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  02:24:00  22 October 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

Message edited by:
snorkbait
10/22/2010 2:24:51
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXV

‘Piss off,’ the lead Stalker said through his mask. ‘You’re not wanted here.’

‘Yeah. Turn around and piss off, like Vampire said,’ one of his companions added. The third member of the group patted the barrel of his Winchester with his left hand, the trigger finger on his right flexing and twitching, his body language trying for casual but only coming across as forced.

The triumvirate were standing in front of a pair of large gates made out of what appeared to be steel plate. Rivets thicker than one of my fingers held the individual segments together. No doubt it looked the same on the other side, the rivets going through to secure the lot to a heavy interior framework. The brackets attaching the things to their support posts were huge, the pins must have been easily six to eight inches long, and the whole set-up screamed Military Control Point; once these gates were properly secured, you’d probably need a tank to get through – all of which made the four or five strands of barbed wire strung out on each side look like someone’s idea of an ironic joke. Even so, I had to wonder how the Bandits had crept past without being seen the night before – assuming they had got past then and hadn’t been roughing it between encampments all along.

‘Look, lads, just let me through. I don’t want any trouble. I’ve got enough of that as it is,’ I said.

‘You hard of hearing or something?’ Shotgun Ned chipped in. ‘Vampire and Zhenka have told you to piss off. Why aren’t you?’

‘Listen, stop buggering about. My feet are killing me and I’m tired. I’m not going back down there because there’s nowhere for me to go back to. Besides, Duty would shoot me if I tried.’

‘Well, you’re not coming through here,’ Vampire said, cradling and caressing his weapon to show he meant business.

‘Not unless you can make it worth our while,’ Zhenka added.

‘And perhaps not even then,’ Vampire finished.

I looked down at my feet and scratched my head with my free hand. Paying wasn’t an option, but it was three onto one with who knew how many others at the Farm itself, which was probably only seventy-five metres away from the gate, a hundred or so at the very most. Even if I was somehow able to kill these three without taking damage myself, I’d need to get to cover and clear the area inside about fifteen seconds – and that was assuming the rest of the Farm were unaware. Most likely, they’d all be keyed up, listening for the first hint of trouble. Realistically, I had no chance even against the three of them. If I opened up, I’d be dead.

Smiling, I raised my head and slung the rifle on my shoulder. Zhenka scowled, but my friend with the Winchester visibly relaxed.

‘Problem is, Vampire, Zhenka...I’m carrying everything I own. I have no money, no artefacts, nothing. But I need to get through this gate. I am going to the Bandit base. I’m doing that because I have no other choice, understand?’

‘We want a thousand roubles,’ Zhenka said.

‘I want a villa in Spain, a sports car and a private jet,’ I replied. ‘Tough shit all round, eh?’

‘Two thousand,’ Vampire muttered. ‘And your kit.’

I shook my head. ‘You’re not getting me. I’m giving you nothing. Now look: it’s getting on for five in the afternoon. I’ve been up since God knows when and I’ve been through enough for today. I need to get to shelter before nightfall, so I’m going through that gate.’

‘No, you’re not,’ Vampire said, slowly. ‘Now fuck off. Enjoy playing with whatever finds you in the dark.’

‘Or dodging anomalies,’ Shotgun Ned said.

‘Come on, boys. We’re done here,’ Vampire ordered, watching me as his companions opened the gate just enough so they could squeeze through. ‘I’ll be telling the boys to watch out for you, just in case you decide to try getting over the fence. They could do with some target practice.’

‘Vampire –’

‘I’ve told you. We want two thousand roubles. Three, since you don’t want to give your kit up. Come back when you have it and maybe we’ll let you through. Until then, piss off.’ He slid back through the gate, which then clanged shut.

I’d have to wait until dark. Move along on my side of the fence and hop over when I found a likely spot – and then make my way through unknown territory in the dark, alone, through an area that made Cordon look like kindergarten.

Frustration built. ‘Fuck!’ I yelled.

Something hit the other side of the gate in response. Something heavy, but also soft – or at least yielding – that caused a dull thonng to ring through the metal. The alarmed cries of Zhenka and his mate coincided with the sharp, but distance-muted crack of a heavy-calibre rifle. A second or so later more calls of alarm issued from the direction of the Farm as the unexpected sound was identified. One side of the gate pushed toward me as something slumped against it, allowing me to slip through.

Zhenka was already waffling into his PDA, informing someone or other that Vampire was down, but ‘down’ was an understatement. Vampire was not only down, he was so down he’d never be getting up again. The heavy mask he’d wearing was smashed to pieces. These had torn into the skin and tissue beneath, leaving behind an utterly ruined visage. Most of the back of his head, plus contents, was splashed against the grey-painted metal of the gate. A reddish smear indicated his slump to the ground and chunks of smashed pale matter dribbled back towards their former home. In the splash near the very top of the smear, the steel plate now sported an unmistakable dent where the round had finally been stopped.

‘Fuck me,’ I breathed.

‘Get into cover! We’re under attack!’ Zhenka practically screamed, but I wasn’t so sure. ‘Viktor, see anything?’

Shotgun Ned a.k.a Viktor lowered his field glasses and shook his head. ‘Nothing. We need to get back to the Farm, Zhenka. Now!’

‘Yes but...Fucking hell, Merc! What do you think you’re doing?’

I’d gone to stand exactly where Vampire had been when the round hit him, my feet planted between his outstretched legs as I waved my arms to draw any attention. ‘I’m proving you’re not under attack,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘It’s okay. I think it’s safe for you two to get up again now.’ I waved some more, then unslung the L85 and squinted through the scope. Four times magnification wasn’t going to tell me too much over the sort of distances I was thinking of, but it was better than nothing and I doubted if Viktor would offer the use of his binos. In any case, I wasn’t looking for the shooter: I was looking for where the shooter might have been.

‘See? If it was the start of an attack, I’ve have taken a round by now. Just as either or both of you would have while you were waiting for Vampire,’ I said, lowering the rifle again. ‘At the very least, there’d have been some sort of fire to keep you pinned down while the main players got away.’

‘You’re saying –’

‘Sniper. One shot. Which means Vampire was singled out. Which means the shooter was getting paid by someone to take him out.’

The two Stalkers exchanged a glance. ‘Barkeep,’ they said in unison.

Another group of Stalkers were running toward us from the Farm, three of them forming a rough triangle around a fourth: the garrison commander, presumably, though I had the feeling his promotion had only just occurred.

‘What the fuck is going on here?’ he demanded.

‘Sniper,’ I explained again. ‘One shot, one kill, and no interest besides. Which means your man here had pissed someone off big-time. Besides me.’

‘It’s got to be Barkeep, Fyodor. Got to be,’ Zhenka gabbled.

‘Yeah,’ Viktor agreed. ‘Some lowlife would have pulled the trigger, but Barkeep’s the one behind it, you can bet.’

‘Even though he knows we need every hand we can get right now?’ Fyodor said, grimacing. ‘Come on, guys, not even Barkeep’s going to do that. He has as much to lose as anyone, if not more.’

‘Which might make it more likely to be him, not less,’ I said, earning some sceptical looks. ‘Look, think about it. There’d be no better time. This Barkeep character contracts out on Vampire here. He tells the killer to get it done now because he knows you’ll first consider, then dismiss the idea that he’s behind it for the reasons you’ve just mentioned. In the meantime, the Bandits get the blame.’ Silence fell among the Stalkers, their expressions – where I could see them – now lost in thought. ‘The thing is, the killer’s fucked up: he or she really needed to ping a few more shots off, certainly at Zhenka and Viktor here if not at me, and maybe loose a couple of rounds off towards the Farm. As it is, it looks like an assassination rather than a quick opportunist attack by a few dickheads spoiling for a fight.’

‘Yeah. Yeah,’ Fyodor nodded, then gave a little start. ‘But, what the fuck are you doing this side of the gates? I thought –’

‘I’d been told to piss off? I was. Then I was told there was an alternative way in.’

‘How much?’ Fyodor said, eyeing Vampire’s cronies.

‘Two grand,’ Zhenka mumbled, and I pretended to yawn to hide my smile. He’d clearly not heard Vampire up the price at the last minute.

‘You got it?’ Fyodor asked.

I shook my head. ‘Nowhere near, thanks to my...punishment.’

‘Hm,’ Fyodor grunted, eyeing me speculatively. ‘But I take it you want in, correct?’

‘Yeah.’

He nodded. ‘Then a solution has presented itself. I can’t allow you into camp, you understand. But you can –’

‘Let’s cut the crap, eh? You want me to look for Vampire’s killer, yes? You want me to track him, her or them down, and kill them after getting them to admit who hired them. Doing all that covers my entrance fee. Right?’

Fyodor smiled. ‘That’s about the size of it,’ he said, smugly.

‘No,’ I said, watching the smile drop from his face. ‘Fuck...off. I’m not paying to get in, not when it’s partly your lot’s fault that I’m stuck up here in the first place. If you pussies hadn’t been hiding from the storm last night, you might have noticed Bandits creeping south.’

‘No one went through the gate,’ Viktor said. ‘I know. I was on watch.’ He glared at me. ‘I definitely wasn’t hiding from the storm.’

‘And did you only watch the gates?’ I snapped. ‘Or did you look further out, like to those slopes onto the high ground over there?’

He shook his head. ‘No need. There’s heavy radiation all over that area now. No way through – not even with full SEVA suits.’

‘You sure about that?’

He twitched. Fyodor replied for him. ‘He’s sure. His brother’s lying out there somewhere. In a SEVA suit.’

‘Fucking eggheads and their “need to know the changes to The Zone”,’ Viktor spat. ‘They were probably testing something on the suit all along, knowing it probably wouldn’t work. I told him not to trust those bastards.’

‘Anyway, Snorkbait, no Bandits passed through the gate if Viktor says they didn’t,’ Fyodor finished.

‘Unless Viktor was paid to look the other way,’ I suggested. ‘After all, robbing people at the gate shows he’ll do anything for an easy quid.’

‘What?’ Viktor hissed. ‘You fucker! I’m going to rip your head off!’

Zhenka and one of the other Stalkers caught Viktor by the shoulders and held him back, though I could tell what they really wanted was to give him a hand. It made me wonder what fresh orders they had received concerning getting into unnecessary fights, as well as who enforced the rule and how vigorously.

‘You misunderstand,’ Fyodor said. ‘The...administration fee...is only payable by out of work Mercs. Duty, other Stalkers...hell, even Freedom can walk through as freely as they like. Bandits and Mercs on jobs that conflict with our interests pay with their lives, and the Military – well, they usually pay with their lives if they pass this way on foot, though right now I guess they’ll come and go as they please.’

‘That still doesn’t mean he won’t take Bandit money to look the other way,’ I persisted.

Fyodor sighed. ‘None of us would take their money even if they offered millions,’ he said. ‘We’ve all lost too many friends or been held up too many times to consider deals. The only thing a Bandit would get out of anyone in this outpost is a bullet in the head. They know it, so they stay away.’

‘Which brings me back to how those Bandits got to where they were.’

‘Did it occur to you that they were already there?’ Viktor yelled, shaking the restraining hands away.

I nodded. ‘It did. It still does. But the problem there is location. Why would they stay out in the open, where they knew they’d be vulnerable to mutant attack? Why would they not hole up at the smallholding instead?’

‘Perhaps they didn’t like the decor,’ one of Fyodor’s minders said, earning a few grudging chuckles.

‘Funny,’ I said, ‘but seriously, it makes no sense. If they passed here before the Autopark raid, being down at the smallholding is only sense. If, on the other hand, they did get through during the storm, I noticed a few decent spots to lie up in for a few hours as I made my way here. Nowhere I’d want to spend a night on my own, I have to say, but, if there were four or five? No sweat. Lie up, head out at dawn or just after...’ I shrugged. ‘Easy.’

‘But it still means someone dropped the ball during the storm,’ Fyodor said, patiently, ‘and Viktor says it wasn’t him.’

I glanced in Viktor’s direction.

‘I swear no one went through that gate, Fyodor,’ he said. ‘And there’s no way other way they could have made it, not without copping a lethal dose of radiation.’

‘Then it must have been some other time,’ I said. ‘A change of watch. Meal time.’ Both suggestions were met with shaking heads. I frowned, then realized there might have been other times of confusion over the past couple of days. ‘A firefight. Did you have to defend the camp at all yesterday, say towards late afternoon into evening?’

‘No. We saw a Bandit scouting party out towards the bridge, but that was all.’

‘And what about before then? Did you get reinforced at all? Were some of you detailed elsewhere?’

‘N –’ Fyodor began to say, but froze mid-word. ‘Yes! Not detailed, exactly, but we did get a request to send a few bodies up to help the Duty outpost guarding the way to the Garbage. The message came on their radio frequency, saying they were being attacked by a pack of dogs and need help. But –’

‘Don’t tell me: when your guys got there, the Duty lot knew nothing about it.’

Fyodor nodded. ‘Right. But Vampire’s group still kept a full watch while I led mine to the outpost.’

‘And who watched the gate while all this was going on?’ I asked.

Fyodor shrugged, though the gesture was redundant; he hadn’t even been at the Farm, so there was no way he could have known. But Zhenka, it seemed, did, as he sucked in a breath through clenched teeth.

‘Vampire,’ he said, exhaling.

*

Fyodor was silent for a long moment as he absorbed the information. Then he exploded. ‘What?’ he yelled, his face inches from Zhenka’s.

‘He was the boss,’ Zhenka offered feebly.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Fyodor groaned. ‘Okay, fair enough. It’s wrong to blame you. We all trusted him. Let’s have it.’

Zhenka nodded and swallowed. ‘We got the call from Duty and you guys headed out. The rest of us stood to. Viktor, Clumsy and Vampire guarded the buildings, acting as a reserve. Ivan Horse was on watch over by the gate, but after a while Vampire went up and told him to take a break. Ivan said he didn’t want to, but...’

‘Okay, enough. I get the idea,’ Fyodor cut in. ‘Right, that’s it. We don’t bury him. He doesn’t deserve it. Zhenka, Viktor, drag this fucker outside the gates and far enough away to make sure we don’t get bothered by critters, then leave the bastard to rot. After that you can help the Merc track the sniper. The rest of you, back to camp.’

The Stalkers nodded and set about their tasks. No one spoke. Fyodor inspected the dent in the gate and shook his head.

‘I can’t fucking believe it,’ he finally said. ‘Vampire, our own boss, a traitor.’ He shook his head again. ‘Unbelievable. His reputation wasn’t the best, and he’d been in The Zone long enough to make his share of enemies, but...I just don’t get it. He knew what was at stake.’

‘Doesn’t look like he cared. He was feathering his own nest either way. That’s real mercenary behaviour, if you ask me.’

Fyodor grunted.

‘Anyway, it certainly makes things a bit more interesting, doesn’t it?’ I said. ‘Now we have a motive for the Bandits taking him out, too. If they hadn’t screwed up by making it an obvious hit...’

‘It’d make more sense for it to be them, too,’ Fyodor agreed, reluctantly. ‘Barkeep probably considered it, but I really think he’d have decided against it in the end.’

‘Or maybe not, if he knew Vampire had no loyalty except to his own pocket,’ I said. ‘Whatever, until I can find that sniper for you, there’s no way of knowing for sure.’

The Stalker nodded. ‘Better to say we’ll never know unless you find the sniper, not until. I’ve got my doubts that you’ll ever track him down.’

‘It’s not a dead loss,’ I shrugged. ‘Looking at it, the line of the shot is pretty clear. Heavy calibre, from the sound and the way it smashed his mask, made a mess of his head and still had the energy to dent the gate from a range of what? Two hundred, two hundred and fifty metres, minimum? There’s no cover and too much dead ground closer in, and then there’s the trees to consider. Okay, they didn’t really need anything too special – even this piece of shit’s effective at almost twice that range – but –’

‘It was a hit. A one-shot deal,’ Fyodor cut in. ‘No margin for error.’

I nodded. ‘So definitely a precision weapon, well maintained, operated by someone who knows what they’re doing and takes pride in their work.’

