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Blue Mists

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  20:03:32  9 April 2011
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
04/10/2011 15:23:28
Messages: 197
@th3l4st0ne: glad to see you enjoyed it. I took me over two months to write the first episode, and less than two days to produce the second. Hope you like it too. Enjoy

--------

Episode II

The man was short but heavy-set, almost rotund in his complexion. The features on his face were almost razor-sharp and Saxon, not Slavic. He did not like rains, electrical storms least of them all. “So... we made it here. Now what?”

The oldest of the four pulled back to the tunnel entrance, produced an expensive cellphone from his hip satchel and typed something. “According to the log... we are one hour early, give or take.”

The rearguard man, clad in a huge black exoskeleton, leaned on the wall. “We wait, then.”

“Wouldn't it be better to stake out the place and wait there?” The first one proposed.

“...No. Our very presence here makes everything different. We cannot foresee what effect could we produce by just being nearby.”

The youth acting as point man climbed atop the tunnel entrance, produced a waterproof blanket out of his backpack and put it over him, and and put his eye to the scope of his long sniper rifle, which was wrapped into a protective blanket to shield it from the rain.



The echoes of short barks and staccatos reached Blackjack and Screws now. Maxim had regrettably shoved the pieces of his precious Abakan into a satchel, putting the most delicate parts into a plastic box for safety, and drawn his sidearm, a silenced APB auto-pistol. -74s and... He strained his memory, trying to identify the sounds he had just heard. Sounds like Heckler & Koch rifles, but not quite identical.... How many of them?

“Want your AK back?” Screws asked.

“I'm used to this little fellow.”

Warily they exited the safety of their shelter into the rain. Outside they met Wolf and his bald lieutenant, Fanatic; the latter was crouched behind the wall, weapon at the ready, while his leader was shouting warnings to the rookies that were scrambling for cover inside the houses.

“What's going on?” Blackjack asked.

Fanatic did not even turn his head. “Hell if I know. I don't really feel like going out there to take a look.”

“The checkpoint is barely a couple hundred meters off... maybe the military stumbled upon newcomers?”

“It could be... Oh well, if they make it here we'll see.”

“But why the grenade?” Screws pondered.

“Beats me, not only rookies make mistakes.” The exchange was growing closer now. Lightning streaked vividly across the sky.

“There are people coming!” A voice warned. “Gray uniforms!”

“Shit!” Wolf cursed. “Everyone stay covered!”

“Gray uniforms?” Blackjack asked.

“Monolith scumbags...”

“What? Monolith?” Screws blinked. Blackjack did not know either, but Wolf's reaction was all he needed to see. He made doubly sure he was carrying both spare magazines for the pistol.

“Later, kid,” the gruff stalker replied with an edge. He bore down on Screws: “Stay down and don't play heroics, you hear me?” The youth weakly nodded his agreement. Wolf turned to Blackjack, looking with disapproval at his pistol. “You two, take position by the first house. Until they're deep enough we don't break cover. Let me say that again: we. Don't. Break. Cover. Clear?”

Blackjack's mind was racing. An ambush was what Wolf was hastily trying to arrange. And it was so obvious that even a rookie on his second boot camp day would not set foot in the village. On top of that, judging from the deadly chatter of many assault rifles, those intervening on the skirmish surpassed them in firepower so many times over that to stage an ambuscade would be tantamount to suicide. But the possible alternatives... Again he cursed having been caught with his Abakan disassembled.

However, all these considerations soon proved unnecessary: the rhythmic –and familiar– tap-tap-tap of a helicopter reached his ears. Someone screamed a warning. He hastily grabbed both Wolf and Screws by the hand and dragged them down into the basement where he had been cleaning his rifle. Fanatic and two rookies followed them.

Wolf cursed. “Shit... and these fuckers are within earshot of this place... they'll be coming right at us now...”

Blackjack took position by the corner next to the stairs, holding his pistol with both hands, grimly wishing he had something heavier to fire. He cursed his luck for the third time and waited. Over him, Fanatic and Wolf both were crouching and standing respectively, poised to shot at anything that appeared. Screws somehow managed to look at them through his terror with enough presence of mind to understand their readiness, and was sorely tempted to ask what would happen if more rookies tried to get inside. The obvious –and cruel– answer was disheartening, but if those fighting had no qualms about taking potshots at them...

