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The Bets Laid Plan

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  12:07:59  11 March 2006
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On forum: 07/31/2003
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The Bets Laid Plan

‘So you can arrange this?’
The Dealer made a hushing gesture with the stump of his left arm. The fat little man in the sweat stained shirt was limping across the dimly lit basement. Leaning on a huge shotgun, as if it were a crutch, he put his head to the door and listened for eavesdroppers. In the shadows, the other man who had asked the question regarded the paranoia of the Dealer. Nobody knew anything about him, not even his real name. He was just known as the Dealer. And logically he was a cautious man, a vital quality in his line of work, but to suspect his own bodyguards seemed a bit much. Hiding out in a basement, having bodyguards and always, always that enormous shotgun of his. The man had never seen the Dealer without it. Maybe the loss of his left hand had anything to do with it, or his deformed legs. Either way, the man didn’t care. He was growing impatient and repeated his question. After a few seconds the Dealer looked back with bulging eyes and a shark’s smile.
‘Relax, Mr. Nemilostivyi. You stalkers are too tense. Look at you! Hiding away in the shadows, like a pig running from the butcher.’
‘It is no fault of mine that you live here in this shithole with only one single light bulb,’ retorted the man coolly. His full name was Oleg Nemilostivyi and he hated the fact that the Dealer knew it as well. He also hated the fact that there was no one else to turn to. The Dealer was the only option to acquire weapons, missions or to have certain arrangements made.
The Dealer snorted. He knew stalkers disliked him. He disliked them just as much, especially this one. His eyes were too calm. They kept watching him, never leaving. They were not curious eyes, nor mocking. Just observing, watching him the whole time. Oleg was a man of indeterminate age. Dressed in the usual stalker garb, drab and green, he made no distinctive impression. Only his gray eyes were different.
In the end, the Dealer decided he disliked pleasantries just as much. The stalker’s proposal could be very good for business. He hobbled towards a threadbare couch and lowered himself down.
‘Of course I can arrange it. In fact, I know just the tools for the job. And you’ll have to pay up front.‘
‘Tools? What tools? Tell me,’ demanded the stalker. With an afterthought he added, ‘Then you’ll get your money.’
‘First your group must agree to provide protection for a scientist. She’s currently staying at the inn at the village. Is that a problem?’
‘No,’ answered Oleg promptly. ‘The Monoliths have baby-sat scientists before, who didn’t have the patience to wait for a stalker to come up with anything interesting. If I tell our leader Mikhail there’s a nice profit in it, he’ll welcome her with open arms. What’s up with her?’
‘You ask too many questions for a man who wants something done. Stalker idiots,’ grumbled the Dealer, wiping sweat from his forehead with his stump. He never was particularly secretive about his contempt for stalkers.
‘But I’ll tell you this much. She has found something in the Zone and she wants to go back and investigate it. I don’t know what it is and frankly I don’t give a shit. If it’s valuable, you can take it and sell it back to the scientists at the border. If it’s not, the whole thing still goes through as planned, I don’t care. If you’ll take her with you, you’ll get exactly what you wish. All you have to do is go over to the inn, find her and tell her I sent you. She’ll come along.’
‘And then what?’ replied Oleg. His patience was wearing thinner by the minute. The sweaty stink of the basement and the Dealer’s unnatural stare made him long for outside air.
‘I’ll give it two days and then I’ll send for my other tool. A rogue stalker, just as you requested. A complete nutjob, believes everything I tell him. He’s done some missions for me before. I always wonder how that fruitcake ever manages to get his shoelaces tied, let alone survive the Zone.’
Oleg scowled. The idea to have a madman carry out such an important part of the plan didn’t appeal to him at all. But the Dealer cut him short before he could object.
‘Don’t worry, he’ll work out. When I whisper some sweet words in his ear, he’ll get the job done.’ The Dealer grinned broadly at the last words. It didn’t do much good for Oleg’s suspicion. He could almost see the multiple rows of teeth in that shark’s smile.
‘You see,’ continued the Dealer, ‘This guy used to be a soldier, stationed near the old Chernobyl plant. He’s constantly looking for his sister, a researcher working for the government. Something happened when the accident occurred. Nobody knows exactly, but they say his buddies found him screaming his lungs out at the border of the Zone. He even ran back in and the guys who were sent after him died kind of…messy. He spent the next four years in a Moscow asylum getting his brains fried. Then he suddenly escapes and becomes a stalker, so he could go look for his sister again. If I tell him what he wants to hear, I’ll have him eating out of my hands.’
The whole thing sounded far from easy to Oleg. And in his opinion it was twisted and pretty psychotic. Then again he couldn’t care how it was done, as long as someone did it. He’d work out the cleaning up later. He managed a thank you and paid the offensive Dealer. The man grabbed the money right out of his hands.
His mind’s eye traveled the area around the research facilities. The sun shone brightly for a change and the trees were still green on this early autumn day. He looked down and saw how everything was still intact and clean. The people walking in and out were smiling and chatting. They looked happy.