‘Doesn’t sound like any Bandit I’ve ever run into,’ he said. ‘Then again, you never know. Most likely a hireling. Maybe not an actual Merc, but...’

‘Know anyone like that?’ I asked, nodding an acknowledgement to Zhenka and Viktor as they came back through the gate. Zhenka nodded and turned to secure the gates again while Viktor looked away and dusted his hands.

Fyodor shrugged. ‘Could be a few guys. A lot depends on the round. There’s one fellow, Andriy Sharpshooter – crap name, but that’s The Zone for you – who uses an old Mosin Nagant. He’s one of the best shots this side of the fence and usually does odd jobs for Barkeep and the other traders. Pyotr Garlic uses a Dragunov he claims to have looted from a military Stalker shortly after the Faction Wars. There’s a Duty sniper uses an old Vintorez. Rumour is that it’s a woman and she found this rifle just lying around someplace in the Red Forest.’ He shrugged. ‘There are too many, really. This is The Zone; people who can’t shoot don’t normally last long. It’s why I don’t hold much hope for you finding who did this.’

I thought of Vasya, Snapper and Olga. Three clean kills – four, if you counted the double-up – without a round wasted, and that had been on one mission...in Cordon. If The Zone’s nursery had people like that hanging around, how good were the guys plying their trade further in?

‘Point taken. I’ll do my best,’ I said.

Fyodor nodded. ‘I’m sure. The thing is, Snorkbait, I wouldn’t care, given the treachery. But there’s a principle at stake. If we do nothing –’

‘Yeah, I get the idea, mate. Listen, time’s getting on and there’s no way you can risk Duty sending a man down to see who’s who down here just in case – which I think they might do at some point. That means I need to get gone, yes?’

‘Of course. Zhenka, Viktor, I’ll need you back by 20.30. Viktor, I’ll arrange cover for your shift later, let you get some sleep.’

‘Thanks...boss,’ the Stalker nodded.

Fyodor stiffened, clearly discomfited. ‘How about we just stick with Fyodor?’

‘Fine with me.’ ‘Yeah, okay.’

‘Right. Best of luck, then,’ the Farm’s new commander mumbled, then turned on his heel and walked slowly back towards the camp.

‘Okay then, gents: let’s get a move on, shall we?’ I snapped, unslinging the L85 and pointing with my arm. ‘That’s the line the shot came in on, so that’s our direction of travel unless we have to divert. I’ll take point, but I’m relying on your local knowledge to keep us out of trouble, okay? Right. Let’s go.’
  15:59:23  4 October 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter XXXIV

Five powerful lights snapped on about a hundred yards ahead, quickly followed by a sixth, weaker, lamp flickering to life in the rear.

‘Snorkbait –’ Anatoly hissed, dropping his side of the pack. The sudden extra weight caused me to stumble forward, our movement combining to draw several sharp clicks as safeties were flicked off.

‘Lower that weapon!’ the voice snapped. ‘Neither of you move!’

‘Relax, Anatoly,’ I muttered, releasing the pack completely. ‘I think I recognize that voice.’

Heavy boots tramped toward us. Four of the Dutyers wore their protective masks and had their weapons up, two on Anatoly, two on me. Savko alone had removed his mask and slung his weapon. He scowled at us, his expression made fierce by the harsh white light that made his already pale face hard and angular. Following behind, like a beaten puppy trailing its master, came Vasiliy Dynamo, looking less than pleased at having been dragged along and even less pleased at having to see me. I ignored him, keeping my attention on Savko.

‘Hello, mate. What are you doing here?’

‘Don’t bother with any of that matey-Brit bollocks,’ Savko said, creating a couple of snickers of mirth among the others. Even Anatoly couldn’t suppress a grin. ‘The better question right now is, what the fuck are you doing here? I expected to make contact with you well before we reached the Fruit Punches.’

‘Well, this kit’s heavy, and –’

‘Don’t treat me like I’m an idiot,’ he scowled. ‘If you’d been at the tunnel entrance as you claimed, you’d have got farther than this even if you’d got on all fours and crawled. You lied. Worse, you lied to the Colonel, a man who had trusted you.’

‘Listen, Savko, you know I needed to get this kit back –’

‘Be quiet. All you needed to do was wait and assist the patrol, as requested. The kit could have been stashed until we were done and then we could have helped with getting it back where it belongs. Arguing that you needed to get all this shit back urgently won’t cut it, Snorkbait. After all, only yesterday you “advised” the Colonel that you were spending the rest of the day lying up.’

‘Because I was knackered and we’d just nearly had our fucking heads ripped off!’

‘I couldn’t give a shit,’ he said. ‘The fact is, you weren’t in any great hurry then, so why are you today? Why couldn’t you agree to a simple request and hang around for a little longer?’

I shrugged.

‘That’s it?’ he demanded. ‘Just a shrug? Aren’t you even going to tell me where you really were when you told the Colonel you were already at the tunnel? Can’t you even do that much?’ He turned to Anatoly. ‘You?’

From the corner of my eye, I saw Anatoly turn his head to glance at me. Funny how he’d acted like we were equals before, but now the shit had hit the fan I was the point-man.

I sighed. ‘We were still at the smallholding,’ I admitted, drawing angry-sounding mutters from a couple of the Duty soldiers. ‘I told the Colonel we were at the tunnel because I didn’t want him sending us up there to investigate alone. In fact, I didn’t want him sending us up there full stop.’

Savko stared at me, his expression unreadable. ‘I see. Well, unfortunately for you, you will be part of the recon party. Anatoly will obviously have to be escorted back with Vasiliy and the Stalkers’ gear, so he’s off the hook. As for your cowardice –’

‘Cowardice? Don’t you think you’re over-reacting a bit, mate?’ I said.

‘So we lied and weren’t where I said we were. So what if we didn’t want to get sent up the road to see what had gone on? My reasons were valid. I counted at least four or five weapons signatures during the contact. Assuming they all got dropped, what chance would Anatoly and I have had if we had been sent to investigate alone?’

Savko was shaking his head. ‘That would never have been the case. The Colonel would never have risked sending just you two. All you’d have been expected to do was secure the area and keep watch. Then, when we got there, we’d have gone forward in a group, prepared. Whoever it was that got attacked most likely got taken by surprise at first. That would have made all the difference.’ He sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Snorkbait, but I’m going to have to report this to the Colonel as soon as we’re clear of the tunnel. You’ll just have to accept whatever punishment he deems fit.’

‘Do what? Punishment for what? Lying? Not knowing how things would work out?’ I demanded.

‘Why don’t you decide his punishment anyway?’ VD piped up. ‘You’re the senior man in the field. If he was on a job and broke discipline, it’s up to you to decide the penalty.’

‘Shut it, you,’ Savko snapped. ‘I’d heard enough of your bullshit before we’d even reached our end of the tunnel. I don’t need to hear more now.’

‘He’s got a point though, boss,’ one of the Duty soldiers said. ‘As he was working for us and failed to obey an order, he has to be disciplined.’

Savko’s eyes met mine and locked. We both knew he had to do something now. If he didn’t – if instead of acting he made a point of waiting until he could leave the responsibility to Colonel Petrenko – he’d risk losing face in front of his men. What was more, he’d risk losing face in front of ordinary Stalkers. If that happened, no Stalker would ever listen to Savko again. It might even affect his standing within Duty. He had to punish me...and we both knew that his punishment had to be harsher than anything the Colonel might dish out; if not acting would cause a loss of face, inappropriate leniency would be seized upon as a sign of weakness or even indecision. VD had baited the trap and the Duty soldier had closed the door. Savko’s eyes bored into mine, his expression letting me know this wasn’t the way he’d wanted it to go, despite his earlier anger.

Resigned, he took in a deep breath. ‘Snorkbait, as officer in the field, I have no choice but to find you guilty of a dereliction of duty, of failing to obey a direct and legitimate order, and of failing to maintain the levels of discipline which Duty and its affiliates and allies are subject to and rightly proud of,’ he said, doing his best to sound like a Voice of Authority. ‘Given your relative lack of experience of life in The Zone and allowing for the fact that, as a Mercenary, you were only temporarily under the jurisdiction of the local Duty commander, your punishment shall be thus: first, you are to forfeit any and all forms of loot gained since you entered The Zone. This forfeiture will not include basic protective clothing and any weapons you may have purchased for cash. Nor will it include one sidearm, which I shall allow you to choose, and one day’s worth of food supplies, including water. Any other items of clothing, armour, weaponry, food, artefacts, bedding and medical supplies will be confiscated and either used for the benefit of others under Duty’s care or influence, or sold and the money put towards financing such things that the leaders of the Duty faction see fit. Furthermore, upon conclusion of this patrol, you will be released from your affiliation to the Duty faction and left to fend entirely for yourself. You are barred from entering all Duty outposts for a period of three days and the nearest safe non-Duty area will be notified of your presence. In this way you will be deprived of ready shelter and The Zone will do with you as it will. Additionally, details of this judgement will be communicated to Colonel Petrenko, local area commander, at the earliest opportunity for his approval. He may choose to over-rule some aspects, but he may not.’ He frowned and turned his attention to his feet. ‘Do you have anything to say?’

‘Only that it’s a load of bollocks,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘Noted. Confiscation of surplus goods and weapons is to be carried out immediately,’ he said, inclining his head toward me. Two of the Dutyers slung their weapons and advanced, spinning me round and slamming me into the wall hard enough to drive the breath from my lungs. The packs were pulled roughly from my shoulders and the AK was ripped from my hand. Hands went into every pocket and pouch. Everything was removed until only the L85, two unmarked tins of whatever, a wrapped sausage and my bottle of water remained.


‘What about my spare ammo for this?’ I asked, gesturing with the L85.

‘Did you pay for it?’ Savko said.

‘Yes.’

Savko nodded and gestured that the ammo be returned. ‘Decision time, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘Which sidearm do you want to keep? I’ll be generous and allow you two full magazines plus thirty spare rounds.’
I ground my teeth and pointed at the PB 6P9, which was duly handed over. It wasn’t the best pistol on offer, but it had one big advantage going for it: the suppressor. You never knew when a bit of hush would come in handy.

‘Medical supplies?’ I asked.

Savko shook his head. ‘We need them back at camp, just in case,’ he said.

‘Let me at least keep the tub of potassium permanganate,’ I said. ‘If I’m going to end up marooned somewhere, I’m going to need clean water to drink.’

‘You won’t need it,’ a Duty soldier said. ‘Water’s not fit to drink up there even if you do clean it somehow. Radiation.’

‘Most water’s not fit to drink here, actually,’ Savko added. ‘In Cordon, it’s mostly okay. Elsewhere...even if it’s collected dew or rainwater, you’re better off checking it out. If the water itself isn’t irradiated, the container it falls into might be.’

I scratched my head, looking at the Duty leader askance. ‘You’re condemning me to death, Savko. You know that, don’t you?’

Savko looked into my eyes, not replying. VD chuckled. ‘Shame, eh?’ he said. Four pairs of reddish lenses reflected torchlight as they gazed in my direction while Anatoly frowned and stared pointedly at his feet.

‘Right, let’s move out,’ Savko muttered, prompting two of the Dutyers to sling my packs over their shoulders and help VD get the loot pack sorted.

‘Wait. Let me go to the Autopark at least. Let me speak to Colonel Petrenko in person. Allow me to explain what’s gone on. Come on. At the very least I need to explain about Anatoly.’

Savko rubbed his face. ‘For God’s sake...’ He took a step closer, invading my personal space. ‘Anatoly can explain for himself. Even if you saw the Colonel and explained, he wouldn’t do anything I already haven’t. My orders were to make sure you, especially, went north with us while Anatoly and any kit you were carrying was taken south.’ He smiled without humour. ‘Look on the bright side: at least now you have no other kit, the going will be easier. Plus you won’t have the walk back to Cordon to contend with, will you?’

‘We going, boss?’ one of the escorts asked.

Savko nodded. ‘Yeah, head out. Take Anatoly straight to the Colonel when you arrive.’

The escort Dutyers nodded at Anatoly and VD to move out, falling out to flanking positions as they moved back along the tunnel.

‘See you, Snorky,’ Vasiliy sneered as he turned and started lumbering away.

‘Yeah, see you, rotten cock,’ I replied. ‘Hopefully it’ll be through a fucking gun-sight.’

VD made as if to stop and turn, but was encouraged to keep moving as the Dutyer to his right grabbed his arm and propelled him forward.

‘Right then,’ Savko said, watching as the lights from the other group grew increasingly distant before replacing his helmet and mask. ‘Timo, you lead, fifteen metres, okay? Snorkbait, you’ll be between Boris and me. Let’s go.’

We moved along the tunnel in silence until, under Savko’s direction, the four of us cleared the tunnel exit and headed up the road. The heat and humidity had risen to horrendous proportions since Anatoly and I had first entered, and – after having a fairly lengthy mumble inside his helmet, which I assumed meant the Duty mob had some sort of covert comms get-up in there and that they spoke louder only for my benefit – Savko ordered a halt so we could take on food and fluids, as well as cool down by getting into shade. At least, I told myself that was why he did it. He could have just been rubbing my nose in how much food I didn’t have now, and there was certainly a mocking element to the smile he gave me as I broke my sausage in half before carefully re-wrapping the remainder.

‘Why don’t you just kill me once this is done, Savko?’ I asked, noticing the way the other Dutyers take a subtle but definite step or two further away.

‘And why would I do that?’

‘Irradiated water, lack of kit and ammo, a rifle that’s maybe seventy per cent of what it should be at the very best and in reality is probably only fit for scrap, just enough food to last a day even though I’m barred from safe havens for three... Shooting me would be quicker and kinder.’

He shook his head. ‘You’re underestimating yourself and overestimating The Zone,’ he said. ‘Obviously you won’t be able to come south again with us – and if you follow, I will shoot you – but Dark Valley’s not so bad.’

‘You didn’t say that the other day. Just the opposite, in fact.’

He shrugged. ‘It’s all relative. You’ll be okay.’

‘How do you work that out?’ I snapped. ‘On top of everything else, I’m barred from any Duty area, the Farm won’t touch me with a pole, and the place is Bandit Central.’

He held up a finger. ‘But you’re a Merc, remember? I did. Being a Merc means Bandits are neutral to you.’ He paused, thinking it over for a while. ‘Should be, at any rate, since no one will know about your part in the Autopark attack. But who knows if the old ways still hold? New boss might do things differently up there. Of course, if you’re sensible, you won’t get involved with the Bandits too much – it won’t be safe, once our operations really start bearing fruit – but nothing will happen within the next few days. I’ve given you a fighting chance. I’m not saying that staying with the Bandits for a couple of days will be pleasant, but at least it can be done.’

‘And if I tell them everything?’

He shrugged again. ‘Then you tell them. At this point there’s nothing they can do to regain the territories they once held, or anywhere else for that matter. Bottom line is, combined, we were able to push them this far last year – might even have wiped them out, had those Freedom assholes not moved to the Army Warehouses. Either way, I’m sure we’ll be able to push them again when the time comes.’

‘No matter how many there are?’

‘No matter how many there are,’ he nodded.

I shook my head. Autopark and the Gatehouse had been hard-won victories despite any appearances to the contrary...and they had only been manned by small numbers not expecting an attack. Other victories had obviously been won through Garbage as the wave of reinforcements swept south, but resources were finite; the Stalker/Duty Coalition might spread themselves too thinly, the local commanders might be too competitive when it came to manpower. What if the Bandits launched a counter-attack? What if some other faction decided to take advantage of the situation and grab territory while defences were relatively weak?

‘You’re too confident,’ I said.

‘And with good reason. The Military are on our side, don’t forget.’
I nodded. ‘So it seems,’ I said. ‘For now. But who knows about tomorrow?’
Savko bristled and replaced his mask once more. ‘Move out!’ he barked.

*

Twenty minutes later, we were half way across the marsh.

‘Nice to see you remembered what I told you, by the way,’ Savko said, carefully stepping over a rock. The ground was still sodden underfoot here; one slip and he’d be in the water – with all that might mean. ‘Of course, if we’d been closer you might have been in a bit of trouble, but as it was...’