Dread stalked them all now. The echoes of the rotor built up in volume as the helicopter drew nearer. A horrible buzzsaw-like sound filled the air over the cracks of the assault rifles and the droning of the rains, immediately followed by distant cries of men. Then, footsteps running outside. Blackjack felt Fanatic and Wolf coil up like springs.

A masked silhouette dressed in barely distinguishable camouflaged livery appeared. Blackjack pulled the trigger before the two other stalkers did. His shot took the man in the left eye. He could now hear pistol shots and blasts of shotguns coming from outside, punctuated by assault rifle fire. Screams were heard. The attackers were now inside the village, and the rookies were fighting back in desperation. And dying. His knuckles turned white with rage and he felt the temptation to go outside and fight the strangers, but before he could even think of scolding himself out of that impulse another gray-clad man appeared and ran for their hideout. This time Fanatic got off the first shot, which hit the man squarely in the neck and fell him, a hideous gurgling sound hissing out of his throat.

Then, a round metallic object bounced on the stairs, once, twice, and stopped next to Blackjack's foot.

Maxim would forever find it hard recalling that eternal second when he dropped the pistol, picked up the grenade and hurled it with all the strength of his left arm outside the basement. “DOOOOWN!”

The explosive went off outside with a deafening bang. He propelled himself backwards with his legs, with the obvious intent of pulling Fanatic and Wolf out of harm's way. A millisecond later shrapnel scythed the walls they had just leaned against. Someone screamed:

“Who's hit? Who's hit?” Wolf asked. He quickly checked everyone out: no blood he could see, just five white faces and several trembling lips. Nobody was hit. Just a scare. Yeah, the scare of your life, he managed to laugh grimly within himself.

The echoes of the battle raged outside. Again the buzz-saw sound of the helicopter's 23mm gun. Bullets smashed through crumbling walls and rotting wood panels alike, many times finding a target. Then, no further gunfire. Just the thunder of the rotor, now an almost overwhelmingly powerful roar, as the helicopter hovered in stationary flight over the village. This is it, Screws repeated himself over and over, too panicked to speak, sob, or scream, now they're going to come for us and kill us all too and burn this place up for good...

After a horrible, endless, nightmarish minute, the helicopter started hovering away. The thunder of the rotor faded back into the ominous tap-tap-tap. Nobody dared to move. They heard the sound circling around them... Then again, the sound grew closer and closer, the rotor whining in an ever higher pitch, until it seemed the helicopter was going to again pound the village.

And then a crashing sound that made the ground vibrate under their feet. The rotor screeched sickeningly for a few instants, then died.

The drone of the rains was now acutely audible. For over two whole minutes everyone stood frozen still. The same thing was on everyone's minds, but nobody wished to take their chances outside.

Then, footsteps approached their hideout. A single voice called, a deep, almost guttural voice Screws recognized:

“The helicopter is down. Nobody is in sight.” It was the hunter.

Blackjack watched Wolf and Fanatic. Both were still listening intently for telltale sounds, trying to detect the ambush... Then an idea sprung in Screws' mind: “Hey... if they wanted us dead... why not just pop another grenade inside?”

Wolf and his lieutenant looked at each other. “True,” the leader of the rookies conceded.

Maxim nodded. Pistol in his hand, he cautiously walked the stairs up. The hunter was, as he had said, alone, clad in the muddy ghillie suit he had seen a while ago and now carrying a heavy backpack. He was staring at him with blue impassivity. Blackjack quickly appraised him: he caught sight of fresh bloodstains on the fatigues underneath the suit, and a few cuts on his hands and face which had already been tended to. He nodded, and turned his head over his shoulder. “Clear.”

Wolf, Fanatic, Screws and the other two rookies came up and, stunned, looked around them. The village had been reduced to shambles. Corpses riddled the ground, most of them clad in the gray armor the rookie leader had said that was typical of Monolith stalkers; those few who were not were either dressed in makeshift stalker suits, plain cheap clothing, or –to Wolf's dismay– military uniforms.

“Shit!” He swore. “They're going to blow this place to hell now!”

“So long for a refuge near the cordon...” Fanatic sighed and shook his head. He then headed for the house across the path, hoping to find survivors.

“Best to salvage what we can and get the hell out of here.” Blackjack put his weapon back on its holster. The hunter nodded at the comment.

“What took the Croc down?” One of the rookies asked.

“A well-placed rifle shot,” was the hunter's raw reply. He disappeared inside the house next to the basement entrance.

