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Live Cargo by Graham Goring

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On forum: 03/02/2005
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Live Cargo by Graham Goring

"I still don't know why they want us to bring back one of these damn things unharmed," complained Ridley, adjusting the stretcher handles to relieve the ache in his hands.

His traveling companion, Dimitri, smiled an unconcerned smile. "Since when did they ever tell us what they wanted artifacts and the like for, eh? All I know is that for the amount of roubles they're going to give us, I'd happily drag back half a dozen of them."

"Well maybe you're happy just dancing to their tune but I plan on doing something else with my life in the zone. Like research or something. Look, can we stop a minute?"

With a nod of the head, Dimitri came to a halt and lowered his end of the stretcher to the ground. Placing his hands on his back, he groaned slightly as he got up.

"Thanks, Dee. Where are we now?" asked Ridley, peering around the streets of the dead city that blocked them in on all sides.

Surveying the scene, the Russian stalker pointed to a what had at one time been predominantly glass-fronted building across the street from them.

"That was the new library, I think," he said before diverting his attention to a laminated map that he had removed from his backpack. After tracing his finger over the page for some moments he jogged a few steps into the road and tried to get a clearer look at the road sign which adorned the corner of the building that loomed over them.

"And this is Gorodoska street," he beamed. "Which means that we're only a few roads over from the vehicle!"

How Dimitri and Ridley had gotten lost in the city in the first place was something of an embarrassment and Ridley took out his frustration by planting his boot in the side of the zombie they had been carrying for the last twenty minutes. They had abandoned the car in a small blind alley to avoid attracting the attention of too many of the shuffling dead that still haunted the city, planning instead to sneak around until they found a solitary specimen that they could easily overpower.

However for some reason they hadn't seen any zombies around at all for over an hour and so in widening their search pattern they had lost track of exactly where they were. With one dilapidated building looking much like another, when they had eventually tracked down a single zombie they had no idea how to get back to where they had parked. But at least they had found their prize, milling through the aisles of what appeared to have once been a grocery store.

That was the one good thing about the zombies; they had no self-motivation and relied upon other far more unpleasant creatures for their thoughts. This meant that if you could avoid being seen by one of the shuffling corpses as you approached it, you could simply impair its vision in some way and it would be rendered almost harmless, perhaps occasionally flailing a bit but certainly not being a serious risk. In this case the impairing had been rather messily accomplished by the use of a bullet through one temple and out the other.

"By the way, do you really think they won't mind about that?" queried Ridley, pointing to the gently seeping wound that took up most of the upper half of the zombie's head.

"Not at all." replied his upbeat companion. "The scientist even suggested that as a way of disabling the thing. I think the only bit that's really important to them is somewhere else in the brain, like here." he continued, tapping the nape of his neck.

"If you say so..." Ridley said doubtfully. "So how long do you think until we get back to the car? It's gonna' be dark pretty soon."

"You know, for a man who came to this God-forsaken place entirely voluntarily, you seem very keen to get out of it all of a sudden." pointed out Dimitri, frowning as he noted the look of worry on his friend's face.

And Ridley couldn't argue with that. He had, after all, come here by choice. Only sixth months ago he had been living in England, but the constant reporting of the strange events in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster had piqued his curiosity. And when he heard about the stalkers and the mysterious tales they had to tell, the temptation was too great and he decided to put his army training to good practice and see the place firsthand. It was a decision that had almost cost him his life on the second day of exploring the zone and only a serendipitous encounter with Dimitri had allowed him to safely navigate his way out of a minefield of concentrated gravity fields.

"I've just got a bad feeling like there's a storm coming or something." he said darkly. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out his anomaly detector flicked the switch on it a few times to make sure it was still operational and then tapped it irritably.

"Don't worry about that," laughed Dimitri. "There was a blowout in this area reported not three days ago. This is just about the safest time to be here and the rust won't be back until Thursday at the earliest. You're always getting spooked by things that don't exist! You had me going for a little while there! Now come on, let's get Mister Leaky here back to the lab."

And so with a last good look around, Ridley got back to his feet and returned to the stretcher with the slowly squirming form of the zombie strapped to it.

"Okay, but I'm getting the gloves and going at the back this time. I swear my hands are bloody killing me..."

It was some half an hour later when they finally trudged round a familiar corner and saw the spot where they'd left their transport.

"Oh, so there was a blowout three days ago was there?" exclaimed Ridley, dropping his end of the stretcher and causing their passenger to convulse and gurgle repulsively.

