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The difference between you and me -

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  10:04:49  11 March 2006
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Amoki
back with a vengeance
(V.I.P.)

 

 
On forum: 07/31/2003
Messages: 1729
The difference between you and me -

Part 1 of 4

"Abram, are you awake?"

I hesitated, almost certain of the conversation that was to follow if I said yes; where the questions chase their tails and answers are like greased pigs, forever running before you but too slippery and fast to lay your hands on. Rain was still drumming against the windows, as it had been for most of the day, maybe it was the weather that had forced the change in Lukin?s mood.

"It is late, Lukin." I said flatly. "And I need this sleep."

"Oh, I know, I know, and I am sorry." His voice was quick, apologetic. "But... "

Sighing, I stared at the cracked and peeling wallpaper for a good ten seconds, trying to mentally prepare myself for what was coming. Two more springs burst in the old mattress as I rolled over, the weight of it sagging as though the bed was slowly trying to devour me.

Moonlight picked out Lukin stood by the window, leaning on the sill and staring thoughtfully out into the rain. He turned his head and smiled, briefly, even in this poor light looking immeasurably older than he had when we first met.

"Is something wrong?" I asked, finally.

He chewed on his lower lip, struggling to put into words what I knew had been bouncing around his head for the last couple of hours. "How did you first become a Stalker, sir?."

I smiled slightly, stretching out my arms and cupping my hands behind my head, ?sir? was a phrase Lukin used when he knew he was on unfamiliar and possibly dangerous ground. "I will tell you if you wish, although I doubt it will make matters clearer for you," I replied crisply. "I grew up in Chernivtsi, most of the work there was manual, of course. My father himself made his living at the local steel foundry, as did many of my friends, yet he would not allow me to work there myself. To undertake manual work of any kind."

Lukin frowned, now ignoring the rain totally. "Oh? Why was that?."

I pulled absently at strands of my beard, considering. "He wished a better life for me, I believe. Children were still being born with no eyes, only two fingers, my own mother died via Caesarian section giving birth to me, I suppose?..he realised how lucky we had been, relatively speaking, and wanted my later years to be significant ones."

"Knowledge, Abram. This is your future now, your childrens? future, there will always be enough of us to smelt steel and cement brick, you do not need to join us in that. My son is better than this place, better than me, and God willing there is a place for you?..always in my heart, but never by my side."

The words echoed in my mind like a message chiseled into stone, worn smooth by time and circumstance. For my first year in the zone they had threatened to rend me apart, I suffered nightmares where my father, enraged at my failure, stalked this terrified young Russian through featureless landscapes, his hands giant, gnarled claws that didn?t resemble anything human.

An unpleasant tremor passed through my body, like electrified ice water, and I cursed softly.

If Lukin heard then he didn?t question it, I was grateful to him for that.

Have I failed?

It?s a question every Stalker asks themselves sooner or later, they come here after hearing the stories and the promises of easy wealth but, if they survive the first month, then nothing is ever the same again. Even those who dominate the zone, memorizing every quadrant and having fought every enemy; natural and environmental, still don?t put much stock in themselves.

They haven?t given up, they just know that theirs is a hollow victory.

If you wanted to exist here then you had to accept a few, base truths.

Firstly, you are a cockroach.

Banish any ideas of striding into one of the giant corporations, slapping a long lost piece of research down on the counter, and pocketing a fortune before retiring early. Banish it or it?ll drive you insane after you?ve been out here for two weeks, drinking your own urine because you can?t find fresh water, and the only thing you have to show for it are a few rusted trinkets.

You are not shrewd, you do not know where to look for the valuable things, you do not hunt, you are hunted, this is not your home, this is not your life as you assumed it would be ? do you think you?re the first one to cry about that? If you?re going to mourn then do it for the situation, not because of what you?ve become and who are you are now.

Be honest. If you don?t know yourself by the time you take that first expedition then you?re in for some nasty surprises. Nastier than the packs of blind dogs, nastier than those pale, hunched creatures that live in the darkness of old basements and abandoned factories, nastier than anything you can see and anything you can fight.

