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Tiger's Spring

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  08:09:48  7 May 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
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On forum: 07/30/2007
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Tiger's Spring

(Nothing special, just a trial run based off a vague idea I've been kicking around. I'm curious to know what people think of it. This chapter is set a few weeks before the beginning of Shadow of Chernobyl.)

“But that's just it,” Hunter was saying. “Sure, lots of crazy things happen in the Zone, but there's got to be a limit to what's possible out here, you know?”

“Of course there are limits,” Baldy retorted. “What's your point?”

It was chess night in the 100 Rads, and Sparrow and Baldy were playing at the end table. Despite their insistence that checkers was getting boring, neither remembered the rules of this other board game very well: their constant arguing over the legitimacy of moves and demands for arbitration by Snitch had turned the match into a spectator sport. At this late hour, however, the only other patrons left to watch were Lieutenant Ivantsov, on leave from Duty headquarters, and young Hunter.

“What I think Hunter means,” Snitch cut in smoothly, “is that the stories our fellow stalkers tell are, ahem... far-fetched even for this strange land.”

Hunter nodded. “That's it.”

“Anyone with half a bottle of sense knows that,” Sparrow opined, scooting a pawn forwards. “Your move, Baldy.”

“I don't mean the bragging,” Hunter insisted. “We've all seen stalkers come back from a day in the Wild Territory and say they found some artifact nobody's seen since Limansk blew up. I'm talking about the... the weird stories. The stuff that's even scarier than the Scorcher or the bloodsuckers.”

“Oh,” said Baldy. “You mean like what that guy claimed he saw over at the Agroprom during the winter, how some poor sap got sliced up with a knife held by nobody?”

Hunter nodded. “Exactly... Or how about the one about stalker ghosts in the old labs, how someone met one and it told him to stop disturbing their work. That couldn't be real, right?”

“I doubt it,” said Sparrow. “I remember back when Freedom was still set up in the Dark Valley, they had a guy in their bar who'd tell that one to everybody.”

“Yeah...” Hunter glanced at Snitch. “What do you think?”

“I have no special insight on the matter,” Snitch replied stiffly. “Unlike some people, I have no time to waste pursuing every rumor, myth and legend which passes through this place.”

“Never through I'd hear that from you,” Sparrow sniggered through his gas mask. “The one and only dealer of choice information passing up such hot stuff?”

”Ahem,” the man in the long coat harrumphed. “I'll thank you to remember that I deal in facts, not fantasies.” He cast a brief look at Ivantsov before taking a swig of his high-caffeine soda. “Speaking of which, I've recently received an interesting report about the cargo of a derelict Mi-Eight outside that little village south of the Dark Valley...”

“Not interested,” Ivantsov said curtly, keeping his eyes on the television set behind the bar. “We already know what's in it.”

Baldy moved a pawn of his own, sliding it diagonally and removing one of Sparrow's pawns from the board. “Your turn.”

“Oy, you can't do that!”

“It's called an 'in passing' capture.”

Sparrow looked to Snitch. “Can he do that?”

The one in the bandit coat nodded wearily. “He can do that.”

“Bah.”

“Hey Barkeep,” Hunter called. “What do you think about the stories?”

“Me?” The burly proprietor rested a tattooed arm on the bartop. “You know I don't go out much. I hear the same stories you do, that's all.”

“But you've been here a while,” the rookie pressed. “You must have some idea of what's true and what's not.”

Barkeep shook his head. “I just run the place. Otter would be the one to ask.”

“Otter, huh?” Sparrow wiggled a finger under the lip of his mask and scratched his jaw. “Man's either a genius phantom or the world's luckiest absent-minded professor... Come to think of it, Barkeep, didn't you originally work the other side of the Zone perimeter? You must have heard some juicy tales back then.”

“Juicy isn't a good word for it,” Barkeep said gruffly. “Anyway, I did handle some transactions for the early stalkers, no secrets about that. Back in those days nobody was quite sure what to think of the Zone. Anyone could make a claim and someone else would believe it... I remember when word of the Monolith first started going around, that was quite something. Mind you, I was nobody important then - it was Sidorovich who ran that show.”

“Wow,” Hunter sighed wistfully. “I wish I could have been a stalker in those days. Fortunes from a single artifact, boldly blazing new paths into the unknown...”

“Hah.” Ivantsov's tone was scornful. “You have no idea, novice.”

Hunter ignored the jab. “Any true stories you could share, Barkeep?”

“You really want to hear an old guy reminisce?” The pillar of 100 Rads rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “True stories, you say. Well, there's the tale of how I first encountered the Zone... But I'm a bartender, you know, not a storyteller.”

It was Baldy who took the hint and leaped to the occasion. “Another round of drinks for everyone,” he announced, stepping away from the chessboard long enough to place a fistful of rubles on the bartop. “I want to hear this.”

“If you insist.” Barkeep pocketed the money and set a row of fresh cans and bottles on the bar. “Help yourselves, men.” Once the others had taken their poisons of choice, he cleared his throat. “It was the middle of April, not quite six years ago now... I remember it very well because I was staying with my brother-in-law at this little clinic where he worked, a little ways up the river from Kiev. The second disaster at the station was on the twelfth and the first Zone expansion was on the sixteenth, so it would have been the day after that. We were trying to figure out what we should do when we got a visit from some military types, of all people, who requisitioned the place for their own use, treating soldiers who'd been caught when the perimeter jumped outward.”

“And they let you remain there?” Hunter asked.

“Yeah. I was no doctor, but they needed every hand they could get.” Barkeep frowned. “Some of those guys were real pushy. That hasn't changed... One of the patients was a sergeant named Nakhimov, like the admiral. He'd fallen into one of the first documented Burner anomalies and gotten pretty well roasted. His superiors didn't figure he'd survive, so they told me to just ease his pain until he let go of life.”

“And did you?”

“As best I could. He was a tough sort, though - stayed awake almost to the very end... And he shared something interesting with me.” Barkeep thought for a moment. “Maybe this would make more sense if I told it chronologically... Yeah. Back then, you know, there was interest in reclaiming the Chernobyl Zone for economic activity. The station had been shut down for a few years by then and the guys working on it knew their jobs wouldn't last forever... There was a survey team out working that day, three men from Slavutych. They were checking up on one of the equipment dumps just south of the station when the blast came. One was caught in the open and instantly charred to almost nothing. The second disappeared without a trace. The third, though... He was a young guy, right out of university. Son of a station veteran or some such. He was down in a ditch with a Liebson counter, checking the soil, and that must have saved him.”

“I'm impressed,” said Baldy. “I didn't know anyone that close to the plant survived. How'd he make it out?”

“Nakhimov didn't say,” Barkeep replied. “But two days later he and his squad were patrolling along the south edge of the Zone when they spotted this guy crawling through a field of gravitational anomalies on his hands and knees. The officers wouldn't risk a BTR or a Krokodil to save one guy, so Nakhimov handed his rifle and magazines to the grunt next to him and started filling his pockets with stones.”

“Stones?” Hunter echoed.

“Didn't have a bag of bolts handy, did he?” Barkeep opened a can of soda and took a sip. “It took the sergeant three quarters of an hour to work his way out there, and another ten minutes to follow his footprints back with the survivor over his shoulder. Carried him all the way to the APC, in fact. The higher-ups assumed the lucky man might know something, so they whisked him off right away and sent the soldiers back to the fringe. Then the fringe moved and Nakhimov got fried for his efforts.”

“A good man, no doubt,” the one Duty stalker present weighed in. “The survivor died as well, I assume?”

“That's the funny thing,” the tattooed man mused. “I gather everyone expected him to...”

The narrative trailed off as a newcomer walked into the room. He wore a long coat with a hood, which at first glance seemed to suggest that he was either a friend of Snitch or a bandit with no sense of direction. His face was that of a man not yet thirty years old, with bleak gray eyes. He had a Mosin-Nagant rifle slung across his back, just like the one on the old Soviet poster above the chessboard. As he quietly approached the bar, the others glimpsed the butt of a Browning Hi-Power tucked into the vest he wore under his coat and a black multipurpose detector clipped to his belt, a model which had been a hot item in the days when artifact collection was real work.

Barkeep nodded politely. “Good to see you, Tiger.”

“Sorry I'm late.” Tiger's voice was as soft and unobtrusive as his physical presence. “I have what you asked for,” he went on, indicating the metal strongbox under his left arm.

The owner of the establishment motioned to Garik, head bouncer of said establishment, who stepped aside long enough to give Tiger passage into the back of the bar. “As I was saying,” Barkeep said when he had gone, “everyone thought he would be irradiated or burned or who-knew-what, but he was actually okay apart from the cuts, bruises and dehydration.”

“Interesting,” Snitch commented. “How do you know this?”

“I met him,” Barkeep replied. “He came to me a few years later, when I was knee-deep in this business. Wanted to know the best way to get past the army patrols and into the Zone.”

“Into the Zone?” Hunter repeated. “After what happened to him out here?”

“Seemed he couldn't fit into society in the big land after his experience. When the stalkers started making inroads, he decided to become one of them.”

“And now?” If Hunter had been sitting down, he would be on the edge of his chair. “Is he still alive?”

“Yeah.” Barkeep paused to finish his drink. “Don't know what he gets up to most of the time, but he's around. Kind of a solitary fellow, though he supposedly did scouting work for the Clear Sky faction at one time. Anyhow, that's all I know for sure.”

“For sure?” Snitch perked up a little. “There's more?”

Barkeep shrugged. “Only a rumor which I heard once... It was said that the blast changed this guy, that afterwards he developed a sort of sixth sense like the mutant crows have. Because of this sense, he can find his way through anomaly fields with his eyes closed and no living thing can sneak up on him... But that's hearsay. Make what you like of it.”

“Wow...” Hunter shook his head. “Either way, thanks for telling us all that.”

“My pleasure,” Barkeep grunted. He turned as Tiger reappeared. “Good man. You want the usual?”

“Yes.” Tiger wandered over to the bulletin board and scanned it placidly.

“Sixth sense that picks up anomalies, eh? Sounds like somebody who'd fit in with that druid bunch.” Sparrow made his move. “Check.”

“All set.” Barkeep placed a bundle wrapped in waxed paper on the bartop. “Anything else?”

“No, thank you.” Tiger picked up the bundle and walked out, quietly humming Your Excellency Lady Luck. Had the patrons been watching the chess game and not Barkeep, they might not have noticed his coming and going at all.

“Oh, one thing I didn't mention,” the barman said suddenly, maybe a minute later. “That survivor - when I saw him, his hair had changed color. Originally it was a reddish brown, but after he came out of the Zone it developed streaks of black and white.”

“Black and white on red,” Snitch pondered. “What, like a tiger's stripes?”

“Yeah,” said Barkeep. “Like a tiger's stripes.”
  02:41:47  8 May 2009
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You have something really good going here! I mean really, really good. It takes me back to the feeling Shadow of Chernobyl gave me when I first, "became a STALKER"(started playing).

It is how the zone feels its best, survivalists just trying to get by and hinging out in little patches of civilization.

If you do continue don't forget to add some girls!

HL2
  06:47:21  8 May 2009
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BobBQ
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Well, thanks. It always bothered me that NPCs in the bar interact with nobody except the player.

I do have some female characters planned, but don't expect damsels in distress or skimpy clothes.
  08:02:51  8 May 2009
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---QUOTATION---
Well, thanks. It always bothered me that NPCs in the bar interact with nobody except the player.

I do have some female characters planned, but don't expect damsels in distress or skimpy clothes.
---END QUOTATION---



Dude thats no problem, its mor realistic if they can handle themselves, if the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. universe were real there would be women in the zone, and they would probably be tough enough to hack it.

Waiting for part 2!!!!

HL2
  09:56:34  8 May 2009
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BB_Berserk
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Hahah wow thats an awesome intro! Last paragraph was great. I was like. OMG THERE HE IS BEHIND YOU!!!!!!!!!! like in those stage plays when the crowd shouts out.
  12:55:57  8 May 2009
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Good one. Waiting for the part 2.
  07:46:56  10 May 2009
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
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Swamp Safari

(In which we meet some recurring characters.)

Getting to the marshes wasn't as easy as it once had been, Tiger reflected. The footpath south from the Agroprom, his preferred route of old, was now so radioactive that he doubted even the pricey SEVA suit would get a stalker through that gauntlet unscathed. Since the military had dynamited the abandoned tunnels which connected the swampland to the perimeter area, the only practical option left was to follow the rail line west from the Cordon. That required careful planning, good weather and a hefty bribe to Major Kuznetsov for the sake of diverting the random gunship patrols elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Tiger didn't have much incentive to visit the marshes on his own, and it had been a long time since the parade of odd jobs on which he lived provided him with a reason.

“Halt,” he called softly, raising a hand. The mercenaries behind him, ten of them in crisp black-and-blue uniforms, froze. Tiger stood in silence for a moment, then pulled his binoculars – a compact birdwatcher's pair, not the bulky military type which most stalkers used – from their case beside the electronic detector and panned across the wide landscape below the railroad embankment. He could see the old pump station to the south, a rickety wooden structure amidst the reeds and pools, and past it a watchtower looming in the haze. Turning his eyes towards the east, the stalker could make out the ruins of a farmstead, a derelict garage and, further off, the collapsed shell of an orthodox church. He could also make out an angry shimmering in the air over the dry land between them.

The mercenary commander, Wolfhound, stepped towards him. “Well?”

Tiger shook his head. “The road is impassible. I can see the anomalies all the way from here.”

“Damn,” the merc muttered. “What about the middle?”

“It doesn't look so bad,” Tiger replied. “But we may not be able keep our feet dry all the way.”

“We can handle it,” Wolfhound asserted. “Let's go.”

To Tiger's mind, Wolfhound's impatience and arrogance were typical of mercenaries in the Zone today. The loner hadn't been around to see the very first stalkers at work, but he did remember a time when the mercs were more respectable. The founders of their faction had begun as ordinary stalkers whose experience and ability allowed them to take specific requests from clients and operate in an efficient, goal-oriented manner beyond the reach of the solitary opportunists who pioneered stalking. The mercs traditionally made ends meet with precise raids into the depths of the Zone, returning with a specific artifact or mutant corpse as the customer ordered. Occasionally they had also taken on security work, defending others from marauder elements. Success brought strength for the mercenaries, so much strength that they could afford to operate from a base well inside the Zone and arm themselves with exotic foreign equipment. Unfortunately, it also brought a swelling of their collective ego. The mercs were little better than high-class hitmen, Tiger thought, now that they were willing to attack and steal from others for the sake of their profits. One certainly couldn't trust a merc to share his last can of meat or spare medical kit any more, treatment a stalker in need could have expected as little as six months ago.

“Stay behind me,” he said aloud. “Follow in single file and step where I step. Don't talk loudly or fire your weapons unless you absolutely have to.”

***

The bolt began to fizz before it even landed in the dirt, corruption spreading over its surface within a few seconds. “This way,” said Tiger, cutting to the right. “We are fortunate.”

“We are?” one of the mercs asked. “How's that?”

“The corrosive fog is common here,” the stalker explained, “but in strong sunlight it evaporates from open places... There are also gravity traps ahead, however.”

Wolfhound frowned. “Can you get us past them?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” The merc leader slung his LR-300 and took out a dogeared map. “Let's get to the pump station.”

***

“Clear, stalker?”

Tiger nodded. “It's clear.”

“Good. Five minute break, people.”

Tiger would have been perfectly happy to press on, but he didn't mind a brief stop. Taking advantage of it, he climbed to the roof of the pumping platform and took out his binoculars once more. He could see the watchtower better now, as well as the tumbledown fishing shacks in the hamlet behind it. The smaller watchtower to the southwest must have collapsed since his last visit, since he could make out no trace of it.

“How's it look, stalker?”

Tiger tore his eyes away from the vista to find the mercs' sharpshooter, Lynx, peering up at him. “I don't see any problems,” he answered noncommittally. “Wait... Some boars in the hamlet ahead.”

“Oh?” The mercenary ascended the steps to where Tiger stood. “Lemme see.”

Lynx was the first woman Tiger had seen in the Zone in the better part of two years, the last having been a research assistant in the Yantar scientists' bunker. She spoke in a rough, curt voice with a faint Sevastopol accent and Tiger imagined her having a short, masculine haircut to match, a notion bolstered by the unfeminine figure she cut in her gas mask and tactical vest. Her L1A1 battle rifle with its SUIT optical sight and jungle-taped magazines was an additional novelty, unlike the surplus L85s which had flooded Europe's black market in recent years. The mercs fielded a large number of the distinctive assault weapons, but in the last year they had begun buying American LR-300 carbines to supplement the finicky British pieces. In this squad, however, everyone except Lynx and Wolfhound still used the old model. Badger, the merc pointman, also carried an indigenous Fort-500 pump shotgun with a folding stock.

“There's a big male in the pack,” Lynx commented, peering through her sight. “Wolfhound!”

“What is it?”

“Four boars on the path. Want me to take 'em out?”

“I don't care,” Wolfhound grunted. “If it'll make our job easier, go ahead.”

Lynx nodded. “Well, guide? You can have the hooves as a job bonus.”

Tiger watched the mutated animals for a few seconds. He had kept himself alive this long on a single principle – the less trouble you cause, the less trouble you get – but the alternative to culling the four-eared creatures was a twenty-minute detour through dense vegetation. He had no special love for boars, and they were hardly endangered anyway. “Are you a fast shot?” he asked, swinging the Mosin off his back.

“Pretty fast, yeah.” Lynx was probably raising an eyebrow behind her tinted lenses. “You can hit 'em with iron sights from here?”

“I think so.” Either way, he needed the practice. The loner twisted the old Izhevsk rifle's cocking piece to the ready position. The stock's varnished wood was cool against his cheek. A deep breath, hold and...

Crack!

***

“Not a bad shot,” Lynx remarked in an undertone as Tiger led the mercenaries through the fishing shacks. “I was faster, but the placement is nice.”

“Yeah,” said Badger. “Prime hooves there, too. We'll have to collect those on the way back.”

“No such luck,” Lynx corrected. “I promised them to the guide.”

“Nuts.”

“Cut the chatter,” Wolfhound ordered. “Well, stalker?”

“Just ahead,” Tiger replied, motioning towards the thicket in front of the group. “The going is treacherous, so stay close.”

***

The roof of the mechanic's workshop in the abandoned Clear Sky base had collapsed since Tiger last entered this secluded place. The old bar wasn't looking too solid either, but the main building and the trader's garage appeared relatively sound. The defunct UAZ by the garage was sinking into the sand, the campfire spot nearby almost wholly erased by the tide of time.

“Wow,” said Badger. “This used to be a faction base? Must be some good stuff around here.”

“You're about to see plenty of it,” Wolfhound answered, flashing hand signals rapid-fire. “Let's get a perimeter guard set up. Lynx, check if that roof is sturdy enough for you. Stalker, you and Badger check the garage. Call if you find anything.”

“We're up, then.” Badger motioned to Tiger and advanced on the designated target, shotgun at low ready. “These Clear Sky guys, would they leave booby traps?”

Tiger thought back to his limited contacts with the reclusive faction. His work for them had almost always been conducted through proxies, but he felt he had a decent picture of their methods. “I don't think so,” he replied cautiously, “but if anyone else has been here...”

“Good point.” Badger switched on the electric lamp attached to his vest and moved inside. “Ah, shit. Wolfhound, got a body here!”

“Fresh?” the leader called from across the central clearing.

“Not at all... Stand back, stalker.” The mercenary moved towards the nearly skeletal corpse which lay against the front of the trader's counter, an open medical kit in its rotted lap. It wore the tattered remains of a typical stalker suit. A worn AKMS leaned muzzle-up against the counter, a canvas magazine pouch and an Echo anomaly detector beside it. “Poor bastard,” Badger muttered. “Must have crawled in here and bled out before he could treat himself... Ugh, I can smell him even through this damn filter.”

Tiger had smelled worse – there were places in the Zone where death's stench hung eternal. Ignoring the body, he took out a pocket flashlight and shone it about. “There's not much left,” he observed.

“Guess not.” Badger straightened, lifting the orphaned Kalashnikov. “Here,” he said. “You take this... Wolfhound, this guy walked into a bullet somewhere outside. There's nothing else here.”

“All right. Come help me with the main building, will you?”

Tiger kept the AK in his hands as he followed the merc. “Are you certain the artifact you want is here?”

“No idea,” Badger returned cheerfully. “But the client insisted it was and if the client wants to pay us to look for it, more power to the client.”

“Ah...”

“I hope he was right, though. Clear Sky must have really run things on a shoestring – there's no loot in this dump at all.” Badger climbed onto the main building's skirting walkway and helped Tiger up. “And to think, the whole faction just up and vanished. Straight to the station and not a word more... Guess the Monolith goons took them out, eh?”

“I suppose.”

“Badger,” Wolfhound called from above, “there are a couple of PCs in the front room down there. See if you can get the hard drives out of them.”

“Uh oh,” the mercenary whispered. “I'm no good with computers.”

“I know someone who is,” Tiger offered. “I think I can do it.”

***

“...And there you have it.” Wolfhound held up a small, roughly cylindrical artifact with a glassy violet sheen for the others to see. “Maiden's Delight, they call this.”

“Oh?” Lynx inquired. “Doesn't look like much.”

“It's nearly useless,” Tiger commented. “Nothing but a curiosity. Even though it's quite rare, stalkers don't usually look for it.”

“That's not what they say in the big land,” Wolfhound chuckled. “I hear that if you stick this up your arse when you're with a lady, you can go all night!”

“I wouldn't try it for anything,” one of the other mercs declared, prompting a smattering of laughter.

“I'm sure the client will be happy to know that,” the mercenaries' leader remarked dryly. “We've got what we came for and a little extra to boot. Time to go, everyone... And you, stalker, you've earned those hooves.”

***

“All's well that ends well,” a merc sighed as the expedition walked off the railroad embankment and descended into the Cordon. “Man, we gotta celebrate this.”

“All in good time.” Wolfhound motioned for a halt. “We'll take our leave of you here, stalker. Here's your payment.” He produced a bundle of rubles and tossed it to Tiger. “Let's go, people.”

Badger gave the loner a clap on the back as he passed. “Hey, thanks again,” he said. “Saved us a lot of trouble, you know? When I get my own squad, I ought to hire you.” Moving ahead, he waved over his shoulder. “Don't get plugged by the grunts, now!”

Tiger almost smiled. As long as he made the token goodwill payment to Kuznetsov every so often, being shot by the soldiers probably wasn't his greatest problem. Turning north, he pondered his next move on this fine afternoon. Through the Garbage and up to Rostok to sell these boar hooves? Or perhaps a visit to the stalker camp at the Agroprom? He didn't feel picky – after all, his custom was to wander as circumstances directed.
  16:47:48  10 May 2009
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-=Grunt=-
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Keep it up.
  10:52:46  11 May 2009
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BB_Berserk
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Good work mate
  16:10:33  11 May 2009
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QuaNTuMbenxh
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IM HERE!

AND I WANT MOER!
  08:57:24  17 May 2009
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BobBQ
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Message edited by:
BobBQ
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Agroprom Ambiguity

(Starting a longer story arc after this one.)

The walk up the road from the Cordon presented Tiger with no problems: though it was a main artery of human traffic in the southern Zone, he seemed to be the only one out and about. That would probably change once he came to the sprawl of radioactive junk mountains and vehicle graves collectively known as the Garbage. There were always a few people around the place, mostly lone stalkers poking about for a low-value artifact in the anomalies which seemed to breed like flies on the ionized scrap heaps. The area had been home to a sizable bandit operation once, but the shifts of power balance after the Zone's last fit of tremors and Duty's establishment of a fortified checkpoint where the road continued north had marginalized the marauders' influence.

Tiger, for his own part, didn't expect the status quo to last. Borov, unlike his predecessor Yoga, had ambitions far beyond petty mugging and extortion, a defensible base in the gloomy reaches of the Dark Valley to the east and a growing corps of cutthroats and corsairs who seemed eager to follow his lead. Duty, the self-appointed police of the Zone, theoretically had enough men and enough guns to give the bandit kingpin a solid thrashing, but the fools couldn't let go of their obsession with exterminating Freedom long enough to make good on that potential. One of these days the situation would boil over... but until then, the ordinary stalkers among whose ranks Tiger counted himself were the ones feeling the pressure.

The sun continued to sink towards the treeline as the loner took a left at the wrecked Zaporozhets and ambled through one of the smaller vehicle yards, passing between rows of cargo trucks, fire trucks, buses and a pair of sad-looking Mi-24 gunships. The helicopters brought back memories from his childhood, television pictures of identical machines prowling over the dusty landscape of a war-torn country far away. In the midst of this scene Tiger noticed that he was heading in the direction of the road to the Agroprom Research Institute, though he had made no conscious decision to that effect.

It didn't matter, really.

***

“...Retarded or something?”

Tiger was right about the bandits. Two of them had ambushed a fellow loner by the railroad tunnel at the western edge of the Garbage and were shaking him down, though apparently without much luck. “I told you already,” the exasperated stalker was saying. “I've got nothing of value with me. If you want loot so badly, why don't you cough up for a detector and go search for it like the rest of us?”

“Quiet, asshole!” The bandit doing the shakedown was a youngish punk in a drab windbreaker and tracksuit pants. Bottom of the food chain, Tiger thought. “Bet ya gotta nice stash somewhere, eh? Lemme see yer PDA!”

“Screw you, you parasite!”

“Wanna loose yer balls too?”

The stalker probably would have had a go at these two already if the other bandit weren't holding a battered MP5 to his head. That one looked older and wore a threadbare trench coat. “Cool it, brother,” he advised. “Let's not spill blood before it's the right time.”

“Gonna do worse if this moron don't cough up soon..!”

“Excuse me.”

Tracksuit Pants turned to find Tiger standing close by. “What..!?” he sputtered. “Howdja get there, eh?”

“I walked here,” Tiger replied dryly. “Are you collecting road tolls?” he added with a mere phantom of a hint of sarcasm.

“We are as far as you're concerned,” Trench Coat retorted warily, Tiger's edge in firepower putting him visibly ill at ease. “You looking to contribute?”

The stalker in the long coat briefly eyed the irate loner with the flared nose and the leather jacket and carefully took out a bundle of notes, his entire pay for guiding Wolfhound and company through the marshes. “Is this enough for the two of us?”

Tracksuit Pants' eyes widened at the sight of the money. “Dude, yer shittin' us...”

“It'll do,” Trench Coat cut in quickly. “Toss it over here.” When Tiger did so, he flipped through the bundle with his thumb before dropping it into a pocket. “On your way, now,” he ordered, backing away from the cornered loner. “And no sudden moves.”

Tiger placidly strolled past the slack-jawed Tracksuit Pants and resumed his walk to the Agroprom. There came sounds of hustling and then the other stalker fell into step beside him, cursing under his breath all the while. “I don't believe it,” he muttered after a few minutes' travel. “Is your Kalash broken or something? Why didn't you just shoot them?”

“It would cause trouble.”

“Those horseflies cause trouble for everyone around here, don't you know? It's about damned time they got some trouble in return!”

“If we shot them, others would come after us.” Tiger shook his head. “Borov would make sure of it... And what are you so angry for? You were able to walk away unhurt.”

“Yeah, but... They took all your money, man...”

“Money can be replaced,” Tiger pointed out. “Most of mine ends up like this anyway.”

“Bribes and payoffs?” The stalker made a frustrated noise. “How do you stand it? Handing over your cash to every fucking leech who comes along, just to avoid trouble... There's got to be a point where it becomes cheaper to pay with bullets instead.”

“Maybe,” Tiger answered neutrally. “My way has worked so far.”

“Yeah, well... Nothing works forever. What if you ran into somebody totally implacable, some kind of psycho who wanted to mess you up no matter what?”

The answer was perfectly straightforward. “I'd kill him.”

“That's more like it,” the other man sighed. He still seemed put out, but his temper had cooled a little. “Well, thanks for getting me out of there. Name's Southpaw.”

That he was left-handed had already been deduced from the way his TOZ over-under was slung and the side of his belt on which he carried his Stechkin machine pistol. “Tiger,” the wandering stalker answered in kind. “I haven't seen a shotgun modified like that before,” he commented, judging it best to distract his companion from the bandit business. “Most people here cut the barrels very short and remove the butt at the same time.”

“Yeah,” Southpaw agreed, “but I thought something like a coach gun was a better compromise... Did the trimming, sight bead and screw-in chokes myself. Used to be foreman in a machine shop, see. The future was looking good until the owner bankrupted the place trying to support an affair.” A wry chuckle escaped his lips. “Been here almost four months now. Haven't struck it rich, haven't gotten cooked or crunched either. Guess my luck's about even... How about you?”

“The same,” Tiger said vaguely. “You came to the Agroprom to sniff out some Stone Flowers?”

“Not today.” Southpaw scratched his ear. “Actually, I thought I'd mosey over and see what I could score at the dig.”

“Dig?”

“You didn't hear? I almost missed it myself,” the sinistral stalker admitted. “Seems one of those ecologist guys from Yantar showed up in Rostok yesterday and hired some of us neutrals to come out here and sniff around the underground tunnels.”

“Tunnels,” Tiger repeated. When Duty had their base here, they'd hired a mercenary to flood the buried complex. "Have they been drained?”

“I don't think so,” said Southpaw, “but I gather the scientists are interested in something down there... Dunno what it could be, though. Everyone tells me the whole place was gutted ages ago.”

Tiger nodded. “There's nothing left worth carrying away.”

“Yeah. I figure that if they aren't going to call in the military to clear the place, they probably just want to collect samples or run an experiment.” The leftie looked around as the pair came to the top of a rise. “Almost there.”

***

“Weird... Place seems awful quiet.”

Quiet in more ways than one. While Southpaw had been tipped off by the stagnant atmosphere about the area and the lack of any lookout from the prior stalker party, it was the absence of that inexplicable awareness of others which alerted Tiger. Now, walking along the tracks which ran towards the eastern complex, its brick chimney looming high in the twilight, the stalker began to suspect that the place was simply deserted. “Are you sure it was here and not the southwest facility?” he asked in an undertone.

“Pretty sure.” Southpaw cocked his head. “Could have mixed it up, I guess.”

“Try your radio again,” Tiger suggested.

“What if they still aren't taking calls?”

“Then we look for them.”

***

“Nothing here.”

“Nor here.” Tiger swept the AKMS' muzzle over an expanse of crumbling wall, following the beam of the light lashed to its forearm with a length of twine.

“This place gives me the creeps,” Southpaw complained. “I hope there aren't any bloodsuckers around.”

It was the right habitat for those fearsome mutants, but even they couldn't elude the stripe-haired stalker's extra sense. The suckers were absent, it seemed. “There's nowhere left to search inside,” he stated. “Let's check the back door.”

“The what?”

“This used to be a stalker base. The gap in the collapsed wall on the west side was called the 'back door' because mutants and the odd bandit would attack through it.”

“Gotcha.” Southpaw glanced back over his shoulder. “The place is kind of like a fort, isn't it?”

That had been the belief of those who once settled here, Tiger remembered. For a time, their belief had paid off... Then what? A change in the wind brought a better fort within their reach: the Rostok factories where the Hundred Rads bar and Duty headquarters were now dug in beside the aptly named Wild Territory, a maze of concrete and steel teeming with anomalies, mutants and worse things. “It is,” he concurred. “A fort without a garrison.”

“Why'd they leave, anyway?”

“Duty was relocating and they were tired of fending off the swarms of dogs... There were also more and more zombies wandering down from Yantar.”

“Zombies? I've been out here a few times, but I've never seen one.”

“You wouldn't. The old path is buried.” Aiming his light around the corner of the end building, Tiger spotted a flash of green fabric. “I see a body. Come here, slowly.”

Southpaw did so, adding his headlamp to the meager illumination of the scene at the back door. “Shit,” he hissed. “They're all dead!”

It didn't take long to reconstruct the scenario. The advance party had been six in number. Five of them lay crumpled around a maintenance hatch leading to the underground, one of several on the Agroprom grounds. The round steel aperture had been welded shut by the old Duty guard and the stalkers had not succeeded in opening it before they met their end. It appeared to Tiger and Southpaw that the sixth stalker had fallen behind the others and then, without apparent provocation, gunned his companions down. “I don't get it,” said Southpaw, inspecting the killer's empty RPK-74. “He just opened up on his own buddies?”

“So it seems.” The attacker had finished his work by discharging two bullets from a Makarov, one into his PDA and one into the underside of his chin. The dead told no tales, and this one's effects would tell none either. Letting the shattered pocket computer fall from his hand, Tiger gingerly reached out and lifted the corpse's gas mask. What he saw prompted a sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth.

“You know the guy?”

“His name was Razorback,” the long-coated one explained. “He used to work the Limansk side of the Red Forest, just outside the Scorcher's range.”

“So was he, you know... unstable?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Well, then... Maybe a controller got them?” The idea put Southpaw even more on edge.

“I don't think the average controller would be able to take this many stalkers by completely surprise.” Something on the dead man's right arm caught Tiger's attention. Turning up the sleeve of his suit revealed a black mark burned or tattooed onto the skin: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

“What's that?”

“I'm not sure.” Most stalkers heard about it sooner or later, about the apparent initialism which occasionally appeared on the arms of corpses. Most of the marked ones were loners, but Duty and Freedom had both reported a few cases. Perhaps other factions had experienced the phenomenon as well, but Tiger knew of no specific incidents. “Let's camp in the top floor for the night,” he suggested, rising to his feet. “It's too dark to find anything more.”

“Yeah,” Southpaw said reluctantly. “Don't know if I'll sleep much after this, though.”

Tiger could sympathize with the sentiment, though it was by now a remote one for him. “I'll stand first watch,” he volunteered. “In the morning we'll deal with the bodies.”
  10:43:22  17 May 2009
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QuaNTuMbenxh
Albanian Monsteя!
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MORE MORE MORE!!!!


I WANNA MORE STORY!
  04:19:49  18 June 2009
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BobBQ
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New chapter coming shortly - in the meantime, the story is now available on FFN as well.

http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5145898/1/Tigers_Spring
  07:22:47  20 June 2009
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
To Slay a Giant, Part 1

It was a serious set of stalkers who walked into the 100 Rads the next day, Tiger in the lead. Behind him came Southpaw and the three loners who had arrived at the Agroprom early in the morning. Garik was at his usual spot, but Barkeep appeared absent – in his place stood Garik's cousin Zhorik, who usually lurked in an alcove by the entrance and menaced passers-by with a pump shotgun. “Come in, come in,” the substitute called impatiently. “Don't stand there!”

Tiger and Southpaw went to the bar while the others clustered around the table by the door. “I understand a scientist came here and hired some stalkers to go to the Agroprom Institute,” the former began.

Zhorik cocked his head. “Yeah, what about it?”

“We found the bodies last night,” Southpaw chimed in. “One of the guys wigged out and capped his buddies, then himself. We buried 'em up the hill from the factory.”

“Yes,” Tiger confirmed, placing a large, thick-walled bag with a heavy zipper on the bar. “They had a few common artifacts among them,” said he, adding the bag of boar hooves to the assortment. “Two thousand for all of this.”

The man across from him opened the artifact bag and briefly looked over the collection of fist-sized lumps inside. ''Eighteen hundred.”

“Nineteen hundred,” Southpaw pressed.

“Eighteen-fifty.”

“Done,” said Tiger before Southpaw could protest. Ignoring the other's disappointed look, he rested his hands on the bartop and placed his gaze on the television set while Zhorik rummaged about for the stalkers' payment. Today's feature entertainment appeared to be a bootleg of an American film Tiger had seen at university years before, about a group of soldiers being sent behind enemy lines to find one of their own and send him back to the States. The bootleg's Cyrillic subtitles, he noted, were rife with translation errors.

“There you go.” Barkeep's underling set a bundle of notes and coins on the bar.

Southpaw quickly divided the money and slid a few coins from his portion back to Zhorik. “Pass me a bottle,” he said. “I need to get off my feet for a bit.”

Zhorik placed a Cossacks bottle before his customer. “And you?”

“Nothing for me,” said Tiger. “I must be going.”

“As you like,” Zhorik replied with a shrug. “Come back any time.”

***

“Hey, Skinflint.”

“What?”

“Skinflint!”

“What!?”

“...Never mind, I found it.”


“Man.” Smartass shook his head as the Freedom trader's cursing – broadcast far and wide over the base loudspeaker – rolled past the loners' camp just down the road from the former military warehouses. “Screw really went and did it this time... You sure you want to go up there just now?”

Tiger was undeterred. Picking up his Mosin, he stepped between the campfire and Oleg Gusarov, the latter idly swabbing the bore of his Abakan, and made his way to the road. “I'll risk it,” he said in passing. “An angry Skinflint is less dangerous than an empty stomach.” A new electrical anomaly had appeared on the road itself, crackling around the derelict Moskovich near the camp, so the loner detoured up the hillside below the warehouse complex's crumbling wall, following the barrier until he arrived at the entrance to the facility.

As usual there was a Freedom stalker in orange power armor standing at the gate, performing the dual functions of lookout and greeter. “Hey!” he called when Tiger approached. “Welcome back, walkabout man!”

Tiger wondered how the other remembered him. “...Hello.”

“What'll it be, dude? Looking to crash at our joint?”

The reply was solidly noncommittal. “Perhaps.”

“Cool.” The Freedom man waved back over his shoulder. “Don't let me keep you waiting.”

The loner resumed his walk with a nod, heading down the long overpass which crossed the unusable rail lines, past the abandoned tank and then to the first building on the right. This had once been the administrative center of the army warehouses: now it was headquarters of the Freedom faction, featuring such luxuries as an upright piano and a pool table.

On the front steps sat Max, a faction trooper of considerable skill but no certain rank. When the visitor drew near, he dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his boot. “Well now,” said he, “who's rolling his wheels over to us today, eh?”

“I'd like to see Lukash.”

“He's busy right now.” Max rubbed his chin. “Can I take a message, or were you looking for work?”

“Work, please.”

“Okay, I got an easy one for you... You know how the Barrier is these days, right? We got people out watching it, all day and every day. Those guys gotta eat sometime – thing is, Chef's gone and sprained his ankle. He's got enough booze in him right now to shrug off a snork's kick, but the silly bastard is in no shape to be making deliveries... I gotta hang around here until the boss gets out of his meeting, so if you wanted to haul some grub to the boys at the front I'd definitely make it worth your time spent. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Good man. Pick up the goods at the kitchen and bring 'em straight to Cap – I'll radio ahead so he knows you're coming, and he'll take care of the rest... Oh, and no shortcuts through the minefield, got it?”

***

Chef turned out to be well and truly tanked. Coherent speech was above his current capabilities, but he'd at least had foresight to do what was needed before hitting the bottle. So it was that Tiger found himself leaving the Freedom base with a long pole across his shoulders, a large sack hanging from each end. Following the road straight out, he took a right at the first turn and walked north, passing between the high ridges which dominated the immediate landscape.

The Barrier had been here for as long as stalkers controlled the area. The military, loners, mercs and Duty had all manned its barricades at one time or another, but now it belonged to Freedom. It was an ominous place, the gnarly trees further up the cracked and cratered road standing as silent portents of what lay beyond: the impassable realm of the Brain Scorcher, overlooking the eastern Red Forest and blocking the way to Pripyat and the Zone's center. Past here, none but zombies and Monolith troops could survive. The ten Freedom fighters on guard all had their muzzles pointing north, including one lurking in the wooden watchtower with a Dragunov and another with an elderly Degtyarov machine gun nestled among the sandbags halfway up the left hill.

Tiger made no particular effort to be stealthy, but the defenders didn't detect him until he was almost right behind them. “Whoo-hoo!” the first to notice yelled. “Cap, supplies came through!”

“Coming, coming...” In a place where the average age was twenty-six, a man already into his fifties was uncommon enough. One who spent his days in the field rather than behind a bar or trader's desk was rarer still. Such a man was Cap, his bristly beard as gray as a pseudodog's back and his skin as weathered as the grim terrain itself. “Set it down there, stalker,” he ordered as he came down from his observation point. “Thanks a lot.”

“You're welcome.” There was no reason for Tiger to stay here: pulling duty as a Barrier gunner was too sedentary for his liking. Quickly excusing himself, he retraced his steps.

***

Max was standing outside Freedom HQ when the loner arrived. “Here's your earnings for the delivery,” he announced, handing over enough rubles to keep a frugal stalker fed for a few days. “Go inside and see the chief – he might have a bigger job for you.”

Tiger did that, steering well clear of Skinflint's office as he went to the stairs. Muttered expletives were still creeping about behind him while he ascended to the second floor. Lukash was in his office, accompanied by a faction lieutenant named Pavlik, a veteran trooper called Leshiy and the standard pair of bodyguards. There were also two other guests shoehorned into the narrow room: a sturdily-built man a little younger than Cap, with a thick mustache and high boots, and a narrower, hawkish individual. One look at their clothing told Tiger the pair were outsiders.

“Aha,” said Lukash when Tiger appeared. “Here's just the man you need – walks the land and isn't afraid of anything!”

The hawkish visitor leaned in towards the other's ear and murmured something in English. Tiger had studied the language during his years of education, but subsequent disuse wore away much of his command of it and left him able to comprehend only fragments. He guessed that the man who had spoken was functioning as an interpreter.

When the others' conference was over, Lukash cleared his throat. “Here's the situation, stalker... The one with the whiskers there is a fellow named Lugard: apparently he's a pro game hunter out in the Big Land. He's bagged everything he can out there, Africa, Alaska, you name it, and he's got all the trophies lined up at home. Now he's looking for a new challenge, and he seems to think our mighty pseudogiant can give him one... He wants a guide to take him up to the western Red Forest, where the last giant sightings were. Sidorovich sent him our way: he's got this Stuart guy here to speak the lingo for him and Leshiy knows the ground, but I'd feel better if they had someone good at, eh... spotting hazards with them. They'll pay generously, of course.”

Tiger looked at Lugard and Stuart. The former had a heavy-looking double-barreled gun across his back and a huge silver semiautomatic pistol strapped to his hip. The latter was packing some sort of bolt-action sniper rifle. Getting all of that into Ukraine most have taken one hell of a bribe, never mind getting the gear into the Zone itself. “You can't kill a pseudogiant with a shotgun,” he told Lugard flatly. “The last one I saw took eleven slugs to the face and walked away.”

Stuart translation this statement brusquely. Lugard's reply sounded rather contemptuous, an attitude not wholly lost in translation. “This is not a shotgun,” Stuart expounded in Russian. “This is a Westley Richards elephant gun. Finest in the world, do you understand?”

When Tiger's skeptical expression didn't immediately give way to the look of fawning comprehension the foreigners seemed to expect, Lugard produced a cartridge from some pouch or pocket on his person and tossed it to the stalker. It was huge, with a fat bullet and a case length many times its diameter. The number .577 on the headstamp was plain enough, and the loner could infer a rough idea of what NITRO EXPRESS was all about.

On the face of it, this was many a stalker's dream employment: a straightforward contract to escort some snotty but rich tourists around the countryside for a day or two, shoot a few animals and come back. Tiger knew better: Lugard's cannon looked impressive but it was a sportsman's weapon, carefully crafted and precisely adjusted. The Zone wasn't a place for such things – it was a place for loose tolerances, scuff-resistant finishes and generous magazine capacities. The clients' rudeness he could deal with, but the notion of going to a place like the Red Forest to kill a veritable walking tank with a millionaire's anachronism seemed a surefire formula for great trouble. It was also exactly the kind of work Sidorovich catered towards, which made Tiger even more wary... On the other hand, the prospect of having more than pocket change and bribe allotments to his name held a definite appeal. That kind of money could buy a lot of supplies. A lot of supplies meant he could take a break from his barrel-to-hand-to-mouth existence and just get lost for a while.

In the end, the desire for freedom from monotony won out. “It's these two, Leshiy and myself?” he asked Lukash.

“That's right.”

Tiger tossed the big cartridge back to its owner. “When do we leave?”

“Right now.”

***

“Pay attention,” Leshiy instructed as he and Tiger led the way out of the Freedom base. “We will do our best to keep you out of danger, but in this place everything is dangerous. Your survival ultimately depends on your own ability to react to hazards. Do exactly as we tell you and you should be fine, otherwise you're on your own.” When Lugard finished listening to the translation and looked as if he were about to protest, Leshiy held up a hand. “Let me tell you something, gentlemen. I used to be a mercenary, a good one, but just being good doesn't cut it in the Zone... Last year my old team and I almost died in the area we're heading for now. We walked into a spot where space was twisted into a loop – every direction we tried led back to the place we started at. Our fellow mercs and some Freedom guys found a way to get us out after a few days, but that's not an experience you forget in a hurry... So you see, this Zone you've come to for your picnic is not something to sneer at. Always keep that in mind.”

“If you've been to this forest before,” Stuart complained, motioning towards Tiger, “why do we really need him?”

“Good question.” Leshiy slung his L85 under his arm and flexed his fingers. “Do you believe in miracles?”

“Not particularly, no.”

There was a wry chuckle behind the Freedom stalker's gas mask. “You will, buddy. You will.”
  12:46:32  11 July 2009
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BobBQ
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To Slay a Giant, Part 2

Leshiy signaled a halt when the entourage came to a tree-shaded gate on the road, briefly checking around the abandoned bus stop before slouching against its concrete face. “Last chance for an equipment check,” he said. “Anything you need to fix, fix it now.”

Ignoring the impatient looks from Lugard and Stuart, Tiger took advantage of the break to adjust the slings which supported his rifles and the AK's magazine pouch. Leshiy was entirely right to make the call here, he thought: this checkpoint sandwiched between a bloodsucker-infested village and a rocky hill marked the border of Freedom territory. Past this place they would be on their own.

“How far is it to this Red Forest?” Stuart asked, again translating for Lugard.

“In the old days, not far.” Leshiy shrugged. “There were roads running right to it... Now it depends.”

“Depends?”

“On what's in the way,” Tiger supplied.

Leshiy nodded. “If we're fortunate, we'll arrive before dark.”

“And then?”

“We'll have to camp,” said the Freedom stalker. “There should be a few good places to hole up, provided the critters haven't claimed 'em.” When Tiger appeared ready to move on, he straightened. “Let's go.”

***

The Red Forest had been an eerie place even before the Zone's present mysteries erupted six years ago. It took its name from the disaster twenty years before that, when massive deposits of radioactive material thrown out by the exploding nuclear plant killed wide swaths of the region's pine forests. Those trees were long gone – bulldozed, buried and planted over by the tireless Soviet liquidators – but their dying colors inspired a name which was passed down to the scavengers and adventurers who came to the poisoned land afterward. The modern Red Forest was infested with the deformed boars and wolves which appeared after the second incident, of course, but the surviving trees themselves were truly first-generation mutants: even when Tiger made his first survey trip to the forest many years ago, there had been some which did not extend towards the sky and others which grew far larger than they should.

He'd had it easy back when the biggest threat was mere radiation: today the Red Forest was one of the most dangerous parts of the Zone for a stalker of any skill level to visit. Beside the ravenous mutants and fanatical Monolith troops, some of the most frightening anomalies occurred here. To the northeast lay the Brain Scorcher, the final barrier that so many fools still thought they could slip past. To the west were the ruins of Limansk, a closed town dating from the early Cold War. There had once been a route south to Yantar, but the swarms of zombies and strange phenomena around the abandoned factory there precluded its use.

The forest's own terrain wasn't going to make things easy for Tiger and Leshiy: the ground was uneven and rocky, with few reliable paths. The deserted ore mines in the south and northwest parts of the forest offered potential shelter to any takers who didn't mind clearing out a den of snorks, though the lookout post across the river from Limansk offered superior advance warning of unwanted company. There was a large clearing in the middle of the western forest where a past outburst of the Zone's deadly energy had plowed a twisted furrow in the ground, seeding a raging cloud of anomalous activity. Somewhere to the north of the crater was a tank, a nearly pristine T-80 sitting inexplicably among the trees, and past that was the old home of Forester.

***

“Well?” Stuart demanded after some hours of walking, following Tiger's meandering path among whatever menaces lurked just out of sight. “How much further?”

“The sun was low in the sky,” Leshiy intoned, describing the group's surroundings in a solemn voice, “and its rays shone dimly between the twisted branches overhead. 'Almost there,' thought Stirlitz.” When nobody laughed, he let out an annoyed sigh. “This is the edge of the forest. The real hazards are straight ahead... Right, Tiger?”

“Yes.” The lone stalker hadn't needed to resort to his guns or his detector once since setting out, but it occurred to him that some display of wariness might encourage Lugard and Stuart to put up or shut up. Slipping the AKMS' sling off his shoulder, he pulled out the folding stock and moved the fire selector to the automatic position with a swipe of his thumb. The latter's muted clack guaranteed his clients' attention.

The path led into a narrow pass, the steep slope on either side crowned by dense vegetation. A gravitational anomaly lay ahead, sitting just to the left where the pass gave way to more open ground, its presence betrayed to the casual observer only by a subtle rippling in the air. For Tiger this was no challenge, and Leshiy could probably get past it without incident as well, but not so for the outsiders. “Stop,” the loner commanded, bending to pick up a stone from the path. The foreigners might well have had one of their prior guides demonstrate something like this, but that wasn't an assumption he could make safely. “Watch carefully.”

Classical physics dictated that the stone would follow a downward arc upon leaving his hand. Zone physics scoffed at that and instead sent it spiraling into a tight vortex: a hissing filled the air as the upset anomaly pulled in all the loose leaves, pebbles and clumps of soil within reach, the force of its suction drawing a harsh wind over the onlookers. The noise grew to a fevered pitch, then ended altogether with a sharp crack as the accreted matter exploded. Within a few moments the anomaly had reverted back to its idle state as Tiger, satisfied with his lesson well taught, placidly cut to the right and walked past the patch of warped space.

“So,” Leshiy muttered once the anomaly was behind them, “where shall we pretend to pitch our tent? The mines or the river outpost?”

“The outpost,” Tiger opined.

“Fine by me if you can justify the extra distance.”

***

“What's that?”

“The edge,” Leshiy answered curtly. “The edge of the world, as far as we're concerned.” He turned away from the churning fog beyond the embankment and the rusted drawbridge which disappeared into its swirling whiteness. “Stay away from it.”

Stuart wasn't quite ready to give up. “What's over there?” he demanded, looking to Tiger.

“There used to be a town.” The loner was no more verbose than his Freedom companion. “Now nobody knows.”

The Russian-speaking tourist looked across the river thoughtfully. “We heard talk of a 'dead city' on the way up,” said he. “Is that it?”

“No.” Tiger's boots make a dull clanking noise as he ascended the decaying steel steps of the outpost's watchtower. It had weathered the winter well, numerous bullet scars regardless, and it appeared that no other party had already staked a claim to the structure – he'd been right to prefer this place over the mines. “It's clear,” he reported to Leshiy. “We can settle ourselves.”

***

“All quiet?”

“Yes.”

“Guess it's my turn,” Leshiy sighed. “Can I wake you if anything funny happens?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks... I'll see you at oh-four-hundred.”

There had been no question of Lugard or Stuart standing watch: even if they had deigned to participate, they possessed none of the qualifications. Now they were sound asleep, having brought a pair of absurdly thick bedrolls with them. Tiger needed no such luxuries – he merely settled into a corner and drew his long coat close around him. Sleep, however, was not prompt in visiting the stalker. Instead he found himself thinking back to Stuart's earlier questions.

Tiger had only ever been to Limansk once in the old days, and then only because the man originally assigned had fallen ill. He'd never known what all those scientists actually did in the place, though he assumed that the huge antenna complex on the hill overlooking the community had something to do with the Zone's long-obsolete missile radar. Whatever its purpose, the sprawling town had not been evacuated when Pripyat, Chornobyl and the other populated areas were emptied in 1986. To hear the old-timers tell it, in fact, that crisis hadn't changed Limansk much at all: when Tiger visited nineteen years later, the aloof behavior of the residents and the suffocating layers of red tape both convinced him never to volunteer for work in that sector again.

Between the twin impenetrable walls of old secrecy and new anomalies, it was not surprising that even now many stalkers had never heard of Limansk or thought it a mere legend. The place had been completely inaccessible until less then a year ago, when the largest blowouts in living memory shook the Zone. Tiger had been on the far side of known territory when the town reappeared, drawing swarms of stalkers eager for a shortcut past the Brain Scorcher. It was just as well that he missed out on the action – the last of the super-emissions resealed the path over the bridge by the watchtower, taking all who rushed into the unexplored urbs with it. The Duty and Freedom platoons, the military strike force, the bandits, the mercenaries and the entire Clear Sky faction... None of them were seen or heard from again. A fog shrouded Limansk during the following night and remained as the months passed, neither spreading nor dispersing. Those who walked into it never walked out. Even the Monolith stalkers, who marched with impunity where none else could survive, forsook the town.

Why did Forester go there?

The loss of so rare a kindred spirit still haunted Tiger. Forester was already living out here when the loner was born, and neither an exploding reactor nor a fundamental deformation of reality could displace him. It was the Chernobyl Zone that connected the pair, the graybeard veteran and the NPP worker's son: “Another youngster comes to dedicate his life to the cause,” the warden had chuckled when the two first met. “What can an old man do for you?”

The coming of the new Zone was both a blessing and a curse for the likes of Forester and Tiger. The abilities it bestowed gave them a competitive edge in a place where death was a daily occurrence, but the gift also cost Tiger his job and left him unable to cope with the bustle of Ukrainian society. Forester had done the smart thing, shrugging off the changes and going on with his life inside the perimeter... And yet, sometime during the last winter, even Forester of all people had taken a final walk down that bridge into nothing.

Maybe he'd seen the end coming and chosen to leave his domain on his own terms.

Maybe he'd known something the others didn't.

Maybe he'd just had enough.

***

“There.” Leshiy pointed across the wide clearing as the thicket on the far side began to move. “It's coming out.”

Lugard was already in position, Stuart backing him up. They'd let Tiger get the bait for them, in the form of the three mutant pigs heaped near the well-eroded anomaly crater, but at least the skeptical looks the tourists had given his humble Mosin earlier were no more. It'd taken ten minutes to set the offering out and nearly two hours for the real target to show itself. The pseudogiant was huge, of course – a thick lump of a body with a vaguely hominid face, it stumped about on overgrown arms. Supported by dense muscles and denser bones, the monster moved with startling agility and could survive more hits than an armored car. Sakharov and his colleagues at the scientists' bunker had long debated how the rare creature sustained the massive diet its prowess logically required.

“Good God,” Lugard breathed. It didn't take linguistic fluency to understand the sentiment. As he raised the Westley Richards to his cheek, the blissfully unaware giant just beginning to feed upon the bait, Tiger quickly jammed his fingers into his ears.

Whaboom!

The pseudogiant rocked backward, blood running from the hole in its forehead. It swayed on its feet for a moment or two, then let out a roar and charged up the hill.

Whaboom!

Stuart, Leshiy and Tiger all opened up at once, firing head-on at the raging mutant, but sixty-five rounds were not nearly enough. Lugard broke his ornate double rifle open while the two stalkers yanked out their empty magazines. Whatever his sundry other faults, the wealthy hunter was at least a good shot and a quick reloader: the .577 was up and on target before Tiger's hand had reached the Kalashnikov's charging handle. There was a double blast that left his ears ringing, and the giant finally broke off its assault. It seemed to wander aimlessly for several seconds, then lost its balance and crashed down the hill.

“Fuck,” Leshiy muttered hoarsely, eying the twitching carcass. “That secondary brain or whatever it's got, that's really something... Shoot it again, just to make sure.”

Stuart's translation of the request was made in a tone which suggested he seconded the motion. Lugard merely nodded and loaded up his fifth and sixth rounds as Tiger took cover, silently praying that the clients would hurry up and finish having their fun: by now the entire Red Forest probably knew they were here.

“All right,” Stuart announced once the final shot's echoes had died away. “Now we just need a picture.” He produced a camera from somewhere on his person and handed it to Leshiy. “If you'd be so kind...”

“Go ahead,” Tiger murmured. “I'll watch your back.”

The Freedom man nodded, turning the Leica over in his hands as he followed the foreigners down to the crater. Lugard and Stuart quickly struck their poses beside the fallen mutant, the former cradling his elephant gun and grinning nearly ear to ear, while the stalker peered through the viewfinder. “Uh... Okay,” he announced in terrible English. “Say cheese!”

