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Tiger's Spring

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  08:05:40  3 April 2010
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entrenous
(Senior)
 
On forum: 03/25/2007
 

Message edited by:
entrenous
04/03/2010 8:06:00
Messages: 61
Hey Bob! I hope you didn't disappear like some of those crazy stories about stalkers vanishing into thin air in the Zone...

Because that is some of the best writing I've read in awhile, and its about the Zone!

I actually printed some of them out so I can read while I'm out or waiting instead of a usual book.

Thanks again for the read, by far the best writing by putting the game atmosphere and characters into words and into an exceptional story!
  21:10:26  3 April 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
I'm still here, just been busy with other projects. A new chapter should be up in the next few days, depending on how busy my Easter weekend becomes.
  06:54:10  4 April 2010
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entrenous
(Senior)
 
On forum: 03/25/2007
Messages: 61

---QUOTATION---
I'm still here, just been busy with other projects. A new chapter should be up in the next few days, depending on how busy my Easter weekend becomes.
---END QUOTATION---



Best news I've heard all week. Take your time. Like someone else said... its better to have quality than quantity. Until then, I'll be waiting patiently for your next chapter.
  08:15:42  4 April 2010
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Strelok08
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 03/12/2010
Messages: 787

---QUOTATION---
IM HERE!

AND I WANT MOER!
---END QUOTATION---



AMEN!
  06:57:30  12 April 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
l09_swamp (604 or better)

“Everybody up!” Anatoly barked. “Form a circle facing outward! Galya, Mitya, you stay in the middle! Tiger, you're at twelve o'clock – keep those eyes and ears open!”

Tiger faced the south, with Southpaw at his left elbow and Gosha at his right. Vitka, German and Anatoly were at his back. “Nine o'clock!” he shouted. “Ten, two, four and five!”

“Huh?” said German. “How do you – ”

“Ngh!” The short-barreled Kalashnikov spewed fireballs, raking the reeds as the ten o'clock bloodsucker weaved towards the long-coated stalker. Southpaw took up the fight as Tiger ran empty and reached for another magazine. “Gosha, in front of you!”

Gosha took 'front' to mean 'everything in a forty-degree cone' and acted accordingly: clumps of dirt and pieces of vegetation flew everywhere as he swept his bullet hose from side to side. “URRRAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Tiger turned the other way, snapping back his bolt carrier as one blob faded out and another rushed in. “Southpaw, left!”

The hunched form of the powerful beast materialized in front of Southpaw before he could finish reloading. It batted his Zastava aside with an almost contemptuous snarl of its tentacled mouth, knocking the stalker onto his back and sending the rifle flying at Tiger's head. Audacity alone, however, was not enough to secure this mutant's future: it bent to secure its prey just as its prey secured his shotgun. “SUCK – ” Ba-boom! “ – THIS!”

“Two left!” Tiger tossed the M70 back to its master. “Circling!” One of the blobs veered outwards as it passed across his field of fire. He let off a burst to no avail. “From behind!”

Vitka's PPSh vied with German's Thompson to drown out the cries of Galya and Mitya. “Hah!” Meteorologist crowed. “Howja like that, squid-face!”

“Hush,” said German tensely. “Where's the last – oof!” He, Vitka and Gosha promptly went down like dominoes. “SHIT!”

Kerblam!

The pair of teenagers instinctively leaped aside as Tiger and Southpaw spun around. Anatoly was on the ground, the final bloodsucker above him. The sucker had impaled itself on the Mosin's bayonet, the tip of the cruciform steel spike protruding from its tawny back. Thick blood already oozed from the wound, and from the freshly inflicted bullet penetration beside it. The carbine's butt remained firmly wedged against the ground, preventing the mutant from descending to irrevocably seize its would-be meal.

The last men standing raised their weapons, but Tourist was quicker yet. The Smith & Wesson barked six times: anemic sounds in comparison to the other weapons, but laden with lethality none the less. The bloodsucker took one last swing at the stalker, tearing away the gas mask and part of the suit's hood, and finally expired.

This was, by Tiger's estimation, a shining victory for the stalkers.

The only problem was that Anatoly Tourist wasn't Anatoly Tourist.

***

“Ow!” Olga hit the ground hard, unable to catch herself because her hands were tied behind her back. “Goddammit, Anton!”