When the day has wound down, when you?ve finished going over your plans for tomorrow and the fire is burning brightly, or the door is barricaded tightly, that?s when the true horrors come out. Millions of tiny, swarming ways in which you disgust yourself, of how you?re too weak and too afraid to keep doing this, of how it was inevitable that you could ever have ended up anywhere else buthere.

It?s like being flailed alive by knives, trust me I know, and if you don?t keep those shreds of poor and flimsy reason gripped in your hands then tomorrow will be too big a day for you. You?ll recede, stay in that sleeping bag all day long because the warmth feels good, and that?s all you want; to feel good. So you spend hours upon hours in that space, drifting in and out of sleep, hunger twisting in your stomach and thirst tearing your throat, and either some small part of you decides to carry on, to try to pull something back from this nightmare, or you take your pistol, put it in your mouth, and pull the trigger.

Lukin was facing it now, it was a baptism of fire, a personal battle in which I could only watch and wait.

"Sometimes," He murmured, tracing the path of the rain on the window pane with a wandering finger, "I just wonder how I ended up here."

***

We set out mid-morning.

I hadn?t slept well, although I fancy Lukin looked the worst for wear; he was still adjusting to a nomad?s life, five hours of edgy, shallow sleep a night had left him bleary-eyed and ill-tempered. The anger didn?t come out at me, of course, but every action he made was powered by a low, bubbling rage, he kicked out at wreckage and slammed doors like a furious child.

I didn?t care much for this, truth be told. He struck me as being spoilt, still unaware of where he was or what he would have to do, but these were small concerns compared to the rewards Lukin could bring me.

We met over three weeks ago, when his fate was suddenly and abruptly thrust into my hands. I was drinking in Haven, the Stalker compound, sharing a story with Siamko when the door smashed in and two men dragged a limp, bloodied body inside.

Siamko sighed and shook his head, ?another soldier of the revolution?.

The ?revolution? took place roughly once a fortnight, a group of Controllers would wait until they had influenced enough Stalkers and soldiers then use them to launch an attack on the dividing fence. Such attacks never succeeded, of course, the Military was too well-armed and too paranoid to be taken by surprise, but when these assaults began to occur with clockwork regularity they were sardonically dubbed to be mutant revolutions.

At first nobody wanted to be near when it happened, they would stare at the spectacle through binoculars, huddled on the roof of a nearby building in quiet and cautious awe. When these events became familiar, however, the more enterprising, or desperate, among the Stalkers recognized the opportunities every revolution stirred up.

The zombie solders and Stalkers the Controllers used were always armed, and when they were inevitably mowed down the battlefield was littered with equipment waiting for a new owner; radios, machine-guns, flak jackets, helmets, all tempting prospects. The significant prize, though, was the advanced Military equipment, as Army troops were sent in to mop up what remained of the Controllers? forces and inevitably suffered a few casualties.

For many of us the risk was too great, but the revolution became well known as being the first stop for amateur Stalkers down on their luck; few came back out alive, even fewer with something to show for it.

As I was to find, though, Lukin was different.

One of the men who brought him in was Tarn, a veteran Stalker who had walked the zone for over fifteen years. As Lukin was hauled into Bloch?s surgery I turned to Tarn for answers, despite his sweat, his blood and his aching muscles he seemed excited to see me.

"Why did you bring this one, Tarn?" I asked curiously. "I thought you had little sympathy for children of the revolution."

Smiling, he gestured me over to a more secluded corner of the room and wiped the sweat from his brow. "this one is different, Abram, this one is valuable."

I looked over at the Surgery, catching brief glimpses of the bustling movement within. "he bleeds much the same as any other I have seen."

Tarn was smug. "I was coming back in from the zone, my longest trip yet, an entire month in the depths of it, yet I had little to show for this. I decided that I would visit the revolution, I know?.I know?but I needed goods to barter if I could even afford a hot meal."

He blew out a breath and ran a hand through his lank, white hair. "It was chaos, of course. Those ridiculous boys who come here with ideas of money and power, cut down as they ran out into the battlefield and tried to grab fallen spoils. I kept to the edges, waiting for the gunfire to stop before I gathered what I could, but as I hid behind a burned out car I saw something of interest."

