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Anomalous Companions (formerly Crystalline Siblings)

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  01:52:48  6 April 2006
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UltimaGecko
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 01/28/2004
Messages: 154
Alina saw the mercenaries guarding the back door of the department store. Large explosions were resounding from inside the concrete structure; they were continuous, echoing throughout the town. She decided that Erwin and Sergey must be alive. She needed to decide what to do about it.

She could be safe, she could leave, rely on herself to get out of here. She could have the car. She could use the secret all on her own. Or, she could give away her position, risk being shot, risk death, to try to give a pair of men she’d met only a few weeks earlier a chance. A chance to get out of this together.

She lowered herself down, resting the barrel of her Dragunov on the broken frame of the wall-sized window. She felt her freshly carved initials. She felt a small rush of adrenaline. She set her eye to her scope and searched for a target.

She fired.

* * *

The conference room shook from explosions, the heavy wooden table splintered in multiple places. Then a new, different explosion filled Erwin’s ringing ears. The department store rocked physically. He heard soldiers below shouting - the grenades had stopped - “The truck! There’re more of them.”

“So it seems your friend is around after all.” The leader growled up at them, clenched his fist. “Destroy this building if you have to, I want all of them dead.”

Another soldier yelled out, “It’s a sniper, in the office building, over there!”


They heard the sound of the door splintering below them, numerous axes on wood. Erwin poked Sergey in the shoulder, getting his attention, “we should probably try to get out of here, because that must be Alina, and might want to capitalize off of this.”

Sergey looked around quickly, free of the caution inherent when explosions threaten well-being. “Yea…Let’s try that door over there,” he replied, pointing to a door at the long end of the conference hall. The door was nearly shattered, and was probably more metal than wood from the splinters imbedded within. Erwin pulled the door open stiffly. Inside was a small maintenance room; he noticed there was still a cleaning bucket and a mop inside the room. “Look, up there,” he said. He saw a hatch leading to the roof and a cord for a pull-down ladder.

* * *

The Kamaz truck had exploded into a pillar of flame. Thick, black smoke billowed out of the charred wreckage. She wasn’t sure if she had actually killed any men, but it got their attention quickly and effectively. As the flames died down she could see a large section of the department store was missing. Nearby buildings had caught fire. Mercenaries scurried out of the building, sputtering and coughing.

Gunfire began to fall in her general area. Her height and distance gave her quite an advantage. The Kalashnikov rounds thunked harmlessly on the windows next to her. She fired, hitting another Kamaz truck. “They’re stuck ten kilometers into the zone with no transportation now,” she thought. She fired again, at a mercenary this time.

The bullets began to crack the glass of the adjacent window. “They must be in range now - time to move,” she thought. She could hear audible shouts from below, “up there, on the fourth floor,” and “sniper, in the office building!” She fired once more, picked herself up, and ran for the stairs.

* * *

The pull-down ladder leading to the roof shook as another explosion rocked the department store. Thick black smoked churned into the conference room and filtered over to the maintenance room. Erwin pushed Sergey up the ladder, “Hurry up, we’ve got smoke, you know?”

“I’m hurrying,” he replied irately, his legs burned from exhaustion.

“Your leg is bleeding.” Erwin was looking at Sergey’s leg as they climbed. A thin flow of blood had trickled down his boot. It must not have been very severe, if he hadn’t noticed it.

Sergey pushed open the hatch to the rooftop, streaming in bright sunlight. He pulled himself up and Erwin followed quickly behind. They were on the roof, which seemed to be missing a good portion of the southern part. There were buildings on either side of the department store. One was the same height as the department store, but too far away, the other was single storied, a three meter drop, but close enough to reach. They hurried over the rooftop towards the small building.

* * *

Alina’s feet pounded on the stairs, she felt like she’d been running for hours. “Never any rest in the zone,” she thought. She reached the first floor as the first of the mercenaries got to the front door. She was tired, but still fast. She shouldered her Dragunov quickly and drew her Makarov, firing rashly towards the mercenaries. They ducked back outside.

She unclipped a grenade from her jacket and lobbed it at the front door. She was out the back door before it landed. She jogged across the street and found herself in a small shop. In the near distance she heard the distinct sound of an engine motor growing louder. She didn’t think they would follow her out onto the streets. She hoped they would think she went back up stairs.

* * *

Erwin dropped down lightly on to the roof of the adjacent structure; he caught Sergey’s pack as it was thrown down. Sergey leaped, his leg collapsed upon landing, but he rolled and got up with a little effort. The building had a small short fire ladder leading to the ground, and they were back on the street in a few moments. The mercenaries had mostly abandoned the office building, there were probably some still in the front, but the back door was now on fire, and the mercenaries would probably assume there would be no escape for them.

They headed through a row of houses leading towards the office building. They continued down a claustrophobic alleyway and through the only unlocked door to an abandoned bakery. Coming out of the shop, Sergey saw an explosion shatter the front doors of the office building, a mercenary flew out from inside. A group of several mercenaries was going through the broken front doors. Another small group came from down the street. One of them noticed Erwin and Sergey looking out from a door frame. Sergey pulled up his LR300 and fired wildly towards the soldiers, forcing them to take cover.

“Time to go back the way we came, I think,” he said. They ducked back into the building.

* * *

Alina ran through an endless maze of back alleys. She ran forward, hoping for a landmark, hoping to avoid any soldiers. She rammed against a locked door and felt it burst and she fell forward. She burst out onto the main street, quickly realized the error and pulled herself back into the alley quickly. She peaked out from around the corner and saw a truck coming down the street. She reloaded her Makarov, pulled the slide back; the shell faltered in the chamber and jammed the slide. She dropped it and drew her GSh-18.

She stepped out and prepared to fire at the driver; it was the leader she saw in the field. A pair of soldiers was riding with him, it was obviously the last truck - he was leaving his men behind. He laughed at her as they drove past. One of the soldiers stood up and held up his Kalashnikov. She ducked back into the alley as bullets chipped apart the brick wall next to her. A soldier came around the corner of the alley. She readied her pistol quickly. She pushed off the wall towards the other side of the alley as she fired, her injured leg throbbing with pain at the sudden exertion. The mercenary shot at the same time, destroying the brick wall where she’d been standing.

Rounds ricocheted off the bricks and struck her in the side. One of her shots hit him in the upper chest, another hit his right arm - forcing him to drop the Kalashnikov. He began to reach awkwardly for his pistol with his left arm when the third round hit him in the abdomen and he crumpled over onto the ground. She felt her left side, “…that’ll bruise,” she thought. She released the clip from her pistol and eased in a replacement.

She picked up her Makarov from the ground and moved back through the alley, looking for a concealed way to the edge of the city.

* * *

They crept through the building to the east part of the town. The soldiers seemed to still be focusing on searching the office building. Sporadic gunfire sounded from the field they’d been at only about ten minutes before. ‘Probably some dogs or zombies,’ Sergey thought. He’d seen plenty of the zone for his liking today, he’d pass on the mutants.

The office building was the only landmark he recognized, and there seemed to be soldiers everywhere. The pain in his leg grew worse, combined with the exhaustion of running. Erwin helped him through the twisting alleyways. They briskly crossed a wide street and found their way into some sort of government building. A sign hanging inside made it out to be a police station. The inside was nearly bare, only a tall security counter stood in the middle of the circular lobby. Wooden doors seemed to lead everywhere from the rotunda, but they continued towards the back of the station where a heavy metallic door seemed to lead outside.

Erwin opened the door slowly, which creaked with years of rust. They both heard shouting immediately and the door was slammed shut with a combination of Erwin’s surprise and the force of bullets hitting it. Outside the mercenary continued to fire and they could hear bullets ding ineffectively off of the heavy door. “I’ve had about enough of this.” Erwin grunted. The door handle jiggled and began to turn and he flung his body at the door. It flew open nearly effortlessly and the soldier behind was tossed violently to the ground on his back.

Erwin tumbled over the ledge of the doorframe into the alleyway and the mercenary’s squad opened fire. He grasped frantically for his MP5 and with his left hand, grabbing at the door’s lever to pull himself back inside. Bullets bounced off the door, shaking it in his hands. He whipped his head around, trying to see behind him, beyond the door. Turning his body awkwardly he aimed past the door and shot wildly. Bullet reports sounded to a deafening volume as they filled the narrow alleyway. He felt a sharp pain stab into his left shoulder and he lost his grip on the door handle. Sergey reached out for him quickly, began dragging him inside. Erwin kicked wildly, hitting the mercenary lying on the ground. He felt another sharp pain in his leg and saw the flesh of his own muscle underneath his torn pants leg. He dropped his submachine gun and grabbed at the door frame to help pull himself back inside.

* * *

Alina found herself in a seemingly endless web of courtyards and alleyways. She thought she recognized some of the buildings, but wasn’t sure. Adrenaline raced through her body and she tried to calm down. She fiddled with the slide of her pistol as she went.

Coming to a street she leaned out from the alley and saw a group of mercenaries jogging away from the office building down a street. She felt the slide move fluidly as the jammed shell slipped out of the breech.

The sound of indistinguishable gunshots came from nearby. She hurriedly crossed the street and found herself in another unfamiliar alley. The alley turned parallel to the main street, and on her left she heard frequent gunshots. She slung her rifle behind her back and drew her Marakov in her left hand. She ran down the dirt stained concrete of the alley. She stopped at the edge of a large, brick building, glancing down the adjoining alley she saw the backs of two soldiers firing wildly towards a metal door.

She spun across the intersection, landing against the opposite corner. Beyond the two men she saw a third lying on the ground, trying to get up in a daze. She saw him begin to get to his feet when, from behind the heavily dented door, a shotgun blast thrust him back to the ground in a fog of fire, gunpowder and blood. “I don’t even care if they’re shooting at mutants,” she gritted her teeth. Leaning out from behind the side of the building and aimed her Marakov at the man on the left.

Her shots reported with blaring intensity in the close confines of the alley. The man turned as the first bullet struck him in the back. Calling out in surprise and pain he dropped the clip he was loading into his Kalashnikov. She continued firing, but her bullets seemed ineffective from so far down the alley. She expended the clip, hitting the mercenary in the chest and the arm and the remainder of her bullets blazed down the alley.

She drew her other sidearm, but now found bullets chipping at the cornerstones of the building she was leaning against. Large chunks of cement and stone flew off the wall opposite her as the bullets tore past. A large hunk slammed against her leg and she clenched her teeth in pain. She heard the clomp of boots thudding against concrete – more of them were coming. She reached her arm carefully around the wall and fired blindly at the men, unloading her clip, before turning to her left and running further through the maze of alleys.

* * *

Beyond the din of the assault rifles he heard it distinctly, a pistol amidst the assault rifles. He pulled Erwin away from the door, “How you doing, buddy?” He could see Erwin’s bone. He could see the muscle slightly shredded by the bullet.

Through clenched teeth came the response, “really…hurts.” Erwin balled and opened his fists. He brought himself to a sitting position and slung open his bag, looking for a bandage. Sergey cut away part of the pants leg by the wound; the right leg was nearly soaked with blood.

The soldiers were still shooting…but not at the door. They were firing down the other end of the alley. He stepped away from Erwin and grabbed his rifle, peering around the nearly destroyed door. The two other mercenaries were facing the other way, firing wildly at the end of the alleyway. The man on the right fell over as the lighter pop of a pistol could be heard among the assault rifles. The conspicuous whiz of incoming rounds made him duck inside the police station once again. Peaking out again, he saw the remaining soldier charging away from him. He stepped out carefully beyond the metal door and opened fire as more mercenaries came back down the alley. Braced against the metal door he took them down quickly.

Erwin grabbed onto him by the shoulder. “I think we’d better go,” he murmured. Sergey looked down and saw the crude splint Erwin had created, the blood of his leg already soaked through the cotton bandage.

Sergey, not taking his eyes off the alleyway, nodded behind himself, “I just saw a bunch of them go down that way,” he replied, motioning his gun toward the five corpses in the alley.

“Yea, well I’m not going the other way. “

“Why the hell not?”

Erwin stepped down, out of the police station. He groaned loudly as his injured leg took the weight of his body. He grabbed Sergey by the shoulder and forcibly spun him around, “That’s why.”


Sergey was looking down a short alleyway, that opened onto a street. On either side were sturdy red-brick buildings, severely chipped from gunfire. The concrete was stained dark and fractured in numerous places. However, all that Sergey Nikolayevich saw was the nearly-opaque, viscous flood of rust-brown fog fuming down the alleyway. It swirled in twisted spirals, like the knotted roots of a dieing tree, and wisped slowly and ominously closer.
He pulled Erwin’s arm over his shoulder and hobbled down the alley, as quickly as his exhausted legs would go.



Turning left at the intersection, Sergey looked back quickly to see that the fog had already engulfed the police station and was now only a few meters away. He couldn’t even see down to the other end of the alley anymore. In his passing glance he noticed, with a small degree of horror, the noxious fog seemed to slowly melt and deform the bodies of the men lying on the ground. One of them began to scream as the fog crept under his clothing, Sergey could see the skin on the soldier’s face constrict and peel as the fog swept over the man.

Sergey had tunnel vision, he could hear the fog fuming and swirling behind him. No way out of this maze. Nowhere to go. Straight, into a courtyard – only exit to the right. He turned, realized quickly that he was back on a main street, near an intersection. He looked for the tall office building, got his bearings and continued on. Glancing to the north he saw that the entire town seemed to be enshrouded by this deadly fog. The maelstrom of swirling, sorrel-colored columns of vapor barreled down the street towards him with frightening speed. Despite sporadic gunfire nearby to the south, he dragged Erwin on.


A slight ways down the street were two soldiers firing indiscreetly at a small alcove in-between two identical-looking brick buildings. It looked to be only a meter or so deep. They seemed unconcerned or unaware of the impending death blowing in from the surrounding forest. Sergey rolled his eyes, “I’ve had about enough of this, too.” He let Erwin gently slide against the concrete and brick façade of the building next to him. He lifted his LR300 by its tattered strap and took it in his hand. He bent to a knee and took aim.

* * *

Reunion

**

She was trapped. The sound of gunfire echoed deafeningly in the small confines of the alcove. A bullet grazed her arm and her body contorted in pain. There was no where to go. Another ricochet streaked off the wall next to her and drove into her chest. She gasped raggedly for breath. Her mind fluttered, glowing streaks of phosphorous bounced off of the crumbling brick in front of her and she could see the plywood support behind it. The dust seemed to form menacing, blinding clouds in the small space. A loose round bounced into her injured leg and she collapsed down in pain. Another bullet grazed past her forehead and she became dizzy with the tension. She heard nothing but the ear-splitting sound of gunfire – and then it was silent.


The two limped past her, down the side of the street. Were her eyes playing tricks? She lurched out of the alcove and came up behind them, wrapping her arms around them both. They struggled against her embrace for a moment before realizing who it was. “I’m so glad to see you two!” She relaxed her grip. “I’ve been lost since we got split up.”

Sergey grinned, “So were we; soldiers are everywhere.” Erwin smiled weakly. She helped Sergey by grabbing Erwin by the other arm. They carried him carefully, avoiding pressure. Sergey’s leg burned with every step, he felt the dampness of his blood soaked calf.

The fog crept ever closer. It billowed out of the alleyways. It seemed to be at arm’s length, but somehow they managed to stay ahead of it. They were having a hard time carrying the weight of Erwin. Alina’s leg throbbed from exertion and injury.