A flash of light lit up from within one of the buildings. It was so bright that people couldn’t see anymore and had to shield their eyes from the glare. A claw of fear grew inside him. It clutched his guts and squeezed. The earth began to tremble, white bolts of lightning shot across the compound. A strong smell of ozone putrefied the air. People started to die as strange energy surges washed over them. Some burned to a crisped by lightning, others were violently thrown by an invisible force and flattened against a wall. One man in a security uniform spontaneously burst into a cloud of blood and flesh. Most didn’t even have time to scream. His gaze fell upon a young man, a soldier, running towards one of the buildings. Zooming in further and further until everything became the young man, he became himself again, running to find Svetlana. Terror filled him, its long black fingers gripped his hart and pulled it down. Amidst the torrent of energies and the screams of the panicking crowd, he found his sister hiding behind a statue. She was as beautiful as ever, long black curls hanging down a slim symmetrical face. He could see in her large brown eyes she was scared out of her wits, but something else besides terror showed on her face. An expression of guilt maybe, or mortal regret. He didn’t have time for it.
He grabbed her hand and ran for the gate. The whole sky lit up and twisted, as if seen through boiling water. Strange spots of energy rose up from nowhere. The distortions were not present at the horizon and everything looked calm there. They ran as hard as they could, but he was a trained soldier, Svetlana was a scientist. She kept falling behind or tripping. It was not long before she couldn’t go any further. He hid her behind a huge Kamaz truck, parked between two office buildings and went to scout ahead. She begged him not to leave her alone, but he promised he’d be back for her. This far from the laboratories it seemed as if the strange phenomena were less powerful, although they still did appear out of nothing. A zone of energy radiated out of the explosion and expanded rapidly. There wasn’t much time before it caught up with them. The road to the woods was still clear and a sigh of relief escaped him. If they could take the truck, maybe they could outrun this growing zone of aberrations.
As he ran back, he already felt a change. He couldn’t explain it at the time, but something was wrong. Then he saw how the truck started to tilt backwards, as if an invisible giant was pressing down on the rear. Still running to get to her, he saw Svetlana looking back to the truck, screaming and trying to get away from it. The front tires came off the ground as the rear tires burst from the immense pressure. The back of the truck sagged and crumpled. He ran as fast as he could, but it was almost as if the faster he ran, the further he had to go. Everything slowed down. Svetlana’s face was a mask of terror. Crying out for help, she tried to crawl, but couldn’t move. The rear half of the truck was now squashed to half its original height and the fuel tank ruptured with a soft thump. He was still miles away and his legs moved as through molasses. The ground tilted and somehow he wasn’t looking at her anymore, but down on her. The truck continued to collapse in on itself with loud metallic groans. The strange power behind it pulled everything around it to its center. It tugged at Svetlana. She scrabbled frantically at the ground, trying to get away, but was slowly pulled back towards the crumpling truck. He reached out to grab her hand when brilliant white light obscured everything from view. Hands grabbed him roughly and pulled him up. In the back of his mind, he still heard the metal of the truck folding and breaking…and the screaming.
‘Nonono! I tried! I ran as fast as I could! I was almost there! I –‘ A vicious slap in his face cut the rest short.
‘What was that?’ someone demanded.
Leonid Chudotvoretz stared back in childlike amazement. His cheek burned from the slap, while his mind tried to work out what it had been dreaming. There was something there, but when he tried to recollect it, his mind kept slipped away. Squinting to let his eyes adjust to the cold phosphorescent lights above him, he looked around. Two men on either side had pulled him off his flea-ridden bed in the inn. His blood shot eyes darted from side to side, his mouth had nervous twitch and he kept looking backwards. He recognized the third man standing in front of him; it was the Dealer with his strange bulging eyes.
‘Nothing,’ he finally replied.
‘Good. Because that is exactly what you are, nothing. A piece of stalker scum. What are you?’
‘Nothing,’ said Leonid and looked back. There was nothing there.
‘Exactly. Now shut up and be quiet.’
‘Actually, that’s a bit –‘ A second slap, harder then the first, cut him short again.
‘Shut up, you piece of shit!’ the Dealer yelled, his nose almost touching Leonid's. ‘Listen up. There’s this French scientist out in the zone. She came by the other day, babbling about something she found in the Zone. She went after it again, only this time the Monoliths came along. God only knows what those animals did to her, but I do know she’s still alive. They’re holding her prison at the old train station, a couple of miles from the research facilities. They’re shooting at anything that approaches!’ The Dealer paused to let the tension build, but Leonid didn’t pay much attention as he kept looking backwards. The fat man grabbed Leonid’s face and pulled him close.
‘But what has that got to do with Svetlana?’ cried Leonid. He wanted to go back to sleep somehow, but he was also afraid to close his eyes.
The Dealer continued in a slow, hoarse whisper. ‘You’re looking for your sister, right? Well, have I got some news for you. This scientist has found something having to do with her. You hear me, you crazy monkey? She knows about your sister!’
A few hours later on a bushy hill Leonid regarded a dead sentry at his feet. The man had a large hunting knife sticking out of his throat. While he hid the body beneath a nearby bush of mutated vegetation, he tried to remember his trip into the Zone. He had a slippery memory and while focusing ahead was no problem, everything behind him was always blurred. He knew he’d driven his crappy old Moskvich to the lake. He remembered stashing the small car under some fir tree branches. There were no memories of walking the last few kilometers before reaching the outer perimeter of the Monolith camp. His instincts had killed the sentry before Leonid even noticed the man. The scientist in the camp knew something about his sister and that was all that mattered.