"A Controller was moving amongst the rubble, scuttling from cover to cover, and leapt up to perch atop a cracked, concrete support. A boy,that boy walked out of the darkness and passed below it, not realising the creature was above him until it was too late. We?ve both seen what happens then; convulsions, the victim staggering and thrashing as though trying to tear something from the air, then they stand, deadened, and the Controller has another minion for it?s ranks."

I nodded. "This much I know."

"Yes," Tarn agreed, his smile widening, "but that didn?t happen here, the boy kep this mind, it confused that creature no end!"

The old man tipped his head back and laughed in delight. "I had never seen such a thing, it stared and stared and stared at him yet he did nothing but remain frozen there in fear. Eventually the creature must have realised it was hopeless and fled, I could barely believe it, just as I was gathering my wits to step out and talk to the boy he ran out into the battlefield."

I frowned. "Surely you are not suggesting he was?..immune to the Controller?s influence?"

Tarn chuckled. "I know! It sounds impossible, absurd! Yet I knew even if there was a chance of it being true I had to try and save him, I dragged his body halfway here until Premil saw me and lent a hand. But we do not have much time, my friend, and the boy will surely die if he does not receive medical attention."

I knew what was coming. "You want me to cover his treatment to Bloch, do you have any idea how much that zhopa will charge for gunshot wounds?"

"Do you have any idea how much the Military would pay for alive Controller?" Tarn countered. "To the best of my knowledge, one has never been captured."

I thought quickly, desperately trying to determine whether this was a heaven sent opportunity or fool?s gold. "What do you get out of this, old man?"

"A 30% cut of your spoils, on capturing the Controller," Tarn said firmly. "I believe that to be fair."

I opened my mouth to speak, closed it, and tried to wrestle the decision into a workable solution, I couldn?t afford to be wrong.

"Very well, I had best not come to regret this decision Tarn."

"My friend," he smiled, slapping me on the shoulder, "this decision will make both of us rich."
  10:06:39  11 March 2006
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Amoki
back with a vengeance
(V.I.P.)

 

 
On forum: 07/31/2003
Messages: 1729
Part 2 of 4

Human beings are never satisfied.

It makes us unique, I suppose, that we have some deeper need to trawl the oceans and probe the heavens, gathering facts and data to lay out in books and theories. We keep moving, keep forming and shaping our world, because if not then what are we? What are we but intelligent animals aware of our own mortality?

What are we indeed.

Stupid, arrogant, I?ll tell you now.

Designing equipment to take us places that would otherwise break our bodies or stop our hearts, places we were never meant to be, we just go there because we can, because weneed.

Another long, rivulet of sweat slips down my back, a distant cousin to the maddening, moisture laden itch which has taken residence across my scalp. I close my eyes and try to banish all feeling, drawing in long, slow breaths of air, but the air steals all the saliva from my mouth and leaves my throat as dry and sharp as hot sand.

I curse the man who invented this suit, who set everything into motion, if he had appeared then out of the fog I would have gunned him down.

Ease, concentrate, calm.

I flex my hands around theAK-47, gripping it as a diver would his tow line, and turn my head to look at the other figure. It was difficult to see Lukin, even from several feet away, the mercury red fog swirled and enveloped him, moving almost as though it were alive and hungry to find some way inside the protective suit.

A single tear would be enough.

Therust-redcloud would slip through it, settling on his skin in searing waves, roasting and burning the living tissue, taking away the softer parts first; eyes, nose, ears, lips, like a cannibalistic connoisseur, then it incinerates the hair, leaving nothing more than a living skull that keeps screaming, and screaming, and screaming.

Ease, concentrate, calm.

Lukin saw me staring and lifted a hand from the pump-action shotgun, giving a thumbs up motion, I nodded and forced myself to turn away.

Objects rose out of the fog as we moved forward, a number of thick, black electricity cables snaked across the concrete, reaching out from the fallen wooden pylon which had been brought to ground years before. Scattered barrels, their surfaces corroded, had leaked long, black trails across the road, in this visibility the liquid looked like blood that some huge beast had left behind. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I first saw the outline of it, but soon enough we drew close to a crashed Moskvich car. Half of the front bonnet was caved in, streaks of metal and paint, which scratched out a path on the wall leading away from us, seemed to suggest that the Moskvich had hit the building and carried on along it for a good distance.