Screws followed Blackjack as he went through the village, quickly stripping the dead of their ammo, food, and sometimes weapons and armor. “This one will fit you well”, Blackjack said as he passed on a black suit of armor to Screws. He took it fighting against the nausea, feeling it still warm to the touch. He was horrified by the spectacle of the dead being looted for spoils and could barely fight it. Maxim noticed it but said nothing.

“Strange badges on this...” Nikolay said. “Best to take them out, just in case...”

“Yeah.” Blackjack unsheathed his combat knife and with quick, precise motions, he tore the badges off. “This one has them, too,” he said as he did that with another black suit. He checked it out for size, trying to see if it was a match for him, but bluntly he concluded that he could take care of that later. “You use this gun.” He hurled Nikolay an assault rifle of western make the youth did not recognize and a bag containing several clips. Then, another, similar rifle. “Take this one for spares.”

“Thanks.” Screws noticed his friend was very anxious, and probably with good reason. The military would probably take next to no time in sending someone over to investigate the crashed helicopter, and they would better be miles away from the village by the time that happened. Which left them a very thin margin of time.

“There's military and Monolith dead all over the place...” They heard Fanatic report back to Wolf. Blackjack just looked at them long enough to see Wolf bunch his fists white. “...the fighting came here all the way up from the bridge. I couldn't see it clearly but I think the explosion we heard first happened there.”

The words bridge and explosion resounded in his mind. “Hurry up with that!” He urged Screws. “Just take the two guns I gave you! We're gonna need ammo and food more than extra rifles.”

“But we could sell--”

“To whom?! The Army's going to pound this place flat and swarm over the whole cordon after this! Normally we'd be lucky to reach the junkyards before then, but the bridge pass is open.”

“What?”

Blackjack took a deep breath and explained quickly. “Some four hundred-odd meters ahead there's a railway. It runs over very steep hills and is secured by a fence. There are only three ways past it: through a shitload of rads, through a shitload of volts, or through a military checkpoint on an underpass. Fanatic just said the explosion we first heard took place there. Then they went in guns blazing.”

“Okay! Just let me finish... searching this one.” This time he managed to repress his nausea, admonishing himself that he would probably have to loot more corpses in the future, and many would look a lot worse than this one, which had taken a clear shot to the head. He had been one of the Monolith, given the strange badges and the gray camouflage pattern on his armor. Like most others of his faction he had a strange belt with many pouches made of a waterproof fabric, each one with both buttons and a zip to keep it from spilling its contents. He loosened the belt, tore it free from the leaking corpse, and felt the pouches as he had seen Blackjack do it. There was something large inside one of them. He opened it... “Oh, shit...”

There was an artifact in there.

“Hide that! Quick!” Blackjack said, tearing the belt off Screws' hands and stuffing it into his backpack. “You can drool later! Go and change your clothes while I talk to Wolf. And hurry! We have to get out of here as fast as we can.”

Nikolay walked into one of the –now ruinous– wooden houses to put on the black suit of armor. He watched Blackjack as walked up to the village 'leader' and his lieutenant.

He was taken aback to find the hunter in that same house. The man was on his way out. “You... leaving too?” he asked haltingly. The huge man nodded coldly but politely.

“This place will get too much attention soon.”

Screws managed an amused snort, then immediately lapsed back into the shyness this stalker imposed on him. “It's just... you? Alone?”

The hunter seemed to lose a fraction of its coldness for an instant. “Yes.”

In spite of his urgency Nikolay could not help but find the hunter's comment odd. “You... well, you may want to come with us. You'd be safer.” Then he wondered why had he made both the offer and that last –stupidly out of place– comment. The towering bald giant had an extremely unsettling presence, despite its statuesque physique and chiseled features, much more unnerving than Blackjack's milky-white eyes and scarred skin, and he had learned enough about physical language on the correctional to be certain that this man's hand-to-hand skills would be supreme. He found himself wishing the hunter would refuse his offer...

Again the crooked smile he had seen at Sidorovich's shelter. Laced with irony this time.

“Well, why not.”

Blackjack returned to Nikolay, oblivious of the hunter at first. He looked both upset and depressed. “What happened?” The youth asked.