‘What are you on about?’ I asked.

‘Earlier. You remembered to impersonate a zombie.’

‘Oh, that. Anatoly thought I’d cracked.’

Savko laughed. ‘Thing is, I knew it was you. Something in the voice, even though we only got a sort of distant echo.’

Not that distant, I thought, remembering the sound of concrete either falling or being kicked along the road. I’d never know for certain, but I was willing to bet it had been one of Savko’s bunch that had been responsible for that. I also had a hunch the flash that Anatoly had spotted had come from Vasiliy Dynamo and a lack of light discipline on his part; none of the Dutyers would have been so sloppy if they were waiting there for us. In fact, I was starting to wonder if they hadn’t retreated further along the tunnel as we’d entered, making us carry our loads for longer and fall into a false sense of security. Surely they wouldn’t have bothered...but anything was possible. Not that I’d get a proper answer now, even if I asked.

We crossed the rest of the marsh in silence before pausing at the ridge to scan the area around the smallholding. As before, dogs could be seen to the northwest, the pack showing no signs of agitation, hunger or curiosity. To our right, the anomaly fields thrummed away, only the sound and slight air distortion giving them away; a deadly trap for the unwary. Savko mumbled something and the Duty soldiers split left and right, roaming around the area, apparently checking for sign and reporting on what they found.

‘Tell me what happened to Svetlana again?’ Savko finally said, turning to me.

‘I don’t remember telling you in the first place,’ I replied.

He made a Get on with it gesture. ‘Tell me anyway.’

I sighed. ‘I was coming around the slope,’ I explained, indicating my line of approach. ‘Anatoly and Svetlana were already here, as I’d sent them ahead.’

‘Why?’

‘I was sorting stuff out down there,’ I said. ‘Anyway, they’d gone on ahead.’ I hesitated, swallowed. The other Dutyers had finished their recce and had moved closer so they could hear every word even as they kept watch. ‘There was a bloodsucker. I think...I’m pretty sure it was a guy I came across on the way here. He was mutating, obviously in the latter stages. Said he was a scientist. Canadian.’

Muttering on the comms. Savko spat something and one of the Dutyers nodded, pointing away towards where I’d found Rusty in mid-change. ‘Go on,’ Savko said.

‘At first, I thought it was an anomaly; the air behind Anatoly seemed to...shimmer. Next thing, the bloodsucker attacked. It knocked Anatoly out of the way, then went for Svetlana. It –’ I broke off, closing my eyes. Everything was there, right in front of me again. I squeezed my eyes more tightly shut and tried to force the images away, to no avail. ‘It caught her. Fed on her. I opened fire –’ I opened my eyes in time to see a Dutyer nod and indicate odd used casings. ‘I emptied the AK and a pistol – I think it was the PB but I can’t really remember; I just grabbed it and fired.’

‘Understandable,’ Savko nodded. ‘Continue.’

‘Anatoly recovered and also started firing. The bloodsucker had broken off the attack on Sveta by then and...look, do I have to do this?’

‘Yes.’

I lowered my head, managing a brief nod regardless. ‘She was attacked over there,’ I said, pointing in the general direction of the anomaly field. ‘When the ‘sucker broke off his attack, she tried to get away. She...I mean, the anomaly...’ I took a deep breath and blew it out again. ‘Listen, I was still firing at the ‘sucker. I heard her scream. By the time I had chance to look where she was...it was too late. She was –’

‘Okay,’ Savko murmured. ‘It fits. Obviously the guys can’t get the full story – the storm would have seen to that – but there’s enough evidence left to prove you’re not lying.’

I frowned. ‘Why would I lie about something like that?’

‘You’ve been caught in one lie, Snorkbait. Who’s to say you’ve not lied about everything?’

‘So...what? I’m back in the frame for the thefts now?’

‘Best to say you were never really out of it. The idea of you being an accomplice had already crossed the Colonel’s mind before we led you to the tunnel. He just wanted to play out the rope and see what happened from there. Patrols were dispatched to search around Cordon for the loot, just in case, and were ongoing until I reported that the pack was in your possession when we met you in the tunnel. And since you weren’t carrying anything like that when we saw you off the other night and you’d had no chance to go near the tunnel before then...’ He shrugged.

‘So I am finally off the hook?’

Savko removed his mask to reveal a humourless grin. ‘Put it this way – it’s lucky for you that the remaining evidence supports your version of events. Scraps of skin and clothing, and the remains of a dog by the swamp support the story about a mutating Stalker. Spent casings prove there was a relatively recent firefight up here. Blood traces show where Svetlana was attacked. Spatter and a remaining partial bloodsucker footprint bears your story out, then there are the remains of a bloodsucker lying here and there – well chewed though they are by now. And of course –’ He pulled a couple of bolts from a pocket and hurled them towards the anomaly, grinning when it reacted. ‘The anomaly itself, with accompanying stains on the ground. We’ll never be able to be sure whether you were part of the gang or not –’

‘I wasn’t.’

‘But there’s nothing we can do about that now, either way. You say you weren’t in with Svetlana and Aleks...so. On the other hand, you’re a proven liar. What are we to believe?’

‘The truth?’

Savko chuckled and raised his eyebrows. ‘And round we go again,’ he said, replacing his mask. ‘It’s moot now. Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know that the Colonel’s accepted my recommended punishments. Said they were just, so he’s allowing them to stand.’

‘Very kind, I’m sure,’ I muttered.

Savko clapped me on the arm. ‘Let’s get on.’

We trudged down the slope towards the smallholding, the two Dutyers beginning to peel away again to move around the perimeter while Savko and I entered via the hole in the fence.

Thinking everything over, I didn’t know what pissed me off more: the fact that I was being dragged back north and abandoned, or that Petrenko hadn’t really believed in my innocence after all. A bitter taste rose in my throat and I spat. What made it worse was the knowledge that, in Petrenko’s position, I would probably have done much the same thing. I was still a stranger here, an unknown. And unknowns had to be watched, suspected, their motives scrutinized and all options anticipated. Petrenko, as an officer, would be better trained and more used to such quick, broad tactical thinking. In my case, he’d gone along with me, seeming to accept my story...but laying contingencies nonetheless. He’d allowed me to follow Aleks and Svetlana only because he knew exactly where I’d be, and knew he controlled all the surrounding areas. If I had been lying, if I’d simply refused to respond, he only had to notify Dark Valley, the rest of Cordon, the area known as the Garbage and I’d have been found and killed, probably sooner rather than later. He’d played the percentages, and would still be playing them – I was shortly to be left alone up here with no hope of assistance before I reached Bandit territory...and maybe not much hope of anything but a quick death even then. The good Colonel had stacked the odds against me, just in case...but because there was room for doubt, he’d arranged things so no one could point the finger at him if I was ultimately proven innocent. Oh yes, he’d played the percentages all right, and I could understand the reasons why. Understanding didn’t mean I had to like it, though.

At the smallholding, Savko clambered through the gap in the fence and beckoned me to follow. The Dutyers waited until we moved towards the house and then moved up, weapons ready, their upper bodies still visible to us over the fence for most of the time.

‘Wait here,’ Savko ordered, and climbed through the kitchen window into the house, re-emerging just as his men arrived at the entrance to the courtyard.

‘Anything?’ he asked as we approached.

One of the pair shook his head, the other turned and pointed.

‘Dead dog ten metres from the entrance. It was dragged there and has been partially eaten, but someone shot it in the head first.’

Savko glanced at me – or at least, his head half-turned in my direction.

I nodded. ‘Lassie was getting a bit too curious.’

No one laughed. Maybe they had no idea what I was talking about. Either that or I was losing my touch.

Savko nodded up the trail and his men trotted off, splitting to either side while we followed about ten metres behind and patrolled towards the road. A few minutes later, our boots hit tarmac and I turned my head to see where the road proper actually led as it ran south. About two hundred metres away – the actual distance was hard to judge due to the air distortion – something like a concrete bus shelter stood surrounded by another large field of fizzing, popping anomalies. Brief noises, sort of like a thump-whoosh, sounded as heavier bits of wind-blown debris hit the anomalies’ edges. Frowning with concentration, I looked for signs of the electrical and fire anomalies Anatoly had mentioned. There was no trace.

‘Vortex field,’ Savko said. He paused and leaned forward, clearly peering at the distortion patterns. ‘Hm. Still impenetrable, by the look of things.’

‘That unusual?’

‘Not really. When you get places like that...well. Sometimes single anomalies form, that’s especially true on the fringes of The Zone. Other times, usually nearer the centre or in what the eggheads like to call “highly susceptible areas”, you get a field like that. God know why the fields here are lasting so long, though. We’re not all that far from the perimeter, after all.’

‘Will your lot check it out?’ I asked as Savko turned away and began heading towards the Valley.

‘Doubt it,’ he said.

‘Strange thing, though. Anatoly told me that road was blocked by electrical and other anomalies as well.’

‘Did he?’

‘You sound surprised.’

He nodded. ‘I am. Vortex, Electro and...what?’

‘Fire, he said.’

‘Burners,’ Savko corrected, then shook his head. ‘Vortex, Electro, and Burner, all in one location?’ He turned his head to look at me. I nodded. ‘I’m no scientist, Snorkbait, but I’d say that’s impossible. Vortex there and Burners or Electros round the corner...maybe. Unlikely, given the density of that Vortex field, but...’

‘He was pretty new to The Zone. I guess he could have made some sort of mistake.’

‘He could, but to make that sort of mistake he’d have to also be pretty new to using his eyes,’ Savko replied. ‘There’s no mistaking those three types. Vortex, Springboard and Whirligig...maybe. I know guys who can’t tell the difference between a Vortex and a Springboard even now, and others who think Vortex and Whirligig are the same thing. But no way can you mistake Electros and Burners. No way. Makes me wonder what sort of Stalker he is – assuming he’s a Stalker at all.’

I chewed my lip, wondering how much more I could say without revealing Anatoly’s real identity. In the end, I opted to say nothing.
‘You going to report this to the Colonel?’

He was silent for a few seconds as he thought it over. ‘To be honest, I’m not sure. It might not mean anything. Then again, it might.’

‘Probably nothing,’ I said. ‘For all I know, he saw something and mistook it for an anomaly. Either that, or he was so shaken up that he got the location wrong.’

Savko lapsed into silence again, unconvinced. ‘You’re most likely right, but...I suppose we’ll see,’ he eventually muttered.

After a few more minutes, we neared a rusting, but still intact, railway bridge. The Duty soldiers looked up and raised their weapons, causing me to immediately follow suit.

‘No, Snorkbait. Eyes front,’ Savko ordered. ‘We’re their cover. They’re ours.’

I frowned. ‘Had problems here before?’

Savko made a sound that might have been a sigh. ‘You know the railway line in Cordon? You know it enters its own tunnel a little way north of the road tunnel?’

I nodded, though I hadn’t really got a clue. I’d obviously seen the ruined bridge and railway embankment. I also knew the line headed towards higher ground. But with one thing and another I hadn’t had a lot of time for sightseeing. I hadn’t even got to check out the stash locations I’d downloaded yet, and from the look of things might never get to do so.

‘Well,’ Savko was saying, ‘the other end of the tunnel is around there somewhere.’ He pointed up. ‘You can’t see it because of the bridge, but it is there. And as you might have gathered by now, where there’s a tunnel, there’re nasties. Potentially, anyway. No one’s ever been up there to have a look around, not even the hard bastards of The Zone – and there’s one bunch that seem to have been most everywhere, including the places most Stalkers have no idea how to even start getting to. “The Liquidators”, they call themselves. It’s a sort of homage to the people who had to clear things up back in eighty-six.’
I frowned. ‘No one ever mentioned that faction to me.’
‘That’s because they’re not an independent faction,’ he said. ‘They’re ordinary Stalkers. Well, using the term loosely. They’re not just Free Stalkers, you see; they’re from all factions. Chances are you’ll never know who they are, though.’

‘Secretive lot, are they?’

He shook his head. ‘Not really. Not in the way of being a secret society or anything like that. No, what they are is what they are: just Stalkers...only very, very good ones. We use some of the ones we know, sometimes. Mostly, they don’t like to get involved too much. Those that do contract out only do so because they love the challenge – especially if we have a covert surveillance job for them or it involves finding routes to the tricky places. They seem to love testing their skills, pushing all the way to the limit. But it all depends on the job and how they feel. Your little hike probably wouldn’t have fazed the least of them, in all honesty. They get things done that no one else can. It’s why we keep close tabs on those Liquidators we know about.’

I shook my head. ‘Is there anyone you lot won’t use if it suits you?’

‘No. And that’s a word we don’t like hearing in response to our...requests.’

‘Really? You do surprise me,’ I muttered, drawing a prolonged – and because of the mask, completely unreadable – stare.

Moving up in complete silence, we passed under the bridge and took up station after about twenty metres. Savko did his mumbling thing again and the pair of Dutyers immediately lowered their weapons and ran up the road, passing us to take position up front again.

‘Savko,’ I said, as we pepper-potted past the others once more. ‘How come you’ve not asked what we’re up against? If it was me, I’d want to know everything.’

‘Do you know what happened for sure?’ he replied. ‘Did you see the attack?’

‘No.’

‘Then what’d be the point of asking? Any answer would only be a form of speculation, and speculation clouds issues, not clarifies them. Besides, in Duty we’re expected to be ready for anything.’

‘But info helps, surely.’

‘Not if it’s wrong,’ he said, drawing to a halt once more and allowing the soldiers to catch up, leaving the bridge behind us. Up ahead, the road dog-legged to the left at almost ninety degrees before threading through a narrow man-made passage in the rock.

‘Right. Box up,’ Savko ordered. ‘You two take the right. Snorkbait, behind me on the left. See anything, hear anything – Snorkbait, if you smell anything – sing up. We know there is or was something up here, so stay alert, yes?’ The three of us nodded in unison, drawing a nod of acknowledgement from him. ‘Let’s move. Quiet and slow, safeties off.’

*

The first body was spotted almost fifteen minutes later. Progress had been slow, almost like one of those meticulous searches you sometimes see coppers performing on the news, only in our case we couldn’t afford to keep our gaze rigidly on the bit of ground before us. Our eyes – and as a result our weapon muzzles – went everywhere as we emerged from the man-made gully to a wider, more natural-looking area. Every bush and boulder was treated as harbouring a potential threat. The long grass was scanned. Every now and then, we’d stop and stand still, listening. On the final occasion before the first discovery, Savko caught me frowning with concentration.

‘What?’

I shook my head. ‘Don’t know.’

‘Don’t give me that. What is it?’

‘Sort of...it’s a low buzz. It’s not like the anomalies I’ve heard before, and I can’t see one either.’

‘Does it sound electrical?’

‘I can’t tell.’

Savko, I knew, would be scowling at me behind his mask. ‘Smell anything?’

I shook my head. ‘Damp ground. Drying wood. Sap. Shit – all stuff I’d expect to smell.’

Savko grunted. ‘Right. Let’s move on.’

Our snail’s pace resumed. After twenty metres, I turned to check behind. It was clear, but as I turned to face front again I spotted a strange shimmer in the sunlight over by the wall to my left.

‘Boot,’ the Duty soldier at the rear of the other pair announced, having also turned to check the rear. As we looked to him, he pointed to something lying in the grass near a couple of large rocks just a few metres from where he stood.

‘Right, everyone stay still. Have a good look around.’

Four pairs of eyes scanned the surroundings. I checked behind again, peering even more intently into the areas dappled with light and shadow. The sun dimmed, then disappeared behind a passing cloud. And there, in an area of shadow that had been almost impenetrably dark until the sun disappeared and took the sharp contrast with it, was a familiar-looking shape. Even so, it took me a while to realize that I was looking at a gloved hand with the fingers exposed at the second knuckle. It took me a second or two longer to realize that wasn’t all there was.

‘Oh, fuck. Arm over there,’ I said, pointing, then noticed that the shimmer I’d seen was actually a small cloud of flies that had gathered in the shadow of the rock, and not the anomaly I’d mistaken it for. I swung my arm to point to the swarm. ‘And possible body there.’

