| 19:47:27 8 July 2010
On forum: 07/30/2007
Encouragement is always appreciated.|
Arms and the Man
“Ick heff mol en Hamborger veermaster sehn,” Gosha sang quietly, “to my hoo-dah, to my hoo-dah! De masten so scheef as den schipper – ”
“Ack!” Vitka hissed. “Shit!”
The entire group froze, quickly sinking into ready crouches and aiming sundry weapons outward. “What is it?” Olga demanded.
“I just told you,” Vitka grumbled, scraping his boot against the gravel. “It's shit.”
“Flesh excrement,” German declared after a brief glance. “There must be a herd nearby.”
“Flesh,” Galina repeated. “Mutated pigs, right?”
“That's right,” said Olga, motioning for the team to resume its advance. “They won't bother us unless they're starving.”
“Can these pigs be, er, tamed?”
“They're edible, but there's not much interest in domesticating them. I think somebody did try it...” The Russian looked over her shoulder at Tiger. “Do you remember, Anton?”
“Yes,” Tiger replied, keeping his eyes on the path ahead. “Some stalkers established a sort of farm near the edge... Then the army noticed it and sent out a helicopter.” He shook his head. “No more farm.”
“That's the army for you,” Gosha agreed. “Always spoiling the fun.”
Private Kondratenko let out a frightened squeak and sought refuge in the relatively safe company of Tiger and Olga. “Mind your muzzle sweeping,” the latter prompted curtly as the man fell back into step with the whole.
Tiger was of a mind to say the same thing: the nervous soldier's magazines had been refilled with ammunition from the hermit hole, but Olga had expressly forbidden Kondratenko to carry his rifle with a round chambered. It wasn't his loyalty that worried her, but his liability to have an accidental discharge. “Anomaly on the right,” the loner in the hooded coat said aloud, raising an arm. “A weak gravity trap between those two trees.”
“We can see that,” Vitka complained behind him. “Where's the heavy stuff?”
Tiger pointed to the rise directly ahead, the late afternoon sun shining warm on the sloped face – nothing like the damp, soft ground under the stalkers' feet. “Up there.”
“It looks like the fire pit has evolved into a Boiler,” Olga remarked, surveying the cloud of white which hung low over the thick bushes. “Surface water must be draining into the fissures.”
“Is that good or bad?” Galina queried, keeping her own eyes fixed firmly on the indistinct menace.
“Probably neither,” the elder woman replied. “Can we get closer, Anton?”
The wide, shallow pool at the foot of the machine yard had almost completely dried up in the months since the downfall of Clear Sky. The low bridge which linked the yard to the dirt road running westward lay in pieces, a haphazard pile of pale, jagged concrete slabs resting in the mud. The derelict Kamaz truck which had sat a little ways off, undisturbed for two and a half decades, now looked as if some giant had capriciously stomped on it, crushing the boxy body down onto the chassis yet leaving the red-painted cab virtually intact. The utility poles running alongside the road had been mostly reduced to splinters.
“It's safe here,” Tiger told the others when they were assembled in the shade of a fallen tree across the road, “but don't go near the truck.”
“Don't go anywhere,” Olga corrected, shrugging out of her backpack straps. She placed the pack beside the remaining boxes of ammunition belts for Gosha's M60. “Not until we return.”
“You're going to inspect the goods,” Southpaw reiterated, “then report back, right?”
The blond woman double-checked her .38's cartridges. “Right.”
“I can wait,” said Vitka, sitting with his back against the tree's jagged stump, “as long as I don't have to listen to any more songs in Dutch.”
“It's not Dutch,” Gosha cut in with an affronted air, “it's Low German.”
“Whatever,” the stalker in the balaclava snorted. “How do you know that?”
“I had a degree in linguistics,” the machine gunner answered with equal measures of pride and sorrow. “But they laid me off anyway.”
“Fucking lot of good the orange ribbons did us.” Vitka dug out a slightly mashed pack of cigarettes. “Hey,” he added, looking up at Tiger as the latter stood with his back to the others, “are you going or not?”
“Hush,” Olga hissed. “Don't distract him!”
“It's all right,” said Tiger shortly. “I'm finished.”
“Can we get through?”
“Yes.” The soft-spoken stalker motioned for Olga to stay close behind him and started towards the bridge. This obstacle was clear of anomalies, though the going was treacherous enough by itself: Tiger stepped diagonally, holding his arms outward to balance himself as he navigated across the rubble. Olga followed his lead attentively, and the pair returned to dry land without incident.
