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A Piece of the Puzzle

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  09:45:02  10 March 2006
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Amoki
back with a vengeance
(V.I.P.)

 

 
On forum: 07/31/2003
Messages: 1729
A Piece of the Puzzle

“Name?” The surly wide-shouldered Brit soldier glances at Adrik’s dark-skinned face with a sceptical look in his eye.

“Adrik Suvorov,” Adrik responds. As the Brit’s eyes narrow, Suvorov rolls his. He was so used to the discrimination that he didn’t really care anymore. With Soviet – 1st World relations worsening ever since the gas attacks in London three years ago, Suvorov has seen plenty of angry American and British military divisions strutting around the outskirts of the zone, looking for any excuse to smash some Russian heads. The official reason they are here is anyone’s guess. The Brit tries to verify his checklist while keeping a weary eye on Adrik’s long spidery hands.

“I was invited,” Adrik tries to explain.

The Brit looks at Adrik, glances down at his page, once, twice, and then finally nods gruffly. “So you are. But don’t try anything; I’ve got my eye on you.”

Adrik smiles weakly. “Wonderful. I’ll feel so much safer with you watching my back.” He pushes open the door and walks into Lieutenant Bern’s office, promptly followed by the Brit commando.

Sir Berry Crutch, PhD in molecular Biology, field professor and head of the Biology department at Oxford, writer of over 400 scientific articles, now recently employed by the British Government to investigate the scientifically rule-breaking anomalies of the zone, and basically one of the most intelligent men in the world, is on his hands and knees in the middle of the British military encampment, staring at the iron-rich earth with a magnifying glass, ignoring the many amused onlookers.

Lieutenant Bern gives Adrik a suspicious look before clearing his throat. The blond, wavy haired scientist didn’t seem to notice. Adrik notices he is humming to himself softly as he crawls around, sifting his hands through the murk, rubbing it between his fingers and then staring at it intently. Bern gently prods the professor’s leg with a foot, which yields incredible results. The high-strung Berry Crutch leaps into the air with a yelp of surprise and falls on his back, his round glasses askew.

Bern looks startled. “My most humble apologies, professor,” he says nervously as he helps the man up. Adrik locates the spectacles, tries in vain to clean off the mud with his already filthy jacket, and hands them to Dr. Crutch.

“That’s quite alright my friend,” Berry Crutch responds warmly as he puts on the glasses. “I can get quite lost in my own little world sometimes.” He blinks twice and then looks at the person he is talking to. “Oh, Lieutenant Bern! What a wonderful surprise!”

“Er yes… nothing’s wrong, is there…?”

“Oh, not at all, not at all! Everyone here has been quite gracious! Why do you ask?”

“Uh… nothing… just doing my duty as a host Sir.” Bern stares at him for a while, probably wondering what the hell he was doing. Adrik just smiles. Genius and lunacy do walk hand in hand.

Bern finally regains his composure and gets right to the point. “We finally found a suitable guide for your voyage into the zone, Professor. I’d like you to meet Adrik Suvorov, veteran stalker of the zone.”

Berry Crutch turned towards Adrik and stuck out his hand. “Charmed to meet you.”

Adrik hesitated, then took the old man’s hand and shook it firmly. “Likewise.” There is something different about they way this Brit shook Adrik’s hand, about the way he looked into the Stalker with twinkling blue eyes, warmth radiating from his broad smile. Adrik finds himself more shocked at the sincerity of his greeting then the previous event. It has been a long time since anyone actually seemed glad to see him, especially around this British controlled area. Adrik can not stop himself from smiling back, even though he tries.

But then Bern’s agitating voice drills through his oral cavity, ruining the moment. “Your, um, guide is under direct orders to take you anywhere you wish to go within the Zone, Professor,” says Bern, glaring pointedly at Adrik. “But I do recommend that you take a few of my British recruits with you, at least as far as the border…”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” responds Dr. Crutch. “Mr. Suvorov looks to be more then capable to show me what’s what.”

Adrik could not resist taking advantage of the situation. “Besides, your little recruits might have trouble keeping up.” Adrik says with a nasty smile. “I wouldn’t want to have to save their asses all the time.” He notices with quite a bit of satisfaction Bern’s jaw muscles tighten as he grinds his teeth.