I raised my AK and slowly circled the wreckage, tilting the body of the rifle for a brief second to check the life-form detector I had duct-taped to the side of it. All of the car?s windows were tightly drawn, there were no blown tires, no bullet-holes or explosive damage, it could have been any ordinary automobile accident.

The glass was smeared with residue, I reluctantly wiped it away with one gloved hand and leant forward, peering inside.

Poor, young bastard.

I swallowed, the sight causing a batch of purling, liquid tentacles to generate in my stomach. Hands still gripping the wheel, a blackened corpse sat crumpled in the driver?s seat, the body was badly decomposed but still I could see that it was wearing only a flak jacket, no suit or mask. The impact of the crash had popped the boot of the car open, inside was a collection of twisted metal pipes and casings, along with a padded vial of Galantine.

I guessed that the steel remnants were gravitational artifacts.

It was a good haul, and one which I expect this amateur Stalker was anxious to have valued and sold, so in his excitement he took a single, stupid chance. Couldn?t afford a suit yet, but going around the fog saturated area would have added a day?s travel, maybe more.

I could imagine him weighing it up, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as silent arguments and counter-arguments were made, the stuttering car engine idling away. He made his choice, did up all the windows, closed the vents, slammed his foot down on the accelerator and was finished from that exact moment on.

"Stupid children," I murmured, sounding every bit like Siamko as he lamented the latest casualties of the revolution, the comparison should have made me smile.

Sighing, I gestured to Lukin that we were to carry on, a long look over his shoulder at the Moskvich made me certain I?d be questioned on it later.

At least this dead fool showed we were near the edge.

***

People assume that Stalkers live for combat.

It?s true, some of us are ex-Spetsnatz, retired Military; people who could snap your neck with a simple reflex, or punch a bullet through your skull in a split second, but that doesn?t mean that we want to do it.

Those who are intelligent enough to avoid spending a single round are the rare few who earn genuine respect, not the respect which is paid out by the amateurs for the man with the most expensive gun or the most exciting and bloody stories under his belt.

Siamko had genuine respect.

Two years ago he was an amateur, a clueless imbecile who turned up loaded for bare with a single canteen of water, an aging Tockarev pistol, and a dog-eared copy of Two Weeks with a Stalker.

The publication of that book increased the number of Stalkers ten-fold, yet few ever lasted more than a week so they died with the nicknames Lamire silently assigned them as they entered Haven. Siamko was christened Fellow Reaper, not because Lamire saw him as an awesome figure, leaving corpses in his wake, but rather someone who was so eager to die he must know death personally.

Just like the boy in the crashed Moskvich he didn?t purchase a suit, he wanted to see the true heart of The Zone and he didn?t want to wait. It was as though he suspected us of a mass deception, that while we were advising him to move no further than an hour away from Haven, at least to begin with, unseen colleagues of ours were stripping Chernobyl bare of all it?s riches.

He returned a week later crawling with radiation, Lamire scanned him from a distance and told him he would be shot if he came any closer, he was a danger to everyone in Haven. Fellow Reaper retreated to an abandoned block of flats and waited to die, bitterness welling up inside him. Although those sympathetic to his suffering left food and water at the entrance to his room, nobody directly saw Reaper for over a fortnight.

Lamire said the boy was so dirty that he would be lucky to last the week, yet the food and water kept disappearing, and rumors as to Reaper?s current state replaced all other conversation. Stalkers would lie in hiding, watching the supplies they had left, hoping to catch a glimpse of this living impossibility, but to the best of my knowledge none ever did.

Fellow Reaper quickly became a ghastly legend, and a strange but underlying fear spread amongst us. Some argued that, still living, he could be mutating into something dangerous, something which we were allowing to live. Others denied this, claiming that they had heard wretched sobs echoing from Fellow Reaper?s apartment, the sound of a tortured soul.

One week later the mystery was exploded.

The man we knew as Fellow Reaper entered Haven unmolested by Lamire, took a seat in the corner, and let out a long, strangely satisfied, sigh. He seemed unaware of the stares clubbing him with their unanswered questions, yet nobody would move or speak.

Hardly thinking, I walked over and sat across from him.

We talked until the sun rose.

