back with a vengeance
On forum: 07/31/2003
Rain pattered rhythmically off of the makeshift lean-to, dripping off the edge to pool in the muddy grass near the worn combat boots that protected Michael’s feet. He sighed and pushed a long strand of damp hair from his eyes, the wet, musty smell from his leather gloves momentarily mingling with the scent of the rain. It was relaxing, listening to the gentle patter. It was probably the only relaxing thing inside the zone. He adjusted himself against the dead tree that the lean-to was built on so that a knot pressed against his back; the slight pain and discomfort would keep him awake and alert until his watch was up. He glanced momentarily at his friend who lay sleeping beside him. He never understood how Alex could sleep so well in such terrifying conditions. He propped the Dragunov rifle against his shoulder and rubbed the side of his neck with a yawn.
He glanced off to his right, his attention caught by three quick flashes of light that cut through the oppressive darkness and glimmered through the rain. He lifted a small signal light of his own and flashed back twice, signaling that all was well and calm. Had it already been two hours? Michael idly wondered how long he had been lost in thought. Had he missed that signal, Daniel would have woken up Sarah and they would have been over to their lean-to in moments, armed and alert.
Mike looked out into the rain once again. Every stalker wonders how life had led them to the Zone. Mike knew. It was a plane crash, on route to Japan from Europe. He, Alex and Dan had planned and saved up their money for this trip for a long time, a tour through Europe, a two day stop in Russia, and then the rest of their journey was to be spent in Japan. The plane they rode in met with some heavy weather patterns, and as far as they could tell, the pilot was attempting to skirt the storm. They never knew what had struck the plane, but the next thing they knew, they awoke amongst the burning wreckage of the airliner in this godforsaken hell. They weren’t the only survivors; five others had made it out of the crash. One of them was Sarah Douglas, a grad student on her way to Russia to study abroad from Canterbury. The three of them and Sarah volunteered to find help, and went to look for a nearby town.
Michael shook his head to clear away the memories. What were they supposed to expect? Certainly not the dogs or whatever the hell they were that attacked the plane. Lucky for them they had been away at the time. Not so lucky for the other survivors. Their screams still echoed in his mind when he tried to sleep at night. Another stroke of luck came from the bodies they found in the woods as they crept away from the crash site. Three soldiers, armed and well equipped. The fact their heads were missing was unsettling, but after those dogs, Mike believed very little would ever shake him again. He had never been big with faith, but after that, he had begun praying… to whom or what, he didn’t know, but he did.
The dead men’s guns were in good condition and fully loaded. They had extra clips on them as well, which was good, because that night the dogs caught up with them.
Michael blinked and rubbed his scarred arm. That was two months ago. However the hell they had survived was a mystery. The military wouldn’t allow them to leave the Zone, so they had to find other means. An old Russian soldier who (thankfully) spoke a fair amount of English and lived alone just inside the Zone taught them about the weapons they had, about the Zone, and told them he could get them out. It was going to cost them though…
Shielding his eyes from the piercing sun, Michael slowly awoke to another calm, eerily silent morning in the Zone. The rain had stopped, and the light grey clouds that hung motionless in the sky cast a surreal aura over the surrounding landscape. Nearby, Dan, Alex and Sarah sat eating something they had roasted over a newly made campfire. Mike hoped it wasn’t any more of those damned grey birds that seemed to flock here; he hated those things.
He stood slowly, letting the blood run through his cramped legs and pushed his long hair from his eyes. Stifling a yawn, he sat down by the fire between Sarah and Daniel, facing Alex. “Morning everyone…” He muttered. Dan nodded a greeting over a mouthful of meat.
“Good morning, Dan shot us a crapload of birds this morning. Stupid things were practically nesting right next to us. Eat up,” said Alex, gesturing to the fire with the hand not holding his meal. Michael’s stomach fell, but he pulled one of the blackened carcasses off the spit. Beggars in the zone were definitely not choosers… choosers were dead.