That was the easy part. There should have been an overturned truck straight ahead, but all Tiger saw was a collection of twisted metal scraps thinly strewn across the road. One of the few pieces which could still be recognized was a tire attached to the mangled stub of an axle. Another was the vehicle's hood, which lay upright on the ground as if neatly removed by an errant mechanic, the ZiL factory logo plainly visible.
Behind the almost completely flattened wooden fence to the right of the truck, an uneven heap of shattered bricks, crumbling mortar and split timbers marked the former site of the machine yard's smaller workshop. The single-story structure had already been reduced to a gutted shell, naught but a skeletal frame remaining of its roof, when Lebedev's followers walked this path, but the anomalies spawned in the last great blowout had finished its ruin with incomparable thoroughness.
“Too thick,” said Tiger, nodding towards that sad remnant, and cut to the left. After several steps he sank into a hunched, creeping gait and tucked his coat close around himself. Dervishes and Whirligigs gently pulsed in the air above, while rippling Springboards lay closer to the ground. If either stalker had been keeping track of the time, they would have found themselves taking upwards of several minutes to traverse what should otherwise have been less than thirty seconds' walking distance.
“There's a clear spot here.” The mutated loner straightened beside the end of an unused length of reinforced pipe. “Rest for a minute.”
Olga straightened with a grunt, her long shadow stretching beside Tiger's own. “How are we doing?”
There had been a few more abandoned trucks parked in the middle of the machine yard, along with a handful of agricultural tractors partly or wholly stripped of components by illicit scrap-scroungers in the years before the second disaster. Not much of them could be seen from this side, as the freestanding roof which once sheltered the dead machines from rain had partially collapsed and lay draped over the wrecks like a massive sheet of rumpled tinfoil.
“Anton..?” Olga's voice was quiet, yet urgent.
Tiger pointed to a warped piece of the fallen roof, knocked loose and lying in the dirt not far away. He hadn't noticed it before, when the light was almost directly behind him, but there was no mistake once he saw the dislodged metal sheet from another angle: its shadow fell towards the sun.
“What is that?”
“I'm not sure.” Whatever the thing's nature, its energy was too weak to clearly tell it apart from its neighbors. “Don't go there,” the striped one ordered. “We'll walk around.”
The main workshop – a bigger structure shaped like a reversed 'L' – was in better condition than the other facilities, though transient anomalies had taken bites out of its redbrick walls and corrugated roof. Tiger and Olga advanced further to the east, the discarded pipes' disruption of Springboard formation providing a straight albeit narrow path. From there it was merely a pace, a creep and a shuffle to the north door of the workshop.
“The inside is clear,” said Tiger, cautiously peering into the shadows within. “The roof doesn't look so good.”
“We won't be playing with subwoofers in here,” Olga replied as she stepped past him. “It'll hold.”
The man followed her with a shrug, looking about as his eyes adjusted. Shafts of light entered through the holes in the walls, splashing gouts of warm orange here and there among the dusty shelves and crates. It gave Tiger the feeling of exploring a tomb. “So..?” he prompted.
The Russian had meanwhile gone across to the southeast corner. “Over here,” she said, picking up one of the rust-speckled spades which lay against the wall and vigorously scraping away the dirt from one part of the floor. Tiger went to help, but she was already finishing up as he reached her. “Wait a moment,” the woman told him, pulling up the narrow trapdoor. “I need to put up the ladder.”
She nimbly lowered herself into the dark hole and vanished, alighting below with a muffled thud. There were sounds of rummaging, followed by the scrape and hiss of a match being struck. A flickering yellow glow began to shine in the pit, and then the top of a heavy wooden ladder rose into view and was set against the lip of the hole. “Okay,” Olga called. “You can come down.”
Clambering down the ladder, Tiger found himself in a well-reinforced cavern easily twice the size of the hermit hole. Like that other hideaway, the walls were lined with crates and cases of varying dimensions. Here's another of Clear Sky's little secrets, he thought wryly. He must have walked over the floor above several times without ever noticing this.
Olga hung the lantern from a hook on the beam which traversed the ceiling. “Night sights are over there,” she said, gesturing towards a stack of small oblong cases before she busied herself with a larger box.