“I can't talk Wolf and Fanatic out of staying here. Fanatic says Sidorovich will pull some strings to prevent the Army from ruining his business, and I almost believe him. Besides...” He exhaled strongly. “...Someone has to care for all the rookies, they said. Some survived.” Then he seemed to notice the hunter was staying close to Nikolay. He glared at the youth, arching his eyebrows. Screws swore to himself, bracing against the imminent chewing out:

“I told him... I told him he could come with us.” Blackjack's immediate reaction would have been to roll his eyes, but restrained himself and looked at the hunter closely. His first true impression closely matched Screws'. He found himself thinking whether this hunter actually cared a whit about the whole situation and was as bored as he let on, despite the ice-cold behavior, or if it was all an act.

“You have weapons...?” He ventured. The hunter opened his ghillie suit to show the hafts of two bladed weapons. “And firearms?” He asked with the barest hint of impatience in his voice.

“In my backpack. A rifle.”

What kind of stalker would keep his gun gathering dust inside a backpack? Then he remembered neither noticing him vanish in the darkness when Wolf arrived, nor hearing him stand up to poise his dagger against the thug's kidney. Oh well, not the time to be picky.

“You'd better pull that piece out then. We're leaving right now. How do we call you?” The man shrugged. “You got an alias?” Again a shrug.

“Hunter will do, if you wish.”

That comment evinced extreme disinterest, something that did not escape either to Blackjack or Screws. Maxim decided that no, this man was not acting in the least and probably was as bored as he had guessed. There were too many strange things about the hunter and he did not like it at all. Is he mad? And no, he did not have any of the telltale signs of someone who was either about to snap or beyond sanity. He had witnessed such signs on Chechnya too many times not to recognize them now.

Then the urgency of the situation caught up with him again. Three was a much better number than two to survive on the Zone. “Okay. Let's move out, fast,” Blackjack said as he set off.

He led them away from the village, directly across the hilly slopes west to the road, carefully skirting the anomalies that plagued the place. Every few steps he looked southwards over his shoulder, expecting at any time to see the lights of armored vehicles that surely would not take long. Now the bulk of a ruinous warehouse loomed before them, a column of greasy smoke curling upwards behind it. A chaotic dance of lights and shadows to its left indicated that fires were still burning, rains or no rains. Fanatic had been right, apparently, but still, he would not take any chances.

They reached the walls of the warehouse. Hunter froze, then gestured Blackjack and Screws to listen: over the sound of the rain, the echo of a man's wail. Someone was there.

The huge stalker bade Blackjack and Screws to stay put and moved on ahead, alone, with liquid motions. He turned around the corner, bracing the wall. Another building, ghastly lit in shades of blue and white by an anomaly. He went around it, then the fire came into view: an old truck turned sideways was ablaze.

And, illuminated by the fire, a squirming silhouette in the grass.

Quickly he scanned the underpass. No soldiers in sight, though he spotted a few corpses –dressed both in Monolith and military livery– near the road and around the burning truck. No mutants either. He listened: only the crackle of the fire over the droning rain. No danger there that he could detect.

Hunter ran silently up to the man. He was completely soiled in dirt, and the assault rifle he had dragged as he painstakingly crawled away from the underpass had left a muddy trail on the grass. He turned him on his back: his nose and mouth were bleeding profusely. The man babbled incoherences and weakly tried to disengage the stranger's grip on him. Hunter whistled. Blackjack and Screws came over running.

“Nobody else?” Maxim asked.

“Not that I could see.”

“What is he? A soldier or one of the Monolith?”

Screws looked over him. The flak jacket and pants he wore were patterned in brown, not in gray, and had no identifying badges at all. “I haven't seen this stuff in the army,” he said. “But none of the Monolith goons were dressed like this. Maybe he's just a poor dude in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“So...” Maxim exhaled. “We know that we don't know.”

“What do you want to do with him?” Hunter asked neutrally. Maxim knew next to nothing about them, but Wolf's reaction had told him that, dangerous as they were, they were rare in the extreme here. Are there more of them around? And they could not waste a lot of time here, with the threat of the military about to swarm the place in retaliation for the destruction of the helicopter and –he saw them now– the underpass platoon.

“I'm not really cozy with the idea of more of these sods roaming the area. I need some information.” That said, he started ruffling through the pockets of the man--

--But the man screamed and held onto something in his hip satchel. Something flashed inside it. While Blackjack and Hunter restrained him, he noticed something was scribbled on the man's forearm... something like a tattoo... he turned on his headlamp:

“Hey guys... I know the word, but any of you guys know what the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. acronym means?”

Hunter shrugged. Blackjack produced an expensive smartphone from the satchel with a message flashing on its screen:

KILL THE STRELOK.


