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Snork Bait

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  01:58:05  7 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

Message edited by:
snorkbait
10/07/2009 13:53:47
Messages: 1081
Parts XII and XIII

I caught up with Wolf as he made his way through camp, offering last minute advice to less experienced Stalkers regarding what to take and what to leave for later retrieval.

‘You won’t need all your equipment,’ he was saying to one nervous-looking young man. ‘Leave your heavier stuff behind. You don’t need all your food and sleeping bag, for example. Stow it in a shelter, log it with Olga – she’s taking inventory – and get it later if you need it.’

He turned away from the rookie Stalker.

‘Snorkbait,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. ‘You worried about your equipment, too?’

I smiled. ‘More like the lack of it,’ I admitted. ‘But I am still concerned about being selected as a sniper.’

Wolf opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off.

‘I know why I’ve been picked. I don’t have a problem with it that way – I’m probably a better shot than ninety per cent of people in The Zone. What I’m worried about is this rifle. Wolf…I’ve not even fired it once. I don’t know how it will behave, how good the ammo Sidorovich sold me is…anything.’

Wolf watched me, his expression unreadable.

‘Look,’ I continued. ‘One man is already dead because of me. You can’t deny thinking that. I know everyone blames me, even though I wasn’t the one to send him.’

Wolf stiffened, his eyes hardening. But he remained silent.

‘I’m not looking to place blame. If I hadn’t turned up, alerted the base…if there hadn’t been that murder, whoever did it, Petya would never have gone out there unarmed, pretending to be me. A lot of things came into play, and…’ I ran a hand through my hair. ‘I just don’t want to fire that weapon and have something go wrong. Wolf, what if I miss and some other guy gets killed? I don’t want to be blamed for any more deaths. It’s bad enough I won’t be able to stay around here for a while. I don’t need a fucking posse on my trail.’

Wolf sighed. ‘Two shots, against that tree over there,’ he said, pointing to a large oak about one hundred and twenty metres outside the western end of the camp. ‘Yashka! Move out of the way!’ he called to the guard. Yashka scurried to one side and crouched behind the fence, and I heard boots grit to a halt behind me. The sentry looked on, waiting to continue his rounds.

I moved onto even ground at the side of the track and crouched. ‘Test fire!’ I yelled, drawing everyone’s attention. I thumbed the safety to the Off position. ‘Test fire!’

I raised the weapon into the aim, looking down the scope. There was a natural abrasion in the bark, revealing lighter wood beneath. It would serve as a makeshift bulls-eye. I breathed easily, rhythmically, and closed my right eye – the eye at the scope – before counting to five and opening it again. The aim had not changed. I was good to go.
Please God don’t let the breach explode on this piece of shit, I thought.
My finger slid over the trigger. I exhaled, and fired once.

I was oblivious to the crack of the shot, my focus entirely on spotting where the round went. No blemish appeared on the trunk, but I did register a puff of earth in the hill behind as the round went low and to the left.

I adjusted the sights and repeated the firing process. The second round bit into wood, but still too low. Another adjustment.

‘Two more,’ I said.

‘Go ahead,’ Wolf nodded, standing impassive with his hands behind his back.

I fired my third shot, hitting close enough to the mark as to make no difference. I then fired the fourth and final round. The aim was no different, the wind was negligible. It should have struck more or less the same spot, but it flew high and slightly to the right.

‘Uneven charges,’ I said. ‘All I need.’

Wolf patted me on the shoulder. ‘It’ll get the job done,’ he said. ‘You’ll probably be far less than that distance away by the time you fire anyway. That bandit up there is as good as dead.’

‘I really hope you’re right, Wolf,’ I said, and went to reload my one and only mag.

XIII

Wolf led us out of camp, cutting through the trees and bushes to the road. Glancing back as I started to ascend the rise, it seemed odd to see the place so empty, yet it was the absence of noise that made the scene more unsettling. It made the place feel practically deserted, a home for ghosts and memories rather than living people. The thought caused a shiver down my spine.

‘You okay?’ Vasya said, keeping pace beside me.

‘Yeah. The camp just seemed strange.’

He smiled. ‘Won’t be for long. And I’ll bet there are more new arrivals by the time we get back. Wolf’s reinforcements and newcomers, like you.’

‘Keep quiet back there,’ one of the masked veterans – I still couldn’t tell them apart – hissed, the words made almost into mush by the respirator. Vasya flipped him the bird and afforded me a sidelong glance, rolling his eyes.

Once by the road, we kept to the verge so as to eliminate noise and broke into a trot, quickly reaching the portakabin by the road bridge. No one glanced over to where Petya’s body presumably still lay. No one cursed the cats or made a move to avenge their former comrade, though a couple of expressions tautened, mouths became grim lines. Perhaps revenge against the creatures would come later. Perhaps all I had done was give the animals a temporary reprieve. Or perhaps people had already started to move on, despite Wolf’s warning. I’d just have to wait and see. In any case, I was satisfied that I had done the right thing, even if it had made me rather unpopular and robbed me of the chance to adjust to The Zone in relative safety. One thing was for sure, though; I needed to stop alienating people. Sidorovich had been bad enough. The way I was going, I’d end up with more enemies than friends…and this was the kind of place where you didn’t need many enemies.

We reached the piled construction materials and Wolf held up a clenched fist, dropping to one knee. The more experienced Stalkers spread out, falling into an all-round defence. The newbies remained huddled in a group, awaiting instructions, heads swivelling and bobbing around so much they looked like a bunch of alarmed meerkats.

Vasya and I moved out, our boots hitting the cracked, lumpy tarmac as we walked side by side over the bridge.

We’re just out scavenging, I thought. We’re just a couple of Stalkers in The Zone, looking for artefacts, making our way north, minding our own business. Relax. Make it look natural. You never know who’s watching.

And while I was telling myself that, I could see and hear the rest of the group first checking the tunnel, then entering en masse. Boots clattered on what concrete remained under there, whispers echoed up, voices accompanied by the low moan and whistle of the wind in the trees. Vasya began whistling to cover the noise from beneath our feet. I recognized the tune; it was the same one as the young sentry had been humming and singing.

We reached the other end of the bridge and Vasya indicated a single-storey warehouse-type structure on our quarter-left that was half-hidden by a rise. Beyond it stood a factory of some sort, its sides showing patches of rust. Sheets of cladding had already fallen away and there were holes in the roofs of factory and warehouse alike.
‘Once we’re past this tree, start heading towards the warehouse. There’s another tunnel not far from here, under the railway line. We don’t use it a lot because of anomalies and critters – if it’s not one, it’s the other or sometimes both – but sometimes you can find artefacts in there, if you’re lucky,’ he said.

I nodded, having already spotted the bus stop about ninety metres ahead and on the other side of the road, its rusting sign still intact save for the bullet hole near the outside edge. A dirt track ran away from it and headed down the slope towards what could only be the Autopark. I cast a brief glance towards the Bandit encampment as we passed the tree Vasya had mentioned and began to cut towards the warehouse, but nothing moved down there; no one seemed to be up and about. Maybe Wolf had been right about these guys. Maybe we would catch them still in their sleeping bags. I didn’t believe for a second that we actually would, but…plan for the worst, hope for the best, and assume nothing.

‘D’you think they spotted us?’ I asked.

Vasya shrugged. ‘Probably. Nothing much misses their attention, for all Wolf’s banter. Just because we didn’t see them –’

‘Yeah. Doesn’t mean they didn’t see us.’ We walked on, entering a natural gulley between the structure and the crest of the rise, getting close to the point where we’d dive back across the road. ‘What do they do? Normally, I mean.’

‘What do you think? They’re Bandits,’ he muttered. ‘They see us, look us over. We look like raggedy bastards, they leave us be. It’s not worth their while. If we looked too well-equipped, like Syova and Snapper…they’d leave us be then, too. They wouldn’t even bother with a closer look. We’d be too hard. They want soft targets. Anyway, they don’t usually mess with traffic up here. Too much risk of the Military at the rail bridge coming down to clear the lot out if a firefight starts.’ He turned his head, pretending to be looking at me as he spoke but actually concentrating on what was beyond my right shoulder. ‘Right. We’re clear. Let’s go.’

Almost doubling back on ourselves, we scuttled across the road, using the shelter as cover. So far so good. Vasya raised his left arm to his mouth and fished in his jacket pocket for something else.

‘Wolf. We’re at the bus stop. Over,’ he said, retrieving an earpiece and slipping the speaker into his ear.

Vasya. This is Wolf. Acknowledged. Go to chatter net frequency and notify when you’re in position. Out.

‘Game time,’ he grinned, slipping the jack into the exposed side of the PDA.

‘Not got a spare earphone, have you?’ I said.

He shook his head. ‘Sorry.’

‘Not that you’d give me one anyway, eh?’

‘What’s that mean?’

‘Well, you know. Petya and all.’

Vasya clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Petya was a twat. I didn’t like him much. He did have friends, a lot of them, but I wasn’t one. I’m not glad he’s dead, and I’m not happy about you not killing the fucking thing that got him – I can’t think of anything worse than having my body being left to be eaten, apart from maybe being alive when they’re eating you – but…this is The Zone. Shit happens. If he wanted a long and happy life, he shouldn’t have come. Same for the rest of us. Besides, no one made him fill in for you. I told Wolf that, if anything, we ought to kick your arse out of camp and let you take your own chances.’

‘Nice. Thanks for that,’ I said.

‘It’s nothing personal, Snorkbait,’ he shrugged. ‘But no one owes you anything here. Now…go. Get into position, and don’t fuck up.’

I looked over his shoulder, back towards the bridge. Down in the defile, dark figures moved amid the vegetation, carefully avoiding entering areas of clear ground as they stalked forward. And the more I looked, the more I became aware of a problem.

‘Vasya…how’re you meant to get into position? You’re meant to be on the other side of the track. There’s no cover.’

He smiled and tipped a wink. ‘Old Afghan trick,’ he said. ‘Just worry about yourself. Now, check your frequency and go. Good luck.’

‘Same to you,’ I said, and crept to the edge of the shelter, kneeling and bobbing my head around the side, the movement fast, a quick out-and-in, letting the brain absorb the images. I closed my eyes, recalling what I had seen, the lie of the land, the cover. My possible fire-points seemed clear. I needed enough elevation for the primary takedown, a clear field of vision to take out the secondary target or targets if required, and enough cover to keep myself concealed and safe. I also needed to be far enough away to avoid detection, but close enough so that a quick sprint would take me into the compound. As always, though, the best position would be a trade-off.

I moved back out onto the road. Lying prone, I began crabbing along, keeping the movements slow and making sure I stayed low to the ground, eyes always on the target. Still no movement down there, no sign I had been seen. Hopefully, their lookout, if he had seen us at all, had taken a look, decided we were no threat, and had switched off.