… And, just as expected, that steroid-addict of a British dwarf is charging across the grounds towards Adrik, looking like killing a dozen people and destroying half a city block is next on his daily agenda. Adrik braces himself for the hurricane as he starts throwing all sorts of shit into the back of his seventeen-year-old P.O.S. rust bucket, the NIVA 4X4. It runs like it’s fuelled by wet sawdust, but the amazing part is that it works at all.

“You prick!”

Adrik chooses to ignore the rather loud steam engine named Bern behind him for the time being, but soon finds out that Bern is in no mood to wait. Adrik picks himself off the ground, rubbing his chin and wiping off mud.

“Listen to me, you filthy bastard!” Bern’s face is not unlike that of a tomato left out in the sun too long. “I’ve had just about enough of your attitude! If it were up to me, my own soldiers would be taking Dr. Crutch for his Zone tour, not some punk for hire. And I’d arrest you for being a smartass.”

Adrik slowly wipes hot spittle from his cheek. “Then I guess I’m glad it is not up to you.”

Lieutenant Bern scowls and grabs Adrik’s jacket violently. “That man you’re about to take out into the zone is worth more then your entire country. If you let anything happen to him, let’s just say I’ll enjoy hunting down a scumbag like you.”

“Take it easy, comrade.”

“Shut the hell up. The higher-ups must be out of their mind…”

At that moment, the Genius himself comes stumbling around the NIVA, looking lost. Well, perhaps not lost, just not currently present. Bern quickly lets go of Adrik. “Professor. You ready to leave?”

“Huh?” The spell is broken, and Berry Crutch stares blankly at Bern as if his mind had just regained control over his body after a long struggle. “Oh. Yes. Of course. I just need to grab my equipment and load it up into…” He glances at the sheet metal on wheels and frowns. “Is this our transportation?”

Bern falters, but manages to stutter: “Er, well no of course not, not if you would prefer something, ah, more suitable…” God, that Brit is such a kiss-ass.

To Adrik’s surprise, Crutch turns a thoughtful eye towards him. “You Sir are much more knowledgeable then I in matters concerning the Zone. What do you think? Do we need a superiorly-equipped vehicle in order to achieve our goals?”

Adrik could not decide which was more hilarious: Bern’s shocked face or the fact that a preppy British of high standing called him Sir. He makes his best attempt to keep a straight face as he responds: “Absolutely, Professor. This pile of junk wouldn’t get us far.” He notices Bern giving him a warning look out of the corner of his eye, but ignores it. “In fact, I think we should go all out. Bern, now I know you got a few brand new humvees for your detachment last night. Think you could spare one?”

The Lieutenant scowls. No one was supposed to know about the new recon vehicles yet. “Well, my unit needs them to patrol the…”

“Oh come now,” Professor Crutch interrupts gently. “You surely don’t need every one of these machines, do you?”

“I… er… ah…” Bern hangs his head in defeat. “Of course not Sir. I’ll have one ready within an hour.” His eyes swivel to stare at Adrik. To say Bern looks a little angry is like saying a nuclear warhead would cause a little destruction.

“I’ll get my equipment now then, and prepare it for loading,” says Berry Crutch, and he turns to leave.

One look at Bern’s seething face makes up Adrik’s mind. “Say professor, could you use any help? I’ll come with you…”

After months of hearing the dull wine of the NIVA’s underpowered engine and then waiting about three or four seconds for the vehicle to actually respond, the 275-horsepower V8 diesel seems like a goddamn jet turbine. The heavy wheels roll effortlessly over the rocky terrain and the heavy suspension absorbs it all. Adrik does not even notice the moguls and half-foot drops. Being surrounded by a 3-inch thick armoured body and staring through a bullet-proof windshield imbues Adrik with a feeling that he has not experienced in a long time. He begins to feel invincible. Now, holy shit, this is bad. If there is one thing that Adrik learned in the past four years, it is never ever, think that. Feeling invincible is what gets you killed. It is expecting to die every five minutes that keeps you alive.

This could not continue. The break callipers clenched shut on shiny steel discs, and the 2600-pound behemoth came screeching to a stop.

“Er… is there a problem?”