Erwin struggled to walk. The ground seemed too slippery with dirt and grime. He recognized the street they were on; he’d seen two soldiers talk about the anomaly here, less than a day ago. They passed the threshold of the city’s limits. He tried to see the window they had entered the city from. His leg stung unmercifully; he dragged it weakly with each step, clenching his teeth with each change in pressure.

The ascent up the hill was perilous and painful. The increased work by his legs shot shards of pain through his leg and spine with every step. His body threatened to topple over with each step. The brown fog seemed to recede into the city, enveloping it in a toxic, nebulous expanse. They took their time getting to the car.

* * *

Retirement Plan

**

Next to the car, Sergey yelled in anger as his foot struck a heavy object next to the rust-spotted, old automobile. As the pain subsided he bent down in curiosity to find a pair of perfectly spherical globes of dirt. Wiping one clean he saw that it shone a deep red as he lifted it into the sky. “Not a total loss,” he said.


Alina drove this time, while Erwin sat in the back seat and Sergey sat next to him, aiding his leg. They would offer their knowledge to the scientists - or the military - for human understanding. It was an anomaly of an anomaly. It would probably have been worth a fortune, if it weren’t engulfed in a deadly brown fog. They could just let it die: an inanimate object, stricken by the same noxious haze.

More than ever before, more than they would ever admit it, it was a blissful event when they saw each other again. They were brothers in arms, friends with a cause. The perfectly formed crystals from the anomaly were a perfect starting point for any life they would want to lead, just a little bit soiled. They may not have handfuls of diamonds, or even handfuls of coal, but they did have a couple of gravity artifacts, and the bond of friendship.

Erwin slumped back into the torn back seat. He lifted his leg into a comfortable position and sat in thought for a moment. “Have you ever worked at a bar?” He asked towards the front of the car.

* * * * *
End, Fin, Ende, ...you know, the end.


And there you go, now you can all read the hugely updated entire story, if you wish. Note that, if you did like the original story, or thought it needed improvement, this thing is heavily edited from the middle on - with only a few changes to the beginning.

Happy posting for amoki, heh.
  01:45:35  6 April 2006
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UltimaGecko
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 01/28/2004
Messages: 154
She was shaken. Her body rocked back and forth. The light was bright, she squinted. Her eyes adjusted, and then she felt the throbbing in her leg and groaned.

Sergey tapped Erwin, “Hey, Erv. She’s awake.” He looked back at Alina, “not that I want you to talk much, but how do you feel?”

“Maybe you should impale yourself in the leg and find out.”

He turned back towards Erwin, “Looks like she’ll be fine.”

“Either way, we’re almost there, only a couple of minutes to the border,” Erwin said. He looked down at Sergey’s hand, “that blackness seems to be getting bigger.”
“What blackness?” came from the backseat.

“This.” Sergey said, as he lifted his hand above his head so she could see. He reached back with his left hand, felt around in one of the packs for a pocket knife. “Yea, I think it is.”

“You’re not going to cut it off, are you?”

“Maybe.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that…and…hey, use your own knife; someone might want to eat with that thing.” Sergey fell back in his seat, with a smile. He pulled his glove back on; there was an audible crack as the black skin folded over itself. At least they were heading to somewhere safer.

* * *

A Moment of Peace

**

They saw the zone border outpost a mile down the road. In an effort not to lose the vehicle, which would be exceedingly useful in another excursion out into the wilderness, they hid the car in some brush at the side of the road.

Erwin took a fold out stretcher out of his backpack and carefully set it up. They loaded Alina on it and proceeded down the road. She was looking significantly better already, Erwin realized, looking down, as he carried her. Color had returned to her cheeks and she seemed livelier, even when sleeping. Her eyes opened, he was staring into the light gray pupils.

“What are you staring for?” Alina said in a surprised tone.

“I was just thinking you looked a lot healthier,” he replied.

“I’ll bet…” Sergey grunted quietly, he adjusted his hand, the skin cracked loudly.

“Me? Not healthy? Come on.” she remarked, with a weak laugh, “Sergey’s hand sounds worse than me.”

They were close to the border post now. A short cinderblock fence demarked the zone border post. There were pitted brick military buildings, defended behind walls of cyclone fencing. The small outpost was accompanied by a surprising number of shanty houses, looking more like a field full of tool sheds more than anything. Chain link fences stretched off into the distance on either side of the road covered with barbed wire on the top marking off the zone border. A gate house, with two guards by the gate, stood on the road.


A pair of guards dressed in military issue camouflage looked up as they walked towards the outpost. One of them held out his arm and grabbed his Kalashnikov with his other hand, “Hey, hey, what’s all this about?”

“We’re here for supplies and a doctor,” Sergey responded.

“Well, how about a tip for our indomitable protection?”

“We don’t really have much money with us…” He pulled out five rubles from his pocket. “This is about it.”

The soldier grabbed it, handed it to the other guard. He gave an indignant nod to a guard in the gatehouse and the gate rose as a foreboding welcome to the border post.


They carried Alina to the ‘hospital’, a teetering construction of wooden shacks with a washed out sign, marked only by a red cross on a white background. Erwin and Sergey set Alina on the ground and put the stretcher back in Erwin’s pack. They carried her inside.

A dim light swung from a cord hanging out of the ceiling. The inside reeked of rotting flesh and medicines. A distinctive layer of grime seemed to cover everything, even the counter that Erwin and Sergey walked up to. A short stocky man came to the front desk and asked, “So, what have we got here?”

Sergey pointed to her leg, “puncture wound in the leg, not sure what it needs, but some painkillers would probably help.” Sergey looked down at her, “Oh, and this in her abdomen.”

“Okay, you can leave her here; we’ll take….good….care of her, for….say…700 rubles,” The man said, slowly ushering out the words with twitching lips.

Erwin stepped forward threateningly, “we just carried her through the middle of the zone and you want to charge us 700?” he clenched his fists, “Quacksalber…”

“It is… not I…..with the…injuries,” the doctor sneered, rolling his eyes in discontent.

“200.” Sergey responded, he glared over at Erwin.

The doctor looked over at Erwin questioningly, “no, no, that’s… far under what the medical supplies and licensing cost.” The doctor shook his head, rubbed his palms together. “600.”

“300”

The doctor raised an eyebrow. “450.”

“360 and no higher.”

The man leaned back, thinking. “Very well, I accept…of course, a small tip directly …to the doctor… might insure some… more than adequate care…” The stocky man shifted his eyes from Sergey and back to Erwin.

Erwin dug into his pocket and pulled out a group of bills and coins, handed them to Sergey. “It helps if you tell me you’ve got money.”

Sergey reached into his pocket, “well, then you’d just give it away, wouldn’t you?” He turned to the man at the counter, “so where’s the doctor?”

“The doctor…” he laughed, his face twitching, “is in,” nonchalantly placing his hand on the counter, palm up.

Sergey reached into his pack, pulled out an old wallet, gave the doctor 400 rubles. They picked up Alina, and carried her into an adjoining room. A nurse dressed in a blood stained lab coat came by, and gave her an injection of clear fluid.

“Well, I guess it’s good I don’t have any money, or I’d be paying.” Alina joked.

They walked back through the doctor’s office. The doctor looked up, “one thing?”

“Yea?” Sergey looked back.

“What’s a Quacksalber?”

“It’s…uhh…someone who barters…” They walked outside the office.


It was early afternoon and the sun was enveloped by clouds. Many people were walking around in the border post - relative to the zone’s population of zero, at least.
“We need to sell this artifact and we need to find a place to stay. I’m not too proud of your bartering skills, so I’ll sell the artifact; you find an inn or something.”
“I’m on it.” This is why I wasn’t going to be in charge of the financial part of the retirement plan, Erwin thought. He was used to paying whatever people charged. Bartering wasn’t very common where he came from, except maybe between children for inconsequential things. He shrugged and walked off to find a place they could stay for a few days.

* * *

The bar was in better shape than the doctor’s office seemed to be. It was a permanent structure, not cinder block like the military buildings, but it was definitely designed to be here. It was one of the few two story buildings around. The solid wood of the outside denoted a civilized building with an air of superiority to the dilapidated shacks that were ready to fall over all around him. He pulled open the door, feeling the heat of cigarette smoke waft against his face. Inside there were many tables and some stairs leading up to the second floor. Seeing no one he was concerned with, he went to the counter and ordered some vodka. The bartender set a chipped glass on the counter and poured him a small amount. “I’ll just keep the bottle, thanks,” he said, handing the bartender a few rubles.

He looked around at the fairly crowded bar. Off duty soldiers mingled with various stalkers and some scientists. There were some card games in the corner and a group of people talking at the bar next to him. Languages he didn’t know were spoken, some people from Europe, an occasional American, even a couple of people that were either from China or Japan, he wasn’t sure which.

He would need to go to the research building for the scientists to take the artifact; they seemed to be genuinely interested in the artifacts for practical applications. Sometimes they just couldn’t afford to take anymore artifacts, though. The military, they would pay for some of them too, whatever looked like it could be used in the field or for weapons’ research. There was also the dealer, he would buy just about anything - he’d sell it as anything too. He could see the dealer’s marketing slogan already - “brand new, mystical healing gravity orb!” Some new Stalker would probably get ripped off, but it was money. He couldn’t decide right now. He gulped down the contents of his glass and poured another.

* * *

Erwin found a ‘hotel’ near the outskirts of the border village. The owner said it was 200 a night; he’d managed to bring it down to 175, after mentioning no one else seemed to be staying here. The manager seemed a bit eager, even at that price; Erwin thought his own offer might have been a little high.

Walking into the room he confirmed his estimation. The room was the definition of dilapidated. Checking the bed first, he saw it was terrible: the sheets and blanket were encrusted with stains and unknown dirt and grime. One of the bed’s legs was missing and it was propped up on a pile of old books. There was a nightstand with a bent lamp on it. Pulling on the chain for the light the room was illuminated for an instant before the bulb popped and grew dim again. In the corner of the room was a plush chair with ripped cloth upholstery.

Venturing over to the bathroom, Erwin found that the sink was leaking, but it meant there was at least water - even if it was brown. Erwin saw his image splintered apart in the mirror, which had a crack running through the length of it. He tried the shower. The pipes sounded noisily when he turned the knob. He heard a heavy groan under the bathtub, and dark brown water began pouring out of the shower head.

The water cleared up as it ran, the pipes must not have been used in awhile. He began to shut off the water, he heard a loud snap and the shower head shot off the pipe and chipped the back of the bath tub. Water poured out of the pipe and soaked Erwin; he quickly turned the knob and stopped the flow.

He took off his jacket and tried to wring out the water. He laid it over the sink to dry. Walking back into the bedroom, he set their packs down in a corner of the room and pulled out his sleeping bag. He threw it onto the bed and spread it open. “At least there aren’t any mutants…or anomalies…or cold weather,” he thought, lying down on the bed.

The bed creaked noisily; he heard the bed frame snap beneath him. The bed collapsed under his weight and the mattress, with him on top, sagged to the floor. “Still better than the zone,” he said aloud.

* * *

Sergey continued nursing his bottle, taking a swig of vodka every once and awhile. He began to listen in on some of the conversations around him. On his left, two men argued about their money problems. Behind him, at a couple of the tables were unintelligible conversations, he’d hear words like “mutant”, “artifact” and “anomaly” often. The conversation that caught his attention best at the moment was to his right, where a small group had congregated around an old man.

The old man looked scraggily, with sunk-in eyes and untrimmed facial growth. He seemed decrepit and deformed - hunched over - Sergey wondered if it was a birth defect, mutation or just age. He was whispering harshly, which made his voice quite audible. There were two other men with him. Both dressed fairly well - for the zone.

“…Rumors? Sure, I know rumors.” He cackled to himself, “I’ve heard from friends of the military’s…‘punishments’ for people it deems uncooperative.” He leaned back and rubbed his beard.

“Oh and how’s that?” One of the young men replied. He wore a fitted camouflage uniform, with a strap holding an AK-74. His boots shone brightly, probably recently polished. Sergey smiled to himself at the thought of them entering the zone.

* * *

Dmitri’s Detriment

**

“Oh, they have multiple ways. I know about a man named Dmitri
Alexandrovich. He was an excellent soldier; I believe there were over 100 kills to his credit. One day the military wished him to assassinate, or as he told me, ‘remove’ a woman from the zone who had been causing problems with her research.”

“However, he had a change of heart out in the zone; he no longer wished to follow their orders of killing people he found no problems with.” The man looked at the new stalkers quizzically; he seemed to check if they were paying attention. He continued on, “I was standing outside the barracks when they dragged him out. They were carrying him towards the command post, and it seemed like it’d be interesting to find out what was going on.” He nodded and smiled towards the two men, “Information is worth money.”

“I wedged myself in between the axles and engine components under a Kamaz truck nearby and waited for them to drive out. Around 3 am, I saw them drag Dmitri outside to the truck I was under. His hands were tied behind his back and a blindfold covered his eyes. They pulled him into the truck and we drove.”

“It was a half an hour later before we stopped, and I saw them drag Dmitri and a large metal cube out of the truck. There was a high-pitched humming throughout the air, and whenever I moved my hand static electricity seemed to build up instantly. They pulled the cube through the grass to the south, sensing that that was probably the direction of danger; I rolled out from under the truck and snuck off to the north. The static subsided as I got further from the Kamaz and the soldiers.” He peered at the two men again, checking to see if they believed him, or if they were listening, Sergey wasn’t sure which. By now other bar patrons had taken an interest in the story.

“The soldiers waited until first light, before one of them went to the cube, which was now sitting in the middle of an open field. He took a key card and swiped it through a lock on the metallic cube. The soldier hurried back to the truck and they drove down the road to some trees, out of sight. I crawled on my elbows to some bushes, as not to be seen.”

One of the men laughed, “You, old man? I don’t think you could walk, let alone crawl.” He had a bad accent, definitely not a native speaker. The other man elbowed his friend and gestured for the man to continue the story.

“It was now around nine in the morning, I could barely see the soldiers and their truck behind some bushes and trees to the south. Looking at the cube, the door was obviously unlocked - but something just didn’t feel right. The buzz in the air, the soldiers leaving after unlocking the door, the static electricity – all seemed strange. I waited for a while to finally see Dmitri come out of the cube. That was around 9:20.”

“He opened the door a crack, obviously not seeing the soldiers; he opened the door slowly until it was wide open. He had been stripped; all he was wearing were some boxer shorts and a t-shirt. He hesitated before stepping out of the cube; he must have seen static sparks in the grass or just felt the electricity in the air.” The man made a gesture of a clock moving forward, “Well, he didn’t dare step out of the cube, he knew what would happen, so he just…”

“What would happen?” The foreigner questioned.

“Just let him tell the story will you?” His friend said, annoyed.

“…he just waited. It was around one in the afternoon now; it was pretty hot too, especially for spring. Well, the cube was metal, and it might have had some other form of persuasion to get Dmitri out of the cube, so eventually he had to leave. It must have been over 55°C in there. He opened the door and sprinted - bolted like a deer, just away from the cube, as fast as he could.”

“He didn’t get far. A bolt of lightning flashed along his left leg and up his torso. A splash of black, burnt blood spurted out from the wound. His leg gave way instantly, and he fell to his right knee, and another flash of lightning came from grass, shot through his chest. More blackened blood; the lightning severed arteries and skin, but cauterized them almost instantly.” The wizened old man looked up. “Dmitri coughed up some of the blood, and fell face forward. Arcs of lightning flashed over his corpse for a minute, and then it was quiet in the field.”