Once there was cover between me and the Autopark once again, I crawled forward, weapon cradled in my arms. The grass and bushes would have to be enough to conceal me now, and I longed for something to go over my jumper and jeans. An armoured suit, fatigues…even a DPM smock-top would be better than what I had. I gave myself a mental slagging off. Jeans. Timberlands. What the fuck had I been thinking? Dallying like a civvy dickhead instead of thinking soldier, thinking survival. What a wanker! No wonder these guys seemed to think I was a bit of a joke.

There was only one thing to do now, though: Show them what I was really made of. Tales of daring-do and the past were all well and good in their place, but that place wasn’t here. I had known that, but it had apparently taken a while for me to accept or realize the full truth of it. This was truly a different world. I kept forgetting that basic fact. The problem was, forgetting would eventually get me killed.

I crawling forward, keeping in cover. I’d already spotted my target, up on the parapet, wandering around once in a while, looking without really seeing while he puffed away on a cigarette. Poor bastard would never know what had hit him, with any luck.

Runner Three, in position. Over,’ Vasya’s voice muttered over the PDA, just loud enough to me to hear.

Hammer acknowledges, Runner Three,’ Wolf replied. ‘What can you see? Over.’

A pause, during which time I reached my station and waited for Vasya to give his sit-rep, raising the L.85 into the aim to make sure I could take the shot before lowering it, and my body, to the ground. My back and breastbone cracked loudly as I hyperextended, and I whinged at myself again for my lack of physical conditioning.

I have one target, window my right. Window my left clear. Over.’

Shot status, Runner Three. Over.’

Shot is green. Repeat, green. Over.’

Shot is green. Acknowledged, Runner Three. Update if status changes. Hammer out.

I checked my target again. He was visible only from mid-thigh up and was about seventy metres away. Allowing for the vagaries on the ammo and weapon, I picked a spot just above the guy’s navel as my aiming point. Once content, I tucked my PDA under my chin and lowered my head, speaking into the ground.

‘Runner Four, in position. One target first floor. Shot status green, repeat green. Over.’

Hammer acknowledges, Runner Four. Shot is green. Update if status changes. Over,’ Wolf said. ‘Runners One and Two, get into position. Hammer and Anvil, move up. Runners Three and Four provide overwatch. Out.

Tense minutes followed. From the PDA came sounds of grunts, pants of exertion, even a whispered – and rapidly cut off – prayer. Yet from around me came only the sounds of nature – or as close to nature as The Zone could provide. I could hear the low pulsing drone of an anomaly somewhere to my right. The wind blew gently through the leaves and grasses, creating movement enough to act as a screen – provided a body was moving stealthily enough in the first place. From over in the Autopark, someone began playing a harmonica with more enthusiasm than skill, the strains and slips clear even across that distance. From elsewhere over there, someone yelled something that was probably ‘Shut the fuck up’. Away in The Zone, a couple of dogs yapped and snarled from relatively close by; something screamed, the sound accompanied by that flat double-whoosh! that I had heard before; in the far distance, a machine-gun rattled briefly and was followed by a hoarse human shout. From the lack of comms chatter, all this was just business as usual, I guessed.

Runner One, in position. Two targets. Shot status double-green. Over,’ Syova said. This was quickly followed by Wolf’s acknowledgment and Olga’s sit-rep. Five minutes later, Wolf told us Hammer was in position. Snapper soon followed by saying Anvil was ready.

Hammer to Runners. Sit-reps, over.’

Runner One, double green.

Runner Two, green.’

Runner Three, green.

I raised the rifle into the aim, drew my bead on the target.

‘Runner Four, green,’ I said, thumbing the safety off. I felt a wave of cold detachment fall over me. Emotions became disengaged, cut loose from normal thought processes. This was it. It was him or me, all or nothing. The target was now just that. Not a man, not a human being, not a person who probably had family, friends, commitments back in the world. He was a target to be hit, nothing more, no different to the Figure Eights and Hun’s Heads I’d practiced on time after time for so long. The people sitting around in those buildings were no different to the targets in the Killing House. Get in, make them leak, job done. Not easy, but also nothing to bust your brains over. Not yet, anyway.

Hammer acknowledges. All call-signs will execute on my mark. Standby. Standby. Three…Two…One…

Stop, stop, stop! Runner Three red. Repeat, red!

Acknowledged, Runner Three. All call-signs standby.

We waited for what seemed like an age and I began to shake as the adrenaline spike faded away. I focused on my breathing, taking deep breaths to kick-start the system again, fighting to keep emotions from returning.

Hammer to Runner Three, status? Over,’ Wolf finally said.

Runner Three. Red. Repe… Wait out. Standby, Hammer.’ A long
pause. ‘Status is green. Repeat, Runner Three status is green. Over.’

Wolf quickly acknowledged and went around the others. Everything was fine. It all rested on me.

Hammer to Runner Four, status? Over.’

I watched my target through the sights. ‘Runner Four, status gree–’ I broke off. The target had just shifted slightly, his body turning fully toward me. Had I been spotted? If he raised his weapon, I was just going to drop him, no questions asked.

He lifted a leg, lowered it again. It took me a moment to realize he’d just farted. As I watched, he shifted again.

Don’t you turn away, you bastard. Don’t you dare, I thought, keeping the reticule fixed firmly just above his navel.

My luck was in. He moved, presumably to get away from the stink of his own arse, but only by a couple of feet. If anything, it made my shot easier.

Runner Four, report. Over.’

‘Runner Four green repeat green, over,’ I said, too quickly. I expected to be asked to confirm, but…

Hammer acknowledges,’ came the equally rapid reply. ‘Execute on my mark. Standby, standby. Three…two…one…Mark!

I squeezed the trigger. The three other snipers did the same. Syova fired twice, as did Olga. Vasya’s Mosin Nagant barked away to my right. There were no follow-up shots; their targets had presumably dropped dead. Mine hadn’t. My round had gone low. A split second after I’d fired, a puff of grey dust had kicked off the edge of the parapet, the bullet having ricocheted off the wedge-shaped concrete cap on the wall. My target was now doubled over, leaning against the wall, screaming in an increasingly high tone. The bullet had bounced, skimming off the shaped surface to hit him in the groin. He tried to move, but slid off the wall and out of sight before I could recover to get off a second round.

I became aware of figures charging towards the buildings from my right. A soft thump-plop sounded and a small, black object was propelled into the centre of the Autopark just as the excited, alarmed shouts from within grew louder. Presumably, the Bandits were yelling ‘Contact!’ at each other and calling for information while trying to remember their drills – assuming they had any. If the noise was anything to go by, there was nothing but total confusion inside the camp – a crucible of chaos that the explosion from the grenade only added to, causing fresh cries of death and agony to arise, the noise overlaying the sound of my second and third shots as I let off a double-tap at a bandit who emerged around a large bush and tried to back away, taking pot-shots seemingly at random. Both my rounds took struck home and he crumpled, unmoving.

Hammer to Runners One, Two, and Four. Move up.’

Rising, I flicked the shot selector to fully auto and ran forward. Gunshots and more explosions rang out in the courtyard and outbuildings. From the parapet, where my target had been, something tumbled end over end. Something that looked suspiciously like a vodka bottle with a lit rag in the end. The Molotov cocktail landed, causing shouts of alarm from the attackers – calls that turned frantic as a larger source of danger became apparent. Whatever the cause, it exploded, sending a blast of heat and flame rolling upwards and outwards, searing the air. Fresh screams of agony tore into the deceptively pleasant morning as urgent voices gibbered over the comms link.

Fuel tank! Watch the fucking fuel tank!’, ’Petrol bomb!’, ‘Fire! He’s on fire!’, ‘Put him out! Roll!’, ‘Someone get that fucker! Kill him!’ This last was followed by the harsh clatter of an AK-74su on full-auto.

I blocked out the comms traffic and kept running forward. Two figures broke from the Autopark and began scrambling up the track, desperate to get away. One was quickly cut down but the other seemed to have a charmed life; rounds fell around him but none hit.

I dropped to my knee and raised the L.85, letting off a quick burst at the retreating figure.

He fell, but managed to rise again to limp for safety. I raised the rifle again but The Zone had a worse fate in store for the wounded Bandit: a couple of dogs, alarmed and excited by the gunfire, shouting and stench of blood and burnt flesh, quickly homed in on the flailing figure. The snapping, snarling, yelping creatures took him down quickly and, as I watched, something resembling a shaggy wolf streaked towards the screaming man to add its own jaws to the melee.

I fired another five rounds, making thirteen expended from a total of thirty, and was gratified to hear a few yelps. One dog limped hurriedly away, only to be set upon by some new arrivals. This truly was a dog-eat-dog world.

Satisfied, I rose and ran toward the courtyard, though the only action there now consisted of occasional pot-shots and a solitary shotgun blast that was followed by the guttural snarling-groan of a dying hound.
  02:58:24  7 October 2009
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
10/07/2009 10:49:32
Messages: 4290
Hmm...
I could smell the grass, dirt and tree bark at Runner four's position.
That's always a good sign
---

Edit:
And...

---QUOTATION---
We reached the piled construction materials and Wolf held up a clenched fist, dropping to one knee. The more experienced Stalkers spread out, falling into an all-round defence. The newbies remained huddled in a group, awaiting instructions, heads swivelling and bobbing around so much they looked like a bunch of alarmed meerkats.
---END QUOTATION---



http://img40.imageshack.us/img40/3439/wolfraid004.jpg
  17:00:42  14 October 2009
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XIV - Autopark aftermath

DJ & -=grunt=-: Cheers for the comments.

All: Thanks for the patience, guys.

*****

Inside the Autopark fires raged wherever they had been able to take hold. Rivulets of burning fuel snaked across the concrete that remained, only halting when they hit wider cracks or earth. Two pairs of Stalkers were hurriedly trying to put out the smaller fires by throwing whatever came to hand over and around the flames, be it dirt, fallen building masonry, or lumps of concrete kicked free from the ground, while a third pair alternately gaped at and attempted to tackle the blaze that was consuming an old Niva that had been dumped beside the eastern range of buildings. Pieces of the old car were strewn around the clearing and the brickwork beside the burning hulk had already been scorched black. The Stalkers seemed uncertain as to whether they should bother continuing to fight the blaze or leave it to burn itself out.

Over near the wall of the western range, Olga and Syova attended to the injured. Bandages and medikits, syringes and powders were swiftly and expertly being put to use. Bodies of bandits sprawled where they had fallen in the battle. All had been killed, none were merely injured. How many had died in the explosions was one question. How many more had lain pleading for help before being killed was another.

Beyond the walls, the dogs continued to snarl and whine in excitement, the stench of fresh blood and roasted flesh enticing them with the promise of a feast.

‘Hurry up, guys. We need to get some sort of defence going and move on,’ Wolf said to the fire control teams and strode over to where the casualties were being worked on, his body language clearly communicating his authority, his aura of command and control. I can cope, it’s not a disaster; move on and do something useful, it said. I wondered how much of his cool ‘can-do’ attitude was real, and how much was show. In any case, he had got people dealing with the situation rather than standing around gawking at the aftermath…as I was.

