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Snork Bait

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  00:46:36  2 July 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch. 52

We moved through the open workspace, Evgeny taking point, me moving up behind and keeping to one side to ensure a clear field of fire. Nothing moved or made a sound. It was hard to believe that there were any other living creatures here, yet I knew that there had to be a few snorks around at the very least.

At the corner, I moved into position so I could cover both arms of the rough L, ensuring I kept an eye on our rear as well as watching for threats from the stairs or side-room. Evgeny looked over at me, awaiting instructions, and nodded when I pointed to the opening with the mostly upturned, scattered barrels partially blocking it. On my signal, Evgeny made a wide arc around the doorway while I moved forward and crouched behind a row of now-doorless lockers that lay on their side next to an ancient-looking spool-driven databank. He glanced at me again, and I pointed to my eyes and indicated that he should keep watch while I entered the room. Another nod, a quick count from three on my fingers, and we moved, Evgeny pressing his back against the wall with a shotgun pointed in either direction.

The first thing that hit me as I scuttled past Evgeny and entered the room was the smell. The second thing was how much I’d missed on my brief inspection before the Blowout. Previously, I would have sworn that the room had no windows and was utterly blank and featureless. Looking around now, I could see how wrong I would have been.

Sullen grey daylight dribbled through the glassless window, providing just enough illumination for me to see. Two sets of dirty white double doors were set in the wall opposite the previously-barricaded doorway, their hinges so rusted that the only way they’d open again would be when they fell in, while two pipes ran between the farthest set of doors and the window before disappearing into the walls. Overhead, another, thicker pipe ran along the ceiling before turning downwards at a right angle to disappear through the floor. The barrels that had been used to form the barricade had scattered hither and yon under the impact of whatever it was that had gone crashing into them the day before, and now lay where they had come to rest with the spaces between them littered with small clumps of faeces and the odd puddle of urine. Two or three old, thin mattresses lay rotting in a corner, again heavily soiled, while a broad splash of blood and some remaining matter showed where the other bloodsucker had met its fate before being devoured.
What was most obvious – and therefore most troubling due to the fact that I’d missed it before – was the railing that separated the rest of the room from the set of stairs that descended to an area illuminated by what appeared to be emergency lighting.

Grimacing and trying not to breathe through my nose, I gave a low whistle and crept towards the stairs, muzzle up. A sharp intake of breath informed me that Evgeny had entered the room. As noticeable as the smell must have been from where he’d been in the main hall, it was nothing compared to the acrid stench inside. I turned to look at Evgeny and offered a sympathetic grin at the expression of disgust on his face. He pointed at the individual piles of snork shit around the room and held up four fingers, then signalled that they’d be somewhere ahead of us, down the stairs.

I nodded, wondering how he knew how many snorks there were, let alone how he knew where they’d be. I’d have to make a point of asking him later – assuming there was a later; I didn’t know how I knew it, but something had changed. The factory had been quiet before, but it had been a restful sort of quiet. Now, it seemed watchful and expectant. I paused for a moment, drawing my senses back in to myself before letting them reach out again, trying to rid myself of some of the tension created, in part, by the memory of what had happened here previously and the knowledge of what lay beneath us.

A gentle hand on my shoulder. I turned, and Evgeny pointed to his pocket before pulling out an anomaly detector and an earpiece. I shook my head. I had one but not the other. He nodded and indicated that I should move aside as he slipped the earpiece in, only then connecting it to the detector so as to hide any static crackle or electronic squelch that might issue forth. Taking my place at the rear, I followed Evgeny as he tiptoed down the stairs and entered the narrow corridor below.

The smell down here wasn’t as ripe as it was upstairs, but it still carried a distinctly musky note that spoke of age and decay, meaning the place must have been used as a den for quite a long time. Several months, at least. It was enough to make me wish I had a mask.

The corridor opened out into a wider area, and I stepped from behind Evgeny to clear the corner. A passage stretched away to a heavy steel door, beyond which the brick-and-cement wall appeared to give way to bare breezeblock. I beckoned Evgeny to me and pointed, putting my mouth close to his ear.

‘It looks clear. You go first, but be ready. Anything comes through in a rush, shoot. We’ll worry about anything else later. I’ll stay here and guard the rear.’

He nodded and moved up, taking it easy to minimize noise while trying to widen the angle around the door as much as he could without rubbing against the wall. Just watching him made me nervous. In an ideal world there’d have been four of us for this – three as a bare minimum – but it was another case of having to make do. And in any case it was better than being on my own, as I had been the day before. I tried to imagine what it would have been like if I’d entered this area alone, and found I didn’t want to after all; playing the ‘what if I’d done x instead of y?’ game was never a good idea, and that went double this time. I’d been lucky, very lucky, and even the series of ‘what ifs’ that might have stemmed from the actions I had taken formed a scary picture: what if Blondie/Olena hadn’t been there? What if she had decided to take no action? What if she hadn’t seen the bloodsuckers at all? What if her Mossberg had malfunctioned? What if the ‘suckers had realized she was there and ambushed her first?

I’d be dead, I thought. If just one of those things had worked out differently, I’d have died here yesterday, and all that’d be left of me now would be –

A pebble hit me on the side of the head, and I turned to find Evgeny glowering at me. Using just his head, he indicated that the area was clear and ‘suggested’ that I join him. Somewhat shamefacedly, I checked the rear once more and went over to where he waited.

The atrium behind the steel door was dominated by two things: a pair of pipes with large red wheel-type valves, and a second, half-open rusted metal door with a sign upon it, heavily marked with blood or rust...or both.

...a high...voltage...dangerously...area...life, I read. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that means.

I pointed at the door and signalled for Evgeny to go first. I didn’t like leaving him to take the all the risks, but there was really no other choice; his shotguns would be next to useless if I took point and came under attack. If he fired, he’d just zap me as well as whatever he’d intended to hit.

Thankfully, he understood that and only nodded his agreement, keeping watch as I stood behind the door to ease it further open. The only sound the hinges made was a low, grinding rasp that set my teeth on edge and caused me to grimace involuntarily, and it came as a relief when Evgeny held up a hand for me to stop. I moved away from the door and took my position beside him, weapon up and ready to go, though he made no move to do so.

‘What?’ I murmured in his ear.

‘Snork,’ he murmured back. ‘I heard it, but can’t see it.’

I thumbed the safety off the L.85 as gently as I could, watching for any sign of movement from the room on the other side of the door.

‘Go on or go back?’

He pointed forward, then leaned in again. ‘No way I’m coming back again. Now or never.’

I nodded agreement. If I found nothing on this trip, I’d tell Fyodor what I suspected had happened and let him worry about it from there. I was done with his place, either way.

As before, Evgeny went first, moving slowly and cautiously as he passed through the door and slid left. I checked our rear one more time and followed, also edging left. The air was a fetid melange of death, decay, and age. Of mould, rust, and rotting meat. Of disuse and dilapidation, waste and stagnation, intense heat and burning.

Evgeny held out a hand to get my attention the pointed forward. An open doorway, lit by white light, stood more or less opposite our position. Without speaking, Evgeny indicated that that was where the snork was likely to be. Moving forward, I cleared the corner and signalled for him to take a position opposite the door, keeping it covered while I looked around. He gave a nod of acknowledgement and we moved.

Evgeny had control of one side of the area; I had to check the other. The control room, partitioned off from the rest of the room by a half concrete wall, half metal mesh combo, was devoid of life, as was the elevator opposite. I checked around the corner, finding nothing but a row of lockers, and entered the lift, pointing the rifle upward in case something lurked near the service hatch, but the plate was in place. An experimental shove yielded no result.

Rusted in place, I thought. Or maybe welded. Though that would have had to have been done from the other side. And why would anyone do that?

Finding no good answer to my own question, I crossed to the control room, where the skeletonised remains of someone or other sat propped in the far corner. I gave the body a cursory inspection, hoping in an odd sort of way that this would prove to be the sniper even though it was pretty obvious that the bones had been there for quite some time. It also became apparent that, whoever it had once been, they had not met with an entirely natural end: the bones showed clear signs of gnawing as well as residues formed from decomposition. I hoped the cause of death had been something like a stroke or heart attack induced by terror. If nothing else, it would have been quicker and more merciful than being torn apart and devoured. I’d never know what had killed this person for sure, or even who they had been, but I took some comfort from the body’s position: sitting in the corner, perhaps having slumped there as the old ticker strained in fear and distress and finally gave out. Had the end come in a more brutal fashion, no doubt the bones would have been scattered all over the place.

Sighing, I stood and checked the panel, trying to ignore the skull that lay on its left side next to the body. The ligaments had rotted away long ago, allowing the lower jaw to dislocate and fall open, thereby giving it the appearance of laughing.

That’s probably what makes it so fucking spooky, I thought. It’s like it’s still aware on some level and can’t help laughing at us for being down here. Or maybe screaming.

I gave myself a shake and turned away, pointedly ignoring the skull. Even then my shoulders bunched in an involuntary spasm as the eyeless stare seemed to bore into my back, gaining weight and malevolent meaning with each passing second.

I looked at the control panel for long enough to determine that it had
nothing to do with whatever it was that kept the lights on and got out of there, turning back as I reached the doorway to find the skull was still there, still lifeless...and still laughing (or screaming) silently at our presence.

Get a grip, for fuck’s sake! I commanded, but my nervous system wasn’t in the mood to play ball. Angered, I was tempted to march up to the thing and pound it into dust. But I knew I could and would not. For one thing, it was someone’s head – or at least it had been. For another, the noise would undoubtedly bring the snorks a-running. Stamping it into dust and dying horribly for my pains...

It’s probably what you want, isn’t it, you bastard? I thought at the skull. Well fuck you, Fred. My bones aren’t going to be keeping yours company.

Movement in the corner of my eye, near the lit doorway.

I looked up sharply and saw Evgeny waving frantically, having taken it on himself to investigate rather than simply cover the area.

I crossed the room and looked him in the eye, gesturing: What?

He leaned close. ‘It’s okay. The snorks are all downstairs,’ he said. ‘I think we can trap them.’

I looked at him, alarmed. ‘It’s a stairwell? You’ve been down there?’ I murmured in his ear.

‘Of course it’s a stairwell. Didn’t you know?’ He smiled as I shook my head. ‘And no, I only went onto the landing and looked down. No snorks, but there’s something I think you’ll want to see.’

‘A body?’

He shook his head. ‘I’ll show you.’

We crept into the stairwell, moving carefully so our boots didn’t squeak or scuff. Evgeny smiled and pointed down before leaning over the railing. I followed suit and immediately straightened, gaping at Evgeny questioningly.

He grinned and nodded: Yes, you are seeing it.

Two flights down, at the bottom of the staircase, was a Dragunov sniper rifle. A Dragunov, lying in a pool of congealing blood.
  15:19:09  8 June 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 51

Double up.

*****

‘So why are we really here, Snorkbait?’

I stirred, tearing myself away from my inspection of our surroundings. ‘Sorry, mate. What?’

‘Why are we here?’ Evgeny repeated, looking around at the old factory courtyard, shotgun at the ready. Another hung from a sling on the left side of his belt, and a 9mm Makarov was holstered on the right. At least he’d come prepared. ‘I can’t believe Sultan wanted this place checked out again, not after yesterday.’

I fidgeted and toyed with the L.85’s safety. ‘Well, first, I’d like to have another look around, find out about that sniper if I can. And second, you know how it is. Sultan thinks something’s up. It’ll be the heli patrols. Yesterday morning, fair enough...but then again today? He’s just being careful.’

‘I’ll say,’ he snorted.

I put the scope to my eye and checked the ground beyond the gate to our rear. The choppers passing over again had been an unexpected stroke of luck, since it had provided Sultan with a simple excuse for sending us out here again. This time, though, we’d left the base via the temporarily-unguarded conveyor tunnel. Only Sultan, Evgeny and me knew that anyone had gone off-base. Even the tower lookout had been pulled for this one.

‘So what did you end up doing in the garage last night?’ I asked, lowering the rifle again.

Evgeny raised his eyebrows and shrugged. ‘Nothing, really. Dmitriy seemed to have everything under control. I helped with refuelling and checking the tyres pressures, but that was about it. Anyone could have done it, and to be honest, it felt as if Dmitriy was having to make work for me to do.’

‘Weird,’ I said, as if I didn’t know that he’d been sent there only to keep him out of the way.

‘Seriously,’ Evgeny agreed. ‘Still, it gave me something to do, I guess. I sometimes get sick of sitting in Sultan’s rooms with nothing to do but watch Knuckles pick his nose. Speaking of Knuckles, he came over not long after you went inside and started chatting to Dmitriy about something or other, then came over and offered me a smoke.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah. Did Sultan mention anything to you about a trip to the Big Land or something?’

I shook my head. ‘Maybe Knuckles just fancied a chat.’

Evgeny looked at me as though I’d told him I was from the Moon. ‘Maybe. Anything is possible, I guess. You might not have noticed, but Knuckles isn’t really the chatty type.’