Adrik nearly jumps at the voice. He has completely forgotten that Berry Crutch had been sitting in the passenger seat next to him ever since they left the outpost just over an hour ago. Intercommunication hadn’t been abundant. Adrik glances at the curious face. “Uh, no problem. I just have to perform an experiment of my own.” He opens the door and hops out leaving the engine running.

Berry Crutch appears to become quite interested. “Experiment? Really? Of what nature? What variables are you testing?” He leans out the window as Adrik walks around in front of the hummer, so his questions will still be heard. “I didn’t think we had anything in common…”

Adrik gazes at the massive shiny grill less then a meter away, not unlike 16-inch-long teeth of some horrible mechanical beast. He then tilts his head quickly and stares at his empty seat though the windshield. “We don’t.” He reaches into his coat and whips out his initialled Model 500 Smith & Wesson. Two resounding cracks echo across the Zone with such volume that Adrik’s hearing is threatened. Silver spider web patterns are spread across the glass, spiralling outward from two very noticeable holes. Berry Crutch gapes at the massive revolver, horror-struck, as if he just realized that the company he is keeping has an unfortunate tendency to act like a lunatic.

Adrik slowly lowers the pistol and exhales slowly. He can still feel the painful vibrations the .50 calibre recoil sent rampaging up his arms and down his spine, threatening to shake apart his muscle tissues. He strides over to the drivers seat and peers though the still-open door. Two rather large chunks of upholstery from his head rest are missing, and there are cracks in the rear window. Adrik smiles to himself as he clambers back into his seat, and shifts the hummer into drive. It heaves forwards with a roar.

Five minutes later the Professor finally chokes up the words that were caught in his throat. “What… what was that all about?” Ah, Berry Crutch, always tactful and polite in his conversion. Another in his place would probably shout something like ‘What in God’s name is WRONG with you!?!’.

“My experiment.” Adrik responds still smiling. “The protective qualities of this humvee mean nothing in the Zone. I needed convincing that I can still easily be killed.”

Silence, and then: “And you’re comfortable knowing this?”

“More then before.”

And he drove onward, now fully aware that a well-placed round could come crashing through that ‘bullet-proof’ glass and splatter Adrik’s brains all over the army-green interior. He no longer feels invincible. In fact, he feels pretty damn paranoid and vulnerable. But at least it is a paranoia and vulnerability that Adrik is used to.

They had been on the road for just over three hours now. Calling it a ‘road’ would actually not be the truth at all. A more adequate description would be ‘a long chain of potholes overgrown with grass, with the occasional flood, tree trunk or other environmental barrier in the way designed specifically to impede progress’; but it is much easier to just say ‘road’.

During that time, Adrik could not help but ask himself the same question that Lieutenant Bern asked and is probably still asking himself. Why the hell would the British Government choose to hire a no-name mercenary to guide one of the possibly most important men of their country? They have resources; they probably could have sent a whole army to watch this Einstein’s ass, and they would definitely do a much better job then Adrik. He runs about a dozen possible scenarios through his head, but none of them seem really plausible. Something was not right about the whole setup.

Adrik is jarred out of his thought process by a particularly large bump. Not from jerking of the vehicle itself; he was practically immune to that, thanks to two years of driving a NIVA whose suspension had rusted away into nothing. No, he is shaken out of his reverie because the sudden motion sends his forehead into the steering wheel.

Groan. Wincing, Adrik glances sideways at the Professor, who is watching the vultures that have been following them for thirty minutes or so. Just what exactly is Dr. Crutch here to do anyway? This seems as good a time as any to find out.

They haven’t talked since Adrik’s ‘experiment’, except for when the Doctor asked if ‘there was a lou nearby’. Adrik still can’t comprehend: If they both speak English, then why the hell can’t he understand the man? Brits are crazy. Once Adrik managed to decipher that ‘lou’ meant ‘restroom’, they had a good laugh. Or at least he did. Professor Crutch did not seem to understand what was so funny about asking for a public restroom in the middle of the Zone.

Adrik decides to attempt small talk to loosen things up a bit before aiming for the grand prize. “So um… Doctor. Tell me. Ah…. What kind of hardware are you packing?” Great job Adrik. You really gotta work on your social skills.

Berry turns his head quickly, looking surprised, but then thoughtful. “Why, I just bought myself a new model last month with a government grant, specifically for this voyage.”