Sarah wiped her hands off on the camouflaged pants she wore and stood up, collecting the AK-47 she had been using for the past month. “I’m gonna clean this thing out; God knows what got into it during the rainstorm last night. We should move out soon, I think the lab is just through this pass up here, and that is not safe territory,” she reported, gesturing to the wooded hills across the grassy plains they had slept near. She was in a hurry. They all were, after all, this would be the last job they needed to do. After this they would have the money to pay there way out of here. Michael ate quickly, without tasting the overcooked meat at all.
Mike and Dan walked point, with Alex and Sarah trailing back a few feet, one to the left of the group and one to the right, respectively. They were fully suited now, the thick survival gear and masks (hopefully) protecting them from the radiation the small metal box on Daniel’s thigh told them was apparently there. Scoping in on the building with his rifle, Mike scanned the area for any movement, and seeing none, flagged them to move a bit quicker to the protection of the trees that surrounded the complex.
Moving quickly from tree to tree, they cleared the distance to the lab in no time, making almost no noise in the process. Michael pondered over how much they had changed in just two months. Two months that felt like a decade. Daniel used to be so aloof and carefree. He never liked guns either. Mike watched his friend vanish behind a tree, alert, serious and ready. The soft rustle of leaves and a sudden presence told him Alex had moved up behind him. Alex was probably the one who had changed the least. Michael glanced at him through his suit. They both nodded, splitting up to move up to the side of the building. Alex always seemed content just knowing they were all together. Michael felt his outlook helped keep them all sane during this nightmare. Sarah came up to them, Dan bringing up the rear a second later. Poor Sarah, Mike thought. She was just a med student going off to grad school. She could never have been prepared for this. He knew how tough it must be for her, but it was almost an unspoken rule amongst them that they not try to delve into their troubles. The Zone left little time for tears.
Michael shouldered the SVU and pulled around the AK he carried for close quarters. Lined up, they moved along the rough concrete wall of the research building to the door, which was intact and in surprisingly good condition. The four of them were pressed together so that they would not have to wonder of each member’s location, and slightly crouched, ready to move at the first sign of trouble. Michael leveled his weapon at the door and with his right hand, turned the knob slowly. He nudged Alex with his elbow, who in turn nudged Sarah, who in turn nudged Dan. The action went back from Dan to Michael and when he felt Alex tap him, they ran inside as one.
Weapons braced and sighted they entered, quickly and quietly, sweeping the main room quickly for targets. Each moved to a corner of the room as they had practiced countless times.
It was a small lobby; small benches sat collecting dusty upon torn leather seats. Magazines in Russian lay stacked upon coffee tables. A small television, still on and displaying eternal snow, was bolted to the corner of the ceiling, silently casting a grey fuzzy light over the room. The walls were an obnoxious, stress inducing beige color, made only more unpleasant by the dust and cobwebs that adorned them. A desk sat at the back, a pool of blood collecting on its surface in front of a moldy old office chair that lay on its side. The blood was old, congealed and gooey, and was streaked out the closed door behind the desk, suggesting the body that was its origin had been dragged through. Nothing in the room moved, it was as empty and quiet as a tomb.
Dan checked his detector after a few moments. “The air here is clean; this building must be equipped with something to decontaminate itself. What kind of place is this?” He inquired to himself. Sarah pulled her mask off slowly. “An expensive loss, that’s what it is,” she quietly muttered.
“Quiet,” interrupted Mike, “let’s check the rest of these rooms.” He moved silently to the door to the right of the desk, not particularly wanting to know what was behind the bloody door. While the others moved up beside him, he pulled off his mask and attached it to his belt. He held up one finger, and waved it to the door. Alex moved up beside him and knelt, hand near the knob. Michael readied his weapon at the silent, foreboding portal, and nodded.
The door was quickly pushed open, just wide enough to slip a body through, just short enough to not bang against the wall. Through the door lie a large room, piled high with crates and cardboard boxes. Four doors, two on the wall to the left of the team, two to the right, stood uniformly, beckoning. Amongst the clutter were long-dead corpses dressed in the decayed remnants of lab coats. The four slipped in and took up positions behind and braced against the various boxes in the room. They looked at one another and nodded. They didn’t need an explanation of what happened, it was obvious: the lab’s inhabitants were packing up and leaving. “Looks like they were screwed out of a vacation,” quipped Daniel. The rest didn’t reply.