‘As I say, maybe he fancied a chat for once. Maybe he was bored.’

‘Knuckles? Bored?’ Evgeny laughed. ‘I’ve known him to be many things, but bored has never been one of them. He could out-wait a Zen Master, I swear.’

‘Well, whatever, he must have had his reasons.’

Evgeny nodded and chewed one side of his bottom lip. ‘It’s those reasons that I’m worried about.’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Why’s that, mate?’ I asked, hoping my tone sounded genuinely casual rather than forced.

He shook his head. ‘I don’t really know. Something didn’t feel right yesterday. First, Sultan keeps us away from Jack. I don’t understand why, especially where you’re concerned. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Second...I don’t get why we were left on guard duty all day. The meeting had to have been over for hours by the time Kostya arrived. And again there, if he wanted people on watch that he knew he could trust, why did Sultan then send Valentin, a rookie?’

I scratched the side of my nose. I had my doubts that young Valentin was as green as he’d pretended. There’d been something about him – or more precisely, about his eyes – that was cold and calculating, even dangerous. And he’d had little time for Evgeny’s mild teasing. Evgeny might have seen him as a rookie, just another wide-eyed dreamer looking to make a fast buck or progress through the ranks, but I’d glimpsed a beast of a decidedly different stripe.

‘Come on, Evgeny. You and I both know that were sent out there on a pretence. There was no danger.’

Evgeny rolled his eyes and mumbled something to himself, his voice too low for me to hear.

‘Sorry, mate? I didn’t catch that,’ I said.

‘Probably because I didn’t throw it,’ he grumbled. ‘It was nothing. Don’t worry about it.’

I smiled. ‘That’s the thing though, mate; I do. Tell you what, when we get back, why don’t you ask Sultan all about it? I’m sure he’d love to fill you in.’

Though you may not like what you hear if he does, I thought.

‘What would be the point? It’s exactly the sort of thing I was talking about yesterday afternoon, though: Sultan’s losing it, he’s losing the men, and the reason for that is, his decisions don’t make sense anymore. Not all of them, anyway.’

‘Maybe you just need to trust him,’ I said.

He shook his head again. ‘This isn’t the army, Snorkbait. There’s no such thing as blind trust in your leaders here. Well, apart from where Knuckles is concerned, perhaps. But for the most part, everyone needs to be able to see some sort of point, even if it’s only a corner of the bigger picture. Sultan’s got into the habit of showing us the corners without bothering to lift the cover. All we’re seeing is blank canvas. It means nothing, it’s going nowhere, there is no grand project anymore. Jack at least is offering an alternative.’

‘Such as?’

‘Leadership. Strength. A chance to really do something.’

‘But wouldn’t jumping sides cause problems back in the Big Land? From what I understand, the senior Russian mafia types aren’t people you want to cross. At all.’

‘Most of the guys have no intention of going back,’ he said. ‘For them, it doesn’t matter. So some asshole in, say St Petersburg, doesn’t like it...what is that here? Even if orders were sent –’ He shrugged. ‘It’s a long way, and the big wigs aren’t going to come here to discipline their men in person.’

‘But you want to go back,’ I reminded him. ‘You have the big dream.’

‘Yes, I do,’ he said. ‘I’m not spending the last of my days in this shit-heap. And between you and me, that’s the only reason why I’m still on Sultan’s side. Much good that it’s doing me.’ He sighed in frustration. ‘I’ll be back in a second. I’m going for a piss.’

I watched him from the corner of my eye for a few moments as he wandered over to a pile of old bricks, fiddling with the front of his trousers as he went, before sliding my PDA from its pocket.

E. still your man, losing patience. Others losing faith. Say lack of action, vision. Say again: E. loyal. No reply, I typed, trying to force my fingers to move rapidly over the unfamiliar Cyrillic layout.

‘Ready then, Snorkbait?’ Evgeny said from behind me just as I hit the Send tab.

I turned and frowned at the sight of the second twin-bore, sawn-off shotgun he now held, wielding the weapons like pistols in each hand.

‘What you up to?’ he asked, nodding at the PDA.

‘Nothing much,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘Just making sure I’ve not overlooked anywhere in my search for that sniper.’

‘Not giving up on that, eh?’ he smiled.

I shook my head again. ‘I can’t. I feel like I owe it to the guys I first came here with. Besides, anything that gets me back in the Free Stalkers’ good books, the better.’

‘Tired of being a Merc, are you?’

I smiled. ‘No, but I’ll need places to rest. I’d rather not have to sleep with one eye open all the time.’

He grunted. ‘You should do that anyway. The only thing that separates them from us is that we’re more honest about our dishonesty.’

I laughed. ‘I’d already noticed that,’ I said.

‘I mean it,’ he insisted. ‘The Free assholes have people like Wolf and the Traders, but no one to keep them in line. They do as they like once they’re away from the camps. At least with us, we can only do what the bosses allow. One Stalker can rob from another without much comeback. If one Bandit robs another...well, action is taken and lessons are most definitely learned. Which makes the “bandit” tag rather an irony, don’t you think?’

I shrugged and nodded at the shotguns. ‘Couldn’t you find anything better?’

Evgeny made an offended face. ‘Ah, they might not be as good as a SPAS or a Saiga 12, or even that Mossberg your “friend” had yesterday, but they’ll do, especially at the kind of close quarters we’ll find in there.’ He grinned. ‘You definitely don’t want one going off in your face.’

‘Speaking of which,’ I said, ‘would you mind not waving them around so much? They’re shotties, not fucking Excalibur.’

‘Make you nervous, does it?’ he grinned. ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. Look.’ He waggled his trigger-fingers. ‘Nowhere near the triggers, thumbs nowhere near the safeties, hammers in place...they’re just lumps of wood and metal right now. And besides, have I come anywhere near pointing one at you?’

‘No,’ I admitted.

‘Right,’ Evgeny said. ‘So why don’t you stop acting like a maiden aunt and get going?’

‘Don’t I get one of those first?’ I asked.

He shook his head. ‘Not with only two shots in each,’ he said. ‘And not when you’ve got your rifle.’

‘Fair enough,’ I replied, indicating the way. ‘After you, then. Man with rifle follows man with shotgun, not the other way round.’
  15:14:08  8 June 2012
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 50

Yes, folks. SB is 50 chapters long, just over 2.5 years in the writing, and has just edged over 200,000 words - or a couple of decently long novels - with the chapter I've just finished working on (Ch.58, if you're interested).
Thanks for sticking with it, and thanks for the continued support.

*****

I gaped at Sultan, who flicked a glance my way as he raised his glass, bobbed his eyebrows, and drank.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I said.

He shook his head.

‘No way. Just...no. Nice try, Sultan, but...no.’

‘It’s true. Well, in a manner of speaking. It’s more accurate to say I’m her great-uncle.’ he said. ‘She doesn’t know, but...’ He shrugged. ‘I tried to help the family after her mother died, but I was told to keep away. Which I was happy enough to do, but only on the condition that I be allowed to protect and help the girl if I could.’

‘Well, let’s assume you’re not playing some game with me here... Your time inside couldn’t have made it easy to watch out for her.’

He flashed a brief, chilly smile. ‘No...but she was looked after and provided for. Naturally I have no idea about what she was told or how much was kept from her. It often happens that way with us; we’re often shunned by those who want nothing to do with the underground, the gangs, and so on...but in the end there is always some level of tolerance because, ultimately, there is nothing that they can do about it, and too strong a rejection leaves them open to...those with malevolent intent.’

‘Let’s call a spade a spade. You mean other gangs,’ I said. ‘But, family connections or no – and I still say no – I still don’t see how you can be certain that she does not work with, or for, Jack.’

He sighed again and looked at me, impatience stamped on his features. ‘I’m not accustomed to being called a liar, Snorkbait,’ he warned. ‘I’m indulging you only because these are things you need to understand. Once you do, things will become much clearer, I assure you.’ He leaned across the table. ‘But have a care when you speak again. You seem to think that I owe you something when the opposite is true, and you seem to demand that I explain myself when I usually explain myself to no man – not on this side of the wire, at least. Your insolence is wearing very thin.’

I swallowed thickly and nodded. ‘I apologize if I’ve offended you, Sultan,’ I murmured, but the apology was dismissed with a gesture.

‘To address your doubts,’ he began. ‘Her name is Olena Kurylenko. She was born in Pripyat in...was it 1983 or 1984? I forget which. I was...away...at the time. Her father was some low-ranking administrator, I think with the energy ministry. Her mother – my niece, Nina – was a housewife. Nina was my sister’s second child – the first died before he was a year old. After...the events of 1986 and Nina’s subsequent death, Olena was taken in by her paternal grandparents. My sister and brother-in-law would have taken the child, but there was simply no room, or so they said. I always suspected that Semyon had put his foot down behind closed doors.’ He shrugged. ‘Had they been the ones to take Nina and little Olena in, I might have been able to do more. Semyon had forbidden my little Lyuba to have anything to do with me years before, but...I think there is a saying you have: “Blood is thicker than water”?’

I nodded.

‘Even so, it would have been difficult. I had to meet my sister in secret. Me! Such was the hold of Semyon Petrovich. I could never get Lyuba to admit it, and she’d already made me swear on our mother’s grave that I would not harm her husband in any case, but I’m certain that he’s abused her over the years.’ He sighed resignedly and slapped his hands against his thighs. ‘Still, I suppose she knew what she was doing. And an oath is an oath, after all. I would have found a way eventually, though. As it was, I had my infrequent contact with her carers and looked after her as best I could. I even arranged for one of my most trusted men and his wife to move in next door, once. That was how she came to pass wannabe Stalkers our way. Jack brings people in too, of course, and he is less discerning than we are, but...’ He shrugged expansively, eyeing me again. ‘Now do you believe me?’

I frowned and scratched my head. A piece of dead scab fell out onto the table, which I quickly flicked away while Sultan pretended not to notice.

‘I’m not sure,’ I admitted. ‘I want to, I think, but...’

He sighed and shrugged again. ‘Bear in mind that she knows nothing of this, Snorkbait. You’ll have to take my word, or reject it. But ask yourself this: why would I lie?’

I stared down at my feet, trying to arrange my thoughts. If he was telling the truth and Blondie was this Olena Kurylenko, great-niece of Sultan, it could only mean that Evgeny was guilty. But at the same time, I could not believe that Evgeny was an informant, spy, traitor...call him what you will. He didn’t seem the type, and besides, I trusted him.

I shook my head. ‘I can’t see a reason for you to lie about her,’ I said. ‘But nor can I find a reason to believe in Evgeny’s guilt. I need more.’

Sultan gave a start. ‘You need more? Oh, is that right, Boss? Have you truly forgotten who’s in charge here, Merc?’

‘No,’ I said, my voice not much more than a whisper.

‘So you don’t mind if I make some decisions regarding Evgeny?’

‘No.’

‘Well, thank you.’ He shook his head in disbelief and stared at the wall above his bed.

‘What are you going to do about Evgeny, then?’ I asked.

He drew in a deep breath and exhaled heavily. ‘Have him killed if he’s guilty,’ he said. ‘I’ll have no other choice. I need to know that I can trust my men implicitly.’ He gave another ironic smile. ‘It’s one of the strange contradictions of the world I inhabit.’

‘But what if you had Evgeny killed and Jack then passed the word that he was innocent and had been completely loyal to you?’

‘Then, my judgement would be called into question. For one thing,’ he said. ‘After that, others would begin to wonder if I deserved their trust and loyalty. Eventually, someone – or several people – from within my own group would make a move against me, or they might form an alliance with someone else. Attempts would be made on my life, probably on the orders of my boss in the Big Land.’

‘And Jack and his superiors would come out the winners, all because he had planted a little seed of doubt and got an innocent man killed.’

‘Again, we don’t know that Evgeny is innocent. Have I not just outlined how strong the case is against him?’

I nodded. ‘That was my point. You outlined a scenario, but none of it is proof, is it?’

We sat with only the soft sputtering from the lamp disturbing the silence.

‘What am I supposed to do, Snorkbait?’ Sultan finally murmured. ‘How do I make a sound decision when all I have is a rival’s word and our own conjecture? What if Evgeny is working for Jack, even if he is only one strand of a wider web? What if he was the one to pass most of the information? If I fail to act, Jack can spread the word that he told me that I had a traitor in my inner circle and I did nothing. That again shows a lack of judgement, weakness…and those things are not permitted in my circles.’ He stood and crossed to the window, leaning against the frame to stare out at the darkening world beyond. ‘If I had an alternative explanation, I’d take it,’ he murmured. ‘But every time I try to come up with answers, I always come back to him. You were right before, Snorkbait; I do need something more, anything...Ideally, I’d find absolute, irrefutable proof one way or the other. A confession of guilt, let’s say, from whoever the informant truly is. The question remains: how do I get it?’