Tiger merely jammed the .38's muzzle against the back of her neck and continued searching her with his other hand. Southpaw gave him a worried look before resuming his own, more dexterous examination of the woman's backpack. “Uh, what exactly am I looking for?”

“Something that doesn't belong.”

The left-handed stalker scratched his chin. “There's food, ammo, medical kit... and more food.” He turned the empty pack upside down and shook it a few times. “It all seems legit to me.”

“Keep looking.” Tiger's voice was as hard as the look on his face. “Check for hidden pockets and false bottoms.”

He flipped Olga onto her back, sat on her legs and started loosening the Sunrise suit's buckles, provoking a grimace and much squirming. “Anton..!”

“Man...” Gosha shook his head. “She had us all totally fooled.”

“You said that already,” German grumbled. “Stop gawking and watch the perimeter.”

Tiger finally got the belts undone and wriggled his hand under the front of the suit's upper half: the Sunrise's rubbery construction made a pat-down alone insufficient for his purposes. Well-exercised muscles tensed beneath smooth skin as the stalker's hand worked up towards the bottom of the prisoner's ribcage. Olga's expression betrayed a hint of fear. “Anton, don't..!”

Tiger's suspicion was proven accurate: “Nothing to hide?” he asked caustically, withdrawing the flat, sweaty-smelling plastic wallet.

“What's that?” In response, Southpaw found an oblong article thrust under his nose. “Cherenkova, Olga... Captain... Security Service of Ukraine!? What the hell!”

“Yeah.” Comparing Olga's face with the photo on the identification card, Tiger realized it must be at least a few years old. “What did you do with the real Anatoly Tourist?” When she tried to look away, he prodded her with the revolver. “Answer me!”

“...Never existed.”

“You're lying. Tourist was here during the faction wars, and you only arrived a few weeks – ”

“Two years.”

Gut, meet sledgehammer. “What..?”

Olga pushed herself up to a half-sitting position. “I've been in the Zone almost two years,” she announced quietly. “Tourist was my cover persona.”

“But... you were seen in the Cordon – ”

“Because I wanted to be seen.”

“Why?”

The blond woman nodded towards the item in Tiger's hand. “There's a photo.”

“A photo?” Tiger pried the wallet open. There was a snapshot print inside: a creased, slightly overexposed picture of Olga perched on the front step of a small-town house, wearing fatigue pants and a telnyashka in the red stripes of the internal troops. She had a boy – he looked to be about three or four – sitting on her lap, offering a shy smile for the camera. “Who's this?”

“My son,” Olga replied softly. “Aleksey Antonovich.”

“...”

“...”

Southpaw cleared his throat. “Uh... Maybe you two should, you know, talk about this later?”

“Yeah,” Tiger muttered, shaking off his stupor. “Yeah, that's right... What's your real business here, Captain?”

Olga winced at the mocking formality. “Get off me and I'll tell you,” she sighed. “My legs are going numb.” When Tiger obliged, she pulled her knees up. “Okay, listen... The guys we're up against work for an American private military company. The SBU wants to know who hired them and what their objective is.”

“That's it?” German didn't sound impressed. “So why leave the heavy lifting to Duty? This sounds like a textbook job for the army or the internal troops... Hell, even Berkut could handle it better than we can.”

“Deniability,” Olga explained. “If they get killed by the mutants or the stalkers, the problem is dealt with and Kiev's hands stay clean.”

“Yeah, well,” said Southpaw philosophically, “so much for that plan.” He turned to Tiger. “What should we do with her?”

“Waste her,” Gosha suggested.

“Do her and then waste her,” Vitka added with a leer.

Olga bared her teeth. “Try it and I'll fucking bite you.”

“Why shouldn't we shoot you?” Tiger demanded, ignoring Meteorologist's attempt to inject a note of lewdness into the proceedings. “We have enough problems without a spy making Mandatory Matrosovs of us.”

“That hurts.” The captive looked at him reproachfully. “Do you truly believe I could just... throw you away?”

“I kind of get the impression you've done it before,” Southpaw muttered as he refilled the backpack. “Well, I guess we can use her to bargain with.”

“I can make my own damn bargains,” Olga muttered sourly. “Anton, I won't be able to keep working with my cover gone. Help me finish this and I promise you won't ever have to see me again... Isn't that what you want?”

German frowned. “All else being equal, how do we 'finish' this? We're still outnumbered and outgunned.”