The two men stood, mouths agape, staring at the story teller. “That’s why it’s called a meat-mincer.” He smiled to himself, “next time you go out there, listen for the hum of electricity in the air, and see if your hair stands on end. You don’t want to end up like Dmitri, it looked quite painful…” The two men looked at the old man and turned away, whispering to each other. The people listening in returned to their previous business.


Sergey laughed aloud. “Aha, it is a good story for intimidation isn’t it?”

The man laughed in response, getting up from his stool. “It’s not all true, you know.”

“That so?” Sergey replied, he’d thought so.

“Of course: the lightning only arced through his body for about twenty seconds.”

* * *

Probably Something in the Water…

**

Sergey took the 700 rubles, and handed the dark reddish orb to the scientist. “Enjoy your orb.” He smiled. The scientist smiled back, set the orb on the desk in front of him and closed his deposit box. It was so strange to just walk into a facility and sell something like this, Sergey thought. In all his days as a scientist it was never like this. Strict regulations on materials you were handling, even elements like cesium or potassium which would cause a violent exothermic reaction with water. You send in a request for materials, you would stock chemicals in a lab.

If someone walked into a physics lab, held out an orb that exhibited high mass gravitational properties and said, ‘Here, how much will you pay me for this?’ They’d probably be hauled away by the military or the orb would be confiscated. Then you’d most likely be interrogated by the government as to where you found it. That would have to be before the zone, he thought, before gravitational anomalies were common. It’s not like bringing in a fossil you found out in the forest, or a new species of flower –

“If you get anymore, be sure to send them my way. This is an excellent specimen…” Sergey walked away, hearing the scientist whisper out measurements as he scribbled them down, happy about his new artifact. His hand’s blackened flesh cracked as he gripped the door knob, he looked down at it.

“Hey, doc?”

The scientist looking up, startled, almost knocked over his new orb, “Err, yes…was there something else?”

He held up his blackened hand, “Got a file?”


The file grated over his hand, easily flaking off large flakes of blackened, dead skin. He could begin to feel the oscillating motion of the metal as it neared his living flesh. Sergey grimaced when the file scraped across his flesh, it would cause minor bleeding. Better than the unnatural black skin, he concluded.

It took about an hour to clean his hand well, there was no more blackness, his hand was a fleshy pink, with some dull red spots from the file’s scrapes. He clenched his fist, felt the air on it, it didn’t really hurt, except when he touched it. The doctor handed him some disinfectant and traded him the file for the skin shavings, “they’re an interesting scientific curiosity,” the scientist said.

* * *

Erwin awoke to the sound of footsteps; he reached under the mattress for his USP. Sergey laughed, “Looking for this?” He said, holding up the pistol. Sergey handed the pistol back, along with some rubles, “Get some ammo for your gun, and keep anything that’s left for the retirement fund.”

“How’d you know which room I was in?”

“There’s only two places to stay in this border post and you’d pick the cheap one - on that note, 175 is way too much for this place… I talked the owner into giving it to us for the week.”

“How’d you manage that?” Erwin said, rolling off his bag and standing up.

“I told him you thought the money was for the entire week, ‘it was just a misunderstanding.’ Not bad, eh?” He smiled to himself. “You go get your stuff; I’ll keep track of the room.”

Erwin shrugged, still with the money issues, he thought. He walked out of the hotel, “Now, who’s going to sell 9mm parabellum rounds around here?”


Upon returning Sergey presented the financial status of their retirement plan. Erwin listened with disinterest, only hearing the part that they were essentially back to square one after months of work. It just wasn’t worth it out here, he thought. You find some artifact, and bring it back, but then you buy guns, ammo, food, shelter, booze – and then you’re back to square one.

“Where do you think we should build it?” Erwin broke into Sergey’s presentation.

A long sigh came, “Weren’t listening to me, were you?” He laughed, “I don’t know, Kiev is supposed to be pretty nice with the bar scene. Maybe we could manage back at your home.”

Erwin smiled at the thought of opening a bar in Germany. He frowned, “You don’t speak German.”

“How about half way? Prague is supposed to be nice.”

Erwin leaned laid back on the broken bed. Everything seemed so distant and out of reach. All they had to do was be patient. With patience would come good fortune.

* * *

Sergey’s hand healed quickly, within a week the skin had regrown to its original look, except it was a bit tighter, since he couldn’t move it while it was healing. There was minimal scarring, as well. The effects must have only really fringed on his living skin. His leg wound healed on its own, he had forgotten about it. Amazingly the blind dog’s attack on his arm seemed to have missed tearing apart his muscles too much. He was able to avoid moving it too much and it healed quickly, as well.

Erwin had minor scratches and bruises, a couple small half centimeter splinters in his leg that he didn’t notice for a few days and then pulled out.

Alina’s leg wound healed slower. Puncture wounds have the habit of striking muscle, tearing through it, making it rip more if it’s moved later. The splinter had pierced the edge of her rectus femoris, one of the quadriceps focused on flexing the thigh, and managed to scrape the femur while striking a few minor arteries, including the lateral femoral circumflex artery. Or, as she would say, “it hit my upper leg and bled a lot.” The major split in the muscle took two weeks to become healed to the point that normal activity would not reopen the wound. The bullet wound was mostly a passing glance and resulted in an injury that would be viewed as a deep, but non-threatening cut. With an additional few days of rest the doctor said that the leg was good enough for daily wear and tear, “She has healed quite quickly,” he’d said.


They had spent 350 on the hotel, being the owner’s sole patron for the duration of their stay, 400 on the doctor and 50 on ammunition - an additional 50 to restock Alina’s Dragunov. She wasn’t very happy about losing the original, but was glad to keep the rest of the rifle, her last day in the makeshift hospital was spent carving her initials into the stock again, copying their look almost perfectly from before, solely from memory.

They had spent far more than they had earned and seemed no closer to any large breakthroughs or opportunities of discovering richness. Sergey was particularly displeased about digging into the retirement fund. Having no fear from mutants and anomalies of the zone was a welcome break, and probably worth every bit of the 150 rubles.

* * *

“I know the place”

**

Erwin had managed to obtain some ‘free’ gasoline during his two weeks of rest, plenty for a many mile excursion into the zone. So, that’s where the three of them were now, driving back into the hell of anomalies, mutants and mysteries. Remarkably, their vehicle had not been found, well, not stolen at least.

“Any idea where we’re going?” Erwin asked, since it does help to know where you’re going.

“To where we got that orb. The scientist said more of them would be worth money.” Sergey replied. The car rocked wildly back and forth as they drove over a dirt patch which was probably at once point recognizable as a road.

“Yea, but the last time we went there we got shot at by some mercenaries and then attacked by a bunch of mutants…you were there, you should remember.” He said, tapping Sergey on the head.

“Well, we’re 150 in the hole; we might as well try it out.” He replied, annoyed. They’d cut into all their savings and were back to almost nothing.

“And we have a car this time,” Alina said from the back seat.

“The car helps us how?” Erwin asked her dubiously.

She shrugged, “we could pretend we’re delivering pizzas.”

* * *

The spot where they found the gravity artifact was about 10km from the border post, near a small village surrounded by hilly forest and some marshlands; about two kilometers from the city they were attacked in weeks ago. They approached the town from the south, seeing the rising silhouette of block construction from the distance. Well out of sight of the city they hid the car in some bushes and hid the gas can away from the car.

Atop a hillock the three surveyed the town below. The village probably had a fairly small population thirty years ago, but now stood deserted. The block architecture spread for nearly a kilometer in front of them. The commercial buildings, most in extreme disrepair, stood high above intermingled houses and shops. The city was nearly surrounded by a sickly looking forest. The forest to the west seemed to be particularly bad and an ominous cloud of grayish brown fog wisped through the diseased underbrush.

The sun pierced through the light cloud cover, the wind blew very gently. It was around ten in the morning, plenty of time to find an orb or two and leave. Sergey and Alina brought out a pair of binoculars. A lens dropped out of the front of Sergey’s field glasses and with odium he threw them over his shoulder into the woods.

Observing the town through the scratched and worn lenses, Alina quickly spotted two men in military style camouflage standing in the middle of a main street. They walked tensely, Kalashnikovs in hand, with packs of equipment, grenades and undistinguishable sidearms. They both wore gasmasks and radios. Around a street corner she saw another patrol, dressed and armed in the same manner. “There’s a lot more than last time,” she said, handing Sergey her binoculars. They were well out of her range from the hill top, a little less than one kilometer away.

“There were only the four of them before too, I only see four now.” Sergey said, passing the field lenses to Erwin.

“Yea, but we killed two of them before, so there should only be two.”

He thought for a second, and agreed. “Maybe we should make sure there aren’t more of them.”

The place where they found the artifact lay on the opposing side of the city, through numerous city blocks. The brownish fog to the west didn’t look very safe, and impeded them on the left. The swamplands to the east would be hard to navigate, and would be especially impairing if their weapons got wet. The only path would be through the small city.

“So, who wants to take the lead?” Erwin asked.

* * *

And so, Alina was creeping ten meters ahead of the others, approaching the edge of the tree line. Back on the hilltop they had observed that the soldiers patrolled in a fairly determined pattern, and that they might be able to get past the first few patrols without incident, however, the small office buildings near the edge of the city impeded further reconnaissance.

Alina approached the first home; she broke from the forest in a silent sprint across a dead lawn up to a house. Her injured leg burned slightly from the exertion, but she ignored it. Looking both ways she saw no soldiers and broke a window, climbing into it quickly. She went inside, Erwin and Sergey waited for her to return.

A few seconds later she returned and waved them forward. They scrambled across the small, barren field and climbed into the window quickly. Erwin broke off the rest of the shattered glass in the window in an attempt to make sure none of the soldiers would notice it was broken.

“There are some shops across the street, if we’re quick we should be good,” was Alina’s quick report. Sergey had trouble opening the door at first, the hinges seemed rusted firm. He pressed it hard and the decaying front door opened with a weak screech of rusted metal. They went out the door and crept quickly across the street.

The building was probably at one time a butcher shop. The front area was fairly clean and had a pair of food display counters, stained a light pink color. Further in the back they found a row of rusty metal hooks hanging from the ceiling and a large room that was probably at one time a walk-in refrigerator. In the back of the shop there was a large chopping block. Blood stains coated the tiled floor. Sergey noted with morbid attentiveness that the blood-soaked wooden block had recently been gnawed upon. They continued to the back of the shop, to a solid wooden door without any windows.

“There’s probably an alley - might be soldiers,” Erwin offered the idea.

“Or another street, with soldiers,” Sergey suggested.

Alina put her hand on the door, and thought for a moment, “Or a road…with soldiers.”


Alina pushed the door open slowly, saw a wooden fence. Opening the door further she saw that it was a small cordoned off area with a dumpster. The fence concealed them from the narrow street behind the shop. Over the fence they could see that across the street were numerous shops and stores.

Peaking around the corner of the shop, Sergey saw the end of a Kamaz truck idling on a nearby main street. He saw soldiers’ boots under the silhouette of the truck. Down the other side of the street, he saw a patrol of soldiers walking down the street, passing by the alley. He brought his head back behind the concealment of the fence to make sure they wouldn’t see him. He leaned against the fence, but felt it bend under his weight. The rotten timbers began to lean and then fall into the street when Erwin and Alina grabbed onto some supports and pulled it back into the tiny yard. He winced in embarrassment.

He looked out again after a few moments, a quick and careful glance, and didn’t see the soldiers anymore. He ran across the street quickly, tried the door on the other side. Erwin followed behind him and Alina prepared to run across too. He whispered, “It’s locked,” and made a motion for Erwin to try the next building down the street.

Erwin continued down the road, but found that the other buildings down the alley seemed to be locked as well. At the end of the alleyway, he heard the approaching soldiers’ boots thump against concrete as they continued on patrol. He panicked, but controlled himself quickly and hesitantly threw himself towards the nearest building, scrunching himself into the ingress of a doorway and waited for them to pass. He heard them talking as they came closer:

“…a strange anomaly. Have you ever seen it work?” There was no response, from the other soldier, but the first continued talking, his voice raspy through a gas mask. “Well, you should, it’s like watching millions of years in a few seconds.”

“It only appears once every fourteen days I’ve heard….and the ones that don’t work become gravitational themselves.” The soldiers continued slowly down the connecting street.

“Yea, that’s true. It’s very exact with its fourteen days though, and always in the same spot. We’re probably lucky the scientists or the military haven’t found it yet. The boss thinks it‘s due to the proximity to the reactor.”

“When’s it supposed to come back?”

“Tomorrow, I think it was, around…” Erwin couldn’t hear anymore, He relaxed his body and stepped out into the alleyway and dared to look around the corner down the street. He saw the soldiers’ backs as they walked away. He ran back down the alley to Sergey trying to open a door.

Sergey was standing at the backdoor of a broad, three-storied building; he looked around quickly and then kicked the door hard, splintering it around the lock. It snapped loudly. He kicked it again and broke the door free of the lock and swung open, knocking against the inside wall. They ducked inside quickly.

“So much for our undetectable entrance,” he said with a wry smile.


They were inside a dark office building, small shafts of light filtered in through the splintered door behind them, so that they could see a hallway with piled-up desks and a larger room beyond filled with office furniture. Erwin and Sergey went to pick up one of the desks to block the door.

“They were talking about some kind of anomaly…it appears once every 14 days.” Erwin said, lifting one of the wooden desks. It seemed unnaturally heavy, probably had metal supports, or maybe it was just a fake wood covering.

“What kind of anomaly?” They dropped the desk snugly against the splintered door.

“I don’t know, they said something about ‘gravitational’ so maybe it’s gravity related.” They edged the desk into position. “That seems to be why they’re here, anyway.”

“It might explain why we found that gravity orb thing here.” Alina suggested.

“Yea, maybe. They said it appears tomorrow.”


They decided to rest a moment in the building. The close proximity to the soldiers’ own camp would probably lessen the chance of being found. They also had the added protection from a veritable army sitting nearby.

Sergey wanted to be closer to the field in which they had found the original artifact. It was still across the town, and being in a building next to the soldiers might be good for a bit, but some of them might want to sleep in here during the night. They agreed to eat in the office building and observe the movements of the soldiers for a while before trying to get across the rest of the city.

Erwin and Sergey reinforced the defenses at the backdoor, since it was the only evidence of their arrival. Although tensions grew each time a patrol passed by the front of the building there didn’t seem to be an overt interest in their refuge. They scoured the building for useful effects, but aside from an abundance of toilet paper in a supply closet they found nothing remotely useful. After finishing their self-appointed task the two ate before checking to see what Alina was doing.

She observed the mercenaries through one of the third floor windows, where the darkness inside the office would make it hard to be spotted. She counted at least twenty soldiers, there were probably more around the Kamaz trucks, but she couldn’t see the trucks from her position, a small shop blocked her view on the left, since it was also three stories tall.

Soldiers on patrol passed by the front of the office building every few minutes, and at one point it seemed like someone was rattling the back door. Occasionally, shots would ring out as the mercenaries removed some troublesome mutants - or maybe stalkers, they couldn’t be sure which. Although the soldiers had high-powered flashlights, but the patrols seemed to be more focused and strict as it grew darker.