“Really?” Adrik’s pleased that he hadn’t bungled up the conversation too badly. “What model?”

“A VayTek 6600-TX.”

Adrik frowns. “Never heard of it.”

“Not surprising. It is very new. Was put into production just this year.”

“Ah. That would explain it. I’m pretty isolated from the world out here.”

“Understandable. It has a very powerful scope on it. Perfect for the field. I’ll show you.” With that, Berry spins around and begins rummaging around through his equipment stored in the back seat. Adrik is a little impressed. He would have expected Berry to carry nothing more then a small pistol or something likewise inadequate for most dangers in the Zone, but from the sound of things he actually came prepared. Hopefully he knows how to use it too.

“And here we are.” The Professor lugs a reasonably large black attach case onto his lap, unclasps the fastenings, and opens the lid.

Adrik glances at the contents. And nearly hits a tree. He stares at the VayTek 6600-TX. “It’s a microscope.”

“Well of course. What did you expect?”

“A gun.”

“A gun?”

“Yeah, a goddamn gun! You know, firearm, self-defence weapon, something that you shoot shit with! You do have one, don’t you?”

“Heavens no! I’m a pacifist.”

Adrik groans. “You came into the Zone unarmed? Jesus Christ, why the hell did I agree to do this? The only thing pacifism will do for you here is help dig your own grave.” Adrik stared straight ahead for a while, cursing under his breath.

“No one told me how dangerous it is here,” says Berry quietly.

Adrik sighs. “Okay, sorry for freaking out. I was just shocked. It is not your fault.” He looks at the scientist meaningfully. “But if you want to stick around for long, you better get used to carrying at least a pistol. Like this one.” He drags out his ridiculously overpowered revolver and slams in on the dash.

Berry Crutch prods it with one finger and frowns. “That’s not a pistol. That’s a cannon.”

Adrik laughs. “Perhaps a less-powerful weapon might be better suited for you. Here.” He reaches down, lifts his pant leg, draws a 9000S Beretta from its holster and throws it to Berry. He catches it with a startled expression and quickly places it on the dash. Adrik slows the humvee to a stop. “I’ll show you how to use it.”

Berry nods weakly.

Adrik is sitting on a boulder, watching with interest as Berry Crutch tries to reload the Berretta. “Turn the clip the other way. That’s it.” The Professor’s beginning to get the hang of it. With a click, the magazine slides into place. He slides back the top, cocking the pistol and preparing it for firing. He then holds it with two hands in front of him, similar to Adrik’s demonstration, and lines up a tree in the sights. “There you go. You’re getting the hang of it.”

Berry smiles, and practises ejecting the clip again. Then he accidentally drops it.

“So uh…” Adrik goes for the big question. “What is the goal of your research in the Zone anyway?”

The scientist looks thoughtful after straightening up. “To put it simply, I am investigating the cause of this unusual radiation fallout; why the Zone became how it is. You must admit, its occurrence is rather inexplicable.”

“True.”

“There must be some underlying reason for this most extraordinary disaster. If we can find out how it happened, we can hopefully prevent it from happening again.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

Berry aims the firearm once again towards the tree. “I’m glad you understand.”

A loud bang cracked across the grassy hills. Adrik swears. That wasn’t a pistol shot.

Berry is gawking at the Berretta in his hands. “But I didn’t even touch the trig…” His words were interrupted by Adrik’s body weight knocking the wind out of his lungs as another shot is fired. The humvee shakes slightly two meters away as the round ricocheted off its armoured siding. When Berry regains his breath, he sits up. “What’s going on?”

“Jesus, stay down!” Adrik whispers harshly, shoving the Doctor onto his back again. “We’re being shot at.” To illustrate Adrik’s statement nicely, the hummer’s side view mirror shatters. Damn the long grasses of these plains. If the attacker is lying down, there is virtually no chance of spotting him. At least Adrik will have the same camouflage. A rampaging bullet strikes the dirt three inches from Adrik’s left hand and sends dust flying into his face. Then again, maybe not. “Crawl under the humvee!” He gives the professor a poorly aimed kick to hurry him along, and then starts rolling the other way. The sniper had to be standing to pull off a shot with that angle. He continues rolling for a few meters, and then cautiously comes up on one knee, muscles tense and ready to send his face to the dirt at any second.