“That's what they think,” the woman countered with just a whiff of smugness. “We have the home field advantage... and we have Anton.”

“What's that mean?” Gosha asked quizzically.

The stripe-haired stalker was fumbling for an explanation when his left-handed friend intervened. “Tiger can sense things,” he announced. “People, anomalies, artifacts – better than any detector you can buy.”

“No kidding,” said German. “I've heard of people like that, but never saw one myself. I guess we owe you for, ah, spotting those suckers.”

“Mm...” Tiger's eyes ran over Olga critically. “What else?”

“I know the locations of a couple of good caches,” Olga divulged. “Ammunition, rations, some equipment... They're booby-trapped, but it's nothing sophisticated.”

“Where?”

His long-ago girlfriend regarded him keenly. “How about this?” she offered. “I can lead you to one stash right now. If you're satisfied, let me back on the team and I'll tell you everything you need.”

“I don't like that,” said Gosha. “It stinks of a trap.”

“If it's a trap, we're fucked.” Vitka cocked his head. “But if we don't check it out, we're probably fucked anyway.”

There was an awkward pause. “You know her better than we do, Tiger,” Southpaw said at last. “It's your call.”

“I know,” Tiger sighed, tucking the .38 away. “Meteorologist, lend me your wire cutters.”

“Here,” the other stalker grunted, “but don't blame me if you regret it.”

“Noted,” Tiger replied dryly, pulling Olga to her feet. After chopping through her bindings, he picked up the Mosin and opened the bolt. “You're on probation,” he told her, unlatching the magazine floorplate and dumping the remaining cartridges into his hand, “so you load it when I tell you to. Got that?”

“Sure, Anton.” The agent's mood was subdued as she collected her backpack. “Let's bring the kids along,” she suggested, indicated Galya and Mitya. “It's not far, but we'll need extra hands to carry stuff back.”

“Fine,” said Tiger brusquely. “Southpaw, you too... Fisher, hold this position and watch for enemy probes.”

“Leaving me with these bums?” German chuckled sardonically. “Well, have fun.”

The party set off without fanfare, moving carefully among the reeds and pools. Olga walked at the front, Tiger close behind. Southpaw and the teenagers followed in single file, stepping where the leaders stepped. They headed north, passing through a gap in the overgrown barbed-wire fence which ran parallel to the foot of the railway embankment. The collapsed bridge loomed ahead, twisted girders and derailed boxcars alike splotched with reddish-brown.

“What's across the river?” Mitya asked when the entourage came onto open ground.

“The badlands,” Southpaw replied. “Don't go near the water, I hear there are huge catfish in there.”

“There are.” Tiger shifted his grasp on his M92. “Olga, is your stash in the hermit hole?”

“Yeah.” The female stalker sounded a little disappointed, as if she meant this to be some sort of surprise present. “You know about it?”

“Just the hole.” Tiger hadn't been inside it since before the faction wars. His Clear Sky handler, Ivan Trodnik, had used it as an occasional meeting spot.

“Here we are,” Olga breathed as the shadow of the bridge fell over them. “The hideout is pretty tight, so Anton and I will carry the loot out.” She produced a battery headlamp and put it on. “This shouldn't take long.”

“Okay,” said Southpaw with a shrug. “We'll sit tight and be inconspicuous... Don't bump your head in there, Tiger.”

That would be the least of my worries, Tiger thought, stooping as he followed Olga into the rough-walled tunnel. This place never looked very stable.

“There's the trap,” Olga informed him, stopping not quite halfway in. Her light settled on a mine with a tripwire and a grooved fragmentation sleeve, perched atop a wooden stake driven into the dirt where floor merged with wall.

“A POMZ,” her companion noted critically, aiming his own pocket light at it. “Did the Security Service give you that?”

Olga shook her head. “Bought it from a shady Dutyer,” she confessed as she disconnected the wire. “There's an F-One with a zero-delay fuze under there, so don't touch it.”

“I'll be sure not to.” Burying an armed grenade beside another device was an old military trick: troops in the Cordon employed it to deter foolhardy stalkers from stealing perimeter mines. “Any more surprises?”

“Not unless somebody's been inside since the last time I checked.”

“Did you put the cache here?”

“No,” Olga admitted, confirming Tiger's suspicion. “It's Clear Sky stuff – they never came back for it, so I figured it might be useful to me... Looks like we're safe,” she added, sweeping the white beam around the cramped chamber at the end of the tunnel. “There's food in these two crates and the rest is ammunition. What do you think, should we get something for everyone?”

