| 19:07:34 2 November 2011
On forum: 12/07/2008
Message edited by:
“Why would they have this?” Blackjack was asking, half to himself.
“To use it?” Ogre ventured.
“They'd have broken it down in smaller packs if they planned on using it,” Nikolay answered. “I think they had it wrapped up like that for a trade.”
“And who would they be dealing with...” Mystery was thinking. He knew that there were passages and corridors underneath them, crammed with rusting machinery, anomalies and other dangers, but still, he felt as if there was something else down here that was important to him in particular. And his spotty memory still did not stretch that far.
“Let's take it anyway. We can trade it ourselves,” Sataida proposed.
“But what if we're caught with it?” Screws objected.
“Hellooo? There's no cops here, it's the Zone, remember?” She retorted mockingly.
“Yeah, let's see how you pitch that argument to a Duty patrol,” he shot back with an edge. He had gotten ahold of himself and decided that he had been weak for too long. Plus, if he indeed wanted to get her –and the pangs on his chest whenever he turned towards her were strong signals in that regard–, acting meek was not going to help.
“We're not on Duty territory,” Blackjack interceded. “Yet. But still, it may be useful as a bargaining chip of sorts. Maybe one we can use to bribe our way out of trouble sometime.”
“I concur.” Hunter's agreement was flat and dry. Ogre nodded and stowed it on his own backpack carefully.
“What would it be worth here?” The giant pondered.
“Not much, probably... Even if they're quite widespread here, Jellyfishes can't be grown anywhere. Drugs can,” Maxim reasoned.
“Got a point, there.”
Hunter searched the unconscious bandit thoroughly. He found the usual assortment of ammo, food, cheap cigarettes, a smartphone with a set of headphones, and a Flash artifact. “Here,” he said to Ogre, “have it for the moment. You have the heaviest load.”
The giant shrugged and smirked. “Not going to argue, there.”
The mobile phone he handed over to Sataida, who skillfully navigated it. “There's a voice log of sorts here... no, wait. There are several. It's going to take some time...”
“Then get on with it, girl.” Ogre gave her an affectionate smack with one of his massive hands. “What about him? We leave him there?”
“We're not going to drag him across the whole place, are we?” Mystery asked rhetorically.
This time, Blackjack and Mystery took point, Hunter closely behind them; Sataida and Screws were in the middle, while Ogre closed the march. They all wore their masks and protective gear, and it was a good thing they did that because the fumes only got worse as they slowly climbed down the creaking spiral staircase.
And still, when the walls around the staircase opened into a wide corridor crammed everywhere with churning greenish clouds, the distant echoes of high-pitched shrieks could be heard.
“Rodents,” Blackjack whispered. “Stay sharp.”
No one replied. There was no need. They all clutched their weapons with tense hands, with the usual exception of Hunter, who held a throwing knife on each hand almost carelessly.
It was obvious that the anomaly-plagued corridor was too narrow for people to walk side by side, so Mystery took point, followed by Hunter and Blackjack. The amnesiac stalker found it was easier for him to navigate these places not by thinking, but merely by reacting instead; habits he did not know he had made him look around some corners but not around some others, ignoring some places and taking extra precautions near others, as if he already knew where to expect danger. Behind him, Hunter noticed his increasing confidence and followed closely.
Upon reaching a doorway leading to another room, Mystery stopped and raised a bunched fist. Everyone stopped in turn. He listened and watched, again out of long-dormant habit, but nothing perturbed their tense wait other than the muffled screeches of the rodents somewhere deep inside the catacombs and the bubbling of the anomalies. When he was satisfied, he set on again; this room was also chock-full with fuming greenish clouds, and whatever machinery that once had been there was now reduced to formless piles of liquid metallic slag. Only the anomalies lit the hall, and the place was a chaotic dance of shadows and greenish lights as bubbles popped and hissed.
Then again, he rose a hand, and everyone stopped to hear the staccato of automatic fire, followed by high-pitched squeals. There was people down there, and it was not unexpected. Rats everywhere scuttled around for refuge.
Blackjack signaled Mystery to move on, that he kept him covered. Hunter was now wielding the decrepit assault rifle they had taken from the bandit, a battered AK-74, and was also looking down the hall through its sights.