A couple of moans and groans rose from the casualties and I took a few steps in that direction. I knew sod all about fire-fighting, but I did know a bit about combat first-aid. The smell of smoke, blood, and cordite that already hung in the air was augmented here by a stench of seared flesh strong enough to make you gag.

Running footsteps from behind me announced Vasya’s arrival.

‘Fuck me,’ he gasped, coming to a sudden halt.

Wolf’s head snapped round. ‘Don’t just stand there, you couple of fucking morons! Do something!’ He turned away, then slowly turned back. ‘Actually…Vasya, you do something. Take inventory of the bodies and leave the usable stuff as loot, then dump the stiffs on the back of that trailer outside the fence and get some dirt over the worst of the blood in here. We don’t need those damn hounds getting in and causing problems. They’re excited enough as it is.’ He turned cold, angry eyes on me. ‘You, Snorkbait, get yourself over here and check out your handiwork.’

I glanced at Vasya, noticing his eyes widen slightly in warning as he set about his duties, and crossed to where Wolf was standing, watching Olga work. As I approached, I noticed the casualty’s right knee rising and falling in a feeble kicking motion, as if he was trying to run away from the pain. The movements were growing slower, weaker. Whoever it was down there, he was dying.

‘Maks,’ Wolf said, pointing. ‘I never knew his real family name, nor even his patronymic – we don’t really have a lot of use for that sort of bullshit around here. Sometimes you might tell a very close friend…but….’ He sighed, perhaps realizing that he was starting to ramble. ‘Maks. My friend. A good man. Experienced. He came through the Faction Wars without so much as a scratch. And now look at him.’ Wolf reached out and placed a hand on Olga’s shoulder. She almost flinched, but held steady. ‘Olga?’

The woman inclined her head, not looking at Wolf. A barely perceptible shake. Maks, the dying man, was mumbling softly, repeating the same few words, his voice rising when the pain began to overwhelm the soothing effect of the drugs before falling back to a bare whisper as he fought his agony down again.

‘Do it, Olga. Help him.’

Olga’s head dropped, her arm twitching toward the ampule remaining in the medikit, though her hand refused the task of picking it up. Her shoulders shook in silent sobs as she ran a sooty, bloody hand over her face. Maks began to babble again, his voice rising and gathering pace as it raced towards another pain-filled scream. Finally, Olga had had enough. She took the ampule, prepared the morphine – a fatal dose, considering that she must have already administered the maximum safe amount – and stabbed the needle into exposed skin. A moment later, the injured man’s murmurs became slower, fainter. The kicking faltered, the movement slowing to little more than a tremble. Eventually, it stopped.

‘Farewell, brother,’ Wolf whispered. He turned to me, head down…and when his head came up again, he turned on me, grabbing me by the throat, forcing me back until I slammed into the side of a flatbed truck. My breath left my lungs in a rush and Wolf brought a knee sharply into my groin. Already winded, the grunt the blow forced from me brought forth a thin stream of bile. I collapsed, wheezing, and hit my forehead against a loose brick, gashing the skin.

‘Useless fucker!’ Wolf spat. ‘One job. That’s all you had to do. One…fucking…job. “Shoot the bandit” I said.’ He stepped forward, kicking me in the ribs. Winded yet again, I sprawled on the floor, gasping for air that never seemed to be enough. ‘All you had to do was kill one guy. All you had to do was hit the bastard in the head or even the chest, but no! Mr Invincible Special Forces Hero suddenly can’t hit a static target from inside a hundred yards, with a scope, and make a clean kill!’ Wolf stepped forward, aiming a kick at my head, but Vasya stepped in, holding the taller man back only with great effort.

‘He told you, Wolf,’ he said. ‘He told you twice that you shouldn’t rely on him with that piece of shit rifle of his. You should have listened.’

Wolf turned on him, ranting in a fierce torrent of heavy Slavic consonants and syllables that I had no hope of following. I could make out barely one word in twenty, and considered that to be doing well. The fire teams had stopped work to look on as Wolf and Vasya squared off. No one made a move to help me, though one or two looked over, unconcerned. Mostly, though, they watched the two respected Stalkers draw ever closer to fighting.

In the end, Olga stood and stepped between the men, turning tearfully to Wolf.

‘Listen to Vasya,’ she said. ‘He’s right; we’re going to need everyone we have. Even him.’ She jerked her head in my direction. ‘Fighting each other won’t help Maks or Andriy now; it’ll only take two more men out of the real fight. Besides, Vadik getting himself killed wasn’t Snorkbait’s fault. He’s not to blame for all of it.’ She grimaced, indicating Maks. ‘Only this.’

‘I’m sorry for what happened, too. But these things happen in battle, Wolf, and kicking Snorkbait to death won't help. Come on, man; you know all this better than any of us,’ Vasya said. ‘Look, if Olga can get past it…’

A tired, resigned expression crossed Wolf’s face and he walked away, the heavy tread of his footsteps receding into the two-storey structure and clumping up stairs, and Vasya came over to help me up, checking my ribs when I grimaced at the throb of dull pain. The other Stalkers went back about their duties. Syova finished up and closed his medikit, muttering something to Olga as he stood and followed Wolf.

Something seemed familiar about the figure Syova had walked away from, and I looked around. When the name ‘Andriy’ had been mentioned, I’d assumed they’d meant the one on Snapper’s team, the one nicknamed ‘Shortarse’. But…

‘Is that –?’ I asked. ‘Where’s… No, it can’t be.’

Vasya nodded. ‘Yeah, that’s Andriy Pickpocket,’ he said, softly.

‘You sure?’

Vasya smiled lop-sidedly. ‘Maks and Vadik already stretched out, everyone else busy or off sulking or whatever it is Wolf’s doing.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s not me, it’s not you. That only leaves one other, doesn’t it? Anyway, I’d know that little son of a bitch anywhere.’

I shuffled over to the prostrate figure, Vasya following not far behind. Olga had wandered a little way off and was smoking a cigarette. I noticed how her hands shook as she watched me kneel next to Andriy’s unmoving form.

His face was a mask of red, seared, broken flesh, yellowish heat-blisters, and black char. His clothes were equally damaged and part of his trousers and jacket sleeve appeared to have melded with his skin. The stench that rose from him was horrendous, like how I guessed old, going-over pork would smell if cooked with a flamethrower.

‘Fucking hell, Andriy,’ I whispered to the body. ‘I’m sorry, mate.’

Andriy opened his eyes. Well, eye. The one on the least damaged side was bloodshot but still mostly blue. It rolled and fixed blearily on my face. The eye on the other side of his face cracked open slightly, audibly, gummily, and a dull white, cooked jelly rolled and twitched beneath the blackened lids.

‘Sssnorrr…’ he whispered, his cracked lips bleeding even with that minimal effort.

‘Don’t try to speak, mate,’ I said, and swallowed. ‘Andriy, I don’t know if you can understand me, but I’m sorry. I fucked up.’ I paused, thinking. ‘Again.’

The ‘good’ eye blinked slowly. I might have imagined it, but it seemed he was trying to smile. ‘Sss ookay,’ he managed. His eye drifted closed again.

I stood. ‘“It’s okay”? What’s he mean “it’s okay”? What’s “okay” about it?’

‘It’s the morphine,’ Olga said. ‘He’s full of it.’

‘So why not finish him like you did Maks?’

She flinched. ‘Because he’s not – wasn’t – my lover. Maks was. Besides, we never expected the little bastard to last as long as he has. He just won’t die.’

I hadn’t got much past Maks being her lover, and now I understood her reaction, why Wolf had been so tender. And that allowed me to understand part of why Wolf had reacted to me as he had. I also saw clearly how much it must have cost Olga, emotionally, to then stand up for me and why her intervention had ended the stand-off. Tears blurred my vision. For Andriy, for Maks, for Olga and what she now had to live with…everything.

‘I’m sorry, Olga,’ I said. ‘I know an apology’s not enough, but it’s what I have.’

She snorted. ‘You have more than just an apology; you have your life,’ she said, her expression fierce.

‘It’s yours if you want it,’ I mumbled.

She tensed, and from the corner of my eye I noticed Vasya watching her closely, clearly expecting her to take up the offer.

Olga exhaled and barked a short, humourless laugh. ‘Keep your worthless existence, Stalker,’ she spat. ‘I think you might suffer more if I let you live.’

She turned on her heel and strode briskly away to where the fire teams were now standing, watching the Niva burn itself out against the scorched, heat-cracked wall.

‘You’re a lucky one,’ Vasya said. ‘I really thought she’d take you as fair exchange, even though she knows we need you. You want to be careful, saying stuff like that. The Zone’s no place for noble gestures.’

‘It wasn’t a gesture,’ I said. ‘These guys expected me to do a job. Whether I accepted it unwillingly or not, no matter how many times I told Wolf, I still accepted it in the end.’ I paused as footsteps sounded on the roof above me and a dead bandit’s body was rolled over the ledge to land in the scrub brushes beneath. ‘I’ve been in The Zone for just over a day, Vasya. One day, and already six people are dead or dying because of me. The saddest thing of all is, three of them are men I should have protected and been able to call friend: Petya, Maks, and Andriy.’

‘Snorky…it’s done. Should you have made sure of the shot? Yes, but your weapon was unreliable. Should Wolf have listened and assigned someone else to the task? Again, yes. And looking at that Niva over there, maybe the Molotov just finished what Roma’s grenade-launcher started. Anyway, like I said to Wolf, these things happen. Such is war. And make no mistake, a war is what we are in every day, in this place.’

‘I know. But knowing “these things happen” doesn’t make me feel better.’

He chuckled. ‘It’s not meant to,’ he said. ‘But you can’t beat yourself up over it, either. Move on, and do it now, before you get careless and The Zone takes you.’

‘Hey,’ Syova called, leaning over the ledge. ‘When you’re done philosophizing down there, Vasya, there’s still work to be done. Tell those bastards over there to get back to it, as well. Two groups: one works, the other’s on picket. Snorkbait, Wolf says he wants to see you.’ A pause. ‘Don’t worry. He’s calmer now.’

‘Okay, thanks,’ I said, and Vasya slapped me on the arm, smiling.

‘See? It’s all going to be alright. See you later, man,’ he said. ‘I guess now I go to play with dead bodies.’

*

Wolf stood in the centre of a small storage area at the top of the stairs. Crates and cases and metal boxes were stacked along the wall next to a ladder that led into an attic space.

‘Snorkbait,’ he said as I entered. ‘How’s the ribs?’

There was little concern and even less contrition in his voice. He was asking more for form than anything else.

‘I’ll live,’ I said. ‘Nothing broken. Just a bit of bruising.’ Another ache to add to the collection, I thought, and tried not to smile. ‘Look, I’m sorry that Maks is dead, Wolf. I’m sorry about Andriy, too. But…’

‘Yes, I know. You told me about the L.85, warned me not to rely on it. Okay. And I shouldn’t have lost it like that earlier. Not in front on the others, at least.’