‘Honestly, Sultan, I have no idea. If he’d said anything earlier, I’d have told you by now. All he had was rumour, really. He told me you’re starting to lose the men –’

‘I know that already,’ Sultan said. ‘I’m not blind, nor deaf. I see and hear more than they think.’

‘Then you need to show them that,’ I said. ‘You need to stop the rot right now. Once your leadership looks compromised, your decisions are questioned and belief starts dribbling away. And once that happens...’ I stopped, frowning.

He gave me a sideways look and raised an eyebrow. ‘The voice of experience, Snorkbait?’

‘Actually, I can’t remember,’ I murmured. ‘It felt like there was something...’

Sultan waited for more. ‘Go on,’ he urged.

I shook my head. ‘It’s gone, whatever it was,’ I said. ‘To tell the truth, I couldn’t even put it into a place. It was nothing from Ulster or Afghanistan, that’s for certain. The Balkans, maybe. That seems more familiar...but I wasn’t in command then.’

The Bandit leader shrugged. ‘Never mind, then,’ he said. ‘But, one leader of men to another...what can I do about Evgeny, if both roads lead to the same dead end?’

‘Find a third road. Or make one,’ I suggested, shrugging. ‘Give him time and opportunity. If he is a spy, he’ll drop himself in it one way or the other. For now, all you can do is give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that the men see it as a positive trait if Jack tries to agitate things.’

‘Didn’t you hear what I just said? Not acting is as bad as acting in haste.’

‘Of course I heard. It’s just that if you leave him alive now, you give yourself the option of punishing him later. Kill him now, and...’ I spread my arms in a ‘that’s that’ gesture. ‘You know your men better than I do, Sultan, but it strikes me that I’d more willingly follow someone who demanded hard proof before executing his men than someone who reached for a rope or gun at the first hint of suspicion.’

Sultan sighed. ‘So not only do I need proof, but I now also need time...and for him to obligingly put the noose around his own neck. Is that your advice?’

I shrugged. ‘Why take my advice?’ I asked. ‘What did Knuckles say?’

Sultan waggled his fingers. ‘More or less the same as you, actually. Which is why neither he nor you have been any help. I already knew as much, myself.’ He lapsed into a brief silence once more. ‘You could kill him for me. Go back out to the conveyor tomorrow to take another watch, kill him, then run. It solves the problem rather neatly, wouldn’t you say?’

I froze. ‘Is that the price of your hospitality? Because if it is, I won’t pay it. Guilty or not, his punishment is nothing to do with me, Sultan.’

Sultan turned to face me. ‘So you want to choose the price you pay, is that it?’

‘No. I just won’t kill for you.’

‘We saved your life!’

‘No, you found me and gave me shelter. Evgeny healed me, twice. I owe him at least as much as I owe you or your group. In any case, aren’t you concerned that it might look a little...convenient? Don’t you think your men might read between the lines and ask the questions about your leadership that you’re trying to avoid?’

Sultan nodded slowly and smiled. ‘You’re a good man, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘Lesser men might have simply agreed. And of course, they would have failed my little test.’

‘Test?’

‘Judgement is everything, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘That, and the ability to find the courage to do what must be done.’ He sighed again. ‘I can not and will not condemn Evgeny just yet. It’s difficult – I am torn, I admit it – but...you have just reminded me of what true leadership is about. Ultimately, it is about action, not reaction, and killing Evgeny out of hand would be a reactive move. An active one is to learn the truth before choosing the correct action again. And so it goes.’

‘So, what do you want to do, then?’

‘I don’t know what I can do, still. I’ve wrestled with this problem all afternoon and into evening. Every time I conclude it is Evgeny, I go through the same quandary and keep coming to the same conclusion. Knuckles told me they were the correct ones, but... You provided a third voice; crucially, an outsider’s voice. And you affirmed that I had it mostly right: what we have to do might not be the easiest thing, but it is the correct thing.’

‘Perhaps more to the point, it might win the waverers in your group back to your side,’ I said. ‘As for Evgeny, I don’t...’ I stopped short, smiling at the idea that had just entered my head.

‘What is it?’

‘A possible solution,’ I said.
  13:51:58  29 May 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

Message edited by:
snorkbait
05/29/2012 13:53:28
Messages: 1081
Chapter 49

The rest of the afternoon crawled by, the hours broken only by the occasional sound of Hinds as they headed back to base or swept north towards the centre after being refuelled. Conversation became sporadic and desultory as boredom took its toll, and neither of us really bothered to keep watch. There was no point; there was nothing to see out there but grassy slopes and a few stunted trees. Laughter, singing, and
snatches of shitty harmonica or half-decent guitar occasionally drifted over from the Duty camp, the sounds of others enjoying themselves – or at least finding a way to while away the down-time – serving to lower our spirits further. What was worse than the music, though, was the marshy, yet also acid-metallic stink that wafted up from the lake whenever the wind changed.

‘We used to keep watch below here,’ a new voice announced as dusk was falling, the words echoing tinnily along the tunnel.

‘Really? Why do you – sorry, we – now keep watch inside, then?’ a second voice asked.

‘Well, it’s not safe on the ground, is it? Especially at night,’ the first newcomer explained. ‘Too many muties about: snorks, bloodsuckers...sometimes boar and dogs. Either way, they can’t get at us up here, so we’re safe. Half the time they don’t even know we’re watching.’

I stood up and looked back along the tunnel. Two head-lamps shone brightly, their light bouncing off the remaining windows, walls and ceiling.

‘At fucking last,’ I muttered under my breath, and gave Evgeny’s boot a gentle kick. ‘Oi, relief’s here.’

‘What? Eh?’ he groaned, fumbling around for his twin-bore shotgun. He sat up. ‘Is it getting dark, or have I started to go blind?’

‘It’s dusk,’ I replied, just as though I hadn’t been surprised by the intensity of the lamps and the realisation that darkness had started to fall outside mere moments before.

‘Oh, shit,’ he moaned, yawning. ‘You mean they’ve left us out here all fucking day?’

‘Well, what was left of it,’ I said.

‘That must have been some meeting they had.’

I nodded, partly in acknowledgement of Evgeny but also to welcome the incoming Bandits.

‘Hey, Kostya,’ Evgeny said, nodding a welcome to the first new arrival.

‘Evgeny,’ the raincoated Bandit replied, eyeing me suspiciously.

‘Who’s this, then?’ Evgeny said when the silence threatened to stretch, nodding in the direction of a kid wearing a black leather jacket over a grubby white hooded top.

‘His name’s Valentin,’ Kostya said.

‘How’s life, Valentin?’ Evgeny asked. ‘How are you finding The Zone so far?’

The kid shrugged and looked down at his feet. I noticed his trainers
were battered and scuffed, the fabric upper almost worn through.

‘Talkative type, eh?’ Evgeny grunted. He and Kostya started laughing, but I didn’t like the look in the kid’s eyes as he looked at Evgeny through his fringe.

‘Val’s okay. He’s just new,’ Kostya said, slapping the boy on the shoulder. Valentin offered up a weak smile when Kostya beamed at him, appearing to be nothing more than a nervous newbie, but the eyes remained cold and watchful, and not in the least bit anxious. Kostya turned back to Evgeny. ‘By the way, the Boss wants you to go help Dmitriy Carjacker.’

Evgeny’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Why’s that? We up for a trip to the Big Land or something?’

‘No idea. I’m just passing on the message,’ Kostya said, then flicked a glance in my direction. All the previous warmth had left his tone by the time he spoke. ‘Snorkbait, the Boss says you’re to go see him immediately. It’s time to start paying your dues.’

‘Right,’ Evgeny said. ‘See you round, Kostya.” He nodded at the kid. ‘Valentin.’

The kid nodded back. My gesture of acknowledgement went completely ignored by both of them as we trudged up the ramp and headed back down the now-dark tunnel.

*

Knuckles was waiting at the top of the stairs when I clambered up, all but blocking the entrance to Sultan’s rooms with the sentries standing opposite. None of them were talking and the atmosphere was grim.

I frowned, glancing between the three Bandits, only one of whom seemed at all interested by my presence.

What sort of shit am I in now? I wondered.

‘Evgeny?’ Knuckles rumbled.

‘Gone to fetch Dmitriy Carjacker, as ordered,’ I said, and watched as Knuckles and the sentries visibly relaxed and the tension in the air lifted a couple of notches.

Not me. Something to do with Evgeny...but –

‘What’s going on?’ I asked.

‘Boss needs to see you,’ he said. ‘Watch him, he’s been in a foul mood since meeting Jack.’

‘Yeah. Kostya said something about starting to pay what I owe.’

‘I don’t know what he wants to see you for,’ Knuckles said, though I didn’t believe that for a moment. He jerked his head in the direction of Sultan’s rooms. ‘You’ll find out in there, though. Best not keep him waiting.’

‘Thanks,’ I said, for no reason apart from feeling the need to say something.

Knuckles nodded and I skirted around his bulk to enter the room, noticing that the door to Sultan’s quarters was standing open, waiting.

‘Knock!’ the enforcer called over his shoulder.

Sultan was sitting on a tatty swivel chair behind an old wooden desk. Two sheets of yellowing paper lay side by side before him, and he appeared to be studying them intently, the fingers of each hand splayed on either side of his head as though he was having to physically hold it in place. Obediently, I tapped on the door, causing him to look up with just his eyes.

‘Snorkbait. Come in,’ he murmured, and I stepped inside hesitantly. ‘Close the door.’ His eyes dropped again, his attention returning to the papers on the desk.

I did as ordered and approached the desk. The atmosphere in the room was such that I had to fight hard against the urge to come to full attention. As it was, I had to force myself to look around the room, daring to move only my eyes. In the corner to my half-right, well away from the boarded-up window and running along the interior wall, was a single bed, immaculately made. Next to that, between the bed and the door, stood a heavy double-wardrobe. Behind the desk and to my quarter-left, a bookcase containing maybe half a dozen thick volumes. Atop this, an antique-looking oil lamp, lit. A smaller table stood on my left, flanked by a pair of stiff-backed wooden chairs that looked as though they might have been lifted from a schoolroom. On the table itself, half a bottle of vodka and four glasses sat upon a dull metal tray, from which the silver plate had partially worn or flaked away.

Nothing stirred. The only sounds in the room were those of Sultan’s breathing and the occasional fizz-pop from the lamp’s wick. And I waited...and waited.

Finally, Sultan sighed, picked up the papers, gave them a shuffle, and slid them back inside a folder before looking up at me and removing a previously-unnoticed pair of wire-framed glasses from the bridge of his nose as he did so.

‘You know the value of discipline, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘I like that.’

I nodded, resisting the urge – so ingrained that it seemed almost as natural as breathing – to say ‘Sir’ by way of acknowledgement.

‘Had I told you that before?’ he asked.

‘I can’t remember,’ I replied, again having to bite off the automatic ‘sir’ that had come unbidden to my lips.

He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. ‘Nor can I. No matter.’ He rose, heaving his bulk out of the narrow confines of the chair, using the thin arms covered in cracked brown leather for support. ‘Will you?’ he asked, indicating the bottle and glasses.

I nodded, upon which he crossed to the table, righted two of the shot glasses, and poured.

‘To your health,’ he said by way of toast, and downed the shot in one.

Unsure of the protocol, I repeated the toast and necked the liquid, feeling the warmth spread from my stomach to my chest as Sultan watched me keenly, and not without a little amusement.

‘Not used to vodka, eh?’ he said.

I shook my head. ‘Not really. But I wasn’t expecting it, either. Not from what Knuckles said.’

Sultan gave a quick smile. ‘Ah, that. I’m afraid I owe my loyal friend an apology. I may have...over-reacted...earlier on.’

‘You?’ I asked.

Another smile. ‘Don’t sound so surprised, Snorkbait. All men have their tempers. If mine shows more rarely, it is only because I have learned to control it better. Most of the time. As a younger man...’ He chuckled. ‘Let’s just say “mercurial” doesn’t exactly cover it.’ He shook his head at some long-ago event. ‘But I am no longer a young man, and only young men can truly be forgiven their...exuberances?’

I shrugged. ‘I wasn’t forgiven for much,’ I said. ‘But I don’t think I’m here so we can talk about what is becoming at what age.’

Sultan smirked and nodded. ‘True,’ he said. ‘But what we need really need to talk about is not pleasant. It’s best to have these happier moments and delay what must be said for as long as we can, don’t you agree?’

I shuffled my feet. ‘There’s also something to be said for getting it over and done with,’ I said. ‘Not that I don’t enjoy your company; it’s just...I might enjoy it better if I knew something about what was coming.’

Sultan nodded again. ‘I understand. It’s all about business with you, isn’t it?’ He looked at me quizzically. ‘Tell me: do you have many friends? Have you ever?’

I frowned. ‘I don’t see what that has to do with anything.’

‘So “no”, then,’ he smiled. ‘At a guess, I’d say you’ve had one or two close friends at every stage of your life, but even then you never saw them often. Would that be right?’