Something roared somewhere down the tunnels, and they all readied themselves for another bloodsucker, but what darted into the room via a doorway on the other end, running in desperation, was a masked soldier, who paled upon seeing the stalkers ready to shoot. Then the roar repeated itself, louder than before. Mystery spotted the blur behind him and raised his AKM: “GET DOWN!”
The soldier immediately got to the ground. Hunter got off the first shot, but it was irrelevant: the mutant was literally chewed down to mincemeat by the barrage of five assault rifles.
“Come, get closer, we aren't going to shoot you,” Maxim invited. The serviceman did not need to be asked twice; quickly he stood up and approached. “You're hurt?”
“God, no! Thank you a lot, you've just saved my sorry ass... but hey, you know you're not going to get a warm welcome down these halls, do you?” The voice was soft, still unbroken by age; probably the soldier was very young.
Mystery quickly warmed up to him. “Well, we're kind of experts in, say, shotgun diplomacy,” he stated with a smirk.
“That won't save you. The things around here aren't about listening, if you get my meaning.”
“Thanks for the heads-up,” Ogre said. “But...” They all looked at each other. Telling the soldier what they were looking for was out of the question.
“You may find some, er, artifacts down here, maybe, but it's dangerous as hell,” the soldier warned. “I, for one, don't want to spend another minute down here. I'm outta here.”
“You're deserting?” Sataida asked in disbelief.
The soldier sought the female voice and stared at her apoplectically. “What? A girl, here? Are you insane? You know what they do to girls here?” Sataida said nothing, but her eyes flashed fiercely behind her gas mask in defiance.
“We've been trying to convince her of that... but well, she's headstrong.” Ogre shook his head.
“I wouldn't bring her into the base. The bunch up there are all criminals in disguise.”
“We weren't thinking of parading her around,” Screws joked, glancing at her. His heart swelled when he saw her grin beneath her mask. “But why are you deserting?”
The soldier drooped his shoulders. “I've been posted down here every day since I arrived. Everyone who gets stuck with guard duty here kicks the bucket sooner or later, there are a lot of uncharted rooms and passages and there's dangerous things all around. And I've outlasted everyone else so far, twice over at that. I guess I've pushed my luck long enough. ” He snorted hatefully. “I've overheard there's bets being placed on who lasts longer, or something. Someone in command would cash in big time if some mutant got me.” He glanced quickly over them all. “Or if some stalker did... So, you see...”
Mystery expressed his sympathy. “Some fellows you got, huh.”
Blackjack put their minds back into their task: “How many soldiers are up there?”
“Up in the base? Say, around forty or fifty men around.” The soldier watched them all carefully. “What, you planning to storm the base?”
“Is there a way?”
“Well, there's a hatch on the other side of these tunnels that leads straight into a backyard, but it's kept guarded; that's how we get down here. But they'll hear you coming; there are sentries posted everywhere. And if push comes to shove they can always radio in for helicopters.”
Ogre swore under his breath. “This just keeps getting better and better.” He turned hopelessly to Blackjack.
“Oh, stop worrying on my account!” Sataida hissed.
“If they're the gangsters in disguise you say they are, you think there'd be someone interested in this?” Maxim signaled to the giant, who produced the package from his backpack.
The soldier shook his head. “No, not that I know of. I mean, maybe, it wouldn't come as a surprise. I know there's someone smuggling in liquor, but how do they do it, hell, I don't know.” He again stared at them each, one by one. “Are you really, really sure you want to go in there? I mean, there's nothing of value there, other than a poorly stocked armory... but maybe you know something I don't,” he added.
“If we told you, we'd have to kill you.” Everyone smirked at Screws' remark; it seemed straight out of an espionage novel.
“Yeah, figured as much.” Then the soldier's face lit up. “Hey, maybe I can help you after all. I mean, you are going to sneak in, right?” Nobody replied openly. “I guessed as much. Listen up, after nightfall the patrols pull back and everyone goes to the barracks to sleep or play dice or get drunk, save a token few who get posted as tower guard or gate sentries. At least one of the command staff, though, remains on the second floor of the main building, every night.”
Ogre allowed himself a cautious smile. “What kind of army discipline is that?”
“None, why do you think I'm leaving?” The soldier asked rhetorically. “Someone wants to turn me into a pile of cash, and because they can't they keep bullying me. They hate to lose their bets against me every night. That's some exemplary... er... esprit de corps, was it?” His French was blatantly mispronounced and heavily accented, but it was clear enough. And it distilled bitterness.