Something at the edge of his sixth sense's range caught Tiger's attention, a faint signature across the clearing behind the others. It ceased moving and was joined by a second, then a third. That smaller animals would be drawn to the kill was nothing strange, but even in the Zone few beasts had the courage to approach so soon after the gunfire. That meant it was probably either snorks or pseudodogs... Or else...

“Leshiy,” he called, pointing over the others' heads. “Company!”

The first two shots came at nearly the same instant, hitting Lugard and Stuart neatly between their shoulders. They went down with barely a sound as Leshiy tossed the camera aside and dove behind the pseudogiant, swearing incoherently when light automatic fire whizzed around him. Tiger jumped into the cover of a large rock, frantically wondering when and where the Monolith's servants had taken a level in subtlety.

Below him, Leshiy popped up long enough to squeeze off a burst with his L85. The return burst hit only flesh that was already cooling and gave Tiger a better fix on the attackers' position. “Leshiy,” the loner shouted, fumbling with the Mosin, “can you shake them up?”

“Just a sec...” The other stalker swapped his magazines and took a deep breath. “Freedoooooom!”

The suppressive fire worked admirably, forcing one of the enemies to displace as Leshiy's bullets zipped through the concealing bushes. Aiming over the top of his rock, Tiger zeroed in on the flurry of motion, tracked it briefly and squeezed.

Pow!

The lone stalker was already slamming his bolt closed on a fresh round as the struck assailant fell and tumbled down into the clearing. He wore not the brown vest and mottled urban camouflage of a Monolith adept, but the gray and blue of a mercenary. Tiger wasn't sure which made less sense: that a neutral loner and a respected Freedom member had been ambushed by mercs, or that said mercs had first targeted the party's vulnerable clients instead of the far more dangerous stalkers.

In any case he and Leshiy wouldn't be the ones getting paid generously today.
  23:02:12  11 July 2009
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-=Grunt=-
Cake Muncher
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 01/08/2009
Messages: 4114
Good one Bob. MOARRRRR.
  22:46:44  12 July 2009
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Paul Jaye
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 04/15/2007
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Thanks keep going
  01:29:40  31 July 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
08/01/2009 4:09:36
Messages: 3336
To Slay a Giant, Part 3

There were some in the Zone who would mistake Tiger for a pacifist. He preferred to think of himself more as something akin to a one man Switzerland, stubbornly neutral despite all his firepower. His statement to Southpaw on the way to the Agroprom had been entirely accurate: on those occasions when he found himself absolutely unable to ward off trouble with manners or money, he paid up front in spitzers instead.

This was just such an occasion. “Leshiy,” the loner shouted, “fall back!”

“Working on it,” the other grunted, reloading again. “Okay, get ready!”

Tiger laid his Mosin against the rock's well-weathered face and snatched up the Kalashnikov. “Now!”

Leshiy broke cover, zigzagging up the hill while Tiger fired short bursts at the mercenaries and enemy bullets peppered the dirt under the runner's heels. “Nice work,” he panted, rolling behind the shielding rock. A bullet promptly glanced off it, flinging chips of stone at the pair. The ex-merc swore under his breath as he pushed the L85's muzzle over the top. “Those clowns better not be from my old crew!”

Tiger didn't expect it to make much difference, the mercenaries of today being who they were. “Let's retreat to the mines and try to shake them off,” he suggested.

“Good by me.” Leshiy fired a burst, then another and ducked. “Hang on, I'm jammed...” Shakka! Click-click-click! Wathunk..! “Oh shit – not jammed, broken!”

Tiger passed him the AKMS. “Use this.”

“Thanks.” Leshiy snuck a fast peek around the rock's flank. “They're advancing... This is gonna be fun.”

'Fun' wasn't the word Tiger would use. There was no adequate cover between the rock and the mine entrance which offered the pair's best – if not only – path of escape: they'd have to make that dash completely exposed. The mercs – at least ten of them – were rapidly closing the range of engagement, breaking cover but spread so wide that a thirty-round magazine wasn't enough to effectively suppress all of them. The loner leaned out and pulled a snap shot with the Mosin, narrowly missing his mark. Leshiy must have come to the same realization, since he switched from suppression to aimed fire and dropped two opponents in rapid order before the first of the survivors made it to the cover of the cooling pseudogiant. As he smacked his palm against the Mosin's bolt handle, Tiger wondered what had become of the mercenaries' second sniper. Had he been taken out by a lucky hit from Leshiy's hail of projectiles, or was he still lurking until he had a clear shot?

“I'm almost out of ammo,” the Freedom stalker warned. “Soon or never, buddy!”

“I know.” Tiger's next shot struck a crouching merc's exposed shoulder, putting him out of the fight. By his reckoning that left the odds at two against seven. “Let's – wait... Leshiy, do you hear that?”

Somewhere in the distance, a horn was blowing. The mercenaries could also hear it, per the sudden lull in their shooting. “Monolith!” someone yelled. “It's the Monoliths! Where's our damn overwatch?”

“Time's up,” Leshiy muttered. He bent to pry a fist-sized stone from the soil beside his boot, then wound up to pitch it. “Let's play... catch a grenade!”

It was a brilliant feint: Tiger heard a startled yelp as the 'grenade' landed and saw a merc dive away from the assumed center of blast – leaving him wide open to the loner marksman. The Mosin's seventy year old butt thumped reassuringly against its wielder's shoulder, a hundred and forty-eight grains of copper-jacketed Soviet power blasting through the flank of the unfortunate man's charcoal-tone vest like a fist through a wet paper bag. The stalker's nose was filled with a sulfurous stench as he cycled the fired casing out and a fresh one in, swinging the barrel towards his next target.

Then he realized that Leshiy wasn't at his side any more. The Freedom stalker must have started moving as soon as his decoy was in the air, running for shelter while the enemy was distracted. Tiger felt like an idiot: he'd squandered his chance to retreat so that he could get a few more measly shots off. Worse, he now realized that he had neglected to pay attention to what his sixth sense revealed about his surroundings – Leshiy had moved out of range, which put him well inside the mines if not out the other side already, and new company was coming in fast from the north.

“Glory to the Monolith!” The battle cry rang out clear as a brazen bell among the trees. “Punish the heretic! Crush the unworthy!” The fanatics never skimped when it came to launching raids against the outer parts of the Zone, always attacking in great numbers with nary a care for their own survival, giving no mercy and expecting none. There was one rule for dealing with the faction: kill them before they kill you.

And now the odds had seesawed from two against seven to one against twenty and counting. A bolt-action rifle and a single handgun weren't up to this task: Tiger waited just long enough for the Monolith followers pouring from the woods to engage the remaining mercenaries, then started running. He covered all of three and a half meters before a soft pocket in the ground caught the toe of his boot and sent him tumbling. A projecting rock jabbed into his ribs as he landed, the impact only partially dampened by his thick coat and vest.

The loner rolled over, gasping in pain, and was greeted by a dumbfounding sight: the Monolith troops weren't shooting at him. They weren't even aiming at him. In fact, the nearest one was raising a hand as if in greeting. Tiger simply sat where he was, completely baffled, as the apparent leader of the group directed his companions with a series of hand signals. Half of them spread out, taking up defensive positions around the clearing while the remainder began checking over the bodies of the fallen. The commander watched these proceedings briefly before approaching the confused stalker, the muzzles of his AK-74 and attached grenade launcher aimed at the ground. He was followed by an adept with a Simonov carbine.

“You're not hurt.” The Monolith captain's voice was deep, in a way which reminded Tiger of an opera singer. “What happened here?”

Tiger just blinked, wondering if he hadn't actually hit his head and knocked himself silly. The adept, however, didn't look the least bit silly when he flipped out the bayonet of his SKS and locked it. “Answer him, unbeliever,” he spat impatiently.

It made no sense. When did Monolith followers ever care about talking? “I was a hired guide,” said Tiger hesitantly, too muddled to concoct a plausible lie in a hurry, “for a couple of foreign tourists. They wanted to hunt a pseudogiant... We came out here and the mercenaries attacked us, and then you came. That's all.”

The adept's expression of contempt and revulsion only expanded. The captain's face was hidden behind a sturdy gas mask, but he actually seemed satisfied. “This is in accordance with what the Monolith showed us,” he said, nodding to himself. “You speak truly.”

“Tch,” the adept snorted. “What does it matter if he speaks the truth? There is no good in letting a filthy outsider remain alive to blaspheme the – ”

Something abruptly clicked in Tiger's mind. “Save your breath,” he cut in flatly. “I know the Monolith exists.” Might as well say his part while he was still alive, he reasoned. The one round left in the Mosin couldn't save him now, nor the contents of the Hi-Power.

The confrontational man had obviously made up his mind before the fact. “You are no less a blasphemer if you seek the granter of wishes, vermin.”

Tiger had never been one to be easily insulted, but that retort pushed exactly the wrong button. “I have no wishes to be granted, ” he muttered dangerously. Raising his head, the loner glared straight into the junior fanatic's hardened eyes. “Your beloved Monolith erased them.”

The adept's breath hissed through clenched teeth as he drew back his carbine. He would have stabbed Tiger for sure had the captain's arm not blocked his path. “Enough,” the latter ordered. “Forgive this brother: it is yet not long since he was enlightened, and the Monolith does not bestow its wisdom all at once.” Turning to the adept, the higher-ranked follower addressed him like a father correcting an errant child. “You are right – our duty is to protect the Monolith from all who seek it with impure intent... But we never harm those who were chosen for paths apart from our own.”

“What..?” The adept looked from his commander to the equally nonplussed Tiger and back again. “Brother, what do you mean?”

The captain didn't answer directly, instead bending to gently pull Tiger upright. “It pains me to see one chosen reduced to living in such a way,” said the former, “but that is the path which the Monolith has set for you, and its reasons are its own.” His voice, while respectful, became serious. “We cannot remain here. If there is nothing you require, we must depart. I ask only that you not speak of this to those who are unworthy.”

“Fair enough... Uh, can I ask you a few questions before you go?”

“You may ask,” the captain replied graciously, “but I cannot promise that I will have answers.”

“All right.” Tiger cleared his throat. “Do you know what happened to Forester?”

The Monolith soldier shook his head. “Regrettably, I do not. It is said that he walked into the deathly fog, though I hate to believe a man capable of such madness could be the same graybeard who dwelt in this forest.”

“I see... Then you don't know what's in Limansk either?”

“It is a cursed place,” the adept interjected darkly. “If you seek a long life, have nothing to do with it.”

“Indeed,” the captain added. “We know not what dwells there now. I fear the town has been claimed by the sinners.”

“Sinners,” Tiger repeated. His impression had been that the Monolith loyalists held all others – himself included – to be in that category, but the captain evidently had a narrower definition in mind.

“I think some unbelievers also call them 'dark' stalkers,” the officer explained. “They are the worst kind of men here, betrayers as well as blasphemers. The Monolith chose them as it chose you and the graybeard, but they rejected its purity and used their gifts to satisfy their own greed... All this occurred long ago, when the Monolith was young in this world and we were not yet enlightened. We ourselves saw nothing of them until the winter which just passed, when they began to attack our brothers in the buried hospital not far from Limansk. While you walk among the unworthy and pretend to be one of them, the sinners' evil nature shows plainly in their mutilated faces: it seems they hide in secret lairs, practicing sorcery I wish never to experience and preying upon all who stumble into their traps.” The captain looked over Tiger's head at the trees looming above. “That is all I can tell you of them. There has also been movement in the dead city recently, but the Monolith has yet to advise us regarding it. I suggest you avoid that place as well.”

“Thank you,” Tiger returned, hoping he sounded sincere. “One last question.”

“Very well.”

“Have you... ever seen a hole in the sky?”

“Ah.” His tone of voice suggested that the Monolith captain had indeed seen or heard of this. “That I cannot answer. Forgive me.”

“It's all right,” the loner replied quickly. “That's all I wanted to know.”

“Then we part ways here.” The captain stepped back and, surprise on top of surprise, saluted. “Fare well, chosen.”

The other Monolith stalkers had already stripped everything from the corpses and made off with the elephant gun and the rest. It was only a matter of minutes before his gift told Tiger that he was quite alone in the clearing. After reloading the Mosin and collecting the empty magazines from around the bullet-chipped rock, he made for the mines.

***

“Leshiy..?”

The flashlight on the AK clicked on, dazzling eyes accustomed to the gentle green of an old glow stick. “Tiger?” the addressed hissed, aiming around the bottom of an overturned mine cart. “It's just you, right?”

“It's just me,” Tiger confirmed. “The fanatics didn't linger.”

“Phew,” Leshiy breathed. “I thought you were right behind me – how'd you get away from them?”

“I fell on my face.” It was technically true, and the amount of dirt on Tiger's already earthy-hued clothing lent credibility.

“Lucky bastard.” The Freedom stalker shone the flashlight around the mine tunnel. “Let's not wait for them to make a second pass, eh?”

“Yeah...”

Tiger reversed direction, Leshiy following. “I'm not looking forward to the flak back at base,” the latter admitted. “Lukash will be pissed 'cause I blew the mission, Screw will be pissed 'cause I broke my shooter and Skinflint will be pissed 'cause he'll have to get me a replacement.”

“It wasn't your fault,” the loner pointed out. “Anyway, there's nothing around now. Let's hurry while we can.”

***

“Home, sweet home,” Leshiy sighed as the watchtowers of the Freedom base came into view, painted warm orange by a sun plunging towards the treeline. “Guess we'd better go straight to the boss... Oh, and you can have this back,” he added, surrendering the AK.

Tiger had no objections to the plan, and the walk up the road passed in silence. The exoskeleton-clad greeter at the gate immediately inferred that bad news was on the way and stood aside as the pair entered. The first to break silence was Max, once again loitering on the front steps of headquarters. “You're back,” said he, “and you don't look happy.”

“You'll hear all about it before long,” Leshiy replied. “I need to see Lukash.”

Max scooted out of the way. “Go right in.”

Leshiy led the way up the stairs without more ado, Tiger following. The lone stalker could feel eyes on his back as he ascended, the eyes of Max and Skinflint and the armory guard all watching him together. It was a familiar feeling. If Leshiy experienced the same, he didn't show it. “Boss, we're back,” he announced, perfunctorily knocking on the doorframe of the faction commander's office.

“So I see.” Lukash raised an eyebrow when Leshiy and Tiger entered, alone. “Where are the guests?”

“Kaput,” Leshiy answered bluntly. “We got attacked by mercenaries.”

“Mercenaries?”

“Snipers and skirmishers,” Leshiy went on. “We went to the big clearing in the forest, set out some bait and got the pseudogiant, just like the clients wanted. They asked me to take a picture of them with the kill, and suddenly – bang! Our rich friends took a bullet each, and Tiger and I had to make a fighting retreat of it... Even better, a bunch of Monolith goons showed up.” He shrugged. “Ran like the wind, didn't look back. No loot, no cash.”

“A narrow escape, huh?” Freedom's leader eyed Tiger. “But surely you, er, noticed the mercs?”

“Not soon enough,” the loner revealed. “They stayed out of... out of my range until just before they began firing.”

“He warned us,” Leshiy chimed in, “but there wasn't time to do anything.” His eyes narrowed behind the round lenses of his mask. “They weren't just sitting there waiting for us to come along. It's like they knew where we would be, and that Tiger was with us.”

Lukash frowned. “You're saying the mission was compromised.”

“It's all I can think of, unless the punks were watching us when we camped at the river outpost,” Leshiy said. “I know the mercs ain't what they used to be, but have they sunk so low as to attack anyone they just stumble across?”

“I hope not... And you said they shot Lugard and Stuart first?” When Leshiy nodded, Lukash stroked his chin thoughtfully. “It sounds like a hired hit gone wrong, but who could have leaked the intel? The only people who knew the full details of the job were you two, my guards here and myself.”

“And Pavlik,” Tiger amended. “He was here.”

“And Pavlik, yes. I'll have to ask who he's been talking to.” Lukash cocked his head. “Stalker, I need a few words with Leshiy alone. Would you mind waiting outside?”

“Sure.” Tiger backed out of the office and went downstairs. Leshiy joined him in a couple of minutes, bearing a slim bundle of rubles.

“Compensation for your time,” he explained, handing it over. “Not as much as was promised, I know, but dead clients don't pay.”

“Thanks.” Tiger pocketed the money. “What now?”

“I'm on perimeter duty until further notice,” Leshiy replied glumly. “You can stay the night or head out, whatever you like.”

The loner stood up. “Then I'll move along.”

“Okay... See you around, I guess.”

Heading back to the Hundred Rads seemed like the best thing to do now: Tiger needed a safe place to sleep and mull over what he'd learned today. He still wasn't entirely sure how he could be alive and free at this moment, but he knew that his experience was quite probably unprecedented. He also knew that he could speak of it to no fellow stalker, however trustworthy.

The loner was disappointed that the Monolith captain had refused to answer his most important question, and yet relieved by the confirmation inherent in the other's reaction to it: after six long years of torturous self-doubt, he'd finally found proof.
  02:06:00  11 August 2009
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exxxed
Future brings back memories...
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/25/2009
Messages: 567
Amazing! I can't even describe the feelings i had while reading this!! Trully a masterpiece, you should write a book or something man!

Is there gonna be another chapter? I hope so...
  03:17:04  12 August 2009
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Mobius
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 07/11/2009
Messages: 683
I have to admit when I began reading this I tohught it was going to be another fan character ultimate super sayan type story, but this is really good. Props to yah.
  08:26:08  19 August 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Interlude

(Sorry for the delay, everyone.)

Wolf hated surprises.

To be fair, he hated a lot of things – bureaucrats, inquisitive neighbors, domestic cats, warm cola and nerds speaking Klingon all drew his ire reliably – but most of them simply ceased to matter once he was in the Zone. Not so for surprises, however. It had been shaping up to be a really nice day, a quiet day when he could sit by the fire with the rookies and enjoy a drink in peace... until they came over the hill and wandered into the derelict village that was his home away from home.

He was used to watching prospective stalkers take their first steps – his fellow loners hadn't established this camp in the southern Cordon just because they liked the scenery, after all. This was where the perimeter obstacles were thinnest, where men with nothing to loose crawled under barbed wire fences and through minefields. The lucky ones usually appeared at night or in the early morning, stumbling over the crest to the south with clothes and hopeful faces covered in grime, to be welcomed into the brotherhood.

Today it was different. The sun was well up, and the two newcomers' only resemblance to the average rookie was the dirt on their garments. The first was an old woman, sixty-five or more, with silvery hair tied up in a bun and a face which reflected the trials and troubles of a long life. Her smudged trousers and windbreaker didn't fit very well. The second was a younger woman – Wolf placed her in the upper-twenties demographic – with denim coveralls and a polymer hard hat thickly painted over in olive drab. She carried a large backpack, an entrenching tool and a surplus military metal detector.

The sight of the long probe brought to mind a passage from a story Wolf had read not long before his first entry into the Zone. They went around the mound of gray rags, it ran. There was nothing left of Whip. Some distance away in the dry grass lay a long, completely rusted stick – a minesweeper. The stalker had to give the young woman credit: she looked better prepared than most of her predecessors. The old one, though... The only senior citizens who'd want to come out here were the self-settlers, and most of them had already been claimed by the 2006 disaster. The Zone of today wasn't a place where that sort could survive.

Realizing that the two were making steady progress in his own direction, Wolf was suddenly stricken by an absurd desire to tidy up the camp, or at least hide away all the empty soda cans which had accumulated next to his favorite spot.

The one in the coveralls hailed him. “Hey, fella, which way to Sidorovich?”

She doesn't waste time. “Over there,” the loner said aloud, pointing down the row of crumbling houses. “In the bunker by the grave markers.”

“Thanks.” The pair changed course, leaving Wolf to contemplate the cluster of rookies around the fire with a little wariness. They'd witnessed everything, of course, and the new arrivals stirred their interest like an unclaimed Night Star. Could he trust the boys to behave themselves? While the novice stalkers murmured amongst themselves, the one veteran in the camp quickly dumped his empty cans into a discarded milk crate, laid a couple of planks across it and sat down to observe them.

“Wolf.” It was Sidorovich, his rough voice coming from the radio on the stalker's belt. “Got something for you.”

Wolf sighed. “I'm not looking for work right now.”

“This one's easy – just escort a couple of pretty women up to Otter's camp across the rail line. You like pretty women, don't you?”

Trust the fat old weasel to pull that one. “I'm married,” Wolf growled. “What's it worth?”

“Standard rate.”

“...Fine.”

“That's more like it. Have fun.”

Wolf just shook his head. He was a pushover, wasn't he? He'd been trying to quit, trying to pack up and go home for months now, and he just couldn't. How many times had he resolved to sever his ties with the Zone only to put it off just a little longer because of one more good job, rare artifact or newbie in need? The habit was as bad as a damned substance addiction, the more so ever since Hound gave up stalking after the faction wars... Where was his little brother now, anyway? Holding an honest job?

He put these morose thoughts aside as the women reappeared. The young one was carrying an Imperial Russian Winchester which Wolf recognized immediately, not that there were any other lever-action rifles in the Zone to confuse it with. The hose clamp holding the forward end of the stock in place was unforgettable, ditto the crack in the butt patched with duct tape and the four neat little rows of brass tacks along the bottom of the same. Rising, the loner collected his shorty AK and waved. “Ready to go?”

“Yes, please.” The old woman smiled at Wolf, suddenly looking very much like his late mother in her last years. “Please forgive us for burdening you.”

“It's okay,” the loner answered gruffly. “Before we leave, I have to fill you in on the hazards around – ”

“No need,” the second woman cut in. “I talked to some of your retired comrades on the outside. We know about the anomalies and mutants.” She emphasized the point by digging a fistful of nuts and bolts out of her pocket.

Wolf shrugged. “If you say so.” He turned away, motioning for the pair to follow, and led them out of the village. “I see that Sidorovich gave you Mantis' shooter,” he observed once they were in the clear, relieved that the weapon's new owner looked like she knew how to handle it. “How much did he charge?”

“Most of what I brought,” the coveralls woman replied ambiguously. “Who's Mantis?”

“A neutral like me, except that he got held up by the bandits one time too many – it wasn't that he actually snapped, but he became totally single-minded about them... He'd learned ventriloquism somewhere in the Big Land, see, and what he'd do was, he'd set up fake campfires in narrow ravines or gutted buildings.” A blind mutant dog paused to sniff in the trio's direction, then loped away. “Then he'd hide close by, imitating stalkers' conversations until some sucker crook came over looking for an easy shakedown... He did it all through the winter and pretty much drove the lawless out of the Garbage for a while, until they got together and went after him in serious numbers.” Spotting the telltale shimmer of a graviconcentrate anomaly, the guide reached for his bolt bag. “I hear it cost the scum eight of their own, and he still made it back to the Duty checkpoint before bleeding out.”

“Sounds like quite a guy,” the Winchester-wielder remarked. “A Mantis, a Wolf and an Otter, interesting names... Oh, I'm – ”

“Don't say it.” Wolf interrupted his bolt-throwing to raise a hand. “Out here two kinds of people use their full monikers: fools and those who are so badass or so well-connected that knowing their real identity can't hurt them... No offense, but you don't look like you're quite there yet.”

“Well,” said the old woman with dignity, “I don't think I have much cause to worry... But if you insist, Oksana Stepanova will have to do.”

“Then I guess I'm just Olga,” the younger one added.

The loner nodded. “Works for me.” Three bolts' sacrifice showed him the way forward, and he moved on. “I take it you lived out here?”

“I did,” Oksana confirmed. “Many, many years... I wish I could see Pripyat one more time, but they tell me it's impossible.”

“Yeah... Unfortunately we still don't have a safe route that far north – everybody wants one, but nobody knows how to find one.” The railroad embankment rose steeply ahead, and in its face was the mouth of a dark tunnel. “This is the tricky part,” Wolf cautioned. “Stay close behind me.” The main challenge now was getting through without the soldiers at the wrecked bridge noticing: Kuznetsov wasn't on duty, which meant no bribes could clear the way. The tunnel, meanwhile, was often littered with anomalies, but anomalies didn't open fire from a distance...

***

They found Otter ensconced in the second floor of the house on the right side of the road, across from the gutted shells of a small farm which once hosted the neutral stalkers' main base. The man was much as Wolf remembered him, with his trademark whiskers growing strong as ever and his collection of notebooks undiminished. Otter was the sort who could go a long way without ever offending anyone: he'd been in the Zone almost since it began and knew it better than many scientists.

Leaning against the outside wall, Wolf briefly listened to the muffled voices of Oksana and the other loner conversing. The former had asked to stop for a short rest before going on, and was using the time to inquire about various places she once frequented. How did it feel, Wolf wondered, to have memories of life in this poisoned land before everything changed?

“Hey.” Olga appeared from the hole in the wall, cradling the Winchester with confident ease. “Thanks again for getting us this far.”

“My pleasure,” Wolf grunted. After a few moments of quiet, he posed a question. “Where are you trying to go, anyway?”

“Rostok,” the other replied. “After that, I'm not sure.”

“Your mother's got guts.”

“My mother? ...Oh.” Olga laughed a little, wisps of blond hair falling down over eyes the color of open sky. “Oksana and I aren't related.”

“Sorry.” Wolf fixed his eyes on the abandoned farm. “I gotta ask, how does she expect to survive?”

“She doesn't,” the woman said quietly. “She came back here to die, not to live... She looks good for her age, I know, but that's just on the outside.”

“I see.” The loner's voice was uncharacteristically solemn. “Then you're... helping fulfill a last wish?”

“That's right.” Olga took out a cigarette, turned it over in her fingers and then, thinking better of it, put the white rod away. “We met by accident, looking for the same path.”

“What about yourself?”

“Hm..?”

“It's almost unheard of for a woman to take up stalking,” Wolf pointed out. “What drove you to it?”

There was a bitter chuckle. “Tymoshenko can say what she likes, but the Ukrainian economy won't be booming any time soon.”

“That's what brought me here,” Wolf agreed. “My Nadezhda, now... We've had our share of fights, but I still send home what I can. It's the right thing, isn't it?”

“I guess.” Olga sounded noncommittal. “Actually, I've wanted to see the Zone for a long time... I used to date a guy who worked out here, would you believe?”

The loner raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“He didn't talk about it much, and six years ago...” Olga looked at the ground before her. “It hit him hard – must have been all the coworkers he lost. Got to the point where I had to just end it while we could still face each other... After that, he disappeared.” She raised her head. “I'm rambling, sorry.”

“It's fine.” Wolf had heard worse. “Hey, if you're looking for someone to learn the trade from, there's a fellow named Bes in the Garbage who's sort of a mentor to the rookies up there. Tell him I sent you and he'll set you up.”

“Thanks for the tip.” Hearing the creak of the wooden ladder inside, Olga stuck her head through the gap in the bricks. “All set?”

“Yes, yes,” Oksana answered. “We'll take our leave of you, Mister Wolf. Thank you so much.”

By this stage the loner had gotten more thanks in a day than he had in the last week. “Take care,” he called, setting off before any more surprises could ambush him. “See you 'round, Otter.”

***

There were new faces at the campfire when Wolf walked back into the village: his old friend Fanatic, a man in a long, hooded coat and Clumsy. That last set Wolf's teeth on edge: at twenty, Clumsy was one of the youngest and least useful stalkers – a rookie who tagged along with the more experienced men, indebted to many of them and living on handouts and sympathy. Wolf himself had felt sorry for the homeless orphan once, but his patience was long ago dashed to pieces against Clumsy's thick skull. “Welcome back,” he said to Fanatic, noticing that the nuisance novice was sitting funny. “How did it go?”

“The kid fucked up big time.” Fanatic jerked his head in Clumsy's direction and took a pull from his Cossacks bottle. “Twisted his ankle running away from some bandits. Tiger here carried him halfway back with them chasing us.” He grimaced. “Now the swine are moving into the Darkscape in larger numbers... Borov's up to something again.”

“I'm not surprised,” Wolf said wearily. “Did you make it to the crash site?”

“Yes.” Tiger spoke for the first time, keeping his eyes on the half-eaten sausage and loaf of bread in his hands. “There was little of worth in the helicopter. The bandits stripped it.”

Wolf tried to keep his mind off how much the quiet stalker creeped him out. “No goodies for Sidorovich, huh?”

“Not today,” Fanatic confirmed. “But we hear you had an interesting assignment.”

“Women,” Clumsy chimed in, interest overcoming his humiliated silence. “Two women... Were they pretty?”

“Tch.” Wolf rolled his eyes. “One was old enough to be your grandmother. The other was a tomboy sapper.”

“Did she have nice boobs?”

“You think she was walking around in a friggin' bikini?” Wolf's lip curled. “Give up. You've never scored with a woman in your life and you wouldn't score with this one.”

“Yeah, well...” Clumsy momentarily held back the obvious retort, it being inapplicable to Wolf, and then flung it at Tiger instead. “I bet he hasn't either!”

“Ooh.” Tolik, who had thus far been content to nurse his soda and watch the conversation unfold, squinted at his fellow rookie. “That was low, dude.”

“It's probably true, though,” the offender proclaimed before Wolf or Fanatic could punch him. “Isn't it?”

Tiger took a bite of sausage and chewed it thoroughly before speaking: “No... There was – ”

“Attention, everyone!” The infuriated voice of the commander at the military checkpoint down the road washed over the loner camp, broadcast far and wide by the outpost's loudspeaker. “One of you sons of whores thought it would be funny to put out a cigarette in my drink. When I find you, I'm gonna rip your head off!”

“There was one,” Tiger finished softly. “A long time ago.”
  21:33:50  20 August 2009
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exxxed
Future brings back memories...
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/25/2009
Messages: 567
You're a cruel writer man !

Again you live us craving for more!

Nice, you trully got talent and well... skills, i love the way you describe every scene, and your style of describing a scene during a conversation, it lives the reader with the feeling of trully experiencing the scene, like he was there, behind the characters.

You could have described Olga's physical appearance a little more than just her clothes .

GSC should hire you to make more Local Folklore and History of the Zone tales.

Cheers, and i can't wait for the next!
  01:16:20  26 August 2009
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exxxed
Future brings back memories...
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/25/2009
Messages: 567
Please take your time with the story and release more chapters .

In my opinion, more content released not so often is better than just a chapter every week per say . I am willing to wait two months just to know that i'm sitting nicely on my chair eating popcorn and reading more than one chapter .

Good Luck Mate!
  09:51:48  1 September 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Riddle of the Middle

The better part of two weeks passed as Tiger went on with his roving existence. He worked closer to the perimeter, away from the Monolith and the mercenaries and all the other disruptions to his routine. He wanted time to think, time to reflect on his bizarre experiences. Unfortunately, all his thinking thus far had given nothing in return. Now the loner was walking through the Garbage on his way to the Hundred Rads after a marginally productive morning of anomaly fishing, a couple of Stone Flowers and a Sasha's Nose bouncing around in the thick pouch under his coat. He'd almost gotten a Crunch as well – worth a full two figures more than the rest of his haul combined – but the notoriously fragile artifact violently imploded as he tried to reel it in.

Only a few prismatic shards remained, pretty to look at but neither useful nor salable, and Tiger had decided to sail for a safe harbor after losing the big catch. A few minutes' walk brought him close to the old flea market, an abandoned construction site where a band of loners had set up a minimal base in the heyday of the previous year's faction struggles. One of the autumn's most violent blowouts put an end to the market, smashing the half-finished building and sowing a cluster of anomalies in its shell: there wasn't much left standing now save for one and a half of the outer walls.

Sensing a single blob of vital energy amidst the wreckage, Tiger altered course. It wasn't unknown for rookie stalkers to look for Jellyfish in the anomalies there, and the uneven heaps of rubble made for treacherous climbing. Striding closer, he heard neither the beeping of a detector nor the tink-tink of bolts on concrete. Circling to the right, the stalker approached from the south. It wasn't until he was quite close that he was able to spot the other: a man in a balaclava and a long coat like Tiger's own, clutching his right calf with blood-covered hands. A sawed-off shotgun was propped against a cracked slab nearby.

The wounded one looked up before Tiger could retreat, the visible parts of his face showing alarm and then relief. “Hey,” he called hoarsely, “help a brother out, will ya?”

“Brother?” Tiger drew his Browning and flicked the safety off. “It's always been 'cocksucker' or 'retard' before – now you get yourself hurt and suddenly it's 'brother'?”

The bandit flinched. “Shit,” he breathed. “Hey dude, I don't want no trouble, okay? I ain't been roughin' up no loners here, honest...”

The stalker looked unconvinced. “Then what were you doing?”

“I... Last night I thought I'd go see what those Duty fags do at their little... fort on the road, ya know? Fuckers saw me in the dark somehow, an' I almost got wasted...”

Evidently it hadn't occurred to him that most Duty stalkers carried night vision goggles. “So you limped away and hid here.”

“Yeah.” The bandit took a look at his leg and swore under his breath. “Got no bandages, no medkit, nothin'.”

Tiger pulled out the rolled-up field dressing he kept tucked into his vest. “How's this?”

The other's expression of desperate hope reminded the loner of a heroin addict he'd once seen in a clinic in Chernihiv. “Whaddaya want for it?”

Tiger would never call himself a sadist of any degree, but years of resentment demanded that he make the criminal casualty squirm a little. “What's it worth to you?”

The bandit looked crestfallen. “I ain't got much money...”

“Neither do I,” Tiger replied evenly. “Nearly everything I earn is spent keeping the likes of you off my back.”

“Man, please..!” The wounded one appeared close to tears. “I don't wanna die here...”

“Fine.” The bullying facade sickening even himself, Tiger discarded it and, putting away the Hi-Power, moved forward. “Let me see your leg.”

“Yer gonna... help me?”

“Make it worth the time.” Crouching, the neutral stalker tucked the dressing into the crook of his elbow and took out a jackknife and the flask of high-proof vodka he carried for the dual purposes of disinfecting tools and starting fires. “Can you tell me something interesting?”

“Interestin'?” The bandit shuddered as Tiger flicked out the knife's blade, clamped the handle between his teeth and unscrewed the cap of the flask. “What's interestin' to ya?”

“Nnn...” Removing the knife from his mouth, the loner splashed a little vodka over the blade. “Has anything unusual happened in the Dark Valley recently?”

“Unusual...” The patient turned his face away as Tiger began cutting through his blood-encrusted pants. “Sure, somethin' funny happened aroun' five days ago – the boys caught a stalker tryin' to get into that empty factory, the one with the smokestack.”

“I know the place,” Tiger remarked. “Go on.”

“Ya know there's a big door under there? Locked, an' too thick to cut through?”

“I remember it.” Now that he saw it clearly, the loner realized the wound wasn't nearly as bad as its victim seemed to think. Was this career crook a hypochondriac on top of the rest? “Freedom never got it open either – they were afraid resorting to explosives would make the whole place collapse.”

“Yeah,” the bandit agreed, encouraged by his grudging savior's response. “But this stalker had a key to the door, a little electronic thing... Actually he had two keys, an' he left one with that Barkeep fatso to cover for some debt. Didn't figure out the door needed both of 'em, I guess.”

“Borov took the second key from him, I assume.” Tiger balanced the knife on his knee and began to unroll the dressing. “Where did the stalker get it?”

The other man shrugged a little. “Wouldn't say... Just kept goin' on an' on about the Scorcher an' the Monolith an' the dead guys with the funny tattoos on 'em, sayin' it was all tied together somehow... Borov didn't like that, so he hit the sucker a few times an' said to put 'im in the pit 'til he made sense.”

“And did he make sense?”

“Nah... He ran for it an' got clean away. Borov's still pissed about that.”

“I see.” Tiger cut off a short length of the dressing and poured more vodka on it. “This will sting.”

The bandit braced himself. “Okay... Ooooooooh! Nnnnnnnngggh!”

“That's done.” Unrolling the rest of the long strip, Tiger began to wind it around the bandit's leg. “So how is Borov these days?”

“Fat,” said the bandit shakily. “Even more than Yoga was.”

“Ironic.” Tiger kept winding. “I suppose one of you is going to do to him what he did to Yoga.”

“No way.” The casualty laughed humorlessly. “He's got Vasya Boar and Poker workin' for 'im now – Vasya's a mean bastard an' Poker's fuckin' crazy... Nothin' I can do anyway, since nobody takes me seriously.”

“Too bad.” The loner straightened. “It's finished.”

“Really?” Gingerly pushing himself up, the bandit unsteadily rose to his feet. “Yeah... Yeah, much better... I'm good now, I think – I just need a couple of minutes... Ya know, I've been here two years and nobody's ever helped me like this before.”

“Just don't forget it,” Tiger said pointedly.

“No worries... Hey,” the convalescent called as the neutral stalker began to walk away, “what's yer name?”

“...Tiger.”

“I'm Friar,” said the bandit, “an' I'll remember this.”

***

The Hundred Rads was more or less empty when Tiger walked in: Barkeep and Garik were at their posts but no customers were in sight, owing to an especially exciting match over at Arnie's Arena. “Welcome back, son,” the former grunted, looking up from his mop and bucket. “What'll it be?”

“The usual,” Tiger replied, setting his artifact bag on the bartop. “There's something I'd like to know about.”

“Just a sec.” The burly proprietor slid his bucket into a corner, stuck the mop in it and opened the bag. “Hm... Not such good pickings today, eh?”

“Maybe,” said the loner. “I met Friar in the Garbage.”

“The veteran bandit, huh? Did you whack him?”

“No.” Tiger was well aware that Duty would pay handsomely for the head of someone like Friar, but he had no special love for the hardliner faction. “He got himself shot while spying on the road checkpoint, so I traded a bandage for a story.”

“That only encourages 'em,” Barkeep opined. “Well, how did he look up close?”

“Not like a veteran,” the neutral stalker remarked. “He complained that he isn't taken seriously – it wasn't hard to see why.”

“I hear he's got a thing for old comic books,” the barman mused. “Probably came out here looking for superpowers... Anyway, what about him?”

“Friar said the bandits caught a stalker trying to get into the sealed complex under the Dark Valley, using a key he got somewhere... He also said the door actually needs two keys, and that you've got the other.”

“Ah.” Barkeep nodded. “That would have been Worm.”

“Worm... A digger?”

“Used to be.” Barkeep went to the cupboard. “Keep talking.”

Tiger rested his elbows on the bar. “Apparently this 'Worm' was investigating the matter of the tattooed corpses and thought it had something to do with the Brain Scorcher... That's all I got, but I thought I should pass it on.”

“It's pretty much what I heard from Worm in person, but thanks.” The older man set a stack of neatly wrapped packages before his customer and put the artifacts into a large box on the floor. “I wonder what Worm is up to?”

Tiger raised an eyebrow as he took the packages. “He didn't say?”

“Not to me, he didn't.” Barkeep scratched his ear. “He used to come in here all the time, then he disappeared for a spell... Last week he was back, wanting to know about stalkers trying to reach the center of the Zone. He lost a big bet on a checkers match, gave me the key as collateral and took off for the Valley... Two days ago he was back with scrapes and bruises all over him, asking about the one called Ghost. I told him I'd heard Ghost is working in Yantar, and he left the next morning.”

“And he never revealed where he got the keys or anything else he's discovered,” Tiger summarized.

“That's about it.” Barkeep cocked his head. “You seem awfully interested in this.”

“Some... odd things have happened recently,” the loner replied guardedly. “Worm might know about it.”

“If he does, he's being damn tightfisted with his info.” Barkeep shrugged. “I've no idea when he'll come back, either.”

“Then I'll go after him,” Tiger said quietly. “Besides, I've gathered a few trinkets for Sakharov.”

“Up to you,” Barkeep grunted, reaching for the mop. “Just don't cause trouble, hey?”

***

A squealing, snarling pack of Rodents – the name was applied loosely to these lanky jerboa-like animals – swarmed around the foundation struts of the elevated pipeline. Tiger walked along the top of the rusted tube undeterred, holding his Mosin like a tightrope walker's pole. When it came to getting around the Wild Territory, the best way was the high way. It left one exposed to opportunistic shooters, of course, but few mutants had either the brains or the traction to hunt stalkers on the rooftops. Following the pipe's curve to the left, the loner left it behind and climbed onto the low roof of a onetime pumping shed. The sprawling maze of dead steel and concrete would be a good place to look for another Crunch if Tiger were feeling adventurous, but he wasn't. He wanted to be somewhere else right now, and this deserted factory complex simply happened to be in the way.

Tiger knew quite well that his search for Worm could easily turn out to be a total dead end, but what else did he have? Questions without answers, and maybe a tenuous lead or two. If this didn't pay off, he was back where he started. He wasn't sure what he was actually looking for, yet even now he was absolutely certain that it, whatever it turned out to be, was important. He hadn't been so fired up in a long, long time – the feelings of excitement and anticipation were strangely welcome.

His path took him across the roofs, around the mouth of a debris-choked underground garage and under the empty skeleton of an incomplete building with a no less skeletal crane tower still standing beside it. Turning left and then right put him on the road to Yantar, a winding route which emerged from the far side of a wide underpass choked with Burner anomalies. These hazards were relatively trivial, being stationary and easily visible to the patient eye, but Tiger elected to deploy his Veles detector: he could sense the presence of an artifact, and the sophisticated device outdid him in precision. Following the little green dot as it bobbed around on the hemispheric display, he quickly tracked down his prize, waited for it to pass by and in a flash kicked it out of the spatial warp within which it was hidden. It was a Crystal – a radiation-absorbing object the size of a spread hand, with hard-faced florescent rods extending from a twisted chunk of metal substrate. Just the sort of thing Sakharov would like, Tiger knew, and so into the bag it went.

The happiness of making this find lasted barely a minute, however: emerging from the underpass, the loner saw a figure staggering in circles just down the road. It was a zombified stalker, an unfortunate soul who'd no doubt wandered here from Yantar after suffering terrible brain damage in the powerful fields of psionic energy which hung over the deserted complex overlooking the dried-up lake. In Tiger's perhaps jaded opinion, the matters of the psi-fields' nature and origin were lesser mysteries than the way a seemingly infinite stream of stalkers came to that gloomy place to try their luck at penetrating the depths of the forbidden ruins. They all ended up the same: mindless shells in the dirty uniforms of almost any rank and faction, shambling aimlessly until they died of exposure somewhere.

If Tiger were to approach this one, he would be able to make out the bloodshot eyes and hear the incoherent mumbling of meaningless snatches from the man's former existence. He would also find out whether the old-model M16 in the zombie's hand still functioned, a risk he neither needed nor wanted to take. There was only one thing to do, an act both practical and decent. Dropping to one knee, the loner slipped the Mosin's sling off his shoulder, pulled the round knob of the rifle's cocking piece back and twisted it into the firing position. A single shot rang out, rolling up and down the ravine through which the road passed, and the zombie crumpled. Tiger waited a minute to see if a second was called for, then moved on.

There would be plenty more where he was going.
  08:44:20  2 September 2009
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AlaskanKnight
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On forum: 02/20/2008
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I enjoyed. You've got skill.

Keep it up.
  04:05:39  4 September 2009
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HL2 Master
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On forum: 06/28/2008
Messages: 271
Not quite finished what you have written yet, but this is shaping up to be good. Is olga the girl in you avatar BobBQ? Where is that pic from?


HL2
  04:25:49  4 September 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
Is olga the girl in you avatar BobBQ? Where is that pic from?
---END QUOTATION---


No connection with Olga - the source image is this: http://img35.imageshack.us/img35/2314/892bfb6b613505f448ef1cd.jpg

And thanks for the feedback, everyone. Stay tuned, because this is where the plot thickens.
  00:13:55  5 September 2009
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HL2 Master
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On forum: 06/28/2008
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Really enjoying this so far, cool pic, and whats the ETA on the next part?

HL2
  08:36:53  5 September 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
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---QUOTATION---
ETA on the next part?
---END QUOTATION---


I don't really write on any kind of fixed schedule. This is one of two current projects - I do a chapter of one, then a chapter of the other.
  15:42:52  8 September 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Just read this. I only popped on the forums for a quick check. Five minutes, tops, I thought. That was ages ago now. Good story, well written, with an interesting central character. I'm looking forward to reading more.
  11:07:39  27 September 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
09/28/2009 4:32:10
Messages: 3336
The Social Life of Zombies

(Hard drive failure sucks.)

Tiger leaned around the derelict truck's fender, watching a zombie stare fixedly at the outer wall of the scientists' compound. If he headed for the bunker now, the lost soul would spot him – and this zombie had more friends in a three hundred meter radius than Tiger had in the entire Zone. The loner couldn't even put the unfortunate one out of his misery without drawing the marginally sentient wrath of the horde towards his position.

So he watched and waited instead. After a few minutes the zombie got bored and wandered back towards the psi-contaminated factory, whereupon Tiger hustled through the open perimeter gate and into the compound. Ignoring the crates, heavy lifting containers and equipment pallets which littered the place, he went straight to the front door of the low, angular concrete bunker in the middle and purposefully stabbed the buzzer with his fingertip.

The voice which answered was understandably suspicious. “Who's there?”

“It's Tiger, Semenov,” the stalker replied, recognizing the voice of the bunker's resident research assistant. “I'm here to see Sakharov.”

“Just a minute.” Semenov presumably went away to confer, then came back. “Okay, come inside.”

The massive steel door opened with a creak and a hiss, revealing the primary airlock. This was the secret of the scientists' successful life in Yantar: nobody and nothing got through the inner door without their approval, and a popular stalker joke had it that most malignancies stayed away for fear of being caught and published. Stepping into the chamber, Tiger waited as the outer door shut and the pressure equalized, then moved into the bunker's core. Navigating past a teetering stack of cardboard supply boxes, he came to the visitors' end of Sakharov's office.

“Hello, hello,” said Sakharov warmly. A distant cousin of the renowned nuclear physicist, he looked as always like someone's misplaced sprightly grandfather, pottering about in his faded blue lab coat. “What brings you to our humble lab today, Anton Konstantinovich?”

Tiger wondered which bothered him more – the formality, or the use of a name he was determined to put behind him – but said nothing about the matter. “I found a few things you might be able to use,” he said, handing over the Crystal and the Crunch fragments. “And I heard a stalker called Worm is here.”

“Hmm.” Sakharov inspected the artifacts critically. “Not bad, not bad... About Worm, I fear – ” The professor was distracted by a beep from the battered personal computer on his workbench. “Damn, not again...”

He wandered off to deal with it, leaving Tiger to contemplate the mouse running on its exercise wheel. After a few moments of that, the loner closed his eyes and shifted his focus inwards. There was one point of energy in the bunker besides Sakharov, which logically would be Semenov, and now two more approaching the door outside. Admission was granted to them rather faster than it had been for Tiger.

“...Else we can do about it. Retrieving the prototype by force is probably the best solution.”

“Best? If you want to end up like a Romero extra, sure.”

“Unless you have a better... Ah.” The figure in the enveloping orange suit reached up and removed his bubble helmet, revealing the weary face of another bunker-dweller, Vasiliev. “Haven't seen you here in a while.”

Ghost appeared at the scientist's elbow. The look of cold suspicion on his face was exactly as Tiger anticipated it. He couldn't honestly blame the veteran stalker for disliking him – Ghost had built his career in the Zone on his elite sneaking and tracking skills. “Staying long?” he asked curtly.

“Just visiting,” Tiger assured him. “Is Worm around?”

“Too late.” Ghost sat down on a dented footlocker and took out a dogeared map. “You missed him.”

“Unfortunately your colleague is correct,” Sakharov added, returning to the near side of his office. “Worm is no longer with us. Did you have important business with him?”

“No,” Tiger admitted. “I heard from Barkeep that he claimed he was investigating the Brain Scorcher, and that before he came here he was trying to break into the sealed vaults in the Dark Valley. I wanted to ask him some questions, that's all.”

“I see,” said the professor gravely. “Then perhaps I should start at the beginning... Worm came to us yesterday. As you say, he alleged that he had information regarding the phenomenon of psi-energy. He seemed very interested in accessing the factory ruins, though I can only guess at what he sought there.”

“I assume you still haven't found a way to get through the psi-field,” said Tiger.

“Indeed,” Sakharov confirmed. “As you may recall, we have determined that in this case the field is generated by some sort of machine under the factory. We even have documentation for some of its peripheral components, but regrettably documents alone cannot solve our present problem.” The old man shook his head. “If only Lefty and his group had not taken off to fight in the faction wars so soon after the mechanism's power output dropped – as usual we were too short of staff to conduct the work ourselves.”

“Now the emissions are stronger again,” Tiger concluded. “But the power level is still stable, isn't it?”

“For the most part, yes. We suspect the field's generator has some capability for self-repair... In any case, the center of the psi-field cannot be reached. However, our experimentation with shielding devices has advanced enough for us to assemble a prototype able to cancel out fields of great strength... Worm volunteered to test it.” The scientist's expression implied regret about the matter. “I had some misgivings, but we needed to get performance readings from as many subjects as possible. Psi-emissions do not affect everyone the same way, you know.”

Tiger looked to Ghost. “You've tried this?”

“More than anyone else,” the other stalker replied grudgingly. “It's not great, but it helps.”

“Perfecting the prototype is only a matter of time,” Sakharov asserted primly. “If we can get it back, that is.”

Tiger connected the last dots immediately. “It didn't protect Worm.”

“We aren't yet sure what happened,” the professor replied. “I very carefully instructed him as to the limitations of the prototype and the boundaries of the area in which he was to collect data, but we lost all contact with him as he approached the factory. There were no unusual fluctuations in the emission levels. At this time we don't know if the prototype malfunctioned, or if Worm simply wandered too deep into the field. Ghost and Vasiliev were out looking for traces of him when you arrived... Vasiliev, any luck?”

The other scientist nodded. “We spotted him about forty meters from the factory entrance. The zombies have already welcomed him.”

“Most unfortunate,” Sakharov sighed. “And the prototype?”

“He's still wearing it,” said Ghost. “We picked up a weak signal from the tracking beacon.”

“Then perhaps all is not lost... We have enough materials at hand to construct two or three more of the shielding devices,” the professor explained to Tiger, “but without the exposure data from the missing example we shall be back where we started. It is highly important that we recover the prototype as soon as possible.”

Tiger knew that tone of voice very well: Sakharov wanted his help, and he would scientifically apply every guilt trip in the book to get it. “What's the plan?” he asked preemptively.

“I don't think we've gotten that far,” said Ghost. “I guess we could just lure our man away from the factory, finish him off and grab the gadget, but then we might spend three or four days trapped in here while his friends thump the walls. I'm sure none of us are anxious to call in the military, either.”

“That's true,” said Tiger. “But isn't it possible to sneak around the zombies?”

“That's easy enough for me,” the other loner affirmed. “It's the snorks' noses that are still a problem.”

When the zombies congregated, the snorks were rarely far behind. Tiger had seen enough incautious stalkers learn that the hard way. “So there's no simple solution?”

“Of course there's a simple solution!” Vasiliev snapped sarcastically. “Why don't you just shamble out there and persuade that wretched shell to trade the prototype for a bottle of booze?”

Tiger looked at Ghost. Ghost looked at Tiger. Both of them looked at Sakharov.

***

“Either Sakharov is getting desperate or this makes more sense to him than it does to me.” Standing atop the bunker's roof, Ghost raised his binoculars and scanned the distant factory buildings to the north. “I'll bet Vasiliev is kicking himself right now.”

“Why?” Tiger asked, peering westwards at the thick marsh beyond the complex wall. “He's not the one going out there.”

“You ought to be glad,” the other neutral opined. “Semenov is a crap shot, but he won't freak out.”

“Vasiliev would?”

“I can't rely on him, and you shouldn't either... This would be easier if Kruglov were around.” Setting the binoculars down, Ghost picked up his Groza and checked the scope and suppressor. “I don't know if I can cover you all the way,” he warned, turning the compact rifle over and removing the magazine. “This ammo is cheap shit.”

“You could use mine,” Tiger offered. “It shoots a little high inside three hundred meters, but it groups all right.”

“That's very kind of you.”

“I'm being practical.” Tiger eased the Mosin's leather sling off his shoulder and handed the rifle to Ghost. “Just make sure you don't have any accidents.”

“Don't worry,” the veteran muttered, opening the bolt halfway and then closing it. “It's in my interest to see this through.”

***

There was a click and a soft hiss as the high impact plastic-glass composite helmet sealed in place around Semenov's head. He waited a few moments as the series of tiny green lights below the transparent bowl's bottom lip winked on, then gave Vasiliev a thumbs-up: good to go.

The other scientist nodded and donned his own helmet, returning the gesture. “We're ready,” he said to Sakharov. “Are you still picking up the beacon?”

“Intermittently,” the professor answered. “It seems to be moving westwards.”

“Towards the swamp,” Semenov commented. “We haven't much time.” He reluctantly took one of the two Walthers which Sakharov had laid out and inserted a magazine, thick gloves impeding his fingers. Where else in the world, he wondered, would carrying this thing be part of a scientist's normal work?

Leaving the chamber empty, he shoved the German pistol into the holster that was more or less permanently affixed to his suit's hip and passed the second P99 to Vasiliev. “Thanks,” the latter grunted, doing the same. “Let's get this over with.”

***

The stalker called Tiger was waiting outside the door when Semenov and Vasiliev exited the airlock: stumbling in circles, his movements were sluggish and uncoordinated. As if you weren't weird enough already, Semenov didn't say aloud. “...We're ready to begin the retrieval attempt.”

Tiger stared at him intently. “...Braaaiiins...”

“Uh...”

“Don't overdo it,” Ghost admonished from his rooftop vantage point. “Vasiliev, up here.”

“Get in character,” Tiger muttered, his voice but not his posture briefly returning to normal as Vasiliev began to ascend the steel rungs embedded in the bunker's flank. Once Semenov's attempt to mimic Tiger's gait had attained passable form, the stalker in the long coat turned and shambled through the perimeter gate. “Follow me...”

It didn't take as long to find zombies as Semenov expected, let alone wished. The first one he and Tiger encountered was an ex-bandit, unmistakable in his anorak and black leather jacket. His face was blistered and thick with stubble – he probably stank like an open sewer, too. The scientist's pulse jumped as the cerebrally impaired one approached, settled when he appeared to accept the intruders as two of his own kind, and then climbed again when the zombie began to follow them. It was Tiger's coat that attracted him, Semenov thought darkly.

“Head left,” Ghost's voice murmured in his ear. Semenov opened his mouth to advise his sapient companion of the guidance, but Tiger's path was already curving to the west as if he needed no radio to hear the instruction. Doing his best to look like he had lost his own marbles, the research assistant pulled out a detector and attuned it to the psi-field's presence with exaggerated stabs of his finger. They were too far away for it to harm them at this power level, but he would take no chances.

A zombified loner joined the group as Tiger climbed over the concrete housing of a water intake, left high and dry by the draining of Lake Yantar. His green suit – a product of the cottage industry which thrived on the Zone's fringes – was stained with mud, and possibly other substances.

***

Ghost had been sincere in his promise not to betray the other neutral. He had no real choice about it: if he tried anything here, Sakharov would see to it that he was forever blacklisted from doing work for the ecologists or for Duty, and Barkeep or Sidorovich could easily put a price on his head to boot. Regardless of his obligations, the veteran felt ill at ease watching the back of his could-be rival. His dislike for Tiger straddled the division between professional and personal, though he well knew Tiger's jobs for the extinct Clear Sky faction had been purely contract work.

Perhaps he simply couldn't help it – because of Clear Sky, because of that dog Lebedev and his followers, Ghost and his friends had been hunted and scattered. Fang was dead, cut down near the site of Freedom's present base by a mercenary sniper. Doc was in hiding somewhere, his whereabouts a secret even to Ghost himself. And Strelok... Strelok had made the third pilgrimage north on his own, going back to the ghostly shell of the VI Lenin Nuclear Power Station to uncover the ultimate truth about the Monolith hidden within. He should have returned long ago.

Was Strelok also dead? Ghost had no evidence to the contrary, and despite his own wishes he had come to accept that it was now up to him to take over the task of returning to the center of the Zone. After he'd finished this mission and helped the scientists deal with the Yantar psi-generator, he'd head for the Cordon and find Guide. Guide should know where Doc had secreted himself, and Doc might know what had become of Strelok.

It was a forlorn hope, but it was all he had left.