It was undeniably a better selection than the average stalker's layaway. Under the plastic sheets was a wealth of Warsaw Pact products: everything from Russian 5.45 to Romanian 7.92, sealed inside pristine spam-cans. These were stacked beside drab rectangular boxes of NATO-caliber rounds, with latched lids and labels stenciled in smudgy yellow paint. There was also a multinational smattering of commercial ammunition in colorful little packages.

“Uh... Yeah, sure.” Her nonchalance aside, Tiger knew better than to think he'd been led here for the sake of idle banter. “Olga, the boy – ” He swallowed. “Is he..?”

“He's like you,” the mother of their child confirmed. “Lyosha's a good kid, but it's been hard for him.”

“Where is he now?”

“He lives with my commander's family at the air base in Chernihiv. They have two girls who are about the same age.”

Tiger said nothing for a minute. “...Why?”

“Why did I join the Security Service? Or why didn't I tell you?” There was a dull thunk-thunk as Olga dropped preserves into a canvas bag. “I was scared, Anton. I was pregnant with a child who might have been deformed, the authorities were breathing down my neck and... and you were turning into someone I didn't recognize.”

“And so the cat left the tree behind.” Tiger found another empty bag and put a can of AK rounds into it. “Why the SBU?”

“It was either the Security Service or the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and I'd had enough of the Ministry... I was qualified for the job – more important, I was willing to go.” Olga picked up a plastic flask of drinking water, examining it closely for defects. “Stalkers joke about men choosing a bullet in the head over service in the Zone, but at that time it was a real problem.”

“And Aleksey?”

“He's safe for now.” The flask went into the ration bag. “I run their errands and they leave him alone, that's the agreement.”

There were no belt links to be found, so Tiger didn't take any 7.62 NATO. “Sounds like you have it pretty good,” he opined candidly. “Why take off the disguise after so long?”

“You said it yourself,” the woman replied quietly. “The cat left the tree behind... but what if the cat wanted to come back?”

The abandoned stalker wanted no part of what she was suggesting. “The cat left the tree behind and the story ended,” he said flatly, stuffing his pockets with 7.62 rimmed cartridges in neatly stapled paper packets.

“I see.” Olga's voice momentarily quavered with emotion. “You won't reconsider?”

“Not for the Security Service and not for you.” Tiger topped off his bag, roughly stuffing the last box into it. “Do your recruiting somewhere else.”

“Recruiting!?” Olga sputtered. “Anton, this is personal.”

“Even worse.”

Indignation turned to frustration, as it often did with Olga, but that itself was transformed into an odd pride. “You aren't a tree to our son,” she declared. “To Lyosha, you're a modern-day Fyodor Sukhov.”

“Good for him,” Tiger snorted acerbically. “Does that make Southpaw my modern-day Sayid?”

“That's not a bad comparison...”

The man turned sharply. “What does that mean?”

“You don't know?” Her surprise, as far as he could make out, was real. “You seem to get along pretty well with him.”

“Not well enough, I guess.”

“Huh... Well, his name is Mykola Sidorenko and he's wanted for multiple murders on the outside – a loan shark and some militsiya with ties to said loan shark.”

“That's all?”

“Not much by Zone standards, is it?” Olga shrugged. “It's our Belarusian runaways I'm really worried about.”

Oh joy, Tiger thought. “And what did they do?”

“Nothing.” Olga put the strap of her bag over her shoulder. “The girl is Galina Purkayeva, only child of that country's recently appointed defense minister. Her boyfriend, Dmitry Batov, comes from a family of dissidents.” Her lip curled. “Obviously Papa Lukashenko would frown upon the match.”

Better and better. “So they fled to the Zone, of all places?”

“Yeah... It might actually work if they knew what they were getting into, but they're – ”

She was cut off by Southpaw's yell from outside: “You, stop where you are! Drop the gun! Drop it!”

“Don't shoot!” The other man's voice was unknown to Tiger. “Please don't shoot!”