Dimitri lowered his end more carefully, keeping his eyes on the sight that had befell them. All around where they had parked was a dense, almost perfectly spherical fog bank, its characteristically dirty brown hue unmistakable and bizarrely defined in contrast to the surrounding clear sky.

"Well that shouldn't be there."

"Dammit, Dee, you said that we were safe at this time of week!" shouted Ridley.

"We would be, normally." Said Dimitri, a puzzled expression on his face. "You can't blame me when the anomalous zone lives up to its name like this."

"So what are we going to do now?"

Dimitri got the map out of his backpack once again and studied it. They were on the outskirts of the city of Pripyat which meant that they were some considerable distance from the scientific outpost where they had to deliver the zombie. Certainly it was too far for the two of them to carry the dead weight, especially now that the night was drawing in.

"I think it would be best if we holed up in one of these buildings," he said, pointing to the industrial estate that lined the road. "We should be okay until the morning and with a bit of luck the fog will have dissipated by then."

At the mention of it, Ridley took another long look at the fog bank. Despite its deadly nature there was something beautiful about the perfect symmetry of its shape. Often Ridley had caught himself staring up into the clouds when he was on the border of the zone, watching as the fluffy white shapes crossed over the boundary and almost instantly changed color and shape, growing darker and flowing oddly as if avoiding certain areas of the sky. Above the city now the clouds were still visible in the failing light, squatting over them oppressively and displaying a malevolence that reflected the landscape in the anomaly.

Looking back down at his partner, Ridley nodded and picked up his end of the stretcher, motioning towards the nearest building with open doors.

"Think that place will do?" he asked.

"Only one way to find out," replied Dimitri.

The interior of the building was like most of the others they had encountered, with rusting beams and shards of glass broken up by small patches of vegetation that had somehow taken a hold over the years. Most of the structure appeared to be concrete, however, and therefore not likely to collapse any time soon. The ground floor of the building appeared to be fairly open, and with their torches turned on and swinging around in arcs, Ridley and Dimitri soon confirmed that their immediate surroundings were devoid of other occupants.

"Let's see what's upstairs," suggested Dimitri, shining the beam of his torch towards a stairwell that occupied one of the side walls.

They hefted the stretcher up a mostly undamaged stairway and after a few minutes of grunting and shoving found themselves on the third floor of the building, which appeared to have been adapted from the usual open-plan design to house many smaller offices. A long time ago the doors had been brightly colored with small silver plaques detailing what each room was for but the neglect of a decade had meant that what paint remained was cracked and peeling with a faded due and the signs had tarnished warped strangely. The carpeting in the hall was likewise in no fit state, having had mud tracked into it and suffering from exposure to the elements, and what office furniture remained was upturned or smashed, most likely in the panicked evacuation that occurred after the initial disaster.

"We should try and find an internal office with no windows in it. The last thing we need is some controller seeing us from a nearby rooftop and sending in its puppets," advised Dimitri. "Come to think of it, we should probably stick the body in another room. He might not be able to see us any more, but I don't want him smelling us and then something nearby picking up on the signal."

"Right," agreed Ridley, his head scanning left and right to see if one of the open offices looked suitable. Choosing one he gave it a cursory examination with the light from his torch and then dragged the stretcher and its passenger into the room. After checking that all the straps were secure, he closed the door and heaved a nearby filing cabinet in front of it as an extra measure of protection. "Can't be too careful, eh?" he grimaced.

"I'd better save the batteries in my torch, actually. I'm not sure when I replaced them last." Ridley continued, flicking the switch and plunging his corner of the office into almost complete darkness. "That's odd," he commented. "You'd think that some of the light from outside would be getting in."

Curious as to why it was so dark Ridley padded around a nearby corner and noticed that every single window on this floor had been already blocked. Sometimes it was furniture that had been piled precariously in front of it to block out the light and in other instances the polystyrene ceiling tiles had been removed and placed over where the glass once was. Coming back around the corner he noticed that Dimitri too was examining the blockages where the windows had been. His Russian friend turned around, his torchlight blinding Ridley temporarily.

"Hey! Watch it, friend.", he said reproachfully.

"Sorry," apologized Dimitri. "Maybe we aren't the first ones to stay in here in chateau crappy, eh?"

"Yeah, maybe the original tenants did it when Chernobyl went up." shrugged Ridley. "To try and stop the radiation or something?"

Dimitri had to acknowledge this as a possibility. In a world that was stupid enough to teach children that "duck and cover" would save them from a nuclear blast, he could easily believe people would be foolish enough to think that bits of wood and plaster would afford them a similar degree of protection.