‘What the hell happened, Wolf?’ I asked. ‘Even with me missing the shot, I don’t get how that Niva came to explode even with the Molotov cocktail being thrown.’

Wolf shrugged. ‘Hardly matters, does it? Whether the fuel had been laid down as part of the bandit defences as a sort of trap, or whether it was the grenade Roman launched that ruptured the tank and caused the leak, or whether it was stray rounds, the result is the same. When the Molotov landed, the fuel caught fire. Andriy was closest to where the Molotov landed and got the worst of it. Whatever was in the bottle – vodka, petrol, some combination of both – his left side got covered when the bottle smashed. He just…’ He raised his arms, shaking his hands in a Whoosh! gesture. ‘Maks was unlucky. He was caught by the Niva explosion. Shrapnel and flames from the blast did for him. As for Vadik…he was a rookie and died a rookie’s death. He went charging round a corner rather than sticking to the methodical sweep. He got isolated, and ran across our line of fire into that of a bandit we’d already pinned down.’ He shook his head. ‘Anyway, Vadik got filled with holes and the bandit managed to make a run for it. He went through those bushes to the north.’

‘That’s the guy I dropped, then,’ I said. ‘He came out through some dead bush. I put two rounds into him.’

‘At least you did something right, then,’ he said, dryly. ‘But I’m curious: why could you hit this bandit, but not your main target?’

I shrugged. ‘Better charge loads, I suppose. I told you the ammo Sidorovich sold me had uneven charges. Cheap shit’s probably not even worth a fifth of what he charged. Until I can get better ammo, or at least redistribute the powder, recap the rounds I have, and re-sight, I might as well just fucking guess where to aim.’

‘Hm,’ Wolf mumbled, stroking his chin. ‘Anyway, at least the kill you did make means you get something, at least.’

‘How do you mean?’ I frowned.

‘It works this way,’ he said. ‘You make a kill on a team job, you get the loot. All of it. Equipment, clothing, weapons, food…the lot. But you have to make the kill. Part of why I wanted you as a sniper – why I insisted you take one of the sniper’s roles – was to guarantee you something from the job. Kill the sentry, get his gear. I know you need it.’ He looked me up and down, again taking in the tatty, torn jeans and jumper, the lack of protective gear. ‘But you fucked up and now Aleksey gets it.’

‘I hit the target. He dropped.’

‘But he didn’t die, did he?’ Wolf snapped. ‘No, because despite the wound you’d given him, he was still alive to light and throw the thing that caused two people to die.’

‘Andriy P’s not dead,’ I put in.

Yet. No one survives the sort of burns he’s received. Not out here, at least. He’ll be lucky if he survives the night.’ Wolf paused, reflecting. ‘Or perhaps that should be “unlucky”. Anyway, the loot. Aleksey was able to get up there and finish your guy off, otherwise who knows how many more Molotovs might have been thrown? There are half a dozen more out there, prepared and just waiting to be lit up. They’re part of our defensive arsenal, now. In any case, Aleksey gets that guy’s stuff. As for the one you killed, you better go get that body inside before the dogs take off with it.’

‘I shot another one, too, Wolf,’ I said.

‘Really? Would that be the one the dogs finished off?’

‘Yeah, but I hit him. I would have been the one to put him down for good if not for those mutts.’

‘Perhaps,’ Wolf said. ‘I saw what happened because I was the one that got the other guy.’ He sighed. ‘Technically, the guy you shot was taken by The Zone – by which I mean the dogs; we say someone was “taken by The Zone” when someone dies other than by human agency – so his stuff is up for grabs. By anyone.’ He smiled without mirth. ‘Of course, those dogs might not see it that way. If you want to debate it with them, be my guest. Now, how about helping Vasya with those bodies?'
  01:06:28  15 October 2009
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
10/15/2009 1:27:05
Messages: 4290
Ok then...


---QUOTATION---

Wolf reached out and placed a hand on Olga’s shoulder. She almost flinched, but held steady. ‘Olga?’

The woman inclined her head, not looking at Wolf. A barely perceptible shake.

---END QUOTATION---



http://img88.imageshack.us/img88/8885/olga001.jpg

ED:
OK, i cant bite my tongue any longer.
NATOguns - you very obviously have missed each and every point of the story. I mean, come on, you have the man himself explain the code he lives by and tell why he did what he did. And you're whining because he doesn't fit you average popcorn-hero profile? Please...
  15:51:29  19 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XV

‘Everything okay?’ Vasya asked as I came out of the building.

I shrugged. ‘Guess so. He told me to give you a hand.’

‘Not tempted to kick his ass, then?’

I took a deep breath. ‘And have you lot kick seven shades of shit out of me? No thanks. Old Ma Taylor didn’t raise a stupid kid.’

Vasya chuckled. ‘Come on. Let’s get these bastards onto the trailer. Just dump their crap where they lie. I’m sure everyone knows who they killed and where. They normally do. Wolf will sort out any arguments, if there are any.’

We went out to retrieve the body of the guy I’d killed first. As yet, none of the dogs had sniffed out this particular prize. Presumably they were too busy with the other guy and the corpse of their wounded mate. If I got the chance, I’d have to go and check out the other bandit’s body later. A lot depended on if or when the dogs moved away.

‘He made me a sniper as a favour, you know,’ I said, grabbing the corpse’s feet while Vasya slung the bandit’s weapon over his shoulder. ‘He said he wanted to guarantee me some loot.’

‘Yeah,’ Vasya grunted as he seized the body under the arms and lifted. ‘He shouldn’t have taken the risk, though. Any one of the other guys could have done your job. Snapper, for example. Even with iron sights, he could have hit that bandit wanker in the left eye and got him in the right before he knew he’d even been hit once. Wolf knew that and still chose you and your L.85. He fucked up.’

I fucked up by not making sure of the kill. I knew what the ammo was like. I should have put more rounds down. Or insisted Wolf find someone else.’

We struggled back through the bushes, into the courtyard.

‘Okay. Have it your way. Beat yourself up with it if you want. I’m just saying there were more things than one at play and Wolf took a bad option. Typical Wolf, though: always trying to help a newcomer. This time it backfired. Now stop going on about it.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘But everyone else seems to blame me and me alone for what happened. Why don’t you?’

‘Who says I don’t? Like I said before, you should have made sure of the kill. You could have refused the job full-stop, though that would have cost you any respect you might have had anyway. All I’m really saying is that you shouldn’t have been in the sniper’s position to fuck it up. Maybe, given everything, you should have been left behind to guard the village. You’d have missed out on loot, but…’ He stopped. ‘Okay, here will do. We’ll strip him of what you want and chuck the rest onto the pile. Let the arsehole Death Truck crew pick over the rest.’

Together, we stripped the corpse. His name, according to the PDA info I downloaded, had been Valentin Ratchet – ‘Probably some kind of mechanic, here or back in the Big Land’, Vasya reckoned – and he’d known the location of two stashes: one in Cordon, the other over in Dark Valley. His jacket was too small and had ragged holes where my bullets had entered and exited; his tracksuit bottoms were in an even worse state than my jeans; the jumper he wore reeked of old sweat and drying blood, and his once-white tennis shoes were tattered and worn out. One of them was even laced up with a thin strip of rusty wire. His weapon – an AK-74 – seemed to be in worse shape than my L.85 had been when I’d got it from Sidorovich.

‘Ten…twenty..thirty…one, two, three, four roubles,’ Vasya said, emptying Val’s pockets and handing over the looted cash. ‘You want to keep the jacket and weapon. Get them back to Sidorovich. He can probably patch them up and sell them on again. You might get a hundred or so for the jacket if you’re lucky, maybe a bit more for the AK.’

‘I’m not welcome at Sidorovich’s.’

‘Hm. Yeah. I forgot what a popular guy you’ve become. You must be so proud.’

I grimaced and dumped the jacket with the bandit’s backpack. ‘How come they’re lugging these things around, Vasya? I mean, you guys left your kit back at camp. Why isn’t their stuff stowed?’

He laughed. ‘Are you kidding? These vultures know they can’t trust each other with a dead cat, let alone anything valuable. One guy might say “Yeah, no worries, I’ll look after your pack while you’re on patrol”, and the next thing, he’s gone and so is all your stuff.’

‘Even though they were meant to be defending this place for their boss?’

‘Yeah. Duty and responsibility mean shit to these guys. It’s why they need a complete fucking psychopath to organize them, scare them into some sort of order. Someone gets bored, or decides to steal everything and run, all they do is radio for a replacement…and there are always replacements, like Wolf said in the briefing.’ He shook his head. ‘Sometimes it seems like the outside world must be chock-full of assholes, these days.’

I thought back to DevChick and what she had said about ‘other contacts’. Had she meant organised criminal groups? Could I have paid for passage into The Zone and been labelled a Bandit as a result, even working for them against these Loners? I didn’t think I’d have stuck around long enough for all that, but who knew what sort of tactics the Bandit leadership employed to ensure some semblance of loyalty in their new recruits, whether or not they had started out as ‘assholes’?

Once Val’s body had been tossed onto the trailer, we set about sorting out the other bodies and loot, stripping off usable masks, items of clothing, and backpacks, stowing them with recovered weapons of various types, from Makarov pistols to sawn-off shotguns and occasional heavier weaponry and grenades. The PDAs were left on top of the piles, the various styles of holdall unopened and the contents unknown.

‘It’s like Christmas when you go looting,’ Vasya said. ‘You never know what kind of surprise you’ll get. One guy opened a pack and found nothing but shit. Proper, stinking, shit. Imagine! Talk about a load of old crap! Why this Stalker had been carting shit around is a mystery to this day. Perhaps it was a punishment or something.’

Around us, the group of workers tried to rig up some type of defences for the force left behind. Syova, Olga, Snapper and one of the others had taken lookout roles: Syova on the first floor roof, Snapper in the attic of the eastern range, an unknown Stalker in one of the offices beside the entrance, and Olga in the attic above Wolf’s Sulking Room, as I had come to think of it. As I watched, three of the worker guys started pushing an old flatbed truck out of the garage while another steered.

‘Lend a hand over here!’ one of them called. ‘This bitch must be made of lead!’

A couple of the Stalkers started laughing. ‘At least you won’t get a Chernobyl Tan if it is,’ another replied.

We set to, heaving and straining to get the behemoth rolling.

‘Christ, won’t the engine start, or something?’ a Stalker said. ‘Where’s a mechanic when you need one?’

‘Huh. I’ve think I’ve fucked up again,’ I said. ‘I might have shot him.’

Brief laughter from the others, albeit grudgingly.