Twice soldiers had entered through the front of the office building and shone their flashlights around the large entrance room. Their glaring beams would flood the inside with light, illuminating even the darkened hall piled high with desks and debris, but they never seemed to take notice. Erwin and Sergey would look on anxiously from a stairwell, while Alina seemed intent on continuous scouting.

They stayed in the building until after dark, a few hours before midnight, when the patrols outside seemed to become less frequent. Sergey sat impatiently at the top of the stairs whittling the concrete with his knife. A patrol had gone by a few moments before and he was ready to go, tense after hours of boredom. Another patrol wouldn’t be around for a few minutes. Sergey hurried down the stairs to the entrance. He opened the office building’s glass front door and checked around the corners. Content, he pulled his body back in, “Looks like a good time to go. Get Alina,” he commanded.

Exiting the dank stairwell Erwin found Alina pressed against a wall pointing her Marakov at the doorway he was standing in. She lowered her weapon deftly and grabbed her Dragunov. He waved her to follow and she quickly grabbed her pack and followed him down to the bottom floor.


Sergey took point. He broke from the doorway and ran to the other side of the street. Alina followed instantly behind him. Erwin checked around the corner of the office building. He absent-mindedly noticed large nicks taken out of the brick exterior - probably from target practice. He stepped out of the doorway and followed his comrades across the street.

They traversed through a small maze of interconnected courtyards leading deeper into the heart of the city. Erwin checked their back often; his heart beat furiously every time he saw the glint of a flashlight reflecting from the street through the odd angles of houses and buildings – thinking, in the back of his mind, that they were being followed. During one of their shortcuts through a building they had found three mercenaries on makeshift beds of dilapidated furniture. The room would have erupted into gunfire had Sergey not realized they were asleep. They continued on through the city, content to leave no signs of their intrusion.

There didn’t seem to be any straight way through the town. Every turn Erwin found himself wishing they could just go on to a main street and walk a few hundred meters, but they seemed to be lost in an unimaginable labyrinth of half-destroyed fences and small, dilapidated houses. One time Sergey had opened a fence’s gate that opened up on to the main street and would probably have gotten shot, if it weren’t for some mutant the soldiers were preoccupied with. Erwin managed to trip over debris constantly, unaided by a hand torch, but he managed to keep reasonably quiet.


It was now a little after midnight and they had reached the center of the city without real incident or confrontation. They were in an office building standing four floors tall, and a little less than half a kilometer from the field where they had found the anomalous orb. They would camp in the building until the anomaly appeared. The soldiers would probably be preoccupied with the curiosity: if they had set up such intricate operations, surely it was important enough to warrant their full attention when it appeared.

The stout edifice was also one of the tallest in the city, and presented Alina with as complete a view as she could hope for. It also seemed comparatively new; the upper floors had broad windows but accompanied by the dull gray of slightly eroded concrete block work. Inside the building the rooms seemed, aside from a thick layer of dust, almost untouched from when it was abandoned. Heavy metal desks were accompanied by simplistic furniture of tubular chairs and lamps, and broken florescent lights. On one of the desks sat a porcelain cup filled a festering bacterial goop, which was probably at one point coffee.

Patrols seemed to be incredibly rare this deep into the city. They slept until first light without incident, but it began a game of patience for the group. Waiting for the appearance of the anomaly seemed to take an eternity. Seconds took hours, boredom and tedium took everlasting energy to subvert for Erwin and Sergey. After playing countless games of cards in tense anticipation they had actually fallen to discussing their retirement plan, forced to do anything for entertainment. Alina was accustomed to staying in one spot for endless periods. She kept an eye on the soldiers below distantly while she thought about hunting back home. The few hours it took to reach nine in the morning passed normally for her.

* * *

The mercenaries congregated together, walking down the center street. Alina saw them intermittently through the buildings. The trucks drove along behind them. They pulled into a very small side alley. She saw a man wearing a beret wave the mercenaries frantically into a building. Sensing that it would be a good idea, she ducked behind a desk, and warned the others to do the same.

Blindingly bright light filled the office, burning shadows onto the wall. The building shook and reverberated in pulses. She could feel the soft concrete floor below her shake uncontrollably. Her vision blurred and cleared with every throb of light. There was no sound. She spoke, but couldn’t hear her own voice, she yelled, and still heard nothing. She couldn’t breathe. The desk shook, rocking against the floor.

The unbearable white light turned blue, and slowly grew dark red until it subsided and the murky-gray of sunlight through clouds returned. The desk still bounced above and around her. She could hear it distantly: metal pegs clinking against the concrete beneath her. The sound grew steadily louder until each movement seemed to echo and roar in her ears. Moments later a massive shockwave renewed the vibrations around her and shook the building; a resonating *BOOM* filled the air and resounded deafeningly loud in her head. She could see the windows shake in their worn, metallic frames.

She heard herself gasp for air and breathe deeply. Her body was filled with pain and her ears popped. She got out from under the desk slowly, called to the others. She heard muffled replies from the third floor.

* * *

Erwin pushed a desk off himself, while Sergey helped him. Sergey shouted again, “Yea, we’re fine.” He pulled at the desk with his right hand; hit the side of his head with his left, trying to un-pop his ears.

Erwin rolled out from under the desk and got up quickly, but became disoriented. His entire body hurt, especially his head. Nausea nearly overtook him and he almost toppled over. They walked carefully up stairs, to check on Alina.

* * *

She walked to the windows, they were plastic - designed to take heavy forces - they were unbroken. She knocked on it with her knuckle and saw it wobble slightly in the frame. She looked down the road to see two Kamaz trucks pull out from the alley, followed by about thirty mercenaries. A large portion of the field to the north seemed blurred, distorted - maybe it was the sunlight, she thought.

They would need to get closer, she couldn’t see the mercenaries clearly enough from up here, not to see what they were doing, anyway. Glancing to the west she saw the brownish fog was approaching the city, the wind was probably blowing- except looking east she saw that the swampland was now fogged over with the same foul-looking vapors. The fog wafted ominously through the back of her mind.

Sergey and Erwin came up from the floor below. They walked over to her posistion by the window, Sergey was tapping his ear. “So, what are our buddies doing?”

“They’re all gathering together, you know, near where we found that orb before?”

“Yea. I know the place.”

* * *

Wealth causes Envy, Knowledge causes Paranoia

**

The debris-littered streets were empty of patrols, they moved quickly and unhindered to the edge of the town. “It would have been so much easier to have come today,” Sergey thought, hopping over a fallen trash can. They came to the last row of buildings, marking the end of the city. Further on it would be only open field - and mercenaries. Direct confrontation would be suicide if they were hostile, and he was almost positive they were.

They entered a home that seemed like it would have a window towards the field. There was no longer a front door. Inside they found dilapidated, mold-spotted furniture. In the back of the house was a small bedroom. Sergey saw the white paint curling off the walls, he could see the structural beams through decayed drywall, and in the middle of the wall, brightening the room, was a window towards the field. He lifted his head over the windowsill and glanced out in the prairie beyond the city. An army of mercenary soldiers stood in formation about fifty meters away from the house. He watched them closely, none of them were looking back at the city; they were watching another group of soldier carry a container full of indiscernible junk close to the blurry distortion in the field.


Sergey saw the mercenaries pull burlap sacks out of the container and empty the contents collectively into a pile. Black chunks of rock dropped out - no - coal. Another group of mercenaries pushed the coal towards the blurred area of the field; it looked like they were using long window cleaning squeegees. It didn’t make any sense to him.

The first pile of coal reached the edge of the anomaly and was thrust through the blur. The ‘squeegee’ snapped and collapsed almost instantly. A Kamaz truck drove out onto the grass and a man in a beret climbed out, shouting at the soldier who had pushed the coal. The soldier pushed the working man, and then shouted at the grouped soldiers. They disbanded from their formation and formed up into groups of twos, probably going back on patrol.

Turning his attention back to the coal, he saw it was becoming smaller, glossier. It had a more angular shape, almost crystalline. Staring in amazement for a few more minutes he saw the coal began to become translucent, it began to refract the light, “Well, that explains why they’re here,” He said aloud.

“What does?” Erwin asked with off-hand curiosity, staring outside intensely.

But Sergey was already thinking back to his chemistry classes at the university. What was coal made of? Organic material…carbon. What else was made of carbon? Graphite, a greasy metallic mineral, ‘pencil lead’; some interesting geometric shapes and constructions, one of which were buckyballs, a chemical construction in a spherical shape named after by Richard Buckminster Fuller which could be used for various chemical and physical advances but never came to fruition; an even more modern construction were microscopic nanotubes - the ones he knew about could only be made in a laboratory. What else? He ran it through his mind again: crystalline, translucent…

Diamonds.

Alina looked back from the window.

“They’re making diamonds.” Diamonds could be created when sufficient pressure was applied to organic carbon compounds, which usually had to take place well below the Earth’s surface - where the heat and pressure would compress the organic material into a more crystalline and structured diamond. The coal was being pushed into the intense gravity of an anomaly, strong enough to compress the coal into diamond. It was ingenious, they would be indistinguishable from natural diamonds, except for a small flaw from being pushed into the gravity field, and no one would be able to recognize such a flaw.

“Well, that solves our money problems, doesn’t it?” Erwin said to Sergey. They began thinking of the possibilities. They had thought of the zone as a way to make a living, to possibly save up for their life’s dreams. Now they had a veritable fortune right in front of them.

They were entwined with their ideas; they conversed in excited voices, forgetting where they were. Bullets snapped against the wooden frame of the house. Sergey dove to the ground, small splinters of wood showered down around him. He heard unintelligible shouts in Russian and then “Over there, in that house!” A burly voice ordered, “Get them.”


Alina was the first out the front door, she sprinted across the street. Surprised soldiers at the ends of the street shouted as they saw Erwin behind her, so when Sergey got out onto the street they had already opened fire. He felt the pressure changes in the air as the rounds flew past him. He brought his arm up awkwardly to cover his face. His body was physically pushed to the side as they began to strike his backpack. He almost lost his balance, but he pulled himself through the doorway ahead.

The soldiers chased them. He heard combat boots on pavement, a large truck engine in the distance. They were in a book store, or a library. Plenty of shelves for concealment, but they wouldn’t stop bullets. He followed Alina and Erwin by a side door, heard one of the soldiers begin firing into the bookshelves, sending splinters of wood and clouds of dust everywhere. Bullets flew past him and struck the back wall. He saw Erwin kick violently and the door bend under the force before snapping open.

The side door led to a small concrete path, overgrown with grass, Erwin was ahead, ushering him into the next building. Sergey took a paperclip from his pocket and fed it through the locking hole on the door designed for a padlock. “It won’t stop them for long, but maybe a second,” he thought, bending the ends down and ran to the next door.

Erwin and Alina were pushing a shelf over onto the door already. He pushed back against the increasing weight of the bookshelf. Arms flailed wildly around the edge of the door and pulled him in. The shelf toppled onto the door frame behind him and caught a strap from his backpack in the door. He flipped his blade from his belt and cut wildly, freeing himself. He helped them wedge another shelf into the hallway. He wasn’t sure what kind of building they were in, and he was running across the street again before he had had the chance to look twice. Bullets flew by again; he was amazed he hadn’t been shot yet. His lungs burned; he gasped hard for breath. He closed a door behind him. Shots splintered into its wooden frame and off the concrete façade of the building they were in.

They crossed through more buildings – a house, some sort of store, another house. He saw Erwin trip over a glass bottle lying in the street, his arms flailed wildly and he began to fall. Tracers filled Sergey’s vision. He blinked quickly from the brightness. The next thing he saw was that Erwin was back on his feet. The soldiers behind him were losing a little ground, but they seemed to pick up reinforcements at every intersection. He felt liquid - sweat drip down his leg. He followed the others, jumping on a trash can to scramble over a small fence. He pushed the metal bin over as he pushed himself up. He fell hard on to the fractured concrete on the other side, grazing his elbows and rolling onto his back. He clawed at the fence savagely, pulling himself to his feet despite the weight of his backpack.

Beads of sweat dripped into his eyes. With every breath his lungs flared. He’d been going at a sprint for three minutes. He followed the others into yet another building, across yet another street. The direction to the car had been lost to him. He was almost caught up with Erwin. They crossed a wide street and looking up he saw that they were only a few blocks away from the four story office building.

They were in a small department store, metal shelves and old display cases littered the area. The glass windows behind him were shattered by gunfire as he continued behind Erwin. His legs burned excruciatingly. “She’s so light on her feet,” he thought. Alina was well ahead of them now, she was at the back of the department store, they were still running past grated metallic shelves and glass display cases - probably a jewelry or electronics display thirty years ago.

The cases shattered into large shards as he looked at them, and gunshots resounded in the department store. Erwin dove into a group of shelves on the side; Sergey dove on the opposing side of the aisle. Alina hadn‘t looked back and continued on through to the door. “This has to be the fourth time that has happened,” he shouted over the gunfire.

Erwin nodded with a smile, simultaneously unclipping a grenade from his belt. He waved it at Sergey. What does he think this is, a joke? Sergey waved his arm towards the soldiers. Erwin rolled the grenade around the corner down the aisle, he mouthed ‘just making sure’ over to Sergey.

* * *

She risked a glance behind her. There was no one there. Ideas flashed through her mind. She continued running towards the office building. Were Erwin and Sergey captured? Shot? Should she go back? She reached the doors of the office building and swung them open quickly, she ran up the stairs. Should I try to negotiate? How many are there? She began to slow her pace, and breathed heavy, realizing she had just obliquely run about two kilometers through the city. Should I go to the car? She heard an explosion from the streets below her.

She looked out the window, two blocks away Kamaz trucks pulled up to the department store she had run through moments ago. Troops poured out of the trucks and began to take positions in the buildings around the department store. She saw them take out more weapons from one of the trucks.

“We’ve got a great discovery here, we’re not going to lose it,” she thought. Her discovery? She shook her head, frustrated with herself – no. They had to still be alive. She felt a deep inner fury build inside of her, something she hadn’t felt since she was a child. She felt the burn of her cheeks. She clenched her fists in rage. She looked around the barren office for something to use.

She took a broken chair, slammed it against the window. The glass vibrated back and forth violently. In her wobbling reflection she noticed the silver sheen of her eyes. She hit it again and it fractured into a web of jagged, white cracks. She hit it again forcing a hole; she hit it more until it shattered. Warm air flooded into the building, she could hear the soldiers shouting blocks away.

Distantly, it came, “Get them – they’re in the department store!”

* * *

The grenade’s shockwave shook the shelf Sergey was resting against. The metal shelf above him was rocked off its hinges and crashed down onto his head. One of the soldiers’ broken Kalashnikovs bounced down the aisle. He glanced beyond the shelf, both the soldiers were dead, he saw behind them that more were filtering inside from the front of the building. Simultaneously he heard the metallic backdoor swing open and slam against the wall.

Erwin dove across the aisle and pulled Sergey along, “we should try to find some offices or a work room or something.” So they slunk off from the main aisle passing by innumerable shelves. They heard soldiers’ boots crunch on broken glass. It was dark in the department store, little light filtered in from the windows that looked out on the street to the north.

Sergey pulled out his TOZ, Erwin clicked off the safety of his MP5. They reached a sidewall, looked for a door to the outside. There was a door a couple of aisles down the wall; it looked like it led to some offices – somewhere more defensible.