The radiation had manifested itself in an extreme form of Progeria, I was speaking to someone who, for all intents and purposes, had aged fifty years in the past month. His self-assured, cocky tone was now a cracked rumble, and those youthful hands were now palsied and static, he sat hunched in his chair as though this new body was quickly collapsing in on itself.

Yet, despite all this, he smiled more than anyone I have ever known, even as he told me of his torments, of fearing he was losing his identity, his very sanity, he reflected on the trials with a quiet gratitude. He had expected to fight monsters and search for treasure, but the only battle Siamko had faced over the past four weeks was a battle against himself; a fight to alter and adapt before he became a twenty year old trapped in a seventy year old body, he had to move with the transformation or he knew it would destroy him.

As he sat there, silently pitied by so many, he told me of how he had always feared becoming a man, of how he was sure he would lose or surrender some part of himself in doing so.

"Maybe I wanted to die, I think that may be true. To be struck down while I still held my own ideas and my own freedoms, before time pulled me forward. I was killed, this place killed my selfishness and my doubt, it forced me to become a man."

Siamko still intended to be a Stalker, but this time questioned everyone he could lay his hands on regarding the zone, cross-referencing their reports with others to confirm authenticity. He began to write, noting down the information in a slow, painstakingly detailed fashion, splitting every area of Chernobyl into different chapters and sections.

He would venture out with other Stalkers to make sure his work was accurate, amazingly the vast majority of Haven had no objections to bringing a seventy year old man along on their missions. The gulf of expectation that had surrounded Siamko?s disappearance was now filled with admiration, at first it was admiration for his continuing to function after such a trauma, but now it was admiration at what he was trying to accomplish.

Eventually we all recognised what that was.

A book to stand against the false bravado and vacant adventures of Two weeks with a Stalker.

It was released in very limited, hand-written copies, copies which were passed from amateur Stalker to amateur Stalker; their pages becoming smudged with dirt and grease yet still remaining a prized item among many.

Siamko only added a title after constant pestering, and, when he did so, it was simple yet utterly appropriate.

Fellow Reaper.

***

The body of the AK-47 vibrated in my hands, I clasped them down tightly to make sure that the tremor wasn?t my own, but the quick, constantt 'hrum-thrum-thrum' had now built up to a frequency.

I tilted the rifle and studied the detector.

Twelve contacts, heading straight for us.

Clicking the safety catch down on the AK, I fired a burst into the air to signal Lukin, he span round at the report then awareness came over him and his entire body coiled like a spring.

I found the detector?s switch and flicked it off, leveling the rifle and peering down it?s sights as we slowly began to move. There seemed to be a sound in the air now, or at least flooding my mind; an unremitting, hollow roar, as though someone had lifted two, empty seashells to my ears. Sometimes moving through the fog could feel like walking underwater, the way it shifted and curled around you like liquid, the relentless, nagging feeling of being a fabric depth away from total vulnerability.

The air was growing thin in my mask, I couldn?t tell whether my oxygen was running out or if hysteria was taking over, either way I had to find my way out of this hell soon.

I don?t belong here.

Shapes began to form in the fog, the vague shadows of men which slowly resolved into solid figures. Each one of them was enveloped in smoke, not the thick, generous smoke that pours from a bonfire but a thin, sickening steam rising from their bodies like spilt chemicals. The dull bleach-white of bone showed through on every patch of exposed flesh, jaws were eaten away by the atmosphere to expose huge, skeletal grins.

Clothes hung around their ruined bodies in tatters, parts of the camouflaged uniforms set hard with crusts of filth, one of the men wore a decontamination suit but it?s glass visor was cracked into a spiderweb. Tears flowed down their cheeks, tinted red with blood, the fluid staining their exposed teeth and slipping into a dozen vacantly open mouths.

I don?t belong here.

I prayed to God that not a shred of individuality existed in any of them, I had to perceive their suffering as the slow disintegration of puppets on strings, of tools that were simply wearing down to bluntness.

I had to.

It was difficult to believe that any of them could still see, so I quietly stepped to one side intending to let the group pass. I had almost forgotten about Lukin until he cocked the pump-action, theshi-kikof metal on metal giving away his position and throwing us into a battle we could?ve avoided.

The first shot came from him, a loud blast which tore into the lead zombie and span him like a top, the remaining creatures using the origin of that sound to bring their weapons to bare. I mashed down on the AK?s trigger and sprayed the crowd, stitching a line of bloody geysers across three zombies and wounding a fourth, brass casings spitting from the rifle.