‘Sultan, I don’t –’

He held up a hand. ‘Indulge me. Friend.’

‘Mostly, that’d be right, yes.’

‘Because you’re always about the point. With you, being social is a secondary concern at best.’

‘I don’t see the point in going round the houses, if that’s what you mean,’ I said. ‘Like now, for example. You don’t just want a chat to pass time; you want to tell me something and ask something else of me, so why not just do it and then we can relax.’

Sultan chuckled softly. ‘It is as I thought,’ he murmured. ‘The thing you’ve never learned, Snorkbait, is the art of When. When to speak of business, When to raise the question. Nor have you ever learned – or perhaps have learned but never accepted – that sometimes the talk of business means that there is no possibility of relaxing and enjoying a gentler moment afterwards. And I fear that this is one such time.’

I froze, knowing I wasn’t going to like what came next. ‘Kostya told me you wanted to see me about starting to pay my dues,’ I said, to which Sultan merely bobbed his head once. ‘What is it you would have me do?’

‘We really should talk first,’ he said.

‘About Evgeny?’

His eyebrows lifted. ‘Very perceptive. But what made you think that?’

I shrugged. ‘You sent him off on an errand that anyone could have run, including me. From his nickname and what Evgeny said, I presume Dmitriy Carjacker runs the garage out by the tunnel?’

A nod of assent. ‘He is my chief mechanic, yes. What he can’t fix probably hasn’t been invented yet, though he sometimes requires help if we have a rush-job to do: refuelling, making adjustments and load calculations, and so on.’

‘That’s my point: anyone could do that, so why Evgeny? Okay, he was sent to the end of the conveyor with me, apparently for our own good...but now? It’s the first time you’ve under-used him. And that makes me wonder why. The only answer I can come up with is that something’s happened – the same something that had you acting more like your former, younger self.’

Sultan nodded towards one of the stiff-backed chairs, taking the other for himself. ‘Sit.’ His tone brooked no argument or dissent, so I sat.

‘I take it the meeting with Jack didn’t go as planned?’

Sultan gazed at me for a moment, his face expressionless as he rolled his shotglass around in his hand. Then the glass was slapped down hard on the table and he poured more drinks.

‘Evgeny works for Jack,’ he murmured.

‘Come again?’

‘Evgeny. Works. For. Jack,’ he repeated, and shook his head. ‘Imagine how I felt, playing the one card I thought I had for sure only to find that it had been switched before it had even reached my hand. Evgeny’s a spy, Snorkbait!’

‘Evgeny’s no spy,’ I said, sounding more confident than I felt. Sultan’s losing it, he’d said, he’s losing the men and Let’s just say I’m the wall with ears. And ears hear, the brain understands, and understanding plus self-interest leads to...where?

Unbidden: For fuck’s sake, Evgeny. What have you done?

I shook my head, partly in denial, mostly to dismiss my own doubts. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I said. ‘He can’t be a spy.’
The Bandit leader raised an eyebrow. ‘Hm. Until just now, I would have
said the same. However…’

‘Look, you know him better than I do,’ I conceded. ‘But it just doesn’t sit right. Evgeny’s too honest.’ The corner of Sultan’s mouth turned up in an ironic smile. I smiled too. ‘Okay, he’s not too honest, but that’s not what I meant. Did Jack tell you Evgeny was spying for him directly? Did he mention Evgeny by name?’

‘He didn’t have to. Jack knew everything, Snorkbait! Everything! He knew who you were, where you’d come from... He knew about your encounter with the bloodsucker and...and the woman.’

He was going to say something else just then, I realized. Secrets and lies, eh, Sultan?

‘Someone else must have told him,’ I said.

‘I don’t see who,’ Sultan huffed. ‘Not unless you told him, and you don’t even know Jack...do you?’

I shook my head. ‘I wouldn’t know him from a hole in the ground.’

Sultan chuckled and drained his glass. ‘That could be seen as an unfortunate choice of words,’ he said, ‘but never mind. If it was not you, then it must have been Evgeny. He’d have had plenty of opportunity.’

‘You’re forgetting someone there,’ I said.

‘No, I’m not,’ he replied, giving me a meaningful look.

‘Well I’m not ruling it out,’ I said. ‘For all I know, Jack’s got hundreds of informants and he’s pieced everything together from that.’

‘Maybe, but it still wouldn’t mean Evgeny’s innocent.’

‘I know. But I don’t believe he’s guilty, either.’

Sultan sighed. ‘To be honest, Snorkbait, I couldn’t believe it myself, at first,’ he said.

I leaned forward and picked up my glass. ‘Then what changed your mind?’

Sultan leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers over his belly. ‘Nothing else made sense. I considered the alternatives, of course, but they were easy to discount.’

‘Care to explain?’

Sultan eyeballed me. ‘I rarely feel the need to explain myself,’ he said. ‘Indeed, not many people expect me to.’ He poured himself another glass of vodka and looked at my still-full one with mild disdain. ‘Do you expect me to, Snorkbait?’

I downed my vodka and shook my head. ‘Not at all. I only want to understand.’

Sultan smiled lop-sidedly and leaned forward to refill my glass. ‘Which is still a round-about way of saying “Yes, Sultan, I do expect you to explain”. Impressive, for a man who does not believe in...what was it you said? “Going round the houses”?’ He chuckled and sat back again, exhaling. ‘First of all, I considered you. It would have been more convenient, but it made no sense for you to pass information to Jack and then withhold the fact. Not only that, but the only opportunity you might have had was during the time between Evgeny leaving you to speak with the Stalkers from the Farm, and your friend finding you at the factory. And of course, you were being watched all the time, though you did not know that then.’

‘By Evgeny,’ I reminded him. ‘If he’s an informant of Jack’s, how do you know we weren’t in it together?’

Sultan smiled placidly. ‘Because I had another man watching you,’ he said. ‘Actually, make that three. I had eyes on you from our watchtower, of course, but I sent out a second pair of men via the conveyor.’

‘You did?’ I exclaimed. The bloody place must have been crawling with Bandits, yet neither Blondie nor I had seen or heard a thing.

‘I did,’ Sultan said, nodding. ‘For all I knew, the factory was crawling with Spetsnaz troops. What if I sent you, and you were both captured or killed? They radioed back with the information that Evgeny later confirmed.’

‘But that could mean that one, or both, of them was spying –’

Sultan waved me to silence. ‘They were nowhere near close enough for all that. Besides which, they pulled back as soon as it became clear that there was no immediate danger, so really it came down to you or Evgeny, as I said.’ His expression changed to one of mild surprise. ‘Oh, I forgot to mention: there is one other means by which I know of your innocence, and I hope you don’t mind – you really will have to forgive me and I’ll give you a clean replacement before you leave – but I had your PDA cloned last night. Don’t ask me how they do it, because I have no idea, but...I do have people who find that sort of thing all too easy.’ He grinned. ‘Of course, that means I already know that you didn’t send any radio or text-based messages, and I also know that you came straight back here from the factory, meeting no one along the way. So...’ He spread his hands and shrugged.

I smiled thinly, mentally adding a new PDA to the list of Must Haves. Regardless of whether Sultan gave me a new one or not, the chances of actually getting a secure device from him were zero. Hopefully I’d be able to snag a new one from the trader network in exchange for the information that the encryption code had been cracked. They – or whoever it was that truly oversaw such things – probably still thought that their security was unbreakable.

‘With you eliminated from my thoughts, I considered the other alternatives, including You Know Who,’ Sultan said. ‘I’ll be honest with you right now, Snorkbait: The mere idea that she would have anything to do with Jack is laughable.’

‘So you know who she is?’

‘You could say that, yes. Now, I don’t know all of her business arrangements, but I do know that none of them would involve Jack or his wider group.’

‘But you can’t know that for sure, Sultan. She was a smuggler before she got rumbled and had to run, for Christ’s sake! She’s desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.’

‘Not her.’

‘But you can’t know!’

‘I can,’ he insisted. ‘I do.’

‘But how?’ I demanded.

He sighed. ‘Because I’m her uncle,’ he said.
  13:56:31  1 May 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 48

‘Wakey, wakey,’ Knuckles said, giving my feet a kick as he passed.

I wiped drool from the corner of my mouth and sat up. ‘And a good morning to you, too.’

He only grunted and spooned some sort of tinned glop into his mouth, his attention entirely on his breakfast.

‘Looks like it’s time to get those stitches out, Snorkbait,’ Evgeny said, closing in on me while I was still groggy. A pair of nail scissors flashed in his hand. ‘We can’t have new skin starting to grow over them, can we?’

‘‘Spose not,’ I mumbled, thinking that a steaming mug of coffee wouldn’t have gone amiss. ‘What time is it?’

‘Almost time to go and meet our friend Jack,’ Sultan said from over by the window.

‘Can’t I have some food first?’ I said, trying not to flinch as Evgeny Toecutter waved the scissors rather too closely to my eyeball for my liking. Any nearer and he might have earned himself a new nickname.

Sultan shook his head. ‘You’re not going.’

‘Boss?’ Evgeny said, turning to look at Sultan in surprise.

‘Jack’s bound to ask why Snorkbait’s not there,’ Knuckles muttered, looking up from his food, spoon poised. ‘It might look like we have something to hide.’

I looked Sultan in the eye. ‘Is it really the best idea to leave me here?’

Sultan shrugged. ‘Probably not, but we’ll see. Jack’s been getting things his own way rather too often, it seems to me. It’s time he gave before he received, so if he tells me what he’s learned from the Big Land...’ He extended a hand in my direction and smiled.

‘But it might seem as if –’ Knuckles began, but Sultan cut him off with a sharp look.

‘I don’t care how it seems. Snorkbait doesn’t go, it’s that simple. Nor do you, Evgeny. Officially, you’ll be here to guard Snorkbait because I don’t trust him, but just between us I want to keep the pair of you as far away from Jack and his people as I can. He seems to think he holds all the cards and knows everything that goes on both inside and outside The Zone; I’m going to put that to the test. In the meantime, I want the pair of you on watch in the conveyor.’

‘What? Why there?’ Evgeny asked.

Sultan gave him an odd look. ‘First, because I said so. Second...well, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there has been some “unusual activity” in the area, and since the security of that area falls to me...’

‘I see. Right, Boss,’ Evgeny mumbled, still clearly unhappy as he turned back to continue working on my face.

I frowned and tried to ignore the tugging sensation as Evgeny began to pull the sutures from my skin. ‘I don’t understand, Sultan. My information may not be as useful as you’re making out.’

‘Hold still, will you? Evgeny grumbled as Sultan smiled and spoke again.

‘That’s a risk he’ll have to take. The beauty of the thing is, you’re an outsider. Jack doesn’t know what you know and what you don’t. He can’t possibly risk withholding information from me and thus miss out on potentially vital intelligence himself.’

‘Seems risky to me,’ I said.

‘Me, too,’ Knuckles added.

‘Perhaps it is,’ Sultan agreed. ‘But it is something that needs to be done. Have I not just said that, in recent times, Jack has received but rarely given? What little “intelligence” he has passed our way has been nothing more than what is obvious or what had already been revealed and confirmed by my own network. It’s time to put the boot on the other foot and make Jack do some worrying and chasing.’

I sighed, aware that there was something else going on here, another level beyond that which I understood. It wasn’t just about information and who knew what, when, and from whom; it ran far deeper that that, into realms I knew little about and therefore could not understand...and I didn’t like how that felt one bit. I might have always been someone else’s pawn, but at least in the army I’d been able to suss things out. We’d all watch the news and read between the lines – and the lies – to get some idea of what and where the next job might be, and why we’d be going in. In this situation, however, I wasn’t just a pawn, I was a blind pawn, and worse, I was getting drawn into something against my will yet again, being used, being pushed... And I had no way out.

Evgeny pulled away, examining my cheek intently before giving a quick, satisfied nod. ‘I think it’s going to be okay. It still looks a bit angry and you’ll definitely have some scarring, but that was to be expected. At least you won’t have a face like a ridged potato crisp. You can keep the Stone Blood with you for today, but don’t be surprised if the cheek still itches, throbs, or looks inflamed. It will heal eventually, but just bear in mind that there’s only so much these things can do, when all’s said and done.’

I nodded. ‘Thanks, Evgeny,’ I said. ‘Another one I owe you.’

The corners of Evgeny’s mouth turned down as he rose. ‘Forget it,’ he said, rising and offering a hand to help me to my feet. ‘You did try to buy me some time to get away from those Stalkers, after all. You weren’t to know I never had any intention of running too far.’

‘Are we all ready, then?’ Sultan said, striding towards the door and pausing only long enough for Knuckles to head out first. Outside, the sentries stiffened. A gesture from Knuckles caused one of them to nod, pause, and fall in behind Sultan.

‘I do love his rhetorical questions,’ Evgeny said as we exited the room. He pulled the door closed, his expression pinched, and extended an arm towards the stairs on the left. ‘After you, Snorkbait.’