Eventually, we managed to position the truck so it was wedged between the garage block and the western range, whatever it had once been: offices, a showroom, stores, whatever. A couple of the Stalkers then set about letting the air out of the tyres before crawling underneath to block the remaining gaps with wood, corrugated iron sheeting, and more lumps of concrete and loose brick. The rest of us went about other duties. Vasya and I got on with clearing the bodies, one guy secured the doorways into the garage that might have allowed dogs or bandits to flank the defences that the others were putting into place, while the others set about tipping a rusting tractor over so that all but the narrowest of passages to the north-eastern track were blocked by it and the burnt-out Niva. Crates and more rubble filled the gaps that remained, offering ideal cover. With lookouts stationed in both attics and eventual reinforcements at the perimeter, nothing and no one would be sneaking in from Dark Valley and entering the compound easily, while Syova and the other lookout insured against surprise attack from the north – assuming any Bandit counter-attack could make it past the military outpost.

Four people could hold this place as it stood, now that the rudimentary defences were in place. Six would be optimal. I guessed that, once the reinforcements arrived, there’d be ten to twelve people stationed here on a semi-permanent basis observing some kind of rota system. The defences would also be significantly improved fairly quickly. And all with the blessing, however temporary, of the Military.

Wolf emerged onto the rooftop and called for everyone’s attention.

‘Good work, guys,’ he said. ‘I’ve just been in contact with Fox over at the farm. According to his scouts, the bandits at the gatehouse seem completely unaware that anything’s gone down here. It seems we caught these bastards completely by surprise. None of them thought to radio for help or give a warning.’

A couple of smiles and sighs of relief greeted the news.

‘I’ve also finalised the team I’ll be taking north. Besides myself, the attack force to join with Fox and his men will consist of Syova, Snapper, Oleg, Sergiy and Aleksey. Due to the casualties we’ve suffered, I’m sending for replacements from the village to help defend this place. I know there are only four people back there, so I’ve decided to send someone back with the loot. They will then stay in the village as part of the defence squad while two of the picket currently there double-time it up here. I’ve already notified Svetlana and Aleksander to stand ready. They will leave as soon as Snorkbait arrives.’

All eyes seemed to turn to me and I felt myself go red. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised: not only was I the obvious choice, given my lack of armour and other equipment, but it was also as clear a snub as Wolf could deliver. Vasya had been right; Wolf had made an error. He now needed to atone for that in the eyes of his people and restore confidence not only in him, but in the other members of the team. That meant I had to be the sacrificial lamb. The blame for Andriy, for Maks, for Petya had to be solely mine; I was not to be trusted with the duty of defending the newly-claimed position. Instead, I was being retired behind the lines. What was worse, judging from some of the looks and sly, knowing smiles being cast in my direction, was that I was being replaced by a woman. Or perhaps it was Aleksander they didn’t particularly value. Either way, it was clear that my status had slipped below the nothing it had previously been.

‘Snorkbait,’ Wolf called. ‘This is not the snub it appears to be. I’m giving you control of our loot. It’s a responsibility, a sign of my trust and that of all of us. Take it as that.’

Head down, cheeks burning with shame, I managed a brief nod. Wolf could dress it up however he liked. The fact was, after relieving me of any responsibility for defending the Autopark, Vasya had taken a small, not-so-subtle step away from my side. That message had been crystal clear even if Wolf’s was not: I was persona non grata, an unwanted man. And even Vasya – whom I had initially assumed disliked me on general principle but had since at least made a show of tolerance, if not open friendship – no longer felt that he could be seen to support me at all. I was tainted goods…and no one wanted that taint to spread.

‘Okay. Those of you on the attack team, tell Snorkbait what you want to keep, where to store it, and what you want to sell, then form in the courtyard and be ready to leave in ten minutes. Vasya, you’re in command of the defence squad here. Picket them as you see fit. You’ll be shorthanded until the reserves arrive. Again, give Snorkbait your stuff and instructions, but wait until my team is done. Clear?’

‘Clear,’ Vasya replied, briskly.

‘Okay people. Let’s make a move. We’ve been here too damn long already.’
  01:16:23  23 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

Message edited by:
snorkbait
10/23/2009 1:45:48
Messages: 1081
Part XVI

Bit short. It's really half the original chapter, but the second part's gone tricky on me. Should have it sorted to post Saturday/Sunday. Have this for now.

*****

I left the Autopark fifteen minutes after Wolf and his group had departed, weighed down by three rucksacks full of miscellaneous loot: ammo, spare food, weapons…you name it. My PDA was filled with instructions, inventories, and a download of whose kit was where from Olga, and I felt a sudden affinity with the pack mules I’d seen being used in Africa and other remote parts of the world as I trudged slowly up the track that led to the metalled road.

My anomaly detector began beeping steadily, getting faster as I drew nearer to the source of the disturbance. A low roaring sound filled my ears, something like the rumble of a motorway heard at a medium distance – a sound all too familiar to me, considering that I had grown up less than half a mile from the M6 and my school had been much, much closer. In fact, now I came to think on it, the open area between the motorway and the estate I’d lived on from the age of eight to when I’d left to join the army wasn’t too dissimilar to The Zone. It had been nothing like the same size, naturally – the whole of that area was dwarfed even by this part of Cordon – but there had been grassland, woods, pools of brackish water… It had been a good place for a boy to grow up, with plenty of fun and adventure to be had not too far off the doorstep without that much danger. When I’d last gone back to visit an old friend, just about the only kid I’d grown up with that had stuck around the place as an adult, the woods that had once been filled with the sound of childish games had been eerily quiet, the small park that marked the boundary of heath and estate had gone.

‘Kids don’t go over there now,’ my old friend had said. ‘Parents won’t let them in case there’s anyone lurking about, and they say the pools are too dangerous. Someone might drown. The park got so it was a magnet for vandals and druggies. People didn’t dare take their kids over, so the council pulled it down. Kids around here hardly go out to play like we used to. And then people wonder why they’re all fat little bastards, these days.’

What made you think of that, Stevie-boy? I wondered, taking a few steps to the right and skirting the waiting anomaly. Had it been nothing more than a memory of how superficially similar some of my childhood haunts had been to The Zone? Or was it something else, hints at some suppressed, almost lost memory of being the outcast, an outsider, the unwanted boy who had now matured into the unwanted man?

Because that is how I had been as a boy. Unwanted, alone, always on the outside looking in, even when allowed into the groups and games. It had never bothered me, particularly. I was happy enough with my own company. My parents had worried and fretted that I wasn’t ‘normal’, but I was a loner by nature. Obviously, once puberty kicked in and the other kids were being invited to parties or were all hanging out together, wandering around and doing whatever it was they did, I felt more excluded than ever before and part of me wanted in, but…
And then in the army, never really joining in with the other lads, never going off on whatever dickhead escapade they had planned, never wanting to hit the town every Friday and Saturday night for a punch-up with the locals followed by a kebab and a shag out of whichever slapper seemed up for it. None of that bullshit interested me in the slightest. I had some friends, and good ones, but I think even they viewed me as a little…odd. Not a joiner, not rowdy or raucous. By nature, the quiet man. The grey man. Then I had gone on Selection, passing at the second time of asking…and I’d found there were guys just like me, after all. I fitted in because I was reliable, dependable, but knew when to keep myself to myself or fuck off and mind my own business. I’d found my niche. I was a misfit among misfits, and that alone made the bonds between us all the stronger.

I frowned at my train of thought as I reached the bus stop and headed back towards the village. It seemed an odd time to go rambling down Memory Lane.

I paused for a moment, taking time to rebalance the gear on my back, and even though I had carried loads like this before, the sheer weight caused me to stoop and stagger. In the end, the staggering became so drastic that I had no choice but to go with it and keep walking, weapon cradled, eyes scanning for stalking wildlife.

Two words came back to haunt me: Reliable. Dependable. I had been these things, once. Right now, that felt like a lifetime ago. As for being a misfit among misfits, it seemed like I should have been right at home here, but for some reason, I wasn’t.

Perhaps I was being too hard on myself: new surroundings, new beginnings, lost kit, bunted from pillar to post, never having time to just sort myself out and tune in. But maybe not. Maybe I’d been in the civvie world for too long; I’d lost the edge, gone soft. Whatever you wanted to call it. Once upon a time, no one would have dreamed of retiring me to some REMF (rear-echelon mother-fucker) camp. Once, Wolf wouldn’t have got the drop on me. In fact, Wolf would have been the one on the floor, nursing bruised bollocks – at the very least. Once, Corporal Stephen Taylor, 22 SAS – a man who had once traded an infantry sergeant’s stripes for the chance to start over as a Trooper in Special Forces – would have taken that bandit’s brain stem out with a nice, clean shot and the fucker would have dropped dead before his eyes had registered the muzzle-flash.

So what had changed? The state of the L.85 and ammo aside, why had everything turned out so differently?

I trudged across the bridge, watching closely as I spotted movement off to my quarter-left. A cat broke from cover and began loping toward me, its large head bobbing as it sniffed the air, getting my scent. I flicked the safety on the L.85. I couldn’t run, not without dumping all the crap I was carrying, and I couldn’t outrun a cat, in any case. All I’d do is give it a bit of exercise and get it excited. If it attacked, I’d shoot it. If it attacked.

It sniffed, sniffed…and gave that strangulated sound that was neither roar nor miaow. It turned away to strike a parallel course, and I turned my head as much as I could, trying to check ahead and behind at the same time in case the animal wasn’t working alone. It turned towards me again, watching me openly, matching my pace. Was this the same cat from earlier? Who could tell. I could see now just how wrong this specimen was, as not only was it far larger than the domestic moggies they had supposedly spawned from, but its fur was patchy and ragged, long and thick in some places, little more than wisps in others. What looked like lesions marked the flank and legs, and the thought crossed my mind that I might be doing it a favour by killing it.

I tried to raise the rifle into the aim, but my arms seemed to grow heavy. The muscles ached and the joints groaned. My arms fell back into their old position, the rifle dropping back into the cradled position.

That’s not why you’re here. That’s not why you came, a voice said in my mind; a voice not entirely my own, not entirely anything, and not really a voice as I understood it; more a…presence, something. I didn’t know and couldn’t understand just what it was or was not, but it was there.

The cat won’t attack, it continued. It’s the same one, you know. It knows you, it remembers. It would attack if necessary, but it doesn’t want you or need you, not with those fresh bodies not too far away and a full belly. That’s a secret of The Zone: live in harmony and The Zone might let you live; it all depends on her purpose. But live in discord, and The Zone will surely kill you.

I didn’t know if I could believe that ‘voice’ or the feelings it caused, but I did know there was no danger from the cat: as I watched out of the corner of my eye, it paused to sniff the trunk of a large tree, then rubbed its cheek against the rough bark and began to wash itself even as it watched me leave to go about my business.

I moved on, and that strange voice-that-wasn’t faded away. Odd. But what was even more odd was that I wasn’t even remotely curious about it. It had been there, now it was gone. So what?

My mind turned back to its earlier musing. What was it about me that had changed? Why was I no longer the man I used to be?