A large man wearing a red beret, who seemed to be their leader, walked through the front door. He stood and signaled for more soldiers to enter the store. Images of his time at the bar flashed back to Sergey, the man was one of the men taking interest in the old man’s story. He was probably military…or used to be.

He shouted into the store, “Ahh, my friends, so you’ve returned?” He fired into some of the shelves. “I know you are in here, there’s nowhere else you can go.” Sergey heard him faintly talking with some mercenaries near him, “You got away from me - you’re very slippery.”

Sergey and Erwin sprinted for the door, the soldiers opened fire on them. Erwin felt pieces of drywall scratch across his face. Erwin returned fire carefully and slipped behind the door as Sergey pulled it shut. They heard the leader, slightly muted through the door, “We’ve been in this town for months,” he laughed, “You don’t think I know where that door goes? It’s a dead end my friends, a dead end for you!”

There were about ten identical offices, differing only in their level of decay. Some stairs led up to a second floor that probably overlooked the sales area. Just as the man had said, there was no exit. They pulled a desk out of an office and barricaded the door. To be sure they pulled up another.

Up the stairs there was a conference room, with windows that looked down on the whole department store. Sergey saw soldiers scanning each of the aisles. Flashlights arced across walls, down aisles, checking every corner. The mercenaries moved in groups of threes now, some were at the entrances, the back and the front. No way out.

“So, what do you want to do?” He said. His mind had run out of options.

“I don’t know.” The room filled with splinters and shrapnel as another grenade exploded on the other side of the heavy table. “What do you think happened to our sniper?” Erwin had a disappointed look on his face. Chunks of ceiling tile and drywall rained down from above. He looked up, annoyed, “We should probably try to fight our way out.”

“Seems like the only option, doesn’t it?”

The mercenaries were now forcing the door. They shot through it, splintering a large hole in it. The clink of grenades was even audible from the second floor. Fragmentation explosions came first, then a hissing sound - some kind of gas. They would be fine on the second floor, but the mercenaries would know where they were. From down the department area they heard, “Shoot the glass, grenade them out of my city!”

The one way glass around them, designed to take substantial force, shattered quickly under the impact of hundreds of bullets. The ceiling tiles above them blew apart in pieces. Sergey heard the distinct click of a grenade lever releasing and saw a couple of grenades soar through the window. Erwin and Sergey knocked over the heavy conference table quickly, pushing it over just as the grenades exploded on the opposite side.

Shrapnel blew the remaining ceiling tiles apart. The lights in the ceiling shattered, Sergey hoped in the back of his mind that they weren’t mercury vapor lights, decided it didn’t matter. A grenade clinked down next to him. He grabbed it deftly, heaved it out the broken window.

“This wont last to long, now will it?” Erwin grinned in a smug way.

The voice growled up to them angrily, “there’s no one here to help you, you’ve got no where to go!”

* * *
  01:40:52  6 April 2006
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UltimaGecko
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 01/28/2004
 

Message edited by:
UltimaGecko
04/06/2006 1:54:13
Messages: 154
Anomalous Companions

Well, since I've managed to find the time, I'm going to post my formatted story here, which will hopefully save Amoki some amount of time...

If you do plan on reading it, not only would I appreciate some sort of feedback, but I'd like to alert you to the obscene length of the story before you engross yourself. As mentioned at the end of these posts: this has a fair bit of editing compared to the original submission.


So, without further stalling:





Anomalous Companions
(formerly Crystalline Siblings)

* * *

The Reliability in Question

**

The stagnant evening air rustled gently as a figure dropped from a second story apartment window; another figure followed quickly behind the first. They crouched down and slinked towards the nearby street, their silhouettes hidden against the dark shadow of the crumbling cinderblock construct.

In the distant field two men wearing camouflage uniforms walked towards the pseudo-courtyard formed by three decaying, nearly identical apartment blocks. The men strayed into the open field with an air of caution. The sound of rustling fabric intertwined within the wind drifted into the distance. They reached for their weapons - Kalashnikovs. The profile of grenades and ammo pouches could be seen around their waists. The variegated green of their uniforms was easily discernable from the swaths of orange sky from the evening sun. One of them pointed towards the decaying building that the two figures had just dropped from, the other made an agreeing nod. They crouched down slightly and slowly walked towards the flat.

The sound of boards and cans knocking together came from the no longer clandestine figures; one of them fell awkwardly over a pile of rubble. The men in the field raised their weapons –

*Crack*, a single rifle shot pierced the silent air from the southernmost apartment block.

The sound echoed for a moment before both men in the field fell over limply and a slight breeze moved the motionless air. Blood flowed freely from the men in the field - from the temple of one man, and the neck of the other.

* * *

Alina Ivanovna Mirova raised her head from her scope and shouldered her rifle. She leaned out of the second story flat window, shouting to the figures below, “Maybe you guys would like to stop moving like turtles and hurry up?” The two figures hastened across the street.

Sergey Nikolayevich Bolshenko held his Fort 12 loosely in his right hand as he hurried across the dilapidated road. His fairly muscular build, aided by his imposing height, strode powerfully over the asphalt. His dark military fatigues’ sleeves were rolled up and a bandolier stocked with shotgun shells lay hidden under his ripped jacket. His short, dark brown, almost black, hair waved in the growing breeze.


Bolshenko was a native born Ukrainian. At 26 years old he had seen some rough times, but had missed pretty much any Soviet-American cold war animosity, and any action that went with it. He always hoped to eventually do something important - or at least get rich trying. Most of his time was spent as a scientist for a Ukrainian-Russian military coalition before meeting with Schutzer at a military-science convention…a life he enjoyed, but wasn’t very proud of. He would have been fine with keeping it, if he hadn’t been fired days later due to ‘budget constraints’. His family was killed by Chechen terrorists when they went to visit Moscow; he still misses them but is quite stoic. He would remark, “I didn’t see them often, anyway.”

He carried an old TOZ-34 shotgun, a LR300 and a Fort 12 pistol. He preferred the Fort 12 when he could use it, made obvious by his constant boasts of, “If I shoot someone, I prefer it’s a gun from my home country.” But he’s exceptional with his assault rifle - despite the fact he had little formal training with military grade weapons of any kind.


Behind him Erwin I. Schutzer carried his modified MP5 in his left hand and scratched the back of his neck with the right. His lanky build made his dramatic height seem even taller, due to a lack of fat or overly apparent muscle mass. As they crossed the pot-holed, broken street he saw over Sergey’s head in front of him. His camouflage pants had a small rip at the knee - where he had tripped over the pile of boards and paint cans. His short blond hair rustled in the breeze.


Schutzer was born in Cologne (Köln), Germany, on September 29th, 1982. He lived in West Germany (and then an unhappily reunited Germany) until he was 18, when he decided to join the military. Eventually, stationed in Ukraine as a consultant, in 2004 he met Sergey. They became good friends, as Erwin’s honorable discharge came at the same time as Sergey’s ‘honorable’ dismissal. They became good friends and decided to try and make a life for themselves. Schutzer speaks fluent German and fairly good Russian, although his anti-social nature tends to confuse his speech.

He didn’t see very much action back in the Bundeswehr, but had trained himself frequently with his G3. He also practiced with his friends MP-5 when he could, which he liked much more. Upon hearing of his impending discharge he… ‘requisitioned’ an MP-5 from the military base, “Hey, if terrorists can have them, I should be able to, too…at least mine’s not for…overly malicious uses. Alles gute.”

He carried a ‘borrowed’ Heckler and Koch MP-5, a trusty USP .45 and generally enjoyed being well stocked in grenades, despite the fact he rarely had the presence of mind to use them. Whenever he came across an RPG, he felt the need to discard something if he couldn’t carry it. “You never know when a rocket will help you out.” This tended to lead to the overt knowledge that he was a somewhat of a pack-rat.


Alina’s comparatively small frame already stood at the bottom floor of the flat, holding open the door for Erwin and Sergey. Her dark brown hair hung down to her upper back, with bangs that reached just above her eyes in the front. The hair matches her dark russet eyes, except when they occasionally experienced a color change to gray, or so people told her, she’d never seen it. She held her Dragunov SVD by the wooden fore-grip, ushering the others inside with her open hand.


Mirova was born April 12th on the Romanian/Moldovan border in 1985. Her family moved to Chernobyl that same year. Four years after the disaster her father died of cancer, her brother was born a few months later, before her mother died. Her grandfather and brother were her only remaining family, she moved in with them in Kishinev in 1998 after living with friends of her father for a few years. Her grandfather taught her to shoot with an old Mosin-Nagant rifle he had bribed from an officer after WW2, “It had saved his life, it was only right that he get to keep it. The stock was revarnished, but you could still see the cracks and splinters and an imbedded bullet.”

She uses an authentic Snaiperskaya Vintovka Dragunova (Dragunov SVD) given to her by her grandfather - it is quite old and the wooden fore grip has her initials carved into it, she also carries a Makarov PM for general use and a GSh-18 in her right hand holster, for when it‘s needed. She’s an excellent shot and rarely misses, honed by years of having nothing but target-practice as a daily activity. She chooses not to overly acknowledge her skills, something that has occasionally been a source of money for her once arriving at the zone. The SVD is also her meeting point with Bolshenko, when she bested him - and everyone else - in a targeting competition.

* * *

The group entered through a gaping hole in the pitted walls of the apartment building and continued until they found a room that managed to be free of holes to the outside. The group set their packs and weapons down in the cleanest corner they could find and checked the area. Sergey took a quick reading with a Geiger counter, which was in desperate need of repair. Everything seemed fairly good, or as good as 1.3 rad an hour of radiation can be. Alina went down the hall and made sure there weren’t any other people – or worse, in the building. Erwin knocked a decrepit door off its hinges. With Sergey’s help, he began breaking it apart into kindling. Alina reentered and began constructing a small pile of rocks from the broken cinder wall separating them from the adjacent apartment. Sergey grabbed a small satchel from his pack and sat down next to her. Erwin dragged a piece of corrugated metal over the pile of stones near the others sitting by a window and started a fire. He threw a can of beans in and sat down.

“So, how about we have a look at that artifact?” Erwin began; he’d been interested ever since they found it lying in a field a few miles away, covered peculiarly in a layer of dirt. It had actually caught his attention because it had looked like a perfectly smooth ball of dirt. He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but if some mercenary-mugger type Stalkers were after them for it, it had to be at least worth something.

“Yea, let’s check out this pearl.” Sergey said, biting his lip as he opened the satchel in front of him. He’d wanted to take a closer look at it since they’d found it. His interest drew on the fact that when they saw it the blades of grass had been bending strangely all around. It had taken them a while to actually find the artifact camouflaged amongst the clumps of dirt on the ground. Apparently, it was so strong it could -

Alina grabbed it out of the pouch quickly and held it up in front of herself. After staring at it for a moment she said excitedly. “It feels so weird against my skin, even with gloves on.” Her glove was being pulled to fit the contours of the near-perfectly spherical dark, gray-red orb in her hand. Turning it in her hands the light shone darker off the edges of it, unlike normal glass or plastic spheres, which would create white or rainbow colored shines.

“So, was tst…what is it?” Erwin asked, as Alina handed the orb back to the impatient Sergey. Erwin looked across the fire at Sergey as he began to experiment with the orb.

Sergey picked up a loose nail lying next to him and held it to the bottom of the orb - it hung in place. He then picked up a piece of Erwin’s kindling and it, too, stuck to the bottom of the orb. “Well,” he sighed, “it’s seems like an orb that has an immense gravitational pull, but lacks sufficient mass to maintain it.” Science had paid off for him in the zone before, and this was just another legitimate application of his skills. In fact, this is the speculation he had when they had first seen it: it was covered with such a fine coat of dirt and grass in the general area was bent towards it that he’d assumed it was extremely magnetic or gravitational. “Think of it as a magnet, except it’s more powerful than magnets, and it can attract anything. It doesn’t even have to be metal, like iron or -”

“So, it’s basically nothing like a magnet.” exclaimed Alina facetiously.

“Hey, it attracts stuff doesn’t it? It’s a magnet.”

“I attract stuff, and I’m not a magnet.”

“Magnet, huh?” Sergey responded, as Alina quickly took out her poncho and hid herself from Sergey as a gentle hiss filled the room. “Hiding behind a poncho just means I’m -” …abruptly the can of beans Erwin had tossed in the fire ruptured violently. Brown beans covered Sergey, who was sitting closest to the fire, along with a majority Alina‘s poncho.

“…the only one covered in beans?” Alina finished his old sentence. He quickly wiped the searing chunks of goo off of his face and skin.


Erwin, not one to like wasting food, was disappointed at the can’s premature opening and subsequent rupture, but he had another can. He threw it in the fire…wondering how none of the beans had gotten on him, but smiling in mild amusement at the event. He felt something gooey drip onto his shoulder from the pitted and stained ceiling.

“How about you watch those beans this time?” Sergey grumbled angrily. He removed a bottle of vodka from his pack and had a swig. Alina continued to smile as she wiped a few beans off her poncho.

Erwin, intently watching the beans, asked, “How much do you think that thing is worth?”

“I’m sure we’ll get enough for it,” Sergey replied as he took another swig, “although it doesn’t seem to have any direct scientific applications, though a magnet…” he glanced over at Alina, “…that is not metal could probably be used for something.” He handed the bottle to Erwin.

“So why do you think the mercenaries care about it?” Erwin had been wondering about it for a while. Being chased a mile to this small town wasn’t his idea of safe zone hunting - not that the zone was safe anyway. Sure, maybe they wanted to mug them for the artifact, but really - how would they have known what it was from so far away? “Maybe they found a big stash of artifacts back there…I mean, maybe there’s more of these gravitational sphere things,” Erwin continued. Sergey had been going over the same question. The mercenaries were nearly half a kilometer away when they were spotted and they couldn’t have seen what the orb had been doing to the grass from that far.

“Maybe it’s a mercenary base or something….is it beans yet?”

“Err, holy…yea,” Erwin responded, reaching with a stick to roll the hissing can of beans out of the fire. The can had puffed out into an exaggerated, cartoon shape. He pointed the can away from himself and stabbed the top with his knife. Alina and Sergey took out some MREs. And they ate.

* * *

The fire died out and they decided to find a safer room to sleep in. After barricading the gaping hole they had entered through, they managed to find something suitably sheltered on the fifth floor and barricaded the entrance there as well - just in case anything decided to show up. Sergey set himself up on an absent-minded watch. Erwin’s boots scuffed against the degraded concrete floor as he plodded over. Sergey looked up from a mild trance, “Should work nicely towards our plan, don’t you think?”

Erwin glanced over at Alina, refilling a magazine for her Dragunov. She slid another 7.62x54mm shell into the clip sitting in her lap. One of her pistols was on the floor next to her. He noticed the hammer was cocked. “Yea, but I don’t get why we’ve got her now,” he whispered, nodding in Alina’s direction. “That’s even less per share for the plan.”

“She seemed like the best, to me,” He squinted questioningly at Erwin, continuing quietly, “I’d rather have her with me, than against me.” He shot his eyes suggestively outside, towards the bodies lying in the open field.

“I thought we were doing pretty well before.” Erwin sighed. “Mensch. We’ve almost got an army now.” He rubbed his forehead in contemplation. “Sure, she seems good, but do we really need her?”

He jolted in surprise as her voice came loudly to his ears, “Come on, who else would want to come out here with you guys?” She smiled up at them as she slid the refilled clip into her Dragunov.

* * *

The talked about what they would do with the artifact, the gravitational orb and how it would be split. They talked in guarded tones about tomorrow and the future. They slept lightly - prepared for the zone.