Silence pressed upon him. The unnatural absence of birds or crickets in the Zone was known for causing strange suffocating anxieties. It was a noted fact to Stalkers. It played tricks on your mind. It distorted your senses. It was something you learned to deal with, or it dealt with you. And the Zone had very definite ways of dealing with the careless or unprepared.
Nobody had seen him yet, including the dead man. He looked behind him, but there wasn’t anything but grass. From his position on top of a low hill looking east, he could see the Monolith camp clearly. The old railway came in from the south, curbed another hill and ran straight into the old industrial zone. On the outskirts lay the abandoned warehouse. A rusty old freight train stood wasting away in front of the loading platforms.
Leonid pulled out his binoculars and focused them on the warehouse. There it was, the second window from the right in the west wall. The only one with the blinds down. Two guards were patrolling the building, one was on the rooftop and he saw another two milling around the thickets surrounding the rotting boxcars. To the north side of the building stood a battered old Kamaz truck. Leonid glided down from his hiding place and soundlessly checked his gear. The anomaly detector was blank, but that could change in a heartbeat. Biofilters, protective clothing and medikit were all ok. His AK-74 assault rifle was locked and loaded. Although it wasn’t exactly top-of-the-line, the grenade launcher was just as effective as any other high tech gadget. He shouldered the rifle and fired a grenade into the air. The low thump was heard by the guards. Leonid could see them scanning the surroundings as the grenade arced overhead and landed right on top of the truck.
It went up in a thundering cloud of fire. The explosion took the north west corner of the building with it, instantly killing two of the guards. The old train caught fire and the dry wood of the boxcars burned ferociously within moments, belching out thick black smoke. Leonid’s hart slowed down. The strange noises in his mind went quiet. His nervous ticks disappeared. His whirling thoughts dissolved one by one, until his head was as clear and calm as the eye of a storm.
In his newfound composure, he sighted the guard on the roof and fired a short salvo. The man jerked backwards and disappeared from sight. He ran to the south through the bushes. Shouts of panic and harsh orders came from the camp. Soon the area would be crawling with stalkers.
The explosion shook the building on its foundations as it ripped through the northern wall. Oleg had been enjoying a quiet and peaceful morning sipping coffee at his carefully chosen look out point. Now he had to pick himself up from the floor. Cursing, he made his way to the open windows on the west side of the warehouse. He saw a number of other Monoliths running around, firing at the bushes on the hill. But without a firm commander in charge, nobody seemed inclined to form a squad and take out the enemy. Exactly what is wrong with this bunch of losers, Oleg thought to himself. They’ve been sitting on their ass for far too long. It’s about time someone woke them up. Look at them! They don’t even recognize a dispersal attack. They’re drawn from their defensive positions like lams to the slaughterhouse.
One of the stalkers suddenly fell to the ground, while on the other side of the loading platforms a grenade exploded, killing another two Stalkers. Jesus, at this rate there won’t be anybody left! Just what kind of psychopath did the Dealer send? Oleg didn’t waste anymore time standing in front of an open window. He knew the target of the attacker; it was time he took advantage of it. Sounds of gunfire and explosions followed him inside.
Everybody was looking for him on the hill, but Leonid was already inside the warehouse. A smell of mildew and rust hung in the dilapidated old building. The corridors were dimly lit and cluttered with old furniture. They were perfect. Taking cover behind a rusting file cabinet, he watched as the last of the stalkers ran out to the hill. Soon they would find the false trail he left behind for them to find. There was no need to kill them all, just to get them out of the way. Leonid quickly stepped away from the file cabinet and rushed into the corridor. Two flights of stairs later, he found himself on the second floor, across the room with closed windows. His combat instincts had completely taken over his defunct rational mind. He had slung his AK-74 over his shoulder. The rifle would be too large to quickly aim in these tight hallways. Instead, he used two 9 mm pistols that he’d bought cheap from the Dealer. They were older model Makarov’s, relics of the Cold War, but still useful. He crouched behind an overturned desk and put one gun under his arm. He picked up an ashtray from the desk, weighing it in his hand before throwing it in the stairwell.
It took a few seconds before the first of the guards poked his head out of the room to see what had made the noise. A moment later, his partner had the brains to stand directly behind him, trying to look over the first guard. It would take only one shot to kill them both. On the other hand, Leonid hadn’t had the chance to try his new guns, so he emptied both clips into the guards. The earsplitting report of the guns accompanied the bullets as they ripped through the guards, taking chunks out of the door, the doorsill and the men themselves. The force of the shots pushed their bodies against the wall behind them, splattering it with blood and brain tissue. Leonid suddenly realized he was still pulling the triggers even though both guns were empty. The only sound left was the dry click-click of the Makarovs.
As he looked around in a daze, he saw a figure huddled beside a large desk stacked with scientific equipment. From her silver tinted protective clothing, he recognized the scientist he came for. Her face was hidden behind a large gold colored visor. The overly careful scientists in the Zone used radiation suits that completely covered their body, so as to minimize any risk of contamination. They carried respiratory equipment to breathe filtered air, effectively creating their own little controlled environment. Leonid had always thought they looked like aliens.