I shrugged, inwardly. I was going to be stuck in camp for hours. No doubt I’d have plenty of time for reflection. Having been binned from Autopark, I doubted if the guys in the village would be in a rush to offer me much responsibility. In all probability, they’d want me to sit around and do as little as possible, just in case I found ways to screw up even more and get them killed. After that… Well, after that would come the relief, and if Wolf was to be believed, that would be the best time to make myself very scarce indeed. Not that I had reason to stick around, anyway.
  03:00:27  23 October 2009
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
10/23/2009 23:14:44
Messages: 4290

---QUOTATION---
... the open area between the motorway and the estate I’d lived on from the age of eight to when I’d left to join the army wasn’t too dissimilar to The Zone. /.../ there had been grassland, woods, pools of brackish water… It had been a good place for a boy to grow up, with plenty of fun and adventure to be had not too far off the doorstep without that much danger.
---END QUOTATION---



ed: adjusted the pic a little after first posting: http://img27.imageshack.us/img27/2239/liltaylor030.jpg)
  00:39:49  7 November 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
XVII

Better late than never. Other parts being tidied up now. Lost most of last week due to g/f being off work.

*****

‘About time you turned up. Where you been, screwing a snork?’ the Stalker at the western end of the village said, watching as I made my unsteady way down-slope through the trees. It was the same guy who had tried to demonstrate his wit earlier, when I’d asked after Andriy. He just didn’t seem able to control his mouth, but I wasn’t inclined to get involved in another battle of wits. I’d been raised not to mock the disabled.

‘Gimme a hand?’ I gasped, leaning on a fence post while I got my breath back.

‘No.’

‘Well, thanks. Remind me to return the favour sometime.’

The Stalker curled his lip and spoke into his PDA. ‘Sveta. Stop blowing Aleks or whatever it is you’re doing back there and ship out. Your “replacement” has arrived.’ He looked back at me. ‘As for you, you get sentry duty once you’ve sorted everyone’s stuff out. Better get to it. We don’t want to be short-handed if someone decides to pay us a visit.’ He waited until I’d got moving again before saying over his shoulder: ‘And get some coffee going. I presume you can do that, or will you manage to fuck that up, too?’

I raised a middle finger and shuffled off into camp. Svetlana and Aleksander moved out from beside the fire-pit, performing final weapons-checks as they ambled along the road, both bending slightly at the waist. As we passed, Svetlana held my eyes in a watchful, sidelong stare, her pale grey eyes large and emotionless in her impassive face. A lock of long black hair streamed out from under the hood of her trenchcoat and whipped around her face until she tucked it back where it belonged. It reminded of my ex, the way her hair had also been whipped around by the wind at the end of our second date, just as we were trying to go for our first kiss. Tendrils of hair had blown around her face, teased into whips by the high wind. I hadn’t been able to get close and she’d laughed, making jokes about her hair not liking me and how she must look like Medusa. It had been then that I’d known I was in love with her, even though the relationship was still new, not yet even blossoming. If anyone had told me it was possible to know something like so early, I’d have called them a liar. But I’d known. There’d been something about her that just…clicked; the look in her eyes, on her face, the lame joke…it was a million things and none of them, ridiculous to some but never to me. A perfect, innocent moment lost in the maelstrom of time.

The memory and half-remembered feelings raised a smile. Svetlana didn’t smile back. On her right, Aleksander turned his head away to hawk phlegm and gob it out as we drew level. My smile faded. After we’d passed, I heard Svetlana giving her companion a hard time about the grolly, her tone light but not entirely jokey. He mumbled a response and she tittered her amusement. A hand slapped against leather, not hard, just an ‘Oh, you!’ playful gesture, and he sniggered.

I shrugged. Let them take the piss if they wanted. I knew I hadn’t covered myself in glory since reaching the village, but when had I ever had time to take it easy, settle in? I’d been reacting to one thing after another ever since entering the country, let alone the rookies’ village. First it had been DevChick turning up out of the blue – and I intended to get proper answers about that if or when I saw her again – then there had been our passage to The Zone, the effort to save her life once we’d arrived, the military flapping over a murder that I may or may not have committed (though I was certain of my innocence; if need be and given half a chance, I’d have to get to the bottom of that, too), Petya, and the Autopark assault. Even then, despite me being left to carry the can for what had gone wrong there, Wolf himself had been against me joining the raid so soon, saying I was underprepared and needed rest. That had been just yesterday. Now, I had been written off as worse than useless. The aches and pains of yesterday were still with me and had been magnified by recent events. My lack of conditioning had never been more evident. I wasn’t a porker by any means, but my fitness levels hadn’t just lost their edge, the whole fucking blade was gone.

‘You’re being too hard on yourself again,’ I muttered as I gathered a couple of bits of wood for the fire and drew water from the butt. ‘You’re fit enough for normal life. You’re just nowhere near as fit as you were.’

It was true enough. I was also several years older than I had been when I’d last made use of my military skills. I’d thought that I’d get by on what I had, allowing life in The Zone to bring out whatever else I might need, given that it was by definition impossible to prepare yourself properly for the unknown. I had deluded myself into thinking I was fitter than I actually was, and was learning better the hard way.

I got the fire going in the pit and began to make the ‘coffee’ – actually a mix of old grinds from real coffee beans and those of freshly roasted acorns – before inspecting the row of mugs placed upside down on a nearby plank of wood, checking the initials painted on each against the names on my PDA. Dmitriy Monkey and Vasiliy Dynamo, both rookies. I selected the mugs with their initials on and allowed myself a brief giggle at the large red ‘VD’ in Cyrillic characters on the chipped, white-enamelled tin. I then took the looted kit into the larger of the shelters where everyone had stored their stuff, calling up Olga’s inventory on my PDA.

Working through the lists, I soon stowed the Stalkers’ new gear with their existing stuff and went back upstairs. The coffee was just about done, so I poured two mugs, doused the fire so my share wouldn’t re-boil and become even fouler than it was already bound to be, and grabbed the L.85 before taking the mugs up to Attitude Boy at the western end, not knowing who was who.

He turned out to be VD – or Vasiliy Dynamo. He seemed the Pretty Playboy type, and presumably had a better line with the ladies than had been in evidence so far, so it didn’t take much imagination to guess where the ‘Dynamo’ nickname had come from…and from the way he kept scratching himself and readjusting, ‘VD’ seemed to fit, too. Neither of us were in the mood to pass the time of day, so I left him to scratch his parts and took the other mug to the eastern guard

‘Thanks, man,’ he said. ‘I asked Sveta for this ages ago but she said they were too busy.’

‘Busy doing what?’ I asked. ‘All they had to do was stow their gear and wait.’

Dmitriy shrugged, shoving his lower lip out in a ‘don’t know’ pout.

I smiled, thinking how, sometimes, it was pretty clear where Zone names came from and how cruel they could be. Dmitriy did indeed look rather simian, with large, heavy lips that skinned back when he smiled to reveal a set of uneven, too-large teeth. He looked like a chimpanzee, and why he’d ever allow such an unflattering moniker to be used was beyond me – unless of course it was his actual name: I’d heard that a lot of Russian surnames related to animals. I’d be surprised if ‘Monkey’ was one of them, though.

‘No idea, man,’ he said. ‘All I know is, she said they were busy and not to keep bothering her.’

‘Well, when I arrived, he told them to quit screwing and haul ass,’ I said, jerking my head to indicate Vasiliy. ‘Maybe they were “busy”, not…you know, working.’

‘No, man! Sveta’s a good girl; she wouldn’t go near a guy like Aleks. He’s an asshole, man. One step away from being a goddamn bandit, if you ask me. His reputation around here isn’t good, man. He’d kill his mother if he thought he’d gain by it. No way would Sveta have him.’

I nodded. I’d already got the feeling Aleks was a bit of a wanker, though given what had passed between the pair as they left camp, I wasn’t so convinced by Dmitiry’s glowing report of Svetlana. He obviously had it quite bad for her, not that I could blame him. Anyone that could cause me to remember my ex in a favourable light couldn’t be that bad. Whatever she was or wasn’t normally like, though, she wouldn’t be the first decent woman to be attracted to a complete twat and fall under his spell. From what I had seen, it happened with an all-too-depressing frequency.

‘Yeah, well, anyway, I might not be as pretty as her, but at least you get your brew. I’ll come back for the mug later,’ I said, pausing in the act of turning away. ‘Would it be okay if I asked a favour, too?’

Dmitriy frowned. ‘Depends on what it is, man.’

‘I just need some stuff taken down to Sidorovich,’ I said. ‘I’m not really welcome down there. It’s not just for me, though. I was told to sell some things on for Wolf and the others. I’ll make sure there’s something in it for you.’

Dmitriy smiled. ‘Okay, sure,’ he said. ‘Though if you want to get rid of that 74 you brought in, I’ll give you a fair price. I’ll offer more than Sidorovich, and it’d be better than this.’ He held out his sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun. It was in a scary condition. I wondered if anyone in The Zone had ever heard of weapons maintenance.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘You get first refusal.’

The smile became a grin that reminded me of the old PG Tips ads from when I was a kid. If he took a pull from the mug and said “It’s the taste”, I’d die laughing.

‘Thanks, man,’ he said. ‘See you later, then.’

I walked back to the centre of camp. Something was nagging at the back of my mind, something I’d observed and had ignored...

I tried to drag it forward, bring it to light, but the harder I tried, the more elusive it became. But there was something else, too. Something about Svetlana and her expression as we’d passed.

Don’t think about it. Think around it. Busy yourself. Let it come when it will, I counselled myself. I knew that patience was the only way, but I’d never liked waiting for my mind to trick itself into realization.

I emptied the water from my bottle and poured my share of the coffee into it, sitting on an upturned crate to inspect my new kit.

The backpack was quite small – too small for everything I’d want to lug around, certainly – though it’d come in useful for artefact- or food-hunting. Either way, it was a keeper for now because it was all I had.

Opening it, I emptied everything out onto the ground before shoving all but one box of the 5.56 ammo for the L.85 in at the bottom. I then set about checking through my stash, checking what I’d inherited against my list of requirements.

My bandit friend hadn’t been much better prepared for Zone life than I was. His worldly goods had apparently been limited to two pairs of dirty socks, two dozen rounds of 9x18mm ammo for a pistol he had not owned (or at least had no longer owned at time of death), and a medikit. Inside this medikit were two gauze bandages, a few loose pills that looked like aspirin but could have been anything, and one dose of morphine. One bonus item was a small plastic container full of what turned out to be potassium permanganate. I grinned. It was by far the most valuable item I’d found, since it meant I could use it as a sterilising agent to treat water, as well as whip up various strengths of mixture for use as antiseptic on cuts or as treatment for fungal infections like Athlete’s Foot. One lesson I’d learned very early in my career as an infantryman was the importance of looking after your feet. It was surprisingly easy to fuck yourself up by ignoring one very basic, but very vital requirement: that of being able to walk. If your feet were in a state, walking would be painful. That could quickly turn to agony, and that could put you out of action… which in turn could cost lives, not least your own.

Leaving the socks out to air prior to washing, I put the pistol ammo to one side and stowed the medikit on top of the boxes of 5.56. I then set about checking the jacket and AK-74.