There. About a hundred and fifty meters away a lone figure is standing, dressed in white. Nailing him with the massive Smith & Wesson Adrik always kept close seems a little far fetched, but he could not think up a more adequate solution in his current situation. All his long-range weaponry is kept in the back of the humvee, an agonizing six meters away. Adrik lies down his stomach and draws the revolver. He can just see the white head of the assailant through the long grass stalks that are enveloping him. He lines up the double sight with the white blob, and yanks the trigger. Take that, you asshole. It is pretty obvious that the shot went wide, but it certainly gave the bastard something to think about. The white dot disappeared from view. Adrik is on his knees when he squeezes off another shot, just in case the gunner is thinking about popping back up for a look-see. Adrik sidles backwards at the velocity of a sloth on a lazy Sunday afternoon, scanning the horizon for anything moving. After about a week, Adrik’s back hits the cold metal of the humvee. “Everything alright, Berry?” He could hear whimpering from beneath the vehicle.

After a few gasps of breath, Berry managed to stammer that he was a little shaken up, but unhurt.

Adrik smiles shrewedly. “Welcome to the reality of the Zone, Professor.” Three shots fired in quick succession interrupt the moment. Adrik retaliates, firing his remaining three bullets while aiming in the general direction of where he saw the attacker last. He drops the revolver, yanks open the trunk of the humvee, and dives in.

Lying in front of him is the Dragunov sniper rifle that belonged to his father. Perfect. It may be old, but Adrik has kept it in best condition possible and it can still deliver a high-velocity round over vast distances. He has it loaded and ready for action within a few seconds, but before he can do anything more, he hears automatic fire, advising him to duck. And good thing he does. Dozens of rounds pummel into humvee from the other side, cracking and shattering the windows and rocking the body back and forth from force of impact. Adrik covers his head with his arms as thousands of tiny shards burst inward, showing him with minuscule knives. The hummer suddenly slopes downwards as one, and then two of the tires burst. The front windshield flies apart as a second machine gun starts coughing lead from another direction. The suspension groans, and threatens to give out entirely. The open trunk door is torn completely off of its hinges and crashes to the earth. Holy shit.

The firing finally stops. Adrik doesn’t dare move. There are at least three Stalkers out there, one with a rifle to his left, and two with huge guns to his front and right. He’s surrounded. He wonders briefly if Berry is still alive. After a few more seconds of silence, he shifts his body, letting glass slide off to his back. Scraped, bruised and extremely terrified, Adrik begins to wish he had bought that M60 three weeks back.

Footsteps. Adrik held his breath. Checking for survivors? Most likely. Judging from the direction the sound was coming from, Heavy Gunner #1 (on Adrik’s right) was the unlucky sod that had to abandon cover to make sure the enemy was dead. In an act of professionalism and control (actually blind panic and suicidal stupidity would be more accurate), Adrik jumps to his knees, swings the long rifle barrel to his right, spots the surprised machine gun-toting maniac, and drills a 54mm long needle through his chest before anyone could react. When they finally do, Adrik is sailing out the back of the shot-up humvee. About fifteen seconds of furious gun fire ensues, tearing up the expensive vehicle even more. There goes another wheel. Jesus, Bern is gonna snap when he sees this.

Adrik rolls over and notices the sniper at the same time the sniper sees him. Both rifles exchange ammunition. A bullet rips through the edge of Adrik’s jacket and cuts through his shoulder. The white gunner was not as fortunate.

Gripping his shoulder, Adrik sits up wincing. There is a form under the humvee, but with all the dust in the air, Adrik couldn’t tell if it is alive. He drops the Dragunov; with his maimed shoulder, he’d be lucky if he could hit the vehicle in front of him. Now crouching, Adrik pulls yet another small pistol from his waistband, this one being a semi-auto with 15-shot clip, and begin easing himself around the side of the humvee. Where was the last guy? Sudden movement sends Adrik’s eyes to his left. Speak of the devil; the bastard flanked him. The hot muzzle is already pointed at Adrik as the gunner takes another step forward, ammunition belt dangling from the machine gun.