*

‘Sultan’s losing it,’ Evgeny muttered as we walked down the long, empty tunnel. Uneven light fell in patches through the mostly-smashed, filthy windows and the numerous rents and smaller holes in the decaying walls, while the floor had an old black layer of burning that crunched and crumbled underfoot. I’d even noticed the odd bit of withered vegetation trying and failing to take hold where walls and floor met.

I turned to check that we couldn’t be overheard by the men back in the garage, delivery area, whatever it had once been. I could hear them laughing and whistling as they worked, making more than enough noise to cover the sound of Evgeny’s low voice, but even so...

‘You might want to save it until we’re at the other end,’ I advised.

Evgeny snorted. ‘I’m not saying anything that plenty of others haven’t already said.’

We trudged down one of the wooden boards, passed the square hole in the floor that led into a chute, and clumped up the board on the other side.

I frowned. Sultan had always seemed like a strong leader to me...and Evgeny had seemed to be a loyal man.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Evgeny continued, ‘unlike some, I’m not saying he shouldn’t be the boss or that he’s weak. Nothing of that sort. But he is losing it.’

‘How so?’

‘How do you think? Listen to what I’ve just told you: I’m not saying he’s weak, but others are. He’s losing the men.’ He shook his head. ‘He doesn’t leave those rooms of his as often as he should. He’s become too distant, and Knuckles is so loyal it’s made him blind. He thinks everything is fine and dandy, but that’s only because people see him coming and clam up.’

‘Where they feel more comfortable with you, presumably?’

He gave a dry chuckle. ‘No,’ he said, drawing the word out. ‘Let’s just say I’m the wall with ears.’

I smiled. ‘Why does that not surprise me?’

‘Some of the guys are saying Sultan’s too passive,’ Evgeny said as we negotiated the final dip. ‘What they don’t know is that his first instinct was to strike back when we heard about the Autopark.’

‘But the group that I found, the ones that the chimera had ambushed –’

‘Five, six men?’ He shrugged. ‘Nothing compared to the force Jack wanted to send. Even Knuckles argued for sending a larger force down to capture the Farm.’

I shook my head. ‘The Valley’s too big for that,’ I said. ‘Take the Farm, and you’d have to make sure you secured all the other paths as well. Sure, there’s fifty or so bayonets here...but against an enemy that could strike in two or three areas at once, and maybe with an air assault?’

‘Suicide, I know,’ Evgeny said. ‘And that’s why Sultan held back. Well, partly, at least. As I said, his first instinct was to hammer the force at the Autopark, but he realised it would be pointless: the losses would have been too high, and for what? Cordon’s really a backwater. What would be the benefit to taking it and then having to hold it? We have a far better stronghold here.’

‘I’d have made the same call,’ I said. ‘Autopark might be useful as a raiding camp, but I saw the work that Duty and the Stalkers had to put in to fortifying it...and even then it takes four to six people to begin keeping an effective watch.’

Evgeny nodded. ‘Whereas this place takes six to eight, total.’ He sniffed and scratched his nose. ‘Sultan went through it all with them, but Jack still wasn’t convinced. In the end, Sultan said something like “The porcupine draws into a tight ball to defend itself; it does not shoot quills in all directions leaving the body exposed” and that was that, discussion over.’

‘Couldn’t Jack have sent a force on his own?’ I asked. ‘I mean, if Sultan’s not in overall command...’

Evgeny shook his head. ‘He doesn’t have the men,’ he said. ‘Or at least, he didn’t then. Now...who knows? In any case the other part of it is, Jack admires Sultan in a way. Or he used to. Things go on under the surface and, eventually, bubbles come to the surface. Jack doesn’t actually want to go against Sultan, but there are forces at work that... Well, they mean Jack isn’t entirely the master of his own destiny. It’s a dog eat dog sort of world, Snorkbait, and for now Jack’s too afraid of being bitten to make an open challenge. The problem is, he also has bigger dogs behind him.’

‘So he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.’

Evgeny shrugged. ‘His one advantage is his knack of finding things out. Something’s brewing behind the scenes; he needs a way out. If he can find that...’ He shrugged again. ‘Jack’s kind of like a young lion. He needs his own space now, his own territory. The people behind him are pushing for him to take Sultan on, but he hasn’t really wanted to do that because he knew he wouldn’t win. Of them all, Jack’s the only one who hasn’t forgotten the Boss’s history. It’s easy to overlook the trials he’s faced and the triumphs he’s earned. He might not be as young or strong as he was, nor is he as dynamic as Jack appears to be, but the Boss is canny, like a spider...or better yet, an octopus: he sits in one place, well-defended enough, moving over distance only when he absolutely has to, but he’s always watching, always sending a tentacle over here, another over there, exploring, drawing those things he wants towards him. Ambushing the unwary.’

‘And no doubt eating some of what he catches,’ I added. ‘Metaphorically speaking.’

‘Well that goes without saying. But basically, yes.’ Another shake of the head. ‘All the same, a challenge will eventually come. He’s losing the advantage because he’s losing the men. Before long, he’ll lose the outside, too. It’s been too long since he last went to the Big Land: people over there have become sloppy, taking liberties that no boss should ever allow...’ He ran a hand through his hair and dragged his fingers forward through it again. ‘You know what I see in his future?’

I shook my head.

‘Nothing,’ he said, spreading his hands. ‘He’ll probably end up wasting his days away, perched on a stool in some shitty bar reminiscing about the good old days and deluding himself that he still has power and respect. And you know what the worst part of it is? No one will tell him any different. Knuckles will be gone, the newcomers will nod and pretend to listen when he speaks, and he might get the odd idiot to run errands here and there based on who he once was...but for the most part he’ll be ignored and forgotten. That’s what I see for Sultan. Not a very nice picture, is it?’

I frowned and shook my head again. ‘What about you, then?’ I said. ‘If you see all this for Sultan, what do you see for yourself?’

He glanced at me from the corners of his eyes and smirked. ‘Not this, that’s for sure,’ he said. ‘One day, perhaps, I’d like to go home to Kharkiv, or maybe go over the border to be closer to Moscow, where some of my family live. Perhaps I could get an apartment there, maybe meet a nice girl, eventually buy a house and raise kids away from the life, away from all of this.’

‘That’s going to cost a pretty penny,’ I said, smiling at his pipe-dream.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I have some coin saved up already and I’m always looking to earn more. I also have my artefact, let’s not forget that. They fetch a nice price on the black market. You just have to know the right people.’ Another quick smile. ‘And as it happens, I do.’

‘It’s a nice dream.’

‘Oh, it’s more than that, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘It’s my goal, and I’m already on my way to achieving it.’

Sez you, I thought, but there was no point in causing an argument, especially since I had no idea whether he was telling the truth or not. For all I knew, Evgeny was already a millionaire. It wouldn’t explain what he was doing in The Zone, but...people were often funny that way and I’d often found rich people to be the funniest of all.

We finally reached the end of the conveyor and had a quick look outside through the large gap in the wooden panel on the west side. The other three sides were made of solid brick and there was a drop of several feet to the ground outside, making the place more like an old castle keep than part of an industrial/agricultural complex.

‘You know what I don’t get?’ I said, gratefully slumping down against the wall, taking care to keep the ramp between me and the world outside.

‘Sorry. I thought that was a rhetorical question. Go on,’ Evgeny said encouragingly when I failed to continue. ‘What don’t you get?’

‘I don’t understand the relationship between the rival groups here.’

‘You mean in The Zone generally, or just here between us?’

‘Both.’

Evgeny smiled, sitting down with his back to the opposite wall. ‘It’s complicated.’

‘Which? You mean in The Zone generally, or between your groups?’

The smile broadened. ‘Both,’ he said. ‘But more so between our groups. There are blood ties, debts of honour, financial deals, debts of honour arising from newly-formed blood ties that cancel out previous debts and financial deals...it’s a proper monkey’s fist.’

‘Eh?’

‘You know, like in the knot. It’s one piece of string or rope, but the arrangement is so complex that it’s meant to be impossible to untangle.’

‘Every knot can be untangled,’ I said.

Or if not, it can be cut through, I thought, my memory reaching back across the years to a story I’d heard in primary school about Alexander the Great.

‘Not this one,’ Evgeny insisted. ‘The relationships and hierarchies among us have been compared to those that existed – or still do exist – among the old European aristocracy, did you know that? And what’s more, they bear the comparison.’

‘Really?’ I chortled. ‘Does that mean I should be calling you Marquis Toecutter of Kharkiv?’

He laughed. ‘“Sire” will do,’ he said, then shook his head. ‘No, seriously: the comparison is a good one. People like me...well, we’re the serfs, the paupers, the unwashed rabble in the streets, so to speak. Then you have men like Sultan.’

‘A lord?’

Evgeny shook his head vehemently. ‘No...and the ranking analogies quickly break down in any case. He is relatively senior in his way, but he has his bosses and they have their assistants and whatever else, and then you go up again, and again, and probably again, until you get to the men at the very top who own things like three-hundred-million dollar yachts and football teams and the Good God Above knows what else. In the grand scheme of things, Sultan is probably more like a local politician who dreams of maybe being mayor one day. The chances are it won’t happen, but he dreams and fights all the same.’

I nodded. ‘And Jack?’

‘Jack’s a campaigner, someone who goes and knocks doors to ask people to vote for his man. He dreams of being the politician one day.’

‘And the chances are, it won’t happen?’

‘No, no. Not in Jack’s case. In Jack’s case, the chances are very good that it will happen. In fact, Jack will probably become a mayor at least. If we continue with the analogy.’

‘So how does that happen? Why is Jack so special?’

Evgeny scratched the tip of his nose. ‘Because of who he is,’ he said. ‘He’s connected. That’s partly why his intel from the Big Land is so good. Family counts for a lot, that much always held true, even under the Soviet system. If your family was of the right sort and had the right connections...well, you succeeded in life. Of course, everyone was supposed to be equal, but –’

‘Some were more “equal” than others,’ I finished.

‘So you understand that much, at least,’ he nodded. ‘In the old days, success and failure came down to being lucky at birth, the rise and fall of certain people...the same as it always had been, and probably more so than in the West during the same period. Kids and younger men don’t always see it. They don’t always want to. Instead, they believe the old days were always sunny and everyone was happy...and yes, there were advantages and happy times, but...’

‘They’re still looking at the Soviet world through rose-tinted specs,’ I said. ‘It’s common everywhere, I think. Back home, the older generation always harks back twenty or thirty years to this perfect, sane, gentle world that’s always seven-tenths selective memory to three-tenths mythy mountain bullshit.’

‘It is part of the human condition,’ Evgeny agreed. ‘But where was I? Ah yes: Jack. As I said, he is well connected. The main thing, though, is that he is ambitious. Ruthlessly so. And he’s cunning. A faction run by Jack would prey upon everyone.’

‘Sultan seems to think you can do business with him,’ I pointed out.

Evgeny nodded. ‘You can! That’s the thing: he is what you might call a businessman. He always has his eye on some prize, be it making money or advancing through the ranks or both...he’s not just some punk thrashing around as he tries to make his way. He’s a predator, Snorkbait, and it’s a fool who trusts him.’ He got to his feet and headed up the ramp. ‘And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and have a piss.’
  22:00:32  18 April 2012
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
04/19/2012 19:31:15
Messages: 4290

---QUOTATION---
Chapter 42

Makinfeyev shook his head vigorously. ‘We’ve missed nothing.’

---END QUOTATION---



http://i.imgur.com/ZViCk.jpg

[ed: better image]
  13:21:19  18 April 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 47

Bonus chapter.

*****

The road stretched before us, a crumbling, breaking grey-ish thread through the sea of mottled browns and drab greens. Tufts of grass and the occasional colony of wild flowers sprouted up from cracks and chasms in the weathered tarmac.

‘Here is it,’ the guide said, left arm outstretched towards the tower blocks as if proudly presenting us with the Ideal Home in Hell.

‘Fucker looks like Lenin,’ Kev mumbled over the covert comms in our masks, before adopting a Madonna-ish voice.
‘Strike a pose.’

I tried not to laugh, failed, and tried to cover the sound by coughing as if clearing my throat. Kev was right. Our guide was a little heavier, maybe, and I was pretty sure Lenin had had his right arm outstretched on all the old Soviet bits and bobs, but thanks to the mostly-bald head and trim moustache there was a distinct resemblance. It probably explained why the bloke didn’t bother growing a beard.

‘Thank you,’ Nicola said, her tone ingratiating as she somehow managed to shake his hand and pay him off at the same time. ‘There’s a little extra there, too. For your...trouble.’

The guide looked her in the eye, seeming momentarily puzzled. Then the penny dropped.

‘Ah,’ he said, nodding and smiling broadly. ‘No need to worry, my friends! If anyone were to ask, I have neither seen nor heard of you in my life.’ He winked. ‘Not that anyone will ask.’

‘We thank you,’ Nicola said, her tone still humble and ingratiating, her head so low that she was almost bowing. The guide’s broad smile became a beam that he directed to each of us in turn. Our body language must have been awful, though, because the grin quickly died on his face.