***

The retrievers found Worm standing by a dislodged section of pipe on the rise above the lakebed swamp. He was escorted by two more zombies, one a mercenary and the other a second loner in the fawn leather jacket of a novice. Tiger ambled towards him without hesitating, Semenov following with trepidation. Soon the seven were standing in a loose cluster, as if this were nothing out of the ordinary... Then the zombies began to talk, and the smell of Semenov's cold sweat threatened to overwhelm his suit's respirator.

“Loot... grab the loot... ahhhhhh... gonna be a big man...”

“Crows, always... crows...”

“Don't... gaaah... too dangerous...”

“Frog blast... vent core...”

“Don't worry, my soul... come back soon...”

“Head... hurts so bad... stop...”

Beep-beep! Beep-beep!

Semenov froze. How could he have forgotten to turn off the detector's audio output!? Now all the zombies were gathering around him, bleary eyes watching intently. “Uh...” Thinking fast, he began to push buttons semi-randomly with the same stabbing motion as before. “Hurr, durr...”

By some miracle, it worked. “Science,” the zombie merc proclaimed astutely.

“Science,” the ex-bandit agreed. Within a few seconds, Semenov's audience had reached the amicable conclusion that their new friend was a scientific zombie and all was well. Now if only they weren't observing him so damned closely! And anyway, what was Tiger doing?

Tiger, he realized when he pulled his eyes away from the detector, was moving to intercept a Worm who, despite an acute case of neuron destruction, looked very much as if he were trying to slip away. “Worm,” Tiger slurred, “prototype...”

“I... need prototype...” Not only did Worm manage to display a very guilty expression despite his zombified state, his speech was more articulate than the other zombies' ramblings. “Have to get... into secret lab... Have to find truth...”

A terrible realization formed in Semenov's mind. Dear God, he thought incredulously, he can still remember!

“Sakharov... wants prototype back,” Tiger insisted. “Needs data – ” He abruptly broke off, body tensing. For one agonizing moment the scientist wondered if he was being affected by a spike in the psi-field, before the neutral stalker raised his arm and pointed into the swamp below. “Uwaaaaah,” he groaned. “Soldier, soldier, soldier... Eh, ahaaaaah...”

Semenov's eyes darted to the thick masses of reeds, instantly spotting the disturbance caused by some large mass plowing through them. It could only be a snork, and that meant their time had just run out. The fear was justified when the beast itself emerged from the reeds: a once human form turned even more savage and feral than the zombies, it loped along on all fours with a mutated nose unerringly guiding it towards its next meal. Like many snorks, this one still wore the army boots and gas mask it had carried into the Zone as a hapless soldier years ago.

“Kiiiiiiill..!” Tiger suddenly emptied his Kalashnikov from the hip, wounding the snork and 'accidentally' letting the cone of fire drift across Worm's back. “Soldier! Kill!”

Semenov reached for the Walther, but the remaining zombies were already heeding his fellow impersonator's cries. Two blasts from a sawed-off twelve-gauge knocked the crouching monster silly, and a burst from a Bizon submachine gun finished it. The snork hadn't been alone, however: two more came out of the thicket further away, one rearing back on its legs as it issued a bloodthirsty howl.

“Soldier!” Tiger kept up his provocation as he began to reload the assault rifle, making a great show of clumsiness. “Kill, kill, kill!” As the remaining zombies stumbled past him, intent on defeating the common enemy, he swiftly bent, yanked the prototype psi-blocker off Worm's head and threw it to Semenov. “Run!”

Semenov did just that. The world melted into a blur of grays and browns as his breath fogged the inside of his helmet. It couldn't have been more than thirty seconds before he beheld the dear sight of the bunker. “I've got it,” he rasped frantically. “I've got the prototype! Let me in!”

“Excellent!” Sakharov replied. “But where is Tiger?”

“I... He said to run, so I ran...”

“It's okay,” Ghost cut in. “Here he comes now.”

No sooner had he spoken then Tiger came flying through the gate with his coat billowing behind him. “Mission complete,” he called. “Let's all get inside while they're distracted!”

“Works for me.” Ghost tossed the Mosin and its ammunition back to their rightful owner, then went to the ladder. “Business is good today,” he remarked on the way down. “Would you believe we had another visitor show up while you were out there?”

“Another stalker?” Tiger asked. “Who?”

“I didn't get the name, but he's inside with Vasiliev and the good professor right now.”

***

Tiger was last to exit the airlock and enter the bunker. He felt a sudden eagerness to leave, now that he could feel the weight of Worm's PDA in his pocket, and he intended to do so as soon as he'd collected whatever reward Sakharov had for him.

“I don't care what anyone says,” Semenov declared once he'd wrenched his helmet off, “I'm never doing that again!”

“Your loss,” Ghost retorted. “I thought it worked brilliantly.”

Tiger squeezed past the bickering pair and went over to Sakharov's office. The new arrival was there, wearing an ordinary stalker suit and a heavy gas mask. Before he could say anything, the stranger turned. “Anton?”

“...”

“Anton, it's me!” The hood was drawn back and the mask removed. “You remember me, don't you?”

Tiger did remember. “Olga Ivanovna Cherenkova,” he recited icily. “Why are you here?”
  12:31:28  27 September 2009
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Do0mzday-Jesus
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Awesome story! Keep it coming.
  16:11:12  28 September 2009
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snorkbait
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---QUOTATION---
Awesome story! Keep it coming.
---END QUOTATION---



Seconded!
  10:40:52  7 October 2009
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BobBQ
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The Documents of the Dealings

“How odd,” Sakharov remarked. “I've never seen Tiger so anxious to leave before – he didn't even wait to collect his payment!”

“It was that woman,” Ghost opined between mouthfuls of cold canned meat. “He wanted to get away from her.”

The professor stroked his beard absently. “Is there some superstition among your colleagues pertaining to women?”

“We're stalkers, not sailors.” Ghost prodded a lump of gristle with his fork. “There was something unpleasant between those two.”

Sakharov blinked owlishly. “What makes you say that?”

“It was all over their faces.” The veteran stood, discarding his can. “Are we doing another night reconnaissance?”

“If the weather is favorable, yes.”

“Then I'll take a nap.” So saying, Ghost went into the cramped room beside the office and stretched out on the cot there. “See you at twenty-three-hundred.”

Left to his own devices, Sakharov initiated the process of data analysis for the recovered psi-blocker, made himself a cup of tea and settled himself in front of his workstation. It would be some time before the bunker's computers could chew through all of the new information, and in the meantime there was a matter of his own curiosity which demanded attention...

Ministry of Emergencies and Affairs of Population Protection from the Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe – Commission of Inquiry's Report on the Crisis of 2006 – Appendix B: Survivor Testimony

Case #12: A. K. Petanko
Date of Birth: 11.11.1983
Place of Birth: Pripyat, Kiev Oblast
Place of Residence: Slavutych, Chernihiv Oblast
Parents: K. B. Petanko (deceased) and V. A. Volkova (deceased)


The file hadn't been updated since Sakharov last accessed it more than two years ago. That was probably for the better, he decided. What he was looking for didn't appear in the summary, so, acting on a hunch and a dim recollection, he skipped ahead to the ending pages. The last years of Anton Petanko's life on the outside were clinically summarized there, his trials and tribulations committed to record with an apparatchik's unfeeling efficiency: inability to readjust to life in Slavutych, the breakdown of a relationship with a young woman at one of Kiev's technical institutes, self-imposed exile to a small town in the north, contact with those who penetrated into the Zone illegally, and finally a sudden disappearance.

The last update to the profile was no warmer: Addendum 24.01.2009 – Y. G. Sakharov reported contact with subject Petanko at the Yantar Mobile Scientific Laboratory. Professor Sakharov described him as being in good physical and mental health, but added that subject Petanko is now one of the so called 'free stalkers' and has no interest in further assisting the Commission of Inquiry or the Ministry's investigative efforts.

Sakharov couldn't blame him for that last part, not after watching those dunderheaded Commission tinplates treat their key witnesses like diseased cattle and hoard their knowledge as if in some twisted contest. The amount of time wasted by their failure to establish a prompt working relationship with their counterparts in Belarus alone... No, it was far too late to be getting angry about that debacle. Suffice it to say that there were good reasons for the fact that the professor had never again mentioned the stalker called Tiger in his official dispatches.

Closing the file, the aging scientist sat back in his chair and contemplated the merits of a second cup.

***

“Anton! Dammit, Anton, wait for me!”

There were moments when Tiger wished he'd been granted a bloodsucker's invisibility rather than a biological radar. Still, Olga must have run nearly all the way from Yantar to have caught up with him so fast. If she was going to be persistent, he might as well stop long enough to humor her just this once. “Over here,” he said curtly, climbing inside one of the derelict boxcars which sat about the Wild Territory.

“Whew,” the female stalker wheezed, hauling herself up after him. “That's not an easy run even with a Moonlight...” Sitting with her back against the inner side of the boxcar's wall, she removed said artifact from a pouch on her hip. After a few seconds of briskly rubbing the peach-sized crystal sphere between her hands, it began to emit a piercing blue-white glow. “That's better.”

“Well?” Tiger demanded. “What do you want?”

His impatience earned him a hurt look. “Anton, I haven't seen you in five years... You could have been dead for all I knew. Don't you think I want to know where you've been, what's happened to you?”

“There's no reason for you to care,” Tiger said flatly. “You said it was over, so it's over.”

“Anton, please – ”

“Stop calling me that.”

Olga gritted her teeth. “Okay,” she replied, her frustration swelling. “Tiger, are you doing all right out here?”

“I'm fine.”

“I hope so.” Olga set her Winchester aside, along with an M16 she must have taken from the zombie Tiger had shot earlier, and stretched her arms. “You do look better than... than you used to.”

Tiger scowled, his face half-shadowed by the hood of his coat. “Why are you in the Zone, Olga Ivanovna?”

Olga winced. “Guess I can forget ever being called 'Olya' again.” There was an exasperated sigh. “I'm here because the economy has turned to shit, same as every stalker I talked to between the perimeter and Rostok. I got fed up with the way the institute kept whittling down my pay, so I got out while I could.”

“Why not go back to Russia?”

“There's nothing for me in Bryansk now.” She rubbed the Moonlight some more. “My parents divorced last year. They've both been insufferable since.”

Tiger cocked his head. “What about Stanislav?”

“My twerp brother?” Olga laughed sardonically. “Oh, he finally achieved his dream of entering Moscow State. Then he dropped out to join a skinhead gang after one term... Anyway,” she added in a dignified tone, “I like Ukraine.”

“Even the Zone?”

“Especially the Zone. It's sad that there aren't any great artists here, painting its beauty.” Raising the luminous artifact before her, Olga let its cold light wash over her soft features. “All the people in this place think about is how they can exploit it, or how they must destroy it, or how none of their enemies can follow them into it... None of them know how to stop and just appreciate it.”

“And what of your old sponsors at the Ministry of Internal Affairs?” Tiger asked rhetorically. “They must send the Spetsnaz out here to kill us because we trample the pretty flowers.”

“Don't lump me in with those philistines,” Olga grumbled. “Oh, did you know there's an outfit down in Kiev that's making a video game about the stalkers? They're saying it'll be a big hit next year.”

“Good for them.” Tiger walked over to the open door and climbed out of the boxcar. “I want to get back to Duty ground before it's completely dark out.”

“Ah.” His onetime companion didn't hide her disappointment. “Hey, before you go – I can see you still feel pretty hurt about what happened, but... do you think it really would have turned out better if I'd stayed?”

“It doesn't matter.” The stalker in the long coat turned his back and began to walk away. “I don't need you any more.”

***

“Free stalkers! Veterans and brothers! Join Duty! Protecting the world from the Zone's evil is our common goal!”

There was a thunderstorm coming. The sky had clouded over, the air becoming dense with moisture. Soon those stalkers still afield would be running for shelter. The loudspeaker would keep playing its mix of Duty propaganda, advertisements for the Hundred Rads and worn-out recordings of Soviet radio dramas all night long, lightning or no lightning.

In the end, Olga had followed Tiger at a distance all the way back from the Wild Territory, a solitary pulse on the edge of his perception. Despite his harsh words, he couldn't bring himself to leave her completely behind. Instead he waited until she cleared the Duty checkpoint at the edge of Rostok's pacified half, then quickly shook her off by ducking into the maze of ladders, pipes and catwalks adjacent to Arnie's Arena. She'd given up looking for him after a couple of minutes and gone off to the bar, leaving Tiger to work undisturbed.

The late Worm's method of data security, it transpired, was to simply erase files as soon as he was finished with them: all that remained in his pocket computer's memory were a set of stash coordinates and three sound files. Fitting an audio bud into one ear, Tiger selected the first one and launched the onboard playback application.

“Worm, it's Drifter. You better not skip the pickup this time, man... Anyway, I got another marked stalker sighting for your collection. Razorback turned up dead at the Agroprom last week – seems he signed on with a band of neutrals who went to dig something up for the nerds, then gunned down all the other guys and blew his own cap off. A couple of our kind found the bodies and buried 'em out there. I managed to catch up with one of them in the Garbage, and he swore Razorback had the mystery tattoo. I asked around at the bar, but all I got was the usual story: Razorback took a hike north and vanished for a while. Next thing anybody knows, he's kaput... That probably doesn't help you much, but I thought I should pass it along. Mind bringing me up to date on how much we actually know about the mark?”

According to the date stamp on the file, this message had been recorded while Tiger and Leshiy were away dodging bullets in the Red Forest. Evidently Drifter had gotten the lowdown from Southpaw.

“Drifter, I screwed up. I took only one key to the Dark Valley, and it looks like the door won't open without both of them. The bandits caught me coming out: I got away, but I lost the key. We'll have to get it back from Borov somehow... Regarding your question, I still don't know what the stalker mark actually means. The mark itself is an ordinary tattoo – it's not magic ink or anything. There are a few definite facts in the data I've collected, however... First, there aren't any attested cases of living stalkers being found with the mark. Since it's only found on corpses, it must be applied shortly before each stalker's death or else the live ones deliberately hide it... Second, all the marked stalkers whose movements are known either went missing in the Red Forest or tried to get past the Scorcher. Most of them reappear as casualties in wrecked death trucks. The lucky ones quietly rejoin the community until they die in accidents... Third, the majority are free stalkers, specifically loners who don't belong to any band or gang and don't have friends who'd become suspicious... It looks like the marked ones may be infiltration agents, recruited somewhere north of the explored lands. Obviously that would mean the Monolith is involved. In any case, we still need more evidence. Keep following your leads: I'll check the drop point again in another day or two.”

Tiger found the idea simultaneously intriguing and disturbing. But how, he wondered, had Worm gathered the material he'd based his conclusions on? For how long had he been pursuing this? There being no immediate answers, the listener advanced to the final recording.

“Worm, I got your message. Sorry to hear things went bad in the Valley... I have some good news, for a change: that tip about a Clear Sky stash in the Cordon was right on the money. Unfortunately there are some bandits camped nearby, so I had to grab some documents and run away. From the stuff I did get, it looks like Lebedev and his buddies were chasing some guys who supposedly got past the Scorcher. There was also a note from Suslov, addressed to somebody called Nimble. Isn't there a guy by that name who works for Sidorovich? It might be worth pursuing... I'm leaving this in the usual place and going back to the perimeter for another try at the cache. The coordinates are attached.”

Going back to the text data, Tiger ascertained that the directions indicated a point on the eastern edge of the Cordon, among the scattered trees and boulders a little way north of the railroad embankment. His next move was obvious, but – as he was helpfully reminded by a rumble in the distance – it would have to wait until morning. Switching the PDA off, he packed up his things and went looking for a dry place to spend the night.

“Deadly anomalies! Dangerous mutants! Anarchists and bandits! None of them will stop Duty on its triumphant march towards saving the planet!”

***

Out of place scents greeted Tiger's nose when the southbound loner cleared the gated checkpoint at the perimeter area's farthest extremity. One was the stench of charred flesh, the other that of gasoline: somebody had either wrecked a vehicle or committed arson. Neither boded well, and the stalker's footfalls rang louder as he hustled down the road.

He found the explanation quickly: the mangled, smoldering remains of a four-wheel truck lay well off the pavement, not quite halfway from the checkpoint to the rail line. It didn't look like a military vehicle, and the long rips in the topsoil indicated that it had been traveling towards the bridge at the time of the crash. Drawing closer, Tiger made out the forms of bodies lying close to the wreck. They didn't look military either.

His stomach did a backflip. A death truck? Here? Now? The timing was most certainly a coincidence, but the loner couldn't help but throw a wary look behind himself. The gate at the checkpoint was closed with a padlock: someone else must have come through ahead of Tiger, unless the truck's driver had stopped to shut the gate behind him. Satisfied that he really was alone, the stalker carefully entered the crash site.

One of the truck's passengers had definitely been a stiff for some time. Though all of the bodies wore stalker suits, Tiger recognized none of the faces. There were no weapons or personal effects that he could see, and he didn't have the courage to physically touch the dead. He moved on, determined to find the stash and then make tracks for the neutral camp and Sidorovich as fast as he could.

***

“Nnngh!” Tiger reeled backwards, stumbled over a stone and fell on his ass. He barely registered the collision of his body with the ground, a trivial impact after those of the punches, the kicks and the threaded end of a pipe. His ribs, arms and cheek were throbbing, and now he could taste blood oozing around his teeth as well.

“Shrimp, that's enough.” Vasya Boar stepped forwards, hefting Tiger's AK. “On your feet.”

Tiger hadn't been so keenly aware of his own mortality in a long, long time. He picked himself up sluggishly, wiping impotently at the trickle of red on his chin. It used to be that the bandits would just take his money, maybe his artifacts – but today they'd taken everything: his guns, his detector, even his flashlight and binoculars! They didn't care that he'd never provoked them, that he always paid up front or that Friar owed him. Peace for our time, he thought bitterly. First Olga, then a death truck and now Borov's new regime.

“Good boy.” Vasya smirked under his balaclava. “Listen good, stalker. We already caught your shifty friend: he's lying facedown in the middle of an anomaly field.” The smirk widened to a leer. “So you're gonna go in there and get back what he took from the stash.” Turning, he tossed the assault rifle to one of his cronies. “Got some real classy shooters here... You two bring the goods to the boss. We'll catch up once this ass-face is taken care of.”

The encumbered bandits departed posthaste, leaving Vasya and Shrimp with the prisoner. “Okay, asshole,” Shrimp drawled. “Move it.”

It wasn't clear if the bandits knew about Tiger's ability, or if they were exploiting him simply because he was an expendable body. He decided to feign normality as they prodded him south and east, up the long slope to the train tracks. A sizable cluster of gravitational traps littered the hill, and among them a lone body could be seen. “That's him,” Vasya grunted. “Go on.”

Tiger didn't need any encouragement. He could feel the anomalies' deadly energy, as well as a couple of blips produced by artifacts drifting between them. Walking slowly, he zigzagged into the field – stooping here, edging sideways there. Impatient rookies would throw bolts to trip the anomalies, then clumsily dash past in the scant moments before they reset. It was their own fault they had to spend so much time trying to catch artifacts as the precious oddities ricocheted madly about.

One of the blips collided with Tiger's shin, manifesting itself as a Jellyfish. He quickly tucked the grayish lump into his thickest coat pocket and covered the last stretch without looking back, Southpaw's skeptical question echoing in his head: “What if you ran into somebody totally implacable, some kind of psycho who wanted to mess you up no matter what?”

Drifter had apparently been shot in the back and crawled several meters prior to expiring, and now he was cold and stiff. Gripping the fallen stalker's arm with care, Tiger turned him so that his gas mask faced the clouds and began to search his pockets. The papers from the stash were safe and dry, though creased by hasty folding. Flipping through the first few, the loner confirmed their identity before pocketing the lot. Having also claimed Drifter's PDA, he turned his attention to the problem of escape. The dead stalker's bandoleer was filled with stripper clips for an SKS, but the carbine itself wasn't with him. He must have dropped it before he wandered into the anomalies. His pistol was in its place, however, as were its magazines.

“Come on, shithead!” Vasya yelled. “Get back here!”

Bending swiftly, Tiger reached and pulled. The gun came out smoothly: a SIG-Sauer with worn edges and grimy masking tape around the grip. Ignoring the startled yell from Shrimp, the abused stalker turned, pointed and opened fire. A lucky bullet struck Shrimp in the arm, forcing him to drop his shotgun. He danced about, howling while his attacker turned the pistol on Vasya. The bandit veteran threw himself to the ground, evading the hasty shots and bringing up his own Skorpion. The entire magazine's contents whizzed overhead as Tiger tore the bandoleer from Drifter's body, slung it over his shoulder and ran.
  14:05:18  7 October 2009
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Do0mzday-Jesus
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This is awesome, man!
  14:57:41  7 October 2009
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snorkbait
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Nice work! Keep it coming.
  06:10:06  22 October 2009
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BobBQ
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Message edited by:
BobBQ
10/22/2009 6:16:43
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The Man From S.M.L.E.

Up the embankment Tiger ran, crossing the tracks, hopping the wire fence and tumbling down the much steeper south side in mere seconds. He'd forgotten what it was like to run without the weight of all one's essentials on board. Scrambling back onto his feet, he ducked past another gravity trap and took shelter in the shadow of the locomotive which sat there. Here was one of those wonders of the Zone: a boxy green diesel sitting perfectly upright as if some great force had carefully lifted it from the tracks, though its frame was warped and dented by years of exposure to violent anomalous energies.

The battered loner quickly assessed his ersatz hardware. The P220 was an old model, a nine millimeter with the magazine catch at the heel of the butt. He had two full magazines and one empty, giving him a total ammunition supply of eighteen cartridges. They were plain full metal jacket rounds, so he'd have to make each one count. Tiger reloaded, wincing when he inadvertently pinched a finger, and resumed his flight.

The stalker kept bearing south-southeast, passing over low hills sparsely dotted with trees, bushes and weak anomalies. Coming onto the dirt road from the tunnel which led to the Darkscape and Dark Valley, he followed it down the last slope and into the abandoned garage through which it ran. The garage was a dismal place: a few derelict cars and trucks left to rust among buildings with brick walls partially demolished by the ravages of time. It belonged to no faction, though loners and bandits alike were known to take shelter here.

Tiger sensed three others in the place, all gathered in the tall building on his left. He would have passed them by entirely, had he not stumbled across the seven dead bandits piled by the truck just inside the garage exit. Clearly he wasn't the only one having trouble with the Zone's criminal elements today. The neutral stalker listened for a few seconds, just in case those nearby were more individuals of the thieving persuasion, then moved in. “Hello..?”

“Hold it.” A hard-faced rookie with a sawed-off hunting shotgun appeared: Petruha, one of Wolf's scouts. “Oh, it's you,” he said curtly. “What do you want?”

“I was passing by,” Tiger replied innocently. “What's going on?”

“Bandits moved in last night,” Petruha explained. “At dawn they hit some of ours, killed two and took Nimble prisoner. We set up on the hill back there and watched for a while, then Wolf sent over some new guy to help get our man back. He told us he'd take out the bandits by himself – we figured he was crazy, but we let him go. Five minutes later, Nimble comes out. Five minutes after that, Rambo comes out with a sack of stuff he took off the bandits. Not a scratch on him... Now we're just keeping an eye on the place until some of the boys come back from the Garbage.”

“I see... Is Nimble back at the camp now?”

The scout shrugged. “Probably. If you want to know for sure, go ask Wolf and leave us be.”

“I will, thanks.” Tiger briefly looked around, evaluating the stalkers' defenses. “There are more bandits beyond the tracks. You should post a lookout.”

Petruha was already heading back to the campfire. “Yeah, we'll get to it.”

***

A brisk walk conveyed Tiger across the main road and down into the loner camp in the village. Ignoring the suspicious look cast by the novice standing guard at the entrance, he went straight to the communal fire pit. “You don't look so good,” Wolf declared when he arrived. “What happened?”

“Bandits,” Tiger answered shortly. “I need to see Nimble.”

“He's taking a nap,” said the camp leader. “Can it wait a bit?”

“Sure.” It wasn't as if he had much else to do. “By the way, who killed the bandits at the garage? Petruha wasn't feeling talkative.”

“Oh, you saw that? Pretty impressive, huh? Marked One cleaned 'em out fast.”

Tiger squinted. “Marked One?”

“You haven't heard about our grand mystery, have you? A corpse carrier had a smash-up coming down from the Garbage last night. Buzzard found a live guy in the wreckage and brought him in.”

Buzzard wore a long coat, carried a Vintorez and earned his name from the way he methodically searched the corpses of others for things of value. There were some who joked that he was a necrophiliac, but Tiger knew better. “I saw the death truck,” he replied, “and some bodies. Somebody actually survived that crash?”

Wolf nodded. “First time I've ever heard of it happening,” said he. “Damned creepy, if you ask me.”

“So who is the lucky man?”

“Nobody knows, not even himself – he's lost his memory.”

“Hm...” Obviously the stranger must bear the same tattoo which Worm had been so interested in, hence the nickname. This complicated things – how much, Tiger still couldn't say. “What does he look like? Maybe I know him.”

“Well, he's kind of scrawny and looks half-asleep most of the time. His hair is cut real short, with a receding hairline, but he doesn't seem that old...”

“I don't recognize that,” the loner admitted. “Where is he now?”

“Off running errands for Sidorovich. Try asking him.”

“All right.” Tiger resumed his walk. “When Nimble wakes up, tell him to wait for me.”

***

Sidorovich – it was the only name most of them knew him by – was something of a distasteful legend among the stalkers. Not because he'd found a cure for baldness and kept it to himself, or because he was never, ever seen leaving his bunker, but because he always managed to meet the terms of his agreements while leaving the other party feeling totally ripped off. He occupied a necessary niche in the Zone community, however, and he'd been occupying it for a long time. “So,” the trader rumbled, flicking stray crumbs off his vest as shrewd eyes appraised his visitor, “what's new, stalker?”

Tiger placed the SIG-Sauer, the SKS ammunition and the Jellyfish on the counter between the two. “I need a rifle.”

“You had a rifle,” Sidorovich pointed out. “What gives?”

“Vasya Boar and his friends took it.” A muscle in Tiger's face twitched at the memory. “And everything else. They also killed another stalker.”

Sidorovich didn't speak right away. “Well,” he said at last, “what do you want me to say? I hear the same from everyone nowadays – Borov's all but declared war on the free stalkers. Did you expect to be able to get by on your high-class manners forever?”

“It doesn't matter now,” said Tiger sharply. “Do you have one or not?”

“You think I get much demand for old stuff like that? The ones who buy shooters here all want fancy stuff – full auto, all the bells and whistles.” Sidorovich waved towards the customized Groza clamped to the workbench behind himself.

“I suppose I'll just have to look somewhere else,” the loner sighed. “See you la – ”

The trader raised a hand. “Not so fast,” said he. “As it so happens, I have one in stock... But it's a rare piece, and the value is, ahem, a little higher than what you brought in.”

“It's all I've got,” Tiger answered. “Any jobs you need done?”

“I'm not exactly short of help at the moment.” Sidorovich sat back in his chair. “Already got a gofer hard at work, you see.”

“I heard,” said Tiger bluntly. “You're taking advantage of the amnesiac from the death truck.”

“Now, now.” The fat man tried very hard to look more dignified and less greasy than he actually was. “It's an arrangement for mutual benefit: I want to open a path to the north and he wants to find Strelok, who's supposed to have already been there... You've heard the rumors about Strelok, I'm sure.”

“Yes.” Rumors were all anyone knew of the man, said to be an elusive veteran who worked the dangerous borderlands beyond the Zone's charted parts. “What does this Marked One want with him?”

“No idea,” Sidorovich admitted. “When he was brought in, all he had was a PDA. All that was on the PDA was a message: 'Kill Strelok.'”

“Huh.” Tiger opted to feign loss of interest. “So what do I have to do to get that rifle?”

“I suppose I can grant a one-time discount,” the trader grunted. “I mean, you've always been reliable in the past, and I like people who are reliable... But there's one condition.”

“Yes..?”

“Stop playing the knight-errant.” There was a loud scraping as Sidorovich pushed his chair back and stood up. “The next time you see a bandit, you blow his head off. Deal?”

Rarely had Tiger ever been so amenable to one of the old weasel's proposals. “Deal.”

“Good boy.” Sidorovich gathered the stalker's offerings and carried them into the back. He returned with a Lee-Enfield, the first Tiger had seen outside of a television screen or a museum display. “This came to me as a trade-in,” Sidorovich commented. “I don't know much about it, but I'm told the other side used 'em in Afghanistan. It's been reworked to fire our native ammo, so you won't be scrounging around for cartridges nobody's ever heard of.” He handed the old piece over the counter, followed by a small can of protective solution and a handful of loaded stripper clips. “There's a cleaning kit and an instruction sheet inside the butt. It should be enough to get you back on the road.”

“Thank you.” Tiger slung the rifle across his back, pocketed the small items and hustled out before the trader could retroactively modify the terms of their transaction. Time to find a cozy attic and hunker down for a while.

***

The instruction sheet turned out to be more like a booklet, rolled around a barrel brush and some other accessories and crammed into a narrow storage compartment. When Tiger finally wiggled it out of that recess, he additionally discovered that the illustrations were grainy and the text was a less than fluent translation. It was enough to get him acquainted with the features which his old Mosin didn't possess, including a detachable magazine, a flip-up aperture sight and an actual safety catch. Overall this seemed to be a solid – and heavy – piece of work, though the presence of a prominent U.S. PROPERTY stamp left the stalker scratching his head: wasn't it a British weapon?

He decided that wasn't important and turned his attention to the few items he'd snatched from Drifter's body. The PDA was no use – unlike Worm, Drifter had encrypted everything. Taking out the papers, he found that the first was a hastily written note: Nimble, it read, after you meet the courier, bring this material to the fallback point. Be quick, but be discrete. –Suslov

As the stalker unfolded the next document, two well-creased monochrome photograph prints fell out. The first image depicted part of the abandoned radar transmitter which lay to the north, in the unknown lands. Tiger recognized it easily, having driven past it many times in his former life, though he'd never been assigned to work on the actual site. Someone had circled a detail in the background with a blue felt-tip pen, labeling it with an arrow and a number, but the image quality was too poor to make out exactly what was significant there. The annotator had also scrawled a few words on the reverse. The letters were faded to the point of illegibility, but the three exclamation marks at the tail implied great importance.

The other photo was another matter. It showed a barren, parched landscape, thinly populated by dead bushes. A line of utility poles with power lines ran across the backdrop. Just to the left of center was a free-standing structure comprised of ribbed upper and lower hemispheres, held together by some kind of strut arrangement in a roughly spherical configuration, atop a cylindrical pedestal. The back of the picture bore another barely legible note: Same as at AES.

Tiger shivered, the pleasantly warm weather be damned. Though he had no idea what the object in the photograph was or where it was located, he knew one thing for certain: there were no such structures at the VI Lenin Atomic Electricity Station when he was on payroll, and there should be none there now. The implication that somebody had somehow constructed something at the nuclear plant in the six years since the second disaster deeply unsettled him.

Unsettled or not, he couldn't glean anything more from the pictures. He set them aside and went back to the papers from among which the images had appeared. The rest of Drifter's haul consisted of terse strings of text – neatly handwritten, unlike on the photos – which looked as if they had been jotted down as a record of numerous communications.

The story unfolded as Tiger read through them one by one: Marked One, whoever he really was, wasn't the first to chase the legendary Strelok. Clear Sky had been on his tail once, and they had come close to catching him. Their motive wasn't immediately clear, but Tiger gathered that they believed it was imperative that Strelok be prevented from reaching the center of the Zone. The record was frustratingly scant of specifics, with mercenary contracts, gigantic blowouts, the hunting of Strelok's friends and the existence of an alternate path to the north all being mentioned in the vaguest of terms.

Tiger read everything a second time, then put the documents away with care. Leaning back against the rough brick of the decaying house's chimney, he closed his eyes and gingerly felt his aching cheek. Every answer he uncovered seemed to spawn a dozen new questions to pursue. A part of him wished he could forget it all, leave this mystery behind and go back to his simple wanderer's life. Another part of him already understood that it was impossible to turn his back on the sacrifices of Worm and Drifter now, that greater things were at stake than he could have foreseen.

What now?

He was still pondering that question when a voice caught his ear several minutes later. “Hey Nimble,” one of the faceless rookies by the fireplace called, “whatcha got?”

“It's a reinforced jacket,” the man answered proudly. “A nice guy swiped it from a bandit stash for me. Sweet, huh?”

“Totally... It's bulletproof?”

“Sure is. Throw me a light, will you?”

“Nimble,” Wolf cut in, “I believe Tiger wanted to see you.”

“Oh? Where's he at?”

“Somewhere around camp. Wait a minute and he'll probably turn up.”

That was Tiger's cue. As he mounted the ladder which connected his perch to solid ground, the answer to his self-addressed question suddenly became crystal clear.

Go north.
  13:27:43  22 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Not much to say, but
  15:00:59  22 October 2009
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NATOguns
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On forum: 10/11/2008
Messages: 66
Very good! Keep it up!
Question though, are you going to follow the storyline in ShoC regarding the Marked One? You know he killing every one, and finding you know who to be a controllers bitch or is it going to be different?
  03:23:57  24 October 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
Question though, are you going to follow the storyline in ShoC regarding the Marked One?
---END QUOTATION---


Marked One will follow his path, and Tiger will follow another.
  00:10:26  25 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081

---QUOTATION---
Marked One will follow his path, and Tiger will follow another.
---END QUOTATION---



One thing I will say, Tiger's got a lot of interesting backstory still to come, I feel, and I like the way it's being revealed.
This is easily one of the best Stalker stories I've read.
  00:51:30  27 October 2009
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belizarius
Strelok Holmes
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/02/2009
Messages: 222
Awesome job creating this character , and the story line.
  03:20:06  4 December 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
The Devil in the Darkscape

(Thought it was dead, didn't you?)

“So tell me, what's up?” Nimble asked, waiting idly when Tiger arrived at the campfire.

“Just some questions.” Questions Tiger couldn't ask right then and there, of course. “Come over here, let's not bore the others.”

Nimble didn't suspect his secret was out, or else he had a great poker face. Either way, he followed Tiger to the derelict house at the far end of the right-hand row without comment. “That's better,” said the loner in the long coat, settling himself on a dilapidated mattress in the former living room. “First of all, I heard you had quite the adventure with the bandits.”

“Wasn't really my adventure,” the scout replied modestly. “I just got mixed up in it.”

“So you met the Marked One?”

“Just briefly... Nice guy, he was.” Nimble patted the front of his new chain-mail apparel. “He bailed me out, then he went and got this for me. I gave him a Stone Flower for it.”

“That was kind of him.” Tiger took Suslov's note out of his pocket and held it up for the other stalker to see. “Now, let's talk about your Clear Sky days.”

It wasn't a poker face after all. “...Where did you get that?”

“From the body of another bandit victim.”

Nimble's lean face seemed to retract into the hood of his jacket. “What do you know?”

“Enough to get you in trouble,” Tiger pronounced ominously, “though I'd rather not do that.”

“I... Why should I trust you?” Nimble swallowed. “You weren't one of us.”

“But I did work for you.” Tiger adopted a more imposing posture. “I know that during the faction wars Clear Sky was hunting a group of stalkers who reached the center of the Zone. I know Lebedev hired mercenaries to assassinate those stalkers, with partial success. I know some portion of Clear Sky's members tried to reach the center themselves... Your real problem is that I've only got part of what was in your stash: bandits took the rest, and you know perfectly well that Borov will exploit anything he can.” He folded his arms. “You can help me get a head start on him, or you can keep silent and let your comrades' work turn a profit for criminals. It's your call.”

Nimble glared at the floor. “What's in it for you if I talk?”

“I don't know,” Tiger admitted. “But if this information stays in the wrong hands, it could restart the faction wars or worse... I prefer the Zone we have now.”

Nimble weighed his choices for three or four minutes. “I can't tell you much,” the fake rookie said at last. “It's the truth, honest. Lebedev compartmentalized everything, 'cause he was paranoid about deserters.”

“I'll take what I can get,” Tiger responded gamely. “Why didn't you clean out the stash as you were ordered?”

“The courier got wasted before I could meet him. Where was the stuff?”

“In a buried pipe near the tracks, apparently.”

Nimble slouched against the wall. “Should have known.”

“This happened while Clear Sky was breaking up,” Tiger extrapolated. “How many actually went north?”

“Almost everybody, except a few guards and some of us scouts. When they didn't come back, Cold and Suslov tried to hold things together... Then people started dying.”

“In the fighting?”

“That's what we thought at first.” Nimble shook his head. “We were being hunted. Somebody knew all our meeting points, all our passwords, even most of our faces. One of our own guys must have sold us out... After that courier was killed, I figured I'd be next. Getting cozy with Sidorovich probably saved my butt, even if it emptied my pockets.” There was a rueful chuckle. “Right here with him and Wolf was the safest place I could find without joining one of the big factions.”

“I see.” Tiger stretched his legs out. “Do you think it's safe now?”

“I did until you came.” The fugitive smirked self-mockingly. “I haven't tried to find any of the others or checked any of the old places. I'd just be a target, right?”

“Maybe... Can you tell me anything more about the route Lebedev took?”

“I only knew it ran through Limansk and then some kind of buried hospital. I wasn't involved in any of that.”

“So what were you doing?”

“Trying to cover the other scouts' backs, finding safe paths, making sure nobody got killed by crossfire.” Nimble grimaced. “The worst part was right at the beginning, when renegades invaded the marshes... We were almost bottled up in the base before a couple of the fellas brought in a freelance merc they found out on the border.”

“A mercenary?”

“Yeah. Never got his name, but he had this scar on his face... Anyway, Lebedev made a deal with him and he became our brute force in the field.”

That piqued Tiger's interest. “I was near the Army Warehouses when Freedom took over,” he mused, recalling those stressful days with great distaste. “A mercenary with a scar helped them clear out the military.”

“That was him,” Nimble confirmed. “After Limansk was opened up, he went in with Lebedev and the rest. Never heard anything else about him.”

“I would expect not,” said Tiger gravely. “The fallback point in Suslov's note, where was that?”

“In the Dead City. We didn't actually have anything there, but the other factions mostly ignored the place. The plan was that if our base were overrun, we'd retreat to the city and recover... I never tried to go, though, so I don't know who made it.”

The stripe-haired stalker frowned. “If the courier's load was meant to go to the Dead City, why pass it to you? Where was he going, if not north?”

“He was going to the Darkscape.” Nimble wiggled his fingers under his hood and scratched. “Suslov bought some guns from Chekhov, cash up front, but Freedom wouldn't deliver 'em to the marshes.”

“There aren't many good hiding places in the Darkscape, are there?”

“That's what I thought,” Nimble agreed. “We had one place where we would store rations when we went on long patrols – maybe they just put the goods in there.”

“Where was that?”

“In the village... We hid things under the junk in the cellars, but it's probably all gone by now.”

“Hm.” Tiger cocked his head. “I visited your old base and it's been gutted. Do you know of any other stashes or meeting points?”

“Nope... Some of the guys had personal stashes for spare weapons and stuff, but that was private info.”

“And you know nothing else?”

“Nothing useful. It's all out of date now.”

“All right.” Tiger pushed himself onto his feet. “I think that's enough.”

Nimble looked pretty relieved to hear it. “Hey, uh... If you do find any of the others, don't tell them about me, okay?”

Tiger shrugged. “If that's what you want.”

“Thanks... You can have whatever's in the stash, too. Just don't let it lead back to me.”

The loner nodded, and led the way back to the campfire. “All done,” he said to Wolf. “I'll be leaving now.”

Wolf blinked. “Just like that? You still look like shit.”

“I know,” Tiger replied with a shade of wry humor, “but I have urgent business and time doesn't owe me any favors.”

“Gotcha.” The camp leader nodded. “See you around.”

The sun was beginning to sink in the sky as Tiger departed, a raft of clouds massing to the north. He crossed the main road, passed through the garage – noticing as he went that Petruha still hadn't posted a proper sentry – and followed the eastbound dirt track until it vanished into the tunnel mouth at the top of the hill overlooking the recently occupied ruins.

***

The Darkscape's name was apt: it was a sinister place, unpopular among the free stalkers. Its sparse anomalies offered no better artifact hunting than the Cordon, and it lacked the convenience of that region's proximity to both the porous perimeter and the more lucrative prospecting grounds of the Garbage. If Tiger kept following the road as it passed due east through a shallow, wooded canyon, he would eventually come to a crossroads. The road past there had been blocked by avalanches during the early Zone's violent expansion, as had the southbound road. Were he to turn north at the junction, his path would take him near a derelict village and into a narrow ravine. The railroad track which ran along the north fringe of the marshes and bisected the Cordon also crossed through here, briefly emerging from long tunnels where the ravine was spanned by a badly damaged bridge. The road below curved back towards the west beyond the bridge, after which it ran straight up to the Dark Valley.

Tiger had been here not long ago, when he joined Fanatic and Clumsy in checking out the scene of a government helicopter crash. That trip brought him no great profit, but the knowledge update saved him time now. He left the road, weaving among the trees on its north side to conceal himself from whatever bandits were in the place now. Borov's ambition for the Darkscape was to use it as a base for raiders preying on the Cordon's residents. It was fortunate for Tiger that he didn't yet have enough thugs to pull that off.

Just a minute – where were the thugs? For that matter, where were the blind dogs, the misshapen pigs and the rest of the mutant fauna? Whatever its other features, the Darkscape was never short of animals. Tiger listened, but heard nothing save the wind in the trees. He sniffed, but smelled nothing save the same. His sixth sense detected only a couple of crows high above. This wasn't normal: he wondered if Borov was trying to improve his gang's discipline by organizing hunting trips, or perhaps the Ministry of Internal Affairs had sent out a gunship to strafe a few herds for the entertainment of some dignitary. It wasn't a good expenditure of hryvni by any stretch, but it did happen. The cause remaining undetermined, Tiger's wariness increased with every step as he traversed the woods.

Boom!

A shotgun blast ahead sent the stalker diving behind the nearest rock. So it's Peculiarities of the Gangster Hunt after all? he thought, easing the Lee-Enfield's safety forwards with his thumb. A second report let him get a fix on the shooter.

Then he heard a panicked shout: “Eaaargh! Get away, you freak!” Tiger rolled out of cover, scrambled back onto his feet and hustled towards the village. That was no bandit, and he didn't sound like a military man either. The hustle became a sprint as the loner took a shortcut through a leafy thicket, exploding out of the far side in a shower of dislodged twigs.

In front of him was the village, with the only intact house directly ahead. There was a figure in a green stalker suit perched atop the roof, who turned at the noise of the other's arrival. It was his old friend Southpaw. “Tiger!?” he yelled. “Look out, there's a huge monster down there!”

Tiger could feel only one major source of vital energy beside Southpaw's own. It seemed to lie within a jumbled pile of rotted timbers which marked the former site of another cottage away on his left. “Are you alone?”

“Yeah!”

“Got it!” Tiger aimed, but the heap of flotsam flew asunder almost at the instant he pulled the trigger. He glimpsed a flash of bloodstained brown hide as he chambered another round, then the beast was gone. Running around the side of the house, the stalker caught a brief sight of the fleeing predator's haunches as it escaped up the path to the northward road. There was no chance of landing a shot, so he cautiously withdrew to the house.

“It got away.” The left-handed loner sounded relieved and disappointed at the same time.

“Yes,” Tiger agreed. “Are you all right?”

“Mostly... There's nothing else around, is there?”

“Nothing. We're alone.”

“I hope so.” Southpaw gingerly climbed down to the roof's edge, then dropped to the ground. “Aw shit,” he groaned, seeing the condition of his suit. “I just bought this thing...”

Tiger didn't think the damage was severe enough to merit such despair. “What were you doing here?” he asked, topping off his rifle's magazine in the meantime.

“I met a Duty team up in the Dark Valley, thought I could go prospecting while they kept the crooks busy... But then I found a bunch of dead bandits on the road coming down, all ripped apart. I was trying to figure out what happened and...” Southpaw shuddered. “That thing was behind me the whole time.”

“It chased you all the way here?”

“Yeah... I knew it was close, but I couldn't see it. Used up all my buckshot trying to keep it away.” He looked around nervously. “At first I thought it was a bloodsucker, but it didn't fit what I've heard of them.”

“I didn't get a clear view of it,” said Tiger. “Did you?”

“A little. It moved on four legs and had two heads... The faces on them – ugh!”

That was enough detail. “A chimera.” Tiger's voice was solemn. “This is bad.”

“You know about them?”

“I've never seen a live one before,” the stalker confessed, “or heard of one coming so close to the perimeter.”

Southpaw's mood wasn't improved by the elucidation. “What should we do?”

“Duty needs to know about this,” Tiger answered. “A chimera isn't like the mutants we normally see here: it's strong, fast and cunning. It has two brains and two hearts, so even a sniper can't easily kill it. Do you have a radio?”

“I did, but I dropped it while I was running.”

“Then we'll have to go back for it, or else warn Duty in person. How many of them are in the Valley?”

Southpaw thought for a moment. “I saw five or six, but none of them had big guns... There were some free stalkers at the pig farm, too.” His alarmed expression was renewed. “If that thing goes up there – ”

“They would be dead before we ever arrived,” Tiger finished bluntly.

“Or it might hide along the road and wait for us instead,” Southpaw went on. “But that's fine if you're here,” he declared brightly, “because you're a... I mean... You have a special power, right?”

“I don't know what you've heard,” Tiger sighed, “but I'm not a wizard. More importantly, I don't have the firepower to take out a chimera.”

Southpaw was plainly upset at his reluctance. “You wanna just let those guys fend for themselves, man?”

“Not if I can help it.” The more experienced stalker walked over to the skeleton of a half-fallen house, weighing his options. He didn't really want to get involved, not when he had his own quest to follow, but as usual his altruistic streak won out. “Do you remember where you lost your radio?”

“I think so.”

“All right, then listen – I heard an extinct faction had an arms cache somewhere in these ruins. I was coming to check it out when I found you... If it exists, we might find what we need in it.”

“A cache?” Southpaw looked around expectantly. “Where?”

“Under junk in the cellars, that's what I was told.” Tiger slung his rifle. “Let's search quickly. If the chimera returns, we won't stand a chance.”
  14:14:31  4 December 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Didn't think it was dead, but I hadn't realized it hadn't been updated in so long!
Good addition - even if I did have to go back quite a way to 'get' it all again.
  06:36:43  16 December 2009
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BobBQ
2007-2017
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
I hadn't realized it hadn't been updated in so long!
---END QUOTATION---


Hopefully the next one won't take so long, holiday season be damned. In the meantime, have some spoiler-free hint soundbites:

"At Duty, we always pay our debts."

"What are you, deaf? What are you here?"

"Goddammit, Anton!"
  13:31:44  16 December 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
I'm having to try to get stuff done before 23rd, because I know after that I'll be lucky to type ten words without interruption until about Jan. 5th.

Looking forward to the next part. This really is one of the best stories, IMO.
(Although I think we may have characters in the same geographical area - your 'Darkscape village' seems to be the same 'unknown' place my thieves have holed up...except for me it was just a small-holding. Ambiguity is good, though. The area is unknown as it is 'off-limits' in-game. Plenty of scope.)
  13:14:54  21 December 2009
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Hazapuza
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/27/2008
Messages: 73
God damn... I haven't really read much of the stories here, but this is something totally different than most of the writings. Just make sure you finish this, so we can all praise it properly.

There's surely lots of surprises to come, but care to tell, are you aiming to connect all the loose ends between (and in) CS and SoC your own way, or is it "just a minor coincidence" that you've been solving these mysteries along the story?
  10:20:02  10 January 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
There's surely lots of surprises to come, but care to tell, are you aiming to connect all the loose ends between (and in) CS and SoC your own way, or is it "just a minor coincidence" that you've been solving these mysteries along the story?
---END QUOTATION---


Hmm... I'd honestly have to say it's probably some of both.

A Debt to Duty

“Tiger, I've got something here.” There was a clatter as Southpaw pushed aside several pieces of decayed wood. “Plastic crates of some kind... Looks like they're sealed pretty tight.”

Tiger climbed out of the wreckage he had been investigating and crossed over to Southpaw's section. “I don't see any damage,” he remarked, looking over the dull green rectangles. “Can you get that open?”

“Doesn't seem to have a lock.” Southpaw bent over one of the containers, inspecting it closely. “I guess this just lifts up and then... Aha!” He drew the lid back with care, revealing a row of neatly packed rifles. “Huh.” Evidently Tiger wasn't alone in expecting the ordnance to be... newer. “What are these?”

“Some kind of Mauser.” Tiger lifted one of the weapons out of the crate. A cursory inspection revealed a model number and an apparent factory name stamped in Cyrillic, plus a prominent crest atop the receiver ring. “I think it's Yugoslavian.”

“Is it good?”

“No rust.” Tiger opened the bolt and inspected the magazine interior, sniffing curiously. “It's coated in some sort of synthetic preservative.” A few moments of fumbling led to the bolt's removal. “The bore looks new.”

“That's encouraging.” Southpaw went to the next crate. “Let's try this one.”

***

The two stalkers emerged from the derelict village perhaps eight minutes later, having improved their odds of survival as best they could. Everything in the cache had turned out to be products of Yugoslavia or one of its successor states, perfectly preserved despite lying forgotten all through the winter. Southpaw opted to take one of the Mausers from the first crate, plus a Kalashnikov with a folding rifle grenade sight. Tiger meanwhile chose a short-barreled, folding-stock version of the latter to back up his Lee-Enfield. The rest of the inventory was repacked and camouflaged as before, left to rest until someone came back for it.

“This is a little better,” Southpaw said optimistically, “but shouldn't we bring something for the others?”

“There was nothing that would give them a definite advantage,” Tiger replied, “and Duty might confiscate the extra weapons for use against Freedom. We'd best not say anything about it unless there's an urgent need.”

“You like Freedom better?”

“I like having a balance of powers.” Tiger started to walk faster as the pair came back onto the northbound road. “We've lost enough time here – come on.”

There wasn't much to say after that. Tiger took point as they worked their way into the ravine, following the dark splashes of blood left by the retreating mutant. The clouds overhead thickened, a lone crow appearing above the loners. It would probably be raining again by nightfall.

“There's the bridge,” said Southpaw as the mangled trestle came into view. “I'm pretty sure I dropped the radio somewhere between here and there.”

“Which side were you running on?”

“Uh... I kind of zigzagged.”

“Then you take the left and I'll take the right.” Tiger altered his own path accordingly. “By the way, Southpaw, was the radio powered on?”

“Yeah, it was – I figured I'd keep an ear open in case any trouble came up in the Valley. The battery was almost full when I started out, so it was probably around eighty percent when I lost it.” He looked at Tiger curiously. “Can you, you know... feel it?”

“Maybe,” the man in the long coat hedged. “I'm not a metal detector.”

“So how did you, um...”

“I can't explain how it happened.” The hooded stalker stopped for a second, then strode across the road. “This must be yours,” he said, bending to pick up a handset in a rubberized housing.

“Wow... That was fast.”

“It was in plain sight,” said Tiger modestly.

“Lucky for us.” Southpaw flicked stray bits of dirt off the radio and brought it closer to his face. “Let's see... Southpaw calling Vampire, come in Vampire. Over.”

There was a delay of several seconds, and then a crackling reply. “Vampire here, over.”

“Phew,” the left-handed man whispered to his companion. “Uh... Vampire, be advised that there is a, uh, chimera in the vicinity. It's wounded and might be heading your way, over.”

“Yeah, we know. We saw it run past the farm and up towards the north end of the Valley. We're still waiting to hear from the Duty guys, over.”

“They weren't with you? Over.”

“The men in black were spying on Borov's base... Say, you mind coming over here? We need all the backup we can get, over.”

“Uh...” Southpaw looked at Tiger, but he remained quiet. “My buddy and I will be there in a little while, over.”

“We'll keep an eye out for you... Vampire out.”

“So Vampire is in the Dark Valley today,” Tiger remarked as the duo resumed their trek. “How many are with him this time?”

“Six or seven, I think... Why, something wrong about that?”

“Vampire has a bad reputation,” the more experienced stalker explained. “He prefers to join small groups raiding the badlands, but he's often the only one who comes back.”

“You mean... what, that he skips out on his comrades if they get into trouble? That he murders them?”

Tiger shrugged. “I don't know,” he admitted. “Better be careful around him, just in case.”

“He seemed okay when I passed by,” Southpaw mused, “but if you say so.”

They reached the bodies a couple of minutes later. A sticky mess was all that remained of the bandits, and nothing of theirs could be salvaged. There wasn't much left to bury either, not that Tiger and Southpaw had the time or the inclination to do so. “It's weird,” the latter observed, picking his way between detached limbs. “If that thing could take out all these guys, why run away from one man?”

Tiger could think of only one explanation. “It must have realized it couldn't hide from me.”

“You weren't kidding when you said it was smart.” Southpaw shook his head. “Man... nobody on the outside told me there were monsters like that.”

“Would you still have become a stalker if you had known?”

“I wonder...”

***

“It's too quiet.” Southpaw peered nervously at the barricaded ruins of the pig farm. “They're inside, right?”

“Yes.” Advancing slowly, Tiger led the way through the gate and approached the closest door of the west building. “Hello..?”

The unfriendly end of a silenced MP5 appeared between the crates stacked inside the entrance, accompanied by a camouflage-painted face. “About time,” Vampire grunted. The submachine gun disappeared. “Sergeant Bullet, our reinforcements are here.”

Vampire was joined by a Duty man in a balaclava as he began to drag the crates aside. “You, stalker,” he demanded of Southpaw, “what happened?”

“The chimera, it... It killed all the bandits in the Darkscape. It would have gotten me too, but then he showed up.”

“We shot at it and it fled,” Tiger concluded. “Did you see it also?”

“All too well,” Bullet growled. “The damned thing plowed straight into us and alerted the criminals with its howling... There were bullets flying everywhere. Brome dropped his weapon and ran away, and then I was separated from the others and had to withdraw. The chimera kept going – I wouldn't be surprised if it reached Monolith territory.”

“Better there than here,” Southpaw declared. “So what do we do now?”

“Brome, get up.” Bullet disappeared briefly, reappearing with a firm grip on the collar of a second, thoroughly miserable Dutyer. “You two, take this fool back to Rostok. Tell Voronin that Sergei, Vasko and Krivoi are missing.” He hefted his Abakan. “I'm going to stay here and reconnoiter the criminals' territory.”

Tiger looked around, estimating the rate of dusk's approach. “Let's hope the bandits aren't doing the same.”

“I can escort you as far as the path to the Garbage,” Bullet offered brusquely. “You shouldn't have any trouble past there.”

***

These last few days, as some historian once wrote, had been one damned thing after another. Tiger wasn't getting very far in his quest and that fact was starting to annoy him. A supply of pristine ordnance was all very well, but it was information he wanted. His first lead on Clear Sky's secrets hadn't paid off, and now he was left with two options: find someone who could crack the encryption on Drifter's PDA and keep quiet about it, or go try his luck in the Dead City. Neither option was likely to be fish-in-a-barrel, but where could he look for an alternative?

He had more immediate concerns, too – this was the second time in a month that he'd found himself stuck with the unenviable task of delivering bad news to a faction leader, and there was no question that Voronin wouldn't take it as kindly as Lukash. With the lights of Rostok shining dead ahead and the pending rainstorm unwilling to hang back much longer, the stalker knew he might well be in for a rough night.

The Duty personnel guarding the south entrance to the factory complex hit the trio with a portable spotlight as they crossed the bridge over the stake-lined perimeter trench. It wasn't much of a defense, though it did restrict the larger mutants to one easily covered intrusion vector. “Brome!” a voice demanded from behind the blinding beam. “What are you doing here?”

“Is that you, Sergeant Kitsenko?” Tiger called in reply. “Bullet sent us to report to the general.”

“Bullet, you say? Come over here.” The NCO kept the spotlight trained on the arrivals until they were close enough to illuminate with his comrades' personal headlamps. “Brome, where's your shooter?”

Brome studied his boots intently. “...Lost it.”

“You lost it,” Kitsenko repeated incredulously. “Go straight to headquarters,” he commanded Tiger and Southpaw. “I'll call ahead and tell them you're coming.”