The sound of thousands of tiny saw blades mixed with the static of electricity erupts into Adrik’s hearing at about a hundred and eighty decibels. His head screams, his eyes water and his eardrums complain as he clenches his hands over his ears. Before his very eyes, his attempted assassin disappears into a red and silver mist while nearby grass and dirt explodes into dust.

The sound ceases. Adrik is gasping for breath, tears streaming down his dusty cheeks. A meter-radius bare circle of churned earth is all that remains, slowly tinting red as the mist settles. Wow. That was an event that Adrik hopes never to witness again in his life. He has heard stories of a violent anomaly resembling what this must have been, but Jesus Christ! Every cell within that Stalker’s body was disintegrated and every molecule separated and torn apart. Meat-Mincer it was called, and for good reason.

Guess it is time to check up on the Professor. Adrik falls on his stomach and gazes under the vehicle. “Hey, Doctor? You still alive?”

Silence for a bit, then a groan. “I despise this place.”

Adrik laughs, but is then attacked by violent cough. The tires getting blown out probably saved Berry Crutch’s life. That lowered the right side of the car body closer to the ground, which protected him from most of the gunfire. “How are you feeling?”

“In excruciating pain. I think my leg is broken.”

“I doubt it. It’s probably just a bullet.”

“Just a bullet!?”

Adrik sighed. “Lets get you outta there and I’ll take a look.”

To Adrik’s surprise, the engine still worked. Bless the manufacturers that made the decision to armour the engine block. Three tires are flat, all the windows are shot out, the frame looks like it has more holes then metal, and the springs groan dangerously, but the machine still drives. This bitch is tough.

He had bandaged his shoulder tightly; the rifle round had ploughed right through his flesh, narrowly missing his shoulder blade. Shells were still in Berry’s leg though. Adrik hadn’t been able to get them out. He had been hit twice; once in the calf, and again in the thigh. He is bandaged as well, and he’s constantly applying added pressure to his thigh (the worst of the two wounds), as advised by Adrik.

Adrik had told Berry about the peculiar phenomenon he had witnessed tearing his opponent apart. Despite his injuries, Berry seems to perk up. “This is fascinating! I wish I had witnessed this occurrence. Do you think we’ll see another?”

Adrik takes his eyes of the road to glance at Crutch incredulously. “I certainly hope not.”

Berry stares off into space, thinking to himself. “An environmental anomaly that can destroy the natural magnetic attraction of particles in an instant… this must be some kind of physics breakthrough!” He grabs a notepad he kept in the glove compartment and begins making notes furiously, forgetting all about his leg.

Adrik lets him wage war on the paper for a while. He has some things of his own to think about. When searching bodies before they left, he had recognized the ensign stitched to the white uniform of the sniper. It was a symbol a red snake coiled around a black dagger. It is the symbol of the Dark Venom stalker faction. They are an assassin’s guild whose focus and goal is not to hunt for strange treasure in the vast Zone like other stalkers. It is to hunt the treasure hunters for the highest bidder. Members of this faction are few and far between, and they never usually engage in anyone except for hostiles or targets. For three of their members to be working in tandem and ambush Adrik Suvorov and his British companion was too much of a coincidence. It is more likely that someone had put a bounty on their heads, and the Dark Venom had been trying to collect. But why would someone want Adrik dead? He hasn’t pissed anyone off recently that he could think of…

“Look at these trees! Even their physical properties have been drastically affected by the radiation here!”

Adrik closes his eyes momentarily. With a sinking feeling, he glances over at the Professor Crutch of Oxford University in England. He is currently attempting to sketch the vegetation as it flashes by the windows, or lack thereof.

“Uh, Berry?”

Berry Crutch glances up from his drawings. “Yes?”

How to say this gently, without alarming him? “Is there any reason for someone to want you killed?” Very subtle, Adrik.

As expected, Berry looks startled. “I… I don’t know. That’s not exactly something I think about everyday.” Sudden realization; his eyes widen as he makes the connection. “You think… you think those men were trying to kill me?”

“Well, I’m not sure, but something about how they were shooting at us, repeatedly, kinda got me suspecting that yeah, maybe they did want to kill you,” retorts Adrik sarcastically. “Those men were hired killers. They didn’t run into us by chance.”