‘I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for,’ he said, abruptly releasing Nicola’s hand.

‘I trust that cunt about as far as I can piss into a gale,’ Kev mumbled as the guide headed back down the road. He had no need to keep his voice down now; the guide was already out of earshot. The thing with Kev was, he mumbled everything. Even his wedding vows had been so mumbled as to be inaudible, and I’d been stood no more than a few feet away. The vicar had ended up asking him to repeat them. Twice.

‘That’s because you’re so paranoid you’re no longer able to accurately judge character,’ Nicola spat, whirling to face us. She wasn’t wearing a mask as we were, but she was wearing an earpiece so we could talk to her over the net. ‘And don’t think I didn’t hear you laughing at this idiot’s Lenin jibe,
Sergeant. Covert communications are not intended to enable you gentlemen to take the piss out of people without their knowledge.’

‘Oh, hello, the missus has gone off-res again, Stevo,’ London Mark muttered, peering at the roads and tower blocks of the abandoned city through the scope of his Dragunov.

Nicola’s nostrils flared. ‘No matter what you
think is happening between Sergeant Taylor and myself, Trooper, it is a) none of your business and b) nothing that makes any difference to the chain of command in the field. But in case it has to be spelt out for you, I am not Stephen’s “missus”. I am, however, in command of this patrol. Is that all clear enough for you, soldier?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ Mark droned without lowering the scope.

‘And don’t take that “Fuck you” tone with me,’ Nicola snapped. ‘Not unless you want to find yourself back with your parent unit peeling the fucking potatoes for the rest of your military career. Now lower that rifle and look at me. In fact, all of you look at me.’

We obeyed, but there was a reek of rebellion in the air. She was losing it – losing us – and I could only do so much to hold the men to her. The fact that our relationship was no real secret only weakened my position and I felt pissed off all over again for allowing myself to be compromised – especially as I knew I was being used. I had to be. A bird like that and a bloke like me? Yeah, right. All the invitations to London for the weekend and the “We need to discuss this” and “We have to plan that” and “Oh, would you like a drink?” bullshit had to have had one purpose in mind. And it had worked a treat. Hooked? She’d used a fucking harpoon on this tiddler.

‘Listen, the lot of you,’ she continued now, her grey eyes large and intense as she seemed to glare at each of us individually and all of us as a group at the same time. ‘I know you’re trained to be suspicious –’

‘Cautious,’ Kev corrected. ‘If opsec goes to the shitters, we tend to finish up dead.’

‘Yes,’ she nodded. ‘But be that as it may, we have to build solid alliances if we are to operate here. In order to achieve our mission –’

‘Which we naturally aren’t allowed to know and therefore have no fucking clue about,’ Mark put in.

Nicola put a hand to her forehead, exasperated. ‘Sergeant Taylor...’

‘Don’t interrupt, lads,’ I said. ‘She knows how we feel. Let her have her say.’

She looked directly into my eyes, her sense of shock and betrayal clear.
“We?” they seemed to say; “Is that the way of it? What about ‘us’?”

I frowned and looked at my feet for a couple of seconds.

‘That man,’ she said, pointing down the road at the increasingly distant figure of the guide, ‘has risked his life to bring us here. You saw for yourselves how many hostile patrols there were, and how he got us past them. You know what dangers we came safely past. The Ukrainians are an honourable people with a proud history, as are the Russians, as are most people if you bother to look past media stereotypes and if you bother to get some sort of education.’

I felt Kev and Mark tense on either side of me. ‘Nicola –’ I warned.

‘If we are to build alliances, we have to trust people here,’ she continued, ignoring the fact that I had spoken. ‘We can trust people here. Or does trust only extend to certain attractive blondes?’ She glared at me as she said this, challenging me on several levels.

Receiving no reply, Nicola turned and stalked towards the city, coming to a halt after a few metres and standing with her hands on her hips, head bowed.

Kev and Mark closed in to form a loose huddle as I turned to face them, all three of us removing our hoods and raising our masks so we could get some proper eye-to-eye.

‘She’s right, we do have to trust others,’ I said, then turned my head and nodded at the disappearing guide, ‘but you’re right as well, Kev; there’s something shonky about that bastard. Stay out of sight, but keep an eye on him. Mark, you too. Go back two hundred metres max and watch him for as long as you can. If our friend looks like he might be up to something, drop him. And both of you keep your eyes peeled for any of those brainwashed dumbfucks. I don’t like the idea of being surrounded by them.’

Audible sighs of relief. ‘What about you, Steve? What are you and Wonder Woman going to do?’

I shrugged. ‘Whatever she wants,’ I said. ‘But I’ll try to make sure we’re at least fifty metres outside the city until you report back.’

Nods all round, meeting over. Kev and Mark pulled their masks and hoods back down before peeling away to head up the road, taking opposite sides and pepperpotting from cover to cover.

‘Where are they off to?’ Nicola asked as I came to a halt next to her.

‘Just covering our rear,’ I said softly, raising my LR300 to look through the SUSAT at the city and the mass of vegetation between here and there. The ground rose about two hundred metres from our position with a concrete bridge cutting through the banked earth. It didn’t appear to be very wide; maybe a crossing over a brook or canal, though given the location, it could also have bridged a storm drain or sewage channel.

‘Bullshit,’ she muttered. ‘Even after all I’ve just said, none of you believe you can trust.’ I was aware of her staring at me even though I was still looking through the scope, and I eventually lowered the rifle and looked at her. ‘You believe least of all. You don’t even believe me.’ she whispered.

I looked down, suddenly finding the patch of filed metal that should have held the serial number and that still bore the legend
‘Fabrique en Belgique’ immensely interesting.

She sighed. ‘I hate this fucking job,’ she murmured. A raised hand. A quick sniff.

‘Nikki –’ I said, reaching for her.

She pulled away. ‘Forget it,’ she snapped, her tone cold but brittle, forced. ‘Come on. I’m not waiting for Dumb and Dumber to finish wanking each other or whatever it is you’ve really sent them to do. We’ll wait for them once we reach the city.’

‘I’m not sure that’s a good ide–’ I said, watching as she retrieved her own mask from her pack.

‘And I don’t care what you’re sure of and what you’re not. You don’t seem to know yourself, half the time. I’m in command here, and I say we’ll wait for them once we reach the city.’

She slipped the mask on and strode away, tugging at her hood roughly. Her sidearm – the only weapon she carried – remained in the holster at her hip.

‘For fuck’s sake, switch on,’ I grumbled, half to myself and half to her, then scanned the area one more time before blipping the radio transmit pressel in my glove four times:
On Me.

Pulling my own mask and hood back into place, I hurried after her. I had to keep her safe.
  13:12:28  18 April 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 46

Couple of days later than intended.

*****

‘Oh, Jesus fucking Christ,’ Evgeny moaned as I shuffled into the room. Knuckles, apparently ready to release a tirade, only gaped instead. Evgeny slid off the table he was perched on and took me by the arm. ‘Sit down. Let’s have a look at you.’

I lowered myself onto the knackered old sofa and tried to smile. I had to give up; it hurt too much.

‘So, Snorkbait’s decided to grace us –’ Sultan boomed, striding from his room with surprising speed. His eyes widened as he saw the state I was in, his words and feet coming to an abrupt halt an instant later. ‘What the hell’s happened to you?’

‘I had a little run-in with a bloodsucker,’ I said.

‘I’ll say,’ Evgeny muttered, inspecting the wounds. ‘Fucking thing damn near ripped half your face off.’

‘I didn’t think it was that bad,’ I said.

‘Oh, no, it’s not bad,’ he said, going on to mumble various expletives under his breath.

‘Would this tussle with the bloodsucker have taken place at the factory?’ Sultan asked. I got the feeling it was a rhetorical question. Their man in the watchtower would have been keeping an eye out at least. Most likely they’ve had someone watching from elsewhere, too, Blondie had said. It seemed she had been correct. Sultan raised an eyebrow, awaiting confirmation.

‘Yes,’ I said.

Evgeny tutted. ‘Boss, I need him to hold still while I look at these cuts. It’ll be best if he doesn’t need to talk.’

‘Can’t you just use your artefact?’ Knuckles asked.

‘I could,’ Evgeny admitted, ‘but he’d be left with some truly fucking horrible scars. The cheek’s going to scar anyway, but at least if I treat the wounds properly his face won’t end up looking like a relief map of the Urals.’

Sultan stared at me, seeming to chew his tongue as he thought. ‘Okay. I’ll try to ask simple yes or no questions. Snorkbait, you put your thumb up or down, right?’

I fought the immediate urge to nod and stuck my thumb up instead.

‘Good.’ Sultan paced the room, running a thick-fingered hand over his bald head. ‘I have Evgeny’s report. He tells me that there was no Military presence in or around the factory, and that the people you stayed behind to talk to were a combination of Stalkers and Duty, according to you. Is that correct?’

Dutifully, I put my thumb up and tried not to wince as Evgeny poked at one of my wounds and grimaced.

‘Since there has been no attack, am I also correct in assuming that this group was at the factory for some other purpose?’

Thumb up, and so it went on. Question after question: I must have had assistance following the attack; had it been one of the Stalkers? Yes. Had the Stalker stayed behind to give me new orders? No. Were they spying on you? Yes. On whose orders? Free Stalkers? No. Duty? Yes. Was there any danger of imminent attack? No. Was I sure? Yes.

Twenty minutes passed in this manner, with Sultan frequently breaking off to formulate new lines of inquiry and find ways to frame the questions so I could answer using just my thumb while Evgeny fiddled about with my face and muttered dark things to himself, but by the end of it Sultan seemed satisfied with the answers I’d provided and my cheek wound had been picked open, thoroughly cleansed, and treated against infection. Evgeny was now re-sewing my ravaged cheek, taking more time and far greater care than Blondie had.

‘So, Snorkbait, you’re sure that we’re safe here? This is no trick to get us to lower our guard?’ Sultan asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.

I put my thumb up.

‘Something must have happened to change their plan,’ Knuckles said.

Two lines appeared on Sultan’s forehead, a frown that wasn’t quite a frown. ‘Unless it was always a sham...but then, why go as far as they have? What purpose would it serve? Duty could have seized the Cordon and Garbage at any time.’

‘Co-operation,’ I mumbled. ‘Duty could have done it, but not without resistance.’

Evgeny made a hissing noise through his teeth and glared at me.

‘That’s true enough, Snorkbait...but I was just working it through. What I don’t understand is why they’d want those areas.’ He paced slowly to the window and back. ‘There’s something beneath all this – or at least, there was – and I’ll be damned if I can see what it is. Some pieces seem clear enough, but then...’

‘Maybe Jack knows something,’ Evgeny suggested as he finished his work on my cheek. ‘His people have better connections to the bigwigs in Kiev, or so he keeps saying. Let him prove it.’

‘Hm, maybe,’ Sultan murmured, pondering. ‘Tell Timo to pass another message to Jack’s people when you’re done here, Evgeny. Much as I hate to do so, it’s time we had another face-to-face.’

‘Will do, Boss,’ Evgeny said, still intently picking over my various cuts and scratches.

Sultan nodded curtly. ‘Knuckles.’

Sultan’s right-hand man immediately pushed himself away from the window frame and followed his boss into the other room, closing the door firmly behind them.

‘What are you looking for?’ I mumbled.

‘Ssh. Try not to speak yet,’ he said. ‘I’m checking these cuts for bloodsucker tissue. I have to make sure I don’t leave any in.’

Something froze in my chest. Why? I wanted to ask. What happens in any is left in me? Do I start turning into one of them?

‘Relax,’ he smiled, reading my concern through the sudden rigidity of my posture. ‘As far as I know, you won’t mutate...though I don’t know for certain that that’s not how it works. No. My biggest concern is that it’s alien tissue, a foreign body. As you heal, your body would naturally reject it, isolate it and fight it. It would create an infection, and that would be a problem even healing at the normal rate. Now you know what that Stone Blood of mine can do; imagine the problem an infection might cause with healing accelerated at such a rate.’ He moved his head away slightly to look me in the eye and raised his eyebrows. ‘I’d have to reopen the wound at the very least. Most likely, I wouldn’t realize how big a problem it was until it was too late, and then, my friend...’ He shrugged. ‘The best we could do is leave you outside somewhere and radio Duty so they could arrange your passage to the eggheads in Yantar. I think they’re mainly ecologists – research specialists and not actual doctors – but they’d be your last hope. If Sakharov couldn’t help you...’

‘Can I just say one thing?’ I asked. Evgeny nodded. ‘I’m glad you made it back okay.’

He smiled. ‘It’d take more than a few near-sighted Stalkers and Duty assholes to see me,’ he said.

‘Even so, you did well to avoid being spotted on the way back here.’

‘I thought you said you wanted to say one thing?’ He shook his head, smiling. ‘But if you must know, I didn’t go too far after leaving you.’