Still in his violence-induced trance, he tried to grab the smaller woman, who started to cry and beg. He could only hear her voice from behind the reflecting visor, but there was something strange about it, something out of place. His mind began to loose its simplicity; the incoherent thoughts crawled back in, just like the little voices. Leonid tried to shake the madness out of his head, but the voice of the scientist droned on and on, wedging itself in his head. He felt as if something was trying to get out of the little closed vault buried deep in the mud of his contorted consciousness. Yet all he knew was that that vault was never to be opened. Never ever. He panicked. He grabbed his head and shouted:
‘Shut up! Shutupshutupshut…up! Just come with me. We have to get out of here. Quickly, before they come back. If we can get to my car we’re safe. We can sing again, we can dance. No, I mean, you have to tell me about…,’ he didn’t know what to say anymore. His mind lost grip on things. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He looked behind him. There were only the dead.
‘What?’ she sobbed, ‘Safe? Please, don’t kill me! I’m just a scientist; I’m not on anybody’s side. The Monoliths only offered me a place to experiment, that’s all. I don’t make any weapons or, or special equipment. I just wanted to get back in the zone! Please, don’t kill me…’ The rest was lost in pitiful crying and sobbing.
Leonid was taken by surprise. What the hell was she talking about? They had to run before the Monoliths came back and killed them both.
‘Come on!’ he urged and gripped her arm, trying to pull her along with him. He’d knock her out if he had to and drag her whining ass out. ‘If they find us here, we’re both dead.’
The scientist collapsed to a sobbing heap of misery on the floor. She looked as if she expected to die on the spot. ‘But why? I paid them to protect me!’
That came across Leonid’s torrent of mental chatter like a brick between the eyes. Her voice seemed to penetrate his thoughts like a needle and stuck there.
‘What do you mean, protect you? You are kidnapped! Don’t you want to get out?’
‘But the Monoliths would protect me, the Dealer said so,’ came the sniffling answer. And then, a second later: ‘He did, he really did.’
‘But he told me you were being held hostage!’
‘He...he lied! I’m not kidnapped, everything was fine until you showed up and…and killed them,’ she pointed to the two corpses staining the floor. She looked at Leonid through her tears. Yet all he saw was his own reflection in her visor distorted into a maniacal grin. It scared him. The air became too hot to breath, the walls seemed to be pressing inwards and a loud ringing echoed between his ears. He had to get out fast.
‘Never mind that, you’re coming with me. You have to tell me about Svetlana!’
The scientist suddenly stopped dead. Leonid felt her muscles tense underneath his grip. She wasn’t about to fall apart anymore.
‘Who is Svetlana? Where did she work? What was she doing?’ she demanded with a voice that could have commanded Spetnaz commando’s into suicide missions. At Leonid's hesitation she continued. ‘Look, my name is Gaby Fantoche, I’m a French researcher working for the international science team.’
She pulled out a wrinkled old photograph from a breast pocket. She held it up to him. It showed a large room full of scientific equipment. He could see a couple of scientists working at intricate machinery, but what it exactly was, Leonid couldn’t say. He wasn’t a scientist. Then she turned it around and Leonid's legs almost gave way beneath him.
It said:
The experiment worked at last! The final barrier is gone.
All possibilities now lie before us…
Dr. Svetlana Chudotvoretz
When his breath finally returned, Leonid couldn’t begin to put his excitement into words. He wanted to ask the scientist where she’d found this photograph, whether she knew anything about his sister. But at that moment the words simply failed him. It was also the moment that a gun was pressed into his neck.
It was almost unbelievable how long those two idiots kept talking. Oleg had planned on shooting them both as they tried to get away, but their conversation went on and on. He had to act now, before his comrades returned from their wild goose chase. Sneaking up on the rogue stalker had been childishly easy.
‘Please hold on to your guns. As long as you have empty guns in your hands you cannot grab a loaded one,’ he said to Leonid in a calm voice. ‘Excuse me for interrupting the drama, but I’m afraid it has endured long enough. If you’d be so kind as to step outside, so we can finish this business.’ He waved his gun in the direction of the door. To his aggravation, they both kept staring at him without moving a muscle.
‘Oleg, what the hell are you doing? Are you serious?’ demanded the woman.
‘My dear, I’m as serious as a heart attack. I’m sorry, but it seems you two are caught up in something bigger. Never mind though, you can rest assured that you’ll serve a greater purpose,’ answered Oleg patiently.
The smaller woman planted her hands on her hips. Her panic was long gone. ‘You’re supposed to protect me. What are you doing with that gun?’
‘Listen, I don’t have time for this. Let’s just say that I’m due for a promotion. If our leader Mikhail won’t organize the Monolith properly, then I’m simply forced to step in and take matters into my own hands. The Monoliths can easily become the most fearsome stalker clan in the entire Zone, if only someone showed them how it’s done. I get control, the Dealer gets good business, everybody’s happy.‘
It was a little bit more information then he had planned to share. It surprised him to find out how eager he was to tell them that he was the mastermind behind it all.
‘So you’ve arranged all this, just to have an excuse to take over from Mikhail, is that it?’ she retorted. ‘My protection, him, all the dead people? Everything was just to satisfy your power hunger?’
Oleg rolled his eyes. ‘Boshe moi! Are you sure you’re a scientist? Isn’t it obvious? Now, you can either walk out of here, or be carried. Which do you prefer?’