The wind had picked up, the stagnant musty odor in the dilapidated apartments dissipated in the breeze, replaced by the barren smell of metal and concrete ushered out from the abandoned city. Leaves rustled on the sparse trees outside, and the mild warmth of the summer night seeped into the building. From the weather, it was easy to tell: at the very least, a storm was coming.

* * *

Proven Worth

**

The first soft boom of thunder sounded out around three in the morning, awakening Alina Ivanovna. Spending years with her grandfather and learning all his tricks as a World War Two sniper keened her senses. It had been her favorite past time, almost her only leisure activity. Her body tensed as lightning lit the small room brilliantly. She sat up abruptly, awakened by a peculiar sense. Through the rustling of leaves and the crash of thunder she could hear a distinct shuffling sound, as if something were being dragged across the ground in short jerks.

Through the fifth floor window she could see the flat on the opposing side of the field, and noticed it was beginning to drizzle. She stood when a loud crash and the sound of breaking glass came up from the first floor. She grabbed her Dragunov, lightly tapped Erwin and Sergey with her foot to get them up, and hurried over to the lone window in the room. Staring out the window she waited for the next flash of lighting.

And she saw them, zombies, all over the courtyard…at least twenty of them - mostly decked in soldier camouflage, but a few were in stained white lab coats or other clothes.


Erwin awoke to a gentle, yet firm, tap to his shoulder. He tried to ignore it, readjusting his head on top of his hands. In the next moment he heard the successive reports of two Dragunov shots. He sat up instantly, grabbed his MP-5 and quickly, but sleepily, got up.
Sergey was also awake, he had begun to get up as soon as Alina had kicked him; he knew there would have to be a reason to get up. “Erv…hey Erv, hurry up, get up.”
Erwin mumbled, “I am up.”
Lightning flashed, and three more shots cracked out of Alina’s SVD. “Okay, now that you two are up, you might want to be a little more quiet…and head downstairs quick - they’re trying to get in.”
Erwin was slightly flustered, “Who is?”
“Zombies…in military…and scientist …clothes.” She replied, waiting for the next lightning strike. She needed them to take out the ones by the door, if they got in, it would get ugly. Outside, in the open, they were easy to spot, but having the zombies move freely through an eight story building with multiple ingresses – many of which were from natural decay – just seemed inherently bad in her mind.
“Come on Erv, let’s go mess up some zombies.” Sergey shoved Erwin’s pack into his hands and they started downstairs.

* * *

Alina shot as many zombies as she could during each flash of lightning. So far she had managed to get five of them, which left at least fourteen more, if her counting before was right. The lightning flashed again, and the rain began to pour down harder. She pulled the trigger once more, but noticed a group of zombies was doing something in the field, where she had shot the two mercenaries before.

In the next flash of light she saw something she dreaded, the zombies had picked up the mercenaries’ AK-74s. She gave away her position, she’d have to move anyway, “Guys! They’re armed.”

She ducked down, preparing to change rooms as bullets began striking the ceiling, dropping bits of musty plaster onto her. She could feel the bullets’ shockwaves as they flew above her head. “At least they made some of these buildings out of concrete,” she thought as she crawled to an adjacent room.

* * *

Sergey and Erwin had stopped on the second floor, and heard her shout.

They could hear gunfire, and it obviously wasn’t from Alina. “Hurry,” Sergey shouted, “They’ve got Kalashnikovs!” He took the steps down to the first floor incredibly quick. He got there just as the first zombies were breaking through the door. Reaching around his back, he pulled up his TOZ-34, simultaneously dropping his pack, which slid across the dirty concrete floor into a room across from the stairs. The shotgun bucked solidly in his hands as he fired at the zombie that had appeared at the door.


The area erupted into gunfire. Zombies bearing Makarov PMs and automatic weapons pushed past the half-missing zombie scientist. Sergey shot his second round at one of the zombies who had just entered the flat. The third zombie began firing his Makarov just when Erwin got down the stairs - bullets flew into wooden paneling behind him sending out clouds of dust and wooden splinters into his vision; Sergey dove through a nearby doorway and rolled around the corner. Erwin took a grenade from his belt, simultaneously while going back up the stairs, yelling, “Fire in the hole!” Dropping the explosive behind him as he hurled himself back up the stairs.


Sergey cracked open his TOZ, expelling the shells. He heard Erwin’s grenade clinking clumsily down the stairs. He took two shells from his bandolier as the grenade blew, dropping them as the shockwave hit. The world shook around him, shrapnel from the grenade pierced through the wall. All he heard was ringing, high pitched and annoying. He could feel his heartbeat in his temples.

He grabbed for two more shells.

* * *

Bullets were still ricocheting off the ceiling in the former sniper loft. Alina had gone down the hall, two rooms down. She went to the window and saw muzzle flashes and tracers flashing up to the window a few meters away. A stray bullet struck the wall outside her new window and she ducked down.

She heard the distinctive sound of a shotgun, and a moment later a large explosion could be heard from below. She heard a worrying amount of gunfire.

She continued with her duty: she stayed very low and set the barrel of her SVD against the window sill, setting up again. She aimed at the zombies, her left hand rubbed across her engraved initials. She fired two quick shots, dropping them to the ground, the automatic rifles still firing a few shots as the zombies’ bodies collapsed.

She saw flashes of light brighten the field below and she heard the sharp snap of automatic rifles, instinctively she ducked. Hundreds of rounds flew into her former location. A round crashed through the cinderblock wall to her back and she dove into the hall. She felt a stinging in her right side.

The distinctive sound of a grenade launcher’s *thoooomp* came to her ears, and the room burst into a ball of flame and shrapnel. She felt warmth on her legs, and a stinging sensation in her left thigh, looking back she saw a finger-length wooden splinter jutting out of her leg. It quickly became soaked with blood. She dragged herself away from the door, another grenade exploded, bathing the hall in an eerie orange light.

She pulled the splinter out, held her hand over the puncture trying to stop the blood, gasping in pain. She clenched her teeth as she pushed down on the wound harder, determined to slow the flood of blood. She noticed her Dragunov lying on the floor and grabbed at it fervently with her right hand, ignoring the pain for a moment.
She held her leg, held her rifle.

Reluctantly, in the back of her mind, desperate thoughts coalesced, “These guys better not leave me here…” She thought about her brother and grandfather. For a small instant, the gunfire was silent. All she heard was the sharp patter of the heavy downpour outside.

* * *

Erwin stood by the stairs leading to the second floor. He had heard explosions come from above a moment before, he thought, ‘Sergey might be dead, Alina might be dead.’ He felt panic creep over himself, but subdued it quickly. He tried to remember his training; take out the immediate threats first.

He leaned over the rotting stair banister and saw a zombie coming up the stairs. He opened fire with his MP-5, bullets sprayed the wall and the zombie, and it toppled over and fell back down the stairs. He stood at the top of the stairs, looked down. The stairs were nearly coated with splinters and shrapnel. They were built solidly, but it was a wonder they still were in such shape after a grenade. A door at the bottom of the stairs led to a room on the right, and he saw another door across from the stair’s landing. He didn’t see Sergey anywhere.

“Sergey, are you alright?” He yelled down.

“What?” Sergey’s reply was muffled through the wall Erwin had just shot through.


Sergey was surprised to find that he had sustained no injuries from the grenade and its shrapnel - aside from his momentary decline in hearing. He heard Erwin shout something, but it was distant and muffled, and the ringing wouldn’t stop. “I can’t hear you.” He heard his own voice, hollow in his own ears.

He stood slowly, he still felt his own pulse through his temples, but it was slower and didn’t pound as much. Leaning beyond the doorframe he saw numerous zombies. They had stopped shooting for a bit before, but now they all seemed to be firing at where Alina was. He lowered his shotgun and plucked a grenade from his belt. “Throwing grenade, take cover!” he shouted, lobbing it out the door, out into the darkened field beyond.

The grenade landed and then rolled a good distance from the apartment building. Its explosion obliterated three nearby zombies, and illuminated the field. It also drew their fire.

Again the courtyard erupted in gunfire; tracers flew through the doorframe again. He could smell the phosphorous. He realized the wall he was standing behind wouldn’t stop a 7.62mm round - a little bit too late. A bullet pelted through the wall, it had lost much of its force but managed to imbed itself in his calf. He limped his way to a nearby door, but it was locked. He blew the door knob off with his shotgun. Looking back he saw the wall he had stood by moments ago had now been thoroughly perforated. So much so that he could actually see outside through the destruction.

“Fire on the courtyard, Erv! If you can hear me, fire on the courtyard!” he shouted. He heard a hollow noise he recognized, even with diminished hearing. He heard a low *uuumph* come from outside. He saw the grenade sail, spiraling through the air - he closed the half-destroyed door as quickly as he could. His world shook again. Bracing himself against a wall, he snapped open the magazine again and reloaded two shells.


Erwin heard Sergey. He reloaded his MP-5. He pulled a sheet of corrugated steel up to the window, and held it in place with some cinder blocks. Raising his arm, Erwin emptied his entire clip out the window, reloaded and repeated. He could hear return fire clatter off the cinder blocks and steel in front of him. He saw bulges form in the steel. He backed away in time to see small holes rip the metal apart and shed splinters around the room, many of them imbedding in his clothes.

Moving to an adjacent room, he grabbed his pack and took out his one spare RPG. Slowly, he stood up, aiming at the largest cluster of muzzle flashes he could. He wished, “Please God, don‘t let the lightning flash.” He squeezed the trigger and watched as a smoke trail poured out from the front of the tube. The rocket’s flame refracted in the light, Erwin saw a luminescent halo around it. The rocket sailed into the middle of the field. The screams of zombies drowned out the sound of rain and gunfire for a moment.

A fireball screamed luminously into the sky. A sizable crater was now in the field. “Oh yea! Take that you bastards!” He shouted, “Sergey, I think I got ‘em!”

In the next flash of lightning, he saw that his success was not absolute. Five zombies ambled around the corner of the flat on the opposing side of the field, as if a reinforcing army had arrived. He heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, he turned quickly.

“Hey it’s me!” Sergey cried as he limped up the stairs, waving for Erwin to point the MP-5 somewhere else. “Did you get them?” I didn’t see any when I looked out coming up the stairs.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“What?”

“No, I didn’t get them.”

“What?” Sergey shouted again. Erwin pointed to the flat across the field, held up his hand showing ‘There are five over there,’ held his fingers close together, ‘at least.’ Sergey responded, “Take my LR300, and wait for them to come in range. I’ve got to pull a damn piece of lead out of my leg.” Erwin nodded in response. “Where the hell are they coming from?”

* * *

Alina’s back was against the wall. She could feel the prickling of splinters through the back of her shirt. There was a pool of blood under her left leg, but it seemed to have stopped bleeding. She felt dizzy and she had a headache. Feeling her neck she felt her own pulse, and thought it a bit weak. She pushed herself to a standing position with her right leg, sending throbbing pain down the left.

Leaning against the wall she took her Dragunov in both hands. Her fingers rubbed her initials, sticky with drying blood. The wooden stock had numerous new pits and scratches. Her breath was heavy. She saw the edges of her vision grow black and she nearly fell over. “No.” She gasped, “No, I’m not giving up. No. Grandpa never gave up, neither will I.”

She pulled herself along the wall, trying not to use her left leg. The wall made a good crutch as she limped through much of the building’s length to the end of the hall. She had made her way to the corner of the apartment building. The sound of rain was heavy, thunder boomed in the distance. She hadn’t heard any gunfire lately and a sick feeling developed in the back of her mind.

The window sill was level, it was dark, and a protrusion in the outside wall prevented the lightning from giving her position away. She had at least one good shot. Gingerly kneeling, trying to prevent putting pressure on her left leg, she set up her SVD. “There has to be a way to stop these zombies; I’m going to find it,” she thought. She pulled her face to the scope.

* * *

Erwin waited at the window, the zombies were almost in range halfway across the field. Their shuffling seemed annoyingly slow. He observed them instinctually: only some of them were armed. He wanted them to be closer; he didn’t want to give away his position until he was sure he could hit every single one of the bastards. In the back of his mind, despite distrust, he wondered if Alina was still alive.

Sergey had pulled out a tweezers and was tugging the bullet out of his calf, grimacing as he wrenched it out.

“You should save that, you know?”

He flicked the fractured bullet out the window, began digging for other fractured pieces. “Just watch the zombies,” his voice rasped. A trickle of blood came out of the hole in Sergey’s leg. It didn’t seem too serious. He looked over his shoulder, out the window. “…when did you plan on shooting them?”

The zombies were well within range now, two hundred meters away or less. Erwin replied, “I want them to all be in range, I don’t want to miss a single one of the bastards…don’t you want to take them out for hitting you in the leg?”

“I wouldn’t need to take them out if you hadn’t tried to blow me up in the first place.”

“Hey, I warned you and everything,” Erwin shouted – half so Sergey could hear him, half in annoyance.

“You didn’t warn me that it would drop right next to my head!”

“I probably saved your life!”

“There was only one of them!”

“So?!”

“What do you mean so? You don’t say so when you almost kill someone…you should see that wall down there, it doesn’t even exist anymore…and then you almost shoot me, too. Hell, I’m lucky I can hear right now, stupid gren-” He was interrupted by a single shot from four floors above.

* * *

The world is a different place through the scope of a rifle. Everything seems quieter, peaceful. Everything seems sharper, clear. Time seems to slow down, you breathe slower, and every trivial movement of the hand is exaggerated. The world has so much detail. The scope can be beautiful.

But it can also be ugly. You have to stare at the man you’re about to shoot - the man who‘s life you will end. Sometimes you stare into his eyes, and it’s an endless struggle of morality that has to be decided in an instant. The eyes are a gateway to the soul; you see the good in people through their eyes - it makes it harder.

It panged her, to have to shoot someone - every time. To know you’re ending a life. Her grandfather had told her how hard it was during the war when he was teaching her how to shoot. He had shot plenty of people during the war. He said, “The first time you shoot someone - that you stare into their eyes, when they look right at you, it haunts you forever.” His cheeks would droop and his eyes would have an ashen stare. He would have such an indescribable expression of sadness. He’d say, with a watery look in his eyes, “You have to rationalize, make excuses. Think to yourself, ‘Hey, this guy might end up killing my family.’ or, ‘Hey, this guy is evil – he’s probably killed a hundred people.’”

Except she did not feel like that now. She was looking at a grotesque creature: this was no human. The creature had eyes, but they were ghostly and bulging. The creature was human-like, but it was wrinkly and decrepit, like a zombie - except it wasn‘t a zombie. Its brain cavity seemed too large, its arms too thin, the chest to sunken. It had blood around its mouth. It grinned with a perpetual evil smile - as if laughing at the death surrounding it. Alina shuddered.

Her single round echoed over the field. The round punctured the creature right above the nose. The body twitched grotesquely for a moment before it fell lifelessly backwards, out of the tree. All of the zombies seemed to nod off into a lapse of attentiveness before they collectively shuddered, and fell limply to the ground.

She collapsed backwards, into a fresh pool of her own blood. She didn’t know if it was her side or her leg. She just felt calm, sleepy. “So, Grandpa, how was that?” she thought. She heard footsteps on the stairs below, the rain seemed quieter, and darkness came.

* * *

It was around 4:30 now, the first hint of sunlight, though hidden by the clouds, was lighting up the sky. There was a light drizzle outside.