Blackjack nodded, in part to conceal both the relief and the indignation that had surged within him. “It's the best you can do, to get out of here, then. When does the next watch start?”
“Around 0300 hours, give or take. As of late my reliefs have been arriving well past 4 AM.” The youth did not need to clarify why.
Hunter, who for the most part had kept a watchful eye out for mutants and other soldiers, spoke up dryly. “We are most grateful for your help. Now, if you will only join us until we are done, we will set you up properly to make a living as a stalker. It's either that, or being tied up to some pipe. Your choice.”
Most of the group, Mystery and Ogre in particular, were surprised and somewhat disappointed at the icy stalker's treatment of their informer, but it made sense. As easily as he had told about his fellows, the soldier could have a pang of guilt and report their presence, which would of course ruin everything. The serviceman was surprised and angry for a moment, and was about to rudely tell Hunter where he could stick it, but a quick glance at the stalker's readiness changed his mind. He wet his lips, both anger and understanding written in his eyes. “Well, I see your point. I'm coming with you. It beats being tied up to a pipe, I guess.”
Hunter smirked coolly. “Good choice. Here, come with me. We have your payment right here. Blackjack, if you will please...?”
“Of course.” Maxim unslung his backpack and produced the spare black armor suit he had taken from the Monolith dead, back at the rookie village. “Here, put this on.” Silently he complimented the quick thinking of his comrade; if he was dressed like him, it would make it much harder for the soldier to switch sides if their plan – if they had a plan at all – soured up. “You can have my spare rifle until you get one yourself.” That said, he handed him his own SCAR and a few clips, which the now former soldier took unconvincingly. Blackjack was about to ask why he did not have a rifle, but he guessed the bloodsucker he had escaped from had something to do with it. “What is your name, if I may ask?”
“Er... it's Boris.” The transition from soldier to deserter to stalker was going much faster than he had anticipated or was comfortable with, and it showed.
“You will need an alias. Everyone has one here. That one is Hunter; I'm Blackjack. They are Ogre, Mystery, Sataida and Screws.” He pointed at each of them, who saluted him in turn.
“Alright, that's settled then,” Hunter said with finality. “Boris, you stay with Ogre. And keep your eyes sharp.”
They all set on again, Mystery on point, Blackjack and Hunter slightly behind him. Sataida and Screws followed them, then Boris and Ogre. The giant gave him a friendly nudge. “Don't you worry,” he whispered. “He may seem mean, but if you get on his good side he's never letting you down.”
“Yeah, well...” Boris sighed. “It's that...”
“Quiet,” was Mystery's reprimand. “You can cuddle later. I don't want any of his dear mates to hear us.”
They passed by the dead bloodsucker, whose bleeding carcass had attracted over a dozen rats and gigantic cockroaches that were fighting over the remains. They turned left, and found themselves in another barely lit corridor that ran to their left and right. The ghastly green light given by the many chemical anomalies was distorted by the shimmer of very hot air, whichever way they looked.
Mystery gulped. “Burners.”
“Fantastic.” Blackjack turned to Boris. “I take that you know a way?” He was about to say that he had just ran across that gauntlet to escape the bloodsucker, but the gleam in his eye was enough.
The young soldier nodded. Whether he noticed Maxim's unspoken mind or not, he did not say. “Yeah. Which way?” Maxim signaled left with his rifle. “Follow me, then... Step exactly where I step and you will be fine. Don't turn on your lamps.”
It seemed that his story was true, because with complete confidence he worked their way through the stifling hot maze, his steps never faltering; there he stepped slightly to his left, and there again he turned right, and here he walked straight on, almost brushing the deadly green fumes in doing so.
“You must have had quite some time on your hands, to have mapped them so thoroughly,” Mystery whispered, in part to compliment him, in part to conceal his growing uneasiness. He remembered vividly these corridors now, and was certain that he had walked them well over a hundred times, but the burner anomalies were new. And he knew that there was a parallel corridor a few meters to their right, connected to this one via passageways and a room.
Boris swelled with pride. “You bet. I've killed more mutants by using anomalies than by shooting at them. You know, bloodsuckers are almost insensitive to these acid greenish things, but fire kills them just the same.”
“Good to know,” Blackjack noted, as discreetly.
“Do these anomalies shift their positions?” Mystery inquired in a whisper.
“All the time.”