‘You can’t just –’
‘I’ll show you,’ he interrupted her and lashed out. The butt of his pistol struck her head and sent her flying through the room. She landed on top of the table stacked with scientific equipment amidst a spray of broken glass. She remained still for a few seconds before getting to her feet again.
‘Are we finally getting the picture?’ asked Oleg. The female scientist was shaking. Her visor was cracked and a large tear ran around the base of her hood. She took the useless thing off and for the first time Oleg and Leonid could see her face. Long black hair hung down in beautiful curls. She had a slim face beset with hazel eyes, blazing with anger. A small trickle of blood seeped from a cut above her right eyebrow. Oleg whistled between his teeth. Leonid screamed.
Startled, Oleg watched how the other man fell to his knees and started to babble incoherently. He heard him say ‘Svetlana’ over and over again.
‘I’ve found you! I’ve finally found you!’ Leonid exclaimed, between sobs and gasps.
‘What?’ said Oleg, ‘What are you talking about? Get up!’
He cocked the gun to stress his point, but there was no getting through the rambling. Leonid kept on pleading that she’d come with him and that they’d be happy again.
The woman regarded Leonid in silent amazement. The radical change in his behavior confused her. First he barged in, butchering the two stalkers that stayed with her and now he wanted something from her that she couldn’t even begin to understand. She knew she was probably in shock, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Oleg was about to put a very definite end to Leonid’s gibbering, when a disquieting thought occurred to him.
Isn’t it too quiet? he thought. The answer came to him in the exact same instant. There was nothing to be heard. No gunfire, no explosions, no running footsteps. Something’s wrong.
‘Where the hell is everybody?’ he whispered to no one in particular.
And right there did it enter his mind. It felt as if a six ton wrecking ball smashed right into his brains. The mental entity was just as solid and as heavy, but it was also oily and filthy. It squashed his thoughts, leaving only his basic instincts. Whatever invaded his mind wedged itself right behind his eyes. He could feel something looking through them. He wanted to moan in pain, but found himself unable to. He was still Oleg, still able to see, smell, hear, but simply not to think anymore. He saw how the other’s eyes shot frantically from side to side. Whatever was happening to him, it had happened to them also. His arm moved, although it wasn’t he who moved it. His pistol now pointed at the female scientist. Leonid dropped his guns and grabbed the AK-74 from his back. He stood up, shouldered the rifle and aimed it at Oleg. The scientist in turn pulled what looked like a huge FN High Power pistol out of her utility belt. Stiffly she raised the 9 mm gun until it was trained on Leonid's head.
Each and every one of them had lost control of their body. They stood like that for what seemed an eternity. Finally Oleg felt a change in the mind-thing. It started to leak into his own psyche. The sensation was repulsive. It was more emotional then real thought. Flaming hatred, razor sharp envy and a bitter disgust saturated what was left of his mind.
A single voice spoke to them in that obscure little room of the damned warehouse. It took some time before Oleg noticed that the voice consisted of their own three separate voices. The effect caused his stomach to knot.
‘I sense your fear,’ it said. ‘It is delighting.’
They stood like statues positioned in a deadly triangle. Nothing moved except their eyes.
‘You are not allowed any further,’ continued the triple voice, ‘You have come too far and know too much. The Zone must be preserved. I will destroy you all! Look how easy it is for me to kill you.’
Oleg’s vision blurred. He couldn’t see anymore and panic rose up from his gut to his chest. He would have ran for his life, except his legs wouldn’t budge. Then his vision cleared again. He was now looking through someone else’s eyes. He looked down from high. All the other Monoliths stood in a group outside on the loading platform. Oleg wanted to shout; to warn them that they should run away.
One of them raised his gun and shot another man right in the face. Blood, bone and brains rained over the group. Nobody moved. Another stalker took his rifle and fired a full salvo into his comrade’s stomach. A knife was drawn and slashed a throat. Slowly every stalker began to butcher his comrades. Oleg felt sick. A flood of relieve coursed through him when his vision blurred into his own again. From outside came the sounds of gunfire, but he wasn’t forced to watch anymore.
‘I will destroy you all,’ said their combined voices again. ‘I will stop you from exploring any further. Killing each other will be a fitting end to the invaders of our land. I will enjoy feeling you die.’
Oleg’s grip was tightened around his gun. He felt his finger trembling around the trigger. He put all his effort into resisting until sweat trickled down his forehead. It was useless. He might as well have tried to fly. His finger started to squeeze. The hammer of his pistol jerked back and forth. Things started to happen in a blur.
Leonid started to shake violently. A piercing scream erupted from the man as he suddenly fired. Instead of his head, the round went straight into Oleg’s hand. The 9 mm burst into pieces along with his hand. Pain exploded in his head as he sagged to his knees. Another shot was fired. Oleg’s right arm felt like it was stuck in molten lava. Through the stabbing pain he heard screaming. The mental pressure suddenly dissolved. His mind rushed back in like a tidal wave and Oleg realized it was his own voice screaming.