“We'll finish this later.” Olga took out a clip and slotted it into the Mosin, disregarding Tiger's order. “Come on.”
  10:53:54  12 April 2010
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Petro Crowbar
(Novice)
 
On forum: 02/12/2010
Messages: 3
Haha, lucky me. I checked back here, it's been months since I last have, and read up on all the stories I've missed. Right as I am about to click out of the window and not come back here for a few days, you update your story. Interesting as all ways! Thanks.
  03:45:08  1 June 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
06/01/2010 5:06:30
Messages: 3336
Another Beautiful Day

Coming out of the tunnel, Tiger and Olga discovered Southpaw in a standoff with a lone soldier.

It was a lopsided confrontation: the intruder's uniform was torn and mud-spattered, his face was covered in cuts and scratches and his eyes were bloodshot. He looked as if he might faint on his feet at any moment. He was carrying an AKS-74 with a rolled up bandage wedged between the struts of the folding stock and a short, lumpy telescopic sight – a PGO-7, cannibalized from a rocket launcher – attached to the side rail, but made no effort to utilize the hardware. “Please,” he begged. “Just let me pass! I don't want any trouble!”

“Anton,” Olga whispered, extending a hand behind herself, “I need my ID.”

Tiger pressed the wallet into her palm without comment, reasoning that this might be a chance to see how far he could afford to trust her. She tucked it into the front of her suit, then lunged out of cover and tackled the hapless grunt. There was a frightened shriek, a scuffle, and suddenly the soldier was facedown in the dirt with one arm pinned behind his back and Olga sitting on his waist. “Don't move,” the woman hissed, “or you'll write left-handed for the rest of your days!”

“He's alone,” said Tiger, looking around. “Where did he come from?”

“The riverbank.” Southpaw waved in a northward direction, then bent and picked up the stranger's rifle. “His shooter's empty.”

“Must have wandered down from the Agroprom.” Olga frowned at the back of the trapped man's head. “Enjoy your night in the woods, Private?”

The man just whimpered. Tiger's focus was drawn to his filth-caked boots, noting particularly the pungent smell they emitted. “He's been in the underground,” the stalker remarked. “That mold doesn't grow in sunlight.”

“A tunnel rat wouldn't need such a fancy gun,” Olga observed. “Where did you get it?”

“From one of the tower guards,” the soldier squeaked. “He was dead... They were all dead...”

Tiger and Southpaw had heard talk of a raid as they left Rostok early that morning, but there was no time to stop for details. “What happened at the Agroprom?” the latter asked.

“A bunch of shit that could have been avoided.” Olga's lip curled. “You probably heard that the military set up camp at the Institute. That should have been fine, except that Mole and his group were prospecting under the factory... The soldiers picked a fight and almost wiped them out, but Sidorovich's amnesiac lackey walked right into the middle of it. The way I heard, he pretty much cleaned out the grunts and made off with whatever they'd gotten out of the ruins.”

Tiger glanced at Southpaw. Marked One hadn't mentioned any action when they saw him at the Hundred Rads last night, nor had he looked like he'd come straight in from a firefight. It made the loner even warier of that strange man.

“Guy must be pretty hardcore,” said Southpaw, evidently thinking along similar lines.

“Yeah.” Olga's voice didn't convey sincerity. “Funny thing is, the last report from the forward platoon mentioned a man going missing in the underground... And that attack was a little too neat, even for a guy who could be the son of Rambo.” She bowed her head very low, so that her lips were almost beside the soldier's ear. “I think we've got a deserter.”

“I... I...”

“You sold them out, didn't you? You were so desperate to get away that you blabbed to the first guy you met and left your buddies to die.”

Probably none of the onlookers were surprised when the prisoner burst into tears. “I had to get away,” he sobbed. “I couldn't bear it... The monsters, the dreams... Oh God, the dreams!”

Southpaw grimaced a little. “What are we gonna do with him?”

Olga didn't answer him directly, pulling out her Security Service identification instead. “Pull yourself together,” she ordered, holding it in front of the soldier's face. “I've got a proposition for you.”

Tiger didn't like the sound of that. “Olga – ”

“Cool it. I've got this.”

The revelation had only amplified the man's anguish. “W-what do you want from me?”

“Cooperation.” The ID was withdrawn from sight. “There's a bunch of nasty gun-for-hire types camped out at the edge of these swamps, so you can forget about escaping. I'm on a mission here, and I'm short on manpower – help me and I can help you avoid a firing squad.”

The captive twisted his head around, eyes wide with fear. “What do you want me to do?”

“Shoot bad guys,” Olga replied dryly. “That's what they teach you to do in the army, right?”