The corridor reached its end; there, a narrower passage led to a barely visible stairway, and a doorway to their right led into a darkened room with another doorway directly opposite. The amnesiac stalker turned right, leading them with ever more confidence as the veils on his memory crumbled away, and found himself in the mirror corridor he expected. His steps grew faster, now certain that he was near somewhere important, and stopped by an open duct on the wall to their left, waist-high; it was wide enough for a man to crawl in it. A ladder was dimly visible on the other end.
“What is it, Mystery?”
He did not answer. Instead, he got rid of his backpack and was about to climb into the hole, but Hunter overrode him. The silent stalker crawled along the duct, reached the ladder, and started to climb cautiously, his senses primed...
Halfway he stopped, smelling fresh air coming from above. That brief stop saved him: his hand hovered in midair almost over a tripwire. Very carefully, almost delicately, his left index finger followed the copper wire to an almost invisible concussion charge, expertly placed behind one of the ladder's arms. For an instant, Hunter considered disarming it, but he needed to turn on his headlamp and that would inevitably warn whomever was on the other side of the ladder, waiting in ambush. Slowly he climbed down.
“We can't go that way,” he whispered. “The ladder is booby-trapped. And someone is there.” He turned to Mystery. His eyes bore into him. “Why did you want to go up there?”
The amnesiac stalker cursed. Now everyone was looking at him. “Well... I... see...” he stumbled. He closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes to stare back at Hunter: “I know that place. It's a hideout. Some friends use it.”
“Those 'friends' are the Monolith?” Blackjack asked, his face blank, but his voice a warning.
“Hell, no! The damn maniacs hunted us. They...” his words trailed off. “...They killed a friend of mine. Fang, he was called. A sniper shot... him... through the collar of his exo...” He seemed to recall something: “Remember when Screws... showed ...?” He tried not to tip off Ogre, Sataida and Boris about the artifact.
Maxim nodded. “What's it?” He said brusquely.
“I had said something about a Dragunov and a friend, yes? It was him who got killed...” More faces flashed through his mind. “There were others too... Guide, Ghost, Doc--”
Ogre interrupted him: “Guide? THE Guide?”
“Who's Guide?” Boris asked in puzzlement.
Mystery did not reply. He was paralyzed, struggling with his thoughts and emotions and his haltingly recovering memory. Blackjack stared at him thoughtfully. He had known him briefly, and while he had always had his misgivings about the man's memory loss, it seemed real. But if everything had been just an elaborate act to draw them into an ambush, it had been an impeccable one. Everything it takes to get us now is armed men appearing on both sides of this corridor, and we're toast.
“And some of these friends of yours are up there now.”
You got that one right, thought Guide, overhearing everything. Finally, Strelok was down there. And not alone, it seemed.
“...and what do you want to do?” He heard that unknown voice ask. He looked into Ghost's eyes. Then, into Farsight's.
A choice had to be made. Kill Strelok, or talk to him. Strelok had to be stopped, the youth and the controller had said back at the Valley, but stopped from doing what? Destroying C-Consciousness? And how?
A stone clanged loudly over the metallic duct. Everyone was startled.
Hunter reached for the stone, which was wrapped in some kind of paper with something scribbled over it. He removed the paper and read what was written in it...
“Keep your eyes open. Someone will be coming down to disarm the trap.”
The next few minutes were insufferably uncomfortable. Hunter had his senses primed on the scuffling and shuffling that was taking place somewhere in the duct before him, while the rest of them watched out for more mutants or soldiers. Blackjack consulted his own smartphone for time: 23:17. He found himself sweating beneath his mask, and hating himself for being led into such a dangerous situation, for everything about this unexpected rendezvous screamed: ambush.
Then someone spoke, the voice a muffled echo distorted by the duct walls: “...your amnesiac friend can come up on his own, if he wants.”
All eyes were fixated upon Mystery. The man slowly picked up his backpack and AKM, and crawled into the duct. With quivering hands, he climbed up the ladder. A gloved hand helped him out of the duct.
There were five people in the room. Two of them he did not recognize; one of them was a stocky man built like a rock who looked like a foreigner, given the non-Slavic features of his face, and a young boy, who hardly looked older than sixteen, that was staring at him as if he was reading him. He recognized the sharp, gaunt face of Ghost, who had helped him into the small utility room, and that of Guide, balding, weathered, the first stalker to ever breach into the Zone, and... someone wearing Fang's exoskeleton...