‘Right. We appear to have found what we’re looking for, gentlemen,’ Savko said. ‘Let’s see what we can see...but have an eye out.’

Savko and I broke left, heading for the clawed hand and severed arm. Savko kept his attention at ground level, constantly on the lookout in case the critter was still around, which left me free to take a look around. The Bandits had been ambushed; the predator lying in wait until the last second before...what? Jumping down? Sprinting from a bush? I thought back to the creature I’d seen the other night, the way it had moved. While I had no doubt it could sprint when it had to, I thought it more likely that the thing would get above the prey and pounce down.

With that in mind, I scanned the rock face for ledges, outcroppings, anything that might offer the right advantage without requiring much effort to get up to – and that made the lying-up point easily discernible.

A narrow shelf protruded from the rock about five metres from the ground, half-hidden by natural angles and a screen of scrub that seemed desperate to take root among the crags. The climb itself looked to be a piece of piss for anything with strong muscles and tough claws.

I pointed to the ledge. ‘That’s the likeliest hiding place for whatever did it,’ I said, to which Savko had a quick look and nodded. ‘Want me to see if I can climb up and have a look?’

‘Think you can?’ he asked.

‘I can try, at least.’

Savko nodded, then turned his attention to the arm. ‘Completely torn off. Probably one swipe. Poor bastard was wearing a toughened jacket, too. See these?’ He indicated a couple of areas near the shoulder and under the arm. ‘They’re the edges of inserts and overlays. They should make jackets more durable. Chances are he’d also had extra materials added on the chest and back. Not Kevlar, but leather, at least. Maybe plastics too.’ He shook his head. ‘Ripped apart as if it was fucking paper. Go on. Get up that wall if you think you can. See what you can see.’

Handing him the L85, I attempted to climb the rock-face – no easy task, considering all the aches and pains I was still suffering – but was forced to give up with a just under couple of metres to go and clambered back down.

‘Something definitely got up there, Savko,’ I said, dusting my hands against my jacket. ‘There are clear marks in the rock that show that much, but whatever it was must have been fucking strong.’

‘Could mean nothing,’ he said, handing back my rifle. ‘Old marks, maybe?’

I nodded. ‘Maybe. But there was a right stink of shit the closer I got, maybe to mark territory or something, so something must have been up there fairly recently.’

‘Okay,’ Savko said, releasing a long-held breath. ‘Let’s have a look at Fly-blow over there.’

The cloud of flies dissipated as we approached, but quickly reformed as though reluctant to leave the body and eager to welcome some fresh meat to the feast. It was all right for Savko with his helmet; he just ignored any of the insects that decided to check him out. I, on the other hand, had to keep batting the things away as they tried to land and crawl into my eyes, nostrils, ears and mouth.

‘Shiiit,’ he said, fishing in the pockets and eventually recovering a PDA. He then mumbled something to the others before addressing me again. ‘We’ve got a chimera on our hands, Snorkbait. See the way the jacket’s torn down the front just so? Chimera’s claws make that pattern. Given the ripping off of that arm over there – you’ll notice this guy still has both of his attached, so the rest of whoever that was is still left for us to find – nothing else would fit anyway. Dogs lack the raw power needed for something like this and cats – a really big one – might be able to get close but...no. The only thing with the strength and the claws to do this...’ He tailed off to do a bit more mumbling that I couldn’t quite make out, then rose and led me away from the body towards where the soldiers had made other grim discoveries.

‘There are three over here altogether,’ one of the soldiers explained, I thought largely for my benefit; Savko must have already been notified over the helmet comms. ‘Two have just been ripped open. No armour, just plain unmodified leather jackets and trench coats. The third’s missing his head but is otherwise intact. There are spent cases everywhere. Weapons. Bags that have been torn open. There are items of small kit all over the place.’

I looked around at their side of the road. Unravelled bandages and the odd dented can seemed to be everywhere. Light reflected from cartridge cases and picked out other clusters of flies. I couldn’t remember seeing too many in The Zone before now, so Christ only knew where they’d all emerged from now.

Savko was nodding. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I think we’ve done enough here.’

‘Eh?’ I said. ‘You mean we’re not going to do anything now we’re here? You dragged me all this way, confiscating all my stuff, and you’re going to do fuck all in the end?’

‘Snorkbait...calm down. What you need –’

‘Oh, balls!’ I yelled. ‘All of this shit just to see a few ripped up bodies?
For fuck’s sake, Savko! You already knew they were Bandits! You already knew that, if we didn’t take them out and no one from the Farm had followed them south, they must have been whacked by the wildlife. And now –’

And now...I’m going to report it to the Colonel. And the Colonel will report it to HQ as well as contacting all our outposts, because chimeras, Snorkbait, are extremely dangerous. They’re also rare in this part of The Zone. You reported seeing something, true. But you still don’t know what you’re looking at for sure, and then –’

‘And then there’s the fact you all thought I was full of shit,’ I spat.

Savko nodded. ‘Basically, yes. We had to come and check things out anyway, but then...well...’

‘Wonderful,’ I muttered.

‘For God’s sake, Snorkbait, grow up,’ he snapped. ‘You’re behaving like a fucking teenager. Tell me you’d have done anything different. Go on, tell me. Tell me another lie.’

‘I’ve only lied once, for Christ’s sake, and I’ve explained why.’

'So. You. Say,’ Savko said. ‘How am I supposed to know? Are you really new to The Zone? Are you really a former Special Forces soldier? Christ, for that matter we’ve only got your word that you’re even British!’

‘What? Oh, fuck off, the lot of you,’ I said, turning to leave. Turning east, to head back south.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’

‘Mind your own fucking business, big nose.’

‘Halt.’

‘Bollocks.’

‘Snorkbait, halt, or we fire.’

‘Do what you bloody like! You seem to anyway.’

‘Snorkbait!’ Savko roared, evidently having removed his mask. I walked on, undeterred. ‘Right, don’t say you weren’t warned.’

Three rounds bounced off the road around me. I stopped. Turned around. All three men had their weapons trained on my chest.

‘You missed,’ I said.

‘We weren’t trying to hit you. That time,’ Savko replied. ‘Now get your ass back here. You’re going north, and only north. Either that or...’

‘Or what?’

‘Or you don’t leave here. And Snorkbait, bear in mind we can wound you and leave you here, rather than kill you outright. We’re standing in that chimera’s larder. We’re probably being watched right now.’

I looked around and shook my head, smiling. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said.
‘I don’t get that feeling.’

‘Forgive me if I don’t trust you on that. But either way, look at what we’ve found. Four bodies and a severed arm. Where’s the head from over here, Snorkbait? Where’s the rest of the body to go with the arm from over there?’

‘No idea. Maybe you think I nicked them.’

Savko shook his head. ‘More flippancy. Snorkbait, it’ll be back, even if it’s not around right now. It’s hunted. It has enough food here to last for days, and believe me, you won’t want to be near here when it comes back.’

‘And what if it went north? What if, by saying I can’t head south even ahead of you, you’re just sending me into harm’s way?’

He shrugged. ‘As I said earlier, The Zone will have done with you as it wished. Nothing to do with us.’

‘That’s bullshit and you know it.’

He shrugged again. ‘Maybe, maybe not. Either way, you’re not going south. North, and maybe run into the chimera, or stay here, and definitely have an encounter you’d rather avoid. Your choice.’

‘You’re a bunch of bastards,’ I said.

‘Perhaps, but we’re not alone. We’re just what you find in The Zone, Snorkbait. Don’t like it...well, you can always come back south in a few days’ time to jump the fence, go back to whatever life you had in the Big Land before.’

I shook my head. ‘There’s nothing for me out there.’

‘Then go north. Go now and you should be at Bandit Central well before dark. With luck, the chimera will still be sleeping off his meal. You have no other choice here.’

‘And just the other night I thought we were friends, at least of a sort,’ I said.

Savko looked at his feet. ‘Snorkbait, as a friend – of sorts – I’ll tell you this: no one in The Zone has friends, not really. We’re probably the sole exception, but we’re only loyal to each other and even then the true loyalty tends to be to specific individuals. Me, among others, to Colonel Petrenko and some of my men. These two, for example, who are also loyal to me. But outside...it’s dog eat dog. That's just the way it is.’ He rubbed a hand over his face, looking suddenly haggard and miserable. ‘North, Snorkbait. Go now.’

This time, I obeyed.
  03:13:48  31 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXIII

‘I don’t like it,’ Anatoly said. ‘It looks like a God-damned Hell-mouth.’

I nodded in agreement. The tunnel entrance looked terrifying in full daylight, gaping maw-like from a face of sheer stone. A long, cracked and faded concrete tongue led down into the depths and the high ground walled us in on either side, looming over us. I felt sorry for the folks who’d once had to pass this way en route to work every morning – though of course, The Zone as it was now hadn’t existed then; the threat of danger would have been far less. Still, it must have given a few people the odd shiver up the spine. It just seemed like one of the places where you knew you’d go in, but there was always the question of whether you’d make it back out.

‘What do you think?’ Anatoly asked, and became aware that I hadn’t replied yet, having only stood and gaped.

‘It easier to look at in the dark, that’s for sure,’ I said. ‘The way the road slopes down doesn’t help, does it? It makes you think you’re going to get –’

‘Swallowed,’ he finished. ‘It’s weird, too. It’s like more than just darkness in there. It’s not just a lack of light. It is...Black. Like an abyss.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘If it is one, though, I wouldn’t look into it for long if I were you.’

He looked at me askance. ‘Eh?’

‘Forget it,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘It’d take too long to explain. If you don’t know what I’m on about, you don’t know.’

‘Have it your way.’

Anatoly took a swig from his water bottle. Even though our pace could only be described as modest, the effort required and the rising humidity of the day had us both bathed in sweat. The clothes under my armour had become damp and clingy, feeling clammy against my overheated skin, and sweat rolled down my face to drip from nose and chin. Flies and midges buzzed around us, hesitant, hovering just out of reach before making an occasional run close to an ear. One landed on Anatoly’s neck, a fat, monstrous thing that he immediately tried to swat, but by the time his hand slapped down the insect was long gone.

‘Now I know why Stalkers try to travel light,’ he muttered, recapping his bottle and shoving it back into a side pouch. ‘It’s not just the bugs, though. Between dragging the stiff up the hill, chucking him into the anomaly, and then pulling all that shit along the path, I’m about done in. I’d kill to get these packs off, even for five minutes.’

‘Yeah, but then you wouldn’t want to put them back on, or you wouldn’t be able to carry them when you did. It’s better this way.’

‘So you say.’ He sighed. ‘What the fuck are we doing, Snorkbait? I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t given ourselves all the other shit to do. Instead we waste time pissing about with dead bodies that we could have left behind, and then there’s this pack of who knows what to lug around.’ He spat. ‘I don’t know why I should help carry it, anyway. None of it’s anything to do with me.’

‘It is now, whether you like it or not. Of course, if you want me to drag the loot on my own for a while, I can. I mean, now there’s no mud to slide it along on, the sack’ll just get worn through and things might fall out or get damaged. But hey, I’m sure the Stalkers this shit belongs to won’t mind. I’ll explain you got a bit tired and couldn’t be bothered to help anymore. They’ll understand. I mean, they’re reasonable people. They only wanted to throw me into an anomaly because they thought I’d stolen from them, so who knows what they might want to do to someone who stood by and let their belongings get smashed? I wouldn’t count on handshakes and gifts of gratitude, though.’

Anatoly afforded me a sour sidelong look. ‘Yes, yes. “We’ll do this Anatoly”, “We’re a team, Anatoly”. Seems like I’ve done nothing but work my way deeper into trouble since I ran into you. God only knows what you’d have done if I hadn’t come along.’

I smiled. ‘Easy. I’d have let the dogs have Aleks, then found a place to stash the spare gear, then humped the loot back to Autopark, and then come back up here for everything else later on.’

Anatoly glared at me. ‘What? So why didn’t we just leave Aleks to the dogs anyway? Why did we have to throw him in an anomaly?’

‘You know why. I explained...didn’t I?’

Anatoly waved me away. ‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man. Come on. Let’s go, if we’re going.’

Lifting the heavy loot pack between us, we waddled down the road, halting at the threshold of the entrance. Bright sunlight penetrated about ten metres into the tunnel, before seeming to be swallowed up by that looming, impenetrable black.

‘Why do I expect it to feel like walking into glue?’ Anatoly said. ‘Step forward and...goop! so long, Anatoly.’

I frowned, trying not to let my imagination linger on the image. ‘Don’t be daft. We’ll be fine. It’s bound to be dark in there, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a tunnel, when all’s said and done. It’s just that primal fear of the dark coming to bite us on the arse again.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but how do you know there’s not an anomaly that can mimic ordinary darkness? “Look, nothing to see, not a beep on the detector”, but step forward and you’re gone. Dissolved. Eaten. Something. Just like that.’ He snapped his fingers for emphasis – or tried to; his gloves made barely a sound, but I got the message.

‘Don’t let your imagination run away with you,’ I said, struggling to keep my own in check even more, now. ‘If anything like that existed here, we’d have heard about it. Something like that, Christ, it’d keep the campfire story-tellers going for years. They’re bad enough with their tales of bloodsuckers and controllers, from what I can tell. If you’re that worried, though, chuck a bolt or two, if you have any. See what happens.’

He grimaced so that he bared his teeth. ‘Fuck it. Let’s go. If we end up getting dissolved in a wall of black goo, though –’

‘I won’t be able to hear you say “I told you so”,’ I replied. ‘Hang on a sec, though. Let’s do what we can.’

‘What’re you going to do?’ he asked, but I’d already started giving it my best zombie impression.

Help me. Please, some...one. Help me. Help...me! Please! GAAAHH!

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Anatoly hissed. ‘You gone mad or something? What if there’s something in there?’

‘Hush,’ I snapped, turning my head so my left ear was pointing toward the tunnel before trying again. ‘Someone help...me! Help me. I’m sick. Please...help...me. Help me!

I thought I heard the echo of a distant shuffle, a stone kicked carelessly across the road, but I remembered the cracked and pitted surface, the damage that seepage had caused to the roof and walls. Rather than a boot kicking a loose stone, it could have been a chunk of concrete falling to the floor. Could have been. I moved to one side of the entrance and crouched, signalling for Anatoly to do the same.

Stal-ker. Helpme! Helpme! Heeelp!

I turned my head so my ear was pointing up the tunnel again, straining to hear the slightest noise. Apart from a distant dripping, there was no sound. More importantly, no one had decided to ‘help the zombie’ by letting a few rounds fly.

‘I think it’s safe,’ I whispered, rising and walking back to the centre of the road.

‘Good,’ Anatoly said. ‘Now do you mind telling me what the performance was all about?’

‘According to what I was told the other night, bloodsuckers like places like this, but apparently zombies scare the living shit out of them,’ I explained. ‘If there’s anything in there, pretending to be a zombie should tell you about it.’

‘And the bit with the crouching?’

‘I thought I heard something up there. I was just seeing if it was just normal decay I was hearing, or if there were Stalkers up there. I think it was just normal decay. Stalkers would have opened fire. I didn’t want us getting hit if that happened.’

‘Right. But they might have held fire because they couldn’t see anything to fire at, ever think of that?’

I nodded. ‘There’d have been movement, just in case the target presented itself suddenly. They’d have had to prepare. I heard nothing, so...’ I turned my head-lamp on. ‘Ready?’

He fished his lamp out of a jacket pocket and slipped the band around his head, flicking the on switch as he did so. ‘Let’s get on with it.’

We stepped forward into the tunnel proper, and quickly reached the end of the sunlit stretch of road. We’d taken half a dozen steps into the gloom before Anatoly exhaled and started breathing again.

‘Told you,’ I said, smiling. ‘Nothing to worry about.’

‘Yeah, well...’ he mumbled. ‘You never know what new anomalies The Zone might come up with.’