"I wonder what happened to the people who worked in this place?" he mused.

"Cancer, if they were lucky." speculated Ridley darkly.

Dimitri shivered, remembering the disaster's terrible legacy. "Anyway, I think we should take turns on watch. I'll go first if you want to get some rest."

"Thanks, yeah." said Ridley gratefully. He was dog-tired after carrying their cargo for the last hour and would happily get some shuteye. Wearily he walked into their chosen office and slumped down in one of the battered but comfortable chairs that lined the far wall. Obviously this had been a waiting room of some kind in the past and he was grateful for the ex-owner's obvious taste in furniture.

"I'll wake you in four hours, okay?"

Groggily Ridley nodded and made murmuring sounds, but the events of the day were fast catching up with him and so he drifted into sleep within minutes. But it wasn't a restful sleep. Here in the zone there was no such thing. Even for miles around the perimeter people couldn't get a proper nights sleep because of the dreams. Strange dark bloodied colors swirled in his mind, shapes forming and changing before he could identify them properly but all of them suggesting an organic form. Then teeth would seem to erupt from dark flesh before being enveloped once more. Milky, unseeing eyes would occasionally surface in the pools of red, blindly turning this way and that before sinking back below.

"Oh jeeze!" Ridley inhaled sharply as he awoke.

The room felt black and empty. Straining to make out details, Ridley tried to remember where he was, and as objects like the nearby reception desk came into focus he recalled his situation. Looking out into the room he tried to make out his friend's form but nothing was forthcoming. The far corner of the room was nothing but darkness, the strange grainy but oddly colored darkness that accompanies the complete absence of light, causing the rods and cones in his eyes to fire sporadically, adding detail where there was none.

"Dimitri?" he whispered, but there was no response. Perhaps he had fallen asleep?

Pulling back his sleeve slightly, he felt for the button on his watch that would make the display light up. Finding it bathed his immediate surroundings in an unearthly blue light. It was past three in the morning, at least two hours after Dimitri was supposed to wake him.

"Dimitri?" he asked, somewhat louder. When no reply was forthcoming he knew what he had to do.

"Oh hell" he said.

Getting unsteadily to his feet he reached for the nearby desk to steady him. Then patting his pockets he located his torch and turned it on and pointed it systematically into the corners of the room. The light emitting from it wasn't the brilliant white that he was used to but a slightly darker yellow that waned even as he watched.

"Damn it, not now!", he cursed under his breath. Quite aware that he could easily trip and knock himself unconscious if he tried navigating the unfamiliar building in the dark. Reaching into his breast pocket he pulled out the anomaly detector and felt the back of it until he managed to price open the battery compartment. Rubbing his fingers over the cylinders inside he realized that as he had feared they were entirely the wrong size. "Well, I guess I'd better just take it slowly.", he reasoned.

Feeling his way gingerly along the edge of the desk he soon arrived at the door, which he opened as quietly as he could revealing yet more blackness beyond. Holding his breath he inched out of the doorway, a perfectly rational fear gripping him as he sidestepped slowly and shakily into the unknown.

Where was Dimitri? In his head he was playing through all the scenarios, consciously keeping to the more innocuous ones like his friend just being off exploring the place or just trying to find a quiet corner to take a leek in. But no matter how much he tried, more unpleasant scenarios kept finding their way into his head. What if he was dead? What had killed him? Where was it now?

With his back flat to the wall and his heart racing he made it to the next doorway. The room where he had stowed the zombie. Reaching out with his had he waved it around trying to gain purchase on the filing cabinet so he wouldn't walk into it. But he couldn't feel it. Panic gripped him. Why wasn't it there? Be reasonable. Be reasonable. Maybe Dimitri just wanted to check that the zombie was still restrained?

Shuffling his feet sideways there was a sharp metallic clang which made him jump. The filing cabinet had obviously fallen over and was lying across the width of the corridor. It was still blocking the door partially, making it impossible to open without first moving the weighty obstacle. But Ridley had to know what was in the room. Had the zombie tried getting out and caused the cabinet to fall over? Why hadn't the noise woken him if that had happened?

Bending down, he slowly worked his fingers under the side of the metal frame and lifted, rolling it over on its corner as carefully as he could manage, all the time listening intently for noises around him. As he almost finished rolling the cabinet he redoubled his grip on it, anxious that is shouldn't slam into the ground, possibly drawing attention to himself.

