back with a vengeance
On forum: 07/31/2003
Taras walked slowly down a lonely street. His suit was specked with dirt and blood from various sources, much of it his own, and it was torn in places and bound with different material. He held his assault rifle limply across his waist as he moved, his left thigh carelessly nudging the barrel with every step, though his finger was ready on the trigger.
It was late afternoon. The setting sun felt warm on his back and the clear sky above had turned a hue of deep indigo, dotted with the dim white pinpricks of the brightest stars. The meagre remains of a pleasant day soon gave way to the gloom of night, the dark clouds gathering to the south and the bitter chill of a swift wind that seemed to penetrate even his thick clothes: a harsh reminder that it would be winter before long.
The growing shadows extended over everything, a blanket of darkness reaching out to choke the light away. His black silhouette stretched out before him along the cracked concrete. The waning beige glow of the sunlit buildings made the shadows seem even darker and less inviting. The last traces of warmth drained from the air as the fringes of night crept ominously over the horizon.
A thick green forest lay beyond the outer buildings of the town, the distant trees swayed gently in the cool breeze; the few left littering the streets had faded, their withered branches a tangle of lifeless veins. He passed the remains of an old Moskvich that had been stripped of all it’s useful parts, and a rusting APC resting across the road with many of its tyres blown or flat, forsaken by its crew for some unknown cause, most likely out of fear.
He came to the front of a bare house and stopped. It was on the edge of a small apartment block, the square concrete walls slotted into each other like pieces of a jigsaw, designed for mass production. It was the same style as every other building in this area and had suffered the same decay. At this end only the wreckage of the lower two storeys remained, nothing was left of the floors above except for the large sections of crumbling wall panels that lay in the street.
The ground floor was mostly intact, though not undamaged, and a few of the walls on the second level were still standing. A dank smell of long abandonment hung in the air; the windows were broken.
‘My search always leads me here.’ He thought.
He stood in the street, staring up at this broken house. His home. The empty shell where his life had once been. He knew it was pointless coming back here, the house had been ransacked long before and no one had been there since, apart from him. Yet here he was; drawn back by some pale hope that he had missed something, that perhaps something was still there, hidden in the rubble: a memento of his old life, proof that it wasn’t just a dream.
He examined the front door, desperately trying to remember. It had all looked so different back then: a different life. The paint was peeling and the wood behind was rotting and had been warped by moisture; it hung to the doorframe by a single crooked hinge. It was slightly ajar; the end propped up on a small stone picked from the debris: exactly how he’d left it. He pushed it gently and it creaked, tipping as it rolled off the stone and scraped along the rough ground. It had opened most of the way before suddenly stopping, blocked by the rubble behind, it wouldn’t move any further.
Taras released his grip on his rifle and slid the strap of his pack off his shoulder, swinging it around in front of him and using his knee to push it through the gap as he stepped inside. Dirt and gravel crunched under his boots, and he looked around, trying to adjust to the intense darkness. Ahead of him he could make out the staircase to the second floor. To the right was the dining room; the table was covered with plaster and there was a large crack running along the ceiling above; the light fitting was hanging from a few twisted wires. Beyond that he saw the dirty white cupboards of the kitchen, and the black stove where she had cooked for him all those years ago.
He remembered watching her through the doorway, rushing about tending to the bubbling pots and sizzling pans, her smudged apron flailing wildly, the wonderful aromas hitting him as he arrived home.
‘I’m back.’ He whispered, lost in the memory.
She turned and called something to him. The sound echoed in his head, but it was muffled now, like an ancient recording weakened by time, he couldn’t make out the words. The kitchen was empty, the fractured tiles illuminated by a faint light shining through the broken window, creating elaborate rays in the lingering dust. He turned away solemnly and headed upstairs.
The upper rooms were a mess, a sea of plaster and wooden splinters. Scattered about were several pieces of furniture that had somehow stood up to the collapse: a wardrobe, a chair, and an old bathtub half buried in a mound of debris. A pile of salvaged wood and branches lay in one corner under part of the remaining ceiling and he walked over to it and lay down his equipment nearby, gathering an armful and arranging them carefully over the black ash covering the bottom of the bathtub. He took a small bottle of kerosene from his pack and poured a cap full onto the wood before lighting it with a small, silver pocket lighter.