Without warning, the youth climbed down the tunnel entrance and started walking, rifle in hand. His companions, startled, hurriedly set off after him; the weathered old veteran looked questioningly at the young stalker. He merely uttered, “Something different is happening.”
  01:01:52  6 April 2011
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th3l4st0ne
(Novice)
 
On forum: 05/21/2010
Messages: 40
sweet stuff there, the character got a good backstory, it's clean and got some variated vocabulary. I'd say in the same ranks as Wingnut's story but more accentuated on the characters, which I like. Keep it up buddy !
  05:28:56  5 April 2011
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
04/06/2011 16:10:48
Messages: 197
Blue Mists

This is a new story arch that continues my previous fanfic, Echoes. Lots of continuity nods here... oh well, enough of my rambling. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

--------


After twenty minutes of near-impenetrable darkness, the tunnel turned right, and a tiny speck of light was visible. After ten minutes of walking the the four stalkers reached the exit. They were all armed, armored and masked.

The single youth on point walked with a tranquil gait, his weapon loose in his hands. He strolled almost lazily past the piles of long-since ruined concrete sheeting, his companions following with uneasiness, and strode on under the storm, walking around the rumbling springboards and whirligigs with uncanny, eerie easiness, only reinforced by the lightning bolts that flashed in the darkness.



The man was fat, old, and unkempt. A girl wailed a beautiful lullaby from an ancient radio, filling the decrepit halls of his bomb shelter with the purity of her voice. Small light bulbs hanged from the roof, their dim light glinting off the barrels of guns, bullets and gear stacked on boxes, racks and shelves.

Sidorovich epitomized the spirit of the Zone. He was cold, unforgiving, ruthless, and ran his trade with the cruel efficiency of a predator.

The door opened with a clang of metal against metal. He left his steak with a groan of complaint and turned to the small desk where he plied most of his trade. Nikolay, the youth he had hired less than a week ago to care for -or scrap- his vast repository of weapons, appraised the newcomer with tired eyes: a bald, unmasked man, with crystal-blue eyes and an almost palpable aura of silence around him. He put down his backpack next to a wall, took off his gloves, and started ruffling through his belongings.

“Hello there, stranger”, Sidorovich said, having perused through the gallery of faces in his mind and not recognizing this one. His shoulders were so broad that he did not to fit through the doorway, and he wore cheap military fatigues under a muddy ghillie suit. Other than the hafts of a knife sheathed on the jacket and what looked like a long machete, no weapons were visible. “What will it be?”

A warm, mildly stale stench flooded the shelter. The man put a furry tail, a big, distorted eye, a boar’s hoof and what seemed to be an intact brain on the table.

“I want to sell this.” The voice was raw, as if the hunter was not used to talking.

Sidorovich put a hand to his chin, trying not to seem overly interested. “Strange wares, hunter. I normally don’t buy these. But these appear to be in perfect condition...” He reached into his pocket. “I’ll take the tail for five hundred, the eye and the hoof for one thousand each, and the brain for two thousand. Deal?”

The hunter stood still. He stared at Sidorovich without making a gesture. Then: “How much for a brand-new AK?”

“Hm. That'll be... Sixty thousand. I have one in working condition for thirty-six.”

The left corner of the hunter’s lips curved in a glacially crooked smile. He put his wares back on his backpack and turned around towards the exit. The trader shrugged and turned back to his steak.



It was late in the evening when Nikolay left the damp and shadowy bomb shelter to barter for a little food and find a place to sleep. The youth was tired; his hands were black with gun grease and hurt out of exhaustion. He stumbled past the ruined house towards the fire, where, as every day since he had got there, a few rookies had bunched up together.

A burly newcomer stepped forward towards him. “What have you got?” he asked bluntly.

“Eh?” Nikolay was too tired to understand. He caught the glimpse of a knife before the stranger stomped forward and grabbed him by the collar. A single drop of blood trickled down when the cold steel bit his throat.

“Gimme what you got. Now.”

The youth’s eyes flashed in desperation. The strange hunter clad in a ghillie suit was by the fire, oblivious to the scene and apparently unconcerned by it. Wolf, the veteran stalker that acted as de facto leader, was not around as usual.

A low voice spoke from the darkness. “Don’t. Let the boy go.”

The thug turned his head around, looking for the talker. “What?” he laughed evilly. “You gonna stop me?”