The jacket was a mess. Dried blood and bits of bandit clung to the material where it had been torn by the force of the rounds exiting the body. The holes and tears would need careful stitching at the very least; most likely, the jacket was beyond repair and would be best used as ‘spares’.

The AK, as I had noticed before, was in poor condition. If he had been a mechanic, old Valentin certainly hadn’t used his skills to maintain his weapon. I gave it the once over, familiarizing myself with the layout, and was amazed to find my hands working almost automatically, going over the weapon as if it was as familiar to me as an L.85 or G36. It was all ‘back-brain’ stuff. Certainly, my conscious mind didn’t have much of a clue. I frowned, getting that intense feeling of something trying to break through. It was important, it was a key to understanding everything…yet again, as with the thing that had bugged me earlier, it simply would not come.

‘But I should know this weapon anyway,’ I whispered. And it was true. Certainly, the much older Kalashnikov, the AK-47, was well-known to me. Even sitting here, now, I could have the 47 stripped down, cleaned, and reassembled almost with my eyes closed. Was the familiarity with the 74 an illusion based upon that? I didn’t think so. All firearms might be essentially the same, but there were differences – some subtle, some not – in design and placement that made weapons training on the type crucial to the soldier’s success. Even in skilled hands, an unfamiliar weapon could feel wrong, doubts would grow and magnify in the mind, affecting confidence. This also occurred on an individual basis for rifles that, to the layman, were identical. Not for nothing did part of the US Marines’ rifle mantra, prayer, whatever the fuck it was, go ‘…there are many like it but this one is mine’.

Which is what puzzled me about this ageing relic from the Soviet era. I couldn’t remember anything about the weapon…yet somehow I knew everything. I hit the magazine release catch, my fingers finding it unerringly without my brain being consciously aware of anything..

5.45. The mag will hold 5.45 calibre rounds, not 7.62 as the AK-47 does.

Sure enough, the magazine dropped into my hand and I counted fourteen 5.45x39mm calibre cartridges into my hand. Fourteen rounds. That had been all Valentin could ever have fired, considering the lack of spare clips or loose ammo in the backpack. Given the inherent lack of accuracy of the weapon, especially in full-auto mode, Valentin had been screwed from the first. He’d taken Vadik, but I suspected that had been more through luck, and Vadik’s recklessness (if not blatant stupidity), than good, accurate shooting.

In the end, though, the result was the same: Vadik was just as dead whether it was a good shot or a lucky one. It was simply the case that Valentin had always been destined to be not too far behind on the road to the Great Hereafter.

I stowed my cleaning kit in the little storage space in the L.85 – it was meant to come with cleaning kit, a bayonet and sheath, and a sling, but in this case, someone had whipped them out. I presumed it was Sidorovich. No doubt he’d sold each accessory as a separate item, thus ‘maximizing his profits’ – and reloaded the clip. This ‘box of ammo in use’ went at the top of my pack. I fastened the clips and left it under the upturned crate I’d been using as a seat before taking the 74 to Dmitriy.

‘Okay, mate,’ I said, letting him look it over. ‘I’m told Sidorovich would give me a couple of hundred for that. So…’

Dmitriy turned the weapon, checking the barrel and breech. He raised it into the aim, squinting through the iron sights.

‘Got ammo?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. Only fourteen rounds, though. It’s all the boy had. I’ll give you them for nothing, if you want the rifle. Any more I find, I know who might have them.’

Dmitriy smiled again and nodded. ‘Cool, man. See, without ammo…’

‘Yeah, the best rifle in the world is just a lump of machined metal. But the ammo’s free, and…tell you what, the first fifty rounds I find, I give to you. Fair enough?’

He mulled it over. To be fair, if I’d been in his shoes, I’d have worked out how much ammo would cost from Sidorovich and take that off the price I offered for the AK…but Dmitriy wanted this weapon. I could see it in the way he cradled it.

‘Who said Sid would offer two hundred, man? It seems a bit high, especially for Sidorovich. Man, he’d take your kidney and try to pay you five roubles for it.’

I smiled. ‘Vasya,’ I said, and watched as Dmitriy’s face crumpled.

‘Shit, man. Vasya knows all that sort of stuff. Man,’ he said. He chewed his lower lip, and I almost told him to stop being a dickhead and to just take the fucking thing. But I needed money. Even if Dmitriy had a couple of hundred to spare, I’d still be way short of what I needed for basic kit and food.

‘Snorkbait,’ he said, his tone dejected. ‘Man, it’s like this: I can’t match two hundred. If I could, I’d give you three just to make sure I got it – Sidorovich would buy the ammo loose. Even fourteen rounds. He’d get it cheap and sell it as a box, but…’

‘Yeah, I know how he works the ammo scam,’ I said. ‘But listen, you obviously want the rifle and like you say, it’ll be better than the shotgun. If nothing else, it’ll save your shot for when you need it. Why not make me an offer? What I said before about the next fifty rounds still stands.’

‘I don’t know, man…’

‘Up to you. I’m willing to trade.’

Dmitriy’s face lit up. ‘Trade? You’ll trade? Good, man. Good! Okay. Here’s what I think.’ He paused, eyeing the weapon critically one more time, weighing the cost of sixty-four rounds of ammo from Sidorovich – probably three boxes’ worth, knowing the way he worked – and came to a decision. ‘Okay. I know you don’t have a lot, so how’s this: I give you one hundred in cash, one of the head-lights we use, one of my mess tins, a spare blanket, and a Makarov.’

I frowned. ‘How come you haven’t sold the Makarov anyway?’

‘Are you kidding, man? Sidorovich has more Makarovs and Forts than he knows what to do with. Supply and demand, man. Too many pistols means the price ain’t right. I was waiting for some newbie in need to come along.’

I did a quick mental scan through my wish-list. Mess tin, blanket, a light, and a sidearm I already had ammo for. Nothing items to Stalkers, really. If you could find a trader willing to take everything off your hands, you might get a rouble or two at best for the blanket – though no doubt the traders would charge a high price if you wanted to buy it. The Makarov was probably the most valuable item there in terms of sale value, but it seemed as though they were so common in The Zone as to be worthless to the traders. No doubt they’d take them off your hands, maybe sell them back to the military or smuggle them onto the black market in the Big Land or even sell them for scrap, but you’d get what, twenty roubles, if you were lucky?

‘Tell you what, mate, throw in a few tins of food and we have a deal.’

‘Great, man!’ Dmitriy said. ‘We’ll sort it all out later, once the relief arrives. Okay, man?’

‘Okay,’ I said, taking the 74 back. ‘Better get on. See you later.’

I left Dmitriy smiling his chimp-like smile, evidently as pleased as I was at having got what he wanted. I checked my watch. It wasn’t close to noon yet, but it felt as though this day had lasted forever already. I wondered how the assault on the gatehouse was going. Were they even there yet? I had no real idea of where everything was, what cover and obstacles lay between the attack force and the objective…nothing.

I stowed the 74 with my other gear and started ambling up and down the road, playing the watchful sentry. It was all bollocks, though. Nothing was going to happen here. Military to the north and the south, badlands to the west – or what I assumed were badlands, as there seemed to be nothing out that way according to the PDA’s map – the only other entry and exit point already under Loner guard… No wonder Wolf had felt so confident in leaving this place virtually unprotected – certainly, if we came under organised attack, the only thing the three of us were going to do was learn how to be dead. As it was, no one would get anywhere near us. We three tossers had been left here.

I took some comfort from the fact that at least I had once been well-regarded enough to have been selected for the mission. It was more than Dmitriy and Old Itchy-dick Dynamo had been.

Knowing that somehow still wasn’t enough.
  22:13:42  8 November 2009
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HL2 Master
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 06/28/2008
Messages: 271

---QUOTATION---
The smile became a grin that reminded me of the old PG Tips ads from when I was a kid. If he took a pull from the mug and said “It’s the taste”, I’d die laughing.
---END QUOTATION---



By far the best part so far! I remember these adds too, made me want a chimp as a pet.

Older 70's ad's.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgzEBLa3PPk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqdB3HdVbdY&NR=1

Newer one
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmmE_h60rjk&NR=1

HL2
  04:19:28  14 November 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XVIII

Snorkbait. This is Vasya at the Autopark. The relief’s just arrived but our losses were heavier than expected. Do me a favour and bring my gear up once the relief arrives, would you? Oh, and bring Olga’s and Andriy Shortarse’s too, if you can manage it. Over.

I halted in the middle of the road. The light was beginning to run out of the day as afternoon edged towards another long midsummer’s evening. A few hours earlier, starting not long after noon and continuing until about four, the sounds of gunfire had reached us from the north. The battle for the gatehouse had seemed to have three distinct stages. First, there had been the sounds of intense combat, the steady rattle of automatic fire and muted explosions. This had faded away before a second, less intense but more prolonged gunfight erupted, this time with fewer explosions. After another, more extended lull, the final, diminished stage had taken place, the automatic fire eventually dwindling to isolated pops before falling into a deep, final silence. I’d hoped Wolf’s force hadn’t taken too many casualties despite fearing the worst. Now I knew those fears had been better grounded than the hopes.

I raised the PDA to my mouth. ‘Vasya. Yeah, no problems. I’ll leave as soon as the relief arrives. What was the problem up there? Over.’

Snorkbait. Resistance was heavier than expected and the bastards had managed to get some serious weaponry and stores behind them. They must have cached it all over the place back when the Military held the place. Maybe even before that. Fox’s group was almost completely wiped out. We lost Snapper, Oleg and Aleksey. Over.

I shook my head. Every war has its casualties, but what had really been achieved? The mission had been a success, but our group alone had lost six out of fourteen – more or less a forty-three per cent casualty rate. Then there was Fox’s group. To say they was as good as gone could mean anything, but one thing it did for sure was bump the casualty rate even higher. And we’d had no tactical reserve: the Bandits, on the other hand, might have suffered one hundred per cent losses but have many more waiting to scream down from their base and tear our heads off.

The reinforcements we’d been promised had better be good, and in large numbers. If they were crap or numbering only a few, we were all fucked.

‘Vasya. I’ll sort things here. See you soon, mate. Out.’

My head full of thoughts and new-found worries, I resumed my patrol, heading to Dmitriy simply because he was nearest.

‘Hey, man. Any news?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. It was worse than they thought, but relief‘s on the way now. Listen though: when it gets here, I’ve got to split with some of the others’ stuff. They’re going to be stationed at the Autopark from now on, it looks like.’

Dmitriy grinned and pumped his fist. ‘Yeah, man! We did it! We showed those bastards!’

I grinned back. ‘Yeah. We still have to watch it, though.’

His face became serious. ‘Yeah. Yeah, man.’ He adopted such an intent stance that I wondered if he wasn’t taking the piss or away with the fairies.

‘Well, anyway…if you can make sure the stuff is ready to do our deal now, it’d be good.’