Before long the flames were dancing up into the air and he sat by in the chair warming his trembling hands, pondering. The grey smoke billowed up into the sky, blotting out the stars. It rose, illuminated by the fire, it’s pale orange belly fading into the blackness of the night.
* * *
There was the distinct click of a rifle close to his ear, and a gruff voice came from behind.
‘Hold it,’ the voice said calmly. ‘Hands up, no sudden moves.’
Taras complied: he gently raised his hands and began to slowly turn around. As he did so his right hand brushed against the barrel of the gun and he suddenly grabbed the silencer attached to the end, firmly pushing it away from him and downwards, causing the butt to slide off the attacker’s shoulder and strike him painfully across the face. Taras quickly twisted his grip, wrenching the rifle from the other man’s hands and swinging it around in front of him. In a swift movement he clasped the grip with his left hand while shifting his right into position over the trigger and aimed it squarely at the man’s head.
‘Ow!’ The man exclaimed in his normal voice. ‘What did you do that for?’ He was clearly in shock.
‘Kostya, you idiot!’ Taras growled, recognising his friend and lowering the gun.
Kostya rubbed his cheek tenderly. ‘That really hurt.’ He frowned and moved his jaw side to side to check it wasn’t fractured.
‘Sorry,’ replied Taras, grinning. ‘I thought I was being attacked, I didn’t realise it was you.’
‘Yes you did,’ He said accusingly. ‘You saw me following you 20 minutes back.’
‘Yeah, well…’ He paused, contemplating to himself why he had let him sneak up. ‘You needed to be taught a lesson.’ He tossed the gun back to Kostya, who was still gingerly touching the side of his face, and it hit him lightly in the stomach, causing him to exhale as he awkwardly tried to cradle it with his free hand. He walked over and sat by the fire, dumping his equipment down heavily and producing a small hip flask from his belt. He unscrewed the top and took a large swig.
‘Nice move, by the way.’ He said, offering it to Taras.
Taras took the flask and sniffed it. Vodka. He looked over at Kostya, eyeing him cautiously, then took a reasonable swig himself before handing it back.
Kostya was the closest thing he had to a friend in this place, though he didn’t particularly trust him. Stupidly, he was here for the money, though Taras’ excuse was hardly more sane. He watched him take another mouthful of vodka and swallow hard. Taras generally stayed away from other stalkers, except to trade, and was neutral with most of the factions in the zone. He had no need for missions or artefacts and didn’t go searching for them. Any he happened to come across he sold to the nearest person for a very reasonable price. Because of this he had a pretty good reputation, but he usually kept to himself, and people were wary of him. Kostya seemed to trust him though, which counted for something.
‘So,’ said Taras. ‘Why were you following me?’ He looked over at Kostya curiously, waiting for an explanation; he was staring into the fire with a strange look in his eyes that Taras couldn’t decipher.
‘I saw her.’ He said quietly after a long pause. Taras stared at him now, shocked by his reply.
‘Saw who?’ He asked, pretending not to know. Kostya turned to him. The flames reflected brightly in his eyes, he could see now that it was a look of fear, fear and confusion.
‘That ghost of yours,’ He said, watching Taras intensely for a reaction. ‘I saw her, not two days ago, on the south side of town.’ He motioned with his head in the direction. ‘I don’t understand it. It was like she was really there; she was just walking down the street as if nothing had happened. At least, I think it was her. Do you have a picture?’
‘No,’ said Taras, sounding dejected. ‘Everything was taken in the lootings, I was never able to track one down.’
‘Well, I’m sure it was her.’ He paused ‘You’ve seen her often?’
‘No, only a couple of times, never up close.’
‘What do you think it means?’
Taras stared into the fire, deep in thought, trying to figure it out.
‘Do you think it’s some new form of Controller threat?’ Kostya offered. ‘Except I wasn’t attacked.’
‘I don’t know.’
It was night now. Faint flashes in the distance lit up the dark clouds that had crept in to blanket the sky, followed by the soft rumbling of far-off thunder. There was a long silence as the two men sat motionless, before Kostya spoke up.
‘How did she die?’ He asked sympathetically.
A flood of emotions rushed through Taras’ head as he thought of that day, the day when it all went wrong. The memories flooded his mind, making it hard to think.
‘I don’t know.’ He managed. ‘We were all evacuated, but… she never came out.’