With a harshsnap, my magazine was empty.

Bullets began to fly from the group, shredding up the ground around me and punching holes in nearby barrels,viiiiippingpast my head like steel-plated mosquitoes. I threw myself to the ground as pain ripped into my left shoulder, the fall knocked the breath out of my lungs and I struggled to draw new air in to replace it.

The oxygen now tasted thin and gassy, sour leftovers, I had another couple of minutes at best.

Barrels crashed aside as one of the creatures launched itself at me, the glinting steel of a knife flashing down. I twisted away and brought the butt of the AK up hard, cracking the zombie in the mouth, sending it?s teeth scattering to the concrete like a broken pearl necklace. The weight of thatthingcame down on me, jolting themachine-gunfrom my hands, blood splattering down onto my goggles and forcing me to thrash blindly.

The strength in this creature was unnatural; emaciated arms, which should have snapped like twigs, instead pistoned into me with jackhammer-hard blows, the ruined fingers that held the knife did so in a death-grip, and my hardest punches only struck non-feeling muscle and bone.

As the blade slashed the empty air, glancing off one of my air hoses with a metallic shriek, I succeeded in yanking my pistol from it?s holster. I fired too many times, half-emptying the magazine, drilling round after round through this monstrosity until finally a slug blew out the back of it?s skull like compacted dynamite.

Wrestling the limp corpse from my chest, I wiped frantically at my goggles to clear them, smearing the blood into long streaks. Another shotgun blast rang out, followed by two more, dull flashes of gunfire lighting up the fog. Looping the strap of the AK over my head, I ignored the steady burning in my left shoulder and ran towards the shots, sweat now dripping like water inside my mask.

Every part of me ached, the landscape blurred in and out of focus, it was worse than before, yet still I grit my teeth and pushed the sensations away.

A shape rose out of the fog to my right, without thinking I jerked up the Browning and fired twice. The figure staggered back, a hand clapped to it?s neck as blood sprayed from the jugular, and let loose a torrent of wildmachine-gunfire even as it crumpled lifelessly to the ground.

I was running again, trusting another shot to show me where, when four figures appeared to my left, jerking into view as though the hand controlling them was growing more frenzied and erratic. Finger twitching on the trigger of the Browning, three loud slams ringing in my ears, I put down the first figure. The rest of my bullets tore into dead tissue, causing the creatures to stumble and twitch, but they kept coming.

As I scrabbled for another clip, powerful hands closed around my throat from behind and sent the Browning clattering to the concrete. I struck out with my elbows, ramming them into the creature?s chest, then span round and drove my fist into it?s ruined face.

The blow ripped it?s jaw away, but those fingers latched around my neck once again and squeezed so hard that a brilliant, white light exploded across my eyes. I felt myself falling, and other hands striking me, but none of that mattered anymore, I had lost the strength to fight it.

My air-hose was ripped away and the world filled with a searing agony, as though my skin was on fire.

I choked on the fog, thinking once again of that stupid boy in his car, his coffin, of how we were not so different after all.

As threads of unconsciousness closed over my eyes, dragging me down in waves of velvet, I realised that every Stalker I had ever met was the same.

We were all going to die, the only thing that set us apart was where we fell and why we were there.
  10:15:19  11 March 2006
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Amoki
back with a vengeance
(V.I.P.)

 

 
On forum: 07/31/2003
Messages: 1729
Part 3 of 6

"Shoot him."

I swallowed, my hand flexing on the pistol's grip, the wind around us whipping up into a frenzy as though anticipating what was to come. Clouds boiled overhead, threatening rain, we were the only life in a dull, industrial landscape, and I knew I was observing all these things to stop from focusing on the person whose head met the barrel of my Makarov.

The man on his knees, hands bound behind his back with cable ties, who was quickly and quietly praying, eyes squeezed tightly shut in anticipation of my bullet.

Four hours ago he was a Stalker, we didn?t know how long before that he had been hiding the growth on his lower neck, or how he thought he could ever have got away with it for that matter.