The bastard’s on the roof! he thought, as he could now recognize the influence of the Controller, a mutant life form native to the Zone, a being that could take over the minds of humans. Oleg’s hand hurt like merry hell, but he could deal with pain. It was something he could set aside. He reached for his utility belt with his left hand and flicked the switch of his psychotropic shield. A weak electric field running through a metal mesh built into the lining of the hood surrounding his cranium started to alternate like mad. It gave him a slight headache, but compared to the alternative, Oleg didn’t mind at all. As soon as it was activated he reached for his own rifle and sprayed the ceiling. Deafening salvo’s reverberated through the room, the thudding of the rifle’s recoil blending in with the pain from his bleeding stump. Plaster rained down on him as he gasped for air through clenched teeth. When he had fired his last bullet, the cold steel of a gun pressed into the back of his head. He froze.
Inside his head was a storm of fluttering half-finished thoughts, screaming voices and throbbing pain. Emotions flickered through his body, tugging at him from all sides. When nothing happened, the other stalker slowly turned his head. The man startled at the sight of him. There stood Leonid, blood trickling down a face in which the eyes were ablaze with hatred. Even though the bullet had torn a gash through his scalp, he had reloaded one of his Makarov’s in a split second and was holding it point blank to Oleg’s forehead. His lips moved, although no sound was heard in the utter silence. He was fighting a mental conflict, which would have a severe influence on Oleg’s further lifespan. On one hand was Svetlana. He couldn’t believe that he had finally found her. It had been like stepping into a waterfall of memories. He’d been so delighted he completely forgot about the stalker holding a gun to his head. On the other hand was this Oleg who had stepped between them. And then his mind had gone blank again. But this time it was different. There had been a new voice in his head. He didn’t like that voice and all the other voices didn’t like it either. Now Svetlana was gone and this treacherous pig was the only one left. He deserved to die. Still, Leonid was unable to move. His mouth was locked in a mantra of his sister’s name.
‘That was a Controller,’ Oleg said tentatively. It didn’t get through.
‘It made us do this,’ he continued. Leonid didn’t want to listen to Oleg. He kept on mumbling, mouthing her name over and over, shutting the other man out..
‘That freak used us.’ Oleg explained with a little more emphasis. ‘Whatever happened, it’s gone now. I don’t know if I hit it, but at least I scared it off.’
Leonid did not move, did not blink and did not put his gun down. A slight change came over Oleg’s face. A sly look appeared in his eyes, hardly visible.
‘Look, Svetlana is gone. She ran outside.’
At the mentioning of the name, Leonid stopped mumbling.
‘We can still get to her.’
Leonid tried to squeeze the trigger. The effort was lost in his mental turmoil and his finger kept motionless, the gun still hovering inches off Oleg’s face.
‘That Controller wanted us dead for some reason,’ Oleg continued, ‘I don’t know why, but your sister must have something to do with it, okay? It tried to kill us and it didn’t work. Now she’s out there somewhere and she’s an easy prey. If it can’t get to us, it’ll probably go after her.’
It was difficult to think about what Oleg had said; his head hurt both inside and out.
‘You’ll die for this,’ he said.
‘Why?’ said Oleg with faked surprise, ‘Didn’t I give you your sister back? You should be grateful. Without me, you would never have found her.’
‘You’re lying.’
‘If I’m lying I’m dying, right? And before you pull that trigger you should know I can find her again. We have to be fast though. With every minute her chances of survival are decreasing. You do want to find her again, don’t you?’
His hands started to tremble. He would have to kill Oleg quickly before he tried anything. But what about Svetlana? Where was she? It was just so hard to think!
Finally Leonid lowered his gun, although he kept it at the ready. Oleg sighed with much relief and stood up. He swayed a little while he took off his belt and tied it around his right wrist to stop the bleeding. Then he turned to Leonid and pointed to the woman’s FN lying on the floor.
‘Look, that’s her gun. My guess is that the Controller somehow lost control over us and she ran away in panic. Who can blame her? But that Controller hasn’t come back for you, which means it went after her instead. It won’t take long. Chances are she’s already under its influence again. It’ll try to kill her by making her commit suicide, plain and simple. There is only one place that’s suited to do that. It’s a gravity concentration, not far from here. Five, maybe six minutes on foot. If we take my car we can beat her to it and intercept her. What do you say?’
‘Where is it?’ demanded Leonid, trying to think through the flurry.
‘If I tell, you won’t need me anymore, get it? I’m not stupid, I’ll tell you along the way and as soon as you find her, I’m gone. Deal?’
Indecisiveness tore his heart apart. He wanted to blow this cheating, two-faced traitor’s brains out so badly, but he did need him. With the greatest reluctance he nodded. He knew the man’s story was partly, if not all, a lie. There was simply no other option.
He motioned Oleg to lead the way. Walking behind him, out of the dank warehouse and towards Oleg’s Niva, he couldn’t see the grin on the other man’s face.
What a sap! Oleg thought, As soon as I find that stupid science bitch, she and this idiot are dead! Looks like this stupid plan is coming together after all. Maybe I’ll even pay that son of a bitch Dealer a visit.