Michael was just about to order the team forward when a door at the back of the room on the left side opened.
Four figures calmly walked out of the door, each one was dressed in the mismatched combat gear suggestive of a stalker. Each one was carrying a FN 2000 assault rifle, and the last two shouldered sniper rifles. In his arms, the leader was carrying a glass cylinder with a strange brown and grey rock inside. The cylinder was labeled “01”… the same cylinder they had been sent to retrieve. This was the objective that would let them go home, and it was being carried out by these men. Sarah was the first to realize this, and without a moment of hesitation transferred the second man in line’s brains to the wall behind him with a burst from her AK. In the next moment, the room was a combat zone.
The two stalkers last in line dove behind crates for cover the moment their comrade’s head exploded. The leader shot forward like a leopard, throwing himself through the side door as his team began to return fire. Heedless of the crossfire that erupted between his own group and the other, Michael dashed after the leader, running from crate to crate as hissing tracers shattered steel, concrete and wood around him. He hit the door and dove through in a roll.
Alex ducked down and aimed beneath a crate cover that was propped against the box he sat behind. The next time something organic filled his sights, he squeezed off a burst. A cry of pain from the other side of the room told him he hadn’t missed. The remaining foe fired a line of ammo towards the spot where Sarah was hiding. The roar of the FN Herstal was chilling, and the scream that Sarah released a moment later tore at Alex’s heart, but he couldn’t worry about that now.
Daniel, too, heard the scream, and saw her go down in a mist of blood, but didn’t take his focus from the job at hand. Hoping the man’s attention was elsewhere, he snaked through the room quickly, crouching low with his head down. Dan stopped behind a steel, refrigerated medical crate and waited, breathing slowly. The next time the 2000’s muzzle barked its fatal cry, he whipped around the box, bringing his weapon to bear where he hoped his target would be. He was right on line; the man saw him at the last second and turned to redirect his aim. Before he moved an inch, Dan’s weapon sent a trail of auto fire like a chainsaw through his body. The man twitched as though he were being electrocuted, and twisted to the side as he fell in a cloud of his own gore. Daniel released his breath, wiped crimson spatter from his face, and checked the bodies to make sure they would not get up.
Alex walked over to Dan, Sarah limping along with an arm around his shoulders. Dan noted that the shot had hit her in the side. The bleeding wasn’t bad, and the trauma pack she had on her thigh would give her what she needed to make it back to a medical center. She smiled reassuringly. Dan stood slowly, dropped his clip, and slid a new one into the weapon. As he pulled back the bolt to chamber the first round, he said “Where’s Michael?”
A sharp burst of AK fire sounded from a few rooms away, followed only moments by the sharp report of a heavy pistol. Glancing worriedly amongst themselves, the three made their way through the door Michael and his prey has entered. Dan took point while Alex and Sarah limped along behind. One last gunshot sounded through the corridors of the lab, and all was silent. Frantically, the three searched through the buildings rooms, afraid to call out to their friend for fear of being ambushed. After what seemed like forever, Daniel pushed open an office door and inhaled sharply. He dropped his weapon and rushed inside, followed closely by Alex and Sarah.
The enemy stalker sat propped against the wall, blood trailed from a pair of bullet wounds in his chest, and he had been shot through the head. Michael sat next to him, holding a bloody wad of cloth to his stomach. He was covered in blood, and a knife wound dripped from his right arm. His AK lay across the room, and his FN HP-SA pistol was clutched in his left hand. He blinked a few times and glanced up to his friends.
Alex released Sarah who ran over and knelt by Mike, despite her wounds. “No, no no no…” Alex whispered.
Michael flashed them a pained smile. “Bastard was good, I’ll give him that, got him in the end though… got me a nice weapon too,” he muttered, nodding to the FN2000 that sat on a nearby desk.
“We can still get you out; get you to the safe zone…” Dan reasoned, shaking his head.
“No, you can’t… I’m gut shot… you know what that means…” Gesturing to the cylinder, which rested against the wall on its side, he continued, “Take it, get the hell out of here… tell everyone back home I died in the crash, no sense in worrying anyone, right?”
Sarah blinked back tears. “Dammit, no! We were close… so close…” She cried out. Dan helped her stand, giving her a reassuring squeeze.