A masked silhouette clad in black stalker armor strode forward from inside one of the houses, the muzzle of a rifle pointed straight at the thug’s head. “Yes.”

The thug reacted quickly. He put himself behind the youth, the knife poised to cut the tender white skin. “You'd better drop that piece if you don't want this on your record, punk.”

The black-armored stalker took two steps forward, his aim unwavering, his whole posture menacing. They squared off without a word over three or four seconds, eyes boring on each other. Then a deep, guttural voice hissed behind the thug: “Drop it.”

The hunter had stood up in absolute silence, taking advantage of the thug's focusing his attention on the black-armored stalker. His own blade was poised to strike the man's kidney. The man dropped the knife, and put his hands up. “Okay, men. I didn’t hurt your kid. Peace.”

“Stay where you are.” The rifle in the stalker’s hands did not move. “Come over here, boy.” Nikolay did as he was told, still in shock, having not expected to be roughed up. “You”, the stalker said to the thug, “throw your backpack over here. And your weapons.”

The thug’s eyes rolled up and he threw his hands up. Reluctantly he did as he was told. Then a long blade flashed in the darkness and struck with a vile sound, and the thug's head rolled in the grass.

Surprised, the stalker with the rifle put his weapon down. Nikolay fell on all fours to the ground, retching, then vomited explosively. The rifle-toter was beside him a few seconds later. Weakly the youth looked both at him and at the hunter. “Why... did you do that?”

The hunter did not even acknowledge the question; he just vanished –in absolute silence– into the trees next to Sidorovich's bomb shelter. The remaining stalker took off his mask. His eyes were unnervingly milky-white, and dozens of small cut scars were etched in his face. “There’s just too many thugs and bandits elsewhere in the Zone to let them ply their trade right in rookie village.”

“Whatever your reasons, you have just earned a lifelong friend. Name’s Nikolay”.

“Maxim.” The stalker shook his hand vigorously. “How long have you been here? And how did you get in?”

“A week. We were... dumped here.”

“Dumped? How?”

“There’s just not room enough at the correctional I was, so there’s this... lottery of sorts. You anger the bosses, and you get to draw straws. Then you get drugged up and you awake at a military checkpoint, with nothing but your clothes. No food, no guns, no ammo, no armor, no backpack, no nothing!”

“Bastards... And you got into that situation how?”

“You know that those places are like jails, right? Then there’s... you know... some put themselves in charge bullying or beating everyone who stand up to them. Those who give orders don’t have it as bad... they even get to work as insiders for the guards and orderlies and so they get the best food and bunks, sometimes even some cigars or beer. The rest are in for a world of shit.” Nikolay was speaking angrily now. “Figure this... somebody who doesn’t do what they say is put into the worst cells you can think of, with lice and fleas crawling all over you and roaches fighting over what they give you for food! Some got fed up with that and rioted.”

Maxim covered his eyes with his hand. “And they sent those who started it here.”

Nikolay sighed. “No. Almost as bad, they put them all into the lottery. And those who worked for the bosses and didn’t see it coming. I should know... I was one of those.”

The black-armored stalker mulled his words. Then the hunter emerged from the shadows, a freshly cut stake in his hands. He planted it on the ground a few steps away from the fireplace and stuck the thug's head on it. Then he sat again, his face impassible, his ice-cold eyes gleaming as the fire pranced wildly on them.

“Th... thank you”, Nikolay stammered, intimidated by the hunter's impassivity. The tall man's eyes just wavered off the fire for a second to meet his. The youth mildly took a step back, as if he had been warned off.

Maxim seemed not to notice the warning –if a warning it was– and sat next to the hunter. Weakly Nikolay followed suit. His interlocutor asked, “How did you get into that prison in the first place?”

The youth shook his head. “Wrong thing to do, wrong place, wrong time.” He sighed. “I picked the lock of a cop's wife and they were just arriving on his car.”

In spite of himself Maxim laughed dryly. “Tough luck, huh.”

“Jinxed... That's going to be my stalker alias, if I last long enough to earn one.”

Maxim snorted. “That's not an alias I'd choose.”

“So far, it suits me. How do you earn an alias anyway?”

A shrug. “Beats me. I think it has something to do with the chat channels available here in the Zone. I took Blackjack for myself when I first made it here and it stuck.”

“Blackjack? You're that lucky?”

The stalker shook his head. “NATO designation for the biggest and most beautiful aircraft you'll ever see dropping bombs on top of something. Pilots dub it the 'White Swan'.”