Erwin and Sergey came up the stairs to the fifth floor. Their previous camp was completely destroyed. The cinder block wall had a gaping hole, and an additional hole in the ceiling allowed them look up through rebar and clumps of loose concrete to the sixth floor. Alina’s pack was in a corner, numerous splinters were imbedded in it, but otherwise it seemed okay. Erwin’s boot splashed in something on the floor, it was black in the darkened apartment room.

“Sergey, flashlight,” Erwin requested. Sergey shined his flashlight on Erwin’s boot; it was dripping with a dark red liquid. “Blood?” he questioned. Sparse drips formed a makeshift path out of the room leading to a puddle in the hall. The puddle was fairly large and there was a long streak of blood brushed onto the wall. It seemed to smear down the hall, to the corner of the building, paralleled by a path of blood on the floor. They came to the corner room.

“Oh no…”

* * *

Her body was crumpled backwards, bent at the knees, lying in a substantially deep pool of blood. Aside from basic tatters and scrapes from flying splinters there was a large rip in the right side of her shirt, matted down with dried blood and a deep puncture in her left leg, Sergey wasn’t sure if it was a bullet wound or not. Her Dragunov lay next to her, pitted and stained with blood. They had only banded together a few days before, but he felt the anxiety he’d felt toward her disappear instantly.

“Alina, are you okay?” They bent over her limp body.

Sergey took her pulse, it took him a moment to finally feel it, but it was there. Erwin picked up his pack and pulled out a heavy roll of gauze with disinfectant, placed it on her leg and taped it down, while Sergey searched her neck and spine for any fractures. He found nothing, checked the rip in her shirt and found no signs that a bullet remained in the lacerated flesh.

The gauze on her leg formed a small pink spot of blood; the bleeding seemed to have stopped. It would not be safe here for long, and they knew it. They’d have to get to a doctor, for her injuries and to check for infection in Sergey’s leg, which, despite his blood soaked pants leg had stopped bleeding.

She didn’t seem close to regaining consciousness. They’d have to find an effective way of getting her back to the zone border. “We need to get some transportation; I’m going to check around this town,” Sergey began, “you look after her, change the bandage on her leg in a few minutes.”

“You’ve been shot in the leg, I think I should go.”

“It wasn’t a shot, it was a loose bullet - my leg’s fine,” he responded, “I can walk and run just fine.”

“I don’t know…” Erwin questioned the stability of Sergey’s leg.

“Just make sure nothing comes up here, I’m going to try and find a car.”

“Well, take the Geiger counter and be careful.” Erwin handed the Geiger counter to Sergey and piled their three packs into the corner. Sergey walked out of the room, it’d be up to him to get them out of this, they couldn’t leave Alina here, and he had the best to go out on his own. He pulled up his LR300 and headed for the stairs.
* * *

Solitary Assignment

**

It took him a few moments to reach the first floor. The gaping hole in the flat led outside. The rain had picked up a little again, but it was lighter out.

He leaned out of the hole and checked the left and right – nothing was moving. The zombies were obviously dead; many of them were ripped apart by the numerous explosions from before. Some had just a single bullet in their head or chest from Alina’s SVD.

The first thing he checked was the corpses from the evening before. ‘Maybe they had car keys or a radio,’ he thought. Looking at their corpses he saw they had little of anything. They must have been gnawed apart by animals between being shot and when the zombies came. Gnarled bite marks covered the corpses, overlapping each other, dried with blood. Ragged chunks of flesh hung by strings of bloody tendons. He turned around and felt sick, but he thought they were fortunate enough in that they had died before this happened.

Resuming his search he went towards the street they had crossed only hours before. There were many identical concrete and cinder block apartment buildings on the north side of the street, individualized only in the amount of their weathering and damage. On the left he saw a gas station and numerous brick office buildings. Figuring the flats would be void of pretty much anything useful, he headed over to check the gas station.

The window glass was shattered, the pumps rusted and scratched, bits of metallic junk were in the street. It didn’t seem like anyone would leave a vehicle here, but he tried to be hopeful. Entering the station he found numerous empty shelves and a few with basic articles of a gas station dispensary on them; cans, a box of plastic silverware, assorted lengths of wire - nothing useful. His boots splashed in the puddles covering the floor. Rain spattered on his jacket as he looked up through broad gaps in the roofing.

In the back of the gas station there was a door leading to a bathroom and one leading to a mechanic’s office and garage. He went through the office into the garage. Naturally there was no car. Two of the three mechanics’ pits in the middle of the garage were flooded with water. Numerous tools were strewn about the ground; there was a plastic gas container on a workbench. Shaking it, he found it had at least a couple liters of fuel. A smaller container was next to it; he siphoned the gasoline into the smaller can, glad to see it hadn’t gelled over with age. He slipped a cover onto it, and placed it in his side pack. He rolled open the rusted garage door and continued his search.

To his right was an office building, many of the windows were shattered, and he figured he’d be able to easily climb in one of them. He thought to himself, ‘On the top floor I might get a better view of the city. Maybe some sorry bastard ran out of –’

His train of thought was interrupted by a sniffing sound coming from around the corner of the gas station. Instinctively raising his weapon, he bent down and walked towards the left, to try and get a look around the corner. Gentle steps splashed in puddles on the pavement nearby, something was definitely walking towards him. He heard the clicking of long claws on crumbling concrete and suddenly a dog appeared from around the corner. Its eyes seemed swelled shut - or nonexistent, he couldn’t tell. It began sniffing the air and walking in his direction. He distinctly saw the fur around the mouth stained red with fresh blood.

Sergey instinctively backed up as it came closer. To his surprise and dismay, more animals followed from around the corner, there were three, now four, six, “This probably isn’t good,” he moaned to himself. He inched his way backwards, to the garage - a few more steps and he could close the door…but the mutated dogs were so close.

A growl came from the closest animal; it bent down in a definitive posture of attack, showing its teeth. He could see the blood dripping down the fangs. At the same time numerous animals behind it began to sprint towards the garage door. Sergey leapt backwards, outstretched his hands up, searching blindly for the door handle. He found it, yanking it down has hard as he could and heard the sickening sound of a skull cracking against metal as the animals smashed against the outside of the door. One animal almost got through, trapped under the door.

The animal growled, and snapped ferociously at him, spewing blood and saliva everywhere. He kicked down on the door handle, crushing the mutant animal. The dog yelped and continued trying to get in the garage. Other animals’ snouts were peaking under the door, trying to get in. He put his full weight on the door and took out his pistol.

“The garage is closed.” he said, firing into the mutated head. Immediately the animal went limp. He stared at its deformed head for a moment before pushing the corpse out from under the door and stomping it shut. He slid the locking bolt into place on the door’s track. “Well, if they’re blind, they can‘t see me - this shouldn‘t be hard,” he reasoned. He looked down at his leg and the dark spot of dried blood on his pants, and rolled his eyes - they could probably smell him instead.

Numerous animals continued scratching at the door outside, he didn‘t have a window to see how many there were. He thought about it for a moment and rationalized that he’d have to go out the way he came in, except at that moment he heard the clattering of cans and boxes in the front room. The doorframe to the mechanic’s office lacked anything – the door long since decayed, stolen or destroyed. He was trapped in a garage with only one viable exit - one gaping, indefensible entrance.

* * *

Erwin sat in the dilapidated apartment; he had switched the bandages a couple minutes ago. There was no blood coming from Alina’s leg wound anymore. She had a slightly stronger pulse. The light coming from outside was fairly bright now, but the rain was still coming down.

He picked up Alina’s Dragunov, and felt the stickiness of blood on it. It made him a little queasy to think he was touching someone’s blood. Slightly angered with himself he took out his canteen he poured some water onto the wooden stock, and began to rub off the blood. He thought to himself, ‘Well, I can’t fix the scratches, but I can clean this up for her - there’s nothing else to do.’

While he did, he looked down at her body lifeless on the floor. He remembered ‘She had fired one shot; one shot and all of the zombies went kaputt. She must have figured out how to stop the zombies, who knows how many there were? There could have been an army of them, but she shot once…and they all fell over.’

They might have stopped the zombies with shear force – probably not.

He poured a little more from his canteen onto the rifle and red-tinged water ran off the rifle. He felt numerous pits in the gun’s stock. He wondered why she used such an old weapon. He wondered about her past, and Sergey’s past. He thought about his own.


He considered his life to be relatively boring. He didn’t enjoy talking about it much. The greater part of his life was spent in school, which only lead him to join the military. He wasn’t sure why he joined. The Schutzer family wasn’t rich, but they were fairly well off. Even for college, he wouldn’t have needed any money. Maybe he wanted to fulfill his name: Schutzer meant defender after all. Who would he defend? He lived in Germany, sure, the entire western world had to defend against terrorism and rioting, but he didn’t much consider them a threat.

His parents never really cared what he did. They would wish him well in any endeavor, as long as he wasn’t bugging them. His older sisters didn’t much care either. They were successful. Anne would offer him advice once and a while. He enjoyed visiting her, even if she was seven years older than him. She would say, “Erwin, you can do anything you want, I’m not going to tell you what to do.” She actually had a principle, everyone else - they were just too lazy to advise him. So, he joined the military.

He had done well in the army, most of the time he was posted in Germany or occasionally exchanged to Russia. He found that the former Soviet Union was fairly nice. Many of the people were poor, but he felt for them, he wished he’d been born here. He felt he could connect with them - but that was stupid. He should worry about himself out here; watch over his friends, but care about himself.

He told himself that. He was trying to worry only about himself, how he could leave this place, leave the danger, leave the work, he could sit alone on a deserted island. Except he couldn’t, he wanted to be useful. He’d only met Alina a few days before but already he felt indebted and Sergey was his good friend and he was going to help them. He looked down at Alina, thought, ‘I don’t want to leave her though, even if I’m not the one doing all of the protecting.’


He sat down on the floor next to her. He checked the leg bandage, it was almost clean, but he replaced it anyway. He was careful in retaping it, “not to much pressure, we don’t need this bleeding again.” He set her Dragunov down next to her, picked up her hand. “You can do it,” he said, as he placed her hand down on her rifle.

His peace was interrupted, a single pistol shot echoed from nearby.

* * *

Sergey had pushed a workbench perpendicular between him and the door. He had crouched down, waiting for the first of the beasts. When they had appeared he had ripped the remains of the doorframe apart with gunfire.

Now there were numerous bodies at the foot of the door, but two of the animals had gotten in when he had reloaded. The garage was fairly large though, three large doors and three maintenance pits. In the back of his mind he hoped that the blood from the dead ones would throw off the ones hunting him.

He fired at both of the dogs in the room. The rifle was good for close quarters combat, it usually offered a one shot take down, but these dogs were tough, ‘They must be made of pure muscle,’ he thought. Their skulls also seemed to be tough bone, because some of his initial head shots had ricocheted off and left a bleeding streak of white - exposed skull - you rarely saw that with smaller animals. He figured he’d spent about 15 rounds through burst fire on two of them alone.

Another animal appeared at the door and he fired, aimed behind the animal and fired through the wall. He reloaded again; two clips and he had only gotten five of them. He had seen some blind dogs similar to these on one of his first trips into the zone. They weren’t nearly this tough though, and that was only around a month and a half ago.

He was now in the middle of the garage; his side pack managed to get stuck on a broken workbench, and hindered his reloading. The garage was now flooded with animals.

The sound of scratching had long since died from outside, and he risked a plan of escape instead of being trapped inside. He was at the furthest door from the animals. The door rose jerkily. The tracks were rusted. He got the door about half a meter off the ground and rolled under. The dogs were almost to his position. They seemed to generally know where he was, but they weren’t smelling him. They were moving slowly, ‘too slow to get me,’ he thought, rolling under the door.

The door was stuck, but he managed to reach around to the inside and pull the door down. Pulling his arm out quickly, he felt a warm trickle of saliva on his hand. The door wasn’t quite closed, but the animals wouldn’t be able to get out from here. He looked around again; to the right was the office building, it seemed too open. In front of him, across the street there were some two story buildings and some more flats in the distance behind them. The flat with Alina and Erwin was behind him and to the east, but he didn’t want to bring anything back there. He couldn’t go back there until he had a way to get out of here.

He looked to the left, saw a half destroyed flat, mingled with a couple zombie corpses, “They must have been coming from behind us too.” He realized it was much brighter. It had to be around 5:30, it rained lightly, but the clouds were still dark and gray and it was much easier to see than before.

His thinking was interrupted with the appearance of the dogs around the corner to the left. They appeared quickly, and headed right for him. They seemed to know exactly where he was. He drew his weapon and opened fire, “I guess the two story buildings win,” he said to himself, charging out into the street.

He ran while reloading. There were at least eight dogs left; he had killed about that many already. It was hard to reload while running. At first he fumbled with the clip, but eventually got it in alright. He turned around, working his legs while doing so and shot at his pursuers. Thirty bullets flew into the animals, one fell over dead mid-stride, and some of the others now had bleeding wounds, as well.

He reached down for another clip. He lifted his gun once more, but turning around he tripped over a lone cinderblock lying in the middle of the street. He fell. He was running so fast the initial fall propelled him into a roll. He was lucky he’d left his backpack with Erwin. He slid himself around and stood up quickly, the animals were much closer now. He let go of his gun, let it drop down to his waist on its strap while he sprinted for the open door of the closest building.

Upon entering the building he spun around and closed the door, he leaned against it as hard as he could while he reloaded. Looking quickly around he figured he was in a shop of some kind. There were a couple pieces of degraded furniture. Dilapidated bookshelves lined the walls; any remnants of books had long since turned to dust from extreme subjugation to the elements. His nostrils flared at the smell of rotting wood, strengthened by the damp air. His chest seared from exertion. He wiped away trickles of rain off of his forehead. In the front of the store there was a large glass display window, which did not help his predicament. He knew somewhere stairs would lead to the second floor.

The animals were clawing and scraping at the door behind him, splintering the old, wooden door. He stripped a grenade from his belt with his free hand. He pulled the pin and gripped the doorknob tightly. He pulled the door open slightly, feeling it bulge at the weight of snarling dogs on the other side. He forced the door in place with his foot and dropped the grenade on the other side.

He heard the click of the lever popping up. He slammed the door shut and ran to the back of the store, tripping over what was probably once a chair, and falling into a corner. The explosion jarred the door loose and shattered the window, but it also dazed the dogs for a moment. He stood up quickly. Looking around, he saw a door recessed in the back wall.

Opening it he saw steep stairs leading to a second floor, he climbed them as fast as he could. Reaching the top his lungs burned for breath, he twisted on the door handle. He thought quickly: the door was locked and there was no room to kick it in and he had neglected to bring his shotgun. He raised his rifle, but decided against risking getting hit by a ricochet. He waited for the remaining mutated canines.


There were four dogs left. They entered the store through the broken door. They found the shop desolate and empty, except they could sense the man. They could sense him - through the wall in the back…slightly above them. They moved quietly.


Sergey waited at the top of the stairs. He couldn’t hear anything from below, but somehow he knew the animals were there. He wouldn’t go down. He stayed as quiet as possible. He lifted the strap on his LR300 up and over his head and pointed the barrel down the stairs. The next few moments felt like an eternity, but eventually the first of the dogs appeared.