Kostya handed him the Vodka flask again.
* * *
It was early morning when Taras awoke to the drip of water on his face; rain was pouring in the open roof. Cringing at the cold, he moved back towards the wall further under where it was still dry. He looked around, the rain had extinguished the fire and the floor was drenched. He suddenly realised that Kostya was no longer with him. He strained his mind back to the night before and remembered Kostya droning on about the state of things in the region, the arrival of many new stalkers, and their subsequent departures, one way or another. He couldn’t remember much else; he must have fallen asleep.
He walked over to the edge of the floor, where very little of the front wall was left, and scanned up and down the street for any signs of life. The raindrops spattered off his shoulders. Nothing; Kostya was probably long gone. Quickly, he rushed back to check his pack and equipment to see if anything was missing, but as far as he could tell nothing had been taken. Perhaps he could trust him after all.
He ate a light breakfast before gathering his things and heading downstairs. He looked around again, solemnly, at his old house; he wouldn’t be back here for a while, and he was getting paranoid about losing the memories. He returned the front door to its position on the stone and set off in the direction Kostya had mentioned.
The wet road glistened under the soft light of an overcast sky, the rain had lessened but splashes continued to disturb the watery reflections. The rain seemed to cleanse everything: the dirt and dead leaves washed away. It was then that he noticed a hint of red in the water flowing in the gutter. He quickly looked up to see a body lying motionless on the road up by the intersection.
‘Kostya.’ He thought anxiously.
He started to run, but as he got closer he realised that the body was not that of his friend, but a mutant. He slowed down and stepped cautiously towards it, keeping a close watch on its face for any signs of life. It’s tentacles splayed across the watery ground, and its eyes were closed. He looked down its body to see a large wound on its side and the knife that caused it still sticking out. A large amount of blood had spilled onto the road, but the bleeding had stopped; it was dead.
There was another patch of blood to the left of the beast, near the median strip, that had mostly washed away and was clearly not from the mutant. A number of spent shell casings littered the asphalt leading further into the intersection. He crouched down near the blood and looked to the south, aiming his gun to test, and saw that a small bush nearby provided reasonable cover from that direction. There was another lifeless mutant carcass lying on the pavement down the street.
‘He must have been firing on the mutants when he was attacked from behind.’ He thought to himself. He looked around earnestly, but there was no sign of which direction Kostya had gone, if it was him, no guarantee that he wasn’t already dead. Silently, he moved on.
* * *
By midday the rain had stopped and Taras arrived at a thick grassy hill overlooking the town. He stopped to rest and quench his thirst, sitting by an old rusted sign that was no longer readable and looking out at the crumbling buildings through a tangled barbed wire fence.
He looked up and watched a small flock of birds fly overhead but was suddenly blinded as the sun shone through a gap in the clouds. He looked down at the city again, rubbing his eyes, waiting for the blotches to dissipate, when he noticed movement near on of the closer buildings. He stared, squinting, trying to clarify his vision; it was her. She was wearing her blue dress, walking casually past the buildings into a small alley that led into the town.
Gathering his things hastily and almost spilling his water flask, he jumped over the fence and started sprinting down the hill towards her. A rapid clicking sound stopped him in his tracks. His dosimeter, he pulled it off his belt and looked down at it. The area ahead was high in radiation and his suit didn’t offer enough protection for him to go through. He looked up again to see her shape disappear into the gap between the buildings, and then looked to his left for a way around into the city. It was rockier that way, and the ground was more uneven, but if he hurried, he could still catch up to her.
Bounding as fast as he could and desperately trying not to trip, he rushed down the hillside to a large factory building on the edge of town. Climbing a small set of concrete stairs at the rear he found that the door had been forced open, whether from the outside or in, he couldn’t tell. He pushed it open and stepped cautiously into the darkness inside, his handgun at the ready.
The factory was dusty and full of large machinery that had long been silent. A number of stools lay on the ground but his way was mostly clear to the front entrance. Stepping slowly and carefully, he gazed around for any danger as he moved. A sudden noise startled him and he spun around aiming his gun. A large rat ran across the floor behind him and disappeared behind a wooden workbench. He turned and moved more quickly towards the door, eager to get out before the whole swarm was upon him.