‘I don’t think it works like that, mate, but listen; there are anomalies later on. Fruit Punches. The thing is, you get this snuffly sound that’s like breathing. You’ll think there are things about to jump out at you, but there’s not. Or at least, there wasn’t anything the other day. In any case, don’t panic. If there’s anything, anything at all – movement, a different sort of sound – shout out. Do that and we should be okay. Mostly, though, just listen, right? Anything weird, speak.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘But how are you meant to know what’s weird from what’s not in this God-forsaken dump?’

The combination of the weight of the packs and our increasingly ungainly shuffle slowed us down immensely. Despite my advice to listen, all there was to hear was the sound of our laboured breathing as we made slow, sporadic progress. Our rest breaks became longer and more frequent, the distances we managed to cover between them less and less. I’d expected it to be cool in here, even cold. Instead it felt close, not warm, just oppressive and damp. Sweat ran from every pore but cooled too quickly. It felt horrible.

‘This is going to take all fucking day,’ Anatoly grumbled, after I called yet another rest stop. We hadn’t even reached the Fruit Punches yet; their first faint glow still lay hundreds of metres away, though we could already hear the beginnings of heavy breathing. It was disheartening to say the least, and as I checked my watch my worst suspicions were confirmed; we’d fallen way behind even my most conservative schedule. At our current pace, there was no way we’d make Autopark before noon – and the going was only going to get slower still as exertion began to take an ever-increasing toll. If we weren’t careful, we were going to knacker ourselves out.

‘I can’t believe those two carried all this stuff,’ Anatoly muttered. ‘Either they were on something, or we’re about ready for the retirement home.’

‘Well, being fair, they were rested and hadn’t been battered to fuck,’ I said. ‘Nor did they have to deal with that mud. That’s where we lost a lot of energy.’

‘Dragging old Laughing Boy didn’t help there.’

‘Bollocks. We’d have been slipping and sliding all over the shop in any case, and at least we got to use him as a sled.’

‘Yeah, but –’

‘Anatoly, for fuck’s sake, right or wrong it’s done now,’ I snapped, sliding the strap of the loot pack deeper into the crook of my left arm. ‘Now let’s get on. Slow and steady wins the race, or so they say. After that, we can piss off north and get your PDA sorted out. Hopefully.’

‘Yeah, about that,’ Anatoly said, slipping his arm back through the other strap and falling in beside me. ‘What’s the story again?’

‘Simple. I was at the house, you surprised me, and I shot you. Luckily, the round hit your PDA, destroying it.’

‘Why didn’t you detect my PDA?’

‘I had mine switched off. I’d forgotten to turn it back on after the drama of killing Aleks and taking Svetlana alive.’

‘And what if they can get it restarted? What if they can access it somehow? It won’t be my name. What then?’

I chewed my lip, thinking. ‘No idea, mate. I’ll think of somethi –’

‘Sh!’ Anatoly hissed, halting and dropping to one knee. He pulled his arm free of the pack and levelled his AK so it was pointed up the tunnel. ‘Did you see that?’

I slipped the strap from my arm and flicked the safety on my AK to off. ‘What am I looking for?’ I whispered.

‘I thought I saw something up ahead, a light. Just a flicker.’

‘How big?’ I asked, thinking of the way I’d seen mutants’ eyes shining from the trees during my night-time trek. I also couldn’t help but think of Rusty and the change his eyes had undergone as the waves of mutation had swept through him. Would they just reflect light as other animals’ eyes did, or was there some quality to Zone mutants that meant their eyes actually glowed regardless of light levels? I hoped it wasn’t the latter. If it was, pinpricks of light might not be at all good.

‘I don’t know. It was just a flicker,’ Anatoly said in answer to my question.

‘How many? One? Two? Was it like eyes, or a lamp?’

He swallowed. ‘I couldn’t tell. It was there and gone, and it was almost in the corner of my eye anyway. I think it was more like an eye, though. Just one.’

‘Lamps out,’ I said. ‘Keep facing forward. Tell me if you see anything again.’

‘Right.’

I stood and turned to face the way we’d come, sidling to what was now my left to create distance between us. It was disconcerting to think that anything could be creeping up on us in the dark, but leaving our lamps on would have reduced our chances of spotting faint gleams and glimmers, as well as acting as homing beacons for whoever or whatever was out there. After several minutes spent peering back through the unrelenting dark, I shuffled across to where Anatoly still crouched.

‘Anything?’ I murmured.

‘No,’ he mumbled back. ‘You?’

‘Nothing behind.’

‘Do we go back?’

‘Why? If it’s a creature up there, it won’t be coming out anytime soon even if we do go back and wait it out. If it isn’t – if it was just a random blob from one of the anomalies or if you only thought you saw something – we’d have ended up losing even more time for nothing.’

‘We carry on?’

‘We carry on,’ I said, flicking my headlamp back on and sliding my arm back into the strap. We’d walked for another five minutes when the voice boomed out of the darkness.

‘Snorkbait, you lying bastard! You were nowhere near the fucking entrance after all!’
  11:37:36  24 July 2010
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
Messages: 4290
Elementary.

Also:
---QUOTATION---

Anatoly came to a halt and started gulping water. He’d sneak glances at me every now and then from the corner of his eye, while I pretended not to notice.

---END QUOTATION---



http://img819.imageshack.us/img819/3663/anatoly24.jpg
  17:47:50  20 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch XXXII

‘We really should have left this bastard behind,’ Anatoly panted as we laboured up the slope to the anomaly field. ‘The dogs would have taken care of him, bones and all.’

I grimaced. ‘And if you’d got dropped yesterday, would you have wanted to be left for the dogs?’

We lapsed into silence again, the only sound being the slow, steady tramp of our boots and our efforts to suck down enough air to keep us going. There was nothing else to be done. The storm had turned the topsoil into a heavy, brownish mud that clung to anything it touched. Aleks’s body was covered with a thin layer of slick, shit-coloured muck, but at least it made him easier to move, even if we did have to keep a firm grip on his ankles by looping our arms around the leg so that the feet were anchored in our armpits.

‘You know what I don’t get,’ Anatoly said.

‘Go on.’

He skidded, paused, readjusted his feet. ‘Petrenko,’ he said, clambering back level with me. ‘Your report was all he knew about it.’

I removed a glove and wiped sweat from my eye. ‘And?’

‘Well, don’t you think that’s odd? I mean, why wouldn’t the Stalkers at the Farm report gunfire? They must have heard it.’

I slipped the glove back on and glanced up the bank. ‘I suppose they just assumed it was nothing to worry about. If there was no contact or pursuit, the Bandits must have got past during the storm after all. They wouldn't have known at the Farm. As far as they were concerned, we'd have been the ones to blame - assuming they heard anything at all. Now save your breath for a bit, yes?’

‘You pissed off at me?’ he asked.

I shrugged. Was I? A little, perhaps. Anatoly’s previously hidden attitude to foreigners in The Zone had made me uncomfortable, but I accepted that he had a point – to a point. It was, in fact, an attitude I’d expected to encounter more often. I’d been prepared for it and it didn’t bother me: I hadn’t come here to join the local appreciation society and knitting circle, after all. What did bother me, though, was the nationalist zeal that had shone through. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with the image of the misfit he’d already established. His actions had also gone some way towards blowing his ‘crap soldier’ story: he’d survived one, maybe two nights in The Zone, alone and unarmed; he’d taken his turn on stag without nodding off – something that I’d considered a distinct possibility – and had known enough about the L85 to give it a good clean. Okay, he’d also asked a few bone questions, but we all did from time to time...and again, they troubled me. Looking back, they almost seemed deliberate. Then there’d been his actions this morning. One minute he’d been having his breakfast, the next, he’d been at the fence, ready for action. It wasn’t an unexpected reaction in itself. The speed of it, however, was. It was closer to what I’d expect from a bloke in the Regiment, not some conscripted man who was, on his own admission, a crap soldier.

So was I pissed off at him? Yes, but not for the reasons he thought. I’d been put on my guard, but would keep my own counsel for now. Let him think I’d been offended by his anti-Western/foreigner rant; I’d been called far worse in my time, and if a British Sergeant-Major couldn’t shatter my self-respect, piss me off to the point of wanting to kill him, and reduce me to a shivering, snivelling wreck, I was pretty sure Anatoly expressing his personal opinion wasn’t going to upset me too much. If he thought I was stupid, though...well, he’d be in for a bit of a shock.

‘Ready?’ I said, and set off up the hill again, trying to keep to the slightly firmer, rockier areas when we found one.

‘Seen that?’ Anatoly said as we finally neared the crest of the rise.

‘Seen what?’

‘Over there,’ he said, nodding in the direction he wanted me to look. ‘Not much left, is there?’

Indeed there wasn’t. Half a shattered rib-cage, a mutated, deformed skull and what looked like a thigh bone was all that remained of the thing that had once been Rusty. The scavengers of The Zone were clearly done with the carcass now, and I grimaced at the meagre remains, wondering how long Aleks would last if we were to leave the body up here. A day? Would it really last that long? Or would he be gone before the sun dipped back below the horizon, with no trace of him left but a few scattered bones lying in the mud?

And how much is left of Petya? I thought in that strange voice-that-wasn’t. You remember him, don’t you? Petya, the man who ran. Can’t outrun a cat though, can you? No. No even an Olympic sprinter with the stamina of a marathon runner could outrun a cat – or a dog, come to that. Petya. Aleks. Is there really any difference? Why not leave the body here, go on? You’ll be quicker if you do. Just leave him to the dogs. He deserves it. It’s no different –

‘It is different, though,’ I said aloud.

‘What?’

I frowned. ‘Nothing. Forget it.’

‘Come on. Tell me.’

‘It’s nothing,’ I said, smiling and shaking my head. ‘Forget it. Just thinking out loud.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do. Now crack on. We’ll be here all day at this rate.’

We trudged on, and Anatoly gave a brief, breathless little cheer as we reached the small plateau between the relatively shallow farmstead valley and the lower ground of the swamps.

‘Right. Five minutes,’ I said, reaching for my water bottle and taking a sip. ‘Then we dump Aleks and crack on.’

Anatoly nodded, dropping Aleks’s foot and wandering towards the anomalies, chucking bits of debris ahead of him as he searched for a place to throw the contents of the bucket.

I sipped my water and fought the urge to sit down. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to get up again, and if I removed the packs, I knew I wouldn’t want to put them back on. The best solution – the only solution – was to stay on my feet with the load on my back. I didn’t even dare crouch.

A brief whoompf erupted from the anomaly field as one of the bolts, stones or whatever triggered a reaction, and Anatoly came to an immediate halt. I watched as he hurled our waste – bucket, crate-cover and all – into the waiting field, half-expecting a sudden spray of urine and semi-liquified excrement to be thrown back in our direction, but the anomaly swallowed it all – much to Anatoly’s relief, if the look on his face was anything to go by as he scraped a line in the mud with the butt of his AK and ambled back to where I waited. Soon enough, Aleks would get the old leg-and-a-wing treatment from that mark, an action that would finally close a long chapter of my time in The Zone.

But why am I dumping him in an anomaly? I asked myself. Why, when I’d taken no action against the cat or tried to rescue Petya’s body from being eaten? Why had leaving him there felt like the right thing to do, when doing the same to Aleks now felt entirely wrong? Where was the difference? Was there any?

‘I killed him,’ I muttered. ‘It’s different because I killed Aleks. I didn’t kill Petya.’

I knew a lot of people who’d probably disagree with that, but Petya had been killed by the cat; in a strange manner of thinking that I didn’t fully understand myself, that meant that Petya was the cat’s to dispose of as it wanted. Rusty had been killed by Anatoly, and so Anatoly had earned the final say on what happened there. Which meant, of course, that as I’d been the one to take Aleks’s life, the right of disposal was mine.

And don’t forget, he won’t be able to become a zombie, I thought, and nodded. There was that. I didn’t know exactly how it worked or what forces you’d have to be exposed to in order to be ‘preserved’ in such a way, but I’d want to spare anyone that fate – if it was my right to spare them.

Anatoly came to a halt and started gulping water. He’d sneak glances at me every now and then from the corner of his eye, while I pretended not to notice.

‘I’m sorry,’ he eventually said.

‘What for?’

‘What I said back there. I didn’t mean it.’

I sniffed and spat, sipped some more water. ‘Yes you did. And it’s okay, actually.’

He frowned. ‘What?’

I nodded. ‘I understand. I mean, I’m not exactly happy with what you said, but if this was, say, part of Cumbria and stretched into Scotland, I’d probably be a bit pissed off if all and sundry came wandering over instead of leaving it to the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh – though I include the last two only because they’re linked rather than in direct possession, a bit like Russia and the Baltic states are here.’

‘So?’

I sipped water again. ‘So I can accept your point of view, to a degree. The thing is though, Anatoly, with something like this there’s always going to be international interest. Misfits and desperadoes like me are always going to be drawn in. It wouldn’t matter if it’s here, in England, or in the middle of the African savannah – people would still come from all over. Obviously, the people of that country would get upset, but the locals would be even more so.’

He frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, let’s say The Zone had come into being in America. It could have happened; they had a problem with Three-Mile Island, after all. Or let’s say instead of the Chernobyl NPP going up, a reactor at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria had gone into meltdown during one of their closer calls. In those cases, the British and American governments would go mental if Ukrainians and Russians started coming over just to enter “The Zone”, let alone the ordinary people. But it’s easy to imagine how the real locals would feel. Northerners in England would get pissed off if English southerners turned up, while Cumbrians would get pissed off if people came up from Lancashire and Yorkshire, even though they’re fellow “northerners”. Or, to put it another way, if aliens turned up tomorrow to have a nose around, all the people of Earth would start complaining. Why? Because it’s always ours, and that attitude works across all levels. Shit, come down to it, you’d probably get arguments go on about which town or village owned the “honour”. You say I don’t belong, and I can understand that. I bet if you were to find whoever used to run that place, though –’ I jerked my thumb back in the direction of the smallholding. ‘They’d be just as pissed off with you for being here, even if you are a fellow Ukrainian. Because, to them, you wouldn’t belong. This place wouldn’t be yours.’

Anatoly nodded. ‘Well, sorry again anyway,’ he said.

I put my water away. ‘Forget it. I might understand where you were coming from, but that doesn’t mean I accept it. The fact is, the geographical location doesn’t matter. Chernobyl and all the rest of it happened worst to Ukraine and Belarus – fine. Of course it did. But it also happened to the rest of the world, to greater or lesser degrees. You want The Zone to be just yours? Great. Tell you what: I’ll go back home right now. I’ll walk out of here, jump back over the wire tonight. I know where we left the car, more or less. I’ll drive back into Kiev, play the dickhead who’s lost his passport, and get them to send me home. And then I’ll get all the UK farmers who’ve lost livestock and ended up with mutated lambs and the like to send pictures and any fresh mutations to the Ukraine. After all, if you want to own The Zone, you can own all of the aftermath of the events that created it.’

Anatoly glared at me. ‘It wasn’t our fault! We didn’t ask for this to happen, any of it!’

‘I know. I’m trying to show you that, however much I understand your point about foreigners, there’s a counter-argument that you should try to understand. There is no right and wrong. There is no them and us. What happened, happened, but it happened to us all, as a species. Some – the local populations – got it worse than others, and that’s no different whether you talk about Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, the incidents will the Sellafield/Windscale nuclear piles, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or the nuclear testings sites in the Pacific. Some got it worse, but these things happened to us all.’ I reached over and slapped his arm. ‘Come on. Let’s forget it now and get on. We've got a way to go and daylight's wasting.’
  17:33:11  20 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXI

Heedless of the risk from anomalies, I rolled to my left rather than dropping straight to the ground. I’d be too exposed out on the track, and although the initial burst hadn’t been directed at me, it didn’t mean the next one wouldn’t be.

Twisting my body as I continued to roll into the longer grass, I finally came to rest a few feet from the track and facing the empty road.

Gunfire rattled again: a couple of AKs were blatting away on automatic fire to the accompaniment of an MP5. The heavy bass of a shotgun boomed once, then again. Someone screamed. The firing stopped. Something made a low, om-nom sort of growl and more gunfire erupted. Someone else screamed and the sound of the AKs suddenly became less. The firing petered out again. Small arms fire crackled. Stopped.