Standing up again, he turned the handle on the door as soundlessly as he could and stepped backwards as he pulled it open. There was no sound from the room, but then zombies could be quiet as the grave when they wanted to be. Looking intently into the room he noticed that a tiny corner of the window had not been covered up properly, meaning that a single slice of moonlight was cutting into the room and falling on the top of the prone form on the stretcher. Moving forward silently, Ridley tried to get a closer look and was strangely relived when he saw that the only part that the light had properly illuminated was the horribly mangled upper part of a face, thick black blood having caked the flesh around the wound.

"Glad to see you're still enjoying your stay at the hotel," he joked quietly, trying to lighten his mood.

Stepping backwards as quietly as he had entered, he closed the door once more and reached down to roll the filing cabinet back into place. This time he felt slightly more confident as he did it and barely winced when the bottom corner of the cabinet scraped noisily against the door frame. Still crouched down he decided that his next course of action would be to try and find where Dimitri had got to, but as he got up he noticed movement in the patch of darkness by the stairwell and heard a light step as something entered the corridor with him. His breathing stopped immediately and every muscle in his body tensed. With a tiny click a shaft of light appeared by the figures legs, he was holding a torch and it was pointing towards the ground, but slowly the pool of light was creeping across the carpet towards Ridley.

"Oh thank God," said Ridley, exhaling noisily. "I wasn't sure what had happened. Why didn't you wake me?"

No reply, but the pool of light grew steadily closer and closer.

"Dimitri? What are you playing at?" asked Ridley, his uncertainty returning.

As the beam of light angled up ever further, it began to bounce off the surroundings, highlighting sharp cornered cupboards and broken bits of wood, casting distended shadows which danced on the walls. Fumbling for his own torch, Ridley hoped that there was enough charge in it just too briefly illuminates whoever was standing not more than ten meters from him. Pointing it at arms length he flicked the switch and for a split second he saw the figure clearly. He recognized the clothes immediately, because they were the same clothes that he had been paying attention to when he snuck up on their owner earlier that day. But the worst bit was the face, even having only seen it for a few moment he knew what he was looking at, because although the top half of it was still shattered, beneath the matted hair rested a pair of eyes which plainly didn't belong there. Suddenly Ridley realized who was in the room next to him. How it had happened was not relevant at the moment because the brief flash of light had also shown him that the zombie was carrying Dimitri's gun, and by the gentle clinking noise he could hear from the end of the corridor it was being lifted into use.

Luckily Ridley's army training stood him in good stead as he rolled lightly to the left as the first hail of bullets tore through the partition wall by his head. The zombie was obviously not used to handling a weapon as the recoil had made it spin back into a wall, the torch dropping from its hand and coming to a quick rest, casting a pool of light down towards Ridley and making his current hiding place behind a broken cupboard unlikely to last for long.

Swearing to himself, he recalled that he had left his weapon on the floor by the chair he had slept in, and getting to it meant crossing over lit-up corridor and making a clear target of himself. Entrapping his helmet he found a small sliver of wood on which to prop it. Hunkering down as far as he could, he lifted the helmet at arms length so that the zombie would be able to spot it. Another brief hail of gunfire lifted it off the stick and sent it bouncing down the hall. As he had hoped he heard the sound of the zombie slumping against the wall and then falling over as the unfamiliar kick of the weapon once again sent it reeling.

Using the seconds he had bought wisely, Ridley jumped to his feet and burst through the door of the waiting room, piling over towards his chair and slipping on the damp carpet as he did so. As he fell forward he reached for his pistol on the floor in front of him but only succeeded in knocking it under the chair he had been sleeping on, the gun stopping with a clunk as it hit the back wall. Hurriedly rolling up his sleeve he jammed his arm under the chair, but it had been bolted to the ground and the clearance under it was so little that he could barely reach halfway. Getting up he scanned the line of chairs, trying to see if there was any way to reach behind them. From the corridor outside he heard a clanging noise as the zombie tried to negotiate its way over the filing cabinet. It meant he only had a few seconds. Running to the end of the row of chairs he saw that from the side there was a large gap at the base of their rears as they curved up and met the wall. He tried reaching the gun once more from this angle but still wasn't able to get anywhere near it. Another clatter from outside signaled that the zombie had finally gotten over the obstacle and would be there in mere moments. Looking wildly around in the near blackness he noticed that one of the chairs at this end had its armrest sticking out at an odd angle. Grabbing it, it came away in his hand with ease. Flattening himself on the floor he reached under the chair he had slept in once again, pushing so hard that he tore the skin on the back of his forearm. But with the armrest in his hand he was now able to reach the the gun, which he frantically batted at trying to knock it to the end of the row of chairs so he could grab it. Behind him the door crashed open, and looking over shoulder he saw a shape silhouetted in the doorway, the torchlight still casting a dull glow against the wall in the corridor. The reception desk blocked the zombie's clear view of him meaning that he had a few more precious seconds to get at the gun. With one final hit of the armrest it slid out from the end of the row of chairs and he withdrew his arm and made a scrambling dash for his weapon. Sensing this movement the zombie brought it'd gun to bare and loosed off a few shots, splintering the desk and puncturing Ridley's leg. Screaming he grabbed the gun, rolled over and fired two shots through the desk to where he hoped the zombie was. There was a mushy crackling noise and then he heard the zombie slump once more. Heaving himself to his feet with the aid of the desk, Ridley took aim at the fallen creature but soon realized that further bullets wouldn't be necessary. Both of his shots had flown true, striking the zombie in the face and bursting the top of its head open and spraying the contents against the wall. Shaking violently, Ridley turned and sat on the desk, crying out in pain as he twisted his wounded leg.