Desperation can do strange things, the hot, sickening rush of blunt realities piling up around you will unravel a rational mind with frightening speed. Every move you make plays into it, every intended correction just adds energy to the destruction, and before you know it you?re in quicksand; nothing you can do and no-one you know is going to help you now.

We tested the growth, Bloch declared it malignant, cancerous, and I?m sure that Pravec wondered at the sickening double-standards that could allow the man he bribed to keep this illness quiet, to be the man that was allowed to diagnose him for a second time and seal his fate.

Silence could be bought, but only a fool would keep to that silence when confronted with the undeniable truth. Bloch was not knelt beside Pravec because of the unspoken rules that ran through this place, counters and half-measures which were little more than feeble dressings on festering sores, but enough to soothe cynical consciences.

Pravec was D.N.R, yet he had pretended otherwise, that much was a death sentence in any faction.

Sovereign was no exception.

I looked round and saw the five other men standing watching me, their expressions bored and distant, one urinating noisily against the side of a building. Their listless contempt for this execution triggered a hot surge of anger inside me, and my fist tightened around the Makarov in response. ?do you not think this pointless bloodlust? To take the life of a dying man??

This objection ceased the splash of urine, and the man looked nervously over his shoulder, first at David and then at myself. The others took a sudden and obviously forced interest in their weapons, one lit a cigarette and drew on it nervously as his eyes flicked between me and the group commander.

David was not a natural leader, he did not fill empty rooms with a tremendous presence, but what he did possess was an uncanny understanding of his fellow man. He was one of those rare few who took part in this play but could see the controlling influences surrounding everyone and everything, and while I was certain such knowledge troubled him deeply it also gave him an unquestionable power.

"You believe we should set him free?" David asked evenly, "that his disease is punishment enough?"

I became suddenly aware that the prayers beneath me had ceased, and I knew without looking that Pravec was now staring at me.

There were eight rounds in the pistol, and I was trapped in an argument I could not possibly win, with an innocent man?s life as forfeit. I studied Sovereign as one; calculating how long it would take Hassan to jam that clip back into his AN-94, of how quickly Ladimir could drop that cigarette and draw a bead on me with his Glock, of whether Vlichko would risk unloading his RG-6 at such close quarters.

No way a 9x18 round could ever threaten Kevlar, so I needed five headshots, with a three bullet margin of error.

Impossible.

I know Pravec was praying now not to a Deity about to welcome him into the afterlife, but rather that I really was that good, that I could wipe out an entire Stalker faction and escort him to freedom.

"I do." I replied. "You are judging him for mistakes he has not even committed, how can such a judgment be called justice?"

"So?" David mused, considering the evidence with a vaguely amused smile. "You stand there now, telling me that this man, with cancer gnawing at his bones, would not have failed us in the future? That his body would still be strong, his judgment clear, until the day he died?"

"I risked my life for you, for all of you!" Pravec blurted, his tone wavering, "I only needed enough money for my family, so they at lea-?"

David was on his feet, striding purposefully forward. "Be silent! This... sickness has affected more than your body if you see yourself as a victim! Every man here placed their lives in your hands, you who knew you were not fit for the task! Nothing occurs here today that you have not forced us toward!"

Pravec sobbed, his arms writhing endlessly against the bonds, "I...I would have left before the worst of it, I swear! There... there was no other way!"

He was right, of course. The terminally ill Stalkers, the D.N.Rs, were not allowed to join any existing faction, or even to form their own. Even if you are of sound body and mind, with a disease which won?t extinguish your life for another six months, you will not earn the amount you seek in that time by seeking it alone.

We allowed the D.N.Rs to become Stalkers, but it would have been kinder to turn them away at the outset, rather than pump them full of false hope and send them out into this place, to die away from their families chasing worthless trinkets.

I saw myself in Pravec, so much so that perhaps he should have been pressing this gun to my head, he symbolized everything that Stalkers didn?t want to admit about themselves.

Fear, desperation, despair, betrayal.

By slaying him were we trying to convince ourselves that we had murdered those weaknesses, and in turn gain a few priceless hours as indestructible men, warriors, before the infection crept back in?

I wish I could tell you.

David, adrenaline and perceived righteousness spilling through him, ignored the traitor and turned on me "And you, Abram! Have you learnt nothing during your time here? What do you think will happen if we release this man without punishment? Word will spread, others will take the same path, believing that the worst they might receive is mere banishment."