“Oh.” Nikolay shrugged back a bit awkwardly. His newly found friend probably wouldn't be much of a wingman in a card game. “Don't know much about airplanes, myself.” His belly growled noticeably. He ruffled through his pockets. “You have any food up for trade?”

“Better.” Blackjack passed the thug's backpack on to Jinx. He perused it anxiously: on top of a highwayman, the thug had been messy and dirty. A 9mm pistol of western make, roughly sixty bullets –mostly Parabellum and AK ammo–, two fully loaded clips for the pistol, a partly loaded magazine for a Kalashnikov assault rifle, half a pack of cheap cigarettes and a huge collection of butts, two unlabeled cans, half a dozen... what, cereal bars?

“You keeping the gun?” Jinx asked, and instantly regretted it. Blackjack had saved his skin with no real motive to do that, and it was only fair that he kept whatever share of the loot he wished. “Sorry.”

Maxim, much older than the youth, recognized his expression. He handed him the thug's weapon, a weathered AK-47. “I like my own better. You can use it for the moment.”

“Thanks. Again.” A shaky, hesitant smile. He looked at the rugged assault rifle. The stock was tied up together with some sort of duct tape. The wooden fore end was in no better shape. Pockmarks of poorly cleaned-up rust stains were everywhere to be seen, but the AK was incredibly reliable and resistant; his hard-earned experience told him that even without any servicing it would serve him well. “I've been cleaning weapons all day long, I figure I can do it once more.” That said, he opened his own rucksack and produced a hard plastic box containing a basic toolkit and a few plastic bottles; given its condition, the whole set appeared to be Nikolay's most prized possession in the whole world. Blackjack looked on approvingly, but suggested:

“I think that can wait until the morning. You have to eat first, don't you think? You just emptied your belly.”

The youth yawned until his jaw uttered a dry snap. Without thinking he turned towards the gruesome display of the staked head and his stomach churned. His hunger had been viciously suppressed by the adrenaline shock of the episode, but he had to eat. He shook his head and nodded. “I think I'll listen to your advice.” That said, he took a cereal bar pack, opened it and bit a mouthful uneasily. Even though it was delicious, his mouth felt dry.

“That's not going to fill you up much.” Maxim tossed him one of the cans on the thug's pack.

“I know.” He coerced himself into finishing the bar and opened the can. He heard voices coming down the slope and recognized some of them: some of the rookies returning to camp. Soon the camp was lively with chatter.

“What happened here?” It was Wolf. He was staring intently at the head set atop the spike.

“Someone tried to jump the youth over here”, Blackjack replied. The brutality of the episode had touched him too. The sausage felt stale for an instant in his mouth and he swallowed his morsel with difficulty. “The hunter took care of him.”

“What hunter?”

Blackjack turned around, looking for the man in the ghillie suit, only to notice he was gone. The man had slithered away in complete silence. “A big man, over 190 cm. high, dressed in a ghillie suit. He cut the thug's head off.”

Wolf's eyes grew wider at the comment. He inspected the head on the stake, which was still dripping blood. “He surely is a strong fellow, to decapitate a head with a single stroke!”

Maxim suddenly wished he had taken a look at the weapon the hunter had used. He remembered a large silvery flash, larger than a long combat knife.

“Anyway”, Wolf said, as he turned away, without expecting an answer, “looks like he did us a service.”

Maxim watched Nikolay eat the canned meat without relish. Now his appetite had vanished too. Unlike the youth, he had seen combat and taken lives before, and had become hardened to the grisly spectacle that followed the last echoes of gunfire... but being hardened did not mean immunity. Over the chatter, the moaning and the sounds of the rookies as they bartered for miserable meals, places to sleep, gear and even guard posts, his ears were acutely tuned to the droplets of blood, falling from the staked head, as they impacted upon the soil. He shook his head slowly.

A thunderbolt rumbled in the distance. Immediately Jinx stood up, carrying his food and his backpack, and turned to beckon Blackjack to follow him into one of the underground shelters. They sat as comfortably as they could over one of the decrepit mattresses. Maxim took off his headlamp, hanged it from a loose wire next to a wall and turned it on. The utter darkness of the place receded into a half-lit gloom.

“Ahhh, it's great to relax”, he said.

Nikolay nodded. “Better even to be away from that head. That stake would be better off planted near the entrance, or at the slope.”