Slowly, the man on the exoskeleton took off his helmet. Mystery blanched and stared in disbelief. That was the young soldier he had met not an hour ago. That could not be. Shakily he raised a finger and pointed at him: “You... you...”
Guide stepped forward. “Welcome, Strelok.”
WHAT?!? Did he just call me...?
"The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself - ultimate cost for perfect value."
- Heinlein, Robert - "Starship Troopers"
| 17:59:44 25 October 2011
On forum: 12/07/2008
Message edited by:
The buildings within view were equally as ruinous as those of the main Agroprom Research Institute compound they had passed by less than two hours ago. The base was nested in a depression surrounded by hills and high ground almost all around it — a horrible place to set up an outpost in Blackjack's opinion, since it allowed them to keep covert watch over it with little difficulty. Hunter had scouted a path through the anomalies and the irradiated areas and had led them to a small plateau north-east of the military base; then, once he had led them to the vantage point they were currently at, Maxim had taken the silent stalker along to reconnoiter the base, to return almost an hour later. The day was dying, and night was approaching fast.
“Not good,” had been his assessment. “Watchtowers manned by men with sniper rifles, more men over the roof of the main structure, and patrols down the road. The two entrances are guarded by half a dozen men each. The western wall has been breached by an anomaly, and the breach is concealed by some structures, but even if we could get close enough without being spotted I wouldn't take that path. I would protect that breach with mines myself, so I suppose they must have thought of that as well.” His milky-white eyes went to Ogre. “Honestly I don't understand why Sidorovich gave you this task. It's a nightmare for even the most seasoned of stalkers.”
The giant seemed hopeless. “Well, we can just forget about this and stick to artifact hunting, I suppose.” He glared at Sataida, and the large green eyes glared back at him through her gas mask. “But having accepted to do this job... I don't think that greasy weasel would see her to safety for any amount of money if I don't do this for him.”
Sataida scoffed haughtily at the comment. “I say to hell with him, then. I'll learn to make a living for myself here and leave on my own.”
Upon hearing her, Screws reflected briefly about how hard that would be. The day before, Hunter had had them spar with each other after teaching them some very basic hand-to-hand moves, and had demanded them to be rough on each other—and when they failed to do that, he had showed them exactly how he wanted them to fight. The hard way.
“I get it, about training with her... but hitting her?” he had objected just once.
Then the tall man had shoved her aside and attacked. It had been like fighting a tidal wave. As he had warned him, he stopped just short of choking him. Then he pitilessly admonished him: “Those meaning her harm won't be as chivalrous. So stand up and fight her.”
And he had tried, but most of the time she had had an edge over him. Sataida had no such compunctions: if something was to be said about the girl was that she had determination in spades. She had grimly nodded at Hunter's command and hurled herself at him, her assaults sloppy, but vicious. But neither could fight for more than fifteen minutes.
“You are both out of shape. You will carry extra loads from now on. And I want you to be able to fight for another five minutes within a week. Now go and eat.”
He had slept as if he were dead, his body aching all over. He had felt tempted to strike conversation with the girl, intensely desiring to somehow get close to her, but while she was not particularly hostile towards him, she had been totally self-absorbed in her own thoughts. Furthermore, regardless of how lovely he found them to be, he feared the stare of those huge green eyes—he felt like they could read him like a book. And Hunter had had them spar again that morning, and had paired them together that afternoon before setting off to Agroprom. He did not know whether to thank him or curse him.
Mystery was studying the base through Maxim's binoculars, hoping to see something that would make him remember a way in. Because, he was certain, he had been here before, but as usual his amnesia was in the way. He continuously felt as if the life previous to the episode that had obscured his memory had been a vivid dream, the details of which he could not recall after waking up. Only will kept him from swearing.
“Not another way in?” He asked Maxim and Hunter. They shook their heads.
“Not that we could see.”
Ogre swore. “We'll have to give up.”
They all looked at each other. Blackjack decided: “We'll call up a vote on it. But not here. I'd hate to be spotted by those snipers.”
And they marched away from the base, led again by Hunter, towards the compound that once had housed the staff of the institute. Barks and squeals were heard distantly, reminding everyone to keep their weapons ready.
Except for their point man. Nikolay could not contain his curiosity any longer:
“I never got to see what you're packing.”