The first one stuck its head into the stairwell and Sergey pulled the trigger almost instantly through sheer instinct. Blood splashed out of the animal and its body slumped to the ground. He aimed behind it, shot through the wall. Half the clip was gone. Another dog appeared, and charged up the stairs. It was halfway up before it seemed to run out of forward momentum. Sergey felt the weight of his gun. A third animal emerged from the door, and Sergey blasted away, seven shots flew towards the dog. The gun clicked: empty. The mongrel was still standing; and it began to climb the stairs. He dropped the LR300, pulled out his Fort 12.

He aimed carefully, and it still took five shots to take it down. He waited, staring at the three bodies on the stairs. After a minute he took a step down. Nothing. He slowly crept down the stairs. After a few steps the stair creaked loudly.

He heard a menacing howl and a scarred, muscular dog bounded through the doorframe. He shot it as quickly as possible. The dog was nearly upon him when his clip ran dry. The mutt was bleeding from multiple places, and its head had streaks of skull showing.

It lurched forward with surprising speed. He barely had time to pull out his knife. The animal lunged at his neck; he lifted his left arm to block. The animal’s teeth sank into his arm, cushioned only slightly by his clothes. His knife thrust into the animal’s chest, he thrust it as deep as he could. The animal snapped wildly on his arm, biting it repeatedly, snarling angrily, spattering salvia on his arm and face. It began twisting its head around violently trying to pull him down the stairs. He stabbed at the monster again, and again.

The animals grip weakened. It toppled backwards down the stairs, dragging him with. He dropped the knife. Falling down the stairs, everything seemed to move slowly for Sergey. He stared into the animal’s lumpy eye sockets as they fell. He could see bits of ragged flesh stuck to the animal’s lips. He felt his back slide on the steps below him. Lifting his free arm he struck the dog, as hard as he could in the face. They rolled to the bottom. The gnarled cur expelled one final breath and the stairwell was silent.

Everything seemed still. After ripping the animal’s jaw off of his arm he got up slowly; he could feel the blood flow thickly down his sleeve. He kicked the animal. The LR300 was at his feet; he picked it up and brought the strap around his shoulder. He found his Fort 12 under the one of the beasts and, after wiping it on one of the animals, sheathed his knife as well. He was hurt, but he wasn’t done yet.


He walked back outside, the rain had mostly stopped; a stray drop would occasionally fall into the numerous puddles in the road. Looking up he could see Erwin sitting in the corner room on the fifth floor of the flat. Looking down the street to the left he saw just what he was looking for, he spoke aloud, “alright, finally some luck.”

He had road rash, he had a bleeding arm, but he also had a car.

* * *

The Best Gifts are Made of Steel

**

It was covered in large rust spots, and a puddle had formed in the large dent in the roof. It seemed to be in fairly good condition for being at least twenty years old. Through a quick inspection Sergey Nikolayevich could see that it might run.

Adrenaline pulsed through his veins, he listened for signs of an ambush, tried to smell the hint of decaying flesh that might indicate a pack of blind dogs. The car sat in the middle of the road, its front tires were turned towards the nearby office building. He tried the car’s door handle; it creaked with age and rust, but opened effortlessly. Getting in, he saw the key was in the ignition, it was in the off position. Looking at the front panel he saw that the gas tank was empty, and it was out of oil.

He had gasoline, but it would have to run without oil. As long as the battery carried a charge it would work. He slid into the driver seat. He closed his eyes tightly and, hoping for a miracle, twisted the key. An empty clicking sound spurred out of the engine. He punched the dashboard, and sliding back out of the car he hoped he could be an adequate mechanic. He popped open the hood.

Peering under the hood, the engine seemed to be covered in strands of rust. Sergey saw that the positive lead to the battery was frayed and not making contact due to the strings of metal. “It looks so strange,” he thought, “almost like hair.”

Reaching in, he pulled away the rust from the wire. Immediately his hand began to burn, he pulled it away quickly. An acrid black smoke rose from his hand. The skin began to blacken and tighten. His fingers seemed paralyzed.

In all his years as a scientist in Kiev, he never encountered an acid as strong as this. “It must have the highest molar content I’ve ever seen, it’s like a string of solidified acid,” he reasoned. Observing his hand, he saw it was deeply scalded and jet black, “I’ve never seen acid scar like this either,” he thought.

The inability to get rid of the rusty strings was quickly resolved with a pair of gloves from his pack. He brushed away the rusty hair and secured the lead back to the battery. The hair seemed incredibly wispy and sticky. It soon thickly coated his gloves. He tried rubbing his hands together. It was like they were covered in sticky, fibrous cotton.

He took the gloves off, being especially careful not to get anything on his wrists. He could move his right hand slightly, the black skin cracked and bits of skin flaked off. It hurt a lot. He ignored the pain and got back behind the steering wheel. He tried the key again, it sputtered, but the ignition seemed to work, “It just needs gas now.”

* * *

Erwin had rechecked Alina’s bandages once more, there was no longer a sign of hemorrhaging and a scab was beginning to form on her leg. It was about twenty minutes since Sergey had left the flat. It was fairly bright out now, and the rain seemed to have stopped.

A few minutes ago Erwin heard gunfire, and saw Sergey run across the street, followed by numerous dark shapes. There was a large explosion and more gunshots. Then Sergey had walked out by himself. Now he had gone down the road, and an office building was blocking Erwin’s view. He readied their packs, just in case he had to move quickly.

He looked down at Alina, thought he saw her flinch. He thought, “I’m imagining things.” Erwin was hoping for a ride out of here soon.

* * *

The earth shook gently. The ceiling was bright, too bright to look at.

And then it was cold.

She stood in the middle of a forest, holding her grandfather’s Mosin-Nagant. They were walking, and her young brother was there. She recognized the trees of her grandfather’s house, even in winter. The snow crunched under their feet as they continued deeper into the woods. Her brother was complaining, about the cold, and how he couldn’t be inside listening to the radio. Grandpa was smiling slightly, as he always seemed to.

“I want to shoot first!” Alina’s brother demanded.

“You don’t know how to shoot, Sasha,” Alina replied, “You never want to learn.”

“That’s because you always get to shoot first; it’s so boring!” Sasha was only twelve years old; she had been shooting at that age, earlier even. She tried harder than he ever did. She handed the rifle to him. They rarely had time to come out here lately, but her parent’s debts were finally resolved, and she could do what she enjoyed.

“You’re such a nice sister,” Her grandpa commented. She handed her brother a handful of shells as well. Her grandpa explained how to load the rifle. Sasha never listened. He prepared to aim, it looked awkward. The butt of the rifle was under his armpit and the breech was exposed. The gun would never fire like that, and she knew. She’d let him make his mistakes, like she always did.

He pulled the trigger with an empty response. “You might not want to have the butt of the rifle there,” she suggested.

“It’s so old it doesn’t even fire, who cares how I hold it?”

Her grandpa stepped forward and pushed the bolt lever forward and down - closing the breech. He also lifted the gun into the cradle of Sasha’s arm, and advised, “Hold it tight to your shoulder.”

He lifted the rifle and brought it back down to aim, tucking it to his shoulder. The rifle bucked in his hands as he fired, it thumped against his shoulder. Alina cringed, “not tight enough.” There would be a bruise there tomorrow. Sasha was determined, much like she was. He prepared to aim again and pulled the rifle tight against his shoulder, Grandpa worked the bolt. A few shots later, he was done, he wanted to go home. “His arm probably hurt - or he was cold,” she thought.

“Grandpa, you can go inside, I can do it by myself.” So, she took the rifle from Sasha and waved to them as they walked back towards home. She loaded the rifle, closed the bolt. She was alone out here, and it was beautiful - a beautiful dream.

* * *

Sergey only had to drive a few hundred meters to return to the flat. The fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand seemed hard to move, and they still burned slightly, but he could drive with his left hand.

There were numerous zombie corpses, he tried to avoid running over them, but they were clustered together. The field was flat, which made it easier. The hole in the building made an ideal parking location. He got out and went to get the others.


Erwin and Sergey strapped on their packs, Erwin slung Alina’s Dragunov around his neck and Sergey took her pack.

“You lift her legs, I’ll get her head,” Sergey instructed, “be careful.”

Erwin rolled his eyes; he had watched her for the last half an hour, why wouldn’t he be careful? “Vorsicht, vorsicht, I get it.” He paused, looking at Sergey’s hand. “Why is your hand black?”

“I touched some rust or something, I don’t know. It burns a little.”

“Rust?” that didn’t seem right, “Do you think you should touch her with your hand like that?”

Sergey shrugged, “Okay, you take the head, I’ll take the feet.”

They carried her down the stairs gently, trying to avoid jostling the fresh scab on her leg into bleeding again. She was surprisingly light, so with two of them it was quite easy. The loaded her into the car. They set their packs in the back seat, so Alina couldn’t roll onto the floor of the car. Erwin drove.

He drove back around, passed the gas station, and the two story shops. “See over there, in that busted down apartment?” Sergey said.

“Zombies?”

“Yea, they were coming from behind us too.” Erwin thought about it, he was happy Alina was still alive. Not just because she was a new comrade, but because she had saved them so easily. They had relied on her last night. Now, she unconsciously relied on them. The thoughts of her injuries coursed through his mind, however.

“Think that orb will go anywhere towards our retirement plan?” Erwin asked, taking a turn out of the city’s limits.

“We only have a couple hundred, and now I don’t think this orb’s going to help at all,” was the curt reply. The car bounced tumultuously over rubble and uneven road. “Probably go to medical.”

“Never going to be able to afford the bar at this rate,” he sighed. He concentrated on the road.

* * *
  00:47:03  24 March 2006
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UltimaGecko
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On forum: 01/28/2004
 

Message edited by:
UltimaGecko
03/24/2006 0:53:41
Messages: 154
Anomalous Companions (formerly Crystalline Siblings)

This is just a test post, since the formatting seems to be destroyed by any forum it's posted in...although I am going to use a very heavily revised part, so anybody that does like the story can get some of the new, exciting revisions.

This will probably be edited in about 10 minutes after the forum refreshes and I can actually see what to do about formatting...


From the tantalizingly titled (also known as: "Man, what the heck should I call this part so it doesn't sound completely horrible?" ) Wealth causes Envy, Knowledge causes Paranoia part:

* * *


Sergey pushed open the hatch to the rooftop, streaming in bright sunlight. He pulled himself up and Erwin followed quickly behind. They were on the roof, which seemed to be missing a good portion of the southern part. There were buildings on either side of the department store. One was the same height as the department store, but too far away, the other was single storied, a three meter drop, but close enough to reach. They hurried over the rooftop towards the small building.

* * *

Alina’s feet pounded on the stairs, she felt like she’d been running for hours. “Never any rest in the zone,” she thought. She reached the first floor as the first of the mercenaries got to the front door. She was tired, but still fast. She shouldered her Dragunov quickly and drew her Makarov, firing rashly towards the mercenaries. They ducked back outside.

She unclipped a grenade from her jacket and lobbed it at the front door. She was out the back door before it landed. She jogged across the street and found herself in a small shop. In the near distance she heard the distinct sound of an engine motor growing louder. She didn’t think they would follow her out onto the streets. She hoped they would think she went back up stairs.

* * *

Erwin dropped down lightly on to the roof of the adjacent structure; he caught Sergey’s pack as it was thrown down. Sergey leaped, his leg collapsed upon landing, but he rolled and got up with a little effort. The building had a small short fire ladder leading to the ground, and they were back on the street in a few moments. The mercenaries had mostly abandoned the office building, there were probably some still in the front, but the back door was now on fire, and the mercenaries would probably assume there would be no escape for them.

They headed through a row of houses leading towards the office building. They continued down a claustrophobic alleyway and through the only unlocked door to an abandoned bakery. Coming out of the shop, Sergey saw an explosion shatter the front doors of the office building, a mercenary flew out from inside. A group of several mercenaries was entering through the broken front doors. Another small group came from down the street. One of them noticed Erwin and Sergey looking out from a door frame. Sergey pulled up his LR300 and fired wildly towards the soldiers, forcing them to take cover.

“Time to go back the way we came, I think,” he said. They ducked back into the building.

* * *

Alina ran through an endless maze of back alleys. She ran forward, hoping for a landmark, hoping to avoid any soldiers. She rammed against a locked door and felt it burst and she fell forward. She burst out onto the main street, quickly realized the error and pulled herself back into the alley quickly. She peaked out from around the corner and saw a truck coming down the street. She reloaded her Makarov, pulled the slide back; the shell faltered in the chamber and jammed the slide. She dropped it and drew her GSh-18.

She stepped out and prepared to fire at the driver; it was the leader she saw in the field. A pair of soldiers was riding with him, it was obviously the last truck - he was leaving his men behind. He laughed at her as they drove past. One of the soldiers stood up and held up his Kalashnikov. She ducked back into the alley as bullets chipped apart the brick wall next to her. A soldier came around the corner of the alley. She readied her pistol quickly. She pushed off the wall towards the other side of the alley as she fired, her injured leg throbbing with pain at the sudden exertion. The mercenary shot at the same time, destroying the brick wall where she’d been standing.

Rounds ricocheted off the bricks and struck her in the side. One of her shots hit him in the upper chest, another hit his right arm - forcing him to drop the Kalashnikov. He began to reach awkwardly for his pistol with his left arm when the third round hit him in the abdomen and he crumpled over onto the ground. She felt her left side, “…that’ll bruise,” she thought. She released the clip from her pistol and eased in a replacement.

She picked up her Makarov from the ground and moved back through the alley, looking for a concealed way out of the city.

* * *

They crept through the building to the east part of the town. The soldiers seemed to still be searching the office building. There seemed to be sporadic gunfire from the field they’d been at only about ten minutes before, “probably some dogs or zombies,” Sergey thought. He’d seen plenty of the zone for his liking today, he’d pass on the mutants.

The office building was the only landmark he recognized and there seemed to be soldiers everywhere. The pain in his leg grew worse, combined with the exhaustion of running. Erwin helped him through the twisting alleyways. They briskly crossed a large street and found their way into some sort of government building. A sign hanging inside made it out to be a police station. The inside was nearly bare, only a tall security counter stood in the middle of the circular lobby. Wooden doors seemed to lead everywhere from the rotunda, but they continued towards the back of the station where a heavy metallic door seemed to lead outside.

Erwin opened the door slowly, which creaked with years of rust. They both heard shouting immediately and the door was slammed shut with a combination of Erwin’s surprise and the force of bullets hitting it. Outside the mercenary continued to fire and they could hear bullets ding ineffectively off of the heavy door. “I’ve had about enough of this.” Erwin grunted. The door handle jiggled and began to turn and he flung his body at the door. It flew open nearly effortlessly and the soldier behind was tossed violently to the ground on his back.

Erwin tumbled over the ledge of the doorframe into the alleyway and the mercenary’s squad opened fire. He grasped frantically for his MP5 and with his left hand, grabbing at the door’s lever to pull himself back inside. Bullets bounced off the door, shaking it in his hands. He whipped his head around, trying to see behind him, beyond the door. Turning his body awkwardly he aimed past the door and shot wildly. Bullet reports sounded to a deafening volume as they filled the narrow alleyway. He felt a sharp pain stab into his left shoulder and he lost his grip on the door handle. Sergey reached out for him quickly, began dragging him inside. Erwin kicked wildly, hitting the mercenary lying on the ground. He felt another sharp pain in his leg and saw the flesh of his own muscle underneath his torn pants leg. He dropped his submachine gun and grabbed at the door frame to help pull himself back inside.

* * *

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