‘So you didn’t come straight here?’

Evgeny shook his head, and Blondie’s words echoed in my mind again. The Bandits had been watching me. And then I understood. Any mystery over why Sultan had chosen me for the recce instantly cleared. I tried to smile, but the stitches pulled and I let it drop.

You crafty old bastard, I thought.

‘He was making sure of me, wasn’t he? Sultan.’

A ghost of a smile. ‘He thought it best to make sure you weren’t playing both sides,’ he said. ‘The fact is, you and I were always going out this morning. The choppers just provided a convenient excuse. He wanted to see if you tried to get away or wanted to visit a particular location. Sure enough, you did – you hadn’t expected to meet that Stalker and Duty patrol, that much was clear, but...’

‘I did lurk around and go back inside the factory later on.’

He nodded. ‘Lucky for you I was close enough to hear most of what was said.’

‘You were? How? Where the hell were you?’

He laughed softly. ‘Ah, Snorkbait. How you underestimate us still. And me, even knowing what you’d already guessed about my past. In the end, I got back to report less than twenty minutes before you arrived. The boss knows all about your mystery blonde and can already guess what she wants –’

‘So you saw the bloodsuckers?’

He nodded.

‘And you heard the gunshots, but never came to help?’

He nodded again.

Why, for fuck’s sake?’

He shrugged. ‘I figured you’d either be okay, or you’d be dead. Besides, I saw your friend enter behind the ‘sucker –’

‘There were two.’

His eyebrows raised. ‘There were?’

‘Yes. Or so she told me. I have to admit I only saw the one, myself.’
He eyed the wounds again. ‘I’ll say. A proper close-up, too. You’re lucky. Not many get that close and survive.’

I sat in silence for a while longer, letting him get on with his work. ‘You really thought I’d be okay?’ I finally asked.

‘Yeah. That or dead, as I said. All I had to do was make sure I got back to tell Sultan the news, which is what I did once I knew the mutants had come off second best. Also, tell her she’s a messy cow who really needs to learn how to keep a better watch. You both do, come to that, seeing as I heard everything without you ever suspecting I was there.’
The sounds, the scraping of boots from above and the empty food can. The snicking/snickering sound I’d heard... First Blondie moving to circle around behind the mutants, then Evgeny trying not to laugh at me from his hiding place? Was it possible? He’d certainly had enough time to sneak into the factory, and maybe Blondie hadn’t seen him partly because he was that good and partly because she’d been busy eating at the time. All he’d have needed to do then is wait and time his movements. I could do nothing but applaud his efforts. It had been neatly done.

‘I still can’t believe you didn’t come to help,’ I said. ‘You could have done all this earlier.’

‘I didn’t know about the state you were in earlier. I was eavesdropping, Snorkbait, I never actually saw you. I knew you were hurt, but didn’t know how badly. If I had, I’d have found a safe way of making myself known and come to help.’ He dipped a clean ear bud into a thimble full of neat vodka. ‘Right, I have to reopen this last one a little. Hold still, now; this is going to sting.’
  00:06:08  9 April 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 45

‘Hold still, you baby.’

‘It hurts,’ I mumbled. It was the best I could do: my face hurt like hell whenever I tried to speak. ‘Fuck! That stings!’

‘That means it’s doing good,’ she replied. ‘Did you mother never tell you that?’

‘Yes. I never believed her, either.’

She made a faux-sympathetic noise before becoming serious. ‘You need help from someone who really knows what they’re doing,’ she said. ‘I’ve managed to get the two sides of the cheek together, but it’ll need cleaning and stitching properly. You’re lucky it wasn’t torn through.’

I nodded. It hurt like a bastard. I had to stop doing that for a while. ‘I know. Lucky old me, eh? I’ll get Evgeny onto it when I go back to the camp. He has some sort of magic blob of crap that heals wounds. It did wonders on my knee.’

She grunted. ‘Probably a Stone Blood. They’re quite common in these outlying parts.’ Something that felt cold on my scalp but hot in the cuts dabbed away at the top of my head. I knew she was fighting the urge to ask. Eventually, her curiosity won out. ‘What had happened to your knee?’

‘I banged it jumping into that tree,’ I said, pointing through the doorway at the wind-and-rain-lashed culprit. ‘Then I fell and fucked it up even more.’

At least she tried not to laugh. She failed miserably, but at least she tried. ‘Yes, a Stone Blood would have been sufficient for such an injury,’ she said once she’d had her giggle at my expense. ‘When did this happen?’

I checked my watch. It was broken, the face smashed. The LCD display remained blank even when I tapped it. Another replacement item to add to the list.

‘Yesterday,’ I said.

She laughed again, more openly. The few snorks that were still wandering down below snarled their disapproval, but did no more. For some reason they didn’t seem as aggressive as they had been following the Blowout.

‘I’m sure he’ll be glad to let you borrow the artefact again so soon,’ she said, her fingers continuing to probe through my hair and behind my ears for more wounds, though by this time she’d surely found everything down to the tiniest scratch. ‘But maybe you ought to think about finding one of your own.’

I grimaced, but not for long. My cheek felt as if it were aflame. ‘Easy enough for you to say. You probably know all the best places to go looking, what with being an artefact smuggler and all.’

She stopped her meticulous search of my scalp and began packing the medical kit away again, her movements sharp and abrupt.

‘Have I pissed you off or something?’

‘No,’ she lied. ‘I’m done. What do you want me to do? Kneel there running my hands over your head all day?’

I sighed. ‘Tell me what I said wrong and I’ll apologize,’ I said.

She settled back on her haunches. ‘It’s nothing,’ she murmured. ‘It’s just... That was all a mistake. That part of my life is over.’ She chuckled bitterly. ‘Like so many other parts.’

I looked at her, pressing my lips together, wanting to say something but not knowing what.

‘They left me, you know,’ she continued, her voice not much more than a whisper. ‘Those people... They left me behind.’

‘At the cabin?’

She shook her head. ‘No. Later. I wasn’t strong enough to run, really. They had waited longer than they should have, so the patrol found us before we could get through the swamp. There’s an old track – one of many in The Zone – that many believe to be blocked off. Some even think the swamps themselves are inaccessible now, though they aren’t...as you also know.’

I thought back to my night-time trek towards the rookie camp, remembering the marsh stink, the undulating ground and the hum of anomalies in the dark, the sense that I’d stepped into a world where danger was constant and death a mere step away... No, they weren’t inaccessible; you just had to be mad to want to go there.

‘This track would have led, eventually, to other paths. The one we needed would have led to the area around the old research institute. The military use it as a base now – or at least they did until recently. They’re probably still there. Anyway, once we got that far, we would have been safe. Unfortunately for us, the helicopter found us before we could get fully out of the swamps.’

I frowned. I remembered air patrols being mentioned, but I hadn’t seen or heard any on my way to the rookie camp. Of course there had been the foot patrol that Wolf had managed to shield me from, but that seemed to have been a direct response to my race across the open ground. I’d started to think the report of heli patrols had been made up just so they could send me on my way.

Blondie caught the look on my face. ‘You didn’t know about the gunships?’

‘I know there were supposed to have been patrols at dawn, but I thought they must have been cancelled or something. I didn’t see or hear any sign of them.’

She shook her head, smiling sadly. ‘They weren’t cancelled. Or at least, one of them wasn’t.’

I frowned again, remembering. ‘I don’t understand. Things were already being packed up when I had my arse kicked out the door. If I had time to pick my way over to the rookie camp...’

‘They would have been gone well before dawn, but they waited for me to recover. My injuries... Let’s put it this way, no mere Stone Blood was
going to help me. From what I was told before... From what I was told, it was a miracle I survived. The blood loss alone was bad enough, but I was also...’ Her words trailed off again. Her eyes had taken on a distant, haunted look. She’d been damaged in the past; she’d told me as much before we’d got near The Zone. But she had also had a vitality to her, a brightness that seemed now to have fled – or at least peeked out only occasionally. Whatever abyss she’d been looking into since we’d last seen each other, it had certainly looked long and hard into her. ‘They did their best, back at the cabin,’ she continued. ‘It wasn’t really their fault that I couldn’t keep pace.’

My cheek itched and I raised my hand to scratch it, only just stopping myself from doing so in time. I’d asked to see the wound and she’d refused. I took that as a sign that I wasn’t at my most beautiful, and I didn’t need to cause myself more pain and trauma by sinking my fingers into flesh that resembled the profile of the Sydney Opera House.

‘I wanted to stay with you,’ I said. ‘I wanted to make sure you were...you know. Alive. But I wasn’t allowed to.’

‘Let me guess, some variation on “We take care of our own”.’

‘Something like that,’ I agreed.

She snorted and muttered something under her breath as she stood and stalked over to the windows, coming to a halt some metres inside the room. She was still standing too close to the edge, though, even with the falling rain to obscure her silhouette.

‘Look...why so negative?’ I demanded. ‘You’ve just said they did everything they could, and that they should have gone way before they finally did. It seems to me like they risked themselves to give you every chance.’

She turned and glowered at me. ‘Only because they wanted information, answers about you, about my outside supply lines... The interrogation went on even as we tried to escape. “How did you meet that guy?”, “Are you sure you weren’t followed from Kiev?”, “I need you to tell me who to contact here or there”, all kinds of shit. They’d asked me back at the cabin, too, only I’d been too weak to answer; I kept coming to and passing out again. I needed time, and they gave me just enough.’ She shook her head. ‘I’d worked with those guys for a long time. They kept me alive and waited for me to be strong enough to stand a chance and I thought they’d done that because they saw me, valued me, as a friend and colleague. I thought the questions were fair enough – a little odd, perhaps, in their urgency – but understandable, especially where you were concerned. For example, had kicking you out been a mistake? Would you have been an asset to the group in the end?’ She stared at a point somewhere between her feet and mine. ‘I answered as best I could, then the attack happened. Marek, the medic...I saw him die. I still had his artefacts on my belt, a Soul and a Meat Chunk. Afterwards, when they had their answers and the foot patrol had started closing in, the artefacts were taken from me and the group picked up the pace and just...walked away, leaving me behind.’

I picked a pebble-sized chunk of concrete from a crack in the floor, no longer able to look at her in case she saw something in my eyes – doubt, pity, both of which were among the stew of emotions I was feeling – and clammed up.

‘So how did you come to be here? How did you get away from the patrols?’ I asked.

She shrugged and came back to where I sat, slumping down against the wall beside me. ‘I was still weak, tired from the effort already. I moved away, hid, and kept quiet. I heard voices sometimes – soldiers, mainly, but also a few Stalkers who must have heard the fight and come scavenging; they don’t always wait until they know it’s safe, they can’t afford to – but I never came close to being found. I know some parts of The Zone well enough, even though most of my life was lived on the outside. Luckily I already had a suit from the cabin’s stockpile. The mask, however, came from a soldier I found. It was just lying by his body, so...’ I heard her shrug again, the sound of fabric-covered Kevlar plates scraping against the wall.

‘And the shotgun?’

‘Traded. I had a G.36, but almost no ammo. At the same time, I had literally stumbled over an old stash containing a lot of slug- and shot-cartridges, but had no shotgun for them to go in. First thing I did after working my way to the Garbage was trade. One of the Stalkers at the old train depot had plenty of 5.56 ammo stashed away somewhere, but wasn’t interested in trading it for shotgun shells. What he wanted was the G.36. After some wrangling and the help of a third party, we had a deal and I had my shotgun. Which, as it turns out, was lucky for us both; those bloodsuckers would have killed us both had I managed to hang onto the ’36.’

‘Yeah, about them,’ I said. ‘Where the fuck did they come from? There was no sign of them when I came in, and I can’t believe they were lurking on the other side of the barrels.’

‘They weren’t. And actually, they did follow you in, but only after you’d checked the yard.’

‘Where the hell had they come from, then? When I checked outside there was no sign of them.’

‘Well, that culvert –’

‘Was empty.’

‘Sure?’

‘Positive. I had a good look and even threw a stone in there just in case. There was no distortion, no reaction, nothing.’

‘And yet they must have followed you from somewhere.’

‘Didn’t you see where they came from?’

She laughed lightly. ‘Sorry. I only had eyes for you.’

‘Spying on me.’

‘Yes. At least, Sergeant Makinfeyev thought so.’

‘You know Makinfeyev?’ I said, surprised.

‘Yes, and no. When I got to the Garbage, I found the place was in some kind of lockdown. I also found myself drafted by some over-zealous Duty type as I tried to head for the Hundred Rads. “No” wasn’t an option with him. Makinfeyev asked for more bodies to be sent his way, volunteers were called for, and that was that: I found myself on the trail with a guy called Bullet and some other big lug with a few scores to settle.’

‘And you had no idea that I was here?’