The private shrank from her once more. “Why should I trust you?”

“The alternative is wandering the woods alone with no ammo.” After a few seconds, Olga released her grip and stood up. “I'm not like the assholes who send terrified conscripts into the Zone,” she continued, her voice softening. “I know what the Zone does to people.”

The prisoner continued to watch her skittishly as he gingerly rolled over, looking very much as if he expected to receive a swift kick in the steering gear at any moment. Progressing to an upright posture with no violence suffered appeared to calm him a little. “Um...”

Olga held up a finger. “First rule: you do exactly what I tell you.” She pointed at Tiger. “If I'm not around, you do exactly what he tells you.”

Tiger wasn't sure whether to be flattered by the show of confidence, or to reject it as Olga sucking up to him. “Don't worry,” he said flatly. “I don't believe in suicide missions.”

“See?” Olga folded her arms. “What's your name, son?”

“Kondratenko... Boris Petrovich.”

***

The others took this development better than Tiger expected. “Another misfit boards the ship of fools,” German remarked when the introductions were over. “Welcome to our miserable company.”

Vitka regarded Olga sourly. “You're nuts, you know that?”

“Oh, and we're not?” Gosha reached over and slapped Kondratenko's arm. “Cheer up, man. You're in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, not in Kosovo or Iraq or Liberia. No Allah-akbar is going to come and slit your throat in the night here!”

“Stop that.” German watched the quivering soldier for a second or two, then turned to Tiger. “So, does the lady check out?”

“So far,” the stalker replied reluctantly. Taking out the Victory, he turned it over a couple of times and then handed it to Olga. “Tell us about the enemy.”

“A company called Paladin Defense Services. They recruit internationally, but the employees are mostly American. Standard equipment is all made in Israel... They work in the usual places and their record's more or less free of of public scandal. Their personnel are a mix of ex-military and police, private-sector security and civilians looking for high-paying adventure. Skill levels are all over the board.” She shrugged. “I wouldn't expect a swarm of green berets.”

“Let's hope not,” said Southpaw grimly.

Tiger nodded. “What about the other stash?”

“It's under the machine yard. The anomalies are thick, but I think the risk is worthwhile.” Olga leaned forward, hands on her knees. “There's weapons, uniforms, night fighting gear... even an exoskeleton.”

“Sounds good for our chances,” German opined. “So what's your grand plan?”

The spy brought out one of her Zone maps, folding it over so that only the square depicting the swamps was visible. “Okay,” she announced, pointing to the upper left, “we're here.” Her fingertip traveled to the right and down a little. “There's the machine yard... The sniper we have to watch out for will presumably be on or near this tower.” She pointed to a location well to the south, on the far side of an expanse of wide pools and small islands. “There's a hill here, and a rise with a burnt-down farmstead here, both of which interfere with his line of sight to the yard... If we can get there without being spotted, we should be safe.”

“Great,” said Vitka snidely. “Now we just gotta figure how to make ourselves invisible.”

Olga ignored him. “The road from the sinking village to the yard is too exposed,” she went on, “so we'll need to find a path somewhere along here.” She traced a long arc from the boat park to the machine yard, passing near the railroad embankment at its northernmost point. “The slope running up to the yard itself gives us extra cover for the last stretch, assuming Anton can find a way through the Dervishes and whatever else is over there.”

“Dervish?” Southpaw echoed. “What's that?”

“A really nasty anomaly,” Olga explained. “Like a Whirligig, except that it moves around when something triggers it. Imagine a small tornado going in circles.”

“I'd rather not,” the lefty muttered. “Can you handle that, Tiger?”

“I think so. They usually don't form close to the ground.”

“Just so.” Olga looked around, taking in the others' expressions. “Let's clean our gear and rest up a bit. It'll be easier to move around when the sun is lower.”

“That's true,” said German. “I'm shooting clean primers, so I can stand watch if you guys need to scrub your guns.”

“Me too,” Gosha offered.

“Great.” Olga stowed the map. “You look like a zombie, Kondratenko. Did you rest at all last night?”

“Couldn't,” the soldier mumbled. “Had to keep walking.”

“All night?” Southpaw queried. “It shouldn't take that long to get here from the Agroprom.”

“I was going in circles,” Kondratenko confessed. “Kept coming back to this little clearing with a rusty truck in it, no matter which way I went... After a while I managed to find the riverbank.” He squinted at Tiger, who had begun to peer at him intently in the meantime. “What?”