The front doors were large and made of green metal, he pushed on one but it was firmly locked. He stepped back, and kicked hard below the handle. The sound echoed throughout the building but the door wouldn’t budge. He could hear the squeak of rats gathering in the darkness, disturbed by the commotion, and began to panic. He kicked the door again and again and it vibrated and groaned under the force, the metal latch straining. There was a loud snapping noise and the door suddenly broke free, swinging outwards swiftly and crashing forcefully into the wall behind it. Taras rushed out the opening and slammed the door hard before running out into the street and looking around frantically for anyone else who may have heard him.
There she was, several blocks up the road, walking along the pavement away from him, her dress billowing with every step, the colour of a clear sky, her long hair swaying gently across her back; she seemed confident and unafraid. He began to run again, trying desperately to catch up before she vanished.
He had run for several minutes before he was close to her. His heart was pounding and his muscles ached from carrying his heavy pack. She was walking past a dark alley and he had almost caught up to her when she stopped and turned around, staring straight at him. He had to stop quickly to avoid running into her, and now he stared in amazement.
Her beauty was no less than he had remembered, with her delicate features and flawless pale skin. He pushed his hood back and scanned her face, the face that for years he had been longing to see again. A lump came to his throat. She was here. He searched her deep blue eyes for a sign of recognition, but there was nothing; her face was blank and emotionless. He shifted slightly, but her eyes didn’t follow him, she was looking through him, she couldn’t see him at all. His heart sank.
He stood there, staring at her, trying to comprehend. He reached out to touch her face; his hand quivering with fear or excitement, or maybe just the cold. He moved it slowly towards her cheek but paused, his mind racing. ‘What if she wasn’t real? What if it was a trap?’ Her sudden movement interrupted his thoughts as she looked straight up at the sky, a single tear rolling down her cheek. Then another, and another. It had begun to rain. She looked down again at whatever she had been staring at, her eyelids twitching, protecting from the drops hitting her face. She turned and ran into the alley, and disappeared. He stood there shaking, in shock from the encounter. The cold rain seeped into his tangled hair and ran down into his clothes, but he barely noticed.
He wandered the streets for several hours, dazed, until the sky grew dark and another night enveloped the land. He dragged himself into the nearest building, climbing up several floors before settling on a clear patch of floor. Laying on his pack, he slowly fell into an uneasy sleep.
* * *
Taras woke with a start to the sound of rapid gunfire and shouting coming from the street. He sat up quickly; the room was pitch black, still night. He fumbled his way to the staircase, swinging his rifle into his grip as he climbed to the roof. It was still raining outside and the roof was empty, apart from the usual pipes and ducts. A large, rusty crane hung over him from the building next door, which had still been under construction at the time. The buildings across from him were lit up by a constant bright flashing that matched the gunshots. He crept cautiously to the edge and looked down on the battle in the street.
There were four of them. Stalkers, not veterans, but they clearly had some experience; dodging from side to side, taking cover behind anything they could find as they retreated down the road. Following them was a group of at least thirty people: stalkers, military personnel, and a few civilians, many carrying guns and firing recklessly at their targets, others throwing stones and debris. They walked stiffly, as if they weren’t completely in control of their factions.
The four men were panicked, firing sporadically at their attackers, trying to take down as many as they could without wasting their ammunition. One of them called to his teammate, whose cover, an overturned car, was getting too close to the pack. He turned and started to run towards his friends, but he tripped and tumbled to the ground, his gun sliding along the asphalt away from him. He lay there for several seconds before clumsily standing and walking over to his weapon. He bent down awkwardly, picking it up with one hand, and waved it in the direction of his friends. They started to yell at him frantically, but the echo from the surrounding walls made it difficult for Taras to understand, he could only make out a distressed ‘No!’ between the screams.
The gun suddenly flared and bucked, jolting the man backwards, and one of his friends fell backwards on the ground, a dark red wound marking the front of his olive jacket. He lay there unmoving. The other two immediately opened fire, felling their friend and wounding several others in the group, before retreating further.
Taras noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye and turned quickly to see, falling backwards, startled, as he noticed someone standing next to him in the darkness. She had come back. He sat back up to a crouch and examined her. She was standing by the edge of the rooftop staring out over the town. No, her eyes were moving, she was watching something. Taras squinted over at the opposite building to see what she was looking at, and there it was. Quietly creeping along the rooftop was the deformed shape of a controller. It darted between the shadows, before coming to a stop at the edge, gripping onto the ledge with it’s long fingers, peering gleefully down at the ensuing battle with it’s large, round eyes.