She shifted beside me. ‘I’d heard about a Merc going by the name of Snorkbait being sent to the Valley when Colonel Petrenko issued orders that you were to be shot if you tried to get past any checkpoints before your exile was up. I guessed that had to be you, so I had the idea of just waiting around until you were free to roam again before sort-of bumping into you on whichever road you chose out of here. Imagine how surprised I was when I realized it was you who Makinfeyev and that Stalker, Fyodor, were talking to. I knew from all the chatter that no one in Duty trusts you now, so when I volunteered to hang back and keep an eye on you, Makinfeyev jumped at the chance.’

‘Why?’

She shrugged. ‘They’re convinced you’re up to something or that you’ll try to slip away, and Makinfeyev is one paranoid asshole. I played on that when Fyodor tried saying you were no threat. I told Makinfeyev he needed someone to watch you in case you were up to something. It doesn’t take much to make Makinfeyev see Bandits everywhere around here.’

‘But…why would you bother?’

‘Because I needed to speak with you,’ she said.

‘What about? Why wait here? Why not come and speak with me outside?’

‘Are you mad? I don’t want anyone else to see us, Stalkers, Duty or Bandits…and the Bandits will have been watching you, you know. Their man in the watchtower would have been keeping an eye out at least. Most likely they’ve had someone watching from elsewhere, too. Had I approached you on the old bus, the Bandits would have become extremely suspicious. It might even have looked as though I was giving you secret orders. Given the mask and style of suit, they might even have thought I was Military. That would have been very bad for you, when you went back.’

‘What if I hadn’t gone near the bus? What if I’d gone back to the base?’
‘Then I’d have gone back to Plan A and waited a few days before tracking you down. As it was, once you went and sat on the bus, I knew you’d be coming here.’

I looked at her in surprise. ‘You did? How come?’

She turned to look at me, smiling. ‘Because I know you’re after a sniper, and I also know who and where that sniper is.’

My stomach plunged. ‘You’re not going to tell me it’s you?’

‘Of course it’s not me!’ She leaned closer. ‘It’s…’ she began, then leaned away again.

Who?

She smirked. ‘I’ll tell you when you get me to Pripyat.’

I sprang to my feet. My head swam. I clearly wasn’t ready for moving too energetically just yet. ‘For fuck’s sake –’

‘You take me to Pripyat, I’ll tell you about the sniper.’

‘At least tell me where,’ I said, exasperated. ‘Is he here? Did he escape? Is he alive, dead? Come on. Give me something!’

She inclined her head. ‘Pripyat first,’ she insisted. ‘There’s nothing you can do anyway.’

‘So he’s dead?’

She shrugged. ‘I’ll tell you more later. You’re not ready right now.’

‘What the fuck is that supposed to mean?’

‘What I say,’ she said. ‘After you’ve been to Pripyat, you’ll know more. You’ll understand. Then you will be ready.’

‘Cut the fucking Yoda bullshit and tell me!’

‘Pripyat,’ she said simply, looking up at me with wide eyes. ‘You need to see certain things if you are to understand what I still have to tell you. For that you need to go with me to Pripyat. I need you to take me there, too; that was why I had to save you. I could have stayed up here and been safe, but…’

I sighed and sat back down, frustrated at having the answers so close, but knowing that she would never tell me until she was ready. What else could I do, beat it out of her?

‘Why didn’t you stay up here? Surely you could get anyone to take you to Pripyat? Christ, you’d end up with half a battalion wanting to go with you just after taking your mask off –’

‘And there’s part of the problem,’ she said. ‘I’d never make it to Pripyat. The deeper parts of The Zone are not places for women to tread lightly. It can be bad enough in the quieter parts, but at least there is a sort of safety in numbers. Usually. From what I hear, there have been exceptions. In The Zone, women need to be strong and able to look after themselves…but sometimes even this is not enough, and that’s when powerful allies come in useful. It may not surprise you to learn that this applies to men also. It’s less common, and of course the traders and senior Stalkers try to keep some sort of order, backed up by Duty…but their influence only stretches so far. I know I can trust you. You won’t rape me, cut my throat, steal my stuff and ditch my body in an anomaly as we try to find a path through the Red Forest. Others most likely would.’ She eyed me speculatively. ‘Besides, it has to be you for other reasons. As I said before, there are things you need to see if you are to understand.’

I tried not to frown and failed. Hot bars of pain ripped across my damaged cheek. ‘Understand what?’

She smiled faintly and inclined her head. ‘Everything.’
  02:35:08  28 March 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
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Chapter 44

Turning, I sprinted back to the hatch and slid down the ladder. There was no doubt in my mind as to the identity of the shotgun-wielding Stalker, nor did I waste time and energy wondering about how they’d managed to slip behind me – there had to be many ways to escape from the roof, not just the one I’d found – or for what purpose. For now, all that mattered was that they were in trouble and I was there to help out.

Another roar sounded as I reached the top of the stairs and I slowed. Thanks to Rusty I knew a pissed-off bloodsucker when I heard one. I also knew the bastard could be anywhere, especially in this gloom.

The shotgun roared back; once, twice, three times, the reports deafening in the enclosed space yet still distinct enough for me to realize they were still around the corner, not yet having approached the turn.

I descended the stairs, trying to be quick and methodical at the same time as my eyes searched for the slightest hint of hidden or distorted movement, and had just jumped down the last couple of steps when the inevitable happened – a bloodsucker, bleeding from numerous wounds, ran around the corner.

It was hard to know which of us was more surprised as we tangled and hit the ground, but I swear I saw the mutant’s eyes widen and tentacles splay in an expression that could only be ‘What the fuck?’ There was no question about which of us recovered fastest, though: the look that may or may not have been surprise was immediately replaced by one of anger and dangerous intent as it rolled on top of me, pinning me to the ground. The tentacles parted fully as it roared and began to lower its head towards me.

‘Fuck off!’ I screamed, thrashing beneath it as it writhed to gain a position of dominance, flailing wild punches into its midriff and the side of its head, bringing my knees up sharply as I tried to connect with any part that might cause it pain.

One of the ‘sucker’s claw-like hands closed around my throat while the other bega to lash back at me, the fingers slapping and slashing at the arm I’d raised to protect myself as the thing tried to focus its attack on my face and eyes. My head had already taken a solid whack and my cheek felt funny. I could feel blood running and the smell of it was driving the ‘sucker crazy, its efforts doubling again as it entered a feeding frenzy. My mind was a seething red stream of horror. This was Death, right here, and more than that, it was absolute terror. It was Dracula and the Bogeyman and Ginny Greenteeth and the witch in the gingerbread house and the real reason why your parents locked the house up at night all rolled into one, and you could only react to the waking nightmare one way: instinctively. Everything else was closed down. The single thought – encapsulated by, but by no means adequately defined by the word – ‘No!’ shrieked through every fibre of my being. My training...that had fled with everything else.

The fingers were tightening further around my throat. I could feel the thing’s breath on my cheek and the side of my neck and I knew I was going to die. The lights were already dimming; pretty soon they’d wink out altogether, and it was okay, fine, whatever. I was on the way out and there was nothing I could do to stop it. At least it was going to be relatively quick if not entirely painless.

And then there came a detached voice, the part of you that remains forever separate and aloof, watching things as if from a great distance.

This is how she would have felt, it said. This is what happened to Svetlana.

I opened my eyes, not even realizing until I did so that they had shut. The bloodsucker loomed over me, the splaying tentacles now so close that my eyes couldn’t focus on them, the luminous white eyes enormous and mesmerizing in proximity. Cold rage poured through me, first quelling and then smothering the fires of panic.

Fight! a hard, insistent voice demanded. If you’re going, at least fuck this thing up on the way.

‘I said. Fuck. Off!’ I growled, my voice rising to a yell as I reached up and jabbed my left thumb deep into its right eye, continuing to push even when the mutant screeched and tried to back away as its eyeball burst under the pressure. The fingers of its left hand constricted around my throat again while the right thrashed even harder against my head and shoulders, and I grabbed the thing’s left wrist with my free hand. Too late, it realised what I was about to do, and it screamed as I pulled my thumb from its eye-socket, grasped the wrist with both hands, and applied the lock. Forcing it off me, controlling it so I could finally stand, I twisted hard and felt bones first bow and then snap. The ‘sucker, screeching in agony but still struggling gamely as anger gave it another surge of energy, slumped as I kicked it hard behind the knee. My heart was racing and I was covered in sweat and blood. The massive surge of adrenalin my body had given me to fight impending death had already been used up. I was knackered already; before long I wouldn’t be able to hold on, the bloodsucker’s frantic strength and greater stamina would win out. When that happened, I was dead.

‘Hold it! Hold it still!’ a muffled voice said from my right.

I turned my head enough to see the half-anticipated green mask and bloodstained outfit. Green Mask ratcheted the shotgun and I shifted to the side, nodding that I was ready even as the bloodsucker bellowed its defiance. Stepping forward, the Stalker rammed the barrel of the shotgun between the tentacles and into what passed for the mutant’s mouth. The Mossberg boomed, blood, brain and other matter plumed against the wall, and I released the dead mutant’s arm, the adrenalin-fuelled rage finally and suddenly draining away. I felt sick to my stomach and my knees folded under my own weight. I let them buckle and slumped down against the wall, running a hand through my hair and gaping at it in disbelief when it came away covered in a thick red glove of blood. I already knew that I had been hurt, but I’d clearly taken a heavier beating than I’d realized.

‘I’m bleeding,’ I mumbled in English, having to fight hard against the urge to sleep as Green Mask crouched beside me. ‘I’m bleeding.’

My companion kept trying to pull me upright. Strange, alien sounds poured out of the mask, but I couldn’t get any of them to make sense due to the high-pitched whistly -whiney noise in my ears. I could feel myself growing weaker and parts of my brain were trying to shut down. An arm kept trying to snake around me, and I shoved it away as best I could, finally moving my hand to the Stalker’s chest as I summoned all the resistance I could. Green Mask slapped my hand away, hitting me with more of the rapid-fire waffle at even higher speed.

My povynni vyyty tut. Tse ne bezpechno!

I shook my head.

Vstavay!’ the Stalker yelled close to my ear, though the voice remained somehow distant.

‘Leave...me,’ I mumbled. ‘I’ll be...in a minute.’

Hands gripped the front of my jacket. Small hands. Tiny hands compared to my ham hocks. I stared down at them, trying to smile. It hurt far too much.

Vstavay! Pazhalusta vstavay! Stara laboratoriya spovnana snorks!’

I looked up, staring into the mask’s reflective lenses as that one word got through. ‘Snorks?’

‘Yes, yes! Snorks! Vstavay! My povynni vyyty tut!’ Green Mask babbled, standing suddenly and taking a couple of steps away, keeping watch over the workshop. ‘The old lab povzaty z nymy.

I frowned, trying to figure out why I could get some words but not others. ‘Help me up,’ I said in English. A smallish hand grabbed my outstretched one and helped me haul myself to my feet. ‘My rifle?’

The Stalker pointed to the spot a few metres away where the L.85 had landed after I’d tangled with the bloodsucker. My head throbbed and pounded when I bent over to pick it up.

Fucked. Lost blood. Lots of it. Did it get me? Don’t think so. No. Be dead if it had. Probably from where it hit me. Deep? Doesn’t matter. Hurts. Need help.

I shook my head tentatively and immediately wished I hadn’t. I looked over at Green Mask, only now noticing the relative lack of height and the way the armoured suit hung oddly in places. No wonder she hadn’t been able to pick me up, I had to weigh twice as much as she did. It also explained why my hand had been slapped away from her chest.

‘Now what?’ I asked. One finger pointed up. She took two quick steps sideways, towards me, towards the stairs. Again the finger jabbed upwards. I went, moving as quickly as I felt able. I still felt drained and my knees issued repeated warnings of betrayal, and of course I was still bleeding, but at least I’d started to recover some of my senses. That much was evident from the way I could now understand what it was she’d been saying just now: We had to get out of here. It wasn’t safe. I had to get up. There were snorks in the old lab, it was full of them.

That’s good enough for me, I thought as we made our way quickly to the hatch and the short climb to safety – though that was a problem in itself right now.

‘I’m not going to be able to make that,’ I said. Just looking at the ladder gave me an attack of vertigo.

Sighing audibly even with the mask, Green Mask snatched the rifle from my grasp and handed me the shotgun instead, before proceeding to climb the ladder.

‘Come on,’ she said, setting my rifle aside and reaching through the hatch. ‘Weapon first, then you.’

It was embarrassing how much effort it took to climb that ladder. It was even more embarrassing to realize that I’d never have made it without her help. From below came the sound of snorks roaring and hissing as they investigated the commotion.

‘Thanks,’ I gasped, knocking the ladder away once more and rolling over to stare up at the sky.

‘No problem,’ she panted, her voice clearer after apparently removing the mask. ‘God, you’re a lump. Goddamn fat westerner.’

I started laughing, realization only sinking in after a while. I turned my head to the side and saw her. Glacial eyes. Pure blonde hair. ‘It can’t be!’

Blondie smiled her hundred megawatt smile. ‘I believe in English you say “We’re even”.’
 
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