim Smirnov to a lonely, impoverished twilight.
A hand patted Yevgeniy's shoulder, startling him. He looked up to find Kondratenko walking at his side. The gesture of stoic solidarity lifted his mood a little, bringing a timid smile to his face: Borya was a kindred spirit, a man who chose to stay and confront his fear of the Zone head on.
Then Yevgeniy heard the gunfire, and his fragile cheer evaporated.
Suddenly Tiger was running. “It's started! Come on!”
Kondratenko ran after him. Yevgeniy tried to catch up, but Galina and Dmitriy overtook the sniper even as his lungs burned. He finished a distant last, all but staggering around the bend in the road. The way forward was blocked by a small bus, its blue and white paint stained with reddish brown, and the others were huddled along its side.
“Zhenya...” The leader was short of breath too. “You all right?”
Yevgeniy nodded, his heart racing inside his chest. Ahead and to his left, the shooting continued.
“We have to join the defense.” Tiger shook off one of his ammo packs and pushed it towards the Latvian. “Have your automatics ready,” he instructed. “If they catch us in the open, use the trees for cover.”
Inside the pack were translucent plastic magazines, nestled in pairs and fastened together by studs molded into their sides. Picking up the G36, which until now had only been dead weight on his back, Yevgeniy unfolded its stock and inserted a magazine.
Tiger heard the poomf of a grenade detonating as he tore open the mag pouches on his vest. “The hangar has catwalks,” he called. “All around the inside, with stairs up to the roof. There's a control booth on a platform at the far end – it's a good firing position.” The loner tucked his rifle into the crook of his arm and crawled to the right, towards the front wheel. “Stand by to move!”
“Scared?” murmured Kondratenko, falling in behind him.
“Yeah,” Yevgeniy replied quietly. “You?”
“I'm not afraid of any bandits.”
“Let's go,” Tiger ordered tersely. “After me!”
From here, nothing looked out of place: the second junk heap on the right, the hangar on the left, and the road, lined with sturdy trees, passing between them. Sensing that the watchtower outside the hangar and the lean-to across the road were both empty, Tiger made a beeline for the east gate in the hangar complex's outer wall, a solid brick barrier too high to climb and topped with barbed wire.
There were still living bodies in the hangar itself: he couldn't tell which side they were on, but the unabating gunshots meant at least some of them were allies. Tiger was almost halfway to the gate when four bandits appeared from around the far corner, coming straight at him along the south side.
The AKS-74 roared. One of the criminals dropped like an unstrung puppet as his mates scattered. An enemy bullet flew low and landed short, throwing up clods of dirt. “Get into the hangar!” the guide yelled between bursts. “Go! Go!”
Galina reached the gate first, and the others stacked up behind her. “Attention!” she hailed. “Stalkers, help is coming!”
“Awesome!” came the reply. “Hurry up!”
“Come on!” The girl and boy led the way, submachine guns at low ready, and Yevgeniy and Kondratenko followed them. Inside the hangar's cavernous maw, a pair of men were crouching behind a barricade of cement blocks, metal crates and similar debris. One wore a gray windbreaker and the other was clad in camouflage fatigues, armed with a long-barreled automatic rifle. “You!” Galina barked. “Where are the rest?”
“All gone!” The man in the windbreaker fired his pistol. “It's just us and the scum out there!”
“Damn it... Urrraaaaaaaa!”
Galina cut loose with the PPSh, its muzzle flash blazing like a strobe in the gloom. To the left of the barricade lay a large wooden cable spool: the Belarusian knelt behind it and fired again as Yevgeniy hastened after her, cringing at the noise. Lifting his rifle, he sidestepped until he had a clear line of vision down the hangar. Peering through the little window of the reflex sight, he saw slumped and huddled bodies but no movement.
All of a sudden the shooting stopped completely.
“They're retreating.” The rifleman spoke with a strong accent, very different from either the native speech or Yevgeniy's Baltic dialect. “Perkele, that was close!”
“Don't relax yet,” his comrade warned. “What group are you guys with?”
“Mine,” said Tiger, coming in after the vanguard. “We came up from the Cordon. Bes told me Lenka needed supplies.”