The first assortment of low-light scopes were variations of the NSPU family, bulky icons of the Afghan war. Their size and weight were inconvenient, but they could be adjusted for multiple calibers and fit on any weapon with a standard Soviet optics rail, including Kondratenko's AKS-74 and Southpaw's Zastava. “What about the batteries?” Tiger asked pointedly.
“Portable generator.” Olga waved in the direction of the tarpaulin-covered pallet in the far corner. “Battery charger's in one of those boxes.”
“Ah...” The other cases in Tiger's quarter were marked AN/PVS-2 in stenciled Latin letters. Opening one, he found the device inside to be even more unwieldy than an NPSU. “These others are American?”
“The 'starlight scopes' are, yeah. Not as effective as our models, but they probably came cheap.”
“What do they mount on?”
“ArmaLites.” The female stalker turned around, cradling a rifle which was plainly based on the early M16 but featured a downright peculiar grip and handguard. “Even Chinese ones.”
“Factory new, no less... Stop that,” Olga chided when Tiger made a face. “They work just fine.” She put the AR back into its crate. “The American scopes will also fit the enemy's Galils, if we have the right mounting brackets. Possibly Strongman's machine gun as well.”
That might come in handy. “What else is here?”
“A crate of Chinese Tokarevs, more ammunition, packs of drinking water... One exoskeleton without armor, two cases of Clear Sky uniforms, some tools, other odds and ends...” Olga walked over to the corner nearest the ladder, where a pair of battered footlockers lay. “I stashed these before the anomalies shifted,” she explained, opening one and then the other.
“Sniper rifles?” Tiger inquired hopefully.
“I wish,” Olga answered sourly, handing him a bolt-action weapon with a Zeiss telescopic sight and a monolithic slab of wood for a stock. “This doesn't qualify.”
Tiger had never seen one of these inside the Zone or out, though it looked to him like some kind of light target rifle. “What is it?”
“Scharfschutzengewehr Eighty-Two.” Olga pronounced the foreign word with open contempt. “Made by our socialist brothers in East Germany, back when they were doping for gold.” Her lip curled. “That piece of shit proves the athletes weren't the only ones with chemical problems.”
Tiger brought the rifle up to his shoulder. “It does seem uncomfortable,” he agreed.
“Uncomfortable? That's the least thing wrong with it.” Olga busied herself with the footlocker once more. “It fires the regular five-forty-five cartridge. The accuracy is mediocre on a good day, and lacquered-steel casings will break the extractor if you so much as sneeze on it.” She turned her head and spat in the dirt. “There's supposed to be some kind of precision ammo, but I've never seen any. The sling and bipod weren't included either.”
Turning the item over, Tiger discovered that the present sling was attached to a pair of galvanized swivels which had been screwed onto the stock without any inletting. The two support legs awkwardly folded under the barrel looked as if they'd been shaped and fitted with little more than a file and hacksaw. “Where did it come from?”
“My quartermaster,” his ex recalled. “Ten months ago a man came to the Zone, ostensibly to buy scrap metal. He was actually gathering material to make a dirty bomb for Chechen separatists. The target evaded police on both sides of the border, but he got careless after he came here... The Security Service picked me to take him out, and some inbred pencil-pusher must have thought the SSG was just perfect for Zone conditions.” There was a brief, caustic laugh. “I busted three extractors in practicing, gave up and paid some bandits to kill the guy. Got chewed out for wasting taxpayer money, but it worked. After that, the Security Service decided to just slip the relevant intel to Duty and let them take care of wannabe terrorists.”
Tiger handed back the offending weapon. “It's no good, then.”
“Not really, no... This one's better.” Olga summarily presented him with an SKS bearing the characteristic Yugoslavian grenade launcher spigot, an optics mounting rail and an elaborate floral pattern on both sides of the butt. The latter two details were patently not factory work. “A leftover from the Balkan wars. The bore's a little rough, but it groups all right.”
The scope rail was a simple affair, a milled steel bar affixed with four large screws. “Will the night sights fit this?”
“They should.” The Simonov was laid to rest. Next came a rifle which was closely resembled a Mosin carbine, sans the latter's distinctive magazine. “Here's a five-point-six rimfire trainer, made in Poland.” Olga opened the bolt partway, then closed it. “Good plinker. I was saving it for Lyosha, but right now our Belarusians probably need it more.”