Taras didn’t waste any time. He readied his rifle, looking through the dirty metal sight, aiming at the creature’s oversized head, and squeezed the trigger. The flash blinded him for a second, but cleared in time for him to see the controller crumple limply onto the hard concrete roof. He looked down into the street and saw that the group had collapsed onto the ground. The stalkers cautiously emerged from their cover, surveying the street in awe, and rushed over to tend to their friend, dragging him quickly into the nearest doorway.
Taras turned and smiled to see that saw she was still standing beside him. She was looking down at him smiling back. But her smile faded, and her expression turned to one of sorrow and helplessness. He sensed she knew something that she could not control. Then he felt it. The colour drained from his vision, a sharp pain stabbed in his mind, and his body began to ache. A blowout. With all of the action, he hadn’t noticed the warning signs, and now the building began to shake violently as the sky lit up.
A furious wind hit him hard, knocking him off his feet. He heard a loud twisting, screeching sound above the wind and the rumbling of the earth, as beside him the crane’s metal supports began to buckle. There was a piercing snap as it gave way, and he watched in horror as it creaked and leaned towards him.
He stood up quickly, stumbling backwards, frantically searching for a means of escape, but there was nowhere to go, the door back into the building was up the other end of the rooftop. He stopped as his heal hit the edge, behind him stood a large water tank a few floors lower, the green paint on it’s thick cover had been replaced by large patches of rust, weakening it, but it couldn’t help him. He stared up at the colossal structure bearing down on him, its base had slipped off the supports and crashed onto the roof, the concrete slabs collapsing under the weight, sending out a spray of debris. The thick cable whipped past him only a few metres away, it’s heavy hook taking out a large chunk of the ledge. He closed his eyes and covered his head with his arms, his final view the approaching tangle of metal beams and twisted cables.
It hit with an enormous crash. The roof and several floors below gave way, a cloud of dust, metal and concrete flew into the air. The arm of the crane tore off as it wrapped itself over the end of the building, piercing the top of the water tank. A large piece of metal hit Taras in the thigh with a snap, and the roof gave away beneath him. He was thrown backwards and began to fall.
He hit hard. Landing on his thick pack, he heard a loud crack from his equipment, or his back, as he hit the stiff beam of the crane arm, still sinking, poking out of the tank at an angle. He rolled violently, a shower of concrete following him, and gashed his arm painfully on a twisted piece of metal. The howling wind and cracks of lighting were suddenly muffled as he splashed heavily into the freezing water. He floated, stunned, just under the surface. A cloud of red blood swirled around in front of him. Gathering all his strength he tried to swim, but his pack was caught on the jagged crane and it slowly dragged him down. He drew his knife out of it’s sheath, desperately trying to cut himself free, but he fumbled with it in his weak hands and it dropped slowly into the black oblivion beneath him. He looked up sadly and saw her distorted figure standing at the edge of the roof, the fiery sky behind pulsing brightly. The rain splashed like teardrops on the surface of the water. She seemed to be watching him as he slowly sank into the darkness.
Drowning was supposed to be the least unpleasant way to die. Once you lungs fill with water you accept your fate and stop struggling, your life just slowly fades. Perhaps his life would flash before his eyes, like in the movies, when they go to the happiest memory and stay there in a moment that lasts forever. He wondered what he would remember when the end came. There hadn’t been much happiness in his life, misery and torment, ever since he came to this damned place. He’d only come for her. He needed something to remind him of what they had, the happiness that might have been had she lived. Remember that time, standing on the cliff watching the sun set over a deep black ocean? Her hair blowing in the breeze.
He had loved her then.
Great, independant Iraq War journalism: http://michaelyon.blogspot.com/
From the halls of Montezuma To the shores of Tripoli'
We fight our countrys battles In the air', on land, and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom , And to keep our honor clean,
We are proud to claim the title Of United States Marines.
Our flags unfurl'd to every breeze From dawn to setting sun';
We have fought in every clime and place Where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far-off northern lands And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job - The United States Marines.
Here's health to you and to our Corps Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we've fought for life And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy Ever gaze on Heaven's scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded By United States Marines. - US Marines Hymn