The stalker aimed his Beretta at the ceiling and decocked it. “Lenka's dead,” he told the veteran. “The bandits gave us a real mauling... I'm Sanya Deadeye.”
“Jussi Salonen,” the other added.
“Call me Tiger.” The selfsame man went to the barricade and stood behind Dmitriy and Jussi. “What happened?”
“First they picked off Denis, our lookout,” Sanya recounted, “and then they rushed us. Lenka went forward to head them off at the gate with Romka and Fyodor, but the gangsters killed them.”
“The bandits have a machine gun and a grenade launcher at the roadblock,” Jussi supplemented. “I thought I heard shooting on our south side as well.”
“We intercepted a detachment trying to sneak around to your rear,” Tiger confirmed. “I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner.”
While the others talked, Yevgeniy took a few seconds to orient himself. A pair of railroad tracks ran into the hangar through its west end, terminating at the bottom of the U-shaped loading platform on which he stood. There was a drab boxcar at the end of the left track, behind the barricade, and the platform and rails were littered with steel drums and more spools. Outside the hangar's far end, another boxcar sat on the right hand track, surrounded by square steel cargo containers. Over the doorway hung a platform, one side enclosed by corrugated green walls.
“...Who had radios?”
“Only Lenka,” Sanya replied. “It's on his body, unless the bandits took it.”
“I'll see if I can find it,” Tiger decided. “Meanwhile I want the rest of you to drop all your non-critical gear – keep only weapons, ammo, canteens and medical kits. Put everything you don't need in the pit over there. Zhenya, leave that shotgun too.”
He ventured forth and the others went to work. Shedding some of his load brought Yevgeniy blessed relief, despite the ache in his belly. “Galya,” he asked softly, “did you get your man?”
“He was running away,” she answered candidly. “I shot to make him run faster.”
“Oh...” Tiger hadn't said it clearly, but Yevgeniy was sure that he intended to keep the group here for a while. If that bandit didn't take this chance to quit the battleground, Galina's mercy would be in vain.
“How much ammunition do you have?” Kondratenko queried as the Latvian walked past, carrying his unneeded equipment to the pit.
“About thirty rounds of seven-six-two, and forty-five of nine millimeter.” Jussi moved over to the middle of the barricade and sat down with his back to it, laying his FAL across his lap. “Sanya?”
“One full magazine and one half empty. I'll have to take a bigger shooter from a corpse.”
Yevgeniy went back to the spool, taking Galina's place while she made her own gear drop. She didn't come back immediately, stopping for a few moments with her boyfriend instead. Listening to them, Yevgeniy felt a pang of envy and then a flush of shame. To have that kind of bond, so simple, so normal, even in a place like this...
Sanya's voice intruded on his thoughts. “You okay, dude?”
“Mmf.” Yevgeniy lifted his face reluctantly and got a rude shock for the effort: up close, Sanya's right eye was an unremarkable brown hue, but the iris of the left had a pale, washed-out color. “Eep..!”
“Oops.” Sanya seemed amused by his reaction. “Didn't notice the dead-eye before, huh?”
Tiger came back at that moment, sparing Yevgeniy from prolonged embarrassment. “What's the problem?”
“No problem,” said Sanya. “Did you find the radio?”
“Yes, I found it. There's some shrapnel damage to the outer case, but it powers on.” Propping his Kalashnikov against the barricade, Tiger squinted at the device's LCD display. “I hope this is the right channel... Tiger calling Bes, Tiger calling Bes, are you receiving? Over.”
“Zhenya, come here.”
Yevgeniy had to crawl on his hands and knees, the G36 swinging under him with its sling clamped between his teeth – like a dog bringing a stick to his master. The platform was rough and cool under his palms. Wouldn't it feel nice to just drop the gun and stretch out, letting that coolness flow into him until he couldn't feel the pain anymore?
Tiger wasn't even looking at him. The leader was busy with his little binoculars, his coat's hood pulled low over his face to help him blend into the shadows. Reaching Tiger's side in due time, Yevgeniy bowed his head until the assault rifle's plastic frame rested on concrete, dark gray over light.
“Take a look.” Tiger handed him the binoculars. “The bandit with the cap, do you see him?”