Alex shook his head. “We’re not just leaving you… we can’t! That’s just crazy!” he argued angrily. Michael calmly lifted his gun, bringing it in line with Alex. “Get out of here… go home, and forget all this shit… and do it quick… this hurts…” he whispered calmly. They knew he would never shoot, but the finality of it got them moving. Picking up the cylinder, Alex looked again at his friend, biting his lip. “We did damn good Mike… damn good…” He said quietly. Michael nodded, weakly.
Sarah smiled sadly through her tears, and turned with Dan’s help and limped out. Alex glanced back one last time, and Mike gave him a thumbs-up.
The three were just walking out the front door when they heard the gunshot. They stopped for a minute, pulled on their masks, then walked on. No one bothered them on their walk back.
The gunshot rang out, shattering the solemn silence of the lab. Michael lowered the pistol after a moment, slid out the clip, and filled it with bullets taken from the leader’s own Hi-Power. After replacing the clip and holstering his weapon, he waited another ten minutes, to make sure his friends had gone.
Throwing the bloody cloth on the enemy’s body, he stood, gritting his teeth at the knife wound on his shoulder. Mike walked to the desk and picked up the FN2000, checking its clip and slipping the sling on his shoulder. He picked up his rifle, then walked to the body and relieved it of any extra clips, which he placed in his side bag. Staring at the corpse, he thought back to the struggle:
Mike cautiously slipped through the office door, having seen the man enter the room just a moment earlier, and heard the stalker before he saw him. Whipping his AK around, he fired off a burst just before the older man struck the gun from his hands and slashed his shoulder with a combat knife. Throwing an elbow into his chin, Mike stepped forward, grabbed his hand, and wrenched him into a wrist lock that disarmed him. Not stopping for a second, he drew his pistol and fired two rounds point blank into the other soldier’s chest.
The stalker stepped back, ran into the wall, and slid into a seated position on the floor. He watched Michael, barely moving, with a glint of fear and hate in his eyes. Mike walked forward and calmly placed the pistol to the man’s temple. He felt no fear, no pity, and no remorse as he pulled the trigger.
He looked down; he was covered in blood. What had he become? Dan had become more serious, Sarah more keen, Alex more mature… and he had become a monster.
His eyes moved to his bloodied hands. He could never face his family again. Never hold the person he loved, not without knowing what he had done. Knowing the sins he carried with him. There was no forgiveness for him, even if no one else knew, he would. He couldn’t go back. He killed a man at his mercy, and that was the bottom line. Grabbing the corpse by its shoulders, he pressed it against himself, bloodying his torso. Then he sat next to the body, tore off a sleeve from the man’s suit, held it to his torso, and waited. He had to do this, Michael thought as footsteps filled the hallway.
Mike shook his head to clear out these thoughts and stared at the corpse at his feet. He pulled the glove off of his right hand, and dipped the thumb and middle finger of his hand in a pool of the man’s blood. It was thick, and cooler then he expected. Using a pinching motion, he traced two bloody lines horizontally under his eyes. He pulled on his glove once again, and for a final time looked at his victim. “And in the end, we will all weep for innocence lost…” he whispered. He pulled on his glove once again, and left the room.
At the exit to the compound, he looked into the sky, the blood itching under his eyes. The zone was his home now. Perhaps when, or if, this land returns to normal, and this mess has ended… maybe then he would return. He pulled on his mask and secured it to his suit, then pulled out an adhesive patch and secured it over the slit the knife had made. He checked his rifle and chambered a round, removing the safety. Clearing his mind of the past, a new stalker vanished into the trees, and joined oblivion.
Great, independant Iraq War journalism: http://michaelyon.blogspot.com/
From the halls of Montezuma To the shores of Tripoli'
We fight our countrys battles In the air', on land, and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom , And to keep our honor clean,
We are proud to claim the title Of United States Marines.
Our flags unfurl'd to every breeze From dawn to setting sun';
We have fought in every clime and place Where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far-off northern lands And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job - The United States Marines.
Here's health to you and to our Corps Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we've fought for life And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy Ever gaze on Heaven's scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded By United States Marines. - US Marines Hymn