“Thanks,” said Southpaw, and the three marched on. “I've never been in the Duty base,” he remarked as they passed Arnie's Arena. “Have you?”

“A few times.” Only when they absolutely couldn't keep me out, Tiger didn't add. The guards at the entrance to Duty's exclusive piece of Rostok let the visitors pass without hassle, though not without a smattering of wary glances. Tiger led the way into an underground area where several more were sleeping, while a pair tended to the spit-roasting of a pig. The walls were decorated with the mounted heads or whole stuffed carcasses of various mutants.

Over all of this presided General Voronin. He was ex-military through and though: a demanding leader with a stern face and a receding hairline, and a far cry from his easygoing predecessor Krylov. “Are you dumb?” he snapped at those who intruded into his domain. “Speak up!”

Tiger and Southpaw looked at one another, then delivered their report as concisely as possible. It proved to be the winning strategy, as Voronin looked very, very unhappy by the time they had finished.

“I see,” he said, his voice terrifyingly calm. “Thank you for bringing Bullet's message... Are you two looking for work?”

“I am,” Southpaw volunteered gingerly.

“Petanko?”

Tiger tried not to wince. “...At the moment, yes.”

“Good.” The general's voice warmed ever so slightly. “We are hiring some stalkers for an important job,” he went on. “If you're interested, go to the Hundred Rads. One of my men will be over in a little while.”

“We'll do that,” Southpaw answered promptly, in an apparent maneuver of preemptive appeasement. “Um...”

“Yes?”

The left-handed loner pointed to the chimera heads mounted on a plaque nearby. “How'd you kill that?”

“With a Simonov anti-tank rifle. Any other questions?”

“No, sir... C'mon, Tiger, let's go.”

Voronin barely waited for them to leave his sight before he began verbally tearing Brome a whole new plumbing system. The departing stalkers all but sprinted out of the base.

***

“Since you saved my butt, I'm buying.” Southpaw went to the bar and rested an elbow on it. “Evening, Barkeep.”

“Evening,” the tattooed man grunted. “What'll it be?”

“I'd like a fresh loaf, a Tourist's Delight and a can of the fizzy stuff.” Southpaw looked to Tiger for input. “And you?”

“The same but with a sausage, please.”

“Right.” Barkeep deftly exchanged edibles for spendables. “Enjoy.”

Southpaw rejoined Tiger at the corner table and attacked his food without more ado. “We did all right today, eh? Found some good stuff, got away from that mutant... What are you gonna do with the loot, anyway?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Hm... Hey look, it's the American president.”

Tiger glanced at the television behind the bar. “So it is.”

“What's he saying?”

The striped stalker listened for a few seconds. “I can't quite follow... Something about a Baltic trade agreement.”

Southpaw was poised to say something else when Brome stumbled into the bar. He looked as if he'd taken a heavy blow, though not necessarily a physical one. Ignoring the stalkers who'd escorted him back to base, he bought a large bottle of vodka, set himself up at the center table and set about drowning his sorrows.

“My ex went to the United States once.” Tiger wasn't sure what prompted him to bring that up – anything to distract himself from watching the despondent Dutyer, maybe. “Three months, under some sort of technical exchange.”

“Really?” There was a soft hiss as Southpaw popped the lid of his soda can. “What was it like?”

“She told me the food was inedible, the drivers were cowards, and half the people thought the Zone is in Russia.”

“Hope she straightened 'em out.” Taking out a pocket can opener, the sinistral stalker opened his portion of preserved meat-stuffs and began spreading it on his remaining bread. “Gotta defend our national pride, right?”

“Not her. She was Russian herself.”

“Oh.” Southpaw took a bite of his bread-and-spread and chewed it briefly. “Didn't think you were the type to go for Russians.”

“I don't see how it matters.” Tiger peeled back the wrapper on his sausage. “We speak their language and we do our business with their money.” He nodded towards the patrons gathered around the tables on the other side of the room. “How many of our comrades there have ever held a Ukrainian passport?”

“Yeah, that's true.” Another pause to bite, chew and swallow. “Sometimes my old man gets sentimental about the Soviet days, says people didn't have much back then, but they had each other... One big happy family and all that.”

“My father voted for independence,” Tiger recalled, “but it was never something he talked about when I was around.”

The conversation was punctuated by an impatient bark from Zhorik the doorman: “I said, come in! Don't stand there!”

As the stalkers continued to eat and drink, the latest entrant made his way into the Hundred Rads with quite a bit of wheezing, panting and stumbling. His next victim was Garik. “You can't go there!”

“Wow,” Southpaw muttered, looking over Tiger's shoulder. “What's up with that guy?”

Tiger turned his head as the intruder finally reached the bar. The man was thin to the point of being gaunt, with weary eyes and hair cut close to the scalp, and he wore a bulging backpack with a paratrooper AK slung on one side and a sawed-off shotgun on the other. He carried a second backpack and a bandit's knapsack – complete with a sloppily embroidered marijuana leaf – in his hands.

If Barkeep was surprised by this grotesquely overloaded figure, he didn't show it. “Hey, Marked One! You brought the documents from the Institute?”
  18:48:41  10 January 2010
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NATOguns
(Senior)
 
On forum: 10/11/2008
Messages: 66
Bandit:Come here I have some information that might be of use to you stalker.
Tiger: ....
Marked One: Tell me what you got.
Bandit: Nothing right now.
Tiger: ....
Marked One: ....
Bandit: Come he...
Marked One: ... Bang ...

In any case really good story keep it up!
  05:43:13  16 January 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081

---QUOTATION---
Bandit:Come here I have some information that might be of use to you stalker.
Tiger: ....
Marked One: Tell me what you got.
Bandit: Nothing right now.
Tiger: ....
Marked One: ....
Bandit: Come he...
Marked One: ... Bang ...

In any case really good story keep it up!
---END QUOTATION---



lol!

Good addition. There's a real sense of the Zone in this story that makes it feel like a true extension of, and from, the game. It's a good mix of the familiar and the...umm...'fictional'.
  21:17:34  26 January 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

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

 

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

The Secrets We Keep

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

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

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

“Yeah? Let's see what you've got...”

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

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

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

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

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

“Otter, probably.”

“Really? What happened?”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“That's right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More or less.”

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

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

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

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

“Uh, Tiger...”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Tiger concurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The usual stuff, then. Got it.”

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

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

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

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

“I will... Thank you.”

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

Friend...

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Damn it!

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

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

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

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

“I don't. Why would you think I do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No kidding. What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He went to sleep without resolving any of these questions.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody spoke.

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

Nobody moved.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Swamp Safari: The Second Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anomalies?”

“Clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem,” Anatoly replied crisply.

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

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

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

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

“First on the right,” Tiger replied.

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

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

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

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

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

Bang! Boom! Kerblam!

Bandicoot flung himself into the breach. “GO!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which way?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you tell me anything about them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing,” the girl confirmed.

“How many were there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were no answers to the affirmative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too,” Southpaw added.

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

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

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

“No, it's fine. Why?”

“Just checking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably.”

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

“Someone's coming.”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gosha was already there. “Bloodsuckerrrrrrrs!”
  18:35:38  25 February 2010
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Hazapuza
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/27/2008
Messages: 73
Oh fuck yes. This is just too good, easily one of the best descriptions of combat I've ever read. Keep up the wonderful job.
  02:56:48  26 February 2010
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Vartuoosi
(Novice)
 
On forum: 01/31/2009
Messages: 20
Awesome story indeed. Well written and very intriguing. Keep those updates coming!
  06:08:26  28 February 2010
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Do0mzday-Jesus
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
Awesome! Gotta love the sound of an M60.
  06:21:48  28 February 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Thanks for the support, everyone. And for those who don't read Know Your Builds...

http://img685.imageshack.us/img685/3974/ssnat012810185252redfor.jpg
http://img25.imageshack.us/img25/6808/ssnat012810185306redfor.jpg
  01:36:17  11 March 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Good as always.
  05:34:30  11 March 2010
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Zugbarrh
Veteran
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/01/2009
Messages: 883

---QUOTATION---
Thanks for the support, everyone. And for those who don't read Know Your Builds...

http://img685.imageshack.us/img685/3974/ssnat012810185252redfor.jpg
http://img25.imageshack.us/img25/6808/ssnat012810185306redfor.jpg
---END QUOTATION---



what mod is that, im just curious, oh and very nice I like it, keep writing

Zug
  05:53:15  11 March 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
what mod is that, im just curious
---END QUOTATION---


The swamp marauders' uniform is based on a pair of textures I found in the files of Clear Sky's alpha build 3120, apparently intended for a cut US Special Forces faction. I put them into the final version of Clear Sky as alternate mercenary costumes, since the vanilla mercs have less variety than they did in Shadow of Chernobyl.

(This should in no way be construed as a hint towards the marauders' identity.)
  14:56:02  11 March 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
"Fukkin Rooshins" = British Mancunian?
  21:18:03  11 March 2010
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SetaKat
Ex modder, Zones only ferret and will someday release a game
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 02/20/2010
Messages: 6340
Keep up the good work. I usually can't be bothered to read through 7 pages of posts, but this story was so good it just sucked me in. Can't wait for the next chapter.
  22:35:44  11 March 2010
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HL2 Master
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 06/28/2008
Messages: 271

---QUOTATION---
what mod is that, im just curious
The swamp marauders' uniform is based on a pair of textures I found in the files of Clear Sky's alpha build 3120, apparently intended for a cut US Special Forces faction. I put them into the final version of Clear Sky as alternate mercenary costumes, since the vanilla mercs have less variety than they did in Shadow of Chernobyl.

(This should in no way be construed as a hint towards the marauders' identity.)
---END QUOTATION---



Those are pretty cool.

Keep up the good work on this story!
  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
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---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!
  06:22:50  27 June 2010
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Dabur - Stalker
Dabur
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 06/20/2010
Messages: 601
encouragement

hi ,

nice thread , well one can expect only good work from you P

if only there would a ' subscribe to this thread ' on the forums , ....

so many links on the desktop , ...

you should give your ideas if they are going to build another stalker game , .... !

keep it going , its 5 in the morning local and still reading , thanks to you bob sleep has not come , ....

thanks for your work !

have a great day
  19:47:27  8 July 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
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.”

“So, um...”

“Yes, Dmitri?”

“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.”

“Chinese?”

“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!”
  22:42:48  8 July 2010
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HL2 Master
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 06/28/2008
Messages: 271
YAY FINALLY!
  06:52:54  27 September 2010
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Do0mzday-Jesus
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
More!
  20:44:28  27 September 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
What, people are still reading this?

Next chapter's about one-third finished. It's been slow going.
  22:51:13  27 September 2010
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 1825
*patiently continues waiting while munching on a diet sausage helping it on the way with some Cossacks*
  17:58:36  2 October 2010
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Hazapuza
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/27/2008
Messages: 73
Sure as hell we're still reading this. You should be ashamed for doubting it.
  04:15:44  17 October 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Still working. I've made some revisions to the long-term plan for the story: it's going to be a bit shorter, but with more cool stuff along the way.
  02:29:10  20 October 2010
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dayvour
(Novice)
 
On forum: 10/18/2010
Messages: 4
Tiger Stripes

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.
  09:17:23  27 October 2010
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-=Grunt=-
Cake Muncher
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 01/08/2009
 

Message edited by:
-=Grunt=-
10/27/2010 9:17:45
Messages: 4114
I just read your story, (Well.. I was at half-way a month or two ago, this time I read from start to the last chapter haha) waiting for more.
  02:15:22  9 November 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
It's been four months since I updated and this chapter is still two pages short.

FFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU
  14:11:01  9 November 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081

---QUOTATION---
It's been four months since I updated and this chapter is still two pages short.

FFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU
---END QUOTATION---



Take a deep breath and tell yourself...so what, as long at it gets done eventually.

I know it's not easy to keep going. Performance anxiety (of sorts) can set in because you want to keep the standard up, and you worry over whether you can. You may also want to improve it. Don't try; it'll just look forced and will have the opposite effect to what you intend.
Your story is good. The next part will be good. The part after that will be good, all the way to the end. Have confidence and faith in that. The readers you've hooked will stay with this because they want to know how it all turns out; they (we) are enjoying the ride. Don't sweat it.

And having said all that, I'm off to see if I can practice what I preach...
  15:18:37  9 November 2010
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Do0mzday-Jesus
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
I'll definitely keep reading this until the end.
  01:33:43  10 November 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
11/10/2010 4:55:55
Messages: 3336
I stayed up until six AM trying to beat this sucker into shape. Enough is enough!

The Battle Ground Cannot Be Changed

“It's a trap!”

Olga dove to the ground, while Tiger dropped onto one knee. Both went for their rifles. “Anton,” the woman hissed as the strangers raised their own weapons, “get down!”

“Don't shoot!” One of the intruders threw up his hands. “Hold your fire, we're on the same side!”

“They're mercs!” Southpaw yelled behind him. “Don't trust 'em!”

“Wait!” The one who'd spoken out suddenly jumped in front of the others before they could fire. “Tiger, it's me! It's Badger!”

“Badger...” Tiger had met a lot of people over his long years of stalking, and it took a few moments to match the name with the shotgun-toting mercenary he'd escorted during his last visit to these swamps. “Come over here,” he called, keeping that man in his sights. “Slowly.”

“Sure, sure.” Badger held his arms out from his sides as he walked, as if he were traversing a tightrope.

“Stop there,” Tiger commanded once the other man had reached the near side of the fallen bridge. “All right, now talk.”

“Okay...” The merc glanced to his right, towards the south. “You, um... Are you working with those guys from the outside? The ones from the foreign PMC?”

“No,” Olga answered in her partner's place. “Friends of yours?”

“No way.” Badger shook his head emphatically. “We came to clean their clocks.”

“There was a skirmish earlier,” the one in the hooded coat supplemented. “We killed three of them.”

“Then there's three less to worry about. Great!”

“Uh-huh.” Tiger's eyes flicked to the side just for an instant. “Wolfhound's not feeling friendly today?”

“It's not Wolfhound,” Badger corrected. “I got transferred.” He reached up and pulled off his gas mask, revealing a round face with sandy hair, watery blue eyes and crisscrossing razor scars. “Phew! ...Anyway, I'm glad to see you. This would be a lot easier with your help.”

His enthusiasm failed to sway Olga. “Your friends don't look like they agree.”

“They're just edgy, that's all. Lemme go talk to the boss and we can work something out.”

“You do that.” The Russian trained her carbine on the mercenaries' probable leader as Badger made his way back over the rubble. “How well do you know that man, Anton?”

“Not very,” Tiger admitted, watching carefully as the mercs convened. He couldn't make out their words, but the gestures suggested a lively debate. The loner had no doubts about the other side's stance: if Badger weren't here, the rest of the hired guns would have just as likely wiped out his fellow stalkers without a second thought. The odds didn't favor them if it came to an open fight now, either from perfidy or from a nervous trigger finger. With that in mind, Tiger turned his attention towards his allies. The sun was below the treeline, but the fiery glow it left in the sky still interfered with his sight. As far as he could make out, only Gosha and Vitka were in a position to deal significant damage...

“Ngh!”

It wasn't sunlight which caused the sudden sensory overload. “Olga,” Tiger gasped, pushing the white heat back into the periphery of his vision, “there's an emission coming...”

“Fuck.” The female spy pushed herself up on one hand and waved to the others. “Gonna be a blowout soon, stalkers!”

“Oh, really?” The mercenary commander broadcast his skepticism loud and clear. “When?”

Choom!

“NOW.”

***

Jagged streaks of lightning flashed across the diabolically red sky as booming thunder resounded amidst a terrible rumbling, tremors felt as much as heard by those huddled inside the workshop. There was an equally fearsome storm raging inside Tiger's head, the ferocious energy of the blowout overwhelming his sixth sense. It felt like sitting through a nuclear blast in slow motion: he was barely aware of Olga's arms encircling him, of Badger and Southpaw jockeying for the title of Most Concerned Onlooker, or of Gosha placidly munching on a sandwich nearby.

The rumbling rose to a crescendo. A lifeless crow plopped in the dirt just outside the doorway. Dmitry and Galina clung to one another, whimpering in mutual terror. For a few seconds, it looked as if the entire world was aflame outside the wrecked building.

And then, mercifully, the surge dropped off, leaving the Zone quiet once more. The merc commander was first on his feet, leaving the company of his juniors to cautiously probe an opening in the brick wall. “It's over,” he said gruffly. “Is everyone all right?”

Nods and murmurs all around.

“Good.”

Though none said as much, everyone seemed to understand that their common dilemma, whether to clash or to cooperate, had been resolved for them – resolved by the Zone itself. Tiger, for his own part, was glad to be saved the trouble. His head throbbed as he pulled away from Olga and stood up, swaying a little.

“Anton – ”

“I'm okay.” The pain lingered, but the words were true: Tiger made his way to the north doorway on unsteady feet and peered out, observing the new distribution of anomalies around the workshop.

The leading mercenary followed him. “How does it look?”

“Better.” The quiet loner motioned towards the west. “The emission cleared away most of the Dervishes.” Glancing over his shoulder, he beckoned to Galina and Dmitry. “Come and see this.”

The adolescents approached with trepidation. This time their fear was unjustified: looking through the weathered portal, the pair were rewarded with a majestic spectacle. It should have been dark outside, the heavens above naught but an expanse of inky black dotted with twinkling stars, but there now fell a light brighter than the full moon. The sky was filled with a cold glow, sinuous ribbons of red, green and blue extending from a point somewhere beyond the northern horizon. As the Belarusians gazed in rapt wonder, Tiger sensed Olga at his back. Southpaw followed her, then German and Kondratenko. The rest joined them one by one, until the doorways and holes in the walls were packed with spectators.

“What is that?” Galina asked, still watching reverently.

“Some say it's the souls of all the creatures which died in the blowout,” Olga replied. “Others think it's atomic energy stirred up from the station ruins.”

“It's an aurora,” Vitka huffed unsentimentally. “Enjoy it while it lasts, kids, 'cause it's just about the only thing in here that won't try to kill you.”

Dmitry shivered. “Does this happen a lot?”

Olga cocked her head. “That was the first blowout in a few months,” she said, “but there were times when they hit almost daily.” The blond woman turned around, offering the teenagers a reassuring smile. “I don't think we'll see another for a while.”

“The glow is harmless,” said Tiger. “It gives us a few more hours of light to work with.”

“That's right.” The head merc snapped his fingers. “Mug, Kirzach, Tank, Goblin, Werewolf, Mower, Oak and Pianist – you're on first watch. Keep an eye on your detectors and don't wander off. Everyone else, dig in and take a breather.” As his men dispersed, he walked over to the free stalkers. “Let's talk business. Badger, you too.”

“Coming.”

The commander went inside, and the others followed. There was a rustle of fabric and the rasp of a lighter. A tiny flame danced and vanished, leaving a cherry-red glow behind in the shadows. “Call me Hatchet,” the contractor announced. “This is a no-client mission. My bosses told me to get it done with no fuss and no loose ends.” He took a long pull and exhaled, projecting a smoke cloud which stank of cheap tobacco. “But they also told me to use my own discretion, so here we are. What's your story?”

“The outsiders have been killing free stalkers,” Olga began succinctly. “Duty hired us to investigate.”

Tiger would have hesitated to mention Duty's involvement up front, but Hatchet made no comment on it: “Go on.”

“We reached the marshes at about mid-morning. Near the sinking village we encountered three agents escorting two kids they caught trying to cross the perimeter.” The woman nodded towards Galya and Mitya. “The Dutyer who was with us made the call to rescue them... We pulled it off, but he was killed by a sniper. We pulled back to the boat park, were attacked by bloodsuckers, and then we stumbled across a deserting soldier. So far we've managed not to lose anyone else.”

“Who was the dead man?”

“Bandicoot.”

“One of the old guard.” Hatchet tapped the ashes off the end of his cigarette. “A shame... Your friends let slip something about a supply dump.”

“There's a cache,” Olga confessed with a trace of irritation. “Not a large one, but enough to level the odds.”

“Hm.” The merc took another drag. “Tiger – was that the name?”

“Yes.”

“Badger tells me that you're a good guide and you've been here before. Can you get us close to the Paladin camp?”

“Yes.”

“I don't have anything to pay you with up front, but we can work something out afterward. Is that all right?”

“It's fine.” Right now money meant nothing to Tiger anyway. “What's your purpose here, just to eliminate the outsiders?”

“Pretty much,” said Hatchet. “We have a good idea of what they're after, but we'd like to find out which one of those chickenshits on the other side of the fence helped them get in... Maybe we'll bring back some of their gear while we're at it.”

“I think our goals are compatible,” Tiger said. “Can we work together?”

“Badger thinks so,” Hatchet replied. “And me, I value the lives of my men. If cooperation gives me a better chance to keep them breathing, I'll go with it.” He cleared his throat. “But I think you'll agree that it would be in everyone's interest if we kept quiet about this.”

“Damn right,” Olga muttered, crossing her arms.

“So what do you say?” Badger prompted. “We clean house, then go our separate ways?”

Tiger looked at the other loners, their faces thrown into stark contrasts of light and shadow by the aurora. Everyone was waiting to hear his choice. “...I'm in.”

Olga's hand grasped his arm in the dark. “So am I.”

“I'm staying with them,” Southpaw volunteered.

“I don't like to leave a job half-done,” said Gosha. “Gotta settle things with that sniper.”

“I don't feel like striking out alone,” German remarked, “and I owe too much at Arnie's to go back empty-handed.”

“I'm stuck anyway,” Kondratenko mumbled morosely.

“Oh wow,” Vitka snorted, tearing the atmosphere of camaraderie asunder. “Suddenly we're a bunch of big damn heroes, huh?”

“Vitaly – ”

“Fuck off!” The outburst was vehement enough that Gosha took a step backwards. “The boss is dead, the mission's hosed, we've almost been eaten by mutants and now you guys want to buddy up with goons who'd just as soon knife you in the back? Am I the only one seeing something wrong with this picture?”

“You picked a hell of a time to back out,” Southpaw declared critically.

“Yeah?” Vitka's eyes were dark slits in the weak light. “If mercs wanna fight mercs, let 'em. If Duty wants to play activists-and-basmachi, let 'em. It's got nothing to do with stalkers anymore.”

“No?” German sounded politely incredulous. “Next you'll be telling us you don't give a damn if New Russians start swarming in here.”

“Why should I give a shit about New Russians?”

“We don't have time for this cold-feet crap,” Olga growled. “If you want to go, then go already... But keep your big mouth shut, Meteorologist, or I swear – ”

“Olga, wait.” Tiger gently eased past her. “Vitka, what did you do before you came here?”

“Huh?”

“Where did you work? What kind of job did you have?”

“I worked in an electronics plant,” Vitka replied with ill grace, “making instruments for jets. Then there was the recession and I took up stalking. What about it?”

Tiger didn't answer that. “German, how about you?”

“Game warden,” Fisher reported smartly.

“And Gosha, you were a teacher?”

“Translator, actually,” the machine gunner corrected. There was a crinkle of plastic as he peeled open another food package and offered it to Badger. “It paid better.”

Gosha wouldn't be rich if he'd stuck to academia, but the Zone would have remained a remote danger yet. “You all came to the Zone because you were out of work,” Tiger continued. “For you this is a place to make some money, get yourself on a good footing so you can start over in the Big Land, am I right?”

Nods and noises of wary agreement. Hatchet fidgeted subtly.

Mindful of the mercenary's rising impatience, Tiger decided to push on and finish his spur-of-the-moment ploy. “I thought so,” he said, looking from one face to the next. “I... came back here because it's my home.”

“Wuh..?” A half-consumed jerky strip dropped from Gosha's mouth. “You came back – ?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Badger interrupted. “Your home?”

“I was born here.” Tiger gave the announcement a couple of seconds to sink in. “I don't mind sharing it with other people – the Zone doesn't care who you are, whether you're from Russia or Poland or whatever, as long as you respect its rules. Stalkers, mercenaries... even the bandits understand that.” He swallowed. “These 'paladins' think they can just come in here, free to kill whoever they want and take whatever they want, and that... that really bothers me.” Gray eyes met brown. “Maybe you're right, Vitka. Maybe it isn't your problem. You won't still be here a year from now, so you can afford to just keep your head down and let someone else take the bullets until you have enough loot to get out.” Tiger shrugged. “If you're absolutely sure you want to leave, then I'll guide you through the anomalies. I only hope you understand why I have to stay.”

“Yeah, well...” Vitka looked down at his feet. “Normally I'd say that's a bunch of sentimental crap, but yannow... it was actually kinda profound.” The free stalker squared his shoulders awkwardly. “So, uh, how're we gonna do this? You got some kinda plan, boss lady?”

“Of course I do,” said Olga primly. “Is everyone else on board with this?”

“I'd say that's a yes.” Hatchet snapped his fingers again. “Spook, play something unifying.”

“Look at it this way,” German advised Vitka in a stage whisper. “Just imagine you've been thrown into a penal battalion with some fifty-eights, some whites and some gangsters.”

***

“Into the motherland the German army marched...”

The ominous pronouncement was followed by a bombastic thrashing of guitars: Spook's MP3 player was crammed with songs of a Swedish heavy metal band, and every one of them would blast from the mercenary's portable speakers before this night was over. There wasn't much point in worrying about noise discipline with the portable generator roaring away outside, and the pounding music lent a certain rhythm to the stalkers' work.

So far so good, Tiger thought as he flipped up the lid of a deep-bellied ammo can. Olga and Hatchet were working out the finer details of the attack plan while the others cleaned weapons and zeroed sights. Once the battery packs were charged, there would be group training in the use of the night sights.

“Hey.” Badger dropped through the opening of the storage pit, bypassing the ladder. “I finished my scrubbing, thought you might need a hand.”

“Mm.” Tiger pointed to a stack of sealed cans of 5.45mm ammunition, yellowy brown with stenciled markings in smudged black. “Can you start on those?”

“Sure.” The merc picked up a flat, hook-tipped can opener. “Your girlfriend is pretty smart,” he remarked, stabbing it into the lip of the first can.

“We – it's not like that.”

“Sorry.” Badger turned the oblong container ninety degrees and kept cutting. “The way she kept looking at you, I thought – ”

“Mmph.” His own can emptied, Tiger began stripping the plastic wrap off the Chinese ArmaLite magazines. “Why were you transferred?” he asked impulsively.

“Asked for it.” With the lid peeled back, the 5.45 looked like an oversized can of sardines. “Got mags for these?”

“The gray box with the snap fasteners.”

“Gotcha... Like I was saying, I asked.”

The 5.56 rounds came on stripper clips in musty-smelling cardboard sleeves: ten gleaming brass rounds per clip, three clips per charcoal magazine. “Why?” Tiger inquired, fitting a clip guide onto the first mag.

There was a long sigh. “I've been doing this for a while,” Badger replied after a thoughtful pause. “I can remember a time when being a mercenary was something to be proud of... I miss those days, Tiger. We were the pros, the specialists. Stalkers were glad to have us around.” He pried a cartridge packet out of the can, tearing the stapled paper with his teeth. “Pthht! ...Wolfhound's gotten too aggressive for his own good, tries to solve all his problems by shooting 'em. He's gonna push somebody who can push back harder, one of these days, and we... we realized we had to get off his team while we still could – Lynx and me, I mean.”

“I see.” Tiger hadn't forgotten the rough-spoken tomboy from Sevastopol. “How's Lynx?”

“She's, uh... she's gone.”

“She quit?”

“Would have been better if she had,” the merc muttered, thumbing green cartridges into a green magazine. “She was put into another unit, got sent on a raid up to the Red Forest.” He shook his head. “They ran into Monolith – a whole platoon, near as we can figure. Backup crew found some bodies, but not hers.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.” Tiger glanced at the other man momentarily, then reached for a fresh clip. “You were friends?”

“She... she looked out for me.” It appeared that was all Badger had to say about Lynx. “I'll tell you one thing for sure,” he added suddenly. “There'd be no deals if Wolfhound had gotten this mission. Hatchet can be grumpy, but he's an old hand. He'll see this through.”

“I hope so.” One stack grew, one stack shrank.

The mercenary was evidently eager to move off the topic of his coworkers. “So... you came from this area originally, huh? Where exactly?”

“Pripyat.” Tiger added an empty stripper to the growing discard pile. “We lived on Friendship of Peoples Street, across from the hospital... I was too young to remember any of it, though.”

“Ah.” More tearing of paper. “Did you ever go back? Before the second disaster?”

“A few times. There was nothing left – the looters had already come and gone.”

“And now the place is Monolith turf.” Badger fumbled and dropped a cartridge. “If it's still there at all,” he amended, stooping to retrieve it. “Must be tough for you.”

“Not just me.” Tiger held a half-loaded magazine under the lantern and took a close look at the feed lips. “There were fifteen thousand other children in Pripyat. Someday, I – ”

“Hey, Badger!”

“Down here, Tank.” Badger went to the ladder and peered up through the hole in the shop floor. “Aren't you supposed to be walking the perimeter?”

“Hatchet pulled me off the line to help you,” the second merc answered. “You guys are missing a great light show.”

“I've seen it before,” said Tiger indifferently.

“It creeps me out,” Badger declared. “The less I see, the less I'll worry.”

“Suit yourself... Tiger, your lady friend wants you to check out the anomalies on the east side, see if there are any artifacts we can make traps with.”

“There are certainly artifacts,” the loner told him, “but getting to them will be very difficult.”

“Yeah, she knows.” Tank clambered down the ladder, the wood creaking under his boots. “Your buddy with the big mouth says he has a gizmo that can help.”

“All right, I'll go up.” Tiger stepped back from his workspace and shook the dust out of his coat. “See you later, Badger.”

“Yeah, later.”

So Lynx had been with the group which attacked Tiger and Leshiy during the pseudogiant hunt, unless the mercenaries had somehow suffered two devastating Monolith attacks in the time since their last excursion to the marshes. Had she known Tiger was there? Would she have cared if she did know?

The wandering stalker dismissed those thoughts: Lynx was dead and out of the picture, while the woman who really troubled him was close at hand – and very much alive.
  15:03:54  10 November 2010
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Jequirity
(Senior)
 
On forum: 05/28/2008
Messages: 96
Always a pleasure to read your work! Looking forward to reading more in the future
  18:14:58  10 November 2010
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Do0mzday-Jesus
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
Wo0t. Nice chapter, BobBQ. You're still in the top 3 active stories on this site for me.
  00:31:33  11 November 2010
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-=Grunt=-
Cake Muncher
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 01/08/2009
Messages: 4114
Cool chapter Bob, waiting for more.
  05:10:22  13 November 2010
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
I feel warm and fuzzy.

Coming soon: couch fishing, music to kick ass by, and Olga losing clothes.
  07:56:52  23 April 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Okay, so I was wrong about it being soon.

Seven Six Two

“Am I doing this right?”

“Yeah, you're good... Turn around.”

German did so. “Here's the man,” he said, spotting Tiger coming out of the workshop. “Just in time.”

Tiger blinked at the spectacle before him. German was wearing a large framework on his back, supported by a complex harness, with multiple spindly arms projecting upward and out to each side. The assembly was plainly electronic in nature, with dozens of wires snaking through its structure. Tiger's eyes traced them to the large box on the other stalker's hip, and from there to the keypad in his hand and the bulky goggles resting on his forehead.

“Oh good,” Vitka grunted, his earlier resentment pushed aside by an air of subtle determination. “Hold on a sec, I gotta – ” Snap! “...That's better.” He stepped back, looking at the contraption with unabashed pride. “How do you like it?”

More blinking. “A detector..?”

“Damn straight.” Vitka folded his arms. “I got fed up with the shitty pocket scanners, so I bought some computers and junk and knocked this together... I call it 'Svarog'.”

The only connotation Tiger could think of was an obscure pagan deity. “Why Svarog?”

The inventor shrugged. “It sounded cool... Anyway, it's fancier than those things you can buy from the traders or the nerds. It shows stuff in three dimensions, see?” He pointed to the goggles. “Way more efficient than a Veles.”

Vitka's alternative looked neither elegant nor rugged to Tiger, but he didn't say so. “You're going to use that to find the artifacts,” he concluded. “But why is German wearing it?”

“Because I've got my own specialty,” Fisher replied. “The big problem with harvesting artifacts here is getting close enough to pick them up, right?”

“Right.”

“So what we're going to do is, we're going to extend our reach... Pass me the rod, Vitka?”

“Coming right up.”

It was quite literally a fishing rod, with a reel and line attached. “I got the idea for this after finding a rookie who fried himself near that tunnel under the embankment in the Cordon,” German recalled. “He'd found a Sparkler and tried to roll it out with a stick... Poor kid didn't understand the danger, I guess.” The loner pulled out a length of his line, a simple nylon monofilament strand. “You and I know that anything big will trip the anomaly as soon as you stick it in, so a net or scoop won't work either.”

“Yes.” Tiger's interest was now solidly piqued. “That line is light enough not to upset them?”

The dry-land angler nodded. “That was the first hurdle. It took some trial and error, but I've found a weight that works.” He quickly wound up the excess length. “The second hurdle was, what kind of hook can snag half a kilogram of magic scrap metal? I scratched my head over that for a while.” German reached into one of his suit's hip pockets. “But I finally figured it out with some insight from a bottle of homemade vodka... The answer is Gumdrops.”

The Gumdrop artifact, like the Maiden's Delight which Tiger had helped Wolfhound's team recover during the previous swamp raid, was of little direct use to stalkers. It formed when plate glass was exposed to a powerful electrical discharge in the presence of corrosive fog – the natural sources of energy were Electro anomalies and occasionally lightning strikes, though Sakharov and his colleagues had partially replicated the process by means of a Van de Graaff generator. The glass melted and reformed into dull marble-sized blobs, which changed color when subjected to weak electric currents. It was said that the semiconductor industry was interested in the properties of the Gumdrop, but the sheer scarcity of samples for research meant that no breakthroughs had yet been coaxed out of the little artifact.

Two years ago Tiger could find handfuls of Gumdrops lying in the open on windowsills beneath empty frames. Back then they were regarded merely as pretty curiosities, trinkets to make your girlfriend a nice necklace out of... but not anymore. “Those are your... your lures?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Drawing out the fishing line again, German affixed one to the end of it. “I could talk all night, but I'd better not. I'm ready when you two are.”

“I'm good too,” said Vitka. “Tiger, I designed the Svarog to display both artifacts and anomalies, but I'm still crunching numbers for the anomaly tables. I need you to get German into a good position to do his thing, see, and hopefully I can collect enough data to make fine adjustments in the meantime.”

It wasn't just Vitka's attitude that had changed: his manner of speech was more precise, more educated. The shift made Tiger wonder if his previous tough-guy persona was all for show. “Just tell me where you need to go,” said the guide.

“We'll try our luck along the road down there, if it's safe.”

Tiger went around to German's other side, mentally mapping the obstacles ahead. “It's safe enough.”

“Great... Boss lady, we're going hunting now!”

“All right!” Olga had to shout to be heard over the background music. “Watch your step out there!”

The three men started out in single file, Tiger leading and Vitka at the rear. From the north end of the workshop they zigzagged north-northeast, past an overturned tractor wreck and down the pockmarked slope to the road which in safer times had been the main route over the marshlands. The glow of the aurora still fell brightly all about, illuminating the ground as good as any flare or flashlight. “Let's stop here for a minute,” Tiger suggested when they came to the eroded track.

Vitka looked to either side, sweeping the rocks and bushes with his submachine gun. “Any beasties around?”

“No.”

“Good to know.” There was a Springboard softly pulsing a couple of meters to the left, with a Dervish lurking just behind it: German took out his personal detector, a Bear like Olga's, and waved it at the anomalies. “...So,” the stalker concluded, switching the device off and bringing a sudden end to its shrill beeping, “where do we start?”

“We don't have enough protection to approach the pylons,” Tiger warned, pointing at the line of skeletal steel frames which jutted from the rough, scrubby ground to the east. “Let's start with the truck over there, or maybe the Boiler.”

“I vote for the truck,” Vitka opined.

“Works for me,” German agreed. “Lead on.”

They walked northwards now, back towards the corner from which they had first entered these swamps in the morning. A broad pool of Electro anomalies spread across the road ahead, the truck in question lying among them like a stricken ship trapped in a maelstrom. It was a two-axle GAZ, in far better condition than the mangled Kamaz or the scattered scraps of the ZiL to the west... apart from there being more holes in it than a colander's bottom.

German whistled when he saw the damage. “Somebody did some serious target practice.”

“Not practice,” Tiger corrected, deviating towards the right to avoid another Springboard. “It was a flashpoint.”

“A flashpoint?” Vitka's incredulity was conveyed by the wrinkling of his balaclava. “Who'd fight over a jalopy out in the fucking boonies?”

“Renegades.”

“Come again?”

“They called themselves that.” Tiger made a sharp turn, moving at an oblique angle to the vehicle. “The renegades were a bandit group who broke away from Yoga's gang at the start of the faction wars.” Five paces, another turn and a quick stop to let the others catch up. “They came down here from the Agroprom and Garbage, trying to drive out Clear Sky and take over the swamp route across the perimeter.”

“Huh... But Clear Sky pushed 'em back?”

“Eventually, yes... The renegades dug in at that first farmstead we searched, after Clear Sky's people recaptured the machine yard. There was fighting back and forth for a while, but never any clear wins or losses.”

“And the truck was the halfway mark between them,” said Vitka. “Now I get it... I know Clear Sky is gone, but what happened to the renegades?”

“Most of them joined Borov when he overthrew Yoga.” Tiger came within rock-chucking distance of the truck's rust-streaked snout and halted again. “There's a clear spot here. Is it near enough for you?”

“Yeah, this is great.” German made a flicking motion with the tip of his fishing rod. “Vitka?”

“Gimme a second to hook up.” The engineer unzipped a suit pocket and withdrew a scratched Casio PDA with a length of thick cable plugged into its top. “Mind the wire,” he prompted, bending forwards and connecting the cable's other end to the Svarog's logic box. “...Okay, ready.”

Pulling down his hood, the fisherman checked his aft leeway and placed the detector's goggles over his eyes. “This is pretty radical,” he remarked. “I don't think they have such sensitive instruments even in Yantar yet.”

“Nah,” said Vitka dismissively. “The anomaly stuff is all in software, brute-force algorithms and shit. It's the three-dee display that will make it sell, I'm telling you.”

Olga's voice rolled down to them from the machine yard: “Heads up, crew! We're making some zeroing shots, aiming southwest!”

“Here goes.” German slowly swung the rod upward until most of its length extended back over his shoulder. He hesitated for a few moments, listening to the first snaps of small-caliber rifle fire, and then straightened his arm in a brisk motion.

Vwizzzzzzz!

The sight of Vitka working nearby, his nose almost pressed to the pocket computer's screen, reminded Tiger that he still had Drifter's iPAQ tucked snugly inside his own coat. He needed to get it unlocked soon – maybe Vitka could do it for him, if he asked nicely enough... Strange to think that only a day had passed since he was diverted from his personal quest: it felt as if the interval were much longer.

***

“The sound of the mortars, the music of death – we're playing the devil's symphony... Our violins are guns, conducted from hell!”

Spook had kept on laying down the heavy metal, both sonic and solid, in their absence: the tarpaulin square spread at his feet was covered edge to edge in gleaming black Tokarev pistols, and he was polishing another with a rag as the trio of gatherers walked past him and into the workshop.

“Where do the Chinese shooters come from, anyway?” Vitka wondered aloud.

“Albanian arms dealers based in Turkey.” Olga had taken her headlamp off and was holding it in her hand, shining it down on a map spread over a wooden tool shelf cum strategist's table. “They're shipped through the Suez, up the Bosporus or maybe overland, and then across the Black Sea.” She lifted her face. “How did it go?”

“Compared to a day on the Garbage?” Vitka hoisted up the bag containing the booty and set it on the shelf. “Pretty friggin' good.”

“We searched the Electro field and the gravity traps around the Boiler,” German added. “Are these what you wanted?”

Pale waves of yellow and blue-white rippled over Olga's face as she opened the bag. “That's good, that's very good.” The Russian zipped it back up. “Thanks a lot, guys. Take ten.”

German and Vitka departed with nods of acknowledgment. That left Tiger alone with his former lover. “Problem, Anton?” she queried.

“No... I just don't feel like sitting around.” Tiger moved around to the open side of the shelf. “You're still planning?”

“Adding final touches, tying up loose ends... Composing victory speeches.”

There was a soft, self-deprecating laugh, then a long sigh. These were not familiar noises to Tiger, but Anton remembered them. “Is everything going all right?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Have there been any transmissions from Duty? Hatchet has a man posted on his radio, right?”

“Yeah, but there's been no contact. Probably won't be any before morning.” The map Olga had been looking at was seven or eight years old, compiled by Tiger's colleagues before the second eruption. The one she laid over it now was pushing thirty, a Soviet military chart with pencil scrawls all over. “I think we're going to have to leave Kondratenko behind.”

“You mean, leave him here with Dmitriy and Galina?”

“Yeah. He's been really helpful with setting up equipment, but his nerves – he's not going to hold up under fire.”

Tiger's own assessment of the stray soldier was comparable, so he had nothing to add. “What do you think of Hatchet?”

“You know, he kind of looks like Aleksey Serebryakov. I'll start calling him 'Kom-Batt' if I'm not careful.” Her smile suggested that she wasn't overly concerned about the mercenaries' leader. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about the kids...”

Here it comes. “You want me to take them into the Zone.”

“If we send them back, they'll be picked up and extradited. You know what will happen after that, don't you?”

“Yeah... Yeah, I know.” Tiger shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “There's still a lot they'll have to learn.”

“You're the best one to teach them.” Olga bent over the map once more. “If you're not going to rest, could you check on those two for me? They should be down at the other end.”

“Sure.”

“Oh, Anton...”

Tiger paused mid-step. “What?”

Olga abruptly turned away. “Never mind. I'll tell you about it later.”

Tiger waited a couple of seconds to see if she would reconsider, moving on with a mental shrug when she didn't. Walking through the gloom of the machine hall, he passed Southpaw and two mercs hauling boxes up from the underground store.

“...Advertised for new meat pretty aggressively,” one of the mercenaries was saying. “Shit, even the bandits were throwing in a recruiting pitch with every shakedown... Yeah, put it right there... Like I was saying, everybody took big losses. Freedom probably imported that Yugo kit for their second wave going into Limansk, before the emission wiped out all the vanguard parties... After the faction wars cooled off, there was no more use for 'em.”

Southpaw waved to Tiger and dropped back into the hole. “...So they sold off the new stuff first?” his muffled voice inquired.

“Seems they did.” The merc squatted, reaching out to take the next case from the loner's raised hands. “I dunno, maybe they were worried about quality or something.”

“I haven't had any problems with mine.”

“I bought a shooter from a Freedom guy once,” the other mercenary volunteered. “Looked great on the outside, clean and everything, but it didn't work... Opened it up, looked at the trigger group – ounce of weed taped inside.”

“Kirzach, you find ounces of weed in everything.”

Moving on, Tiger rounded the inner corner of the building and walked west. Galina was sitting on a crate near the end wall while Dmitriy stood behind her, cutting away his girlfriend's hair with a small pair of scissors. From the side he'd already cut, the onlooking stalker guessed that he was using Olga's boyish style as his pattern. It was a practical choice, Tiger had to admit: long locks would be nothing but a liability here.

Galina regarded him with dark, wary eyes. “What is it?”

Tiger cleared his throat softly, realizing too late that he should have better prepared himself for this. “Are you sure you want to stay in the Zone?”

“I'm not going back to Minsk.” Her tone left no room for dissent. “And I'm not giving up Mitya.”

“I understand that,” said Tiger, taking note of the look on Dmitriy's face when Galina affirmed her commitment. “But why here? Vitaly wasn't joking about the danger.”

“We're like you.” The girl's face was as stubborn as her tongue. “We have nowhere else to go... Olga Ivanovna said you could help us. We'll find a way to pay you back somehow.”

Tiger shook his head. “I wouldn't do it for money,” he replied. “I can take you as far as Rostok. After that I'm probably going to be in places that are too dangerous for you.”

The name appeared unfamiliar to Galina. “Rostok?”

“It's to the north,” Tiger explained, “beyond the Agroprom and the scrap heaps. It used to be a tractor factory, but now it's a crossroads for the southern Zone. The Duty base and the biggest free stalker camp are both in Rostok.”

“It's a safe place?”

The stalker hesitated, visions of Ananko's last stand, the Orekhov raid and the Plague Well parading before his eyes. “...Mostly safe,” he conceded, as the silhouette of Machinery Hall No. 6 loomed large in his memory.

***

The following hours passed in a blur, while the wavering aurora gave way to constellations and wisps of errant cloud. Tiger worked, rested, and then worked some more. He planted marker sticks so the others could find their way out of the anomaly maze. He sorted the artifacts which German and Vitka gathered. He even managed to sleep for a bit after Spook took a break from MP3 jockeying, the generator cooling off in quiet.

The uneasy alliance was holding together, the battle plans coming together without snags or stumbles. Tiger, however, had a new worry: Olga had been avoiding him since their conversation over the maps. It wasn't an overt or pointed avoidance, but he felt it every time their paths intersected, every time she suddenly needed to 'check on' somebody else or go find something she'd 'forgotten' about. This development left Tiger wondering what he'd said or done – or not said or not done – to upset her, and the irony of the reversal didn't occur to him until near the end.

Now the projected time of departure was drawing near, and it seemed to him that the only way he would get Olga to talk was to pin her to the ground again. Being in this frame of mind, he was more than a little surprised when out of the blue she asked him to stand watch over the trapdoor while she changed out of her Sunrise and put on one of the Clear Sky uniforms. Standing here, able to sense every move she made in the chamber beneath his feet, he caught himself wandering back to happier moments... Olga walking barelegged through her little apartment in Kiev, an unbuttoned shirt threatening to slide off her shoulders –

“Hey, Anton? I could use a third hand here.”

“Uh... Yeah, I'll be right there.” Nice timing, Tiger told himself on the way down the ladder. Reminiscing about their old relationship was surely more wholesome than giving himself flashbacks of the shadow among the turret lathes, but that didn't make it appropriate for this time and place. Reaching the bottom, he could see firsthand the outcome of the others' labor in the new emptiness of the secret room.

Olga wore the faded black pants, boots and knee pads, but the mottled blue and white tunic and the green tactical vest still lay draped over a crate beside her. She was naked above the waist, save for a long strip of fabric wound tightly around her upper chest. “One of the straps got jammed up in a buckle,” she explained, holding up the vest. “I was afraid it would break if I tried to force it.”

Tiger leaned forwards. “It looks pretty well stuck... If I put my fingers here, does that help?”

“Yeah, hold it flat... Ready, one-two-three!” Olga yanked on the other side and the wrinkled nylon webbing popped free. “Thanks.”

She turned her back on him, but this time Tiger wasn't willing to let himself be ignored. “Isn't there something else?” he prodded.

“...”

“Look, um... Whatever I did, I – ”

“Stop.”

It wasn't a word, more like a sob made of vowels and consonants. Looking down, Tiger saw Olga's hands balled into trembling fists. “Uh... I just thought... Olga..?”

“Why are you doing this to me?”

“What – ”

He reached out to her at the same instant she spun around. Her cheeks glistened in the lantern's light, her exposed belly flexing with every strained breath. “Anton...”

“Olga, why are – oof!”

“I don't want to go back.” Her fingers dug into Tiger's flanks through the coarse weave of his coat as she clung to him, her face pressed against his shoulder. “I don't want to tell Lyosha his father hates me.”

Tiger might have pushed her away. Anton swallowed, took a deep breath and put his arms around her. Olga's skin felt hot to the touch, and she shivered as if in the throes of high fever.

“Don't send me away,” she whimpered. “Don't leave me alone...”

Her breakdown had taken Tiger completely by surprise, leaving his own composure in tatters. “Olga,” he fumbled, “Olga, stop this. Everyone is counting on you...”

“No.” The distraught woman lifted her face. “They need you, not me.”

“I – ”

“They only trusted me because you let them.” Her arms tightened convulsively. “You were right, Anton. You don't need me anymore... But I can't let go, I can't pretend I don't feel anything...”

Tiger flinched. Having those words, his parting shot at the end of the pair's first reunion, come back to him this way hurt more than being punched in the face by the bandits... But then he remembered the pain and the bitter loneliness of five years past, and he still couldn't quite accept what she was trying to say. Why are you doing this, Olga? What do you want from me?

Olga seemed to understand the questions from his expression, without hearing them spoken. “I want it all back... Everything we had together – ”

“Hey, Tiger?” That was Southpaw, standing over the trapdoor. “Is everything all right down there?”

“Everything's fine. I'll be up in a minute.”

“Okay...”

Somehow Tiger had to get Olga to pull herself together. Let's talk about it later, he wanted to say. You can't put the whole mission at risk, he wanted to say.

But Anton didn't say that. Hugging Olga tightly, he raised a hand and carefully, almost reverently, stroked her tousled golden hair. “...I wouldn't mind if you stayed.”

Suddenly it was very quiet in the rough little room.

“I don't hate you.”

The words coming out of Tiger's mouth were honest, but just one day ago they would have been unpalatable even with his modest sense of pride. “I don't hate you,” he repeated, fervently hoping this was the right thing to do. “So please... Please don't cry...”

At first Olga didn't respond, seemingly no less conflicted about the confession than Tiger himself, but her outpouring of emotion gradually settled. “Anton,” she murmured, her voice quavering, “I know I'm being selfish and I know... I know I don't belong here, but... give me one more chance and I promise I'll make it all up to you.”

“Okay.” As her grip loosened, Tiger picked up the tunic and held it out. “Come on,” he encouraged. “You have to show the others how to wear this correctly.”

***

“ATTERO – DOMINATUS!”

Oak high-fived Mower.

“Berlin is buuurrrning!”

Gosha peered into the murk of the surrounding thicket through the humongous night sight atop his machine gun.

“DENIQUE – INTERIMO!”

Vitka bumped fists with German.

“The Reich has faaalleeeeen!”

Hatchet approached Olga and thrust out a grimy, callused hand. “GOOD LUCK,” he roared over the fury of the music. “WE'LL SEE YOU IN THE DAYLIGHT!”

The female stalker shook his hand with gusto. “TREAD CAREFULLY OUT THERE!”

“ALWAYS DO!” Hatchet turned to his fellow mercenaries. “ARE WE READY, MEN?”

“WE'RE READY, CHIEF!”

“MOVE OUT!”

They departed in a winding line, following Tiger's markers through the anomalies. The loners stood gathered in the machine yard, witnessing in silence until the marching cadence faded into the west.

“Well, guys,” said Gosha, the servos of the exoskeleton strapped to his limbs whirring faintly with every move, “it's our turn now.”

“That's right.” Olga looked to Kondratenko, Galina and Dmitriy. “You remember what to do if we can't come back for you, right?”

“We should take your note to Wolf or Fanatic in the Cordon,” Galina recited smartly.

Olga nodded. “Good girl... Anton, will you do the honors?”

Tiger rolled his shoulders, feeling the unfamiliar weight and tightness of the Clear Sky scout's outfit, the hard outlines of the Tokarev behind his back and the Mauser resting against his hip, and finally the top-heavy mass of the night scoped SKS in his hands. These mattered not to him, now that the weight on his conscience was so light by comparison. Reaching out in the dark, he found Olga's soft hand and squeezed it gently.

“Let's go.”
  19:11:00  23 April 2011
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weidrik
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 03/15/2009
Messages: 182
Well, what a nice surprise. The long wait is finally over. Really great to see, that one of the best Stalker stories here is back again. Thanks for a new chapter, and keep up the good work!
  17:00:38  24 April 2011
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Do0mzday-Jesus
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
Ding! Awesome chapter, man!


I should really check this forum more often.
  19:22:34  24 April 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
It's now two weeks until the second anniversary of the story's inception. If I work extra hard, maybe - Great Scott, is that a flying pig?
  21:49:42  24 April 2011
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 1825

---QUOTATION---
It's now two weeks until the second anniversary of the story's inception. If I work extra hard, maybe - Great Scott, is that a flying pig?
---END QUOTATION---


Wouldn't be surprised, in The Zone anything is possible after one of the big emissions
  03:38:25  25 April 2011
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Oh!

*starts bashing keys furiously*
  01:16:21  8 May 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
...Have I really been doing this for two years?

(New chapter in the works. Fo' realz.)
  02:47:10  3 June 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
I wonder if anyone on the Russian boards is reading this.

Children of a Broken Empire

Yevgeniy shivered. He was cold – because he'd been huddled at the top of this goddamned watchtower for twenty hours with almost no relief. He was anxious – because he'd overheard MacGruder talking openly about fragging him. He was afraid – because he'd dreamed.

It was punishment. Punishment. Yevgeniy had missed two shots out of three and now MacGruder was telling everyone that he'd sold them out, that he was playing for both sides. MacGruder, already enraged because the three men who died yesterday were his buddies, partners in his little circle-jerk of bloodlust and machismo. Yevgeniy had watched as they squatted around the stove, taking bets on who would be the first to get some, and he had watched as they fell to the stalkers' volley.

MacGruder might have killed him already, had 'Easy Eight' Miller not interceded on Yevgeniy's behalf. MacGruder was furious, but he also wanted to cover his own ass: it was he and his friends who gunned down that first group of stalkers, the luckless men who approached their patrol with hands raised in cautious offers of friendship. He and his cronies had gotten some, all right, and it only reinforced their attitude towards the Slavic natives – and towards Yevgeniy, the new meat on their own side.

For their losses MacGruder had nobody to blame but himself. He took it for granted that these Ukrainians – Yevgeniy suspected that he still didn't fully grasp the differences between them and their Russian neighbors – were a bunch of slovenly bumpkins, corrupt to the bone and eternally inebriated. Yevgeniy, for his own part, had quickly learned to discount MacGruder's opinions wholesale, doubly so after he first saw the needle marks on the other man's arms.

Still, the morning's encounter had rattled Yevgeniy as much as anyone else in the Paladin corps. These new stalkers hit hard, hit fast, and didn't stick around... Christ, they even brought a machine gun to the party – what was he supposed to do when there were bullets smacking against the tower's framework all around him? The briefings had led him to expect that the stalkers would scatter and flee after he shot the one in the black suit, their presumed leader. Instead they withdrew and regrouped, taking the hostage kids with them.

The emission sent Yevgeniy running for shelter, and MacGruder sent him running back to his post as soon as it ended. He was just getting resettled when the music started, and he realized the stalkers were still out there. Down in the fishing hamlet, MacGruder raised hell over it and was on the verge of leading an all-out attack on the upland swamp before Easy Eight and Novak somehow got him under control. Baxter gave Yevgeniy the depressing details when he ascended the tower for his turn as a lookout, recounting with hushed excitement how the men nearly came to blows.

Yevgeniy let Baxter talk – he spoke very fast and said 'ayup' a lot – and then Baxter let Yevgeniy catch some sleep. The music was still playing when he awoke, beyond the burnt farmstead on the hill, but the eerie light in the sky was nearly gone and Baxter was looking to the west through his night vision goggles. D'ja think they're ever gonna stop? he speculated re: the distant noise.

Yevgeniy honestly hoped not. The dreams affected everyone, but only he and the two others who spoke fluent Russian could understand the words to go with the images... Only he and they appreciated how a weak-willed man could be driven to madness just a few kilometers inside the Zone. Hearing the music, the songs of bloody deeds done by his grandfathers, gave him something else to focus on. He actually missed it once it ended, smiled when it returned after a long break, and sighed once it permanently concluded with one more track.

Baxter's shift ended a few minutes later. He was relieved by Edward Ashpool, 'Edward the Compressor' to his friends, and went back to the camp for some shuteye... No such luck for Yevgeniy. The Compressor didn't bother him, or even speak to him at all unless needed, but the man fidgeted something awful. He was smart, maybe too smart to be working a job like this, a high-tech guy who according to camp gossip had signed on with Paladin because he fucked up a high-stakes job for somebody else. Ashpool had restless hands, probably more accustomed to the contours of mouse and keyboard than of trigger and pistol grip, and he couldn't sit still for more than half a minute without compulsively finding some object for his fingers to manipulate.