“Oh,” says the doctor very quietly. This is obviously a new prospect to him. Never leaving his isolated world of microbiology and pacifism, he probably would never hurt a fly. But being one of the smartest men in the world and now investigating the cause of perhaps one of the most conspiratorial events in history is bound to make people take notice of you. And Adrik knows from experience that getting attention drawn to you can easily send you headlong into bad shit.

Someone did not want a highly regarded scientist snooping around the Zone. Hell, they probably planned his death from the start. That would explain why Adrik, a single untrustworthy mercenary, was hired to guide this Professor around the Zone instead of a fully armed British escort. And how the Dark Venom got involved. If this was a political assassination, hiring some random goons to do the dirty work would prevent much unwanted attention to the situation.

This someone, or group, must be powerful and influential, having high connections in the British military and maybe even other worldwide organisations.

Then again, maybe Adrik is just paranoid.

Crutch’s worried voice cuts into his thought process. “What should we do?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe lay low for a couple days…” His devil conscience flares up within him. They want to kill the man he is sitting beside, not himself. If he were to simply abandon Berry somewhere, he could avoid a lot of trouble. Avoid drawing attention to him like he has always preferred. Fade back into the woodwork and become a no-name stalker again. His life would be so much simpler. Adrik gives Berry a sidelong glance and then dismisses the idea, feeling ashamed for even thinking of it.

The Professor looks deeply worried and frightened. He’s not really such a bad character, even though a little odd. He has grown on Adrik in the past couple of hours. Even three years of being a stalker hasn’t completely destroyed Adrik’s conscience. He couldn’t stab this delightful human being in the back.

“Adrik, watch out!”

Adrik’s eyes snap to the road in time to see a shape dash in front of the vehicle. He slams on the breaks, but they do not function as well as they should, thanks to the Dark Venom and their zealous use of machine guns. The heavy humvee crashes into the form with a sickening crunch.

“What the hell was that?” When humvee finally halts a few seconds later, Adrik leaps out, checking that his revolver is reachable. He slowly edges to the front of the vehicle, scanning the ground. A canine animal, obviously dead, is lying two feet away. Even though severely mangled, Adrik recognizes the species that is only found in the Zone. “Damn,” he says.

“What is it?” asks Berry from the truck.

“It’s blind dog. Think homicidal wolf that works itself into a mad frenzy for fun. Enjoys shredding human flesh. The worst part is they are never alone. We have to get moving. Quickly.”

“Wait. Can you bring the body into the truck? I’d like to analyse it.”

Adrik stares at the scientist. “Of all the messed up crap you’ve said today, that takes the prize.” He looks at the dog. “It’s a mutt, for crying out loud. Don’t you dissect this shit in medical school?”

“Not ones that are living in a radiated environment, whose species were essentially created by mutations. It could be the next biological breakthrough.”

Adrik groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he mutters under his breath as he grasps the disfigured body in his arms. With a grunt, he pushes the carcass through the back-seat window frame. “There.”

A high-pitched howl sends a cold shiver down his spine. “Uh oh.” Adrik turns quickly, drawing his revolver. Three, no four, grey blurs are bounding towards him, thirty meters away and closing fast. “PUT THE CAR IN DRIVE!” Adrik yells frantically. As fast as his legs can carry him, Adrik dashes back around the hummer and swings into the driver’s seat, his feet searching for the right pedal. He finds it, and hammers it to the floor with both feet, not even bothering to close the door.

Berry screams as one dog leaps at the passenger window, drool dripping from its long fangs, but before it reaches the vehicle, a .50 calibre slug flies past Berry’s nose and into the back of the canine’s gaping jaw. Its head and shoulders explode brutally, and the force of impact sends the remaining carcass soaring backwards. Adrik winces. His shoulder feels dislocated from the recoil. Firing the obscenely powerful pistol with one hand is something he always tried to avoid. “Pull out that pistol, you moron!” he shouts at Berry.

As the vehicle picks up speed, Adrik begins whipping the wheel back and forth, trying to avoid the larger trees, but he ignores the smaller ones, praying that the hummer can take the punishment. A close encounter awards him with a deep gash across his cheek from knotted branches. The humvee rocks violently as another dog sends itself hurtling into the side door.