Suddenly remembering his fallen comrad he half-walked, half-hopped back out into the hall and then heaved the filing cabinet over once more, heedless of the noise it made. Pulling open the door he stumbled in and collapsed to the floor by his friend. Feeling his neck for a pulse which wasn't there any more.

"Oh God. What did you do something stupid like that for, Dimitri?" he asked the corpse, pushing himself up against the wall. "Why did you let yourself get killed?"

Thinking about it, Ridley reasoned that Dimitri must have come in to check on the straps and been attacked, then in some sick retribution the zombie had stolen his eyes and placed them in his own ruined sockets. But why? That wouldn't have allowed the zombie to see again, so why tear out his eyes? And even then, how could a strapped down zombie have overpowered Dimitri in the first place. And if the zombie couldn't see, how had it followed Ridley into the reception. It just didn't add up.

Then he heard it. A tiny child-like laugh in the corridor and then the patter of unbooted feet. A controller. The missing piece of the puzzle.

Ridley silently made his way to the door and then peered out the left, where he'd heard the noise. The light from the torch made it pretty clear that there wasn't anything in the hallway and so he slipped over and picked it up, checking the battery level and noting with some satisfaction that it was still at sixty percent. Picking his way back past the cabinet he paused outside the door of the reception and readied himself, then in one swift motion he spun around into the room. Limping in as fast as he could he shone the torch all around the room, checking behind the reception desk in particular. Empty.

Deciding that he wanted more than a pistol as his means of defense he looked over to where the zombie had fallen, but the Kalashnikov it had been carrying was nowhere to be seen. Although controllers preferred to pull the strings from afar, there had been stories of them using weapons they found quite capably in the past. Ridley swore and then awkwardly moved back out into the corridor, turning left and making for the remaining offices on that floor.

One by one he gently twisted the door handles and then burst into the rooms, but each of them held nothing but broken wood and metal. Going back out into the hall he made for the stairwell, pushing the filing cabinet back against the left wall so it wouldn't get in his way any more. Shining the torch first up and then down the stairs he was fairly satisfied that the controller wasn't there. Then he heard the childish laughter once more, back towards the offices he had just checked. Angered by the way the creature was obviously toying with him he tried his best to run back towards the noise, noticing that the door at the very end of the hall was slowly drifting open. Fiddling with the torch he set it to a narrower beam and focused it on the doorway, and crouched behind a swivel chair he saw dirty skin of the controller.

"You bastard..." he said quietly, raising his gun. For a split second he wondered why the controller wasn't attempting to aim back him, but then he saw that it didn't appear to be holding the Kalashnikov at all. Steadying himself he cast the doubt from his mind and squeezed the trigger.

The was a sharp crack, and then white hot pain spread through Ridley's chest like a spider's web of agony. Looking down he noticed a few curls of steam rising from the torn material at the front of his jacket. Incomprehension swelled in his mind as his body collapsed to the floor, rolling over onto its back. He could taste blood on his tongue and knew he would lose consciousness very soon and so with the last of his energy, his fingers probed at the buttons on his torch, somehow flicking it from narrow back to wide beam.

And then he saw Dimitri. Swaying from side to side and still bleeding profusely, he nevertheless seemed alert. Sniffing at the air keenly, he angled his head downwards and seemed to look at Ridley's leg.

Ridley chuckled stupidly to himself. If they can see you, why can't they smell you? It seemed kind of obvious really. He'd been foolish not to think of it before. And he laughed to himself once more, his voice being joined by that of a playful child.
 
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