Right now he was playing with his sidearm, flicking the safety up and down with his thumb. Paladin's standard issue was a nine millimeter Jericho: heavy matte black steel, slab-sided with clean lines. Not good enough for Edward the Compressor, who bought himself one that had a plastic frame with an accessory rail molded into it, on which he mounted a tactical illuminator that cost him more than the handgun itself. Like voodoo in a night fight, he'd bragged when he first showed it to Yevgeniy.

Click-click... Click-click...

Maybe the real problem wasn't that Kevin MacGruder was a drug-fueled sociopath, but that the client's representative actively encouraged him.

Yevgeniy shivered again.

***

“Hold up, guys... Anton, how are we doing?”

“There are no more anomalies,” Tiger replied, matching Olga's whisper. “We are close to the tower... There are two men on the top level. I can't feel any others.”

“All right, good enough.” The lone female among the raiders unpacked a compact radio, loaned to her by Hatchet, and held it to her ear. “Roman-Shura-Mikhail, this is Ivan-Vasiliy-Semyon. Am in position and standing by, over.” She listened briefly, then signed off: “I copy. Ivan-Vasiliy-Semyon out.”

“So?” Gosha prompted.

“We do this like we planned it,” Olga answered, laying her borrowed rifle on the ground. “Anton, set up the launcher. Gosha, watch the footpath. Southpaw, watch the tower. German, Vitka, give me your rifle grenades.”

Tiger unlatched the bottom of the SKS's magazine, dumped out the cartridges and dropped them into an empty pocket. Pressing it shut again, he drew the bolt back, ejecting the tenth round, and pocketed that too.

“I don't have a clear shot through the reeds,” Southpaw warned. “I'm moving to the left a little.”

Olga busied herself unscrewing safety caps and arming pins. “If they look this way, hit the dirt.”

The NSPUM slid off its mounting rail with a faint scrape of metal on metal when Tiger pulled out the locking lever. Setting down the carbine for a few moments, he seated protective caps over the night sight's lenses and tucked the device into his largest vest pouch. “Blanks?”

Olga dropped four fresh cartridges into his upturned palm. “Here.”

Tiger pressed them into the magazine one by one, checking the crimped mouth of each with his fingertip, then reached over the barrel and raised the grenade launching sight, engaging the gas system's cutoff valve automatically. “Launcher ready,” he reported, handing the weapon over to his companion.

“Load one.”

The fishing hamlet consisted of a cottage, a boathouse and a covered jetty arrayed around a well and an open fire pit. According to Galina and Dmitriy, the Paladin men only slept in the cottage, as the other buildings were too far decayed to protect them from inclement weather. From this information Olga devised a stratagem to awaken the enemy in the rudest of fashions: Tiger picked up the first of the grenades she had arrayed on the earth between herself and him, a high explosive fragmentation charge with a bluntly truncated conical nose, and pushed it down over the Simonov's muzzle spigot. “One ready!”

“Last call,” Olga warned, tucking the Yugo's butt under her arm. “Is everyone set?”

“We're waiting on you,” Vitka hissed back. “Do it.”

The bolt snapped into battery. “Iacta alea esto.”

Pomf!

Tiger thought he saw a momentary streak of white from the grenade's plastic tail fins as the projectile sailed off into the dark. Snatching up another, he rammed it onto the launcher. “Two ready!”

Olga smartly racked the bolt carrier, loading a new blank as the first detonation's thunderclap rolled across the marshes. Pomf!

***

Yevgeniy inhaled the gob of saliva he had been about to launch over the edge of the platform. He fumbled for his weapon, coughing violently as more explosions rocked the fishing hamlet. His heart pounded in his ears, adrenaline surging, confused fingers sliding over the anodized housing of the light amplifier strapped to his head.

“We're hot, we're hot.” The Compressor's voice was strangely calm. “Contacts north-northea – ”

Pakh-pakh-pakh-pakh! Pokh-pokh!

Yevgeniy turned his head to the right and felt a heavy wetness spray across his face, spattering the lenses of his night vision rig. The G3ZF slipped from his hands, clattering on the tower platform as its owner recoiled with a shriek.

***

“One's dead. I think the other is wounded.”

“Good.” Olga handed the empty SKS back to Anton, listening intently all the while. Between the wailing on the tower and the screams from the fishing hamlet, she could hear bursts of automatic gunfire in the west. “Hatchet's team is moving in,” she said, giving herself a quick pat-down to make sure her array of hand grenades were still in place. “Let's move.”

Anton and Gosha cut to the right and made a beeline for the tower, skirting the reeds on the near side of the old footpath. “I'll go first,” the former offered, drawing his backup pistol.

Stay safe, Olga prayed. Picking up her own weapon, she reactivated the sight and snugged the butt against her shoulder. “Follow my lead,” she commanded.

“Right behind you,” Southpaw confirmed as he, Vitka and German fell into an uneven flying wedge, all moving with the same hunched hustle as the woman at their front. Their eyes roved constantly, on the alert both for enemy silhouettes ahead and telltale signs of mines underfoot.

***

They were coming for him now. Yevgeniy huddled up against the sandbags stacked along the platform's edge, pointing his sidearm at the top of the stairs with shaking hands. The attackers' boots clanged against corrosion-streaked steps as they ascended, zeroing in on the cornered mercenary.

idontwanttodieidontwanttodieidontwanttodie –

A ball of dirty white flame popped out of the darkness in front of him. The bullet failed to penetrate his vest, but the transferred force of impact felt like a hammer blow to his sternum. Yevgeniy squeezed convulsively, the Jericho's backstrap slamming into the web between thumb and forefinger.

His assailant wasn't content with shooting him once, or twice, or even thrice: eight rounds pounded Yevgeniy's body, leaving him wheezing in breathless agony. As he slumped, a vicious silhouette looming before his teary eyes, he suddenly realized that he'd never gotten a chance to swap out the depleted batteries in his radio.

Then he fainted.

***

Gosha's voice pushed through the chaotic ambiance. “The tower is ours! We've got your backs!”

Perfect timing. Olga would have preferred to use hand signals, but in the dark, with teammates who didn't have time to thoroughly learn all the combinations, it was too risky. “Two by two, guys! Southpaw, stick with me!”

“Yeah, yeah!”

The hamlet was just ahead, on the other side of a rickety wooden bridge. The grenade barrage had done a nice job on the cottage, smashing the split-log wall and collapsing the roof above it. Chunks of plaster and jagged timber splinters littered the ground.

“Where are the sentries?” Southpaw whispered, taking the right side of the bridge. “Did we get them all?”

Olga also expected more opposition: by the sound of things, Hatchet's fifteen man squad had gotten into a serious firefight outside the back door to the abandoned base. “German,” she instructed, “Vitka, move up. Use that truck for cover.”

“Moving...”

The upper strut of the rifle stock's steel frame remained firmly pressed against Olga's jaw as the pair slipped between her and her wingman, angling towards the belly of the overturned wreck which lay to her right. Her fingers danced on the Kalashnikov's purple plastic handguard, expressing an agitation she couldn't put into words. Come out, come out, wherever you are...

“Olga, there are a few in the back of the house!”

Thanks, Anton. “Southpaw, we're gonna put some grenades into those left-side windows. Ready?”

“Yeah!”

The cottage interior was divided by a lateral wall, built around a brick oven and chimney. Olga's bombardment had brought down part of the chimney along with the roof, choking the front room with debris and blocking the entrance. Anyone still alive in the back room would have to dig their way out, or else shimmy through the windows. Job well done.

Not that she intended to give them that chance: ghostly obstacles stretched and contracted as they passed in and out of the piggybacked sight's grainy fisheye image. The blond woman circled around to the cottage's outer side, body tensed like the proverbial spring. Her heart soared inside her tightly bound chest, fueled by the same excitement which perhaps once gripped another Cherenkov when he passed through this land in the driver's seat of a lumbering tank destroyer, pushing back a former generation of invaders.

Here goes!

Olga crouched, pressing herself against the wall, and laid her weapon against it. Ordering Southpaw to stay put via the sign of a raised hand, she crept forwards alone. The back room had two windows on this side, with shutter hinges rusted open and moldering frames which had long ago lost their panes. As she crawled under the first window, the prowler's ears picked up a furtive voice from inside the structure: “...Are still with me. I've got no contact with the tower or the men posted outside, no idea of enemy strength or position. Need urgent backup, over!”

The Bulgarian-made grenade's steel shell was cool to the touch, its shape a smooth ovoid except for the crimped lip around the middle. Reaching an optimal distance, Olga pulled the pin, raised her arm and neatly pitched the RGD-5 over the second window's sill. She withdrew immediately, hearing a percussive pop when the fuze ignited. Grenade number two went in through the first window moments later, as the grenadier backpedaled towards Southpaw.

“AND THE TROGDOR COMES IN THE NIIIII – ”

***

Yevgeniy thought he heard 'Mad Matt' O'Toole's voice in the distance, just before the double blast shook his pain-fogged mind out of its stupor. He was still on the tower's platform, facedown with his wrists tied behind himself, and his ribs hurt so badly that he couldn't even begin to guess how many of them might be broken... And yet, somehow, he was still alive.

“Enemy reinforcements coming up from the right!”

The machine gun chattered. Yevgeniy pressed his face into the deck, squeezing his eyes shut.

***

German made way as Olga and Southpaw dashed to the truck. “How'd you make out?”

“Never saw us coming,” the woman panted, checking her fire selector by touch. “Look alert, guys. We got – ”

“Olga!” There was another burst from the M60, punctuated by the SKS, and then an answering fusillade from the other side of the hamlet. “Right side, guys! Right side!”

“Southpaw, with me! You two, hold down the flank!”

“Okay!”

“Let's go!” Olga rolled out of cover and sprinted up the middle, towards the well. German and Vitka headed for the outside corner of the boathouse as she put the hamlet's fire pit behind her.

“The outpost is overrun!” The enemy was close, close enough that Olga could hear a rough voice barking orders beyond the boathouse. “Frag it!”

Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. Thus wrote Congreve, but a woman scorned was nothing beside a mother defending her mate. The Russian whipped around the southwest extremity of the moss-blotched ruin, pulled in the slack and aimed for center of mass as the silhouette among the bushes coiled to launch the object in its hand. The AKS-74 delivered her counter-prescription perfectly, injecting the specter with five doses of hot metal in precise 5.45 millimeter increments.

“Grenade on the ground! Baxter, roll up, roll – ” Bam!

“Miller..? Miller!”

“Goddammit, I'm hit!”

“White's down! He's bleeding out, somebody help me!”

“Stay in defilade, don't give them targets... Lewis, med kit! Lewis!”

“YEEEAAAAAAARGH!” The vanguard stalkers ducked as a swarm of bullets bit into their cover, throwing out chips of sun-bleached wood. “FUCKING COMMIES!” the gunman screamed, his voice cracking as he emptied his magazine. “I'LL KILL YOU, YOU SLAV SHITS! AAAAAAAAAAUGH!”

The outburst dispelled whatever fragile pity Olga might have felt for her foes' predicament. “Screw this,” she spat, waving Southpaw forwards. “Hit 'em again.”

***

That was the eighth explosion since the attack began, if Yevgeniy was counting right.

Not much else to do but count, he thought despondently as the machine gun roared anew. Count the blasts, count the bullets, count the bodies. It was only a matter of time before the stalkers finished with his comrades and turned their fury on him, battered and trussed up so they could play with him at their leisure. They would know it was he who shot the man in black, and what they might do to him for that didn't bear thinking about.

“I'm reloading.”

They spoke Russian, but with an accent that sounded utterly alien to Yevgeniy's ears. Turning his head, the defeated sniper could see the one on the left doing something with his weapon. “You stay put,” the man said coldly, throwing a look over his shoulder and startling Yevgeniy again.

“He's awake?” the machine gunner inquired.

“Yeah.” Kachak! “Sounds like Hatchet is wrapping up.”

“Didn't take long.”

“Less than ten minutes.” The first stalker raised his carbine and scanned the battleground. “I don't see any more movement.”

***

“Did we get them all?”

“Maybe.” Olga leaned around the corner, cautiously scoping the reeds. “German, you got anything?”

“Nothing over here!”

“All right... Anton, are you guys okay up there?”

“We're fine,” came the returning call. “We've got a prisoner!”

“Good!” Olga checked the corner again. “Okay,” she muttered to herself, “okay... Give it another minute and then we'll regroup.”

“Mm.” Southpaw was looking the other way, back towards the cottage. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“I thought I – wait!”

The shooting from Hatchet's frontline stopped for a few moments, and in that brief interval Olga also heard the distant thudding. “Sit tight,” she told Southpaw, backtracking towards the hamlet's entrance. There was no mistaking the noise once she turned her face towards the pale glow which was beginning to spread over the treeline. “Helicopter coming in from the east!”

“Great,” Vitka complained. “Now what?”

“I'm gonna signal it.” Olga slung her rifle and unzipped the pouch on her left hip. “Let 'em know we're the good guys.”

Her superiors in the Security Service generally took a hands-off stance about the equipment used by their deep cover agents inside the Zone. The list of mandated items was short, its most important contents being the agent's proof of identity and a set of colored signaling cartridges. The choice of launcher was left up to the men in the field: Olga's own was a Polish copy of a single shot Red Army model which she, as Anatoly Tourist, had bought from Sidorovich.

Green, then white... Green, then white...

To identify herself for military forces, she had to launch two flares according to a sequence which was rotated every month. There were three sets in the pouch, bundled in pairs for quick access. Extracting one set, Olga opened the ungainly pistol's breech, rammed in the green shell, and pointed it into the darkest heavens.

Pssssscht!

***

Yevgeniy blinked as the sudden, lurid brightness washed over him. Why was that woman trying to draw the chopper's attention? These guys couldn't be tied into the military – the client's man had assured his fellow mercenaries that the army and security forces wouldn't interfere with their mission.

The client's man...

A second pyrotechnic went up, a pure white one. Yevgeniy looked at his captors as it passed, seeing them clearly for the first time. Those uniforms, with camouflage that might look more suitable on marines storming a beach, were unlike anything he'd seen in the briefings.

“Who are you p – ”

BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRROOMF!

“...Eep.”

***

“Mug! Do it!”

Badger saw/heard the flash/pop as the Stinger was ejected from its launch tube, but the hiss of the missile's rocket motor was blotted out by a wave of juddering blasts to the north and east. “That's a hit,” Mug reported, his customary air of clinical detachment unshaken. “Bogey is going down.”

“Get another launcher and stand by,” Hatchet ordered. “Badger!”

The pointman jumped to attention. “Here!”

“Reinforce the stalkers. Take Pianist, Tank, Greaser and Goblin.”

“Roger!” Badger headed for the gate in the encampment's overgrown perimeter fence, tweaking the night vision goggles he'd swiped from a Paladin casualty on the way in. The others fell in behind him as he pushed the gate aside and headed into the surrounding thicket.

“Nice time for the army to show up,” Goblin griped. “Way to fuckin' kill the buzz, yeah?”

“Never mind your buzz,” said Tank sourly. “Why did the baddies have a pile of anti-air missiles lying around? What is this, Chechnya?”

“Hush!” Badger pushed out of the bushes, his shotgun trained on the ground several paces ahead. “Watch your step, boys!”

A corpse lay draped across the middle of the plank bridge which spanned the first of the marsh's many channels. Badger counted seven more on the slope of the low hillock beyond it, strewn over churned and ripped soil. All of them were enemies. “Hey, stalkers!” the mercenary called. “Friendlies coming in!”

There was no answer, so he gritted his teeth and pressed onward through the thick reeds. The watchtower, the monolithic obstacle which he had marked on his map and furtively observed from a distance, now rested parallel to the ground in a twisted heap of corroded girders, its foundation rent asunder by the helicopter's rockets. “I hope nobody was on that thing,” Tank murmured, putting Badger's own somber sentiment into words.

The mercs turned right and headed for the boathouse. They found the first friendly casualties there, huddled at the foot of the north corner. Poor bastards, thought Badger. The Mi-24s which patrolled the Zone's perimeter were fitted with thermal imaging gear: even if the stalkers had run, they couldn't have hidden from it for long. “Meteorologist and Fisher are dead,” he announced curtly. “Well, I think it's Meteorologist.”

“Huh?” Pianist pushed to the front of the group to get a look, recoiling sharply when he realized one of the bodies was missing most of its head. “Oh fu – ”

“Don't puke in your gas mask.” Battlefield humor kicked in as Badger walked around the fallen. “It's unprofessional.”

In truth, Badger felt pretty nauseous himself as he turned right again and entered the hamlet, noting another dead Paladin slumped over the pile of sandbags at the threshold. He found the third stalker sprawled beside the inner wall of the boathouse, the wall itself stained dark with blood liberated by the flying reaper's massive bullets. The fourth member of the party was huddled nearby, evidently in shock. “Killed instantly,” the survivor mumbled. “Nothing I could do...”

Badger decided he'd seen enough and picked up his radio. “Badger calling Hatchet... I'm in the fishing hamlet, over.”

“How does it look? Over.”

Badger swallowed. “It's, um... it's pretty bad.”

He was trying to think of what to say next when a cry of anguish sounded amongst the tower ruins. “Olgaaaaaaa!”
  20:40:10  5 June 2011
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Do0mzday-Jesus
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
Fantastic chapter, good sir. Keep 'em coming!
  00:18:27  3 July 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
While flipping through my files, I rediscovered a Zone guide and character reference sheet which I wrote more than a year ago for a reader who'd never played the games. I can bring it up to date and post it if anyone is interested.
  09:08:15  3 July 2011
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100RadsBar
100RadsBar - Formerly known as LoboTheMan
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 06/03/2009
Messages: 1634

---QUOTATION---
While flipping through my files, I rediscovered a Zone guide and character reference sheet which I wrote more than a year ago for a reader who'd never played the games. I can bring it up to date and post it if anyone is interested.
---END QUOTATION---



Yes please

Good thing that summer vacation is on the way, lets me take the time to follow up on all the good stories in here
  21:14:52  7 July 2011
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belizarius
Strelok Holmes
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/02/2009
Messages: 222

---QUOTATION---
While flipping through my files, I rediscovered a Zone guide and character reference sheet which I wrote more than a year ago for a reader who'd never played the games. I can bring it up to date and post it if anyone is interested.
---END QUOTATION---


I am very interested
  08:05:48  9 July 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
07/09/2011 19:08:38
Messages: 3336
WARNING - UNMARKED SPOILERS FOR THE STORY AND ALL THREE GAMES

Well, here it is. Don't expect anything great. The character list is limited to people who have actually appeared or been mentioned in the story, and I've taken the liberty of correcting some of the games' English name transliterations.

The Zone – Places, Factions and People

The Zone

The original Zone of Alienation was a thirty kilometer restricted area straddling the border between northern Ukraine and Belarus, established following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. It was radically transformed when a second explosion of unknown nature occurred near the nuclear plant on April 12th, 2006. The second blast killed virtually all persons working inside the Zone, and was followed by sporadic growth of the Zone's border. The interior became almost completely inaccessible, filled with aggressive mutant animals and anomalies which defied the conventional laws of physics, and rocked by violent energy storms called 'blowouts'.

After the initial attempt to secure the new Zone with military power ended in complete disaster, the Ukrainian government sealed off the region. Deadly emissions raged through 2008, but by 2010 the Zone had stabilized enough that hundreds of so-called 'stalkers' could enter it for weeks or even months at a time, drawn by the lucrative profits of the black market trade in mysterious artifacts created by the anomalies.

On September 9th, 2011 an abnormally large blowout shook the Zone, altering the distribution of anomalies and changing the paths to safe ground. The balance of power between the various stalker groups was upset, triggering a series of bloody faction wars. By the time the wars petered out with the onset of winter, two factions had abandoned their bases, one had undertaken a massive migration to the unknown lands at the center of the Zone, and another had disappeared completely.

The winter saw a return to relative tranquility, but the arrival of spring was accompanied by renewed rumblings of trouble. It is now May 2012, and the Zone may not remain peaceful much longer...

The Cordon

A strip of land on the Zone's southern edge, where the perimeter is thin enough for stalkers to sneak in and out. The military operates a blockpost on the road leading north, while the rookie stalkers inhabit an abandoned village a short distance away. Landmarks include a railroad line with a wrecked bridge spanning the road, a deserted garage and a gutted pig farm which was formerly a stalker base. Sidorovich the trader lives in a bunker by the rookie camp.

The Swamps

Just to the west of the Cordon is a sprawling marsh, bordered by the railroad tracks on its north side, a shallow river on the west and the Zone perimeter on the south. The swamps are dotted with abandoned farmsteads and fishing outposts. Notable sites are an orthodox church, a water pumping station and a machine shop. The reclusive Clear Sky faction formerly had its base in this area.

The Darkscape

A shallow, meandering canyon to the east of the Cordon, with a pair of roads running through it. The Darkscape is not a popular destination for stalkers due to its poor artifact yields. Those who do enter the area are usually just passing through on their way between the Cordon and the Dark Valley to the north. The only features of interest are a decaying village, a run-down service station and another rail bridge.

The Garbage

Due north of the Cordon is the aptly named Garbage, where free stalkers and bandits alike ply their trades. The piles of half-buried radioactive junk attract anomalous activity, and thus are breeding grounds for artifacts. A scrapyard containing trucks, buses and helicopters contaminated during the 1986 disaster is frequently used as a campsite, and the large train hangar, which was the bandits' main base before faction wars, is now claimed by the stalkers as well. At the north end of the Garbage is a shunt left behind from a dismantled water pipeline, where the Duty faction guards the road to Rostok.

The Agroprom

West of the Garbage and north of the Swamps is the Agroprom, a wet, hilly area where anomalies churn out large numbers of low-value artifacts. There are two facilities: the Agroprom Research Institute, which originally conducted research on crop growth in irradiated soil, and a deserted factory a short distance to the northeast. A large complex of underground ventilation and maintenance shafts runs throughout the area. Duty used the ARI as a base during the faction wars, while the factory was a fortress for free stalkers.

The Dark Valley

A dismal place, as the name implies. It lies just east of the Garbage, and the unfinished factories in its north and east parts are havens for bandits. The north factory was Freedom's base during the faction wars, while the pig farm at the south end is usually inhabited by loners. A heavy locked door in the basement of the eastern factory is rumored to be the entrance of a secret laboratory.

The Bar

North of the Garbage is the sprawling Rostok tractor factory, the east half of which is the Rome of the Zone. The Hundred Rads Bar and Arnie's Arena take care of a stalker's needs, while the nearby headquarters of Duty oversee the policing of the southern Zone.

The Wild Territory

The west part of Rostok is another matter. Beyond the Duty barricades is a vicious free-for-all where survival of the fittest is paramount. Bloodsuckers and snorks infest the factory ruins, while mercenaries, bandits and the odd cluster of wandering zombies prey on the stalkers who come to gather high-grade artifacts.

Yantar

A stalker brave enough to follow the road west out of the Wild Territory will arrive at Yantar. The eponymous lake has dried up, leaving a shallow marsh, and the factory ruins overlooking its historic shore teem with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of snorks and zombified stalkers. The scientists who live in the heavy bunker on the lakebed have ascertained that the zombies are created by a powerful psionic energy emitter hidden underneath the factory.

The Army Warehouses

Northeast of Rostok is a former military supply depot, the site of Freedom's present base of operations. A small, bloodsucker-ridden village lies across the road coming up from Hundred Rads, while other roads run west to the Dead City and east to the Brain Scorcher. This is the edge of the known lands: the Red Forest lies just to the north, and a large portion of Freedom's strength is devoted to securing the Barrier, the main defense against mutant hordes and Monolith raids coming down from the unknown territories. The warehouses were the Ukrainian military's only base deep inside the Zone prior to the faction wars, when the last defenders were eradicated by Freedom and mercenaries.

The Dead City

A ghost town north of Yantar and west of the Army Warehouses. Those who enter it do not return, though mercenaries are reported to be active in the vicinity.

The Brain Scorcher

The main obstacle on the road to Pripyat and the Zone's center lies northeast of the Freedom base, where the abandoned missile-detecting radar complex on the edge of the Red Forest has been converted by powers or persons unknown into a powerful psi-emitter. Stalkers who approach the Scorcher are zombified or killed outright, and if the Scorcher doesn't get them the vigilant Monolith troops or terrifying mutants will. Anyone wishing to shut it down would need to survive the psi-field long enough to get into the bunkers under the radar complex, a task presently thought to be nearly impossible.

The Red Forest

Most of the forest is, in fact, green and brown. It takes its name from a historical predecessor, but the radiation levels are still quite high in some places. The western side of the forest is accessible to stalkers, but heavy anomalies, mutants and Monolith patrols make it an unappealing place to work. In the middle of the forest are a series of forgotten mine tunnels and a ranger station.

Limansk

A sinister place even before the 1986 disaster, according to those who were alive to see it. Limansk was a closed town built to house a scientific community, and hosted research facilities as well as a large antenna array. It was not evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster and was still inhabited when the modern Zone appeared in 2006. Limansk could not be approached from the south until the large blowouts during September 2011 briefly opened it up to stalkers. Rumors of a safe path past the Brain Scorcher drew members of all factions, but the way was soon closed by more emissions. Limansk has been blanketed by a dense fog since the end of 2011, and what goes on inside remains a mystery.

The Hospital

The second route north supposedly ran from Limansk through a buried and partially collapsed hospital. The hospital is inaccessible to stalkers, and it presumably falls within Monolith jurisdiction.

Pripyat

The famous ghost city where the Chernobyl plant workers and their families lived before the original crisis. The headquarters of the Monolith faction are in or near Pripyat, which is assumed to hold a bonanza of artifacts. Notable sites include the Ferris wheel, Prometheus Theater, sports center and stadium.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Formally the Atomic Electricity Station named for V. I. Lenin, the NPP was the source of the 1986 disaster. The 2006 event originated roughly half a kilometer north of the plant itself, which apparently survived with minimal damage. Since aircraft and even spy satellites can no longer fly safely over the Zone, what goes on at the plant today is a total mystery. The NPP lies southeast of Pripyat, but cannot be accessed directly from the south because of a series of massive spatial anomalies collectively known as the 'Big Rip'.

Jupiter Radio Factory

The Jupiter plant on the west outskirts of Pripyat was a nominal subsidiary of the Mayak Radio Factory in Kiev, tasked with production of civilian electronics. In fact it is suspected to have spent its early days building computer equipment for the Soviet armed forces, and after 1986 the site was used as a development facility for equipment related to the Chernobyl cleanup and monitoring programs. Jupiter has been cut off from the outside since 2006, but it would likely be a treasure trove of technical material should a viable path to the center be opened. Nearby locations of interest include the Yanov railway station.

Zaton

A dried-up backwater north of Pripyat, littered with the rusting hulks of ships scuttled after the first disaster. Will likely become the next Rostok if stalkers break through to the center in large numbers.

The Generators

(NO DATA)

Factions

Free Stalkers

Drawn by the artifacts in the Zone or driven by desperate circumstances outside of it, lone stalkers can be found almost anywhere human life will survive. Operating singly or in small groups, they spend their days combing anomalies for items of value, hunting mutants and fending off bandits. The black market supplies stalkers with weapons and equipment, while a covert industry on the Zone's fringes produces a range of protective gear tailored to local conditions. Rookies usually wear leather jackets or anoraks, while more experienced stalkers use the all-purpose 'Sunrise' suit, the SEVA closed-cycle hazard suit or even powered exoskeletons based on rejected military designs.

Bandits

Criminals of varying skill and specialty who leech off the stalkers through robbery and extortion: high-risk work in a place where virtually everybody carries at least one gun. In recent months the bandits have formed an alliance with mercenaries in order to fend off the punitive raids of Duty. Bandits generally adhere closely to the slang and mannerisms of the Russian gopnik subculture. Typical garb consists of leather jackets and tracksuit pants, or trench coats with hoods.

Ukrainian Armed Forces

The soldiers who patrol the Zone's borders are a miserable lot, poorly funded and equipped and suffering from chronic low morale. Their orders are to shoot stalkers on sight, but many are driven by greed or desperation to take bribes and even sell hardware to those they are supposed to be keeping out of the Zone. High-priority operations are handled by helicopter-deployed spetsnaz, who are far less inclined to hold fire around stalkers and receive no such consideration in turn. For raids deep into the Zone, the military relies on veteran ex-stalkers recruited into its ranks. These military stalkers are rarely seen but universally hated, as they hold no compunction about shooting their former brothers.

Duty

Founded by survivors of the Ukrainian military's catastrophic early raids into the Zone, Duty holds that the Zone is a danger to mankind and must be contained if not destroyed outright. The faction is neutral towards free stalkers and devotes its time to purging mutants and bandits, as well as waging a long war against Freedom. Dutyers despise the military which abandoned them, but maintain links with the special forces and security services. Duty's uniform color is red on black, and their standard issue consists mainly of Soviet and Russian weapons.

Freedom

Duty's ideological opposite, this coalition of anarchists, adventurers and free spirits believes that the Zone is a gift which must be open to all. In addition to fighting Duty and the military, Freedom is the southern Zone's first line of defense against Monolith raids. Like Duty, Freedom actively trades with and recruits from the free stalker populace. Freedom stalkers wear green Flecktarn camouflage and use NATO weapons.

Mercenaries

Once a highly respected faction made up of consummate professionals, the mercenaries have declined so far as to become little more than elite bandits. A base hidden deep inside the Zone allows them to raid virtually any part of the known lands. The mercenaries' colors are blue and gray, and like Freedom they prefer American and western European weapons.

Ecologists

The only non-military group with official permission to enter the Zone, these scientists are well-funded but fight poorly and are plagued by shortages of manpower. They frequently hire free stalkers to assist them in field work and enjoy good relations with Duty, but are picked on by Freedom and often raided by mercenaries. Ecologists wear orange or green closed-cycle suits which protect well against anomalies, but not against bullets. In the field they sometimes carry obsolete or low-cost NATO ordnance.

Monolith

A strange cult which formed in the known lands and engaged in a wholesale exodus to the north shortly before the beginning of the faction wars. Having found a way to survive in the center of the Zone, the Monolith loyalists fanatically attack anyone who attempts to approach it. They apparently believe in the existence of a powerful alien stone which appeared inside the sarcophagus of the Chernobyl NPP, known to other stalkers as the legendary 'Wish Granter'. Monolith adepts wear brown-tinted urban camouflage of uncertain manufacture and carry high-power weapons, including devices which do not exist outside the Zone.

Clear Sky

A reclusive faction which professed that humanity must learn to understand and coexist with the Zone. They quietly conducted research from their base in an out-of-the-way corner of the swamps until the massive emissions of 2011. Clear Sky's investigation of the event led them to undertake a full-power raid to the center of the Zone, from which none returned. Those who stayed behind were hunted and eliminated by unknown parties, or else scattered and driven into concealment. Their agents wore either conventional stalker outfits or uniforms with a blue and white sky pattern.

Dark Stalkers

Legend has it that the dark stalkers are horribly disfigured men who worship the Zone and cannibalize those unfortunates who stumble across them. Dark stalkers, so the story goes, have no eyes, but instead find their way through some sixth sense. They supposedly hide their mutilated faces under the hoods of long coats and wield unearthly weapons of their own creation. Even the Monolith are said to fear them.

Zombies

Stalkers of any rank or faction may join the zombie horde if they are exposed to excessive psi-radiation. Severe brain damage reduces them to wandering, babbling shells, attacking those who do not succumb or staggering about until exposure finishes them off.

Persons

Aleksey Antonovich Cherenkov

Son of Tiger and Olga Cherenkova. Idolizes the father he has never met.

Anatoliy Tourist

Appeared to be a competent stalker who undertook long expeditions into the Zone, wearing a custom suit with extra pockets and an enlarged backpack.

Anvil

A captain of the Monolith faction. Carries a deep respect for Tiger, Forester and the others who were touched by the Zone's coming.

Arnie

Runs the arena in Rostok, where stalkers fight against mutants and each other.

Badger

A mercenary specializing in close-range combat. Nostalgic for the days when mercenaries were respected and trusted by other stalkers. Transferred from Wolfhound's team to Hatchet's on his own request.

Baldy

A stalker who practically lives in the Hundred Rads, interrupted by the occasional Arena match.

Bandicoot

A veteran of the faction wars, later promoted to commissar rank and tasked with supervising free stalkers doing work for Duty. Won a very fine rifle from a Freedom member in a boxing match. Killed by Yevgeniy in the marshes.

Barkeep

Neither good nor evil, the Hundred Rads' master is a true force of neutrality. He maintains extensive connections and knows something about everything.

Baxter

Paladin mercenary with a strong Mainer accent. Killed by a friendly grenade.

Bes

Wolf's counterpart in the Garbage, leading teams of stalkers in battle against the bandits.

Boris Pyotrovich Kondratenko

A soldier assigned to guard the Agroprom underground. His terror of the Zone drove him to desert, and he became the only survivor of Marked One's raid on the army camp. Picked up by Tiger's group after wandering into the swamps.

Borov

Current bandit kingpin, fat and sadistic. Killed his predecessor Yoga for being exactly what he himself has become. Has all but declared war on Duty and the free stalkers.

Brome

A pathetic Duty stalker. Been a heavy drinker since he lost his newly issued rifle in the Dark Valley.

Bullet

A no-nonsense Duty marksman. Led the reconnaissance party which was attacked by a chimera in the Dark Valley.

Buzzard

A stalker with the distasteful habit of searching corpses for valuables. Brought Marked One to Sidorovich.

Cap

Commander of the Freedom troops at the Barrier. An older man who still prefers to work in the field.

Chef

Freedom's cook. His culinary skill makes up for his love of boozing and brawling.

Chekhov

Leader of Freedom at the time of the faction wars. Sold weapons to Clear Sky.

Clumsy

A twenty year old orphan living on handouts and sympathy. Tags along with more experienced stalkers, but usually just brings them trouble. Badly indebted to many.

Cold

Ran a bar at the Clear Sky swamp base. Fond of telling dirty jokes. Fate unknown.

Dmitriy Batov

A son of Belarusian dissidents who came to the Zone with his girlfriend Galya. Seems to be the quiet one in their relationship.

Drifter

A rookie at the time of the faction wars, Drifter rose to become an experienced stalker. He helped Worm in his investigations and was killed by bandits while attempting to retrieve a Clear Sky document cache.

Doc

A reclusive stalker whom the Zone gifted with a miraculous healing ability. Helped Ghost, Fang and Strelok in their investigations. Has been in hiding since the faction wars.

Edward Ashpool

Paladin mercenary with cyberpunk tastes, 'Edward the Compressor' to his friends. Killed by Southpaw.

Fanatic

Wolf's best friend, aggressive and purposeful.

Fang

A friend of Ghost and Strelok who talked with a lisp. Presumably went to the center of the Zone with them. Was assassinated near the Army Warehouses by mercenaries working for Clear Sky.

Fist

A brash young Monolith adept. Highly skeptical of Tiger's special status.

Forester

An old warden who was living in the Zone at the time of the 1986 disaster and never left it afterward. Like Tiger, he was gifted with a special sense by the 2006 incident. Disappeared during the winter of 2012, when he inexplicably ventured into Limansk.

Friar

A veteran bandit with two years' experience in the Zone. Likes old comic books. Something of a hypochondriac, not taken seriously by other bandits. Picked up Brome's special rifle after he lost it in the Dark Valley.

Galina Purkayeva

Estranged daughter of the Minister of Defense of Belarus who entered the Zone with her boyfriend Mitya, intent on becoming stalkers together.

Garik

Chief bouncer at the Hundred Rads. Doesn't talk much.

German Fisher

A former game warden who used a rod and reel to gather unreachable artifacts.

Ghost

An expert in stealth and friend of Fang and Strelok. Has been working with the ecologists in Yantar since Strelok disappeared. Formerly hunted by Clear Sky.

Georgiy Strongman

An unemployed professional translator. Gosha carried a large machine gun and greatly enjoyed tearing things up with it.

Goblin

A mercenary under Hatchet.

Greaser

A mercenary under Hatchet.

Guide

One of the very first stalkers, and a supreme navigator. Can lead his clients virtually anywhere if the price is right. Helped Strelok and his friends find a way past the Brain Scorcher.

Hatchet

A veteran mercenary commander of the old school. Leader of a squad tasked with destroying the Paladin mercenaries in the swamps, towards which end he agreed to cooperate with Tiger's group.

Hound

Wolf's younger brother. Gave up stalking and went back to the outside world after the faction wars.

Hunter

An upbeat rookie who swears by the shotgun he inherited from his father. Hangs around the Hundred Rads a lot.

Ivantsov

Duty's chief mutant-wrangler, supplying a regular menagerie to the Arena.

Kevin MacGruder

Paladin squad leader. A belligerent racist and heavy drug user with sociopathic tendencies.

Kirzach

A Russian mercenary under Hatchet.

Kitsenko

Duty sergeant in command of the south Rostok checkpoint.

Krivoi

A member of Bullet's team. MIA after the chimera encounter.

Kruglov

A biologist who often ventures away from Yantar to collect mutant specimens. A marginally better fighter than his colleagues.

Krylov

Leader of Duty at the time of the faction wars. Ironically a more easygoing man than his opponent Chekhov.

Kuznetsov

An army major posted to the Cordon base. Frequently pulls duty at the rail bridge so he can collect bribes from passing stalkers.

N. A. Lebedev

Worked at the NPP until 1986. Returned to the Zone as a researcher and founded Clear Sky after the second disaster. Presumed killed when Clear Sky tried to break through to the center.

Lefty

Leader of a group of free stalkers who helped Sakharov investigate the Yantar psi-emitter during the faction wars. Was called away before the work could be completed.

Leshiy

A former mercenary who joined Freedom. Disgust at his old comrades has left him jaded and cynical. Was once trapped in a looped space anomaly during the faction wars.

Lewis

Unstable Paladin mercenary. Killed by Olga.

Lugard

A stuffy English big game hunter who thought of the Zone as just another Serengeti.

Lukash

Leader of Freedom. Seems to be a Bob Marley fan.

Lynx

A female mercenary from Sevastopol, working primarily as a sharpshooter. Respected Tiger's skill with a rifle. Believed killed in a Monolith raid.

Mantis

A stalker who waged a one-man war against the bandits during the past winter, luring them into traps with his ventriloquist talent. He was finally killed by a large gang of criminals, though not before he inflicted heavy losses upon them.

Marked One

A tattooed stalker found near the wreck of a death truck in the Cordon. Suffers from amnesia but is a capable fighter. Has a strong altruistic streak. Does special work for Sidorovich and Barkeep while searching for his own identity, which seems to be linked to Strelok.

Matthew O'Toole

Paladin mercenary, serial prankster. Killed by Olga's grenades.

Max

A veteran guardian of Freedom, easily recognized by his shaved head.

Miller

Paladin squad leader, nicknamed 'Easy Eight'. Tried unsuccessfully to keep MacGruder under control. Casualty of a friendly grenade.

Mole

A digger, leader of a large stalker group investigating the tunnels under the Agroprom.

Mower

A mercenary under Hatchet.

Mug

A mercenary under Hatchet. Cool under pressure.

Mykola Sidorenko

Southpaw formerly worked as a master machinist. In the Zone he became a fair shot who hates bandits, and would attack any he met if he had better weapons. Fast on his way to becoming Tiger's best friend.

Nadezhda

Wolf's wife. They've had some fights, but remain together.

Nimble

A former Clear Sky scout who settled at the Cordon, disguised as a rookie loner. Stays close to Wolf and Sidorovich for his own protection, but has ambitions to be a trader in his own right.

Novak

Paladin mercenary.

Oak

A mercenary under Hatchet.

Oksana Stepanova

An elderly woman who once lived in Pripyat. She came back to the Zone to die after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Oleg 'Fiend' Gusarov

Ex-spetsnaz sniper and bomb technician. A true loner, always keeping an eye out for unwanted government agents.

Olga Ivanovna Cherenkova

Olga is a Russian from Bryansk, formerly employed by a government institute in Kiev. Always fascinated by the Zone, she was Tiger's girlfriend until his post-2006 trauma drove her to leave him. She gave birth to a son and later entered the Zone as an agent of the Security Service of Ukraine, using the cover identity of 'Anatoliy Tourist'. She is intelligent and resourceful, but also stubborn and fiercely independent.

Otter

A bewhiskered stalker who collected information, filling stacks of notebooks with data about the Zone. He was killed in an attempt to sneak past the Brain Scorcher.

Pavlik

A Freedom officer who sticks his nose where he shouldn't.

Petrukha

A hard-faced rookie stalker working as a scout for Wolf.

Pianist

A mercenary under Hatchet.

Poker

A vicious bandit of questionable sanity. Carries a custom automatic shotgun and suffers from frequent lapses of memory.

Razorback

A stalker who murdered his companions and committed suicide under strange circumstances. Was found near the Agroprom with a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattoo on his arm. Had disappeared in the Red Forest some time before he was rediscovered.

Sakharov

The professor in charge of the Yantar laboratory, who has been studying the Zone since 2007. Perhaps a little too eager to let hired stalkers conduct his field experiments.

Scar

A mercenary who helped Clear Sky track down Strelok's group. Had a hand in several pivotal events of the faction wars. Went to the center with Lebedev, presumed dead.

Screw

Mechanic at the Freedom base. Will fix anything for the stalker who brings him a bottle of good vodka.

Semenov

A research assistant at the Yantar lab. Hates zombies.

Shaggy Sergei

A Dutyer captured by bandits in the Dark Valley.

Shrimp

A bottom-tier bandit in Vasya Boar's entourage.

Sidorovich

A fat, greasy man who lives in a bunker near the rookie village at the Cordon. The primary trader for the lands south of Rostok, he also handles specific orders for clients on the outside. Drives a hard bargain and will weasel the unwary out of more than a handful of rubles.

Skinflint

Trader at the Freedom base. Charges a lot, but can get a determined customer almost anything.

Smartass

A university physics dropout who likes to show off his knowledge. A former friend of Baldy.

Snitch

An obnoxious person who deals in information. Dresses like a bandit and is suspected of Freedom sympathies.

Sparrow

At 27, Sparrow is a cunning and rather mean stalker with a long lucky streak. He celebrates the anniversary of his first brush with death in the Zone as a second birthday. Fancies himself a duelist, to Barkeep's irritation.

Spook

A mercenary under Hatchet. Owns an iPod filled with Sabaton albums.

Strelok

An elusive veteran stalker who is rumored to have made multiple trips to the center of the Zone. Was hunted by Clear Sky. Whereabouts unknown since the end of the faction wars.

Stuart

Lugard's stuffy English translator.

V. I. Suslov

A cofounder of Clear Sky and its base trader. Tried to hold the remains of the faction together after the loss of Lebedev. Fate unknown.

Tank

A mercenary under Hatchet.

Tiger

Anton Konstantinovich Petanko was born in Pripyat in 1983, the son of an NPP engineer. He grew up to be a surveyor in the Zone, and was one of the 2006 disaster's handful of survivors. The event left him psychologically scarred and eventually drove him back into the Zone, where he has been a stalker for some years. He uses the energy-detecting sixth sense he developed after the disaster to guide himself along safe paths, earning irregular employment as a guide and scout. His nickname comes from the stripes of mutated color in his hair, which he covers with a hooded coat. Tiger is a good marksman, but prefers to avoid conflict. He considers the Zone his only home and longs to revisit the Pripyat apartment where he spent his first years.

Tolik

A rookie stalker who does odd jobs for Sidorovich.

Vampire

A stalker whose comrades tend to die in murky circumstances.

Vasilyev

A scientist working in Yantar, often sent outside the bunker despite being nervy and liable to crack under pressure.

Vasko

A Duty member captured by Borov's bandits.

Vasya Boar

A mean bandit, Borov's deputy in the Garbage and prime opponent of Bes.

Vitaliy Meteorologist

After coming to the Zone, Vitka used his expertise in designing electronic instruments to create the prototype of the Svarog detector. He tended to conceal his educated background behind an uncouth and abrasive persona.

Voronin

Leader of Duty. A harsh, demanding man.

Warrant Officer

A Duty stalker, real name unknown. Faction recruiter, suspected of involvement with the Security Service.

Werewolf

A mercenary under Hatchet.

White

Paladin mercenary, friendly grenade casualty.

Wolf

A former miner who became a stalker to support his family. Has been trying to give up the stalker life for several months, but without success. Spends most of his time looking after rookies in the Cordon.

Wolfhound

A brutal mercenary veteran who acknowledges no law save the law of the jungle.

Worm

A former digger, specializing in recovery of scrap materials from the Zone. Was investigating the mystery of the death trucks and tattooed stalkers. Killed by Tiger after becoming a zombie at Yantar.

Yevgeniy

Sniper for the Paladin mercs. A man in a very tight spot.

Yoga

Bandit chief at the time of the faction wars. Was content to base his profits on mundane extortion of stalkers in the Garbage.

Zhorik

Relative of Garik and door greeter at the Hundred Rads. Mans the bar when Barkeep is out.
  17:09:31  25 August 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
  01:09:38  27 August 2011
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 1825
Where is the flying pig?
  20:19:04  28 August 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Random Helicopter got the drop on it.

(Need some motivation here.)
  23:38:37  10 September 2011
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Hazapuza
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/27/2008
Messages: 73
Well damn, the last couple of chapters were good stuff. Absolutely wonderful. You should've been the one to write the scripted battle scenes in the games.

Are we getting more soon?
  05:28:22  11 September 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
You should've been the one to write the scripted battle scenes in the games.
---END QUOTATION---


Arsenal Mod would be mandatory.


---QUOTATION---
Are we getting more soon?
---END QUOTATION---


I'm working on it, but it's going slowly. I'll go to the range tomorrow if the weather's good, and maybe that'll inspire me a bit.
  08:10:12  11 September 2011
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Thrashdude
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 01/15/2010
 

Message edited by:
Thrashdude
09/11/2011 9:11:56
Messages: 3940
Tiger's Spring

Mantis sounds like me.

And so far so good, you're skyscrapers above my writing skill.
  20:55:49  13 September 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
And so far so good, you're skyscrapers above my writing skill.
---END QUOTATION---


If so, it's only because I've been abusing my keyboard for eight years continuously.

All right, I've been thinking - and not about COMBUSTIBLE LEMONS, for a change.

We're starting to see S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans go commercial with their writing, having their stories published in print or as ebooks. (Any news over there, snorkbait?) Apparently GSC is receptive to this, and I've had a couple of people suggest that I should look into it as well.

I have mixed feelings about the idea.

On one hand, I'm trying to make the transition from writing as a hobby to writing as a profession. Being able to work on a story that counts for both would be a plus. On the other hand, Tiger's Spring isn't suitable for commercial publication and writing another story might force me to cut out some of its future subplots. On the third hand (because such is life in the Zone) I don't like the idea of suddenly charging people for something they've been able to read here, entirely gratis, for more than two years.

Can I get some other opinions?
  01:29:42  14 September 2011
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Thrashdude
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 01/15/2010
Messages: 3940
Tiger's Spring


---QUOTATION---
And so far so good, you're skyscrapers above my writing skill.
If so, it's only because I've been abusing my keyboard for eight years continuously.

All right, I've been thinking - and not about COMBUSTIBLE LEMONS, for a change.

We're starting to see S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans go commercial with their writing, having their stories published in print or as ebooks. (Any news over there, snorkbait?) Apparently GSC is receptive to this, and I've had a couple of people suggest that I should look into it as well.

I have mixed feelings about the idea.

On one hand, I'm trying to make the transition from writing as a hobby to writing as a profession. Being able to work on a story that counts for both would be a plus. On the other hand, Tiger's Spring isn't suitable for commercial publication and writing another story might force me to cut out some of its future subplots. On the third hand (because such is life in the Zone) I don't like the idea of suddenly charging people for something they've been able to read here, entirely gratis, for more than two years.

Can I get some other opinions?
---END QUOTATION---



To be honest, I don't read ebooks. And I don't pay over the internet (Steam and LoL is the only exception).

Hell, I was thinking about translating a classic in my native language to English and post it here so everyone could read it freely.
  21:56:39  16 September 2011
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Hazapuza
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/27/2008
Messages: 73
Naturally, if you can finish Tiger's Spring as you had originally planned and make it as polished as possible, and keep it free, that'd be the best solution for us readers.

Though I could very well imagine myself paying for some of your Stalker-related commercial publications, if you end up going professional.
  14:12:46  17 September 2011
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Bladewraith
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 10/21/2010
 

Message edited by:
Bladewraith
09/17/2011 14:13:53
Messages: 306
to be honest, although everyone would prefer for stories of your calibre to stay here and free. if your trying to bridge over to professional then i'd recommend that, you have the ability to do so, and some of us would buy them, and enjoy them. (myself included)

it'd be a shame to not get them here, but realistically it's in your best interest to give it a go, and these are obviously and easy way to do it. and worst case scenario, it doesn't work out and we get them back again, unlikely, but like i said, worst case scenario.
  04:35:21  15 November 2011
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Next chapter is almost done and should be up in the next few days.

To make up for these absurdly long delays, the chapter after it will be packed with wham-bang action. We will also be partnering with Mann Co. to bring you the hottest accessories for fictional characters everywhere.

Hats.
  01:14:18  25 December 2011
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Old Saint Nick's got bourbon breath
It's so cold you could catch your death
A cop sold me some crystal meth
It's a merry fucking Christmas!


The Hand of Zelenko

“Smirnov, Yevgeniy Maksimovich... That really your name?”

Yevgeniy nodded. Even speaking was painful after the assault's cumulative damage, and he wasn't quite sure how he'd survived that fall from the collapsing tower's stairs. He wasn't dead, at least, but he knew he might yet end up that way.

The man doing the interrogating wore the same blue and white camouflage as Yevgeniy's former assailants, plus a full-face gas mask, and carried a pump shotgun. “Looks as if somebody out here had it in for you,” he remarked coolly, turning the sheet of paper sideways. “Wrote 'fucking faggot' on the margin, then crossed out 'faggot' and wrote 'freak' under it.”

There was a bloodstain on the paper, a dark blot near the bottom. “Where did you find that?”

“In the pocket of a stiff back there.” The man with the shotgun waved towards the half-collapsed cottage. “Big guy with a ring through his nose.”

It could only be one person: the worst person to have a copy of Yevgeniy's file. “MacGruder...”

The penlight in the other man's hand wiggled. “Not a friend of yours, huh?”

Just considering it made the disarmed sniper's stomach turn. “I think he was going to kill me.”

“Yeah? What'd you do to deserve that?”

“I didn't do anything! I...” No, that wasn't true. “I missed.”

“Eh?”

“I missed,” Yevgeniy repeated numbly. “Then MacGruder told everyone I was traitor.”

“No shit.” The guard planted a fist on his hip. “Maybe we did you a favor, coming in when we did... So, how about you do us a favor and tell me about your contract?”

“I don't know anything about the contract.”

“And I work for the SCP Foundation.” Man-with-shotgun crouched in front of Yevgeniy, placing himself on the same eye level. “Lemme tell you something, buddy. That guy who tied you up is gonna come back, and he's not gonna be happy with you. This is his home and we're his guests, see, and you homewreckers just got his friends killed.” With the glow of the eastern sky behind him, the victor loomed large over the vanquished. “So if you do know something, you might want to share it before he gets here.”

***

The wooden deck of the pumping station cracked and splintered, rusted nails shrieking as they were wrenched loose by Tiger's boots. He charged on relentlessly, a ray of atomic vengeance racing ahead of the blast wave. Over the walkway, down the ramp and into the thickets flew the enraged stalker, leaving a length of pipe dangling from bolts half sheared away. One of the broad planks slid off and dropped into murky water with a quiet splash, but there was no one left to hear it.

The loner turned left, then right, following the old footpath. The helicopter had gone down near the spot where the stalkers had rescued Galina and Dmitriy, the same spot where the first shots were exchanged and Bandicoot fell. There was now enough light for Tiger to see the machine as he came out of the bushes: a hulk silhouetted against the open expanse of pools and twisting boardwalks just beyond.

At this range, the loss of the clumsy night sight no longer mattered.

His first shot flushed out the men hidden along the Mi-24's sides. The patrols flew with crews of five: pilot, copilot, two door gunners and a gofer. Five became four as Tiger advanced, rapid-firing with grim purpose. Another fell, and then the carbine's bolt locked in the rear position. The shooter reloaded in stride, stripping rounds into the magazine and flicking away the empty clip as two of the airmen retreated behind the helicopter's nose.

The third dove to the ground, or perhaps tripped and fell, and lost control of his weapon. More bullets quelled him before he recovered it. Tiger dropped the empty SKS, reached behind his back for the Chinese Tokarev and moved to his left, ducking under the upthrust tail boom. The outboard rocket pod on the port wing had torn off in the crash, while the inboard pod gouged a deep furrow into the wet soil. The lone gunman circled around, giving that spilled ordnance plenty of room, and set upon the last of the interlopers from their rear.

He shot the nearer one in the back of the head from a few paces' distance, swung his arm to the right and emptied his pistol into the final flier. The body slumped, bouncing off the helicopter's forward canopy dome, and collapsed across the elevated barrels of the nose gun. Tiger's retribution was complete, but he felt no triumph at the bloodshed once it was done... only a cold hollowness and a rising dread. Killing was easy, going back to the fishing hamlet and those whom he'd led to their undeserved deaths was –

“Anton!”

She followed him, just like she'd followed him into the Zone, followed him out to the Barrier, followed him back from Yantar. She followed him regardless of danger and regardless of his wishes... but this time he was grateful for that. “I'm here,” he called. “It's over.”

Olga was prudent, didn't relax her guard until after she closed the gap. “Are you okay?”

From his own perspective, Tiger wasn't the one who needed worrying about. “Gosha's dead.”

“I know... We lost German, Vitka and Southpaw too. The chopper got all of 'em.” Olga switched on her lamp and kicked one of the expired crewmen onto his back. “No way these fuckers couldn't see my flares... I'm not gonna let this slide. I'll have the whole goddamn airbase hauled up in front of a tribunal if that's what it takes.” She went around to the other side of the fuselage and pried open the pilot's hatch, muttering furiously under her breath.

Tiger listened to her for a couple of moments before refocusing. He dropped the Tokarev's magazine into the palm of his free hand and pocketed it. The pistol had gotten more use than he originally anticipated, and only eight rounds were left. “The mercenaries..?”

“Fine, I think. Didn't stick around for a head count... The missile knocked out all electrical systems. Nothing's working in here.” Olga slammed the canopy shut. “Another billion rubles down the drain.”

The last magazine slid in, engaging the pistol's catch with a sharp click. “Will you be in trouble for this?”

“Probably not,” the woman grunted. “The dead make the best scapegoats.” She turned away briefly, surveying the sky's violet hue at the boundary where it gave way to orange dawn. “We need to get back to the others.”

***

Southpaw still had a look of dismay on his face. One bullet, as wide as a little finger, had partially severed his left arm at the elbow. The other had gone through the Yugoslavian Kalashnikov's sheet metal receiver, through Southpaw's chest, and through the wall behind him. Even if Tiger had been right there, a Soul in his hands, he couldn't have reversed the damage.

Knowing that didn't make him feel any better.

There was still much to deal with, including a certain prisoner. Olga was already standing by that wretched individual when Tiger crossed the hamlet and rejoined her. “You found something?”

“Badger did.” Olga flicked a finger against the paper she held. “Our sniper here is a Latvian Russian... Yevgeniy Smirnov. Born in Riga, 1990. Stateless since 1991. Mother deceased, father in jail on a drugs conviction... The boy's an out-of-work team biathlete.” Yevgeniy flinched when she glanced at him, the headlamp's glare dazzling his eyes. “Not used to shooting at targets that move, are you?”

“...”

“I did get him to talk a little,” Badger volunteered, walking up with an armful of salvaged rifles. “But let's wait until we're somewhere safer. I'd rather not be here when the army comes looking for its lost crocodile.”

“Agreed.”

“We're shaking down the bodies for intel,” the merc went on, “but if this kid was telling the truth, we're not going to find much.”

“Here's to optimism,” Olga replied. “I'm going to call Hatchet and work out our next move, if that's all right.”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

Tiger watched his blond companion walk away in the half-light, alone with her radio. Above her on the upper deck of the boathouse, two mercenary sentries stood back to back watching the skies. A handful of surface-to-air missiles in long launch tubes were stacked between the timbers of the roof's stripped frame.