“Yes.” Tiger cleared his throat, a sudden feeling of awkwardness descending at the reminder of their shared parental status. “Um, is that all?”
“Almost.” The woman put away the .22 and picked up a final, smaller object. “I wanted you to have this.”
“Eh?” The object was a flat wooden box, tapering to a narrow neck at one end, with a hinged lid at the other. Inside the box was a large Mauser pistol. “This...”
“It was pretty grungy when I found it. Uncle Yar fixed it up for me.” A note of apprehension came into Olga's voice. “Is it all right?”
Tiger had seen more than a few broomhandles in movies and museums alike, but never one that looked so... clean. The finish wasn't original, surely, but it had obviously been applied with care. The wood grips also looked like replacements, though their fit to the frame was impeccable. The only overt sign of alteration was the 9x19 mm marking neatly stamped by hammer and punch on the side of the barrel extension. “It... It works?”
“Of course – dry lubed and ready to run.”
Tiger swallowed. “Why me?”
“You told me you thought it was the coolest gun ever when you were a kid.” Olga looked a little embarrassed. “Don't you remember?”
“Yes, but – ” Tiger stopped himself. It was too soon to be assuming this was merely another trick to get back on his good side. “...It's true,” he amended quietly, unslinging his rifles and laying them against a convenient crate. “Thank you.”
The other smiled. “I wish I had a camera,” said she, taking a stack of ten-round chargers from a small box. “Lyosha would love to see this.”
“Wait until after my face has recovered,” Tiger grumbled, his cheek still tender from the beating suffered at the hands of Vasya Boar in the Cordon. Pulling the bolt back, he loaded the C96 using one of the flat metal clips, carefully lowered the hammer and put the pistol into its box. “We should get the others,” he decided, pocketing the other chargers and positioning the carry strap of the combination holster and detachable stock so that it ran diagonally across his chest, in the style used since Czarist times. “There's a lot of work to do here.”
“That's right...” Words of agreement, but lacking conviction. “You go up, I'll douse the lamp.”
An odd thought occurred to the loner as he retrieved his other guns and climbed out of the pit, but he kept it to himself until after Olga put out the lantern and scrambled up the ladder, leaving it in place. “You know,” he began hesitantly as he led the way back among the anomalies, “I'm not sure Southpaw is the Sayid here.”
“No?” Olga twisted her torso sideways, reducing her profile as she followed him between two Springboards. “Someone else is?”
They came to the big pipes again, and Tiger halted. “I'd almost forgotten,” he recounted, “the way Anatoly Tourist kept turning up near me during the faction wars... Trading away 'extra ammo' or food he 'didn't want' for almost nothing, then leaving in a hurry.”
“Tourist wasn't a very sociable character,” his companion agreed knowingly. “I also remember something from that time... When the free stalkers broke through to the Barrier, nearly all of them were caught up in the fight against the Monolith.” She smiled again. “But there was one who struck out alone, without a high-end shooter or any protective gear. He sat on a hill behind the others, picking off the zombies coming from the military warehouses one by one. The stalker held that hilltop for thirty hours, covering his fellows when the bandits pushed up from the Garbage and when the Monolith tried to cut the supply lines. I went up to him a few times, carrying whatever we could recover from the dead... I wonder if it made a difference.”
“It did,” said Tiger solemnly. For some reason his earlier disgust at his onetime girlfriend's duplicity was nowhere to be found. “I guess I still owe you for that.”
Olga shook her head. “You don't owe me anything, Anton.”
The man looked away. “Then... what did 'this is personal' mean?”
“I meant... No, this isn't the time for that. Let's talk about it later, okay?”
Tiger made an indistinct sound of acquiescence and pressed on through the gravity traps. He had a better picture of the threat pattern this time around, saving precious time as the stalkers retraced their steps, though the sun was sinking behind the distant treeline by the time they were back on open ground.
The others of their party were still sitting around the broken tree, but now they had new company: it looked like a group of at least fifteen, all wearing typical loner garb and balaclavas or full-coverage gas masks. “Reinforcements?” Olga mused, regarding them warily. “Or just passers-by?”
The question was unexpectedly answered by Southpaw. “Tiger, look out!” he shouted. “It's a trap!”
| 02:29:10 20 October 2010
On forum: 10/18/2010
I liked your first short story Tiger Stripes , it feels very much like a short story. Unfortunately I didn't have the time to read the other stories, but I'll be sure to bookmark this page.