“You're very lucky,” the stalker informed him. “Go to sleep.”

“I don't want to.” The private wrapped his arms around himself, shivering despite the warmth in the air. “I'll dream again...”

“Do you know why you dream?” Tiger pressed a finger to his temple. “The Zone preys on your own fear... Those who are afraid, dream. Those who are weak, are taken by their dreams.” He stood up. “If you can't master your fear, I've heard putting a bucket over your head helps.”

“Listen to Anton,” Olga chimed in. “He's been here the longest.” She waved towards the rickety cabin. “There's a bunk in there. Just lie down and think peaceful thoughts.”

Kondratenko didn't look reassured, but he got up and shambled into the cabin anyway. The others drifted apart instinctively: Vitka went off to steal a nap of his own, Tiger and Southpaw migrated to the rotted pier, and Olga beckoned the Belarusian adolescents towards a comfortable log for some lessons in stalking.

“So...” Southpaw pushed his Mauser's safety to the middle position and worked the action gently, ejecting unfired cartridges one by one. “You're Anton, huh?”

Tiger opened the trapdoor on the Lee-Enfield's butt and withdrew the cleaning kit. He and Southpaw had barely fired these new weapons, but they both needed the practice. “That's right.”

The left-handed stalker removed the rifle's bolt and tipped it on end. “I'm Mykola,” he said, carefully dripping solvent onto the dark ring of carbon deposits on the bolt's face.

“Olga told me.” Tiger removed the bolt and magazine from his own rifle, applying a similar treatment to the former. “She said you killed some people on the outside.”

“Figures.” Southpaw let the solvent soak for a few seconds, then began rubbing the metal with a rag. “I told you I used to work at a machine shop, right? The owner got into debt taking his girl to parties, so he went to a loan shark and lost everything.” The stalker scowled. “I didn't mean for the bastard to die, but I'm not sorry he's gone.”

“And the others?”

“No regrets.” Southpaw set the bolt aside and started unscrewing the M24/47's cleaning rod. “The police are supposed to protect us from those parasites,” he growled, taking the extension piece from his cleaning kit and twisting it onto the rod's threaded end, “not whore themselves out to the highest bidder... If I'd known I would end up here, I'd have killed a few more before I left!”

“I see.” Tiger clamped his rifle between his knees and dropped the long tail of the pull-through down the barrel. “You thought things would be... better here?”

“I guess.” The lefty held the Yugoslavian weapon up to his eye and peered through the bore. “Does that stuff, uh...”

“It doesn't bother me.” There were people in the Zone who had committed far worse deeds, though Tiger felt no need to say so.

“That's, um... that's good.” Southpaw threw a quick glance over his shoulder. “You know, your ex isn't what I expected.”

Tiger also looked and saw Olga cleaning her Mosin, as Galina and Dmitry watched closely. “I didn't expect this either.”

“I don't mean the SBU thing,” his companion corrected. “She's... Somehow I thought she'd be... meaner.”

“I never said she was mean,” Tiger replied quietly, “just that she was...” He came up short, realizing he simply wasn't sure what Olga was any more.

“Selfish?” Southpaw prompted.

“Maybe.” Tiger drew out the pull-through, inspecting the stains it had acquired on its journey down the narrow steel tube. “What do you think?”

Southpaw checked his rear again before answering. “Seems to me she might really want to make up.” He shrugged. “Or maybe she's just screwing with you, I can't tell.”

“Mm...” The stripe-haired one would still bet on the latter possibility. “Think Kondratenko is worth anything?” he asked, wanting to move on from the topic of the treacherous woman.

“Dunno.” Southpaw reseated the Mauser's cleaning rod with a firm turn, then pressed the bolt into the rear of the receiver. “What was the big deal about the truck?”

“Hm?”

“He said he found a truck in the woods.” Picking up the loose rounds of ammunition, the sinistral man pressed them into the magazine one by one. “You looked like you thought that was important.”

“I think he might have blundered into a spatial loop and wandered back out without even realizing it.”

“That's important?”

“It's impossible.” Tiger slid the Lee-Enfield's magazine back into place, the latch engaging with a crisp click when he tapped the bottom of the sheet-metal box. “Nobody escapes looped space without guidance.”

“What kind of guidance?”