“Hey.” Badger hadn't budged. “You okay? I mean, relatively okay? Not hurt?”

“I'm fine.”

“I wish there were something I could have done. That was a good try with the flares, but you gotta use parachutes if you're jamming IR.”

“Mmf.” Tiger looked down at Yevgeniy again, but the youth averted his face. The stalker heard a mumble. “What was that?”

“...Why did you save me?”

Why? There weren't any 'whys' when the tower fell. Now that Tiger stopped and considered it, maybe it wasn't that he'd deliberately chosen to pull Yevgeniy to safety so much as that he hadn't decided to leave him.

***

“What about the bodies?”

“We don't have time to bury them,” said Hatchet. “That's one favor the army will do us.”

“But – ”

“I don't like it any more than you do.” The merc commander picked up four Galils, lashed together with their slings, and laid the bundle across his back. “But the sun's almost up and we're carrying extra weight already. We can't afford to be slowed down any more.”

Tiger couldn't bring himself to answer. He turned away, towards the corpses laid in a neat row by the well: Southpaw, headless Vitka, German with his guts spilling out, and Gosha lying tangled in the crushed frame of his exoskeleton. He didn't want to leave them, but Hatchet was right and Tiger himself was already loaded down with a machine gun, five pistols, three night sights and a slew of miscellaneous magazine pouches, on top of his own equipment...

Olga materialized out of the crowd around him. “It's all right,” she whispered. “I'll make sure they're taken care of.” The cartridge belt draped over her shoulders clinked when she squeezed his arm.

“Final gear check, people! Two minutes!”

“Anton, turn around... Okay, you're set. Do mine now.”

Olga's load was all ammo, excepting the rifles salvaged from German and Vitka. “I don't see anything wrong,” said Tiger, tugging the straps one at a time.

“Great, thanks.”

“On me, team!” Hatchet clapped his hands and the mercenaries flowed into marching form, all of them except Badger, Tank and Spook. “We'll see you at the machine yard!”

Hatchet led off along the trail to the pumping station, and the men followed him. “Well,” said Spook stoically, “this has not been the best raid ever.”

“Tell me about it.” Badger came up behind Yevgeniy and pulled him upright by the collar. “We're going to take a little stroll,” the former announced. “Don't run, 'cause if an anomaly doesn't shit you out in chunks, the feral pigs will.”

“He's not joking.” Tiger started towards the footbridge. “Follow me, single file.”

The Zone had become eerily quiet, and the squeak and rustle of belts and slings seemed loud in the ears of those who carried them. They walked back along the stalkers' trail, detouring around the demolished watchtower. The old church lay on their right, the burnt farmstead on the hill to their left, and anomalies were scattered thick all around. The journey was a slow one, on account not only of the party's burden but also of Tiger's concern for those who hadn't come this way before.

As they crossed the foot of the farmstead hill, there came a noise from the north: a low groan which rose and fell over several seconds. Yevgeniy whimpered.

“Jesus,” Tank grumbled. “It's an animal in the woods, you jumpy runt.”

The insult didn't even register. “Are... are you sure?”

“It might be,” Olga chimed in. “Or it could be gas leaking from the swamp. Don't worry about it.”

They pressed on, crossing a shallow channel and weaving through the gravity traps and grinders on the uneven ground behind the hill. The sight of the machine yard ahead brought relief to the raiders, but instilled a new apprehension in their prisoner.

“This is the hardest part,” the guide warned him. “Watch closely.”

***

Olga stood watch over Yevgeniy while the others changed back into their loner garb and put away the Clear Sky uniforms. Hatchet's group caught up with them after a few minutes, coming in from the west with material plundered out of the helicopter.

“All right,” said Badger once the formalities were over with and the key players had gathered in the corner of the yard. “Now tell these guys what you told me about the client's man.”

“He gave all the orders,” Yevgeniy recalled. “He was rather short. Black hair with a bald spot... I never heard his name.”

“We found the body,” Hatchet interjected. “No identifying material on him, and he managed to burn his papers before we entered the camp... Go on.”

“He talked to someone a lot, using his own radio. I guess it was coded or something.” The Latvian cocked his head. “We thought he was keeping us on standby, waiting for some particular message. He wouldn't tell us what we were going to do here.”

Olga raised a hand. “Did he act like he knew the territory? Like he'd been in the Zone before?”

“I don't know... He brought anomaly detectors with him, but not enough for all of us. We had some briefings about mutants and stalker factions. He told us the stalkers weren't a serious threat, that the only words we needed to know were 'hands up!'”

“What about the army? Didn't he think putting a large camp next to the perimeter was dangerous?”

“Oh no.” On this Yevgeniy was emphatic. “He said the military wouldn't touch us. I thought he must have paid them off... MacGruder was the only person he talked to much, except when he had instructions.”

“MacGruder,” Badger repeated. “The guy in charge at the hamlet. He's the one who accused you of selling out, right?”

“Yeah.”

Tiger was interested in other things. “What about those stalkers who were shot a few days ago?”

“That was – some of the others were making bets on who would get the first kill, who would get the most kills. They went out on patrol and met the stalkers... I didn't actually see what happened, though.”

“Might have been racially motivated. We noticed some impressive graffiti.” Hatchet lit a cigarette. “Goddamn amateurs.”

“Uh-huh.” Badger folded his arms. “So, how many kills did you get?”

Yevgeniy swallowed. “Just one.”

“Bandicoot,” Tiger elaborated. “The man in the black suit.”

“Yeah...”

“Of course,” Olga remarked. “Target the leaders and specialists to destroy a unit's cohesion. That's basic sniping theory.”

Yevgeniy warmed a little to the show of sympathy. “He looked important, so I shot... But then there was the machine gun firing at me and I couldn't hit anything.”

“Be glad,” the woman advised him. “Otherwise those bloodsuckers might have come and snacked on you instead. What else can you tell us?”

“I had to stay up on the tower most of the time, always with one or two others. Sometimes they brought news from the camp... What bloodsuckers?”

The question was ignored. “What kind of news?”

“Nightmares. Almost everyone had them.” Yevgeniy stared at her nervously. “What did you say about bloodsuckers?”

“Never mind that. Keep going.”

“I don't remember the dreams very well. There were voices, shapes... It was all too vague.”

“If I want to hear about morons wetting their beds, I'll take a hike around the Cordon,” Hatchet growled. “Get back to the mission stuff.”

“I don't know anything else,” Yevgeniy protested. “It was my first job with Paladin. They didn't trust me enough to... enough to give me anything sensitive. Please believe me!”

The cigarette's tip bobbed up and down. “Fine,” said Hatchet after a second. “We're done here. You want us to dispose of him?”

Olga shook her head. “Thanks, but we'll take care of it.”

“As you like.” The cigarette dropped to the ground and disappeared under Hatchet's boot. “We've accomplished what we came to do,” he said to the circle, “and I don't want to sound anxious to leave, but we can't stay any longer. Mower, drop the artifact bag there... I know it's not adequate compensation,” the merc leader continued, “but it's the best I can do right now. Goblin, are the men ready?”

“Just about, boss.”

“Good.” Hatchet snapped his fingers twice. “Do it right the first time, people. Make sure those packs and belts are secure, we've got a long march ahead.”

As the group began to disperse, Badger sidled over to Tiger. “I, uh... I'm really sorry about your friends.”

“So am I.”

The pointman hesitated at Tiger's apathetic response. “Anyway, I wanted to return this.”

Badger was holding out the Zastava carbine when he looked up. “...Did you like it?” the loner asked flatly.

“Yeah, it was great. Really handy.”

“Keep it.” Tiger got up, brushing the dirt off his coat. “I'm going to pack up the generator.”

He found ways to stay busy over the next several minutes, putting away whatever materials were left over from the attack. Hatchet said his final goodbyes to Olga and then the mercenaries departed through the anomalies, one by one like a train of ants. With their passing the Zone became quiet once more. The sun was well up, though mid-morning had not yet come, and its warmth shone on all the marshes.

Soon a new circle formed around Yevgeniy, drawn by common purpose. “This is the moment of truth,” Olga announced. “Are you still certain you want to learn stalking?”

Galina and Dmitriy nodded together.

“Then I'll leave you in Anton's hands. Do as he tells you and you'll be okay... Kondratenko, you've held up your end of the bargain, so you're free to go. Get your things together and I'll take you across the perimeter.”

“Actually, um...” The soldier pulled off the doubled-up balaclava he wore as a cap and scratched his head. “I think I should stay.”

His words surprised all of those who had gotten to know him in the past twenty hours. “Stay?” Olga echoed. “Yesterday you were begging to get out.”

“I know,” Kondratenko admitted, “but if I go now, they'll be looking for me. Even if I went to the blockpost and said I got lost, they'd send me straight back here with the same lousy equipment.” He glanced at Tiger hopefully. “I've been thinking about what you said before, about controlling fear. If I stay in the Zone for a while, maybe I can learn to be like you and make enough money to start over.”

Olga looked to her partner for judgment. “It's your call, Anton.”

“Mm...”

Tiger saw more pros than cons in the proposal, sudden as it was. Ordinarily he would have preferred solitude, but he'd already committed himself to looking after the adolescent runaways and one more follower made little difference. His impression of Kondratenko's character was positive enough, and there were plenty of others in the Zone who'd served in the military. Some had even walked patrols along its border before they went inside as trespassers. At the same time, the deserter had potentially compromising knowledge about Olga's employment by the Security Service and the alliance with Hatchet. Better to keep him close by, just in case.

“You can come with us,” said the stalker at last, “if you're absolutely sure that's what you want. I'll teach you as much as I can, but whether you make it or not will depend on your own ability, even when you're with me... That goes for all of you.”

“Such is life?” quipped Olga darkly.

“Such is life,” Tiger agreed. He went to the one pile of equipment which hadn't been stored and picked up the M60, somehow scarcely the worse for wear even after it was pried from its owner's lifeless fingers. “There are things in the Zone that can kill you without being seen or heard, things you can only run away from... But for men and monsters, you can use this.”

From the look on Kondratenko's face, one might think he'd just been handed the crown of a small kingdom and not a fifty year old machine gun. “This... I... I can use it? Really?”

“You've had training on guns like that, haven't you?” Tiger's hand dipped into a pants pocket and dragged out a loose bundle of creased, faded notebook pages. “Gosha wrote down some instructions for it. Study them while we deal with Smirnov.”

“But..!”

“But what?” Olga pulled back her tunic hood, showing the mussed hair underneath. “Settle down, kiddo. If we wanted to cap you, we'd have already done it.”

Yevgeniy couldn't settle down. “Then what's going to happen to me?”

“We'll take you back to the fringe and hand you over to the authorities. Your client may have bribed the army, but some of us have friends there too.” She fixed him with a calculating gaze. “You'll get off lightly if you cooperate... Four to six years, with a chance of early release for good behavior.”

“No...” The Latvian reacted with horror, not relief. “Please, no! I can't go to prison now, my father – ”

“Your father would die of shame?” Olga's patience was starting to visibly erode. “Maybe you should have thought about that sooner.”

“It's not like that! His sentence is up in fourteen months and his health isn't good. When he gets out, he'll have nowhere to go. I just wanted...”

Tiger wrinkled his nose as the captive's words trailed off, equally weary of the piteous pleading. “How,” he wondered aloud, “did someone like you even get a job at Paladin?”

“It was someone I knew from biathlon. He was recruiting for PMCs, working freelance on a per-head commission... I was so stupid.” Yevgeniy screwed up his face, trying to hold back the tears. “He said it was the perfect job for me. Not too far from home and I could already speak the language. They gave me two weeks' training at a camp, Vicovu de Sus, then they sent me here.”

“And you're sorry you came,” Olga sighed, “we get that. You don't want to die and you don't want to go to jail... So what do you want, other than for us to pretend we never saw you?”

“I – ”

“Why not take him with us?” Galina cut in, turning heads all around. “Why don't we take him? Make a deal like you did with Boris.” The Belarusian girl faced Tiger. “You told us the Zone doesn't care who we are, so long as we respect it. Let's give him a chance to learn that respect.”

“I'm okay with that,” said Kondratenko quietly, and Dmitriy nodded again.

That made it three in favor right away. Tiger's first impulse was to say no, but his reasons for accepting Kondratenko applied equally well to Yevgeniy. Whether the latter was worthy of trust had not been proven, but in his defense Yevgeniy didn't look like a thug. He was barely taller than Olga and of slighter build than her, with a figure that could only be called strongly effeminate. His features were likewise fragile, a cute boy's face reluctantly grown up. Green eyes stared back at Tiger under brown bangs with a prominent cowlick as he thought it over.

“...Olga, what do you say?”

“If we cut this idiot loose, he'll either die or end up as somebody's bitch,” said the Russian matter-of-factly. “Smirnov, how do you feel about working off your debt here instead of sitting it out in a cell? You might even earn some decent money while you're at it.”

“Earn... like a stalker? You'd let me do that?”

“Depends.” Olga waved in Tiger's direction. “You have to convince the nice man over there to forgive you.”

Yevgeniy gulped. “Um... W-wouldn't you want to do something if your father were – ”

“My father is dead.” Tiger rose and collected his rifle. “I'm not going to take you out of pity,” he said icily, “but worse people than you have redeemed themselves here. Don't disappoint me.”

The tears couldn't be held back any more. “I don't know how to thank you...”

“Then shut up.”

Dmitriy spoke for the first time. “Should we untie him?”

Olga knelt behind the prisoner. “Might as well,” she said. “He won't be much good without his hands...” In a flash her arm snaked around Yevgeniy's throat and jerked his head backwards. “But if you do anything that gets Anton hurt, anything at all, I will hunt you down. Do you understand me?”

“I do! I do, I promise!”

“Good.” Olga undid the rope, leaving Yevgeniy to meekly massage his wrists, and parted from the gathering. “I need to go back and make arrangements with the army, make certain there won't be reprisals. Anton, can you take me there?”

Tiger slung his rifle. “Yeah... The rest of you watch Smirnov until we return.”

Galina picked up the submachine gun left behind by Vitka and cocked it. “Don't worry,” she affirmed. “We'll be careful.”

***

The Zone was still quiet. Tiger expected as much: with an incident this close to the edge, the military would send reinforcements by ground rather than risk a second helicopter. He was more concerned by the pensive air from the woman behind him, and by the questions which lingered in his own mind.

“Let's stop for a bit,” Olga suggested as he was trying to think of a tactful way to probe her thoughts. She pointed at the burnt farmstead above them. “Can we get up there?”

“Sure.”

They ascended the hill, zigzagging through windswept grass and sparse bushes. Here, too, nature had taken its toll since the faction wars. The charred shell of the outlying shed was falling in on itself and heaps of loose brick lay jumbled along the scorched walls of the farmhouse. Clear Sky had in more recent times erected a wooden watchtower nearby, and that, at least, was in better condition.

“Is it clear?”

Tiger nodded. The hilltop was bare of those anomalies which choked the lower terrain around it.

“Mm.” Olga took him by the hand and steered him into the farmhouse, to one of the inside corners where they couldn't be seen from the outside. Before he could say anything, she pushed him up against the wall, hands on his shoulders, and kissed him – hard. She wasn't pensive any more, but burning with repressed passion. “Do me.”

“Wha..?”

“Right here, right now.”

“After... after what's happened?”

“That's right,” Olga acknowledged. “Our friends died and we almost died with them. Who knows when we'll get another chance... Please,” she insisted. “Just your fingers would be enough.”

For Anton there was no question of refusal. This was the Olga he remembered: female but never feminine, open about her needs and feelings, and always there for him when he stepped off the last train from Slavutych. This was the woman he had loved, in his humble, unassuming way, during the happiest years of his life. “...Okay.”

“You really don't mind?”

“Yeah.” Tiger's hand moved to her waist, pulling at the belt buckle. “We can't stay too long, so... will this be all right for now?”

“Yeah... Yeah, this is great.” Olga closed her eyes as his fingers slid down her belly, through coarse hair and into a place unlike anything in the Zone. She breathed deeply, her pulse quickening as she clung to him. “Ooh...”

Tiger heard her not by listening, felt her not by touching. Something wonderful was taking place, something that he'd never before experienced in the six years since the Zone changed him. As he concentrated, he was able to draw out the nerve impulses taking form between Olga's legs and follow them as they rocketed up her spine, exploding into her brain like so many little fireworks. When she reached her limit, throwing her head back with a guttural, feral noise, she appeared to him like a flower blooming in hyperkinetic time lapse.

It was the most beautiful thing he had ever witnessed.

***

“How do you feel?”

“I feel good.” Olga stretched her arms over her head, radiating contentment. “Just a few minutes, okay?”

“Mm-hm.” Tiger didn't want to break the tranquil mood, yet he was beginning to feel restless. “When you go home, tell Aleksey... tell our son I'm sorry I've never been there for him.”

“He understands,” the child's mother murmured. “He knows you had to come back here.” She turned around, hiking the heavy pants up over the curves of her hips. “Can I tell him you want to see him?”

“Tell him that I want to see both of you.”

“Okay.” Olga smiled. “He'll be really happy to hear that.”

“Mmf.” Tiger wanted to smile with her, but the papers burning a hole in his coat wouldn't let him. “Before you leave, there's something else I want to ask.”

“Yes?”

“Can you tell me anything about these?”

“Hm?” Olga took the photographs from his extended hand, unfolding them delicately. “Well, this looks like the radar site beyond the Barrier.”

Tiger nodded. “There's something written on the back, but I couldn't make it out.”

“I can't either.” She looked at the other photo. “What's this round thing? 'Same as at AES'?”

“I never saw anything like it,” Tiger told her. “Not at the nuclear plant or anywhere else. It must be pretty big, so either it was hidden... What's the matter?”

“This.” Olga tapped the back of the picture with her fingertip. “Where did you find these?”

“In a dead man's pocket.” The stalker briefly recounted how he had stumbled upon the trail of Worm and Drifter. “Did you recognize something?”

“Maybe. I'd have to show it to an expert to be sure, but I think this is Zelenko's handwriting.”

“Someone you know?”

“Not exactly.” Olga beckoned him closer, lowering her voice. “You absolutely have to keep this to yourself, all right?”

“I understand.”

“Good.” Olga sat down again. “Andrey Zelenko was an SBU undercover agent. He worked here before the second Chernobyl incident, investigating rumors of illegal research being conducted in the Zone. After the incident, he was presumed lost along with everyone else... But then a few people made it out, people like you. The government set up listening posts around the perimeter, hoping they could receive distress calls from inside.”

“I remember that,” said Tiger, sitting beside her. “I thought they never heard anything.”

“They never heard what they were listening for,” Olga replied. “Seven weeks after the incident, posts on the south and west sides picked up a weak signal. It was a man's voice reciting strings of numbers, interrupting periodically to spell out Zelenko's code name. The broadcast was recorded, but they were only able to get a partial fix on the transmitter.”

“Seven weeks?”

“Yeah... They plotted it somewhere along a line passing across the west side of the Zone, straight through Limansk. The experts think it was a dipole antenna, maybe improvised, so it could have been any point on that line with high ground.”

“What did they do about it?”

“Nada. Even if it had been feasible to get into the Zone at that time, the government wouldn't authorize an operation just on that evidence. Zelenko was written off and the file on him closed.”

Tiger frowned. “Then why do you know so much about him?”

“We've been playing catch-up with his notes,” Olga divulged. “A couple of months ago the SBU's lab guys got some new diagnostic software. They ran the Zelenko recording through it and cleaned up the audio, enough to confirm his identity from comparison to archived videos... Speech analysis indicated he was suffering heavy stress, possibly exhaustion.” She shook her head. “For all we know, he could have spent his last breath getting that message out.”

“Go on,” the loner prompted. “What does this have to do with those photos?”

“It's the numbers, Anton. We think they're geographical coordinates of sites he was checking out – ”

“Sites like the Agroprom? That's what the military raid was about, wasn't it?”

The question startled Olga, just for a moment. “Yeah,” she said warily. “How did you know?”

Tiger shrugged. “It just seemed obvious after what you said... The institute's not worth much to the army as a base and they should know better than to antagonize stalkers when conditions are peaceful.”

The woman nodded. “They should know better. If the brass had left it to us deep cover agents, we could have gotten the stuff without hurting anybody... Now everyone's dead except Boris back there, and whatever the team found is in Barkeep's hands. He'll probably sell it to us after he's made copies for himself, but...” Her voice suddenly cracked in frustration. “Why am I even here if they won't fucking use me?”

Anton's hand settled on her arm. “Olga,” he said softly, “stay focused. The photographs, what do they mean?”

“I don't know. Zelenko must have stumbled onto something big, but I don't know what it is.” Olga held up the images side by side. “You said these were mixed in with Clear Sky documents. Are there any more you can show me?”

“Just these.” Tiger gave her the other papers. “And this,” he concluded, adding Drifter's PDA to the pile. “This one is secured. There might be information on it that could hurt stalkers.”

“I'll take care of that.” Olga flipped through the files. “Have you followed up on any of these?”

“I talked to Nimble. He told me someone betrayed the group after its founders went to the center, and eliminated those who stayed behind. There was supposed to be a rally point in the Dead City, but he got scared and didn't go.”

A crow flew over the pair, cawing rancorously. Olga didn't seem to hear it. “I don't like this,” she said. “We know Clear Sky was investigating areas of interest to us. If the photographs are really Zelenko's work, that means they found something he'd stashed... We'll need a miracle to recover any of it now.”

Tiger had to agree with her pessimistic assessment. “What should we do?”

“We have to keep moving.” Olga pulled out Suslov's note, folded up the rest, and pocketed them along with the PDA. “I need to take these back, but you keep that one.”

“You're going to leave Nimble alone?”

“Yeah, he's safer where he is.” The Russian got up hastily, hot with newfound determination. “This could be a big break for us, Anton. The Security Service will definitely pay you for it.”

“I don't want their money.” Tiger's voice was indifferent as he straightened his long coat. “I want to know the truth.”

“We all do,” Olga assured him. “Look, um... I know you don't trust the SBU, but would you consider working with us as an independent adviser? Our guys could use the help and I'd feel better knowing I could rely on you in a pinch.” She waited a beat to see how that went over. “You don't care about money, all right, but how about an official pass? You could leave and enter the Zone freely.”

“I could visit you in the Big Land?”

“That's right.” Chips of mortar crunched underfoot as she moved to his side. “You don't have to answer me now. I can send someone to find you in Rostok in a day or two, okay?”

“I'll think about it.” The Lee-Enfield's safety swung forwards under the pressure of his thumb. “Come on.”

***

Tiger's new group hadn't sat idle while he was away: the four who came out to meet him when he returned to the machine yard were fitted for a march and armed to the teeth. “Welcome back,” Galina hailed. “Where is Olga Ivanovna?”

“She's not coming with us,” the stalker informed his charges. “She made a deal with the soldiers, so we shouldn't have any trouble leaving.”

Disappointment darkened the Belarusian's face. “Will we see her again?”

“I hope so.” Tiger squeezed the AKS-74's grip, imagining that the warmth in it still belonged to her. “Right now she has things she needs to do outside the Zone.” The veteran looked the novices over one by one, evaluating their preparation. He saw that Olga's advice to Galina and Dmitriy had been shared among all and served each well. “Do you feel that you're ready?”

“I think we are,” Dmitriy answered. “Choosing supplies wasn't hard, but we weren't sure which weapons were best.”

Kondratenko still carried the M60, and had Southpaw's Stechkin in his belt and Olga's M44 on his back. The weight didn't seem to bother him. Galina had taken Vitka's PPSh and the SKS used in the night attack, while her boyfriend chose German's Thompson and Southpaw's Mauser. Acceptable selections for inexperienced users, Tiger judged.

“There's no 'best' here,” their teacher declared. “There's only 'good enough'.” He looked to Yevgeniy, who was self-consciously cradling the SSG-82 from the underground cache. “What are you doing with that?”

“I – it's similar to the rifles I used in biathlon. I thought it was better to use something familiar... Is it not alright?”

“It was Olga's,” Tiger replied. “But she didn't like it, so I guess that doesn't matter.” Turning away, he took out the .38 Smith & Wesson and handed it to Galina. “She wanted you to have this. We can get cartridges for it from Sidorovich.”

“Thank you.”

There was one weapon left over: Bandicoot's trophy. “We're returning this to Duty,” said Tiger, picking up the G36 with his empty hand. “Smirnov, you'll carry it until we get to Rostok. I'll give you the ammunition if we run into serious trouble.”

“Okay.”

Satisfied, Tiger stepped back. “Well... Galya, Mitya, Borya and Zhenya, your first lesson starts now.”

***

Death comes easily in this place. You can catch a bullet for speaking out of turn, stepping on the wrong toe, or possessing something of value. You may share bread with a man one night, and be forced to kill him in self defense the next day. You must face peril in every place and at every hour, from the watchful machine-gunner who decides the fates of those crossing the perimeter to the most horrifying creature which lurks hungrily in every ruin. Your friend may go out for a day and never come back, vanishing in woods filled with gnawed corpses still clutching rusted guns. If you survive, good for you. If you break even, well done. If you make it out, don't look back.

Such is life in the Zone.
  15:03:36  3 January 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081

---QUOTATION---
We're starting to see S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans go commercial with their writing, having their stories published in print or as ebooks. (Any news over there, snorkbait?) Apparently GSC is receptive to this, and I've had a couple of people suggest that I should look into it as well.
---END QUOTATION---



Hi Bob. Sorry for not noticing and responding to this a lot sooner ('Tiger's...' is on the to-do-again-very-soon list).
Last I heard, Southern Comfort was doing OK, all things considered. Whether the sales were anything to get GSC excited in the end, and what happens now given the uncertain situation with GSC, I don't know.
Getting a revised version of SB into the world is still very much part of the plan, for me. The obvious problem will lie in obtaining permission(s) and getting the 'official' stamp of approval if SG does decide against continuing with the whole Stalker project.

As far as I'm concerned, you should try to get 'Tiger's Spring' into print/ebook format if it's at all possible. There's nothing to lose by trying.
  17:49:04  3 January 2012
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Jet Odessa
Zone Cat Owner and Zombie Hunter Extraordinaire
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 08/03/2011
Messages: 704
excellent! keep going pls.
  05:41:49  21 January 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

---QUOTATION---
The obvious problem will lie in obtaining permission(s) and getting the 'official' stamp of approval if SG does decide against continuing with the whole Stalker project.
---END QUOTATION---


Fingers crossed, eh?

Well, I've started working on the next chapter. Really hope this one doesn't take so long.
  22:10:42  10 March 2012
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kd6dm
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 05/08/2008
Messages: 296

---QUOTATION---
The obvious problem will lie in obtaining permission(s) and getting the 'official' stamp of approval if SG does decide against continuing with the whole Stalker project.
Fingers crossed, eh?

Well, I've started working on the next chapter. Really hope this one doesn't take so long.
---END QUOTATION---



Just stumbled across your story last week. Couldn't put it down, read through it every chance i got. You have a gift...mesmerizing story. Thank you.
  06:59:13  24 April 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
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?”

“Shh!”

“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.”

“Good morning.”

“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.”

“I know.”

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.

Fuck.

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?

“Zhenya?”

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.”

“Fritz?”

“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.

Bang!

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!

Bang!

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.

“GRENADE!”

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?”

“Don't know!”

“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.
  20:50:52  24 April 2012
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 1825
Great reading
I would say it was worth the waiting if not for the risk of having to wait just as long for the next chapter.
  20:08:37  2 May 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
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On forum: 07/30/2007
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  22:01:44  7 May 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
05/08/2012 20:38:39
Messages: 3336
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.
  13:34:12  8 May 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
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.
  03:46:17  22 August 2012
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
08/22/2012 3:46:34
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Next chapter is about half done. Going to try and finish it by the end of the month.

A general note: while I've stayed true to game geography in the story so far, I'm going to be prioritizing real world accuracy once the narrative moves towards the center of the Zone. This mainly affects real locations featured in Call of Pripyat, since nearly all of them are placed inaccurately.
  00:17:44  2 September 2012
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
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On page twelve, still have a big chunk to do.
  19:31:51  22 September 2012
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
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(This month we have a guest appearance by the cast of Captain Zippy's The Road.)

The Inside Out Frontier

“What's happening down there?”

Sanya grabbed the hems of the faded Clear Sky tunic and its undershirt, pulling them up almost to the armpits. Under them the upper torso was dotted with small round bruises and constrained by a band of elastic material. “You're not gonna believe this, Jussi... She's a chick with a dick!”

“Say what?”

“It's kind of small, but she's got tits and – ”

“URRRAAAAAUUUGH!” Yevgeniy's legs pistoned, throwing Tiger backwards. Fingers clawed at Sanya's face. “STOP TOUCHING ME!”

“Yeeeow! Get off me, you crazy bitch!”

Galina came hurtling up the stairs as Tiger wedged a stabilizing hand under himself. She gave a moment's pause to lay down her gun, then swooped upon the writhing, sobbing figure at the center of the commotion. “Zhenya, listen to me! Listen to me! Take deep breaths, deep breaths!”

Sanya scrabbled away from the pair, blood oozing from a welt on his cheek. Kondratenko looked on behind him, open-mouthed with shock. Jussi made as if to descend from the high catwalk, but Tiger motioned for him to stay put.

Yevgeniy's hysteria eased under Galina's ministration, and soon the androgyne's thrashing subsided into trembles and sniffles. “Shh,” Galina murmured. “It's all right. No one is going to hurt you.”

Tiger regained his footing and his focus simultaneously. “Borya, keep your eyes on the road. Galya, could you, er..?”

“I'll handle this. Mitya, get my bedroll and put it in the boxcar.”

“Okay!”

The veteran allowed himself a small sigh of relief as he went back to the gallery windows. It had gotten quiet outside, and that meant he needed to check in. “Tiger calling Bes, over.”

The radio buzzed in his hand. “Bes here. We've taken the trailhead according to plan. Fiend is staying behind to watch the road. What's your condition? Over.”

“We eliminated the bandit group here,” Tiger answered. “Only two men from Lenka's party survived. One of mine has been... taken ill, over.”

“Can you defend the position? Over.”

“Affirmative, we can defend. Over.”

“Good. We'll notify Duty. Switch to the Garbage frequency and stand by for relief information, over.”

“Roger. Tiger out.”

“We're staying?” asked Kondratenko.

“For now.” Tiger changed channels before clipping the radio onto his vest. “We'd better try to recover what we can from the dead. Jussi, can you help me with that?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks... Borya, cover us from here. Sanya, I need you to fix yourself up and stand watch at the other end. I don't want anyone coming in unannounced, even if they're friendly.”

“Uh-huh...”

Deadeye passed Salonen on the steps, heading for the walkway above the hangar's east door while Tiger stooped to pick up his Lee-Enfield. The cause of the earlier stoppage was revealed when he pulled out the magazine: one of the cartridges had its rim stuck behind that of the round underneath. It must have happened when he first loaded the rifle, his error revealed only when the misfed cartridge was pushed to the top. The stalker popped out the stuck round and pocketed it, making a mental note to investigate more closely later. Until then, the AK would suffice. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

Galina had conducted Yevgeniy to shelter in the meantime, the path marked by a string of blood spatters. Tiger and Jussi followed it, treading gingerly, until the trail turned right at the bottom of the stairs. Instead they went left, through the hangar doors and past the bodies of fellow stalkers, then out the gate and into the grass. Kondratenko had done his job well, leaving none among the attackers alive.

“Let's get the machine gun first,” suggested the Finn.

“Agreed.”

Vanya the gunner would be almost roguishly good looking if Tiger hadn't blown off the crown of his skull and showered his brains all over the road. His Degtyaryov lay upside down across his waist, its spindly bipod legs flopped to the side. At his feet were a pair of carrying cans, three pan magazines visible under one's open lid. Jussi set his jaw and bent over the corpse, freeing the entangled sling from its arm. “Seems to be in order,” he said, rotating the heavy gun in his hands. “Very good.”

“Can you work it?”

“A friend back home has one on a collector's license.” Jussi flipped the sling up over his shoulder, so that the DP hung ready at his side. “I think I remember the important parts.”

“All right.” Tiger turned away from the gore. “I'll check these two.”

The others were Fritz and his grenadier, the latter clutching an AK-74 with an underbarrel launcher. Tiger's bullet had impacted the rifle's stock at the wrist, shattering the wood before it plowed into the wielder's hip and shredded a major blood vessel. The fatal haemorrhage soaked his pants. A quick search turned up two grenades, one in the launcher and another wedged into an empty cell of the bandit's magazine pouch, plus a cleaning kit and a sheathed bayonet. Content with these findings, the stalker slung his own weapon and picked up the second Kalashnikov. It passed a cursory inspection aside from the broken furniture, so Tiger tucked it under his arm and carried on.

Fritz was on his back, staring at the sky as if it somehow offended him. Tiger tore open his collar, exposing tarnished dog tags strung on a length of twine. They jingled as he pulled the necklace off and crammed it into a coat pocket. The loner divested the criminal of his gun and was about to walk away when Fritz's cap caught his eye, a gray woolen thing with a skull and crossbones stitched above the bill. Impulsively he took the headgear, rolled it up and pocketed it as well.

“Group 'Tiger', this is Warrant Officer Protsenko of Duty. Acknowledge.”

Rearranging the load in his hands delayed Tiger's reply by a couple of seconds. “...This is Tiger, go ahead. Over.”

“Be advised: group 'Sinova' is coming from the Dark Valley to relieve you, ETA two hours. Over.”

“We'll keep an eye open for them. Anything else? Over.”

“Negative. Protsenko out.”

Jussi tsked as Tiger put away the handset. “Not big on conversation, those guys... Do you know that group?”

“No.”

Kondratenko and Sanya were diligently manning their posts in the hangar when the salvage party came back, stopping long enough to gather the arms of their fallen allies on the way. The scavengers went over to the barricade, beside the pit where the others had deposited their non-combat supplies, and made an organized pile out of the bandit loot. His load lightened, Tiger circled around to the boxcar's open door and cautiously knocked on the sidewall. “Galya?”

The girl came out cradling her submachine gun. “What is it?”

“Reinforcements are coming,” the veteran told her, loud enough for the others to hear. “Two hours or so. How's Zhenya?”

“She's resting. I think she'll be all right.”

“So... she's not wounded?”

“No,” Galina sighed, “she's not wounded. She's menstruating. It's perfectly normal.”

“I see.” Tiger cleared his throat. “Well, let me know if anything changes... Come on, Jussi.”

***

The bandit lieutenant's silvery pistol was an Ithaca 1911, nickel plated with inscriptions in Greek crudely carved on the grip panels. The finish was scuffed in several places and the slide rattled when shaken. A body search uncovered two spare magazines, a switchblade, a hip flask and a slightly squashed candy bar. Tiger dropped everything into his empty artifact bag and moved on to the next cadaver.

This thug had taken two bullets high in the chest and landed facedown, knocking off his M1 helmet and a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators. Tiger dragged a Mauser rifle out from under his knees, rolled him over and started frisking. The dead man's clothes held a pack of cigarettes, a Swiss Army knife with one blade snapped off, a dogeared deck of playing cards and four cardboard boxes of rifle cartridges. The spelling of the word snajperski on the labels highlighted their Balkan origin.

Pickings from the rest weren't so good: a Fort-12, a Makarov, a sawed-off shotgun and a second MP5, more worn than Fritz's. One man had a Fireball in his knapsack, wrapped in a rag. There was water but little food, suggesting to Tiger that these bandits had counted on an urgent resupply from their gang at the Agroprom. “Found anything useful over there?”

“A little,” Jussi replied. “These must be the raw meat... I think I'm done here.”

“Me too.”

They went inside, added their meager assortment to the loot heap, and again Tiger knocked on the boxcar wall. “We're finished,” he announced. “How are things?”

“Fine.” Galina sounded disproportionately annoyed by his question. “I'll tell you if – what? ...You're sure?” The Belarusian emerged, sullen-faced. “She wants to talk to you. And Borya.”

“Ah.” Tiger backed up until he could see Kondratenko's perch. Even with seven people in the hangar, Yevgeniy's crisis was starting to make the task of maintaining a sufficient lookout feel like musical chairs. “Mitya, can you stand in for Borya?”

“I'll do it,” Jussi volunteered magnanimously. “This is none of my business anyway.”

“Thank you. It shouldn't take long.”

Jussi went up, Kondratenko came down, and then he and Tiger went into the boxcar. Yevgeniy lay on a thin foam bedroll, Dmitriy's jacket draped over her naked legs. The boy himself sat on a wooden crate at her feet while Galina lurked behind the men, guarding the doorway against eavesdroppers. There was an uncomfortable silence for several moments, broken when Kondratenko sat down cross-legged at the bedside. “Are you feeling better?”

“Yeah.”

“So, uh... you're really Yevgeniya, huh?”

“Yeah.” The big green eyes shifted from Kondratenko to Tiger. “I'm sorry.” Her voice was scarcely above a whisper. “I didn't mean to make trouble for you. I'll go, but please... please don't tell anyone about me.”

“Who told you to leave? Did someone tell you to leave?” Tiger looked from one pupil to another, his gaze interrogating each in turn until he was satisfied that all were innocent. “The Zone doesn't care what you are and I don't either. I agreed to guide you until you're ready to go alone, and you're not ready.” The stalker knelt next to Kondratenko, softening his voice as he drew nearer. “You're right, though: you have caused a lot of trouble. I think your comrades deserve an explanation.”

He wasn't surprised by the prickling at his back. “She's under enough stress – ”

“It's okay, Galya.” Yevgeniya shifted and the jacket slipped, baring the curves of a woman's hips. “If they want to know, it's okay.”

“I do,” Kondratenko confirmed. “I don't really get it, but you have both boy and girl parts?”

“Sort of.” The androgyne sat up, careful to keep her lap covered. “You saw it, didn't you?”

The question was directed at Tiger. “Yes, I saw.”

“The doctors had a fancy name for me... 'female with virilized genitals'.” Yevgeniya grimaced as a new pang throbbed inside her. “I was born like this. It was something my mother took when she was carrying me, a drug she wasn't supposed to have.”

“What kind of drug could do that?” Kondratenko interjected. “I mean, how can that happen?”

“I don't remember what it was called. It messed up my hormones, made me grow the wrong way.”

“That's... unfortunate.” The words came out sounding trite, undermining Tiger's intent, but he pushed on. “Are there any other effects? Any medications you need?”

“No.”

“What about your period? It's a problem if this happens often.”

Yevgeniya shook her head. “I've never had one so bad before. I thought maybe it was anxiety.”

Tiger looked over his shoulder at the sentinel in the open door. “Galya, do you have any ideas?”

“I might.” Again her tone suggested his involvement was unwelcome. “Have you noticed other changes since your last cycle, Zhenya? Infections, anything like that?”

“I can't think of anything.” The patient bit her lip. “Well, possibly one thing.”

“What is it?”

“When we were in Romania, I had a contraceptive implant put in at a clinic. I didn't want to take a chance on... you know.”

“Mm.” For now, Tiger decided, it was best to let Galina have her way. “Keep resting while we have the place to ourselves,” he said. “Once we get to Rostok, we can find a doctor for you.”

“Okay.”

As she lay back, Tiger reached into his coat and took out the necklace. “I think General Voronin would be grateful if you gave this to him,” the stalker told his student.

Yevgeniya stretched out a hand to receive the sinister memento. “It really was Fritz?”

“It was him, all right.” Tiger pulled out the marked man's cap and laid it on the floor beside her head. “This is yours now... Borya, I found something for you too.”

Galina intercepted the two men as they left the boxcar. “I'd like to wash the blood out of Zhenya's pants,” she informed Tiger. “Too many hygiene risks in taking some off a corpse. Do we have enough water?”

“You can use what the bandits left us, but try not to waste it. Anything else?”

“It's getting cloudy,” the girl noted, squinting up through the jagged hole in the hangar roof. “I don't know if they'll be dry before our relief gets here. Can we start a fire?”

Tiger began to evaluate the logistics of collecting fuel and tinder, then remembered the artifact he'd found. “Maybe I can do better than a fire,” he proposed, hoping he was right in trying to placate her overprotective attitude. “Give me a few minutes.”

“Fine.”

Tiger led Kondratenko to the loot pile and picked out the steel helmet and sunglasses. “Try these on.”

“Like this?”

“I think it suits you.” Bending again, Tiger picked up a pair of canteens. “Give these to Galya and send Jussi down. I need him to work on the machine gun we found.”

“Will do.” The former soldier didn't go straight away, however. “You meant what you said about letting Zhenya stay, right?”

“Of course I meant it. Why?”

“Just wondering.”

Kondratenko departed with sudden haste. Tiger looked upward, checking that Sanya was paying attention to his own task, then unwrapped the Fireball and climbed down into the pit. The pit held a couch and a small wooden cabinet, left behind when last year's bandits rallied under the fist of Borov in their exodus to the Dark Valley. A freestanding fireplace sat on the open floor, cobbled together in stalker fashion from an oil drum bottom, cinder blocks and lengths of rebar. Stirring the thick layer of ash with his jackknife, the loner found it cold all through.

“There are some empty crates on the other side,” Jussi remarked, arriving with the Degtyaryov. “We can break them down for dry wood.”

“Don't need it.”

Jussi shrugged and sat on the couch. “Up to you.”

The Fireball was a sphere about the size of a grapefruit, made of a dense glassy substance. It had a bumpy texture and a dark basalt coloring, mottled with thin spots where the soft orange glow of the core shone through. It felt warm against the skin, releasing its energy without the violence of the Burner which spawned it. For a minute Tiger simply rolled the anomalous object back and forth between his palms, mapping the lines of its crystalline heart.

“...What are you doing with that artifact, anyway?”

“Finding the strike points.” Tiger changed his grip and began spinning the Fireball between his fingertips, a dry run for the ignition sequence. “All right, I've got it.”

He crouched before the fireplace, took careful aim, and slammed the artifact down onto the protruding corner of a cinder block. The sphere rebounded with a sharp cracking sound. Tiger felt the telltale pulse in its inner charge, spun it and struck again. Crack! Again. Crack! Again! Crack! The pulses rippled over one another, intensifying with every blow as tiny fractures propagated through the Fireball's center. Its surface grew hotter and hotter.

Tiger dropped the artifact into the drum as it reached critical resonance, picked up one of the rebar pieces and used it to nudge the Fireball into the center of the ash bed. “Heat's ready,” he called out.

This time Dmitriy answered: “Be there soon.”

Jussi meanwhile had broken down the DP into its major parts and was scrubbing the barrel threads with a toothbrush. “I was told even a master stalker would spend an hour with a jeweler's loupe before trying that,” he said. “You make it look easy.”

“It isn't.” The stalker laid the rebar across the top of the fireplace, making a sort of grill, then set about transferring the bandit weapons into a new pile by the couch.

Jussi's portion of the salvage wasn't much better than his own: more Makarovs, another couple of cut down shotguns, a Walther P1 in a camouflage patterned holster, and a smoke grenade. Gathering his materials, Tiger sat down and went to work. The nickel .45 hadn't been fired since its last cleaning and its internals showed scant wear. He ran it through a function test and put it aside. Next he checked and cleaned the Makarovs in rapid order, then the Fort and the Walther. The Karabiner 98k was first to fail inspection: though mechanically sound, its dark and heavily pitted bore mandated replacement.

“You're pretty good with weapons,” Jussi observed as Tiger discarded the Mauser.

“My father was an enthusiast. I learned from him.”

“Ah.” The other man fiddled with the Degtyaryov's gas valve for a second. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes?”

“You're the pathfinder who took a group into Chernobyl town during the faction wars, aren't you?”

The inquiry jerked Tiger's focus away from the grenadier's rifle on his lap. “What did you say?”

“Didn't mean to startle you, sorry... Oles Tuner told me a pathfinder with striped hair led them out from the army warehouses, and they came back empty-handed. I wasn't sure it was you until you activated that artifact.”

Suddenly Tiger was on the back foot, and he didn't like it. “I heard Tuner left the Zone.”

Jussi nodded. “He was working in a garage in Berdychiv when I met him. Said he was thinking about coming back, though.”

“Why do you want to know about Chernobyl?”

“There might be a story in it,” the outsider replied. “Chernobyl is a mystery. Beside what Oles told me, all I've learned is that stalkers don't go there.”

“A story,” Tiger repeated warily. “You're a journalist?”

“Not officially, no... I'm a blogger. I write and publish on the Internet.”

The loner arched an eyebrow. “How is that different from being a tourist?”

Jussi winced. “I crawled through the minefield. I got my kit from Sidorovich. I fought the bandits with you. Do I look like a tourist?”

“No,” Tiger conceded, “you don't.” He popped off the AK-74's dust cover, removed the recoil spring and its wire guide, and slid out the bolt carrier. “But you're putting yourself in danger just so you can write about it.”

“Some men will climb a mountain just because it's there.” Metal slid over metal as the machine gun's receiver and stock were reunited. “This is the people's frontier – no spaceships, no submarines. I decided I'd aim for a month and see how long I lasted. That was six weeks ago.”

“And now?”

“I'm not sure,” Jussi admitted. “I got along well in Lenka's group. That's all over, but I don't want to leave when things are getting serious.”

“You mean the bandit problem.”

“The bandits and the mutants... The Monolith too, I suppose. I'm not interested in Duty or Freedom or their pissing contest.” Jussi smiled self-deprecatingly. “Perhaps Lieutenant Salonen can do some good here. It's not as if I'll be missed in Laitila.”

“You're military?”

“A reservist, which practically makes me a grown up boy scout.” The DP's barrel clicked back into place. “Anyhow, that's my story.”

“I see.” The AK, Tiger noticed absently, had Bulgarian factory markings. “I hope you're not writing anything that could get people in trouble.”

“I'm being careful,” Jussi assured. “No names, no details that could be used to prosecute. I can show you my notes, if you want.”

“Maybe later.” The gas tube latch on this rifle was exceptionally stiff, and it took a concentrated effort to make the little lever turn. “...Nnnf!”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I've got it.” Tiger rubbed his thumb and finger together as he considered his next words. Not for the first time, kindness overcame suspicion. “What Tuner told you is true,” he said. “Do you know about the race to Limansk?”

“Yes, I know it.”

“All right... While that was going on, Freedom drove the military out of the army warehouses and assumed control of the Barrier. Chernobyl is a few kilometers northeast from there. Valerian ordered the stalkers who had been at the Barrier to go scout the town, check out the riverbank and the bridge over the Pripyat, and report back.”

“Staking a claim to open the way for a new settlement?”

“Yes.” The broken off stock made this rifle unsuited for launching grenades, so Tiger detached the GP-30 from its barrel and moved on to the muzzle brake. “It was a large group, sixteen men including me. We stayed off the roads and went into Chernobyl from the south.” He lapsed into silence for a few moments. “The town looked intact, yet everything was overgrown. It was strange.”

“Strange how?”

“The growth,” Tiger remembered. “There was more of it in Chernobyl than in other places. Trees and bushes in the streets, vines on the buildings, some plants I couldn't recognize. We didn't see any animals except birds and insects... Once we got near the middle of the town, the commander sent me and a few others to climb onto a roof and look ahead. We could see the bridge and the town's port, but the river was almost dried up.”

“The Pripyat drains into the Kiev reservoir,” Jussi pointed out. “Wouldn't people notice if it stopped flowing?”

“They would notice,” the narrator agreed. “Its course must have been diverted further to the east somehow. The derelicts in the port used to be sunk right up to their decks, but there they were sitting on mud.”

“Could you see the nuclear plant?”

“No, it was behind the Big Rip. Just a blur... While we were up there, one of the stalkers heard something moving in the bushes and shot at it. Turned out to be a crow... That must have woken up the zombies.”

“Zombies? Someone else tried to enter before you?”

“I don't know. These zombies wore civilian clothing, workmen's things. Leathery skin on most of them, no hair left. A few without skin, like walking corpses... They were slow but tough, kept getting back up after we shot them. Small caliber bullets didn't hurt them much.”

“Were there a lot?”

“Dozens. I think they were coming from the shipyard, over the pontoon bridge in the port.” The guide threaded the brake back onto the AK's muzzle. “One stalker had a machine gun from a tank: no sights or stock on it, so he aimed using tracers. Good enough at close range.” Tiger reseated the gas tube and handguard. “We used up a lot of ammunition killing the zombies and we weren't equipped to hold the town by ourselves. The commander ordered a retreat to the army warehouses... Then the second super-blowout happened. The expeditions to Limansk were lost and everyone else was busy trying to hold down whatever territory they'd grabbed. Our return to Chernobyl was called off.”

“And no one has gone back?”

“None that I know of. It's too close to the Scorcher, too close to Monolith land, and the warehouses are more defensible.” Tiger dropped the bolt group into the receiver and slid it back and forth on its rails. “The traders won't have forgotten Chernobyl, though. I'm sure they're biding their time, waiting for someone else to open the way.”

“I suppose so,” said Jussi thoughtfully. “Well, thank you for sharing the story. I think my readers will eat it up.”

“Mm.”

As if cued by the end of their discussion, Yevgeniya came out of the boxcar holding her wet pants and underwear. She had tied the sleeves of Dmitriy's jacket around her waist, improvising a short apron. “Galya and Mitya want a little time together,” she said quietly. “Is that all right?”

“It's fine.” Tiger averted his eyes, mindful that the jacket only covered her front. “Do you want us to move?”

“No, that's okay.” She approached the fireplace hesitantly, arrayed her garments on the floor and drew back from the heat. “Is this safe to cook on?”

“Yes, why?”

“I did a lot of cooking at home, so I... I thought maybe I could make something for everyone.”

“You can practice making stalker stew, if you think you're up to it. Use the dry food we got this morning.”

“Okay.” The Latvian looked at the party's collection of backpacks, then back at Tiger. “What's the recipe?”

“There are two kinds,” Jussi quipped. “Whatever looks good, or whatever you've got. Right, Tiger?”

“Yeah.” Tiger fished out the Swiss Army knife and started unscrewing what remained of the AK's broken stock from its trunnion. “Zhenya, um...” He cast about for some seconds, trying to think of a delicate way to broach the subject as Yevgeniya watched him in confusion. “...Will you be able to defend yourself?”

“Oh.” Evidently it wasn't the question she anticipated. “You don't have to worry about me. When my clothes are dry, I'll go back to being Yevgeniy... It's safer, isn't it? As long as I don't get found out again.” She opened the top of Kondratenko's pack and took out a stainless pot, stuffed full of small packages tied with string. “Galya isn't hiding herself, though. I guess she's not afraid.”

“She has Mitya with her,” Tiger noted, “and Olga gave her some advice.”

“What was it?”

“If a man propositions you, politely decline. If he touches you, push him away. If he tries to hurt you, put some bullets into him – fast.”

“Figures.” Yevgeniya knelt and unloaded the pot. “What would you have me do?” she asked, setting the foodstuffs in neat rows on the floor.

“You should have a sidearm, at least.” Tiger gestured at the pile of guns. “Take your pick.”

“Mmf.” The chef-apparent kept working with her materials, ignoring the arms. “How much was the bounty on Fritz?” she wondered instead.

“Seventy-five thousand rubles.”

“So... one third each for Jussi and Sanya, would that be fair?”

“You can keep my share,” the Finn cut in. “Sanya!”

“Yeah, what?”

“Zhenya's offering twenty-five grand of the bandit reward. You interested?”

“Make it twenty-five grand and Fritz's shooter.”

Now Yevgeniya looked at the pile. “Which one?”

Tiger pulled out the MP5. “Here.”

The biathlete gave it a once-over and gave it back. “He can have that.”

“She says you can have the shooter,” Jussi relayed. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, I want White Tights to get naked and blow me.”

The tranquil mood sublimated faster than dry ice in a reactor core. “Sanya – !”

“Come on, man! Half a pussy is more than no pussy!”

Galina must have heard the lewd jibes, for Tiger sensed movement in the boxcar. “If you want a share then mind your manners,” he admonished Sanya quickly.

“Okay, okay! I'm joking, jeez!”

“He isn't usually this crass,” Jussi muttered as the troublesome compatriot finally shut up. “I'd better have a talk with him.”

“You do that.” Just then Tiger spotted the Belarusians out of the corner of his eye and beckoned them over. “Can I... can we rely on your discretion?”

“Certainly.” The writer slotted a pan magazine into the Degtyaryov. “I'll set this up to cover the road, all right?”

“Sure.” Tiger handed over the trophy weapon. “Let him play with that and maybe he'll behave. We'll sort out the money later.”

Jussi slung the machine gun and lifted a magazine can in each hand. “Works for me,” he grunted. “One more question... I won't publish names, but I'd like to be able to say that pathfinders are real and that I met one.”

“You can say that.”

“Thanks. I really appreciate it.”

Jussi's path to Sanya's catwalk was a roundabout one, ascending via the one stairway at Kondratenko's end of the hangar. Yevgeniya filled the pot with water and set it on the fireplace as the Finnish man went up once more. “...Tiger?”

“Yes, Zhenya?”

“What did he mean about pathfinders being real?”

“I would have thought the others had told you.” A new idea came to Tiger as he contemplated his young follower. “Perhaps I'll make it your next lesson... Galya, Mitya, what's up?”

Galina answered for both. “What are we going to do about the dead?”

“We'll see whether the relief party can help us bury them. If not, the next reinforcements will do it in the morning. Anything else?”

The girl looked around briefly. “What can we do for you?”

“I don't need any help right now, but I have something here for Mitya.” Tiger stacked the boxes of Mauser cartridges in his hand. “These are higher quality than the ball ammunition you've got,” he explained. “Save them for when you need extra accuracy.”

“I will.”

“You still don't have a pistol either. See how those fit you.”

Dmitriy took the assignment with more energy than Yevgeniya had shown. “I like this one,” he said, holding up the Walther.

“Do you know the controls?”

“Safety, slide stop, magazine catch.” The boy pointed to each part as he recited their names. “Like on a PM, right?”

“Pretty much.” Tiger watched until he was sure Dmitriy remembered what he had been taught about safe handling. “Go ahead and put it on,” he instructed, handing over the holster and magazines.

“Can I practice with it?”

“Tomorrow,” Tiger promised. “We'll use the Rostok target range.” The stalker picked up a shotgun and unlocked the breech. “Why don't you see if Borya is getting lonely? I'll swap places once the food's done.”

“Okay.”

The two lovers departed and their teacher busied himself scrubbing out the scattergun's barrels. Yevgeniya stirred the pot with a fold-up ladle, dropping more ingredients into the stew now and then, but Tiger couldn't overlook the way she kept glancing at him. “...Something wrong?”

The androgyne's cheeks pinked at his verbal prodding. Her response was a mumble.

“Speak up, I won't laugh at you.”

“I wanted... I mean, I was wondering... why is your hair like that?”

Tiger drew back his coat hood, letting light fall on the streaks of black and white overlying brown. “This?”

Yevgeniya nodded, her face reddening. “Did the Zone cause it?”

“Yeah.” He let his colors show for a few seconds, then restored the hood. “It's harmless.”

“Ah...”

That seemed to satisfy her curiosity, and she said no more about it. The subject of mutations lingered in Tiger's mind, however, and led him back to a question he'd passed over earlier in the day. “Zhenya, is your condition treatable?”

“There's corrective surgery, but it comes with a big risk of nerve damage.” Yevgeniya scooped up some of her nascent stew and rolled it around in the ladle. “Not like that matters. I need to figure out what I am before I even think about changing myself.”

“I'm not sure I understand.”

The ladle plunged deep into the pot. “It seems like it should be simple, doesn't it? I have breasts, I can get pregnant... I should be a woman, right?”

Despite feeling far out of his depth, Tiger intuited that the obvious answer wasn't the one she wanted to hear. “It's your choice,” he said neutrally.

She looked at him with an inscrutable expression. “The Zone... doesn't care?”

“The Zone doesn't care,” Tiger affirmed, “and the Zone doesn't judge.”

The words must have struck a chord. “It wasn't just me,” Yevgeniya confided, swirling the stew listlessly. “People judged my father, too.” Her hands clenched, the knuckles whitening. “Because he didn't have me fixed at birth and he raised me the only way he knew how.”

“He raised you as Yevgeniy?”

“He let me be what I wanted. I was happy, I didn't care that I was different... Then puberty hit and suddenly I wasn't just one of the boys.”

“I think I get it now.” Tiger hoped that wasn't premature optimism speaking. “Maybe this is a stupid question, but which are you attracted to?”