Yevgeniy saw the blurred sill of the window in front of him and the intersecting safety bars affixed to the catwalk outside. An electrical insulator came into focus, dangling from the gantry over the tracks. Panning right, he saw a locomotive sitting at the arched mouth of a tunnel, beyond the gate in the west wall. That was the wrong way. Going back to the insulator, he spotted his quarry on the second pass.
The bandit was a big man, with a lantern jaw and broad back. He wore high boots and a leather jacket, cut differently than the others Yevgeniy had seen, and a field cap tipped well back on his head. A submachine gun hung under his arm, bouncing against his side as he paced one way and then another. “I see him,” said the sniper, taking shelter once more. “Who is he?”
“Fritz,” Tiger muttered. “He fits the description, anyway.”
“He's a Volga German. Used to be a skinhead, came here after his old gang got busted. During the faction wars, he massacred Duty prisoners and made a necklace out of their dog tags. General Voronin offered a bounty to whoever kills him and brings back the tags, but then Fritz disappeared for a while.” Tiger reclaimed his binoculars. “Can you do it?”
“Me?” This was a trick, it had to be. “Don't you want..?”
“I don't need the money.”
“Then...” Yevgeniy looked behind himself, where Sanya sat outside the control booth with Kondratenko's carbine in his hands. “Shouldn't they take it?” he protested. “Those bandits killed their friends.” Turning the other way, he could see Jussi perched inside the roof hatch on the catwalk above Tiger, watching the hole in the north side of the outer wall. “I'm sure Jussi could do this.”
Tiger was unmoved. “You can split the bounty,” he said bluntly, “or give it all to them if you like.” He lifted the second rifle off Yevgeniy's back. “But I want you to make the shot.”
“I – ”
“You know what these bandits will do to Galya if they catch her. They'll do it to Mitya, and to you too, just because they can.”
Yevgeniy finally understood. “All right,” he whispered. “All right. I'll do it.”
The sun was still high in the sky, favoring a shooting position in the shadows at the rear of the platform, so Yevgeniy backed away from the wide gallery windows before he began his preparation. The SSG-82 felt curiously comfortable in his hands, its shape so alike to the old Suhl 150 which had been his favorite practice gun. Familiarity brought calm as he removed the lens caps and sighted in. The scope offered limited power, with a simple crossbar-and-post reticule in the German style, but was of good quality. It showed its pedigree in white letters atop the elevation knob: Carl Zeiss Jena DDR.
Fritz was still pacing, full of pent up energy. It looked as though he was arguing with someone hidden behind the slabs of prefabricate concrete which blocked the road, the vehemence of the gestures making up for whatever the dispute lacked in volume. Did Fritz not realize how exposed he was? Did he think he faced only a few under-gunned and demoralized neutrals? Or did he simply not care?
The marked man wouldn't pace much longer: Yevgeniy wrapped the sling around his supporting arm, taking up the slack. Cupping the ball at the bolt handle's end, he lifted it and chambered a round in almost perfect silence. His slender body straightened as he found his balance, his breathing deep and slow. He followed his target's motion, mentally comparing the flatter trajectory of the 5.45mm ammunition against the ballistics of the .22 rimfires he'd grown up on. The question of the money was gone from his mind entirely. So was the pain. Only the shot mattered now.
The bandit stopped abruptly, extending his arm as he turned. Yevgeniy squeezed, felt the trigger break cleanly, and heard the crack of a fifty-five grain Barnaul hollowpoint closing the gap in a millisecond.
Fritz swayed on his feet, staring at the wound in his side. The brigand met his death like many who perished in the Zone before him, struggling with his last thoughts to comprehend his own mortality. After a long moment, he fell backwards into the grass behind the concrete and vanished from sight. Another bandit appeared, carrying a rifle with an underbarrel launcher. He rushed to the slain chief. Tiger raised the Lee-Enfield.
The bullet impacted low and left, pulverizing the second bandit's hip. He toppled sideways with a howl. Tiger ducked, ejecting the spent cartridge from his gun. They'd kicked the nest – now to see whether the hornets came out. At any moment Bes and his group would begin their assault on the trailhead, and the bandits' reaction to it could determine the next move.