Tiger set the ex-.303 aside, picked up his Zastava Kalashnikov and unloaded it. “Forester did it with a Compass once.”

“Just a compass?”

“Not an actual compass.” Tiger popped off the dust cover and pulled out the bolt carrier group. “It's an artifact.”

Southpaw followed his lead and began disassembling the other Zastava. “What's it do?”

“I think it reacts to the bending of space.” The M92's bore was considerably dirtier than the Lee-Enfield's, and would need a bigger dose of solvent. “It's desirable for other uses as well. Only a few have ever been found.”

“And the ones who can't get it... They become ghost radios, don't they?”

“Yes...”

Ghost radios had been more common when Anton Petanko first came to the Zone. They were usually phantom distress signals from stalking pioneers whose fatal mistakes opened the way to those who came after them, but Tiger hadn't forgotten the cold January day when he stood on a hill overlooking Yantar and listened to the faint, intermittent transmissions of soldiers who had already been dead two years or more. Spatial loops didn't block radio signals: instead, those broadcast from within were caught in the same limbo as the anomaly's living victims. The men inside inevitably perished, be it from hunger, thirst or a merciful bullet, but their voices lingered, leaking out now and then to baffle or frighten passers-by.

“Is Kondratenko... special?”

“Huh?”

“You said it's impossible to get out of looped space without a Compass,” Southpaw reiterated, “so how did he do it?”

“I don't know.” Tiger dripped some solvent into the AK's muzzle booster, rolling it between his fingers to ensure the inside was fully coated. “Blind luck, probably.”

“I suppose so.” Southpaw plucked the soiled patch off the end of his second, thinner cleaning rod. “You're not going to tell him?”

“Can he handle it?” The question was entirely rhetorical.

***

The pair finished their work in quiet before returning to the middle of the boat park. “Well?” said Tiger, sitting across from Olga.

“I have a couple of model students here,” the woman replied approvingly. “It might be a shame to send them back to the Big Land after all.”

Tiger and Southpaw raised two eyebrows between them.

“What?” Olga demanded. “Can't I pass on my hard-learned skills?”

Tiger ignored the gripe. “We need to talk.”

“Okay.” Olga unzipped a pocket and took out an artifact detector with a large directional indicator and a circular flip-up antenna. “You're a decent prospector,” she said to Southpaw, passing it his way. “Mind giving them the basics?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” The female stalker rose, brushing off her pants briskly, and collected the M44. “Well, Anton?”

Tiger led her back to the pier where he'd been cleaning and conversing. “You only use a Bear?” he asked curiously, sitting in the shade.

“If I used a Veles, every punk between here and the Red Forest would try to mug me.” Olga sat beside him. “So what's up?”

“The boy...” Tiger hesitated, picking his words carefully. “What if I wanted to see him?”

“It depends.” Olga stuck a finger into the collar of her suit, scratching an itch. “I assume you'd rather not leave the Zone.”

“Would the Security Service let me?”

“I'm sure they'd let you out. The real question is, would they let you back in?” She shook her head. “I wouldn't count on it, not unless you agreed to work for them.”

“Isn't that what you were after anyway?” Tiger asked pointedly.

“It used to be,” Olga answered candidly. “But then I realized that's like asking a man to protect his house by signing a contract with the neighborhood demolition company.” She picked up a pebble and tossed it into the water below her toes, watching intently as the ripples spread. “I might be able to bring Lyosha to the perimeter, if you think it's okay for him to be near the Zone.”

“Would he want to?”

“Oh yeah.” The Russian laughed a little. “Every time I visit our kid, he tells me he's going to be a stalker when he grows up... Some days I almost think it would be safe to let him live out here, learning the trade with you.” She lay back on the weathered planks, placing her hands behind her head and gazing tranquilly at the wide blue sky above. “Quiet, beautiful days like this, you know?”

“Mm.” Tiger had to admit it was a beautiful day, mercenaries and bloodsuckers notwithstanding. Another beautiful day in the Zone...
  12:59:36  5 June 2010
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belizarius
Strelok Holmes
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/02/2009
Messages: 222
I like this a lot and hope you write more often.

Thanx
  15:20:51  9 June 2010
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Hazapuza
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/27/2008
Messages: 73
Wonderful. You're doing a fine job making Strelok look totally like a living legend. I like that. So make more!
  03:27:08  26 June 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Blowout soon fellow stalkers!
 
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