Hunter produced a long bladed weapon from under his ghillie suit. It was... a sword, not a dagger, not a machete, but a proper sword well over one meter long, hilt included. It apparently had been machined from a single piece of metal; it was straight, single-edged, had a very simple cross-guard that was part of the weapon, and the hilt had a checkered layer of rubber for an improved grip, not unlike a pistol. The whole weapon was blacker than night, even the edge, which looked sharp beyond words.
“Whoa...” was everything the youth could say.
“Impressive,” admired Blackjack. “It must swing very fast. It reminds me of some ancient ninja swords...” He found himself wondering how had he seen a silver-metal sheen when the man had cut the bandit's head off, if this was the weapon he had seen. “I still don't get why you don't use that rifle you got in your backpack.”
Hunter shrugged. “It's a very rare day when I need to shoot something.”
That elicited some incredulous looks. Mystery ventured, “What about snipers? You can't just stab everyone...”
“Quiet.” Hunter raised an open hand. Everyone stopped in their tracks.
They all got on their bellies behind a small hill, and waited. Their point man crawled on alone, his motions sinewy and silent as those of a snake, until he came upon a small cliff where the land abruptly fell to the road. The bulk of the Institute loomed very close; here, a few concrete panels of the perimeter wall had fallen off, and the courtyard was partly visible.
On the other side of the road, amidst trees some forty-odd meters away, men were climbing out of a manhole. He counted in the encroaching shadow: six silhouettes, most dressed in cheap clothing, though one of them was wearing a long leather coat. Five of them quickly took positions behind trees and bushes and, cautiously, started advancing towards the breach in the wall. The man in the leather coat stood crouching behind a tree; in the dark he could make the outline of an assault rifle in his hands.
Like some wraith, Hunter silently climbed down the two-meter cliff and stalked his way across the road with liquid motions, taking cover behind a small bush. Almost simultaneously, a furious firefight exploded within the Institute walls. He spied through the leaves, moving the branches apart almost delicately: the rear man was anxiously peeking around the bulk of the tree, listening intently to the deadly chatter of firearms and the yells and screams of men fighting and dying. Absolutely oblivious to his presence.
The silent stalker unsheathed his combat knife and sneaked towards the man, jumping from one tree to the other, between bushes, in complete silence, and pounced on his prey from a distance scarcely short of three meters. The man was caught completely off guard: he barely had begun to turn his weapon around when Hunter smashed him on the back of his head with the knife's butt, sending him sprawling on the ground. With surgical motions the stalker slid the knife under the man's throat, drawing a single drop of blood, while his right hand muffled the man's mouth. It was unnecessary: the man was unconscious.
Hunter grabbed the rifle and silently hauled the man back across the road. He was met there by Maxim.
“Fine work, there,” Blackjack whispered grudgingly. “Who is he?”
The stalker shrugged in his careless way. “They came from somewhere underground.”
“Let me haul him. I imagine you'll want to scout that.”
Hunter nodded icily and left the scarred veteran to deal with their unconscious captive. Silently he snaked his way back to the small clearing under the trees and found the manhole. Something was lit down there, outside his view, but allowing him to make the details of some utility tunnel of sorts. Within the decrepit concrete walls of the compound the firefight still raged on, albeit not as intensely.
He made his way back to the rest of his squad and relayed what he saw. “What about our prisoner?” he asked then. The bandit was still fast asleep and, by the look of it, was not likely to wake up for a while.
“He hasn't been very forthcoming, as you may imagine.” Ogre chuckled at his own sally.
“Probably they got a hideout of sorts down there?” Sataida ventured.
“Mystery?” Maxim asked. “Do you remember anything?”
“Not quite...” He squeezed his eyes shut, straining himself against his spotty memory. Flashes of churning greenish clouds melting down ancient machinery and the horrific panting of mutants somewhere in the tunnels crossed his mind. “It's dangerous down there. If we're going down, we should all grab our gas masks at least. And keep our shotguns at hand.”
Blackjack took that information to heart and donned his mask, a rugged helmet with removable filters, not too different from an exoskeleton's headgear. Everyone did likewise with their own, save Hunter, who was wearing an odd leathery hood that concealed his mouth and nose and protected his eyes with a pair of goggles. “Never saw one of those”, Maxim said in comment. The man merely shrugged as usual.