“Get up!” a hoarse voice bellowed. “Get up, you cocksuckers, or I'll kill you myself!”
Tiger peered over the window's frame. A bandit in a long coat seemed to have taken charge, a silvery pistol glinting in the sunlight as he goaded his cohorts forward.
Here we go.
“Vanya, cover us!”
The enemy advanced in an amorphous wave. At the same time, the elusive roadblock machine gunner showed himself among the slabs and pipes. Tiger centered the silhouetted head and shoulders in his sights. “Borya, go!”
Kondratenko rose from his crouched concealment under the rightmost window, planted the M60's bipod on the sill, and took aim.
Tatatatatatatata! Tatatata! Tatatata!
The hostile gunner pulled his head down just as Tiger shot, narrowly escaping a full metal jacket haircut. He blind-fired in return, blasting chunks of brick out of the wall above the stalkers. When he came up again, the loner was ready. This time his aim was true: dark matter sprayed into the air and the opposing machine gun slipped backwards off its perch, still discharging as its master fell.
“Tiger!” Kondratenko cried. “The gate!”
Three bandits had broken away when the deserter's gun swept the killing field. One reached temporary shelter under the wall to the left of the railway gate, while the others dashed to the right. “Jussi!” Tiger shouted, anticipating their course. “Look alert!”
The nearest thug must have heard him. “Hey, ass-face!” he crowed. “Here's a lemon for you to suck on!”
Tiger lunged to the window and fired at the voice behind the gate's rusted panels. He wrenched the bolt open, not daring to wait for sensory confirmation of a hit, but it wouldn't close when he tried to push it forward. The loner discarded his jammed rifle, snatching up the nearest substitute. A small object sailed over the gate, struck the roof of the boxcar and deflected to the left.
The hand bomb exploded at the hangar's threshold, throwing fragments against the platform's underside and drawing a cry from Yevgeniy. There was a quick boom-boom-boom as Jussi stopped the flanking bandits at the breach, and the last one standing took to his heels. Tiger brought the AK to bear, aligned his eye with the notch and post, and dropped the running man with a perfunctory burst in the back. As the last empty casing rolled away and the last echo of muzzle blast faded, his beleaguered ears heard long-stroke thunder rolling in from the southwest as Bes and his people did their part.
“What now?” wondered Kondratenko.
“Now we wait.” Looking back, Tiger saw Galina watching him from the barricade. She gave him a thumbs-up. “Reload and keep your eyes open,” he advised, pulling the partly depleted magazine out of his own weapon.
Sanya spoke up suddenly. “Hey, what's-your-name... Zhenya. You okay there?”
Yevgeniy was on his knees with a hand pressed over his lower belly, eyes shut tight and teeth clenched. He was plainly in agony. “Zhenya,” Tiger prompted, “are you hit?”
He received no reply. Sanya put aside his gun and crawled over to the sniper. “Come on, dude,” he said impatiently. “You gotta say someth – oh, shit. Tiger, his crotch is bleeding!”
Tiger yanked out the bandage stored in the Kalashnikov's stock. “Shrapnel or a bullet?”
“Put him on his back. Hurry!”
Yevgeniy reanimated as Tiger and Sanya laid their hands on him. “Wait,” he mumbled. “Stop...”
Not good. Was he already going into shock? “Hold his arms,” Tiger grunted, forcibly extending the squirming casualty's legs. “Where's the entry wound?”
“Couldn't see it!”
“No..!” Yevgeniy strained against their grip in blind panic. “Nooooo!”
“Zhenya! Zhenya, you have to calm down!” Tiger couldn't see the injury's location either – only the dark stain of the blood seeping though the younger man's clothing. “We need to get his pants off!”
Modesty be damned. A bleeding wound, even a minor one, had to be staunched and cleaned quickly, or else it would leave the victim open to deadly infection. The belt's tongue slipped free of its buckle, and then Tiger's fingers hooked into the waistband.
“Stop!” A sob shook Yevgeniy's pinioned body. “Stop! Don't look!”
Too late. “You're a girl?” Tiger blinked. “No, you're not... What are you?”
“Dude...” Sanya was slack-jawed. “What the fuck.”
The only answer was a wail of despair.