He stood so both I and the rest of Sovereign could see his face, it was a well-measured performance. "I never desired that it might come to this," he sighed, voice heavy with regret, "and I know that some of you may not wish to see Pravec killed. But this place does not repay acts of kindness, of consideration."

David spoke the next words with great conviction, driving the pommel of his fist into a cupped hand to add weight to the most important of them. "All we have is the solidarity, the strength, of our group. We must defend these at all costs. Because the zone will allow us nothing else. One act of kindness, of mercy, now could unravel any trust we have left in each other."

"Please, David" I said quietly, only for him to hear, "I... cannot do this."

Now staring only at me, he continued speaking as though nothing had been said, loud enough for the entire group to hear. "Would you entrust your lives to a sniper with a brain tumor? Or a medic with AIDS? Once the links that bind us together are weakened, unstable, then we are no longer a faction, no longer a group, just a bunch of hopeless men who know it is safer to be alone."

"Enough!" I snapped, frustration that I couldn't match such eloquence, that it was impossible to win that way, overwhelming me. "No matter how you glorify it this is murder, David! And I will not be the one with this man's blood on my hands!"

The group leader observed me carefully, as though he had just spotted a new species deep in the zone and was trying to figure it out. "If you will not do what is best for the group," he said slowly, "then it falls to me."

David popped the catch on his holster and drew the Browning, keeping it by his side, ?I will give you one last chance to do the right thing.?

"Or what?" I spluttered in nervous disbelief, the Makarov trembling in my grip. "You'll shoot me? Kill me, like you would kill Pravec?"

I locked eyes with David and his stare told me that was exactly what he wanted to do, there was an anger burning in him with such intensity that I marveled at his ability to control it. I knew his kind, they were not so special, brick by brick a logical face was cemented over the rage, keeping it prisoner, but this logic, this intensely black and white view of the world was only another form of fury, it was far too rigid and restricting to be anything else.

A laugh, flat and artificial, broke the silence.

"Don't be so melodramatic, Abram." He chided, smirking. "I don't need to shoot you, why would I? It would be far easier to destroy your reputation, to evict you from Sovereign and spread the reasons of your disgrace. Do you think anyone else will take a D.N.R sympathizer on board? How long do you think you?d survive outside of the factions? A week, two, a month?"

"How long?" he asked aloud, and was met with a chorus of answers:

"Five days!"

"One and a ha-?no, two weeks!"

"A week!"

"Six hours!"

Laughter.

David chuckled. ?You see, Abram? I don't need to kill you. The Zone will do that for me. All I need to do is?..cast you adrift.?

"Abram," a voice beneath me croaked, forcing my gaze down to Pravec's tear-stained face. "Shoot me, Abram. It is not worth both of us dying over this, and I... I would rather have this done by a friend, than by any of those animals."

Some form of quiet dignity had stolen over him, so much so that in a single moment I respected this one man, knelt before me, bruised and beaten, more than anyone else I had ever known.

"Pravec," I murmured, the words sticking in my throat as though they were dry and tacky. I would sooner shoot myself. I cannot admit this as a crime, I cannot punish you for it."

His brow furrowed, and all at once realization flooded his face, animating it, he regarded me with a sudden and desperate hunger ? as though I were a commodity, something to be traded. "You! You're... "

I fired once, a self-preservation reflex, and Pravec's head snapped to the right as the bullet punched through his skull. His body crumpled quietly to the grass, no more words to come from those lips, and with that one sacrifice I knew it was too late to ever go back.
  10:17:37  11 March 2006
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Amoki
back with a vengeance
(V.I.P.)

 

 
On forum: 07/31/2003
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*work in progress*

Work in progress, to be resume soon.
  15:51:55  9 February 2007
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Ian_C
The man lacking a plan
(V.I.P.)

 

 
On forum: 08/02/2003
Messages: 273

---QUOTATION---
*work in progress*

Work in progress, to be resume soon.
---END QUOTATION---



I really appreciate all the work you've done on this Amoki, but I've never been completely happy with it as a story and would like a chance to rework it in the future rather than putting it out there in the current form. Unfortunatly I'm requesting this one be stricken from the contest.
 
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