A new sadness came over Yevgeniya's features. “Everyone asks me that,” she replied softly, “but it doesn't help. I swing both ways.”

“Oh.” Tiger swallowed. “I didn't mean to pry – ”

“No, it's okay.” A wan smile came and went. “It's been a long time since I had anyone I could talk to.”

At that point Tiger realized he'd gotten so engrossed in drawing Yevgeniya out of her shell that he'd forgotten all about the shotgun. “I gather you lost your mother quite young,” he said, attacking the hacksawed TOZ anew. “Is that right?”

His companion nodded again. “She was sick a lot. Pneumonia took her when I was four... Her parents came to the funeral just so they could tell my father God made me this way to punish her for marrying him.”

Another piece fitted into the puzzle. “They didn't like your father?”

“They wanted their daughter to marry someone with influence. I think maybe they resented my father's family, too.”

“Why?”

“My father's parents were... Wait, I can show you.” The ladle clanked against the pot's lip as Yevgeniya opened her tunic pocket. “Here.”

She handed him a photograph laminated in clear plastic. It framed a group of soldiers standing and sitting along the side of a bullet-punctured truck on a city sidewalk, surrounding a male officer and a woman in baggy camouflage coveralls. A Goryunov machine gun sat before them, a Tokarev rifle with a telescopic sight propped against its wheeled mount. The photo's reverse bore a neatly penciled caption: Lt. A. A. Smirnov and his men with their guardian, Sgt. Ye. Yu. Danilina. Berlin, 5 May 1945.

“Your grandparents were both Heroes of the Soviet Union,” observed Tiger, looking at the pair's matching medals.

“Yeah, they were,” said Yevgeniya proudly. “He got his at Zaporozhye, hers in Odessa.”

“So your family have fought in this country before. They married after the war?”

“In '51. They met again at a veterans' reunion, got together and moved to Riga.”

“I see.” Tiger returned the picture. “That's why you're stateless, isn't it? Because Latvia didn't grant automatic citizenship to those who settled after annexation?”

“Nor to their children,” Yevgeniya concurred. “My father wants to live in Russia, but if I do that I won't be free to be myself.”

“Weren't there a couple of Russian girls who did songs about people like you? It was pretty popular, I heard.”

“Oh, you mean t.A.T.u.” There was a touch of bitterness in her voice. “The fakes who sang and pranced while Luzhkov called us satanists... They're done now, no more this-girl-loves-that-girl. Now we have priests and officials telling people we spread disease and prey on children, while they make us criminals for speaking out.” Yevgeniya took a deep breath and released it in a shuddering sigh. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't be venting at you. I'm really not mopey all the time, honest.”

“I forgive you.” Even so, Tiger didn't want to see his student getting worked up. Best nudge her away from this troubling topic. “Is there somewhere else you want to live?”

“Maybe Canada... I'd need a lot of money for that, though. Have to take care of my father first.”

“I remember.” The shotgun's breech clicked shut. “I don't know how well I can help you, Zhenya, but I'll try to get you started.”

“You're doing so much for me already.” Yevgeniya smiled, and this time it was a smile of hope. “You've been like a saint.”

“I'm not that nice,” Tiger muttered. “Do me one favor, will you?” He waved at the collection of handguns. “You need one. Don't keep putting it off.”

“Um, about that... Does anyone sell arms in Rostok?”

“Barkeep does, and there's also Petrenko if you're on good terms with Duty. Do you want something specific?”

“Yeah.” Yevgeniya was suddenly sheepish. “I want a TT, like my grandparents carried.”

It occurred to Tiger that his hair mightn't have been all the Latvian was checking out. He drew his Tokarev, dropped the magazine and retracted the slide. “You can have this one,” he offered. “It's Chinese, though, not Russian.”

She handled the gun as if it were porcelain. “They look smaller in pictures...” Shachak! Click! Shachak! Click! “You don't mind letting me have it?”

“I can get another if need be.” Tiger loaded the Ithaca, engaged its safety and tucked it into his vest. “This is more my style anyway.”

Yevgeniya displayed a magnificent blush. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” Tiger picked up another shotgun. “You did good today, Zhenya. I mean it.”

“High adventure in an unknown land,” Jussi sang out above them. “A place where men must be the best they can, you're with the stalkers now... Whooooa-oa-oa, you're with the stalkers – now!”

Yevgeniya looked away, but Tiger could tell she was beaming.

“Now you remember what the bar-man said: don't go to sleep without a bucket on your head, you're with the stalkers now... Whooooa-oa-oa, you're with the stalkers – now!”

***

The radio crackled. Yevgeniy ignored it, since it had done that several times while he distributed the stew and mixed up a second potful. Tiger took the message, as he'd done for the others, but this time he got up and left his post at the hangar window. “Our relief is approaching,” he called to Jussi and Sanya. “Five men, following the road down from the checkpoint.”

“Roger,” the Finn answered.

Tiger strode past the barricade and stood facing the hangar doors, rifle in hand. Yevgeniy watched him for a minute, idly swishing the ladle about in his simmering stew. Then he heard a shout from outside: “Ahoy, fellow stalkers! May we come in?”

“You may,” Tiger replied.

Yevgeniy jumped up, suddenly feeling an odd urge to make himself presentable for the guests. He hurriedly brushed off his pants and smoothed his hair, then climbed out of the pit and stood loyally beside his teacher as the replacements entered in single file.

Their leader looked rough at first glance, with a scarred chin and a nose that had been broken more than once, but there was a good-humored glint in his eyes. He was dressed in a green stalker's suit and carried an old Kalashnikov, streaked with white where the bluing had worn off the milled steel's edges. Behind him walked a tall, goateed man sporting cargo pants and a ballistic vest, then a younger pair wearing leather jackets, one brown and one gray. The fifth stalker was clad in a suit like the first, his face hidden behind a gas mask. He held a black combat shotgun.

“Hello, brothers.” The one at the front took a hand off his gun and held it out. “Are you Tiger?”

Tiger shook the hand. “That's me.”

“I'm Sinova.” The loner moved to one side. “The big fellow is my pal Brewer. Don't let the name fool you, he's also a genius with a still... That's our hotshot Nikolay, our newest member Vasiliy – ”

“Vasiliy the coward,” the masked man huffed through his filters.

“...And the asshole in the back there is Nova. You can ignore him.”

“All right... This is Zhenya,” said Tiger, making his own introductions. “The two overhead are Sanya and Jussi.” He half-turned to the far end of the building. “That's Borya, the machine gunner, and Galya and Mitya who are keeping him company.”

The one in the gray jacket, Nikolay, spoke up. “Nice crew. They all yours?”

“Jussi and Sanya were in Lenka's group. The rest are with me.” Tiger headed back towards the pit. “I expect you're tired,” he went on. “Sit down for a bit, we've got food.”

That went over well with the new arrivals, except maybe Nova. Yevgeniy ducked past them and resumed his vigil at the fireplace, ready to serve. Brewer, Vasiliy and Nikolay packed themselves onto the couch, while Sinova perched on its armrest. Nova leaned against a wall, regarding the proceedings with a surly demeanor.

Tiger stood by Yevgeniy. “How was the Dark Valley?”

“It's quiet,” said Sinova. “The military are doing something at the factory, couldn't get close enough to see what. They've got sentries on the roof of the bandit base, too.”

“Any other stalkers over there?”

“Just a group at the pig farm, Vampire and Clumsy and some others.” Sinova frowned. “Didn't like the look of the others... We were heading for the Darkscape when the call came in.” He paused as his men unpacked their mess kits with a cacophonous clattering. “What's new here?”

Tiger shrugged. “Not much. We hold the hangar and Bes holds the trail. Haven't seen any more bandits.”

“If they attack again, they'll come at night. I should see the lay of the land before it gets dark.”

“We can do that now, if you want.”

Tiger and Sinova left the circle as Yevgeniy dished out the stew. Vasiliy and Nikolay tore into theirs at once, scarcely letting it cool. “This is really good,” the latter declared between frantic mouthfuls. “And I'm not saying that... just 'cause I haven't... had a hot meal since...”

“Nikolay,” Brewer cut in sternly. “Are you eating or talking? Make up your mind.”

“Sorry.” Nikolay quickly finished his portion and flashed a hopeful grin. “Seconds?”

“Here.” Yevgeniy refilled the plate. “Don't you want some?” he asked Nova.

“I'm not hungry.”

Nova's voice had lost some of its caustic edge, but he plainly wanted to be left alone. Instead Yevgeniy served another helping to Vasiliy and then checked Brewer's progress. The older man was dipping a piece of bread into his own plate, seemingly accustomed to his comrades' rapacity. “You must pardon the youngsters,” he said to Yevgeniy. “After days of hardtack and sausage, even army rations cooked on Esbit are a luxury.”

“I like the caramels in those rations,” Nikolay interjected wistfully. “I wish I could get a big bag of them.”

“You'd rot your teeth out,” Brewer cautioned. “Isn't that so, Zhenya?”

“Yeah...” Yevgeniy cleared his throat. “You've been in the Zone for a while, haven't you?”

“Long enough,” the distiller replied affably. “Or too long, same difference. What about it?”

“Can you tell me what a pathfinder is?”

Brewer put down his bread. “That's an interesting question, my boy. Some people say a pathfinder is another name for a druid, but I wouldn't call it that simple.”

This wasn't much help to Yevgeniy, who didn't know what a druid was either. Nor, it turned out, did Vasiliy: “What's a druid?”

“Another good question. Druids are – ”

“A bunch of stuck-up jerkoffs who go around crying that detectors are bad,” Nova snapped. “Like, our gizmos give the Zone a rash and it sends monsters to destroy them or some bullshit.” He slouched, shaking his head. “Fucking mystics.”

“More or less,” said Brewer. “It's only electronics they're opposed to. They do use guns, same as everyone else, and I guess they survive like that. Whether the rumors about them are true, though, that's a different matter.”

“What do you mean?” Yevgeniy prompted. “What rumors?”

“Supposedly these druids are touched by the Zone somehow, able to feel it and navigate it without detectors.” Brewer stroked his goatee. “They keep to themselves now, out in the badlands. Who knows if they really are special?”

“Some of them could be.” Tiger dropped, catlike, into the pit, and suddenly Yevgeniy's heart was in his mouth. “The druids are united by ideology, not ability.”

“It's the ideology that sets them apart, too. They annoyed a lot of stalkers with their preaching... But you asked about pathfinders,” Brewer continued. “There are more rumors than facts with those. If you believe the rumors, pathfinders are also a kind of people who feel the Zone – telepathic, telekinetic, whatever they call it.”

“If you believe the rumors,” Nikolay emphasized.

“Aye,” said Brewer with a nod. “What's different is that they work alone and mind their own business. You'll hear some names if you ask around: names of dead men, or of recluses who won't give you the time of day unless you show them serious money. Even then they don't talk about themselves.”

“What's there to talk about?” Nova growled. “Either they're mutants or they're not, end of story.”

Brewer paid him no heed. “What do you think, Tiger?”

“It might be true,” Tiger deadpanned. “There are many strange things in the Zone... Aren't there, Zhenya?”

Yevgeniy gulped.

***

It was near dusk when the band set out, leaving the hangar in Sinova's care. Jussi and Sanya stayed behind, the former to operate his machine gun if needed and the latter's pocket packed with rubles from Tiger's cash reserve. The veteran led his charges north to the checkpoint, where the Duty guards vetted them with jaundiced eyes before opening the gate. Then they went among the anomalies one by one and onward towards Rostok. The sky had clouded over entirely and the air was still.

Yevgeniy was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The exposure of his physical defect had been an accident. Humiliating, yes, but an accident all the same. What happened after that, whether from emotional upset or sheer carelessness, was his own doing. Once sober reason caught up, the realization that he'd said so much, even outed himself, to someone who'd been his mortal enemy a day ago carried an ugly surreality. Then he'd made it worse, going behind his benefactor's back to sate his shortsighted curiosity. If Tiger wanted to punish Yevgeniy for his indiscretion, or ruin him entirely, it would take but a word.

Admittedly Tiger had so far shown no interest in doing that. He simply marched ahead in silence, the stockless AK dangling by its looped sling under his weak arm. If Jussi's remarks and Brewer's tale meant what Yevgeniy thought they meant, however, then the man in the long coat might be a formidable –

“Stop.” Tiger swung to the right, pointing the AKS into the woods beside the road. “Something's coming,” he warned. “Spread out.”

In an instant Yevgeniy's mistrust was forgotten. “Bloodsucker?” he squeaked.

“No...”

Then what? The Latvian hadn't the courage to ask what. He raised the G36 with quaking hands, poised to open fire at first glimpse of the threat.

“It's close,” Tiger muttered. “Don't move until I tell you.”

“What's close?” Kondratenko sounded nearly as frightened as Yevgeniy. “Where is it?”

Tiger didn't answer him. “Zhenya, hold still and don't panic.”

Wide eyes raked the forest's murk, desperately seeking the intruder. A fragment from an old movie ran through Yevgeniy's mind: the jungle hunter's transparent outline, its inhuman eyes flashing yellow and fading away.

An invisible hand stroked his cheek.

“Tiger – !”

“Don't move!”

Yevgeniy was already stiff with terror. The unseen fingers roamed over his body as if he were naked, exploring his skin the way he imagined a blind person would, or a lover in the dark. A whimper escaped his lips as they slid down the front of his chest, settled on either hip for a moment, then crept up his back. Hands grew into arms, encircling the helpless androgyne. There was a brief sensation of something nuzzling the side of his neck, the faintest hint of a breath in his ear. The phantom arms withdrew, something nudged Yevgeniy's shoulder, and then it was gone.

“So the Lonesome Ghost isn't a myth.” Tiger almost sounded impressed. “Interesting.”
  20:17:43  28 September 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Advice given on Facepunch:

---QUOTATION---
You can always take the path of Tiger's Spring and include a weeaboo Mary Stu and a dude with a mangina.
---END QUOTATION---

  00:35:16  2 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
(Novice)
 
On forum: 10/06/2011
Messages: 16

---QUOTATION---
Advice given on Facepunch:
You can always take the path of Tiger's Spring and include a weeaboo Mary Stu and a dude with a mangina.
---END QUOTATION---



While Tiger does come across as Mary Stu-ish, that doesn't detract from the awesomeness of the story. On the other hand, when his Burer and Controller powers kick in I'm gonna call bullshit.

Wait, where does the weeaboo part come in? Did I miss a part where Tiger talked about his anime collection, misquoted stuff about the samurai, waved around a cheap katana, and cried over not being born Japanese?

In any event I just wanted to say I'm a great fan of this story (and the videos you have on Youtube). I'm really digging the subtle and not so subtle references to stuff from the Builds. The whole thing about Yevgeniy/Yevgeniya came as something of a plot twist. Can't say I've read many stories involving such a character.

Maybe it's the hopeless romantic in me, but I'm kind of thinking Kondratenko and Yevgeniya would make a nice couple. You seem to be having them bond.

About Kondratenko though, I find it a little odd that he wouldn't know anything about a "chick with a dick." I don't know much about the Ukraine, but surely the "wonders" of the internet porn community would have managed to make themselves known and it isn't unknown for such things to crop up in conversation (for example, according to Youtubers, Katy Perry has a penis). Seems weird he wouldn't have ever heard anything about it.
  20:47:47  2 October 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
10/02/2012 20:51:38
Messages: 3336
Okay, but what does that mean? The 'Mary Sue' label is a highly subjective one, not to mention heavily diluted by use as a generic pejorative against anything the subject happens to dislike. It's not useful feedback.

Do you feel that Tiger doesn't have enough obvious flaws? Does the number of interesting things happening to him strain plausibility? Frankly I can sympathize on both counts. Heck, it wasn't long ago that I myself complained about the way he turned into the Zone's Forrest Gump. That's my own fault for trying to shoehorn all my ideas into one story.

Despite how much some of my readers profess to love him, I honestly see Tiger as a rather pathetic character. He keeps returning to the Zone like a beaten spouse because he can't (won't?) adapt to living anywhere else. Until Olga barged back into his life, he had no ambition beyond apathetically continuing his hand-to-mouth existence until something finally killed him. He thought he was happy, sure, but what kind of life is that?

In retrospect the story hasn't conveyed this very well at all, which is my fault again. So far we've only seen Tiger in his comfort zone, reacting when others intrude into it, but after the next couple of chapters, the story's final arc will start and Tiger is going to have to leave that zone. It won't be a pleasant experience.

Ranting aside, I'm glad you enjoy the story in spite of its problems and I really do appreciate honest opinions on it. As for Kondratenko, I'd say it's entirely possible for someone to be aware of such things in a fictional or comical sense and still be totally flabbergasted to learn it's a very real aspect of not one but several medical conditions. He's not exactly intelligentsia material to begin with, either.

In other news, I'm thinking about making a two-part side story out of some of the research material I accumulated for scenes that got cut from earlier chapters. Can't say much else about it yet, except that Tiger and friends would not be appearing.

(PS - Tiger does not have any hidden powers.)
  22:01:51  2 October 2012
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 1825
Don't change a thing about Tiger! You hear? He is our Guide around The Zone letting us experience it raw and un-deluted.
  22:52:18  2 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
 

Message edited by:
Eternal Newbie
10/02/2012 23:04:36
Messages: 16
Well, as I understand it, Mary Sues/Stus/whatevers often have some sort of interesting physical trait, like an odd eye color, or maybe hair. They frequently have powers nobody else has or can do things nobody else can, are dressed in "cool" clothing like trenchcoats, use weapons and tools the author has and loves, often make others feel threatened or awestruck by how awesome they are, etc, etc.

Don't get me wrong though, I do think Tiger has enough dimension and depth to make him more than just a Mary Sue. It is just that at a glance a lot of factors could make one think that.

Some of the above I mentioned can readily be explained. Wolf/Ghost being threatened by Tiger's skills/powers, Jussi being impressed by Tiger's abilities with the artifact activation, etc, look Mary Sueish, but for the others in Tiger's party, well, they're all newbies, and none of them are exactly badass or awesome in their own right, so them being in awe of Tiger means little. (Yevgeniy may be a good sniper, but on the other hand, it is implied anyone could have made the shots he/she made. If you're looking for suggestions, it might be nice to have him/her make some shots later that Tiger and company would find difficult, to show that Tiger isn't always able to compete with snipers with iron sights like he did with Lynx. My guess is that you've already planned for this though, to show him/her and other characters coming into their own.)

Let's see, what else smacks of Mary Sue but makes sense in the story? Trenchcoats are common in the Zone, so Tiger wearing one isn't really that unusual, Tiger lost his shooter early on, and therefore doesn't really have any claims to special weapons. (Though one might wonder if his replacement Enfield is a gun you own or wish you had.) On the other hand, I would think many authors would choose weapons for their characters that they know and like, and it's not like Tiger's weapons are specially modified +5 Armor-Piercing Double Damage Against Bloodsuckers that also turns salads wank jobs.

Other points of interest that are common to Mary Sues, but are not present here:
Tiger is not all that liked by many canon characters, whereas a major Mary Sue thing is that all the awesome main characters the writer loves and respects will or do come to like and respect the Mary Sue. (I wouldn't say Forester counts for anything, as he does not factor in the story, but some might say that's name-dropping.) Another thing you do not do here is have Tiger spend much time hanging out with canon characters in exclusion to the characters of your own creation.


To be honest, though I have dabbled in writing fan-fiction and my own work, I have never done anything approaching what you have here, so I am not exactly the right person to give you any advice or to judge harshly. Tiger's Spring has inspired me to try my hand at a S.T.AL.K.E.R story that does involve a character with special powers, but they are not the main and quite frankly can't keep up with the other characters when it comes to the running and gunning business. (Whereas Tiger has both special powers and is apparently quite the fighter, which might be considered a Mary Sue point.)


Please do not feel I am trying to put you down or have a negative opinion or you or your writing. I am in awe of your story and amazed you put so much time and effort into exploring the Builds. I hope what I've wrote here comes across as food for thought and not as unwanted complaints. Please continue with the story, I'm reading it intently. You are a good writer and if you ever write anything remotely in my preferred genres that gets published, I will buy it.


Something that might be fun to try or play with here: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm

I tried running Tiger through it and came up with
"22-29 Original fiction and MMO/RPG characters can go either way at this point depending on the writer. Fanfiction characters may need some adjustment, however." However, since I do not know what you think and had to totally guess on some points, this was just for fun on my part.



Edit: You mention how some of your readers really love Tiger, but you don't necessarily see him as that great a character. In that vein, I just thought I would mention that the more you introduce the others in the group, the less interested in Tiger I am. At the moment, we know more or less who and what Tiger is (though there are several unexplained points that await the light of day, like the Monolith having a polite little chat with him, the possibility of these other pathfinders showing up, the uncertainties regarding his significant other, etc), but the other characters are at a turning point so to speak, and there is great potential for them to grow and change. On the other hand, you talk about Tiger soon being forced to leave his comfort zone, which should be interesting... A good story keeps you guessing, right?
  05:08:42  3 October 2012
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
You've brought up some good points there.


---QUOTATION---
If you're looking for suggestions, it might be nice to have him/her make some shots later that Tiger and company would find difficult, to show that Tiger isn't always able to compete with snipers with iron sights like he did with Lynx. My guess is that you've already planned for this though, to show him/her and other characters coming into their own.
---END QUOTATION---


I have indeed.

Keep in mind that Tiger and Yevgeniya have very different shooting styles. Tiger prefers full power battle rifles, making center-of-mass shots with iron sights on man sized or larger targets - much like the ordinary soldiers to whom these weapons were originally issued. Conversely, Yevgeniya's biathlon marksmanship was conducted with .22 rifles at a typical distance of fifty meters. She was good at it, but now she has to acclimate herself to bigger calibers and longer ranges. It's a shame I probably won't have any opportunities to show the team working in winter, as she's also a good skier.


---QUOTATION---
Though one might wonder if his replacement Enfield is a gun you own or wish you had.
---END QUOTATION---


Nope. The Lee-Enfield was featured because it can be (relatively) easily converted from .303 to 7.62x54R, making it a weapon that could be exotic and yet practical to use. Presumably Tiger's was a one-off conversion brought into the Zone by somebody with a particular fondness for the design.


---QUOTATION---
Whereas Tiger has both special powers and is apparently quite the fighter, which might be considered a Mary Sue point.
---END QUOTATION---


The thing is, he's special but not that special. He has exactly one power, and that's based on canon lore and not unique to him. (Incidentally, his hair was inspired by pigment mutations in birds around Chernobyl.) As for combat abilities, it should be noted that most of the successful shots he's made so far were at short to medium range and on slow or stationary targets.


---QUOTATION---
Please do not feel I am trying to put you down or have a negative opinion or you or your writing.
---END QUOTATION---


Not at all. You've made me stop and think about details I don't normally consider.


---QUOTATION---
Something that might be fun to try or play with here: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm
---END QUOTATION---


I tried running it with some of the major plot points from the final arc factored in and scored 17.


---QUOTATION---
At the moment, we know more or less who and what Tiger is (though there are several unexplained points that await the light of day, like the Monolith having a polite little chat with him, the possibility of these other pathfinders showing up, the uncertainties regarding his significant other, etc), but the other characters are at a turning point so to speak, and there is great potential for them to grow and change.
---END QUOTATION---


I think there's still room for all the characters to grow. We'll see how competently I make it happen.
  07:47:17  3 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
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---QUOTATION---

The thing is, he's special but not that special. He has exactly one power, and that's based on canon lore and not unique to him.

---END QUOTATION---



Oh. Interesting. I'm currently playing Clear Sky after completing Shadow of Chernobyl, and I haven't gotten to anything like Tiger's abilities just yet. The whole druid/pathfinder thing isn't just some left-over concept hinted at in game or in the Builds...

Wellllll, I'll just have to see what Scar and Alex find in the Zone, won't I?
  18:02:31  3 October 2012
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BobBQ
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After you've done the main story quests in the Dark Valley, go to Chekhov and ask him to tell you about the Zone. He'll give you a hint about finding one of these 'special' people.

What he says is partly a rehash of one of the 'Zone lore' entries from Shadow of Chernobyl, but the original is buried in the PDA and easy to overlook. Ganja, the Freedom bartender in Clear Sky, will also tell you a story that's recycled from SoC lore.
  22:50:52  9 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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Thanks for the heads-up.


Something else I thunk of: I didn't make this clear, but when I posted my big long wall of text about Tiger being a possible Mary Sue, I was looking at a list of Mary Sue traits and taking a "this is probably how some people could see Tiger" point of view, rather than a "this is what's wrong" view. What I posted is not necessarily what I think on a personal level. Just thought I'd clarify that.
  23:29:54  19 October 2012
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BobBQ
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No worries.

The discussion of Tiger's traits does make me wonder how my audience feels about all the other characters in the story. Anyone care to weigh in with their thoughts on the cast?
  08:08:16  27 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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Message edited by:
Eternal Newbie
10/27/2012 8:15:16
Messages: 16

---QUOTATION---
The discussion of Tiger's traits does make me wonder how my audience feels about all the other characters in the story. Anyone care to weigh in with their thoughts on the cast?
---END QUOTATION---



Well shoot, I guess I'm the verbose one here, so since nobody else has jumped in I'll speak my mind. (So this should be short, harhahar. ;D)

Let's see... Yevgeniy:
I find this character rather interesting, and empathize with her/him (damnit, I'm going with she and her from now on). This may have a lot to do with the fact that thus far she is the only one aside from Tiger that we have experienced the story through. Though we have seen things through the viewpoints of characters like Wolf, it has been only as a passing paragragh or two. So, given the choice between Tiger and Yevgeniya, it seems my chivalrous/chauvinistic side wants to protect the "helpless" fair maiden, or thereabouts as the case may be. Tiger can handle himself.

Side-note: This is the mark of a good story, when the reader is drawn in and cares about characters.

I don't want to pry here, but I kind of wonder if you (BobBQ) have some experience with someone who has similar problems as Yevgeniya. It seems rather "extreme." I've noticed you can't throw a stick these days without hitting a story that has a gay character shoved in sideways in order to show how politically correct the author is, despite apparently knowing nothing about gays, but this doesn't seem the case here. Hell, a quarter of the story has focused on her!

As for the contraceptive device, there are reasons they aren't normally used in America. Wonder if a certain character rumored to have healing powers might factor in the story later...

Hmmm... mind went blank. Guess I'd better move on to somebody else like Kondratenko. Kondratenko, AKA the soldier in the swamp, is somewhat one-dimensional right now. Like I mention above, we've not really seen much from his point of view. As of the moment he has room for development, perhaps he'll have to deal with issues from running away and leaving his comrades behind to die, but right now he seems to be just cheerfully going with the flow and supressing any personal issues. I personally would get a bit worked up over running away as he has, and he doesn't seem like the type to just shrug it off.

I would expect a "this time I will not fail" sort of mentality to hit him when the group gets into real trouble, which could lead to him doing something stupid. Anyway, Kondratenko seems like a "good old boy", and I could see him as being a sort of peacemaker core to the group if relationships in the group got bad. Just my gut feelings here.

As for Dmitriy and Galina, not a whole lot going on here. We know their basic backstory, but they've really not had any major spotlight in the story so far. I'm not feeling anything for them right now, but I see potential for them taking a bigger role in the future, particularly if Galina and Yevgeniya develop a friendship. (I get the impression you may be setting such a thing up.)

Welp, it's past my bedtime, and that's all that comes to mind right now, so I'm signing off.

Oh, by the way, I don't know if anyone cares, but because of this story I looked up the Mosin Nagant and have fallen in love with its price tag. I'm thinking I will get one in the next year or so. THE RED ARMY CANNOT BE OVERRUN!


Edit: Good God, I almost forgot Ogla. Ogla... I dunno about her. She's obviously important to Tiger as a character and gives him dimension, though for some reason I don't really "click" with her as a character herself. She certainly worked well as a leader of sorts, keeping the group organized, but of course now she's out of the picture and Tiger's on the spot. The only I can think of here is to wonder how she'll come back into the story and what it will mean to the structure of the group. If Tiger has gotten his group in line and they respect him but she wants them to do something else... Could be interesting.
  00:24:44  31 October 2012
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
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---QUOTATION---
Tiger can handle himself.
---END QUOTATION---


We'll see... about that.


---QUOTATION---
I don't want to pry here, but I kind of wonder if you have some experience with someone who has similar problems as Yevgeniya.
---END QUOTATION---


Yevgeniya is who she is because I thought it was a powerful premise for a character, with a bonus of letting me incorporate some other facets of the post-Soviet world into the Zone setting. My LGBT friends don't read this stuff, but they were very helpful with the research for it.


---QUOTATION---
Kondratenko, AKA the soldier in the swamp, is somewhat one-dimensional right now... As for Dmitriy and Galina, not a whole lot going on here.
---END QUOTATION---


This is true. Kondratenko and the Belarusians have been on the sidelines for most of the story so far, outsiders to the action, but that's starting to change. I originally planned a fairly large plot arc dedicated to building up these three, but I don't know how much of that will make it to the final cut. I can give a couple of hints, though: remember that Kondratenko is a quest NPC, and remember who Galina's father is.


---QUOTATION---
Oh, by the way, I don't know if anyone cares, but because of this story I looked up the Mosin Nagant and have fallen in love with its price tag.
---END QUOTATION---


Mosins are a ton of fun if you keep them clean and don't mind the recoil. They're a powerful gateway drug, however - buy a Mosin now and some day you might wake up in the morning and wonder where all these Swedish Mausers came from.


---QUOTATION---
I dunno about [Olga]. She's obviously important to Tiger as a character and gives him dimension, though for some reason I don't really "click" with her as a character herself.
---END QUOTATION---


This one actually surprised me a bit, since I think of Olga as being one of the better developed characters. (Some of my on-again off-again test readers are convinced she is evil.) I've been toying with the idea of a side chapter from her point of view, but again I don't know if I'll have time for it.

Thanks for weighing in. This kind of feedback is really useful to me, as my perception of the characters is probably skewed by what I 'know' about them that the audience doesn't yet.
  02:30:26  3 November 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
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---QUOTATION---
Mosins are a ton of fun if you keep them clean and don't mind the recoil. They're a powerful gateway drug, however - buy a Mosin now and some day you might wake up in the morning and wonder where all these Swedish Mausers came from.
---END QUOTATION---



Well, I dunno about Swedish Mausers, but one of those straight pull back Swiss rifles would be pretty nifty, I've heard good things about the German guns, and the Garand is awesome... (I may seem the right age to go all mall ninja on an AR15, but I think an AK47 with a red dot is about as close as I'm going to get.)



---QUOTATION---
This one actually surprised me a bit, since I think of Olga as being one of the better developed characters. (Some of my on-again off-again test readers are convinced she is evil.) I've been toying with the idea of a side chapter from her point of view, but again I don't know if I'll have time for it.
---END QUOTATION---



I can't argue with the level of development per se, I just can't bring myself to care about her much for some reason. Sorry, i can't put my finger on it, maybe I don't like the way she played tough then went crawling back to Tiger after a fashion.

It does seem a little unrealistic for her to just up and beg for sexing to my mind (leaving aside that most women who are above a certain age and income level generally do not do such things, she's a secret agent, which doesn't make one think of someone who just "can't" hold themselves back anymore), though you do point out that Tiger sees her as unique in this aspect. She has also been hanging around Tiger for a long time without saying anything, so tension has kind of been building a little for her while Tiger has been blissfully unaware of it. I dunno, sometimes it's better to just go with it and not worry about whether it seems realistic or not. Reality can be a bit boring at times.

A possibility to change this, at least for me, would be to run the story from her point of view for a bit. That worked for Tiger and Yevgeniy after all. ;D
  21:35:44  6 November 2012
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BobBQ
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On forum: 07/30/2007
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---QUOTATION---
It does seem a little unrealistic for her to just up and beg for sexing to my mind
---END QUOTATION---


This is one of those unintuitive things that supposedly has a real psychological basis... but yeah, I probably could have dropped it entirely. Most of its supporting context was in the scenes which got cut from that chapter (see my post from May 7th or thereabouts).

I think not relating to Olga isn't necessarily a bad thing, since by now it should be evident that she is, in her own way, seriously messed up. So far we've only really seen her from the perspectives of Tiger, who as you mentioned knows her too well, and of others to whom she's an intimidating stranger. Regarding the 'secret agent' bit, think of a certain other person we know in STALKER canon who does the SBU's work in the Zone.

I have a tentative plot worked out for another Olga-centric interlude, but I'll have to see how the writing budget balances out. That new STALKER 2 concept art is also giving me ideas...
  21:59:12  7 November 2012
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PCDania
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Am very impatiently waiting for the next chapters....
  06:51:43  24 February 2013
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BobBQ
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This is still taking a lot longer than it should.

Ambassador's Autumn

“We've got orders,” announced Gromyko, tapping the butt of his rifle against the doorframe. “Rise and shine, people.”

“Nnnnnf.” Dudorov rolled over and covered his head with his hands. “Sleep...”

“You can sleep when you're dead,” Gromyko needled. “We gotta patrol the woods west of the village, over to Novosyolki and back. Shulga's boys went yesterday, so now it's our turn.”

Mironyuk sat up, scratching at the dark hints of beard that had crept onto his choirboy face overnight. “What are we doing in Novosyolki?”

“Showing the colors... Artur, I'll count to five and then I'm gonna come over there and pee on you."

“I wish you'd pee on Shulga.” Dudorov propped himself up on his elbows. “When do we get some downtime, huh?”

“When I get promoted,” said Gromyko humorlessly as Mironyuk lit a cigarette. “Come on, get up. You're setting a bad example for the rookies.”

Dudorov grudgingly got onto his hands and knees, stretching like a lanky cat. “Food?”

“Next resupply is due around noon. You have any gum left?"

“One stick.”

“Make it last.” The squad leader waited a few moments, watching as the rookies sorted themselves out, then turned his back. There was a nip in the air as the sun began to rise over Cherevach, and the derelict farm's long, low, half tree-choked buildings threw broad shadows on the grass.

“Nice day,” Mironyuk drawled behind him.

“Yeah.” Gromyko was about to say more when he heard a faint burst of gunfire to the north. “Red Forest?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I wonder if Freedom's bleeding as bad as we are.”

***

Gromyko heard the transports before he saw them. He sprinted up the last stretch of Kalinowski Street, hopping over puddles left by the morning rain, and came to the junction with the six-lane Minsk highway just as the first truck was rolling through the intersection. Cutting to the right, he closed the gap and overtook the flat-fronted GAZ. The driver was generous enough to wait until he'd climbed over the tailgate before accelerating.

There were twenty-odd people crammed into the open cargo bed: men and women, mostly young, in khaki Afghanka uniforms as ill-fit as Gromyko's own. He counted two other trucks following theirs in the convoy, which made his new unit either an overstrength platoon or an understrength company. Two more pulled out from the strip of grass on the left shoulder, where they'd been idling beside a line of parked tanks, and formed up parallel to the penal carriers. They carried a different kind of men, all wearing balaclavas and suits of red-trimmed black. The familiarity of the sight made Gromyko want to puke.

His fellow passengers regarded their escort with cowed alarm. “Who are they?” a white-haired man demanded of Gromyko.

The prisoners didn't know him, but they recognized him as a figure of authority. “Duty blocking troops,” he replied. “Your government doesn't trust its own grunts to watch us.”

That was how it worked now. Gromyko's condemned platoon was the spear's head, the Duty detachment its binding to hold it fast atop the shaft of the regular army – a Belarusian shaft thrust into the Zone by a Russian fist.

“They can't do this to us.” The mousy girl at his right elbow offered quiet defiance. “We're not criminals. We didn't do anything wrong!”

She had the initials of a banned pro-democracy group tattooed on her arm. Looking around, Gromyko saw that a few of the others carried similar marks. There was also a pair of boys huddled together at the front, holding hands.

“It's absurd,” the old man declared. “We aren't soldiers. What do they expect us to achieve?”

“Better stop that,” warned Gromyko. “Unless you want them to shoot you for defeatist agitation.”

The trucks slowed, weaving between anomalies outlined with rings of orange road markers. There wouldn't be any markers where the platoon was going.

***

The squad advanced in single file, Mironyuk on point and Gromyko behind him. The five rookies followed, with Dudorov bringing up the rear. Now and again they heard shooting in the distance, but for the moment their patch of forest offered only a beautiful tranquility.

Gromyko knew it wouldn't last.

The faction wars had raged across the southern Zone for fifteen days, with no end in sight. A week ago his squad was recalled to the Agroprom and gutted, half its men transferred to make up for losses on higher priority teams. To replace them he was given the rookies, fresh-faced idiots who heard the propaganda blaring from the loudspeakers and answered the call of Duty. Gromyko still couldn't keep their names and faces straight.

It went both ways. The rookies knew almost nothing about him, either – not his full name (Gromyko, Fyodor Pavelovich) or his age (31) or his old service unit (12th Battalion, 95th Airmobile Brigade). Those who survived would remember him as one grumpy sergeant among many, if at all. With Duty's casualty rates, that might be for the best.

Mironyuk halted, ducking into an alert, compacted posture. Gromyko signaled the rest with a raised hand. The detector on his belt wasn't reacting, but its silence meant little: he wasn't important enough to rate a fancy model with a full catalog of the rarer anomalies. That was what he had Mironyuk for.

A sudden pain informed the NCO that he'd just stubbed his fingers on the rifle's vertical foregrip – again. Gromyko gritted his teeth and clenched a smarting fist around the infernal furniture as Mironyuk took a steel nut from the pouch on his hip. The pointman tossed it underhand into the bushes ahead, provoking a whirring noise and a flurry of motion towards the right. The creature was gone amongst the trees before Gromyko could lift his gun.

“Pheasant,” said Mironyuk indifferently. “Good with lemon and pepper.”

Lemon and pepper and a garnish of isotopes, Gromyko thought. “Is it clear, Matvey?”

“Yes.”

“Let's keep moving. Maybe they'll have some of Mitay's spam for us when we get back.”

It was poor discipline to vent his contempt so openly, but after two weeks of this bullshit neither Gromyko nor anyone else in the squad gave a damn. Mitay the misanthrope, who hated and was hated by nearly everyone, saw the faction wars as an opportunity to boost himself up the ladder. He had his eye on Major Zvyagintsev's job as head of training and equipment, a position which conveniently overlapped with Mitay's own duties as quartermaster.

The rack numbers were the first warning sign. Zvyagintsev organized his inventory with care and method, marking each weapon on the left side of its stock or frame in cleanly stenciled white paint. Mitay would have none of that. Instead he pestered his preoccupied superiors into letting him 'share the burden' and then applied his numbers in ragged freehand. Worse, he mostly daubed them across the top of the gun's slide or dust cover, where they distracted the user's eyes and were hard to read in a hurry.

Mitay's next blunder unhappily coincided with Gromyko's personnel shakeup. The faction wars put the Agroprom base into a state of near siege, with mutants flooding out of the uncharted underground, bandits and Freedom saboteurs infiltrating from the Garbage, and gaggles of zombies shambling down from Yantar. While Zvyagintsev and Gromov worked around the clock to help Duty's fighting men stay in the fight, Mitay leveraged a procurement coup by calling in a favor from one of the independent smugglers.

When the Romanian Kalashnikovs were delivered and uncrated, they turned out to be some kind of special issue. All of them came marked with a Latin 'G' on the side of the rear sight block – and without the critical bits needed for fully automatic firing. Some were restored using spare or salvaged parts and the rest relegated to emergency reserves. Unfazed by the snafu, Mitay saw to it that as many as possible were pushed into the hands of outgoing fireteams.

The repaired guns worked well enough, but Gromyko just couldn't get used to that stupid foregrip. It screwed up his muscle memory, and being an integral part of the lower handguard meant the only way to take it off was with a saw. Gromov, the chief armorer, dubbed it the 'horse dick'.

Gromyko concurred.

***

The trucks turned right and right again, onto a side road and then the grounds of an apartment complex. The old signage identified it as a care home for veterans and invalids. Its walls were the same weary gray as the sky above. “This is the last staging point behind the front line,” Gromyko explained to the prisoners. “Don't get out until they tell you.”

The blocking detachment was already disembarking. Soldiers swarmed out from the building's ground floor, some carrying large wooden crates between them. Together they and the Duty men herded the penal platoon onto the unkempt lawn and started a headcount. After a minute, a Dutyer in a black rubber gas mask corralled the conscripts' new leader. “Fedka Ambassador?”

Gromyko's oppressors had him on file under an alias he'd only used in the last few months before he quit stalking completely. His old paper trails were denied to them when the Zone engulfed Kiev and Zhytomyr. “That's me,” he said. “You're the handler?”

“I am Commissar Kuntsev. I will be ensuring your compliance with commands in the field.”

So they sent an extra stiff jackboot to breathe down his neck this time. “I suggest we get my people geared up first,” Gromyko offered, trying to make out the eyes behind the little round lenses. “Then I'll put the platoon in order and tell them what's what.”

“As you like.” The mask's filter didn't do much for Kuntsev's voice. “Do not forget that my people will be watching you closely. Do we understand each other?”

Gromyko wondered if Kuntsev realized the PBF's goofy balloon cheeks spoiled its intimidation potential... Or that wearing his mask behind the lines, wasting its filters where there was no gas or radiation to be protected from, was a rookie badge.

Looks like I have to babysit you too, tough guy. “...Perfectly.”

“Good.”

With that, Kuntsev walked away to rejoin the headcounters and left Gromyko standing alone beside the driveway. A buzz cut bulldog glowered back at him from the depths of the puddle at his feet, framed by stormclouds.

There was a storm over the Zone, all right – a storm three years in the brewing. Three years since the stalkers came out of their blowout shelters and became founding citizens of a country without a capital. Three years since Duty, shunned by the pro-west interim government in Lviv, began making overtures to Minsk. Three years since Gromyko realized he had to get out while he could.

“Ambassador!” Now Kuntsev was coming back with an armload of equipment. “Take these,” he ordered, thrusting the lot at Gromyko. “Hurry up!”

The bundle consisted of a Sudayev submachine gun, a magazine pouch, and a belt carrying a holster, a canteen and some other essentials. Gromyko quickly put the slings of the former over his shoulder, freeing his hands to buckle the belt around his waist.

The holster held a Nagant revolver, a disposable weapon for a disposable leader of disposable men. It had the telltale flat bluing of an arsenal refurbishment, but the Tula arrow-in-star and 1938 date stamp were still sharp. Gromyko made sure the cylinder was empty, then aimed at the ground and tried the trigger. The double-action pull was typical of its kind, long and heavy with some grit. He would have to use single-action if he wanted to hit anything.

“Satisfactory?”

“Good enough.” Gromyko had identified another problem, however. “Commissar, is that Glock all you have?”

“I don't need – ”

The PPS was shoved into Kuntsev's hands before he could finish. “Take this. If you can't fight, you're dead weight.” Not waiting for a reply, Gromyko cut past him and headed for the soldiers with the crates. “I'll get a rifle.”

He never thought he'd miss the old days so much. His big mouth and bad temper had kept him a sergeant his entire career, passed over each time there was an opening for advancement, but he could always count on his friends. They'd been together since the beginning – Matvey the eyes, Fyodor the brains, Artur the brawn. Not any more.

“Open them up,” he called out. The men guarding the weapons were Belarusian conscripts, kids who probably didn't want to be here any more than Gromyko himself. They boggled at him, a mere penal soldier giving commands in his unfamiliar Ukrainian accent.

“Hey, hey, hey! Where are you going, shit-eater?”

Either the action or the accent was drawing attention: a soldier with sergeant's stripes and a fish-fur hat broke away from the headcounters, moving to block his path. Gromyko stopped and sized up this new opponent. The noncom was a bit shorter than himself, with bad teeth, worse breath, and ears that stuck out like little radar dishes on either side of his head. Definitely hankering for a fight.

Gromyko didn't feel like obliging him. “You don't want to do this,” he said flatly. “Either you'll go down and I'll still have a job to do, or I'll go down and my bosses will put you in charge of the shtrafniks. If Freedom has any snipers out there, you'll be second to die. They'll shoot the Duty guy first, just on principle, and then it's you or me.”

Kuntsev caught up then, ending the confrontation. “Stand down,” he ordered the troublemaker. “This doesn't concern you.”

Gromyko didn't thank him.

***

The Zone's sky clouded over fast, forecasting either flash rain or blowouts. The sudden boom a few minutes later told Gromyko which one it would be. Then Shulga was on the radio, informing everyone in the sector that an emission was imminent and all personnel should seek cover at once.

“Hustle up,” Gromyko instructed the squad. “We'll wait it out in Novosyolki.”

In the Zone a location's strategic value depended on conventional factors, with one caveat. Beside considerations like defensible terrain and ease of resupply, commanders had to account for blowout protection. The faction wars drove that home for all parties. When the combatants weren't battling tooth and nail for control of the shelters themselves, they were making timed dashes after every eruption – each group racing to reoccupy the best fighting positions before their enemies could do the same.

That was the reason Gromyko and his men were here and not up at the Red Forest. The strongpoints they were fighting over used to be villages, farms, places where normal people led normal lives. Twenty-five years after the fallout drove the inhabitants from their homes, the brick and timber shells they left behind were often a stalker's only refuge from the weird storms. Holding Cherevach and keeping Freedom out of Yampol, Novosyolki and Rudnya Veresnya was vital to the success of Duty's operations in the north.

Crackling thunder sounded above the forest canopy. Gromyko saw light through the trees ahead. “Skirmish line!”

The squad spread out to either side. Mironyuk pressed himself against a gnarled trunk, making his suit hard to pick out from the shaded bark, and Gromyko did the same. Ahead the woods gave way to a field dotted with single trees and bushes. Among them stood a handful of buildings, maybe stables or pigsties, with gently sloping corrugated roofs and brick walls that showed rash-like blotches where the whitewashing had weathered off.

The nearest and largest of these structures was the squad's objective. Getting to it involved crossing an open space with limited concealment, and those rows of square windows made for good firing positions. Gromyko plotted an approach to the entrance on the northeast side and snapped his fingers, calling all eyes to himself. His next order was given in coded gestures: Matvey and Artur go with me, the rookies cover us from here.

They hooked to the right, running low and using the scant trees in the field to mask their movement. The door was open to them, one rotted half ajar and the other lying in the grass. No signs of life, but Gromyko wasn't going to take chances. He jinked to the left and rolled up beside the entryway, pausing to sling his rifle and switch to his sidearm. For clearing a dim space at close quarters, the CZ's night sights and underbarrel tactical light trumped the raw firepower of the AKM.

Also the CZ didn't have a horse dick.

More rumbling in the heavens. Not much time left now. The sergeant switched on his light and ran a visual countdown with the fingers of his weak hand: 3-2-1, go!

Turning left inside the doorway, Gromyko saw the first corpse immediately – a man in the gopnik's national costume of tracksuit and leather, lying on his back with his head pointed toward the door. The Dutyer raised his gun, throwing its cone of illumination deeper into the gloom. He tallied three bandits huddled at the south end of the building, their bullet-riddled backs facing him, and one more slumped against the wall to the right. The fifth man's mouth, chin and jacket were drenched in blood. The hand in his lap clutched a 6P9 pistol, slide locked open.

“Right side clear!” Dudorov reported smartly.

“...Left side clear,” Gromyko replied. “Matvey, check those bodies. Artur, watch the windows. I'll get the others.” Striding back to the door, he flagged the rookies and watched as they came running along the same path he'd taken. Green they might be, but they knew how to follow an example given. “Everybody inside,” their leader ordered. “You know the drill.”

“Fyodor.”

Gromyko turned to find Mironyuk standing close by. “What have we got?” he asked his pointman.

“A sack of artifacts. I figure they mugged a neutral courier, coming down from Red Forest or the warehouses.” Mironyuk sidled over to the bandit nearest the door. “Put this guy on guard while they divided the spoils. He tried to cash out his buddies, one of them payed him back in kind. The bodies are still warm.”

“And we didn't hear a thing because they both had silencers,” Gromyko concluded somberly. “Dogs eating dogs.”

“Looks that way.” Mironyuk held up the betrayer's Sten submachine gun, its barrel enclosed in a long tube with a laced canvas shroud. “I'll take this, if that's okay.”

“Yeah, go ahead.” Gromyko nodded towards the bloody avenger. “Get his, too. We can use that.”

“Right.”

The rookies had split up in the meantime, a pair migrating to either end of the barren interior. The odd man out stood guard at the door... All just like Gromyko had taught them. Surely he could allow himself a little pride for that, he thought as he drifted across to Dudorov, who'd begun searching the massacred thieves. “Find anything good?”

“Yeah.” Dudorov handed him a radio and an AK-47. “Have fun.”

Gromyko clipped the handset onto his suit, leaving it switched on so he could listen for enemy chatter. Then he pressed the rifle's butt against his shoulder and sighted through the closest window. This old-timer was noticeably heavier than Mitay's Romanian surplus, with a drooping stock – but no horse dick. “Thanks,” he grunted. “Ammo?”

“In the bread bag here. Lemme see... We got slabside, ribbed, orange plastic...”

“Take a couple and pass it around.”

The world outside was turning a fierce red color. Gromyko could feel a headache coming on: a symptom of imperfect cover. He might experience some blurred or double vision, but no need for worry unless his nose started bleeding as well. Tuning out the Zone's rage, he sat cross-legged and field stripped his new best friend. The blowout spent its strength in half a minute, leaving only a harmless overcast behind.

“Hey, Dima! Everything okay over there?”

Gromyko turned up the volume.

“Quit screwing around, you hear me?”

Fellow robbers, or maybe loot-carriers coming from the Garbage to make a pickup for Yoga. The squad had engaged two such bands of brigands in the last four days, with inconclusive results.

“The delivery boys ain't talking. Zhorka, go see what's up.”

“Yeah, yeah,” another bandit answered. “We're getting to it!”

Dudorov and Mironyuk had been listening. “What's the plan?” asked Dudorov. “Pull back, or wait for them here?”

“Here,” said Gromyko firmly. “You two up front, the rest as fire support. Let them get close and take out as many as you can with the silenced weapons. We don't go loud until we have to. Any questions?”

Mironyuk shook his head. “No questions.”

“Let's set the table.” Gromyko stood up, snapping the last pieces of the AK into place. “Then we can go back to camp and toast Shulga's next commendation.”

The Zone used to be so big, before its artificial wilderness was divided into a gory patchwork of fiefdoms and clan stakes carved out with bullets and bayonets, every boundary contested in a war effort paid for by wholesale plunder of unnatural resources.

***

To Gromyko's oppressors, the Mosin rifle was the penal soldier's ideal weapon: cheap enough to throw away, usable with even rudimentary training. The M91/30 he'd pulled from the crate was counter-bored at the muzzle, had a force-matched magazine floorplate and reeked of preservative grease. The Belarusian arsenal staff had cleaned out the working parts, but left the slick layer of red shellac applied to protect the stock over decades of storage. The rifle came with a sling, a bayonet, a cleaning kit and thirty rounds of ammunition on chargers, carried in a belt pouch – barely a third of a Duty fighter's minimum combat load for that caliber.

That was the point. This was a platoon of fodder, not fighters. They'd been given their gear and Gromyko had briefed them, briefly, on what to do and how to do it. Then they were left standing on the veterans' home lawn, waiting for a tardy unit to get into formation elsewhere on the line. Kuntsev had gone off to do something important.

The mousy girl with the dissident tattoo gravitated towards Gromyko in the meantime. “I heard Irving Berlin was born around here,” she remarked.

“So was Andrey Melnikov.”

“Who?”

“Got a posthumous Hero for defending a hill in Afghanistan. Bondarchuk made a movie about it.”

“Oh.”

He could see that meant little to her. “So what else do you know about Mogilyov?”

“Just that it's an industrial center. That's why we're here, isn't it?”

“Politics,” Gromyko corrected quietly. “Politics is why we're here.”

At first the outside powers were too timid to push back against the Zone's sudden encroachment, willing only to cordon and patrol its fringes like they'd done before. Minsk and Bryansk became fortified front-cities as Russian and Belarusian armies locked down the northern perimeter. In the south, the Lviv government summoned its new NATO allies to guarantee the security of the placeholder state. Troops dug in behind barbed wire and waited, watching the quarantined land with fearful eyes while their presidents and prime ministers bickered in UN meetings.

NATO broke the stalemate after the last spring thaw, establishing a cautious presence in Rivne and Uman. Its hand forced, Moscow spent the summer marshaling its reserves and pumping resources into its teetering proxy Minsk. Their offensive was two-pronged, targeting Mogilyov in the north and Pinsk on the western edge – one for its factories and its port on the Dnieper, the other for its proximity to the Ukrainian border and the foreign line of control. No penal units were deployed in the Pinsk sector.

“How did you get mixed up in this?”

“I was a guide for a film crew,” Gromyko recounted. “Location shooting around the Kursk nuclear plant for Quatermass against the Monolith. The police arrested everyone two days before we were supposed to wrap, saying our permits were fake... The Brits were declared spies and deported. I was sent to the front. You?”

“Bryansk, street protest.”

“Busted under the same law you were protesting, right?”

The girl nodded. “They're doing it in Smolensk, too.”

“I'm not surprised,” Gromyko muttered. “Better stop now, Kuntsev's coming back.”

The commissar was as impatient as before. “The stragglers are in place,” he announced. “Get yours ready.”

A tank came lumbering down the highway just then, as if for emphasis. Gromyko clapped his hands. “Comrade shtrafniks, form up! It's time to move on and be heroes!”

He felt their reluctance, but it couldn't be helped: the Dutyers and regular troops were already closing in. The only way out now was forwards. They would advance southeast, through Microdistrict Sputnik's gauntlet of apartment blocks and construction sites, and then into the sprawling railway yard behind it. Either the penal units – eight in all, positioned at weak points up and down the front – would succeed in scouting the way for the oppressors' army, or the Zone would send them to a shallow grave.

The young dissident didn't move away. “I'm sticking with you,” she said before Gromyko could ask. “You look like you know what you're doing.”

It made no difference to him, but he was surprised when Kuntsev didn't object: “Very well,” the masked man answered, falling in on Gromyko's left. “Then I will show you how a man of Duty fights.”

“And I'll show you where the Silver Shields grow,” Gromyko retorted under his breath. “Comrade shtrafniks, after me... March!”

At the end he chose to hand in his resignation to Voronin directly, delivering it in person to the general's bedside. A futile gesture, perhaps, but he wanted to have closure, wanted to be sure his old commander knew why he was leaving. He'd watched Matvey and Artur die in front of him, and he'd watched an ambitious sycophant steal their honor. Duty had lost its direction and sold out to a dictator. Its ranks were full of power players, emboldened by the impotence of the ailing leadership. Skull the traitor and Morgan the embezzler had shown the way, even if neither lived to see the outcome of their malefactions.

Voronin asked Gromyko to reconsider, tried to assure the sergeant that his loyal service had not been overlooked, but Voronin was ill and dying, and Gromyko knew that once he was gone only Colonel Shulga would be left to check the hardliners. For all his flaws, Shulga had principles and he stuck to them – and that was why he had to go. The colonel was taken violently ill four days after the general's burial and succumbed within twenty hours. It was the perfect excuse for the hardliners to instigate a purge. Gromyko's departure was forgotten in the wake of the exodus which followed.

“Is that a flamethrower?”

Gromyko followed the mousy girl's gaze to the right, where one of their Duty escorts was walking. “Yeah.”

Flamethrowers weren't used in the old Zone. Aside from the obvious ethical problems and the risk of starting uncontrolled fires, there was a very real hazard of releasing radioactive contamination into the air. No such concerns here, clearly. The Dutyers seemed to favor the LPO-50 – a cumbersome thing, only able to deliver three shots from full tanks. Their role was primarily psychological, but that didn't mean they couldn't fuck up the platoon very fast if so wanted.

“They wouldn't use that on us, would they?”

“They will if you run,” Gromyko replied bluntly, “so don't run.”

The grass was tall on the other side of the road, where it hadn't been trampled under soldiers' boots. Even wet, it reached almost to Gromyko's waist. Here and there circular depressions marked the positions of gravity traps, with the added luxury of little orange flags on galvanized stakes. Apartment blocks loomed over the platoon on both sides, ten or eleven floors high. These buildings were new when the Zone washed over them, and three years of neglect hadn't taken the sheen off.