“I don't think so. Every crook knows they're not welcome if they make themselves known overtly. That's a warning for moles, I guess.”

“Put it that way...” He shook his head and sighed. “What a fuck-up... I don't recall one happy moment where I could be totally at ease in my whole life. First, being a street rat, then getting caught and thrown into that institute, and now this...”

Blackjack took another slice of sausage. “I'd see this as the chance of your life, kid. Collect a few artifacts and you're set for life.” Jinx snorted at the comment.

“Hmph. Only now I got a half-decent gun with barely one clip and a half. And I have to learn how to hit something with this thing first. Don't even make me think about what I gotta do to get started on artifact hunting.”

“That's not the spirit that will get you out of here alive.” Maxim's deep voice was tinged with a reprimand. “You had that gun yesterday? No. Were you killed today? No. Could you have just died? Yes. Were you outrageously lucky today? Yes, you were, and don't count on being lucky like that again, but you got to live another day. Oh, and finally, you had any friends here before now? If you did you wouldn't have been stuck with Sidorovich, nor would you have been alone and vulnerable to that thug, so I'll suppose you didn't. Especially considering how you got here.” He put aside his food and stared at the youth. “Think about your successes first, and be glad of them, and don't get obsessed with what you did wrong. Be both positive and realistic. This place will suck your soul out of you if you don't.”

Nikolay looked back in silence, dazed. He stammered: “That's... well... that sounds like a pretty tough thing to do... being both positive and realistic.”

“It's almost impossible, but your mind will get stronger trying to achieve that state. It takes that to survive and prosper here. And for God's sake, change that alias! The last thing you need is to think of yourself as someone cursed with bad luck.”

The youth smiled hesitatingly. “Er... What would you choose, considering what you know of me so far?”

“Something mechanical, I guess. You must be good at fixing things, or else that fat bastard wouldn't have employed you, even if it was for a pittance. That's a skill everyone should have here. There, you got something to be proud of.”

His partner fell silent, lost in thought, his mind going through what he had just been told. “I'm used to getting yelled at, but... I was never talked like that.”

“I was in Chechnya. I had to keep kids barely older than you alive and sane through that hell.” Maxim did not seem particularly reluctant, but something gave Nikolay the idea that he would not better press on that. Yet. He thought a few seconds, took a deep breath, and said:

“I think Screws would suit, don't you think?”

Blackjack whistled the word silently, and the barest hint of a smile appeared on his lips. “It has charm.”

Nikolay – now Screws – smiled in turn. Then he realized he was hungry again. A light flashed from outside, and then a thunderbolt rumbled. Rains begun to fall.

“I can take a look at your gun later, if you wish.” Actually, he would love to do that. Maxim's weapon was an Abakan assault rifle. It was immediately obvious that the gun was not new, but it was lovingly maintained and had been fitted with several accessories, including both a laser sight and a PSO scope; the stock pistol handle had been replaced by a larger one, more oblique to the rifle, probably based on the M1911 pistol –the gold standard of weapon ergonomics–, and the magazine was in an odd position too, again not as perpendicular towards the weapon frame as the original.

“Not necessary, I field-strip it every day. But...” he said, as he stood up and carefully laid it upon the mattress, “you can watch me clean it. You ever took apart one of those?”

A nod. “Twice, at Sidorovich's bunker. Whomever owned these were total idiots, the guns hadn't been cleaned in weeks. I had to scrap them both. They look like ill-humored bitches to maintain.”

Maxim smirked and nodded slowly. “This is not an AK. Even the Russians don't love it that much... it takes a lot of maintenance to keep it usable as it was designed. And here you have a weapon designed for a 5.45 bullet but chambered for a 7.62, which only makes things worse. Here... look.”

Nikolay watched his newly made friend as he dismounted his weapon with loving care. There was something mechanistic about Maxim's procedures, as if he were doing them out of rote: pieces were scrupulously set apart in a pattern that probably would match a schematic to the letter. Many had the markings of repeated use. “And why keep it?”

“It's never jammed on me, it fires true, it packs a punch... It's never let me down. I take care of it, it takes care of me. It's like that with almost everything with me.” There was an obvious lesson in Blackjack’s words: to those that stuck by him, he would be unflinchingly loyal.

Another thunderbolt rumbled in the distance. Maxim raised his head, then froze.

“What?”

“That was not a thunder.” Blackjack cursed. “What a moment to be caught with my gun disassembled...”
 
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