They were driving Oleg’s weathered Niva down a service road running parallel with the railway. The sandy road posed no challenge to the off road vehicle and they made good time. Leonid sat behind the wheel as Oleg’s hand prevented him from driving. Instead he gave directions and considered his options. Leonid hadn’t allowed him to pick up his weapons of course. That much sanity still survived in the nutcase. But all he had to do was wait for the right moment to grab the gun. About half a kilometer down the road, they turned right and headed to the center of the industrial area. On the left at the far end of the road stood a pair of multi-storied office buildings. Leonid put his foot down and sped the car along the road. He was looking intently out the window to see if he could spot what he believed to be his long lost sister. They could not have been more then fifty meters from the building, when he let out a shriek which terrified Oleg. Trying to run through the wreckage of overturned or burned out cars was a silver clad figure with long black hair. Her movements were jerky and uncoördinated. She bumped into cars repeatedly, but each time she picked herself up and kept going. There was no doubt about it, she was under the influence of the Controller again.
Leonid steered the Niva onto the sidewalk in front of the alley between the two office buildings to block off the woman’s path. The scientist stopped to see the two stalkers get out of the car. Then she turned clumsily, but quickly and ran inside. Leonid ran after her, but Oleg regarded the two buildings for a second. In the alley between them was an area of contorted shapes, twisted and black. The walls were cracked and in some places, large chunks seemed pulled out of the concrete. A strange sensation of unbalance hung in the air. Oleg knew what it was. There’s the gravity concentration, he thought. But why didn’t she just jump off the first building she came across? Or slit her own throat? Why walking all the way here? He knew why. It was a trap. The scientist was bait and they were prey.
It didn’t take much brains to figure where they’d gone, the roof of course. He walked up the five stairs or so as fast as he could, but the loss of blood from his hand and the shock had taken their toll. He arrived out of breath and with little electric lights dancing in front of his eyes. The view of the flat roof tilted and swayed. He tried to take cover behind a large air conditioning unit with buckling knees. When he was half way, his legs gave up on him and he fell, grazing his outstretched left hand. Cursing through clenched teeth he waited for the pain to subside. The breeze on top of the building helped a little. When he was about to move again, an iron grip closed around his throat.
At first he panicked, but the strength of the grip held him in place like a vise. It lifted him up and at least Oleg was able to stand on his legs again. On the edge of his vision he saw a silver arm strung around his neck. He felt a woman’s body pressed to his back and it did not give him the pleasure he would have experienced otherwise. He didn’t have any weapons and he was too weak to struggle. The woman started to drag him slowly towards the edge of the roof. It dawned on Oleg that this might end up very unfortunate for him. It wouldn’t be the height that would kill him; the building wasn’t that high. It was the fact that he was dragged towards the alley.
When Leonid arrived on the roof, his sister was nowhere in sight. The roof was littered with air-conditioning units, chimneys, elevator engine rooms. Knowing she must be there somewhere, he circled around. Back down, where he had gotten out of the car, the voices had started screaming again and this time it had really hurt. The little vault in the deep of his mind had started to vibrate and he could feel the pressure from within it. Something wanted out bad. It was still closed, but it certainly wasn’t buried anymore. That place where they’d stopped had something to do with it. Leonid had run past the alley without looking. He didn’t know why it should be such a big issue with the voices. He would have run past any alley without looking. Fortunately the voices had quieted down once he was past it and inside the building.
There was no sign of Svetlana anywhere and it puzzled him. Why was she running away from him? Well, she had probably been looking for him also. Probably she was just a little shocked. It happens.
He had almost completed his circle and reached the stairway again, when he finally found her. She was as beautiful as ever. It irritated him that the other stalker was standing in front of her, almost blocking her off entirely. But her pretty face still looked as lovely as ever. A delightful euphoria descended upon him. The warm feeling told him how everything would be all right again. Except that Oleg kept yelling at him.
It disturbed him. Leonid shook his head and the ecstasy faded somewhat. He could half hear the shouts and curses coming from the other stalker.
‘Wake up, you moron!’
He didn’t want to listen. He only wanted to take Svetlana and run away.
‘Shoot her!’
Everything would be all right. Just as long as they could get out of here.
‘She trying to throw me in the fucking gravity concentration!’’
Leonid did notice that they moved away from him. He did not understand. He walked towards them, but they kept shuffling towards the edge of the roof. There was something wrong with that, something wrong down there in the alley. It pierced through his pink haze and excited the black vault. It was large and shiny now, humming with barely contained energy. Suddenly Oleg got through. His voice was hoarse from screaming.
‘Shoot the damn bitch now! What are you waiting for, you idiot? Don’t you see she’s trying to kill me? Shoot her!’
Leonid couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Shoot Svetlana? What the hell was that maniac talking about? She was his sister! No, he just mixed things up. That happened all the time.
Oleg tried to wriggle free, but the grip around his throat was unforgiving. It tightened even more and blocked off his air supply until he kept still again. Then the woman started whispering.
‘He won’t shoot.’
Oleg felt goosebumps coming up all over his body. The ragged voice in his ear sounded flat and lifeless, like a corpse talking.
‘I have seen it in his mind. He thinks I am his sister. First I will throw you in. Then I will lure him and push him over the edge. And finally, I’ll make this woman jump in after you. You will all die. Your precious machine won’t protect you.’
Oleg looked around in blind panic. If he moved, the woman’s grip would choke him. If he grabbed hold of something, she’d do the same. His only chance lay in the featherbrain holding the only gun left. Oh God, he thought. I’m going to die.
‘This woman went too far,’ came the dead voice again. ‘She found things she shouldn’t have. Things that should remained buried. The Zone must not be allowed to end. We cannot survive in your world.’