I rose to one knee, still with the AK into my shoulder even though the contact sounded too distant to pose any immediate threat. The road remained empty. The trees beyond waved summer foliage. It was once more as peaceful as it had been mere moments ago, before The Zone decided to show its teeth, but I wasn’t buying the deception. Not this time.

I turned and looked back towards the courtyard. Anatoly was at the fence, AK in the aim, muzzle swinging left and right as he scanned for targets.

‘Anatoly!’ I called, and his AK lowered slightly as he looked at me. ‘Moving!’

Anatoly made a ‘Come on’ gesture with an arm, and I sprinted the thirty metres or so back to the fence, taking a position on the opposite side of the entrance. We watched and waited in silence, covering our arcs, and I kept an eye on the tree-line on the other side of the road. Off to our left, a couple of dogs scampered towards the track, agitated and excited by the sudden commotion. We ignored them. They weren’t a problem as long as they didn’t start wandering in our direction.

‘What was all that about?’ Anatoly finally asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.

‘No idea, mate. Nothing good, that’s for sure.’

‘Bandits?’

I shrugged. ‘Might be. Petrenko said there’d been no reported problems in the night, but...’

‘But what if those Stalkers at the farm have dropped the ball?’

‘Or been paid to.’

‘I can’t believe any group of Stalkers would take a bribe. One or two, maybe, but all of them?’

‘Anything’s possible,’ I said.

Another low on-nom growl rolled down.

‘That’s why the firing stopped, then,’ I muttered.

‘What?’

I pointed north. ‘That growling sort of noise. I heard it before. Whoever it was must have been attacked by a critter of some kind, probably that thing we saw last night. That growling must mean they’re all dead and the creature’s warning everything else to stay away.’

‘Still doesn’t explain what they were doing there – if they were Bandits, I mean. How did they get past the Stalkers, if not by giving them a bribe? Do you think the Stalkers have been killed? It’d leave the farm wide open. Bandits would control the road south.’

I thought for a moment and shook my head. ‘No. There are other groups of Stalkers and Duty guys over there. Any firefight involving the farm would have been reported to Petrenko.’

‘Unless they were taken out with silenced weapons. Or knives.’

I scratched my chin as I ran that scenario through my head. My fingers found a raised, tender lump that could only be a bite, blister or zit. I left it alone for now, not wanting to risk an infection, and made a mental note to get it checked once we were at the Autopark. If it was some sort of blister, the cause might pose a problem. I was all too aware that The Zone had increased levels of radiation even in the quietest spots. I was also aware that I’d been without any sort of protection for a chunk of my first day here, and God only knew how contaminated that swampy pool had been...

‘Snorkbait?’ Anatoly prompted. ‘What d’you think?’

‘A covert op against the farm? I don’t think that’s the Bandits’ style,’ I said. ‘From what I could gather before the Autopark gig, they’re more organised now but are still a long way from having that sort of finesse – or firepower.’

‘Maybe, but don’t forget in the Big Land they’re from underworld gangs. Some of them are ex-military, soldiers gone bad when they returned from their service and couldn’t get a job. Or perhaps they were already in those circles in the first place and just returned to what they’d known before. Life hasn’t been easy for a lot of people since Communism fell and the Soviet state broke up. Most have put up with it and aspired to more, but...’

‘But you’ve always got people willing to do anything to get ahead as well as those who’re just desperate to survive,’ I nodded. ‘I know. It’s pretty much the same all over.’

Anatoly nodded now. ‘Yes, but life is even cheaper in the East than in the West,’ he said. ‘The people these gangs attract...they have nothing at all left to lose. There’s no other way for them to make it. Some even think being killed would be doing them a favour. It makes them ruthless, Snorkbait. Generally, they are not people to be crossed...or underestimated.’

I smiled. ‘I know. A desperate man with a weapon should never be taken lightly. In any case, Russian gangs have been considered a potential threat to UK national security for quite a while now. That means people like me have been made aware of them. We’ve studied their methods, their tactics...we’re aware; they know it, and we know they know it. We’ve got a healthy respect for each other, don’t worry. What I’m saying now is, getting your hands on a certain type of weapon is a long way from being able to carry out a covert op, especially as there are bound to be former gang members and ex-military types among the Stalkers, too. Neither side has the edge over the other, if it comes to that. It’d be about numbers and organisation, which is probably one reason why Duty have weighed in. If there’s one thing the Free Stalkers would lack, it’s organisation.’

Anatoly sighed. ‘All I’m saying is, don’t rule anything out.’

‘I won’t.’

Anatoly bobbed his eyebrows, but let the subject drop. ‘You going to make a report?’

‘I should, but knowing Petrenko he’ll want us to check it out if he finds out we’re still here. It might not make any difference, but if I tell him we’re already at the tunnel, be sure to back me up if the time comes, right?’

Anatoly nodded. ‘Sure. I don’t want to have to go up there any more than you do.’

I shook my head. ‘That’s not it, mate,’ I said. ‘I’d go up there if I had to. The thing is, I’ve just got the feeling that old Two-Heads got the drop on some unexpected prey. In any case, whoever it was had more bayonets than two, but they still got taken out.’

Anatoly frowned. ‘What do you mean by “unexpected prey”?’

I filled him in on the theory that had occurred to me on the track. His face fell, became ashen.

‘So you think it picked up our scent, found it wasn’t on or near the track, and reasoned that we must be taking shelter in the house? You think it then deduced our overall direction of march, decided that we’d continue north this morning, and got out of sight so it could lie in wait for us?’

I nodded. ‘That’s pretty much what I just said, isn’t it?’

‘And you really think it could be that cunning? Like it’s got some sort of proper intelligence?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know, mate. It’s just a feeling, like the feeling I get that whatever it is, it’s not what you might call a “natural” mutation. I think that thing was probably made in a lab somewhere.’

‘But...why?’

I smiled, grimly. ‘If one of those things really did take out an armed group of people – and I counted four or five weapons being discharged – imagine what a dozen could do in time of war, or fifty. Or a hundred. Release them near the lines or drop them in enemy territory and...’

He shook his head. ‘Carnage.’

‘Hell of an effective terror weapon, eh? If they could be controlled somehow, by something only your side had, no nation would dare stand against you. Or if they did – well who’d know where these creatures came from? They’re the ultimate deniable asset.’ I nodded to indicate the road. ‘No sign of anything up there for now, though. We’d better move. I’ll keep watch and report to Petrenko while you get the fire put out and make ready to move Aleks, okay?’

Anatoly nodded and scuttled over to the already dying fire while I drew the PDA from my pocket.

‘Colonel Petrenko. Snorkbait. Gunfire heard south of DV. Sounds distant from our location. No sign of pursuit involving us. Any reports of a contact near DV Farm? Any pursuit of hostiles south of DV barrier? Over.’

A scrabbling sound behind me caused me to whirl around, but it was only Anatoly clambering into the kitchen. A patch of kicked-up earth and a mound of mud was all that remained of the fire, and his AK was propped against the wall. I shook my head and turned to face north again. I then backed up to the corner of the house, still keeping my eyes on the road. A few more dogs wandered over to join in the fun near the track and were busily sniffing the ground before raising their muzzles to the wind. A head swivelled in our direction and a thin whine escaped the animal. It took two cautious steps towards our position and the whining became more intense. Other dogs began to pay attention to their excited comrade. Three more steps and the high whine abruptly cut out. Slowly, I levelled the AK and took aim at the dog’s head. It yapped once and snarled, breaking into a gentle run as it headed for the yard. I waited until it reached the entrance, then squeezed the trigger. The round hit it squarely in the forehead, just above the eyes – or at least above the empty, puckered sockets where the eyes would have been, had the fucking things been able to see. The dog crumpled with barely a grumble of protest, and the rest of the pack scattered. Less than a second later, Anatoly’s head appeared through the window.

‘What the –’

‘Relax. Just warning the wildlife not to get too curious.’

He craned round to look at the dead dog. ‘Right. In that case, when you’ve finished picking on the mutants, can you maybe give me a hand?’ he said, stooping to get a better grip on Aleks’s body and boosting the corpse halfway out of the window.

I slung my rifle, got hold of the corpse’s arms and pulled. Splinters of mostly-rotten window frame tore away and pierced Aleks’s skin as we pushed and heaved the body outside, but I didn’t care; it wasn’t like he could feel anything.

You hope, an interior voice said, and my mind flashed an image of the zombies from the tunnel at me. The idea that Aleks could be such a thing and might come back to that half-life at any moment almost caused me to shudder in revulsion. A couple of minutes later and Aleks had been dumped unceremoniously over the fence.

‘Had any response from Duty yet?’ Anatoly asked, squeezing through the gap and watching as I wrestled to get the loot pack onto Aleks. With all our other kit needing to go on our backs, the loot, and the bucket to dispose of, there was no way we could manage everything ourselves. As it was, Anatoly would have one of Aleks’s feet in one hand and the waste bucket in the other; one of us needed to have a weapon ready to hand, just in case. It was just Anatoly’s bad luck that he’d drawn the short straw and ended up hauling the shit. Of course, being a fair-minded sort, I hadn’t rigged it that way at all.

I finished finished attaching the pack to the corpse and straightened. shaking my head. ‘The Colonel’s probably trying to find out what’s going on. Most likely, the people up at DV don’t know anything about it.’

Anatoly grunted. ‘Are they really that bad?’

‘Must be, if it was Bandits that got attacked.’

He shook his head and shrugged into his main pack. ‘Not good, is it? First Bandit raid, not even a real test, and the whole defensive scheme falls apart. They should leave the Military to run the show.’

‘Most of Duty are military. Ex, anyway.’

‘That’s what I mean. I might have my problems with the army, but Military plus Duty equals no Bandit problem. Why ordinary Stalkers need to be involved at all is beyond me. They’re a liability and shouldn’t even be there in the first place.’

‘Nor should the Bandits, mate. Or Duty, come to that. Thing is, people are always going to want to get in, especially if there’s the chance of making money. Criminal gangs were bound to make a bee-line for this place once the story about the original lone Stalkers got out. If nothing else, they’d have wanted to bully the Stalkers and get a cut for doing nothing. Without all the Stalkers and other factions, the gangs would have ended up running this place, more or less, and I suppose in the end the Military thought they might as well use the Stalkers to their advantage, since they were going to be here anyway. It’s not in anyone’s interest to let gangs from the Big Land run the show in here.’

‘Proper sweeps would erase the Bandits. The Zone would be open to proper research again.’

‘But wasn’t that part of the original problem? Didn’t the first Stalkers find a niche that the scientists and soldiers weren’t prepared to fill, by going into the deep Zone to look for rare artefacts? If they filled a role, you can’t blame others for coming in search of their own fortune.’

‘Money,’ Anatoly spat. ‘It’s all anyone cares about now. We could learn so much from The Zone. Instead, we set about fighting over who controls access to the artefacts when the answer is clear: the Government of the People does. It’s not for private researchers, collectors, or foreign powers. It’s ours. It belongs to Ukraine.’

‘What about the Belarusian side?’ I asked.

He waved agitatedly. ‘Yes, yes. That’s theirs, too. It’s not the Bandits’, it’s not Duty’s. It’s certainly not yours –’

‘What do you mean, “it’s certainly not” mine?’

‘Because you’re a foreigner, a Westerner. You of all people don’t belong here. The Zone is not yours.’

‘That’s a bit like saying Eastern Europeans shouldn’t go to live in London because it’s not theirs,’ I said. ‘My reason for coming here wasn’t financial. I just wanted –’

‘Whatever,’ Anatoly said. ‘Even when I was the other side of the wire, we heard stories of Westerners in The Zone. Some were just Stalkers, others became smugglers. This much we knew. But rumours reached us, even humble guards like myself, that The Zone had also been infiltrated by foreign agents, Westerners, soldiers and mercenaries sent to explore The Zone for Western interests.’

‘Well,’ I began, but was interrupted by the PDA bursting into life.
Snorkbait,’ Petrenko’s voice crackled. ‘No contact, no pursuit concerning Dark Valley Stalkers. Are you sure of the location? Over.

I glanced at Anatoly, who rolled his eyes in disbelief. ‘Are we fucking sure. Jesus Christ,’ he mumbled. ‘What does he think we are, old ladies scared of a few loud bangs?’

I smiled. ‘Colonel Petrenko. Affirmative. Gunfire definitely this side of DV border. Over.’

Petrenko’s response was a lot quicker this time. ‘Snorkbait. Say your current location. Over.

I glanced at Anatoly again. ‘Here it comes, just you watch.’ I raised the PDA. ‘Colonel Petrenko. We are at the tunnel entrance. Repeat, we are at the tunnel entrance. Over.’

Snorkbait. Hold position until Duty patrol reaches you. Acknowledge. Over.

Anatoly looked at me, wide eyed. ‘We can’t hang around near the tunnel, Snork,’ he muttered. ‘It’s too dangerous.’

I knew. From what I could remember, there’d be little or no cover and the danger from mutants would be far greater. More, there was nowhere for us to safely leave our packs in the event of a drama. We’d be weighed down, unable to move far or fast in case of attack...

‘Colonel Petrenko. Negative, repeat, negative. Area insecure. Be advised we are carrying heavy loads and our mobility is compromised. No safe place to offload. Apologies, but request denied. Over.’

Anatoly spat. ‘Shouldn’t have bothered radioing,’ he said. ‘You already knew what he was going to say, so why bother?’

‘And if it had been reported by someone else? All it’d need is the Valley lot to report gunfire to the south and –’

Snorkbait. Acknowledged, but I say again, hold position until relieved by Duty patrol. Acknowledge. Over.

I glanced at Anatoly, who arched his eyebrows at me. ‘I’m going, either way,’ he said.

‘Fuck’s sake,’ I muttered. ‘Colonel Petrenko. Again, sorry, but negative to your request. We are already en route to Autopark and cannot afford to deviate. We’re coming in. Snorkbait out.’ I powered down and shoved the PDA into my pocket.

‘Is that wise?’ Anatoly asked. ‘I mean, how are we going to know if anyone’s around?’

‘We’ll just have to do it the old-fashioned way, I guess. Besides, we’re already meant to be at the tunnel. He’ll just assume we’re already in there and the PDA can’t get a signal. Now, let’s make sure these packs are secure and get a wriggle on, shall we? We’re already meant to be at the tunnel, after all.’
  17:24:41  20 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

Message edited by:
snorkbait
07/20/2010 17:25:17
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXX

Quite a bit later than first mentioned, but better late than never. I hope.

*****

‘Wakey, wakey,’ I called, giving Anatoly’s feet a kick.

‘Eh? What’s going on?’ he muttered, trying to sit up and only making it onto an elbow. ‘What time is it?’

‘Nearly six. Bucket’s outside, and if you want a hot breakfast you’d better shift your arse. Fire goes out in ten minutes.’

‘There’s a fire?’ he said, sitting up properly. ‘How?’

‘Magic,’ I said, winking. ‘Or, there was a fuel can in the back of one of those cars, with just enough petrol in it. Without it, I have ended up rubbing sticks together – and all the sticks are still wet.’ I went to the hatch.

‘Is it safe? To have a fire, I mean?’

‘Safe enough, mate. After all, we’re going to be gone soon. The path’s clear to the north, and I’ve already radioed Petrenko to see if there were any problems at DV reported in the night. According to him, they didn’t see or hear a thing, so we’re pretty much home and hosed. Give me a shout if you need a hand getting your gear downstairs.’

I dropped back through the hatch and went outside. The sun was up and was already quite strong. It looked as if it was going to be one of those hot, sticky days, which meant that, assuming the weather held, we’d want to be at Autopark by mid-morning – something that was by no means certain, given the weight we’d be carrying. If we were any later, the heat and humidity would be murderous, and I didn’t fancy waiting around in the tunnel for the day to start winding down.