Neglect, not abandonment – a subtle but important distinction. After the surviving residents fled, the city was quickly colonized by Belarusian stalkers. Connections were made with the Ukrainians of the old Zone as they spread into the new. Freedom moved north, resettling its headquarters into Gomel Palace and sending emissaries all over the newly liberated territory. Duty's reactionary alliance with the forces of repression, and the damage it did to their standing with neutral groups, couldn't have come at a better time.

When Minsk and Duty came to take back Mogilyov, Freedom vowed to resist. They boasted of building their strategy on the lessons of Chuykov: pull back from the outskirts, draw their mechanization-dependent enemies into the heart of the city and destroy them in street fighting, or let them be bogged down by the onset of winter. So far there had been no overt contact between attacker and defender.

The front line's only demarcation was a sandbag emplacement at the foot of the apartments to the right, sheltering a Kord heavy machine gun manned by a few grunts. “Spread out,” Gromyko called. “Go slow and watch for shimmering. Shout if you're not sure.”

This was it. This was where their real work started, as human shields and minesweepers and live baits rolled into one. The Dutyers held back as the platoon widened into a broad ribbon, closing together behind the penal troops. They wouldn't expose themselves unless forced, not when they were so valuable to the invasion and so difficult to replace. They called it prudence. Gromyko called it cowardice.

“Commissar, did you volunteer to walk up front with us?”

“Of course,” affirmed Kuntsev. “What about it?”

“Anyone else offer to go?” This was playing with fire and Gromyko knew it, but if they wanted a yes-man they shouldn't have sent a paratrooper. He could take the heat if it got him some intel on his oppressors. “Your friends back there look a little – ”

He was interrupted by a blast of static from the radio on Kuntsev's hip. “Fourth platoon, stop your advance. Your Commissar Kuntsev is an impostor. Duty officers, place him under arrest and return to the staging area at once. Command out.”

“Shit.” Kuntsev's voice and posture changed in an instant. “They found the body... Sergeant Gromyko, if you want to save these people then listen very carefully.”

Gromyko was already signaling a halt, and he could see the Dutyers coming as his own men and women sank into the meager cover of the grass. “Talk fast,” he growled.

“Kill the guards and take the platoon to the railway station. There are friendlies at the customs training center – look for the airplane parked on the lawn.” The fake Kuntsev raised his hands. “I think you should stand back now.”

Three Dutyers closed in on the impersonator. Gromyko noted one of the flamethrower-bearers coming up on his rear as well. That left the other flamer, across from him on the left flank, plus several more Dutyers in the rearguard and then the soldiers and the machine gun, reinforced by tanks and helicopters. Was 'Kuntsev' just optimistic, or did he still have a wildcard to play? And how did he know who Gromyko was?

The Dutyers were visibly on edge. “Drop the weapon! Drop it!”

Not-Kuntsev complied, easing the submachine gun sling off his shoulder. He released the PPS at arm's length. Gromyko planted his hands on his hips in feigned annoyance and surreptitiously unfastened his holster flap.

“Now take off the mask! Slowly!”

Not-Kuntsev did so. He was young, mid-twenties at most, with chestnut hair and a face that was wholly incongruous to the tough persona he projected before. No wonder he'd kept it covered.

“Turn around,” the middle Dutyer ordered. “Hands behind – ”

Thwap-thwap!

No muzzle blasts, no supersonic cracks, only the muffled noises of impact. One of the men flanking the Duty chief fell to his knees, blood spilling from the side of his neck. The other stumbled backwards with a gurgling cough. The interrogator lunged at not-Kuntsev. The mousy girl leveled her Mosin at the flamethrower carrier behind Gromyko. Gromyko reached for his revolver.

Boom!

And the fight was on! Gromyko aimed at the second fire-bringer, thumbing back the Nagant's hammer for an accurate shot. The gun bucked in his hands. His target doubled up and fell to the ground, screaming as Gromyko dove into the long grass and out of his enemies' sight.

Crawling forwards, he came upon the lung-shot Dutyer and dispatched him without ceremony. Now to find 'Kuntsev' and find out how he intended to get out of this mess. Nearby sounds of struggle gave Gromyko a fix on the substitute commissar. Shuffling bodily through the vegetation, he emerged into a crushed patch where not-Kuntsev and his nemesis were grappling, seemingly matched in strength. Never one for spectator sports, Gromyko seized the oppressor by the back of his balaclava and blew his brains out.

“Thanks,” coughed not-Kuntsev, pushing the corpse off himself.

Gromyko jammed the half-empty Nagant back into its holster. From the comm chatter on the dead Dutyer's radio, he discerned that the blocking troops hadn't clearly seen what just happened to their comrades. They were unsure whether it was facilitated by an outside party, or mere perfidy on the part of 'Kuntsev' and himself alone. “Now what?”

“We have to get the platoon away from here. Quickly, before the enemy comes in strength.”

Having relieved the interrogator of his life, Gromyko appropriated his pistol as well. “And how?” he wondered, stuffing the magazines into a tunic pocket. “Run away and hope they don't mow us down?”

“They won't,” said the fake Kuntsev, feeling around for his dropped submachine gun. “My people will make sure of that.” He rolled onto his side, unzipped his hip pack and shook out two waxed cardboard cylinders with pull-tabs at each end: smoke grenades. “We pop these, then move. You remember how they work?”

“They burn for a minute, minute and a half.” Gromyko press-checked the SIG-Sauer. “Not much time. What about the machine gun?”

“I took care of it last night. First round in the belt is stuffed with HE... You lead off and I'll bring up the tail. Don't stop until you get to the training center. Ready?”

Gromyko nodded.

“Here goes.”

The grenades arced away one by one, fizzling as they came down. Gromyko waited just long enough for the smoke to coalesce into a thick white pall over the grass. “PLATOON, FOLLOW ME!”

“Shoot them!” yelled a Belarusian somewhere behind him. There was a loud bang as not-Kuntsev's poison pill detonated in the Kord's guts, met with furious cursing from its crew. The prisoners balked, caught between the menace of their oppressors and the authority of their leader.

Gromyko fired a shot into the air. “NO FEAR, NO RETREAT! FORWARD TO FREEDOM!”

“Go, comrade shtrafniks!” shouted the impostor, borrowing Gromyko's mode of address without his sardonic delivery. “Go with Gromyko!”

The others misheard or misunderstood, yet from their confusion the whole platoon gained its own rallying cry: “For Gromyko! For Freedom! Urrraaaaa!”

Hardly the stuff of legends, but it worked. Gromyko plowed on, his rifle bouncing against his back. A road crossed in front of him a couple hundred meters ahead, backed by a strip of trees. If his wards could make it there before the smoke dispersed too much, they might get away. Automatic weapons chattered, steel dogs snapping at their heels. A bullet whizzed by, wasplike, there and gone in a blink.

“They're sending tanks after us!” not-Kuntsev called out between bursts of suppressive fire. “Hurry!”

Gromyko couldn't go faster without abandoning the most vulnerable members of the platoon, and the effort of pushing through the grass was steadily wearing them down. No chance of outrunning a T-72, even one feeling its way through anomalies in a sniper alley.

Then the tide changed.

He heard a foomp on the left, where another clump of trees separated the open grass from the tarmac strip of the Minsk highway, and a sharp crack to rearwards immediately after it. Gromyko looked behind himself and saw, over the bobbing heads of his platoon, a pair of the oppressors' machines. One was stationary, gray smoke gushing from the bore of its cannon. In another moment the turret was lifted off the hull and thrown into the sky on a column of orange fire. The concussion rattled Gromyko's teeth.

The other tank lurched as its driver stomped the brakes. He had no time to change gears before a second RPG impacted the glacis plate. It didn't go off like any explosive Gromyko had ever seen, instead emitting a blue-white pulse so intense that a shimmering blotch was seared into his retinas. He turned his back on the carnage, trying to blink away the afterimage from his smarting eyes. Ammunition cook-off soon consumed the moribund vehicle.

Still the fugitives ran, clinging to their weapons: over the road, under the trees and over another road. The shooting continued sporadically as they streamed past a pair of Quonset huts. “On your left,” the fake Kuntsev advised. “Between those white buildings.”

Gromyko turned, the platoon wheeling after him. Pushing through one more copse in the gap dividing the structures, he beheld his goal. The aircraft not-Kuntsev had spoken of was a small three-engine passenger jet, colored white with blue and red trim. Its chocked wheels were thickly overgrown, but the body looked well preserved. Next to it sat a railway carriage on a short length of track, clad in peeling green paint.

“Platoon, hold up! Are there any wounded? Is anybody hurt?” No affirmative replies. “Commissar to the front!”

“Coming...”

The prisoners made way for 'Kuntsev' as he rejoined Gromyko. “Okay,” said the latter, “we made it. What next?”

“You'll see... Sveta! My armbands, please!”

One of the bushes under the jet's tail stood up and tossed out a small dark package. “Is that everyone?” she asked.

Not-Kuntsev nodded. “Tell HQ we need all the trucks.”

The woman in the ghillie suit dropped back into the grass. Gromyko scanned the open ground of the railyard surrounding the customs center, a broad sprawl of tracks and hangars and shipping containers. Then he glanced at not-Kuntsev and did a double take. That wasn't the green wolf's head of Freedom covering up Duty's red shield and bullseye on the other man's sleeve: the insignia on the armband was a pair of clasping hands, stitched in white.

“You're from Warden?”

“That's right.” Not-Kuntsev snugged up the matching band on his other arm. “Yefim Borisov of Special Detachment 'Jaeger' at your service.”

Gromyko could scarcely believe it. Stalker Cooperative Group 'Warden' was a young faction, first organized to coordinate rescue efforts in the frantic weeks after the Zone expanded. When the hardliners purged Duty, its exiled moderates brought their skill and discipline into the new group's ranks. If Gromyko had stayed a little longer, or kept a little more faith in his comrades, he might have gone with them.

Whatever its inheritances, Warden's mission was all its own: to protect and preserve human civilization inside the Zone. To that end it pursued a strict policy of defensive neutrality, remaining aloof from faction politics. Its men in arms defended the stalker citadels of the Inner Ring against beasts and banditry and secured the Dnieper Road, the vital trade route connecting the Ring to the Free City of Cherkassy. Their presence here, fighting an outside aggressor in Freedom's region of influence, signaled a radical shift.

“You seem to know all about me already,” he grumbled.

“I don't,” the mousy girl volunteered. “Who are you, Sergeant Gromyko?”

“Nobody import – ”

“He used to be in Duty,” Borisov interrupted. “One of the founding members. He left when it went bad.”

“Is that true?”

“Yeah.” Gromyko shot a dirty look at Borisov. “How do you even know this?”

“Commander Zulu told me,” the jaeger explained modestly. “We found your stalker name on a transport manifest.”

“Uh-huh... So you infiltrated the army camp, killed the real Kuntsev and took his place in order to sabotage their guns and lead us into an ambush. All to steal one penal unit?”

“It was worth it,” said Borisov with conviction. “We needed to show the government that we're serious, make them understand the consequences of ignoring our warnings... I really must thank you,” he added. “I couldn't have salvaged the plan without your help.”

“Some plan.” Gromyko cocked his head. “Thanks for getting us out of there, I guess. And thanks for watching my back, Miss – ?”

“Irina.” The dissident smiled. “You're welcome.”

Svetlana the sniper joined their circle. “Enemy units are pulling back all along the line,” she reported to Borisov. “Transport will be here in two minutes.”

“Great.”

From her paint-streaked face, Gromyko judged Svetlana to be around Borisov's age. “You're a jaeger too?”

“Amazon,” she corrected. “Joint operation.”

“I see.”

The exploits of Warden's rangers were much romanticized outside the Zone. The gossip about Special Detachment 'Amazon' conversely tended towards... baser topics. Rumor also tied the all female hunter-killer group and its elusive leader, alias Butterfly, to several high-profile incidents around the Inner Ring.

“Cheer up a little,” suggested Borisov. “This is a big day for us.”

“Good for you,” said Gromyko, feeling no cheer at all. “But for me it's Tuesday.”

The Zone used to be so small, before it grew into a blight spanning six hundred kilometers from end to end. Now stranger things trod the floors of Yanov Station and lurked in Rostok's dark vaults, beyond the reach of stalkers. The secret of it all was still in there somewhere, on the dirty floor of a derelict laboratory in a nuclear graveyard among the Polesian marshes.
  12:42:59  24 February 2013
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 1825
Clap, clap, clap. You are forgiven the long wait.
  05:42:36  8 May 2013
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Four years and still going. To celebrate, here's a preview of things to come.

Anabiosis

When Gennadiy Rudenko was a child, the worst places he could imagine dying in existed only as figments and fictions compressed onto long ribbons of bootleg videotape. Growing up, he left his childish fear behind and discarded the fantastic menace of Hadley's Hope and Isla Nublar for the mundane danger of Baghdad and Tskhinvali. In time he wearied of fighting other people's wars in other people's countries, however lucrative, so he took a job closer to home.

Limansk put the fear back into him with a vengeance.

Squinting against the bitter wind, he searched the environment for landmarks. No good – there was just too much snow blanketing everything, knee deep in the street and piled high against every wall and doorstep. Visibility was down to twelve meters from all the flakes whirling in the air.

“Badger... Can't s-stay out h-h-here...”

He looked at the man beside him: a hunched, wretched figure staggering forward with his coat's tail snapping about his legs, hands tucked into his armpits because he had no gloves. “We have to keep moving,” Gennadiy shouted back. “If we stop now, you'll die!”

“Wind... Too much...”

Gennadiy knew it. The squad was gone and the survivors had no food, no ammunition, no winter clothes and nowhere to retreat. Rescue was out of the question. Even if the mercenary could keep his companion up and moving until the soporific venom in his system wore off, they had hours at best before exposure killed them both.

But damn it all, he had to try. “I think there's a crossroads ahead,” he called out, trying to sound optimistic. “We can put the wind behind us!”

For a while, at least. The way forward was narrow, a treacherous path between the blizzard's freezing eye over the center of Limansk and the... creatures in the fog-smothered outskirts. The storm seemed to be anticyclonic, and Gennadiy reasoned that a curving route through the west side of town would keep its force at their backs for most of the journey.

They turned left at the corner, struggling up the short incline at the foot of the brown-walled house on the high ground beside the intersection. Turning again at the rear of the house, Gennadiy plotted what he hoped was a northwest course. The structure's mass gave a brief but precious measure of respite from the wind. Trees loomed out of the whiteout ahead, branches stripped bare and trunks painted with driven snow.

“What's this part of town like, do you remember?”

“I... Apartments, I think.”

“Maybe we can find something to burn! I've still got my li – ” Gennadiy's descending foot met an obstacle and slipped sideways. He stumbled, teetered for a moment, and then his balance gave out completely. “...Bwamf!”

“Badger?”

“I'm okay!” Gennadiy pushed himself up. “I'm okay, I just – Tiger, stop! I mean, don't stop! Walk around!” Going back over his last few steps, he turned away from the storm and started clawing away the snow in frantic handfuls, gradually exposing the form of a man lying on his back. “Looks like we weren't the first to come this way,” he observed. “Man, this guy was seriously well-equipped.”

“What faction is he?”

“I dunno, he's not wearing any patches.” The merc's eyes raced over the fallen stranger, picking out pertinent details. The dead man wore a white parka, zipped up to cover his face, and polarized goggles. His gear was carried on western-style webbing, with a heavy rucksack. “He didn't come in during the faction wars. I'm not even sure he was a stalker.”

“You s-s-sure?”

Gennadiy set to pulling off the cadaver's gloves. “The town didn't freeze over until after the last big blowout, but this guy is dressed for severe cold. Either he came during the winter or he knew what to expect here.” The pointman straightened. “Put these on.”

Tiger pulled the gloves onto his shaking hands and quickly crammed them back under his arms. “How did he die?”

The body's posture was unnatural, the arms and legs too straight and even. A hunch led Gennadiy to check the cadaver's calves. “I think he got bitten by one of those dog-spiders, same as you, and his friends dragged him this far before they realized he was gone.”

“What friends?”

“No way he got through that shit in the tunnel by himself.” Gennadiy pulled a USP from the stranger's thigh and crammed it into his own vacant holster. “There must have been others.”

“Then the rest were..?”

“Buried up ahead, maybe.” Lifting the mystery man's carbine off his body, the mercenary untangled and detached the three-point sling which held it fast. It looked pristine once he shook off the loose snow: an HK416 fitted with a suppressor and a foregrip. A glowing red dot greeted him when he peered through the Aimpoint sight clamped on top. “This thing still has power,” he reported. “Stand back, I'm gonna test it.”

Gennadiy squeezed off three rounds at one of the trees, seeing bits of frozen bark fly as the rounds punched into the trunk. The fat tube on the end of the barrel stifled the muzzle blast effectively, though not the snapping of the bullets in flight. The kinesthesia of the shooting stirred memories of old work, hot days walking the streets of Sadr City, but this was a far fancier piece of hardware than the worn out M4 he carried in the devil's sandbox. Whoever procured it even paid extra for matching HK-brand magazines.

“All right, it works. Let me grab the ammo and the pack and we can go.”

Whatever food the dead man had would likely be frozen solid, but easier for the living to thaw it out than to conjure more from thin air. Gennadiy stuffed the last magazine into his vest, gripped the corpse by one stiff shoulder and, with much grunting and grappling, rolled it over. “Sorry, friend,” he muttered self-consciously. “We need these more than you now.”

He had the rucksack straps halfway down the stranger's arms when he chanced to look up and saw his only ally had collapsed. A slug of panic bolted up his spine and pulverized his fragile optimism. “Oh shit... Tiger, wake up! No sleeping! Come on, back on your feet!”

“Muhhh?”

“Up, up, up!” Gennadiy hauled him off the ground, breaking away only to tear free the rucksack and put his own arms through the carry straps. “No more stops,” he decided, grabbing Tiger's arm. “We'll keep going until we find somewhere to hole up so you can walk it off! If you die, nobody goes home!”

“I know.” Tiger's voice carried apathy laced with resentment. “You still n-need me.”

“That's right! We're gonna make it through this, you and me! And then I'm gonna fix everything!” He was babbling now, all his pent-up sorrow pouring out. “You were right about Zhenya, okay? You were right! I should have stopped it! But she got away, she still has a chance! You can go back for her! You can do what I couldn't!”

“Couldn't..?”

“I'm not gonna let you die out here! Not like Ruslana! Not like her!”

Two figures vanished into the storm, two voices fading in the wind. Snow soon refilled the stranger's shallow grave and erased the tracks of those who disturbed it.
  09:01:42  10 October 2013
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
It looks like this thread is about to hit 44,000 views. That's pretty cool, but I wish y'all weren't such a quiet bunch.

A couple of announcements before we get to the good stuff. First: to combat the increasing delays between updates, I decided to break down the next two planned chapters and publish them as smaller pieces posted more often. This was supposed to be the first installment under the new method, but it ballooned out of control and ran to 23 pages - the longest yet. I may have a problem.

Second: I have a friend out on the west coast who likes to draw. Usually she doodles anime stuff, but a couple of weeks ago she was asking for ideas and I impulsively gave her a vague description and some references pictures. She drew me a sad Yevgeniya, standing under a tree while she waits for the rain to stop: http://doujinpress.deviantart.com/art/Bob-s-OC-401431992

On with the program!

Neither High Nor Low

“Lonesome... ghost?”

“I think so.” Tiger continued walking. “Anyway, it's gone now.”

Yevgeniy hurried after him, riding on a fight-or-flight response deprived of its threat stimulus. “What's the lonesome ghost?” he panted.

“A Zone legend,” Tiger replied. “A lone stalker meets an invisible presence which lingers for a few minutes and then leaves. I've never heard of the ghost approaching a group before, though. Did you feel it?”

The young sharpshooter swallowed. “I couldn't touch it. It touched – it touched me but I couldn't touch it back, like it wasn't solid. It went right through my clothes.”

“Any impression of intent?”

Yevgeniy gaped at Tiger for a moment until realization came. “It felt... friendly,” he divulged, praying he wouldn't have to explain just what the intruder had done to him. “Is that part of the legend?”

“Yes, the ghost is always benign.”

Galina spoke up from further back in the line. “So what is this ghost? Is it alive?”

“I'm not sure,” Tiger admitted. “From the stories I thought it might be similar to a poltergeist, but that seemed more like a weak anomaly.”

“An anomaly that seeks people out and interacts with them?”

“Maybe... In any case, I wouldn't worry about it. Nobody's ever met the ghost twice.” The guide motioned for the others to come forward. “We're here.”

The road before them ran down a shallow grade, winding through a grassy clearing dotted with gnarled trees, dry bushes and rusted vehicles. Across it sat the promised factory, a complex of dark outlines silhouetted against the twilight sky. Yevgeniy could hear an indistinct voice blaring from a loudspeaker. “There aren't any lights?”

“Only inside. Most of the fittings were stripped out after the nuclear disaster.”

“What did they make here?”

“Farming machinery. Tractors, plows and such.” Tiger led onward. “You have to watch your step going in,” he advised. “There's a trench lined with spikes.”

“Spikes!?”

“Scents from the bar attract animals. The trench keeps the big ones from rushing the checkpoint.”

Yevgeniy kept his eyes glued to the ground from there on, until he was safely on the other side of the moat's junk metal bridge. The factory entrance was littered with flotsam: crates, shipping containers, even a truck with no engine, its cab wrenched loose and haphazardly dumped over the chassis. Past the detritus, in the pinched space between the first buildings, a few men stood behind sandbag barriers.

“Hold it,” a voice ordered. “Base, this is Checkpoint South. Tiger is here... Yeah, and a caravan with him... Roger. Checkpoint out.” The apparent chief guard jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “They want to see you all at headquarters. Go straight over.”

“We will.” Tiger sounded like he expected this. “Come on.”

He turned left at the end of the lane, steering the group through a hangar where a lone sentry with a headlamp patrolled the catwalks. “This is the central roundabout,” said the stalker, stopping at the exit. “That's the arena in the middle. The bar is through the garage to the left and Duty's ground is on the right. You can get to the Wild Territory and Freedom from the far side. I'll show you around in the morning.”

Tiger headed up the street as the loudspeaker sounded off: “Attention, stalkers! We need volunteers for dangerous but well paid missions. Come to the bar if you're interested.”

There was another sandbag checkpoint on the right side, and again the guards had anticipated their arrival. “The general is waiting,” one of them told Tiger. “Leave the guns with Ivantsov. You can pick them up on the way out.”

“Okay.”

Behind the barricade lay a sort of courtyard, squeezed in among the towers of monolithic concrete. Its left side was partitioned by brick walls and a large gate topped with barbed wire. A fuel drum fire pit and a solitary electric bulb lit the scene. As the travelers entered, a man with narrow, sullen features appeared from the shadows. No exchange of words, only silent understanding: Tiger laid his ordnance in a neat pile at the other's feet, setting the example for the rest. Under the lonely lamp, the bunker's mouth stood open.

“When we get down there, let me do the talking.”

Renewed anxiety stirred in Yevgeniy as he followed Tiger down the twisting stairs, cement walls and barred steel doors pressing close on either side. The passage opened into a vault with red tiles scattered over the floor and mighty girders spanning the ceiling. Here the industrial barrens were broken up by rudiments of comfort: bedrolls, sofas, even a stove with a roasting spit. Maps and trophy plaques hung on the walls as if it was a hunting lodge.

Tiger turned left at the entry. Keeping close behind him, Yevgeniy came before a large alcove beside the steps, furnished with a map board, a couch and a desk with a folded laptop computer. In the alcove stood a man, hands clasped behind his back. His features were stern yet careworn, his dark hair thin and cropped short. Pitiless eyes flicked from one guest to the next as they instinctively formed a line.

“You've brought me bad news again,” he growled. “That's twice in two days, Petanko.”

“Sorry.”

“I'm sure you are... Batov, Dmitriy Gavrilovich!”

Mitya jumped. “I..!”

“Kondratenko, Boris Petrovich!”

Borya meekly snapped to attention. “I,” he whimpered.

“Purkayeva, Galina Mikhailovna!”

Galya stood firm. “I!”

“Smirnova, Yevgeniya Maksimovna!”

The Latvian's throat made a noise like a gearbox grinding. Oh no... no no no no no!

General Voronin turned his gaze upon Tiger instead. “You remember your orders, Petanko?”

“To observe the enemy group and destroy it if possible,” the loner recited. “Which we did.”

“Which you did. And now you return with a pack of fugitives.”

Galina bristled. “I think we could at least be considered refugees.”

“So run away to Switzerland,” Voronin retorted. “This isn't an embassy and we don't grant asylum here.”

“Of course not,” the girl shot back. “I'm sure my father has ordered you to send us home in any case!”

“Galya, don't – ”

“Let her speak, Petanko.” Even as Galina got angrier, Voronin's temper seemed to cool. “No doubt General Purkayev would be delighted were I to repatriate the Batov boy and yourself,” said he, “but if he thinks he can demand favors from me, he is mistaken. In any case, sending you back would create an unacceptable precedent.”

“What else, then?”

“Perhaps a few days in the Zone will convince you of your foolishness. If not, I can only wish you well... As for you, Kondratenko, I don't care what you do with yourself so long as you don't make trouble for me. You should know however that the Security Service put out a contract on you, over at the Hundred Rads. They think you conspired to steal classified information.”

The deserter blanched. “What? No! I didn't steal anything!”

“I know you didn't. That's your problem, not mine.” Voronin leaned forward. “My problem is standing beside you... Were you going to tell me about her, Petanko?”

“I thought about it.” Tiger's apparent indifference did nothing for Yevgeniya's panic. “There are some things we may need to discuss alone, General.”

“Yes, there are.” The supreme Dutyer was in no hurry to get to them, however. “Was it fun, Smirnova? Playing at soldiery with real bullets, real lives?”

The best Yevgeniya could give was a dry whisper. “Not fun.”

“Then why did you stay? You had a chance to get out, but you spurned it. Or weren't the swimsuit spreads exciting enough?”

“Spreads?” Galina interjected. “What are you talking about?”

Voronin raised the laptop's screen. “See for yourself.”

***

Tiny lights blinked above the keyboard as the computer exited sleep mode, fans revving up with a soft whine. A picture appeared, but its colors were wrong: Tiger had to move left, towards Yevgeniya, to compensate for the display's limited field of view.

Voronin's surprise was a photograph of a group of young women, seven in all, lined up on a grassy overlook with blue ocean and open sky behind. Nearly all of them wore bikinis, variously accessorized with sarongs and sashes. The arrangement would pass for a vacation snapshot if the girls weren't posing with some very sophisticated rifles, each adorned with stickers bearing city names and emblems. The one outlier was Yevgeniya, standing at the center in a pair of low riding woodland camouflage short-shorts. She was topless, her nipples concealed by crosses of black electrical tape, and a stripe of dark paint under each eye rounded out the ensemble.

This, Tiger supposed, was what they called 'military chic' fashion.

“What's that?” Dmitriy asked.

“Swedish sports magazine,” Voronin grunted with disdain. “Last year's August issue.” He went back to glaring at Yevgeniya. “Did you take off the tape for the inside pages?”

Tiger had heard enough. “Zhenya,” he prompted. “Give him the necklace.”

“Necklace...” Spurred to action at last, the androgyne dug into her pockets. “That's right, you said...” The dog tags clinked against one another, swinging to and fro. “Here.”

Voronin took the tags and twine from her with manifest suspicion, withdrawing into the alcove to inspect them minutely. Then his voice got very quiet. “Where did you find this?”

“In the Garbage. There was a bandit... Fritz. I killed him.”

“You knew who he was?”

Yevgeniya nodded. “Tiger told me. He said to take Fritz out first.”

The general looked to Tiger. “You can confirm this?”

“I checked the body,” the stalker answered. “Zhenya has Fritz's hat. I can also give you names of witnesses.”

“Show me the hat.”

Yevgeniya obeyed. Producing the gray cap from another pocket, she pressed it into shape with her fingers and surrendered it for Voronin's approval. Tiger watched as he turned it in his hands, testing the seams and stitches as though he were looking for something.

Suddenly Voronin flipped the cap back to Yevgeniya. “I'll speak with Petanko now,” he declared. “The rest wait outside.”

The apprentices somberly filed out. Yevgeniya went last, still clutching the sinister headgear. She cast a furtive, frightened look towards master and tormenter just before she disappeared up the stairs.

As their footsteps faded, the commander of all Duty sank onto his couch with a protracted sigh. “You've been playing a dangerous game,” he said, contemplatively spreading the relics of dead men across an open palm. “Consorting with mercenaries, with the Security Service... I don't recommend you make a habit of it.”

“I don't plan to.” The Yevgeniya on the laptop screen stared back at Tiger, as if pleading to be released from that frozen sliver of her past. “Did the SBU give you the photo?”

“No, only the girl's basic information... You didn't seem surprised.”

Tiger shrugged. “Naturally the SBU would expect an after action report. I can guess why they shared it with you.” His eyes wandered to the stuffed and mounted venomous cat on the shelf above the couch. “They would have gotten Zhenya's details from that paper we found, except the paper listed her as a man and we didn't find out otherwise until after we left the swamps. How did you know?”

“We do have an uplink here,” said Voronin pointedly. “I did some searching while I waited for you. The name, age, nationality, profession – everything matched except her sex.”

It seemed the general had not discovered Yevgeniya's defect, at least. “Anything else?”

“Sporting news articles and links to a deleted VKontakte page. A few months ago she was a student with a promising athletic career. Then she vanished from the record.”

“Why do you think that was?”

“Caught sleeping with a professor, I'm sure.” Voronin gave a derisive snort. “Does it matter?”

“Maybe not.” Back to business. “General, did you know there would be a government agent going on the raid with us?”

“They sprang it on me at the last minute,” Voronin grumbled. “Told me their man would be one of the volunteers, but not which one. That's all I can say.”

“All right.” Tiger folded his arms. “So, what now?”

The general looked at his guest directly for the first time since he sat down. “You intend to keep your present company.”

“I do.”

“And you want me to pay out Fritz's bounty to that girl, an enemy combatant who killed one of my best men.”

“I would appreciate it,” Tiger agreed. “I know it's a difficult request.”

“I'm glad you understand,” said Voronin with a touch of sarcasm. “Are you certain she's worth it?”

“Certain enough to give her a chance. I'll admit my first impression wasn't positive, but she has potential. She just needs a push in the right direction.”

“And if you're wrong? Will you take responsibility?”

Tiger heard the implied challenge and accepted it. “Of course. Same as I would for the others.”

“Hmf.” Voronin got up, went to the desk and took out a notepad and pencil. “The record will show,” he began, writing simultaneously, “that Commissar Bandicoot died in the line of duty. Would you disagree?”

“Not at all.”

“Good.” Voronin laid down his pencil and tore the page out. “The record will further show that the bandit Fritz, a notorious brigand and murderer, was found and eliminated thanks to free stalker A. K. Petanko. The due reward shall be disbursed accordingly... Collect the bounty and your job payment from Colonel Petrenko.”

Tiger claimed the payment note, which was written in some kind of coded shorthand, and pocketed it. “And Zhenya?”

“By her own admission, she was a willing participant in a hostile mercenary incursion and directly responsible for the death of a Duty officer. According to the code, this mandates a capital penalty.” The general reverted to his former posture, hands behind him. “But I'm curious to see whether you can make good on your word. The sentence is suspended on your recognizance.”

“Thank you, General.”

“Don't think I'm doing you a favor,” Voronin cautioned. “I expect to see a return on this investment.”

“So do I,” said Tiger. “We were able to recover Bandicoot's weapon from the enemy camp. Do you want it?”

“Yes, turn it in to Petrenko.”

“I'd also like to take the group out on the firing range tomorrow. Would that be a problem?”

“No, we have no drills scheduled.” The general fixed a calculating look on him. “I assume you'll introduce your new friends to the anarchists as well?”

“Are you telling me not to?”

“I'm telling you to be careful,” Voronin replied sharply. “Colonel Skull and his men deserted their post a few hours ago. If you happen to see them, stay away. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“One last thing.” Voronin's voice abruptly softened a little. “Galina Mikhailovna has inherited her father's temper, as well as his looks. Keep her safe.” He turned his back on the loner. “That's all. Dismissed.”

One fact was clear to Tiger as he left the bunker: it was all too easy. Behind the pretty words, Voronin had given him everything he wanted and not even made him beg for it.

***

Tiger came out at a quickened pace, or so it seemed to Yevgeniy. The guide stopped only to pick up Bandicoot's rifle before he headed into another part of the Duty base, telling the novices he would be back soon. Yevgeniy spent that interval aimlessly toying with the cap. He didn't dare put it on – not for the evil of its last owner, but because the death's head on the front and the eagle over swastika on the left side dispelled any doubt of its origin.

He was greatly relieved when Tiger reappeared after only a couple of minutes. They collected their things and went out to the right, following the roundabout as it turned left and ran along the north foot of the arena hangar. Across the road, steel gantries and brick pillars of industry loomed behind a broken fence. Here there were no working lights, nor any sign of habitation.

It was Kondratenko who popped the question: “How did he know?”

“Hm?”

“The general. He had our names, Zhenya's picture, everything. How did he get it?”

“Olga told her bosses,” Tiger explained, “and they told Voronin. He found the picture on the internet.”

“Bosses?” echoed Yevgeniy blankly. “Who are the bosses?”

“Ah... That's right, you weren't with us yet.” The stalker shook his head. “We're almost at the clinic. I'll tell you later.”

Continuing westward, the paved path led to another hangar, smaller and open-ended. Beside the hangar, a ramp ran down into a rectangular depression. On the arena side it was bordered by a tangled mass of decaying pipes and tanks, on the other by a third hangar with boarded up windows. Tiger cut straight across to the corner of the latter, where a set of steps hidden behind a cement wall led back to high ground.

“We're here.”

'Here' was a boxy little two-floor concrete installment crammed in among the bigger buildings, roofed with corrugated metal. The sheltered entrance was lit by a fluorescent tube in an uncovered wall bracket. The door displayed a hand-painted red cross and a pinned list of available hours.

Tiger gathered his flock around the front step. “Let's settle the accounts. Zhenya, here's your bounty.” He handed over a thick wad of banknotes, Russian rubles wrapped with a rubber band. “Minus the share we paid to Sanya in advance... These are for in case anyone needs something when I'm not around.” Smaller amounts were passed out to the other rookies. “Ready to go in?”

Yevgeniy didn't feel ready. “Is there really a doctor here?”

“Yes, Bonesetter is certified. Just don't agree to try any of his pharmacological experiments.” Tiger went to the door and knocked firmly three times.

“It's open!” shouted a voice within.

“Come on.”

Yevgeniy took a deep breath and followed his teacher into a room that was bright and spotless. Squinting at the sudden glare of harsh lights on white walls, he made out a gray metal desk and rows of lockers and filing cabinets. The man behind the desk had broad, genial features and hair that was just starting to grow back after being shaved off.

“Bonesetter at your service,” said the man. “One patient or two?”

“Just the one,” replied Tiger. “Go ahead, Zhenya.”

“It's my... my period.” Yevgeniya avoided eye contact. “Can you help with that?”

“Sure I can,” answered Bonesetter confidently. “What seems to be the problem?”

“Bad cramps and lots of blood, not like I usually have. It started this morning.”

“I'll need some medical history to begin with.” Rolling his chair over to the cabinets, Bonesetter took a blank form sheet from one of the drawers and attached it to a clipboard. “Can you fill this out for me?”

It was a simple questionnaire: medications, vaccinations, whether or not she'd ever had certain illnesses. Taking the attached pen, Yevgeniya began at the top of the list.

Tiger headed back to the door. “While she does that, I need to go check in with Barkeep.”

Yevgeniya's hand stopped mid-word. “You're leaving?”

“Just for a few minutes. The others will wait for you outside.”

The door clicked shut behind him, leaving the Latvian alone with Bonesetter and her own smothering unease. She went back to the top of the page, where she'd left one space blank on the first pass. Now she filled it: F?

***

“I'm going over to the bar to sort out a few things,” Tiger announced to his remaining novices. “Stay here until I come back.”

Galina and Dmitriy took it in stride. Kondratenko didn't. “What about the contract on me?”

“I'll figure something out,” Tiger promised. “Until then, sit tight. I don't think anyone will be desperate enough to attack you inside the secure territory.”

Even so, he made sure the .45 was close at hand as he walked south through empty lanes. “The world fears the Zone's expansion,” the loudspeaker asserted as he went by. “Join Duty, and save the innocent!”

Inside the bar's entrance, Zhorik was at his usual post. “Keep it down,” he warned in a hushed tone. “The movie just started.”

The Hundred Rads hosted a full house this evening. Most eyes were on the TV behind the bar, which was showing a grainy montage of antiwar protestors accompanied by gentle music. Tiger ignored it and went to the end of the counter where Barkeep and Garik were loitering.

Like Voronin, the bar's owner had been expecting him. “I heard the news from Sidorovich,” he said quietly. “What do you need?”

“I need a loc – ”

A voice from the television cut him off: “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold...”

“I need a locker,” Tiger finished. “And access to the one Olga rented from you.” He presented a small piece of wrinkled paper, a parting gift from the woman he loved. “She authorized it.”

Barkeep tucked away the note. “She put your name on it when she got it. Paid for six months up front.”

“Then I'll do the same.” The stalker counted out some bills. “There.”

“You want the things from the other one?”

“No, I'll get them later.”

Barkeep took the money and went into the back rooms. Inside the film, a pair of visibly deranged men were driving through a desert in a bright red convertible. Tiger had seen this one before, but he kept watching half-attentively until the barman returned. “All set,” Barkeep told him. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Not yet. I have to pick up my trainees, then I'll come back.”

Barkeep nodded. “I'll be here.”

Tiger quickly looked around one more time. The number of people in the place could be a problem, he realized belatedly: how long since any of these patrons last saw a woman? Galina and Yevgeniya were going to have to deal with whatever unwanted attention came their way, they knew that, but this might be too much and too soon. Hopefully the movie would distract the men, and the staff would keep things from getting out of hand. If not, the group would eat takeout tonight.

Tires screeched behind him. “Wait! We can't stop here, this is bat country!”

Someone else was waiting when he returned topside, a stranger in the garage beside the bar. “Hello, Tiger. Could I have a word?”

Tiger kept a guarded distance as he checked out the other man. He was good looking in a forgettable way, with brown eyes, black hair and the beginnings of an accidental mustache. A basic detector hung from his belt, an AKS-74U at his side. In appearance he seemed a regular stalker, the kind who might have crossed Tiger's path a hundred times and never once drawn notice.

“This isn't a great time,” Tiger replied tersely. “Is it important?”

“Very important,” said the stranger. “I have a message for you from Captain Cherenkova.”

“And you are..?”

“My tab at the bar says I'm Sasha Machine-gunner.”

An ordinary alias to go with his ordinary guise. That figured. “This way,” Tiger muttered. “Let's get out of the open.”

“Agreed.”

Tiger retraced his steps halfway back to the clinic, stopping beside the storage tanks. Catwalk grates ran between them, connected by ladders. Once they provided access to valves, long ago seized in place. Now they provided cover for discreet meetings. The loner indicated the lowest platform, at the center of the assembly. “Will this do?”

“Sure.”

Tiger climbed up, felt his way across to the other side and sat down with his back against the guard rail. Sasha settled on his left. “All right,” said Tiger. “Show me the message.”

A small light clicked on. “Here... Read carefully, I have to burn it when you're done.”

The words on the sheet were written in dull pencil, with a tidy, efficient hand. Their brevity supported Tiger's impression that the note had been transcribed from a radio signal.

Anton:

Back at base. Lyosha very happy re: us working together. HQ impressed by your present. Intel says Latvian sniper is female. Don't let her get ideas. Will talk to you as soon as I can.

All my love, Olya.


It wasn't much, but it was enough. Tiger read it all over again, then returned it to Sasha. A cigarette lighter clicked. Yellow flame wicked across the paper.

“Now what?”

Sasha switched off his light, shrouding the pair in darkness. “The captain said you're willing to help the SBU's investigations.”

“Depends on what kind of help you want.”

“Escorting small teams in and out of potentially dangerous areas. That's all I can tell you right now.”

Not much different from Tiger's usual work, by the sound of it. “And when do you need me?”

“I don't know yet,” the agent admitted. “How long will you be here?”

“Tomorrow for sure. After that we'll be in and out during the daytime.”

“Fine. I'll leave a note with Barkeep if I can't find you.” Sasha stretched out his legs. “Deal?”

“I need something from you first,” Tiger countered. “Voronin says your people sponsored a hit on one of my rookies.”

“Private Kondratenko, right? The captain's report said he was clean... Still a deserter, of course. Normally we don't waste time on small fry, but my bosses are feeling vindictive. If they don't call off the bounty in the next day or two, they've probably decided to make an example of him.”

Tiger took the hint. “If he's with me and I'm with you, they would reconsider?”

“They might,” answered Sasha. “I would call in a favor from my handlers, but lately I've been bending the rules too much... Did the captain say anything about me?” he added suddenly.

“No, not that I recall. Why?”

“Just curious. I was supposed to go on the mission to the swamps,” the operative confided. “She asked me to trade places after Duty hired you.”

It came as no surprise to Tiger. “Will Olga be in trouble for this?”

Sasha made a shrugging motion. “The brass overlook procedural violations as long as we give them results. They aren't pleased that her cover was compromised, obviously, but her experience and skills are too valuable to let go... Most likely they'll give her a reprimand and make her cool her heels until they figure out where to send her.”

“She said they won't let her come back here.”

“Afraid I can't comment.” Sasha pulled up his sleeve, exposing the cyan glow of a wristwatch. “I'm sorry, but I need to cut this short. What's your decision?”

“I guess I'm in.”

“Good man.” Sasha picked himself up and ground the charred remnant of Olga's note under his heel. “I'll be in touch.”

He slipped away towards the bar, leaving Tiger to ponder what freedom was left for him after taking on all these dependents and responsibilities. With Sasha gone and no one else nearby, he left the platform and went back to the clinic. Galina, Dmitriy and Kondratenko were right where he'd left them, except now Dmitriy was talking.

Talking eagerly, in fact. “...His original tomb might have been KV Twenty-Five, an unfinished stairway and corridor in the West Valley. Obviously he never used it himself, but a set of mummies were dumped there hundreds of years – ”

“Did we get to King Tut yet?” Kondratenko interrupted. “I want to hear about the curse.”

“There isn't a curse,” Dmitriy retorted. “Anyway... In 1907, Edward Ayrton started excavating another unfinished tomb in the floor of the main valley near – ah. You're back.”

Tiger eased into the circle between Kondratenko and Galina. “You were saying?”

“Oh yes.” The boy cleared his throat. “This tomb, KV Fifty-Five, contained a jumble of objects damaged by water exposure, including parts of a shrine and a decorated coffin. The coffin's face was torn off and the owner's name chiseled out...”

***

“...According to some theories, a woman called Neferneferuaten also ruled as pharaoh for a short time in between them. Her identity isn't clear from the surviving evidence, but she could have been either – ”

The clinic door swung open, cutting Dmitriy off again, and Bonesetter appeared. “Tiger, I've finished. Could I trouble you to look over some paperwork?”

“Certainly.”

Once inside, Bonesetter handed Tiger another clipboard. “Your friend listed you as her guardian, so I'll need you to sign off on this.”

The form was short and showed impeccable penmanship, though jargon ran thick in the medical summary. Tiger worked through it line by line. “Your diagnosis is that Zhenya's problems were caused by her contraceptive?”

Bonesetter nodded. “While the copper-based implants are highly effective, there can be unpleasant side effects. She chose to have it extracted.”

“Was it difficult?”

“Not especially, no. We're just waiting for the painkiller to kick in. I used a local analgesic for immediate effect, but she'll need more general relief during the next few days... She still has to go through her normal cycle, of course. If there are any complications, bring her back at once.”

“I will... 'Strictly no unprotected sex'? Are you worried about infection?”

“I'm always worried about infection,” said Bonesetter. “That's not my only concern. Owing to the basal structure of the phallic clitoris and the posterior fusion of the labia – what I'm saying is, her birth canal can't open as wide as a typical woman's. If she becomes pregnant and delivers without surgical intervention, both mother and child will die.”

“Does she know this?”

“She does. I need to be sure you do as well.”

“I'll remember it.” Tiger signed and dated the bottom of the form. “How much do I owe you?”

“Your friend paid already,” the physician replied, taking the clipboard from him. “She can leave as soon as she's comfortable.”

“All right. Thank you.”

“Any time.” Bonesetter tucked the form into one of his filing cabinets. “You're due for a checkup yourself, by the way.”

“I'll try to make time for it.” At that moment the patient emerged from the examination room, pale yet steady on her feet. “How are you feeling?”

“I'm okay.” Yevgeniya gave Bonesetter a tired smile. “Thanks, Doctor.”

“You're very welcome.” Bonesetter removed her rifle and pistol from one of the lockers and handed them across the desk. “Don't forget, no alcohol while you're taking the pills.”

***

“...If this other lady-king had the royal fake beard and stuff, did she only wear shorts too?”

“No, Borya,” Dmitriy sighed, “she wore a dress. And they're kilts, not shorts.”

The reappearance of guide and androgyne ended this doorstep discussion. “Zhenya!” Kondratenko exclaimed happily. “Are you better now?”

In truth Yevgeniya was still sore and the numb spot between her hips didn't help, but the drug was acting fast. “Getting there. Sorry you had to wait so long.”

“It's fine,” said Tiger. “Mitya's been giving us lessons in archaeology.”

Dmitriy shied away from the limelight. “I was just explaining the Amarna succession...”

“It was so weird,” Kondratenko expounded, making up for the other's reticence with gusto. “Heretics, hidden mummies, people tearing down statues and marrying their own sisters.”

“Yes,” concluded Tiger dryly, “wonderful things. Anyway, we're done here. I suggest we move to the bar and drop our luggage. Any questions?”

There were none for him, though Galina posed one to Yevgeniya as the group started to move: “Was the doctor good?”

The details of the procedure didn't bear repeating. “He was very nice,” she said, and left it at that.

“I think he was glad to have a case out of the ordinary,” Tiger remarked, waiting for the rest to make their way down the stairs into the depressed area. “Bonesetter has steady work here, but it's a tedious job.”

How could any job be tedious in the Zone? “What does he usually get?”

“Gunshots, animal bites, radiation sickness, alcohol poisoning, STDs – everything you'd expect in a place like this.”

“STDs? People catch those here?”

“Not here,” Tiger corrected. “Stalkers get money, sneak out to the Big Land for some fun, and the symptoms only appear once they come back... By the way, Zhenya, my name is spelled with an 'e' and an 'a'.”

The sniper's cheeks burned. “Sorry.”

If the loner took any offense at her error, he kept it to himself. Instead Kondratenko filled the silence. “The general called you... Petanko? Is that right?”

Tiger did a quick impression of Voronin's bark: “Petanko, Anton Konstantinovich... Unusual, isn't it? My grandfather was a Petrenko until someone misprinted it during the war. Every time he applied for a correction, they would look at his papers. 'It says here your name is Petanko, that's good enough!'”

Yevgeniya hadn't the bravery to laugh at the anecdote. “What did he do in the war?”

“He served in the VVS, flying shturmoviks for Comrade Stalin. Probably could have fixed his name after he got out, but then he decided there were enough Petrenkos already.”

They came to the south end of the depression. Passing another dismembered truck, Tiger turned left and ascended a second flight of concrete steps. Climbing them as well, Yevgeniya saw that the band had come full circle and were facing the same garage Tiger had pointed out when they arrived. Now he led them into it, only to exit again through an opening on the right side. The path didn't go far before it brought them to the door of a bunker, much like Duty's in construction.

“Here we are,” said Tiger. “Toilets and showers are around the corner if you need them.”

The zigzagging passageway within also resembled that of the Duty headquarters, except with warmer lights and a few Soviet era posters to liven up the walls. Going down, the group came to a booth with a barred door, in which sat a masked man with a shotgun. He said nothing, merely watching as they passed. The murmur of voices ahead grew louder. Yevgeniy turned a corner and was in the bar before he knew it.

This chamber's architecture was different at least, having vaulted ceilings and brick pillars down the center. Looking around, he saw a bulletin board just to his left and the bar proper, towards which Tiger was moving, on the right. One corner was closed off by chain-link fencing and filled with sacks and barrels. There were no chairs, yet the simple tables jutting from the walls were all occupied. A strange and marvelous array of smells permeated the place, unwashed bodies and bottles of vodka and sizzling meat and mouthwatering sauces blending together.

“Uh, Zhenya?”

With a guilty start, the androgyne realized he was bottling up the others and hastened after Tiger. There was one man behind the bar, waiting for these visitors to come closer. He looked to be in his fifties, with a large nose and stubbled jaw, and wore a sheepskin vest over a dark sweater. A pattern of blue-gray tattoos extended down his forearms and up the sides of his neck.

“These your friends, Tiger?” His voice was deep, like Voronin's without the contempt.

“They are. Guys, meet Barkeep. Barkeep, this is Yevgeniy, Boris, Galina and Dmitriy.”

“Welcome to the Hundred Rads.” When he placed his hands on the wooden counter, Yevgeniy saw the name 'Anna' spelled across the knuckles. “What'll it be?”

“We need to unload some weight first, put our spares into the lockers.” Tiger addressed his rookies. “Drop all your extra kit. Tomorrow we'll sort out what you actually need.” As they complied, he switched back to Barkeep. “Do you have any spare Kalash stocks in the parts bin?”

“I got a few, yeah. What kind do you want?”

Tiger showed him the damaged AK-74. “Anything that will fit this. I have the screws.” The guide glanced up at the TV on the shelf over the stove, screen covered in snowy noise. “Did the movie end?”

“Nah, trouble with the VCR. Nitro's looking at it.” The barman went into a door in the back wall. After half a minute he was back. “Will this do?”

He held up a plywood buttstock with a dark red stain, aesthetically mismatched to the very blond material of the rifle's handguards. Tiger fitted the replacement under the receiver tang and checked for wiggle. “Perfect, thanks.”

Balancing the Kalashnikov in one hand, he passed Barkeep some money. Barkeep counted it, handed back one bill and began gathering the equipment cases which the others were stacking along the bar. Tiger went to work with a screwdriver and Yevgeniy, who had finished his own unburdening, let his attention wander. The patrons here were definitely of the same breed as the men he'd seen in the Cordon and Garbage, with the same jackets, knapsacks and purpose-made stalker suits. Many had their eyes fixed shamelessly on Galina, but a few looked as if they might be checking out Yevgeniy himself.

“I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! Somebody was giving booze to these goddamn things. Won't be long now before they tear us to shreds.”

The picture on the television defied comprehension. Yevgeniy quickly looked away. The man screamed something about golf shoes and the sound cut out. When Yevgeniy looked again, the screen had become a blank blue.

Barkeep came out again several seconds later. “Sorry boys, the movie's off for tonight. Nitro says I gotta swap out some tape rollers.” There were groans of disappointment, though nobody left the tables. Their host walked over to the right side of the bar and switched on the radio atop the refrigerator, replacing the interrupted film with a slow flute melody backed by guitar and percussion. “Well, that's that. You kids hungry?”

Yevgeniy was, despite the generous stew he'd made during the Garbage stopover, and it seemed he wasn't alone. “What have you got?” asked Tiger, picking up the group mood.

“The daily special was grilled boar with potato salad, but it sold out quick. I do have plenty of staples.”

“All right, we'll take two baskets. And could you bring me the automatic from Olga's locker, please?”

“Two baskets and an automatic coming up.”

Then Barkeep was gone. Yevgeniy leaned forward, resting his forearms on the counter as he tried to ignore the gut feeling that he was being stared at. Contemplating the TV, a question occurred to him. “How do they get electricity here? I didn't hear any generators.”

“I heard it comes from the nuclear plant,” Kondratenko told him solemnly. “Like, the reactor cores are still hot and connected to the old power lines.”

“It doesn't work that way,” said Tiger. “The station's machinery was shut down long ago.” He leaned against the bar as well. “All of this was repaired by stalkers, spliced with salvaged wire. They use electrical artifacts as batteries.”

That reminded Yevgeniy of something he'd heard while he was with the American mercenaries. “But it's true they kept the station running after the disaster, isn't it?”

“Yes, for another fourteen years. The AES supplied more energy than the government could afford to replace. It paid for my childhood, too.”

His closing remark went unexplained as Barkeep returned, balancing a circular baking pan in each hand. “Two baskets,” said he, sliding them onto the counter. “I'll be right back.”

Yevgeniy sized up the nearer 'basket'. By his estimate the contents would feed three people at a sitting, the bulk of it in cans and foil-sealed tubs: preserved meats, cold cereals, fruits and vegetables. Nestled among them were crackers sealed in plastic, candy bars, and ready-mix drink packets. On top lay a diet chicken sausage, so labeled on the wrapper, and a loaf of white bread. That the fare was plain and prepackaged didn't matter after all the ration shares he'd missed when MacGruder marooned him on the watchtower. Throw in a mug of strawberry kvass and he could even call this a good time.

Tiger had more cash in hand when the barman brought what he requested: an assault rifle and a pile of loose magazines. The exchange was made and Barkeep settled in to watch over his customers. Tiger made a quick inspection of the rifle, a spindly shape rendered in gray alloy and black polymer, and handed it to Yevgeniy. “You take this.”

The Latvian had assumed he would get the spare AK once it was repaired, but he did as he was told and slung his new weapon. The mags fit neatly into the front pockets of his vest. “Can we eat now?” he queried.

“Go ahead.” Tiger broke off the end of the bread and picked out a flat can. “So what's new, beside mercs in the Cordon, bandits in the Agroprom and soldiers in the Dark Valley?”

“Oh, about the same as before.” Barkeep crossed his arms. “Nitro says he picked up the Phantom Bomber signal after the blowout.”

“Hm.” Tiger pried up the can's pull tab and tore away the lid, exposing some sort of meat spread. “We ran into the Lonesome Ghost on the road from the Garbage.”

Barkeep appeared neither skeptical nor credulous. “The ghost, eh? What did it do?”

“Just like in the stories – hung around for a bit and left.”

Yevgeniy picked up the sausage, revealing three beverage cans hidden on the other side of the basket. “What did you say about a bomber?” he asked, anxious to move on to another topic.

“That's another of our local legends,” said Barkeep. “Sort of a 'Flying Dutchman'. The story goes that an old airplane was sent into the Zone and never returned, and if you tune a radio to the right frequency, you can hear the crew calling for help. People even say they've heard the engines as it flies over.”

Tiger bent the can lid into a U-shape and used it to scoop out the spread. “Why don't you tell them the original story?” he suggested, applying the meat paste to his bread. “They might find it interesting.”

“Mm... It's kinda long, though.”

Yevgeniy had meanwhile been trying without success to unwrap the sausage. Tiger took pity and gave him the penknife. “We've got time,” said the guide.

“Well, why not?” And so the tale began. “First I heard about the bomber was pretty soon after I opened the bar. There was a guy who came in here, he told me about it while I cooked his dinner...”

Yevgeniy sawed off the end of the sausage and cut another slice for Kondratenko. Biting into the end piece, he found it was a half-and-half mixture of chicken and soybean substitute camouflaged with spices. Scarfing down the rest, he decided to do as Tiger was.

“He said he'd been a flight controller in the air force. Talked the talk and everything. Asked me if anyone had overheard strange aircraft transmissions inside the Zone...”

Kondratenko helped himself to one of the soda cans, exposing a brand label – NON STOP. Yevgeniy picked up a tub capped with gold foil, only to find the embossed text was in German. It turned out to be liverwurst.

“He got a little maudlin then, said he came to bring his lost boys home. I knew he'd had some vodka earlier, so I didn't pay much attention...”

The bread's core was moist, fluffy. It must have been baked here, or close by.

“He wandered a bit, went on and on about how things were when the Zone formed. As if I didn't know it myself! But then he started telling me about the bomber, said it was a... 'Superfortress', that's what he called it. When they were retired back in the sixties, one was given to some design bureau for research use. Supposedly they put it into storage and forgot about it...”

Not having a lid of his own, Yevgeniy used the Swiss Army knife to spread his liverwurst.

“Seven or eight years ago, somebody rediscovered it packed away in the back of a warehouse. The man told me the generals decided to have the bomber sec