Hunter led them, cautiously, over the road and to the manhole, keeping an attentive ear on the occasional shot that rang inside the Agroprom compound. “I'm going down first. Cover the exit. I'll signal you if it's clear.”
Mystery nodded and dragged the heavy steel lid over the manhole. Hunter's eyes saw nothing for an instant, then accustomed themselves to the lack of illumination. He went down the ladder slowly, looking for tripwires or other similar devices, while his left hand reached for his hip satchel and retrieved a common stone. Carefully he let it fall. The rock hit the concrete, the echoes reverberating loudly...
...and nothing else.
If there was someone there, he had already heard them coming and would not be distracted by a simple stone.
Or maybe there was no one there at all.
Again his left hand went to his hip satchel, to produce a wickedly sharp-looking throwing knife this time. Then, like a cat, he let himself fall down, landed on all fours, and rolled over to a side, taking cover between some of the debris that blocked the tunnel.
And still, no one fired upon him.
Throwing knife in hand, he advanced in utmost silence, the grating of a worn emergency rotating light filling the tunnel, his senses sharpened and primed, his whole body coiled in tension like a snake poised to strike. He made it to the end of the tunnel, where an opening in the wall led to a small staircase; he caught the bubbling, sparkling and hissing of many anomalies...
Again he probed for sentinels. He picked up a piece of debris from the floor and hurled it through the opening in the wall, over the stairs. It landed on one of the steps with a loud metallic noise.
And, this time, there was a response. The echo of a low, grumbling, distant gurgling noise.
He judged he had seen enough by now and returned to the ladder; he climbed up and tapped the lid four times with the butt of the throwing knife. Immediately it was shoved aside by Ogre. Hunter gestured them to come down and be silent.
The silent stalker waited not for them all to come down. He retraced his steps and went again to the stairs; he strained himself to hear, but his efforts were spoiled by the shuffling of his fellows as they entered the tunnel one by one. With an open hand he gestured for them to wait; he undid a knot under his ghillie suit, cast it aside, and drew his sword. Blackjack noticed that, besides the ninja-like sword tied to his back, another blade was sheathed, handle-down, over his chest; the man's clothes were a haphazard mixture of tactical vests, standard-issue flak jackets and bulletproof armors, but all of them had been spray-painted to create a surprisingly effective forestry camouflage pattern. And despite their different nature, they seemed not just to fit, but to belong in that arrangement.
Full of guile and completely in tune with his surroundings, Hunter went down the stairs so skillfully that the old iron steps not once groaned at his weight. The room was rectangular, housing some kind of machine that had been long rendered useless by several chemical anomalies; there were three exits, one of them almost directly opposite to him, the other on the same wall where the stairs were, a similar set of iron steps leading to another corridor. Acidic fumes stung his eyes lightly, but his nostrils felt nothing, plugged via breathing tubes to a self-made purifier on his backpack.
He felt its hunger, its bloodlust rising as it recognized the familiar smells of leather, cloth, sweat, and flesh, its powerful muscles tensing in anticipation. Prey.
Do not, he whispered into its mind. They are not the enemy. They are not your prey.
It let out a surprised groan, startled at the strangely familiar noises in its head. A part of its mind long asleep slowly put the words together and flashed in understanding.
But then an overpowering command overrode both his voice and its nascent awareness. HUNT! KILL! DEVOUR!
A mighty roar echoed somewhere below him. Then, heavy feet stomping on iron. Something climbing some stairs he could not see.
Swiftly, Hunter went over to the adjacent room, and saw a doorway poorly lit by a single dusty lamp, and the stairs.
Some formless shape, barely distinguishable, slowly climbed up the last few paces. Then it froze. He felt it looking at him, searching him, measuring him. The stench of stale blood was so powerful that he could perceive it even behind his mask and rebreather.
But the tall, silent stalker waited. A small spark blossomed within him. Excitement at the encounter.
Then the presence bellowed a snarl and charged. A ghastly clawed hand lunged for his throat, but Hunter parried the blow with his sword, edge-first. The blade bit through the leathery skin and blood spilled; the bloodsucker screeched and withdrew, its cloak now ruined by the dripping wound on its left hand. The monster again measured him, full of caution. This prey had teeth. Its death would be quite satisfactory.