I took the PDA from my pocket, wondering if I should contact Petrenko again and make another request for help. It wouldn’t speed us up by much, but... I shook my head. By the time help and cover for Autopark was finally organised, we’d be lucky if we were met this side of half way. And that was assuming Petrenko didn’t simply dismiss the request. Yesterday had been different. Yesterday, we’d had Svetlana to escort and protect, if she was to face something like justice. With her gone...well, Anatoly and I were Stalkers; we had to stand or fall on our own. If we made it back, fine. If we didn’t...that was The Zone.

A clump from inside the house told me that Anatoly already had such thoughts. Even after I’d made the offer of help, he preferred to deal with his own stuff in his own way. I shrugged, thumbing over to the Contacts page. Nothing. Not that that meant anything, of course; if I could switch my PDA off and on at will, others could do the same with theirs. Even so, I felt a little more relaxed. It was nothing more than a feeling, but I thought we were entirely alone out here. We didn’t even have anything to fear from the dogs.

This was The Zone as I’d wanted it to be: quiet and peaceful, free from everyday hurly-burly, a place where I could make my own way and just live. It wouldn’t always be so idyllic – in fact, I had the idea that silence and solitude might be the exception rather than the rule I had once assumed here – but for now at least the critters were behaving themselves, the weather was fine, and I was as organised as I needed to be. It was as it should be. All was right with the world.

Well, almost all. There was the smell, after all. I’d noticed it as soon as the sun got warm enough to start drying everything out and the odours of wet earth, rotting or rotten vegetation, old, damp wood and rusting metal mixed enough to create the sort of melange I’d not experienced since I was a kid playing in the woods near my home. There, the surrounding industry – electro-plating works, an aluminium plant, a timber merchant’s, a breaker’s yard – had generated a combined sappy, metallic, oily smell that drifted over the canal to permeate the old woodland. The mingled stench of industry, mostly stagnant water, and ageing was something I’d come to associate with childhood and ‘Home’. Yet here was that same smell, where whatever factories still existed stood far-off and disused and my youth was nothing but a distant – and increasingly hazy – set of memories.

‘At least I’m home, though,’ I muttered. ‘If that’s what this place actually is.’

I shook my head, feeling my previously pleasant mood slipping from me. I knew better than to chase after it and try to bring it back. Best to let it go and hope it would wander back of its own accord, like a nervous cat in a new house. In the meantime, I could run through weapons checks and rehearse mag changes, sidearm draws and the like. In the end, it would not be time wasted. I’d then do one last short patrol while I waited for Anatoly to finish his meal and make himself ready.

‘Morning,’ Anatoly said from the kitchen window, leaning out and watching me run through stoppage drills. ‘Expecting trouble?’

‘You know what they say, mate: “Be prepared”, “Train hard, fight easy”. All that sort of motivational bollocks.’

He grunted and inclined his head.

‘Got your stuff ready?’ I asked, more or less rhetorically.

‘Yeah.’

‘Let’s have it, then. I’ll drop it with mine.’

‘Where is yours?’ he said, looking around.

I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. ‘Other side of the fence. It’s safe enough while you eat. After that we grab Aleks and get the packs sorted. Then we head out.’

‘Right,’ he said, and ducked back inside.

Five minutes later, he was crouching by the fire cooking a lump of spam on the end of his knife, his packs were safely stowed next to mine, and Aleks’s body lay in the kitchen, waiting for his fairly short final trip to the anomaly field.

‘Shame we couldn’t do anything about his final ejections,’ Anatoly muttered, chewing on a piece of almost-black cooked meat.

I frowned. ‘I suppose whatever flies are about will take care of that.’

‘Hm,’ he grunted. ‘Still, it’s not going to be a nice place to visit for a while.’

‘Maybe, maybe not. If you feel that bad about it, go and clean it up.’

He smiled. ‘I’m not that concerned,’ he said. ‘I was just...making conversation, I suppose.’

‘And what a lovely topic you chose,’ I said, grabbing my AK. ‘Don’t tell me; you never had a girl, did you?’

‘Actually, I did, once. Back in school. I thought she was pretty cool. She was into entymology.’

‘What?’

‘Bugs. She was into bugs.’

‘I know what it is, mate. It’s just...it’s a bit of a strange hobby for a kid to have, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a bit...crap.’

‘Why? What were you and your “friends” interested in when you were “kids”?’

I shrugged. ‘Football. Cars. Music. Shagging, once we got to fifteen or so – though some of the girls had been keen on shagging for a while by then, as it turned out. We were playing catch-up. It was just more of the same from then on, really, at least for most of them.’

‘I see. Sounds...crap.’

‘It was. Why do you think I got out of it and joined the Army?’ I began to walk away.

‘Where’re you going?’ Anatoly asked.

‘Just having a look round. I won’t be long.’

‘You sure there’s no one around out here?’

‘Yeah, according to the PDA, we’re on our own. I’m not going far in any case. To be on the safe side, though, don’t expose your back and obviously, if there’s any sign of trouble, give me a shout.’

Anatoly nodded and shifted so that his back faced the side of the house.

‘See you in a bit, mate,’ I said, and left the yard, keeping a steady, even pace. All my senses were alert now. I could smell the fire, the cooking meat, the heavy odour, so similar to the one from my youth, that had killed my good mood earlier...I could even detect a hint of wet dog and shit on the breeze. My ears were fine-tuned, endlessly sifting for odd sounds – a rustle that shouldn’t be, footfalls both human and animal – and my eyes constantly scanned for ‘anomalies’: an odd print, a strange shadow, branches that waved too much or too little relative to the wind...I relied on them all. Even tiny changes that prickled against exposed skin were processed and analysed for meaning. What might that sudden tingle mean? What about the gentle but insistent pull away to my right? Anomalies? Imagination? Of course, I had detectors to monitor my surroundings, but in a sense the gadgets were only there as back-up; a truly successful Stalker would use them, sure enough, but not at the expense of honing the senses and trusting to instinct. A bit of kit might break or fail in some other way; observation and developing a keen ‘ear’ for what intuition had to say would then prove invaluable.

My thoughts turned to the creature I had seen ambling along the path during the storm. What had it been? Where had it gone to? It hadn’t come back towards the house, that was for sure. The whatever-it-was had been one of the things I’d kept a very watchful eye out for. From the way it had sniffed the air, it must have known where we were – or had at least figured it out.

I stopped. Could it have worked it out? I remembered being struck by a feeling of intelligence in the creature that went beyond the usual low cunning of most animals. Had it wandered into our part of The Zone, attracted by the smell of death and blood, only to pick up another set of scents – ours – leading away from the dead bloodsucker? And what then? Had it followed the trail until it realized where we’d been headed? Had it then skirted the perimeter, thinking it knew the direction we’d taken, only to find there was no sign of our tracks farther on? And was it possible for the thing to realize what this must mean?

I shivered despite the warm sun. Was it out there even now, watching me draw ever closer? Had it reckoned on our passing by its ambush site on the way north, having deduced that we’d head that way once the storm had passed?

‘How fucking clever are you?’ I muttered.

‘Snorkbait! Hey, Snorkbait! I’m done here!’ Anatoly yelled.

I turned to give him a thumbs-up. That was when the shooting began.
  15:56:57  6 April 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

Note: The climate/political stuff isn't an expression of fact or my own personal opinions. It's 'future/alternate world' stuff and expressions of opinion belong to the character(s), right or wrong. So don't go haranguing my ass with stuff, OK?

*****

I opened the curtains to find it had snowed during the night. I’d known it had been cold – there had been a nip in the bedroom despite the efforts of the central heating – but not that cold. So much for the ‘experts’ telling us we wouldn’t get winters like this anymore: sorry, kids, but snowballs are a thing of the past and Santa’s going to need to fork out for some tyres. What a load of old bollocks that had been. Several theories and explanations that had been taken for truth had since been shown to be wrong. Now some talking head was saying the climate in the late Nineties and early Noughties could have been affected by a ‘perfect storm’ of solar activity – Earth going through the tail of a coronal mass ejection (that would have flash-fried us with no bother had we been hit full-on) coupled with the height of the usual eleven-year cycle and a period of intense sun-spot activity, which was linked to but not the same as the regular cycle. New theories abounded, usually about how science – as led by former hippies now retired – could have been so misguided, if not actually derailed by vested interests and pet theories. In-fighting continued, politicians stuck to their social engineering and control agendas, and markets fluctuated wildly as the environment industry flirted with collapse.

In the midst of it all, the energy companies were busily making another killing. Back in the days of global warming and man-made climate change, they’d ramped the prices to ‘help reduce consumption’, ‘help save the planet’ and, of course, to ‘satisfy market forces’. Now that we’d apparently be settling back into something like the old pattern – whatever that had been and whenever it had occurred – they were claiming shortage of stocks, surprise at the cooler climate, and, again, market forces. The bottom line was that prices went up by many times the rate of inflation, sometimes as often as three or four times a year. They couldn’t lose.

Nor could the oil giants, it seemed. The price of fuel had soared – with the Government creaming about seventy per cent in duty and other taxes – and sent the cost of living through the roof.

None of which took the financial circumstances of the majority into account. As bills got higher, people increasingly found that the pips weren’t just squeaking, but screaming in agony. Jobs continued to ebb and flow – but mostly ebb – and the more people there were out of work, the lower wage offers became. People fell into grinding poverty despite appearing relatively affluent. Before they’d been silenced by new legislation, some newspapers had even run stories about people starving to death. Meanwhile, Governmental concern lay with the European, not the national, economy. Unemployment of up to fifteen per cent was deemed acceptable in many West European countries, because the Euro economy as a whole was still okay with those figures and maybe things would get better in the long run. Even so, an estimated ten per cent were doomed to be permanently out of work. Things were no bed of roses in Eastern Europe, either. In order to remain competitive, employers there were keeping wages low and engaged in efforts to drive them lower. Faced with this, many continued to flee to Britain in search of a better future – only to go back again when they found that the natives didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms, that work was scarce, and that the cost of living was eye-wateringly high.

On top of all this, crime had increased due to hardship, with muggings, stabbings and burglaries occurring on a far greater scale than the official figures were allowed to show. The average person in the street could see that law and order was crumbling, that society was breaking down, but they weren’t listened to and nothing was done. For now. One day, action would be taken, and it would take the form of curfews, changes to law, and the destruction of real democracy and freedom…and the majority of people, given a semblance of sanity in the world again, would rejoice at their new serfdom and welcome the tools of their oppression. It was depressing to contemplate and I hated what I had once fought to protect. Indeed, I hardly recognised it. The world had changed, moved on, and I found it despicable and vile.

But the scene outside was almost from a different world; a place that was peaceful and soothing. It reminded me of times past, in my childhood, when I’d woken in the depths of winter to find ice on the inside of the windows and deep, untrodden snow covering the world beyond. Not often, true – and certainly not as often as was often said – but…sometimes. And those occasions had always been special.
I gazed out, rapt, transported back through all the years, past all the things I had seen. A robin darted from a nearby tree and landed on the bird table Nikki had insisted we get. I laughed out loud, a boy once more, just for an instant.

‘Breakfast,’ Nikki called from downstairs, and I wondered why she’d let me lie in while she was up and already busy. It wasn’t like her to do that. She must be after something. Or perhaps she’d been planning something. Secret plans seemed most likely; I could have sworn I’d heard her talking to someone on the phone before, despite the early hour.

‘Coming!’ I called back, wondering where I’d put my jumper…and then there I was at the table, jumper not only found but already on. Magic. I wished every day could be like this.

‘What’s the plan for today then?’ I asked. Somehow, I knew this was Saturday – had been Saturday, anyway, because all this had already happened, bar the magic teleportation to the table, and this particular Saturday had been around six months ago – but it could have been any day, or every day.

I’m dreaming, I thought.

Are you? a voice that wasn’t really a voice answered.

‘How about we go into town later?’ Nikki said. ‘Carvell’s has got a sale on, and Sandra says Dorothy Perkins have reduced their prices again. Twenty per cent off trousers, she said.’

‘More clothes? How many more do you need, Nix? The wardrobes are heaving with your stuff as it is.’

‘What? Don’t you want me to look smart at work? Just because you’ve done nothing since leaving the Army…’

‘Don’t start,’ I said, buttering a slice of toast. ‘And that’s part of what I mean: Sandra’s got a good job and her ex forks out no end in maintenance for her and Suzy. Amy’s single and lives with her folks since she split from whatever his name was. Laura’s fucking loaded as well, her and that bloke she’s shacked up with. We can’t compete with that.’

‘And no wonder. Ever see the thing in common, Stephen darling? They all work.’

I slammed the knife down. ‘Jesus Christ, anyone would think I’ve never done anything in my life, the way you carry on,’ I said. ‘If I’d been out of the Army and out of work for years, without even looking for anything I could do, I’d give way. Jobs don’t grow on fucking trees, you know, and there are skilled, experienced people who got laid off a couple of years ago that are still out of work!’

‘That’s them. I’m talking about you,’ she snapped.

‘Why are you so keen on competing with your friends anyway?’ I demanded. ‘If you’re so unhappy with your choice of husband, you shouldn’t have dropped your fucking knickers at the first sight of a uniform, should you? Tell you what, I’ll fuck off over to The Fixer’s place and see what he’s got. It’ll mean me going off to fight again, but hey, it’s money, and more of it than your precious fucking friends will see in many a year if I get the right job. Or maybe I ought to start flogging drugs to the kids outside the local schools. How’d that be? It’s all money, right?’

‘You’re being stupid. I’m going to feed the birds,’ she said, shrugging into her coat.

‘Don’t call me fucking stupid!’ I bellowed.

She slammed the door. My coffee cup hammered through the glass section barely a second later.

That’s not right, I said in my waking conscious mind. I never threw anything at her. I’d never have done anything that might hurt her, no matter how much she pissed me off. I loved her too much.

Really? that maddening voice/feeling said. Why did you bring her here, then?

I looked through the kitchen window, then back to the door. The glass was whole again. A look at the table. The cup sat there, steam rising in thin wisps as the brew cooled.

Nikki busied herself feeding the birds, but her image was distorted. Even so, I could see that her jacket was wrong in both style and colour. Nikki had put on her blue puffa jacket, the one that I thought made her look like she was about fourteen years old even though she wouldn’t see thirty again. Now, her coat was almost black, but her image was so fogged I couldn’t make out any detail.

I didn’t bring her, I told the voice. She would never have come. This was when she was having her affair. She left me not long after this, because…because later today we’re throwing snowballs and gaming about, having a laugh for once, but some kids take the piss and I lose my temper. The kid pulls a knife and I break his arm. We end up arguing again and in the end I tell her if she’s not happy, she should fuck off out of it and leave me alone.

Is that right? the voice whispers. Hmm.

Of course it’s right.

A sound of splintering comes from outside. I look and everything is clear again. But Nikki’s coat is all wrong. Worse than that, her face is covered in blood.

‘Help meee!’ Nikki screams in Ukrainian. I don’t know Ukrainian…but nevertheless, I understand. I understand it as well as I understand English. I even respond using this language I don’t know, telling her to hang on, that I’ll get help, that she just needs to fight this thing, whatever it is.

Something has her. The bird table is gone and Svetlana’s…Nikki’s…eyes are dulling. Widening, but…dulling, becoming empty, as if her soul, her real self, is being drained away or crushed down. She’s dying, and there’s nothing I can do from in here. I’m trapped. Stuck. Useless as my wife dies before me.

Screaming her name, I rush to the door and throw it open. A bloodsucker is waiting. It throws its arms wide. The tentacles splay.

‘Snorkbait!’ it hisses. ‘Snorkbait!’ it screams.


*

‘Snorkbait!’ Anatoly cried, and I opened my eyes to find him looming over me, one hand gripping the front of my jacket, the other raised as if about the strike. ‘Christ, man, you scared the shit out of me.’

Weeping, making a thin whining noise as I breathed, I stumbled to my feet and reeled towards the bucket. Anatoly shuffled along behind, alternately trying to whack me on the back and get his arms around me so he could initiate the Heimlich Manoeuvre, but he was only getting in the way and making me stagger all the more

‘Will you fuck off?’ I wheezed, and he backed off as I shuffled around the crates, slumped to my knees, and threw up. The stench of bile, stale piss and shit began to hit me and I retched again, though there was nothing left to bring up. I tried to push myself away from the sight and smell of the bucket’s contents, but found my arms and legs wouldn’t support the effort.