After another harrowing minute of dog’s growling, suspension protesting, trees snapping, and Berry screaming, the howling seems to finally become more distant. In another five minutes, it was gone entirely. Adrik breaths a sigh of relief and then nearly faints on the spot.

Adrik can’t believe this. He is driving across the Zone in a military humvee that has been filled with its weight in lead and has three flat tires, a plethora of scratches and dents, and a crazy scientist in the backseat dissecting the body of a blind dog with scissors and scalpel he found from who knows where.

“This is fascinating Adrik. The internal systems of this animal are vastly different from your regular Canis familiaris. They appear to have an unusually large adrenal gland. Perhaps that is why they are so aggressive.” Well, at least Berry seems to be enjoying himself. “Mmmm… this is interesting…”

Adrik lets his mind wander. His muscles ache, his shoulder wound is throbbing, and he feels exhausted. He can’t remember when he ate last either. In another hour or so the sun will go down. Maybe he should keep his eyes open for shelter.

His thinking is interrupted by a tapping on his shoulder. “What is it Doctor?” he asks exasperatedly.

“Er… I’m sure how to explain this…”

“Just spit it out.”

“Well, to be blunt, this species was not created by the severe radiation from the Zone like I first thought.”

“What are you saying?”

“This species, the blind dogs as you call them, were artificially created. By humans.”

Adrik does not say anything for a while. Then: “What… no… are you sure?”

“I believe so. There is evidence that restriction enzymes were once used to cut and paste snippets of genetic code into the DNA of this animal. I recognized it immediately. We do the exact same procedures back in the lab in Oxford. The animal is genetically engineered, although to such a degree that I have never witnessed.”

“My… god…” Adrik is dumbfounded. He remembers back in the day when GE foods were all anyone could talk about, and those seemed scientifically amazing. They developed strawberries immune to frost and increased corn growth size. But he never heard anything about scientists testing this practice on animals, or creating entirely new species for that matter. “Why would anyone create something so… violent?”

Berry shakes his head. “I have no idea. It is odd that they would have let it loose in the wild however.”

“Maybe it escaped.” No one says anything for a few minutes.

Adrik’s paranoid mind begins to believe it knows how this new and shocking piece of information fits into the grand puzzle of what the hell is going on. Maybe this dog was bred, or created rather, as some experiment, but things got out of hand. The dogs got loose and started terrorizing the countryside. It would be easy to blame the creation of this species on the second disaster of Chernobyl. This would solve a lot of problems for the high-standing corporation started the whole mix up.

Adrik has another thought. The military has had a large presence around the Zone in the past few years… coincidentally, the species that was created happened to be killing machines. A perfect weapon. Perhaps it was the military itself that was conducting the experiments… Wow. This is getting a little farfetched.

Adrik organizes his thoughts and tries to run the scenario through his mind again. The military is always looking for new forms of weapons and technology to gain an advantage over the rest of the world. Military research investigated genetic modification, and they discovered they could create and breed a tougher and more vicious species of attack dog, one that could tear an army apart. But then something went wrong. The dogs escaped... or maybe they were unleashed. Adrik shivers. Anyway, they are obviously out of captivity. Now, a blunder of this scale would ruin the military’s reputation, not to mention it would get a few of the high-ups fired. So they blamed the sudden outbreak of Blind Dogs on radiation poisoning. That seemed to work, until a renowned microbiologist decides to come and take a look around. Panicking, the military orders that no escort is to be sent with Berry Crutch into the most dangerous area of the world, and hire Adrik to protect him instead. In case the Zone doesn’t end his life, they enlist assassins from the Dark Venom to make sure the Professor’s research isn’t completed. Berry Crutch would have surely discovered evidence of genetic tinkering.

And he just did. This is deep. Adrik wishes he never accepted this mission. If anyone discovers that Adrik knows what he knows, he’s a dead man. But now that he has taken the bait, there is little else he can do but run with it.

The Zone is a never ending enigma. There is a great secret hidden away somewhere, something huge and mind-baffling, that is waiting to be discovered. Hundreds of stalkers search the Zone endlessly for clues every day, and most die in vain. Adrik somehow doubts that the cause of 2nd disaster of Chernobyl and for the Zone itself will be revealed any time soon. But he and Berry Crutch had just found a huge piece to the puzzle.
 
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