Again, with motions so fast they looked like a blur, the bloodsucker lunged ahead, to seize the prey and slam it to the ground and squeeze the life out of it. But the prey suddenly was no longer there. And then a burning pain seared over its leg, melting through the skin and into the wiry meat; with another acute screech it retreated, limping over the wounded leg, and again regarded its prey; it was still, its eyes fixated upon its own, its whole body poised for defense, its long, black claw dripping with blood, its stench filling the beast's nostrils. But it was not an intoxicating smell. It was a frightening one.
With a powerful roar the mutant again lurched on, the smell of blood driving it into a berserker frenzy, the pain of its wounds panicking it. Again the long black claw met its own, but this time the beast ignored the blaze that ignited on its palms and grasped it with both hands, trying to shatter the claw, its prey's defense – but the claw was much too sharp, the blaze a blaring warning that its bite was too deep. A third time it withdrew screeching, but now the prey followed, and struck. The beast only could raise an arm in defense to block the claw. But the arm was sent flying, and blood spurted out of the stump as through a hose. The pain was blinding. The creature gurgled horribly for a brief instant, frozen still into place, and then the black claw tore a deep gash on its neck.
Then there was nothing more.
Hunter took a single, deep breath and, with another slash, cut the bloodsucker's head off. The bestial eyes regarded him for a second, sparkled with another instant with human-like agony, then darkened over.
Only then did he notice that he had his back to the archway leading to the room with the bubbling anomalies, and that eyes had been watching him all along. Blackjack, Mystery, and Ogre. They all were speechless, utterly flabbergasted at what just had transpired before them.
“Al... Alexei...? Alexei...?” The voice was hesitant, as if its owner could not fully yet trust whom he talked to, but neither could stand by and watch unconcernedly. “What happened?”
The headache was overpowering and sapped him of all his strength. The youth let himself be dragged and laid over the mattress by the elderly stalker. “We... I cannot override its influence. Not yet. I tried, but it's very powerful.”
“He did *WHAT*?!” Screws stared at Hunter, his mouth open wide in astonishment.
“He killed a bloodsucker in hand-to-hand combat.” Blackjack's voice was tinged with admiration. “And he doesn't even have a scratch. I have never seen such skill. Where did you learn?”
The silent stalker shrugged as usual as he cleansed the beast's feelers and prepared them for storage, but noticed Maxim's eyes would not divert off him as usual. “Many places. I've studied many forms of combat. Sambo, ninjutsu, aikido, kung-fu, brazilian capoeira, several wrestling arts... and these are the latest I've studied. I've learned about it more than I care to remember.” He shook his head.
“So that sword is a ninja sword?” Sataida asked. “Also, that mask... it kind of fits, somehow. Makes you look like a camouflaged ninja.”
Hunter smirked at her naiveté. “It's not a true ninja sword. It handles differently. And the cross-guard is not like that of a ninja-to, either.”
Nikolay's eyes glittered. “I suppose it takes a long time to get such a skill.”
Another shrug. “Not only training, but usage as well. Skill is useless without experience to test it.”
Ogre nodded in agreement. “What else have you found around?”
Hunter shoved a rucksack over the floor towards him. “The bandits stashed this away.” He looked every which way, looking for his prisoner, and found him handcuffed to the ladder, still unconscious.
The giant ruffled through the sack. Cigarette packs, food, some ammo... and a large package weighing roughly a kilo, tightly wrapped and secured with heavy-duty adhesive tape. Ogre held it in his hand and showed it to everyone.
Nikolay recognized that. He had seen that occasionally within the walls of the correctional at Kiev. “Drugs...”
"The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself - ultimate cost for perfect value."
- Heinlein, Robert - "Starship Troopers"
| 15:18:47 10 October 2011
On forum: 10/21/2010
Either I have done something wrong then, or I'm on the right track, I have yet to make up my mind.
Probably starting a thread separate from my previous fic was a bad idea, but it's done now.
Fantastic, i had managed to work everything out, plain and simple, and in this chapter you completely changed it all... (apart from the time travel bit.) every assumption i'd made on how the story was going to unfold was wrong. Brilliant
Keep them coming.
I Belong to the Warrior... in who, the Old Ways have Joined the New
Real Story from Afganistan:
a British Soldier atop a roof saw the red mist when Taliban soldiers surrounded the compound. he precided to fire his SA-80 single handed at them while lighting a cigarette. when asked "What do you think you're doing" by his CO, he responded "Sorry Sir", handed him the lit cigarette, Lit another and continued firing one handed!