Oleg’s mind raced and raved. They had only a few meters to go. He was out of options. Fuck the things that the stupid bitch had found. There was no way he could…
‘The photograph!’ he shrieked.
Leonid’s mind shuddered. It woke up enough to be curious. When Oleg saw Leonid’s eyes focus for a second, he knew he’d found his last straw.
‘The photograph of your sister. It’s real, it exists! This bitch is not your sister, only the photograph is real. If she jumps off that edge you’ll lose the only possibility of finding her again.’
A tidal wave of acid doubt filled Leonid’s gut. It rose through his throat and corroded his mind. What was that about a photograph? – All possibilities now lie before us - What was that? What was happening? The black vault started to crack, he could feel it. He pinched the bridge of his nose as hard as he could to shake the feeling. - The last barrier is gone - Come on! Pull it together. They would be safe soon. If only she stopped backing away. If they took three more steps, they would fall over the edge.
‘What are you waiting for?!’ came a voice crammed with panic. ‘If you don’t kill this fraud, you will lose your sister!’
The vault didn’t just open, it blew its door right through his skull. Leonid’s world broke and then shattered like safety glass. He slammed his hands to the sides of his head and squeezed to keep his aching brains inside. The memories of his sister clawed their way up his tormented thoughts. He relived how she was sucked into what he would later learn to be a gravity concentration. How she had screamed until her death when she was squashed like a watermelon under a steamroller. She was flattened into a slab of scarlet mush, her eyes looking at him until they popped. His mind snapped. He fired.
The first thing Oleg realized was that he was still thinking. Although he couldn’t remember closing them, his eyes were shut tight. He dared not open them. He first tried to find out if he felt any pain. So far, so good. The pressure around his throat was gone, which was definitely a step in the right direction. He opened one eye carefully. No pearly gates, only Leonid standing motionless. One arm was stretched towards Oleg holding the pistol. A thin puff of grey smoke trailed from the muzzle. The guy didn’t even breathe, as far as Oleg could tell. He cautiously turned around, readying himself for anything he might encounter.
The French scientist lay sprawled on the ground behind him, eyes wide and staring into infinity. A tiny black hole, he guessed about nine millimeter in diameter, had appeared in the dead center of her forehead. A large crimson streak, stretched out over the rooftop from the back of her skull. Oleg sighed with mad relief. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
In fact, he was so relieved that he decided it had been enough for one day. After all, the Monoliths were wiped out anyway. Kind of useless to try and take command of a bunch of corpses. But he could still sell their guns and equipment, making a nice profit for himself. Maybe he could start up his own clan of stalkers. You know, do it right from the start. Even that crazy idiot couldn’t do any harm. Hell, he looked like he’d gone catatonic anyway.
Yep, that was a close one, he thought to himself. But it looks like things turned out all right after all. Too bad for her though. Especially considering that she saw everything happening from inside her own head. That must’ve been about the worst trip you can have, unable to stop yourself. Oh well, isn’t that just the way things go. Sometimes you are just plain fucked.
‘Why did you kill her?’ came a strange voice from behind. His heart jumped. He spun around to see Leonid standing behind him, the Makarov trained on Oleg’s chest. As he saw the man’s eyes he knew he was in trouble. They were radiating pure, out of control madness.
Fear closed in on him like a pack of sharks. He tried to distract Leonid, to ask him what he meant, but his voice was so hoarse from screaming that nothing came out.
‘I know you killed her,’ continued Leonid. His voice was hollow, as if from a dream. ‘You must have done it. You were standing right next to her.’ He took one step forward. His pistol now pressed against Oleg’s heart.
‘But I don’t even have a g –‘ the rest was lost in the gunshot.
Leonid tried to swim to the surface. Blurred images and muffled sounds revolved around him. Stinging emotions and clinging feelings of panic were pulling him down. He struggled, kicked and clawed until he broke free. His vision cleared again, his thoughts calmed to the usual tangle and so did the voices. He had the feeling that there was something in the back of his mind, memories sinking away below the mud, out of his reach. It was like waking up from a very nasty nightmare. It felt both unnerving and reassuring.
He had no idea where he was, how he got there or how long he had been there. His mind had gone blank again. It happened. Looking down, he saw two strangers, a man and a woman, lying on the ground. They were quite dead. One was shot in the chest, the other in the head. A gun lay on the ground beside them. The man wore the ragged garb of a stalker, the woman a scientist’s silver overall. Something was sticking out of her breast pocket, but before Leonid could examine it closer, he noticed something move on top of the other building. A strange creature scurried across the rooftop. It must have been of human origin, although its body was malformed and it moved on all fours. In spite of the wind, it was naked except some filthy bandages. Its eyes protruded as if they could pop out any second.
When it saw Leonid looking it stopped and regarded the stalker in return. The thing tilted its head as if listening for something and suddenly Leonid’s head ached. It felt as if something was scratching at his mind, trying to get in like a cat scratching at the door. The voices started screaming at it in panic. Leonid felt that the thing outside his mind was afraid of the voices. The scratching sensation faded away.
They kept looking at each other for some time, until the creature apparently decided to go its own way. Leonid took one last look at the bodies. Then he looked behind him. There was nothing there and it was much more comfortable. The sinking memories were all gone now. It was time to go. With any luck, he could still cover a lot of ground looking for Svetlana before dark.
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