‘I can’t leave my post, man. What if they’re waiting to attack?’

‘Who? All the bandits around here are dead. There’s nothing out there but Sidorovich and a few thousand mutant rabbits, mate.’

‘No rabbits. Don’t ask me why, but there aren’t any rabbits, man. Maybe all the rat-hound things got into the burrows and ate them all, or something, but there’s no rabbits. Or squirrels.’

‘I see. Shame, eh?’ I said, watching him do long, slow, sad nods. ‘Anyway, bandits aren’t going to come screaming in here just because you take five. I’ll be wandering about anyway, so you get the stuff and come back here. When the relief arrives, we swap and I leave. Yes?’

‘I guess, man,’ he said, unhappily.

‘Look, if it makes you feel any better, instead of doing my rounds, I’ll stand in for you, okay?’

He gave me a quizzical look. ‘D’you think you could hold them, if there was an attack? I mean, alone?’

The question was almost laughable. Could I hold the position for the five seconds it would take for him to realize there was a contact and get back to assist? Could I hold it with my L.85, when all he had right now was a twin-bore shottie? Was the Pope Catholic?

‘It’ll be okay, mate,’ I said, trying not to smile. It wasn’t hard. I was genuinely worried about the boy. He hadn’t been like this earlier. What had changed?

I slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Listen, Dmitriy –’

‘How d’you know my name, man?’ he asked, immediately suspicious, and I floundered for a few seconds.

‘The…it’s… My PDA, man. Your name comes up on my PDA!’

He relaxed. ‘Right. I forgot.’ He laughed and I wanted nothing more than to get away from him. He was either a loony or high, maybe both. And if he was off on one, whatever it was he’d taken hadn’t been the happy stuff.

‘Listen, I’ll see you in five, okay? I’ll take your cup, get Vasiliy’s and fill him in, then I’ll come back here, got it?’

‘Yeah, man, whatever. And don’t worry: I won’t let the bastards get past me.’

‘Good to know, mate. See you in a bit.’

I headed to the other end of camp and gave Vasiliy the details of what had happened and what was going to happen.

‘’Bout time. Wolf should have taken some real men. We’d have shown those bastards,’ VD muttered, being his usual charming self and scratching again. Watching him chat up a woman must have been like watching Mr Hyde turn back into Dr Jekyll. Which would be handy for her, seeing as she’d need a doctor after being with him.

‘Yeah, well, anyway, the relief’s on the way. Presumably all the others that can will be heading back with some new faces.’

‘Olga’s staying up there, you say?’

I nodded, eyeing him suspiciously. ‘She is. But listen, if you’re thinking of making a move now Maks is out of the way –’

Vasiliy laughed. ‘“Make a move”?’ He laughed harder. ‘“Make a move”? Olga’s my fucking cousin! We grew up in the same apartment block in Sevastopol! We’ve never separated since coming here, and I was going to say I’ll tag along with you!’ Tears were streaming down his face. ‘Ah, man, you are fucking priceless!’

I felt myself go red. Serves me right for making assumptions.

‘Right. I’ll let Vasya know. See what he says,’ I mumbled, able to see a certain resemblance around the eyes now I knew to look for it.

Vasiliy shook his head. ‘Doesn’t matter what he says. Where Olga is, I go and vice versa. I won’t leave her even if this shitheap falls, especially now Maks is gone.’

‘Well, I’ll fill him in anyway,’ I said. ‘Be ready to move out as soon as the relief gets here.’

‘And how am I supposed to get my shit, when I have to stand here?’ he grunted.

‘I’ll cover. Want to get sorted now?’

‘Might as well.’

‘Here, take these then,’ I said, thrusting the empty tin mugs at him. He took them without another word and stomped off toward the fire pit, still having a good old scratch as he went. I shook my head. No wonder he seemed so grumpy all the time; his cock must chafe like a bastard, and it was only going to get worse. I thought about my small supply of potassium permanganate. Would that help? It was anti-fungal and antiseptic when mixed with water…but what he needed was strong antibiotics and proper medical treatment. I entered it into my PDA. I might not like the bloke, but no one deserved to have their dick rot away.

With that done, I raised the PDA to my mouth again.

‘Vasya. Snorkbait. Vasiliy Dynamo insists on heading out with me when I leave. He says he’ll go anyway, no matter what you say. Over.’

Silence. The PDA beeped once, twice. I began to hit keys, calling up a multiple contact.

‘Dmitriy Monkey, Vasiliy Dynamo. I’ve got two – no, three, minimum three – contacts on the PDA. Stand ready. Out.’

I ran to my right, trying to find cover. Anywhere that meant firing left-handed was out, so the wall of the house or the gap between the fence and the rusting minibus was no good to me. I’d have to use the gate-gap in the fence that ran along the track – a natural fire-draw and a glaringly obvious spot, but what choice did I have? My position was forced on me by the limitations of the L.85. I began to have second thoughts about ditching the AK, but a deal was a deal and Dmitriy wouldn’t have clue how to use this thing, nor did I have time or inclination to teach him.

Lying prone, I kept my right eye to the iron sights set into the top of the SUSAT and my left open, watching for movement.

Snorkbait. It’s Vasiliy. They’re friendlies. I’ve got them on my Contacts list. Two Duty and two of ours, so far. Over.

I waited, fiddling around with my PDA to call up my Contacts list and feeling like a prat for not doing it before.

‘Vasiliy Dynamo. Copy. Stand down. Out. Dmitriy Monkey. Stand down. Out.’

The first Dutyer came through the trees, moving slowly but without too much caution.

‘I’ll take over here, Stalker,’ he said, his deep voice muffled by the respirator covering his face. He sounded like a Russian Darth Vader.

I nodded and headed back into camp, making a bee-line for Dmitriy. I needn’t have bothered. Three more Stalkers had come around to approach from the west. Dmitriy had already been relieved and was waiting for me in the centre. It was disturbing how easy it might have been for Bandits to come through and take this place after all. I’d thought it might be quite simple, but it was shocking to realize just how simple.

The new arrivals began to settle themselves around the camp, checking locations, making sure they knew the basics: where do I sleep? Where’s the bog? Is there a brew on?

Some got down to cleaning their kit. The Dutyers, I noticed, automatically took up first watch – at least for now. Presumably they’d get relieved pretty quickly so they had chance to sort their own shit out.

I smiled to myself. Here was something familiar, something I could relate to.

‘Move your arse, mate, I need what’s under there,’ I said to one of the new Loners who had plonked down on top of my crate.

‘Help yourself, mate,’ the Stalker said, standing. She was about five foot seven, but seemed tall enough to look me straight in the eye. Behind her glasses, her eyes flashed angrily.

‘Sorry, love,’ I said quietly, retrieving my kit.

‘Oh, fuck off with that shit,’ she snapped, causing the other newcomers – as well as Vasiliy and Dmitriy – to fall about laughing before seating herself again.

I looked around, embarrassed, while she dug around in her pack and fished out two tins.

‘Here,’ she said, tossing one of the tins to the Stalker readying a fresh brew. ‘When it’s done, stick some of that in. Can’t beat a bit of evaporated milk.’ There were general murmurs of appreciation, but when I looked, she had her eyes closed and was grimacing. ‘Jesus Christ. Anyone got any aspirin or something? My head’s fucking killing me.’

Spoken negatives and shakes of the head followed. It seemed aspirin were in very short supply here. I dug into my bag for the medikit and retrieved the dubious-looking pills.

‘I’ve got these. Christ knows what they are, but I think they’re aspirin. Have a couple,’ I said, holding my palm out.

She inspected the contents, eventually nodding and taking four. ‘Ibuprofen. Thanks,’ she said.

‘Hey, Stalker,’ the lone Dutyer that had come to the centre of camp called. ‘That excuse for a jacket you have there…I’ve got a better one I’m willing to trade you.’

I looked over. ‘What for? I don’t have much, mate.’

‘I can see that,’ he said. ‘I’ll take that jacket and one hundred rounds of 5.56 ammo, if you have it. I used more rounds than I thought I’d need today.’

I weighed it up. A knackered jacket and two boxes of my ammo for some decent protection? Done deal.

‘Let me see the jacket first,’ I said.

‘Ah, suspicious one here, Pavel!’ one of the Stalkers said, laughing. ‘He must have heard about you already.’

The jacket was in surprisingly good nick. He could have got a decent price for it, had he wanted money.

‘I can get that piece of shit of yours repaired and sell it on,’ he explained. ‘Right now, you have what I need, otherwise…’ He shrugged.

We completed our trade, and Dmitriy and I closed out our deal. Finally ready, I went into the shelter to retrieve the packs I needed to take north to the Autopark. I’d expected them to be heavy, but when I hefted them, they seemed a little on the light side. Calling up the inventory, I checked the items in each against what I had listed. Everything tallied.

Shrugging, I began to drag the packs up the stairs. I was halfway up when my PDA sparked up.

Snorkbait. Vasya. Sorry for the delay. I had to get on to Wolf about the Vasiliy situation. I didn’t want him up here, but Wolf said he won’t stay anywhere without Olga. I knew that already, I just really didn’t want him coming. Anyway, Wolf says it’s okay. I’m sending Andriy Shortarse down there to cover, so leave his pack where it is. Over.

‘Vasya. Acknowledged. Tell Olga if she’s got any antibiotics – tablets and swabs – make them ready. Vasiliy’s got a pretty bad dose of the clap, mate. It needs sorting. Over.’

Snorkbait. I’ll tell her, but he might be on his own there. Either that or he’s on for a trip to Yantar to see what the eggheads have. Out.

Stowing the PDA, I dragged Andriy S’s pack back into the shelter and put it back where he’d left it before hoisting the others out into the clearing.

‘Right, Vasiliy,’ I said. ‘Here’s Olga’s kit. You can carry that, I’ll take Vasya’s. Right?’

I’d half-expected some grumbles and complaints, but Vasiliy just nodded and pulled Olga’s pack over one shoulder, clipping it to his own with her waist-cinch and shifting it around until it was comfy.

‘Ready,’ he said, cradling his weapon.

‘Right, we’re off then. Haul ass, as the Americans say,’ I said, cradling my L.85 and leaning forward against the combined weight of the packs. My lower back screamed a protest, but at least I wouldn’t get chafed so badly now I had a jacket. ‘See you, guys.’

A few Stalkers responded, Dmitriy and the Dutyer among them. The female Stalker glanced up.

‘Thanks for the tablets,’ she said.

‘No bother,’ I replied. ‘And get some kip; you look knackered.’

She managed a weak smile that turned into a grimace again. She must have had a bitch of a headache if four ibuprofen tabs hadn’t touched it. Still, it was her problem and there were several big, strong lads around to sort her out should she need any more help. No doubt there were plenty of plants around for natural remedies. I hadn’t checked yet, though I knew I should. This was a real ‘live off the land’ place, despite the similarities to the outside world.

Bouncing to get the packs into a more comfortable position once more, we moved out of rookie camp and headed north.
 
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