‘Give me a hand, Anatoly,’ I mumbled. My head still reeled with nausea and my mind was a jumble. I didn’t know what was real and what was only the nightmare; my sole link to reality was the solid, real-world, no-bullshit grip of Anatoly’s hands under my shoulders as he dragged me back towards my bedding.

It was darker in the attic now. The wind had risen, and the air felt heavy and oppressive.

‘Time is it?’ I mumbled as he lowered me onto my bed.

‘Five-thirty. P.M.’ Anatoly said. ‘There’s a storm coming. Big one, that’s why it’s so dark. I think you might have had all the sleep you’re going to get, at least for a while.’ He gave me a hard look. ‘You going to throw up again?’

I started to shake my head, but quickly stopped as dizziness swirled and my stomach gave a worrying lurch-flop. ‘No. I think I’m okay.’

‘You sure? If you need help to get back to the bucket –’

‘No, no,’ I said, not wanting to think about the bucket and what it contained. It was bad enough I could still smell it. ‘I’ll be fine. Honest.’

Anatoly relaxed, but maintained his stare. ‘Okay. Let me know if you change your mind.’

‘I will.’

He looked through the spy-hole, leaned forward as though he had spotted something, then shifted to turn his attention to me again.

‘All clear out there?’ I asked.

‘Yeah. Thought I saw something, but I think it was just a dog. Big one, but still… There’s not a soul in sight – not that I expect there to be, with the weather closing in. If this is one of the big ones, it’s nothing you want to get caught in, I’ll tell you that much.’

I grunted an acceptance, but couldn’t help but think that, if I were in the Bandits’ position and needed to get past a (presumably well) defended encampment like the Valley Farm, I’d move up using the peak of the storm as cover. If Anatoly’s reaction was anything to go by and the Stalkers up there also assumed there’d be nothing to see and lowered their guard, things might get interesting down here come first light.

I wondered briefly if I should send a message to Colonel Petrenko and get him to contact whoever was in charge up there, but decided against. The Colonel struck me as a solid leader; he’d know how the Stalkers were likely to react to the storm and what steps to take. He’d make sure they were switched on. And if he didn’t, not only he but all of Spetsnaz would fall in my regard for them as soldiers.

‘So, what gives with you, anyway?’ Anatoly said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Just now. One minute you were fast asleep, the next you’re yelling your head off and choking, or whatever it was you were doing.’

‘It was just a nightmare,’ I said, wiping my mouth with a sleeve. ‘Daft, really. Just something about my ex and a bloodsucker.’

He grinned. ‘She didn’t turn into one, did she? There are a lot of jokes from The Zone about women being bloodsuckers in disguise, stuff like that. We even heard some of them in the camps.’

‘No. It was…’ I broke off, unsure of how much I should or wanted to say. ‘It was just a bit of everything from earlier, I think. The sickness must have been because I was so tired. Or maybe that meat I had earlier was off or something.’

‘Hm,’ he mused. ‘Either way, it was like you didn’t want to wake up. Or couldn’t. And you’re welcome for the help, by the way.’

I smiled. ‘Sorry. Thanks for the help, Anatoly. I’m glad you were around in case it had been more serious.’

He waved the expression of gratitude away, but smiled. ‘It’s nothing. What else could I do? Besides, like I said, you were scaring the shit out of me.’ He took a moment to look outside again, then looked down between his feet. ‘Trymay̆tesya! Ya budu otrymuvaty dopomohu!’ He cast a sidelong glance at me, hoping to catch a reaction.

‘Easy for you to say, mate,’ I said. ‘Should I say “bless you” or something?’

‘Stop being funny. Do you know what it means?’

I shook my head. ‘Not a clue. Chicken and chips twice? Make mine a pint?’

‘You’re taking the piss again,’ he sighed. ‘It’s something you said just before you started the choking thing.’

‘I told you, it was a nightmare. You say all sorts of mental shit that makes no sense. To be honest, I’m surprised I don’t get them more often, given some of the shit I’ve seen. Sveta copping it was just the latest in a long line, believe me.’

‘Yeah, yeah, the nightmare. But that’s not really the point. You said this quite clearly, and it does make sense. You’re sure you don’t know what it means?’

I shrugged. ‘Ya budu sticks out. Apart from that…’ I shrugged again.

‘It means “Hold on! I’ll get help!”’

‘But that’s –’

‘Not the same as Russian. No, it isn’t. Because you didn’t say it in Russian. You used Ukrainian.’

I shifted uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know Ukrainian. Not that well, anyway. I might just about make some connections and fumble around some basic things, but…’ I stopped, stunned. Because I had been understanding, hadn’t I? For some reason, somehow, since jumping the wire I’d experienced few if any real problems with language. Granted, most exchanges had been in Russian – but that was a problem in itself. I’d learned Russian in the Regiment, for much the same reasons that I’d learned Spanish and a smattering of Irish Gaelic: it made me a better operator in theatres I technically shouldn’t have been in and officially hadn’t been. I’d found Russian quite easy, but had been far from fluent. And yet, in here, I had been waffling away like a native. How could that happen?

‘I don’t understand,’ I finished.

‘Me either,’ he said. ‘Maybe it’d be something to mention when we get to the Autopark.’

‘Yeah, maybe. I can’t imagine anyone knowing much, though.’

‘Maybe not. Can’t hurt to ask, though, can it?’ Anatoly said, and stared down between his feet again for a long moment, fidgeting. ‘Snorkbait, are you sure there wasn’t more? I mean, it might all amount to nothing, but then again it might be important. I’ve heard stories, you see, not just rumours from in here but among the soldiers. Not that we used to talk much about peoples’ strange dreams or the voice-that-isn’t talking when you sleep.’

I stiffened. ‘Why not?’

He shrugged. ‘Our guys that talk about having had these dreams are always packed and gone by the end of the day. Where they go and what it all means, I don’t know. I’ve never had any odd dreams myself, or heard voices, but…’ He looked over at me again. ‘What I’m saying is, are you sure the nightmare was really just a nightmare? It wasn’t more than you’ve said?’

I passed a hand over my eyes. ‘No, mate, don’t worry. It really was just a nightmare. Nothing weird about it.’

‘If you say so.’ He stood and took a couple of steps forward. ‘Here, pass me that toy rifle of yours and whatever cleaning kit you have. It’ll give me something to do while I keep watch, at least until the storm wakes you again.’

‘You know how to clean it?’ I asked, surprised.

He smiled and nodded, though he didn’t elaborate. I handed over the L.85 and cleaning kit, as well as the NVGs.

‘For when it gets dark, mate,’ I said. ‘You’ll probably have to take the scrim down, but by then it won’t matter. Wake me at 2200. I’ll stand for four hours, then you go for two. I’ll then do another two, and then we head out. Sound okay to you?’

He nodded absently, still looking thoughtful and more than a little worried.

‘See you later,’ I smiled, and rolled over so my back was to him.
He wasn’t the only one who was worried. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to those soldiers who’d reported the mystery voice-that-wasn’t or talked about their strange dreams. Why would the military isolate and remove soldiers it learned were so afflicted? Where did they end up? Were they taken away from The Zone, or were these ‘touched’ people taken inside the perimeter and abandoned? Did they end up in some secret facility to be probed and studied? Were there men and women locked away somewhere right now with scientists trying to unlock the secrets of their minds? Was it the first step towards mutation, or was it possible that The Zone simply called to some – and if so, for what purpose? How?

Anatoly began to whistle gently as he got to work on my L.85. In the distance, thunder rolled, heralding the imminent arrival of the gathering storm, and I closed my eyes, pushing thoughts and memories away. There were too many questions and not enough answers. I couldn’t allow myself to become distracted by odd questions: I’d only become worried, then fearful, then obsessed…and ultimately dead. Bandits and mutants wouldn’t give a fart in a high wind whether I was lost in some deeper musing or not; they’d attack, and I’d be killed without ever finding answers to the questions I had.

Sleep. Rest, I instructed my tired, overwrought mind, and actually felt more relaxed. Thunder rumbled again, Anatoly continued to whistle, and I fell asleep to the melody of these sounds and those of the rifle being cleaned.

This time, I didn’t dream.

*

It was raining heavily when I woke. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked immediately, so loud I wondered how I could have slept as long as I had. More lightning, and in the blue-white strobe I saw that the L.85 had been replaced by my side and the cleaning kit sat atop my main pack.

I rolled over and hauled myself to a sitting position.

‘Welcome back to the land of the living,’ Anatoly said, and yawned loudly. ‘No more bad dreams, I take it?’

‘No. What time is it?’

‘Just before twelve.’

‘What? I told you to wake me at ten!’

‘Yeah, well…you seemed to need the sleep, so I left you. I’m surprised the storms didn’t wake you before now, though.’

‘There’s been more than one?’

‘Of course! It sometimes happens like this. It goes one way, it comes back. It passes over, and comes back again. Something to do with The Zone, I think. The more religious folks say it’s God trying to wash the Earth clean again. Others – also religious – say it’s God weeping at the harm Man has done to his jewel, and that the storms are so violent and long because of His grief and anger.’

‘And what do you think?’

‘It’s rain. Maybe there’s a force controlling The Zone and maybe there isn’t. If there is, it may be able to draw the storms back over somehow. I don’t know and don’t really care, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Anything seems possible with this place.’

I yawned and stretched. ‘Any sign of life out there?’

‘Some weird creature crossed the track up near the road about an hour ago. It looked like it had two heads or something, but that was probably just my eyes and the rain playing tricks,’ he said. ‘That’s been all, though. Like I said before, anyone who knows The Zone won’t risk getting caught in one of these storms. You can’t see, for one thing, and you’d never hear if a creature was stalking you. It’s bad enough when you’re on guard – no end of guys have reported seeing more mutant activity even in the supposedly quieter perimeter areas during a storm. In here…no way. You’d have to be desperate or a lunatic to take the chance.’

‘Hm. Better safe than sorry, though, eh? Go on, give me the NVGs and get your head down. I’ll keep watch until six, then we sort our shit out and head for Autopark, okay?’

‘Okay,’ he said, turning the NVGs on and guiding my hand with his so I could grab them. I then guided him to his bed area so I could sit by the hole.

‘You sure you’re awake enough to go until six?’ he asked. ‘I don’t mind resting for a couple of hours and spelling you again. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ll have done it, and…’

‘And what?’

‘Well, sorry, but I was going to say I’m a lot younger than you are.’

‘Ah. Let the old man have his rest, you mean, because he’s already got one foot in the grave, the poor old git.’

‘No, it’s not meant to be insulting,’ he said. ‘It’s just…I’m younger and more used to it than you are now, for all your experience. It was just an idea.’

I stifled a yawn. The fact was, the idea of another couple of hours did appeal. But we had a long and arduous trek ahead of us already, and as young and fit as he might be, that was only going to be the start: who knew what lay beyond that?

I smiled in the dark, the thought of the future being completely unknown exciting me in a way that life in the Big Land hadn’t for a long time. There, the future was more of a known unknown: every day had the chance to be different, but usually they ended up just the same. Each night when you went to bed, you knew the shape of the day to follow, and the day after that, and the week after that, and the month…and so on. In The Zone, you could never be certain, you could never know…and it was exhilarating, if also a little scary – it meant you always had to be on your toes.

‘So, what do you think?’ he asked. ‘D’you want me to spell you again, or what?’

I turned my head to look outside. Something fairly large was lumbering towards the metalled road, occasionally pausing as if sniffing the air as it cut diagonally across the dirt track. I peered at it more intently. Sure enough, it looked for all the world as if it had two heads, a large and a small, with both sniffing away while facing opposite directions. I had the feeling that, if that thing had been around last night, Anatoly and I might not have been around come daybreak.
The larger of the heads, if it did indeed have two, turned in our direction…and stopped the characteristic twitching.

‘Snorkbait –’ Anatoly began.

‘Shut up!’ I hissed.

‘What is it?’ he whispered, already sounding frightened.

I didn’t answer until the questing head had turned away and the beast, whatever it was, continued on its way once more.

‘Fucked if I know, mate,’ I murmured. ‘Nothing I want to run into on a dark night like this, that’s for sure.’ I watched the mutant reach the ribbon of road, stop, and move off again, actually going out of its way to move around a cluster of scrubby bushes as if aware of the need to move tactically. ‘Get some sleep. If I need you to take over for a while, I’ll give you a kick.’

‘Right, but…are you sure it’s safe?’

I laughed softly. ‘Nowhere’s safe in The Zone, is it? Rest. If there’s a drama, you’ll know. And for Christ’s sake don’t snore.’
  15:55:15  16 March 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

A heavy silence hung between us once we’d made ourselves comfortable in the attic. While there had been something to do – be it getting the heavy pack up into the attic so we could weigh the hatch cover down, getting the bedding and gear stowed in our chosen areas, or improvising a toilet out of the bucket and pair of sacks that Anatoly had discovered in the derelict barn-cum-garage-cum-workshop – conversation had flowed freely enough even if it had been limited to the task at hand. Now we were finished, silence reigned.

Anatoly lay by the hole near his bed area that we had discovered and widened slightly, staring out at the empty courtyard and track, alone with his thoughts, while I preferred to sit on my looted bedding, sort through the rest of my newly-acquired kit, and generally get myself organised.

‘I need a shit,’ Anatoly muttered.

‘Nice way to open a conversation, mate,’ I said. ‘Carry on. I’m not stopping you.’

He shifted in place. ‘I don’t understand why we couldn’t have the bucket downstairs,’ he said. ‘It would have saved all that business with the sacks. I mean, I bought them to help spread the weight in the packs, you know?’

‘I know, but it’s like I told you before, we can’t take the risk of being compromised. Even up here, the smell might give us away. If someone, or some thing, happens along and gets a noseful, they’ll know someone’s close by…and it wouldn’t take Einstein to figure out where.’ I pointed at the hole in the roof on the other side of the hatch, as far away from our bedding area and spy-hole as it was possible to get. ‘There’s our toilet, mate, like it or not.’

‘I’ve never been comfortable with all this shitting in front of other people,’ he moaned, turning round to face me.

‘Which is why we used the crates from up here and those sacks as a screen. As for other things, if you’re worried about offending me, you won’t. I’ve heard and smelled it all before.’

‘It’s not that. It’s just…’ he trailed off, making me glance up. He looked stricken, like a kid told to take a leak against a tree in the park rather than wait to use the toilet.

‘For fuck’s sake, you’re a soldier – or you used to be. It’s not your first time. Yes, it’s unpleasant; yes, it goes against everything Mother raised you to do, but I’m not going anyplace and the bucket stays up here. As will you, if you’ve got any sense, or would you rather go outside to find a quiet place behind a bush only to have one of Rusty’s mates turn up?’

Looking miserable and embarrassed, Anatoly got up and trudged over to the bucket, unbuckling his new trousers even as he disappeared behind the low stack of slatted crates and draped sackcloth.

I moved over to the spy-hole by Anatoly’s bedding to keep watch, peering through the mesh of the scrim I’d cut from a looted raincoat and angled away from the hole to keep it in darkness. No one would see us watching from the track. I’d already made sure of this by getting Anatoly to lie in place and watch as I headed up the track and patrolled in, doing one or two things so I could make sure he’d had eyes-on and the field of view was as good as we could make it without risking compromise. Even though I’d known just where to look, I’d seen fuck all and best of all, Anatoly had been able to tell me exactly what I’d been doing and where. No way should anyone be sneaking up on us for the duration of our stay.

‘How long do we have to do this for, anyway?’ Anatoly called.

‘Only for a day or so,’ I replied.

A day or so? Why the hell would we want to stay here for that long?’

‘Two reasons, mate. First, part of the deal was that I’d carry on and do a CTR of the Bandits’ HQ and gather some intel, which means this is a halfway-house for me. Second – and most important: I’m fucked. I’ve not stopped since I landed, unless a disturbed night in the hotel and kipping in the back of a car with no suspension counts. I’ve been up for over twenty-four hours, and in that time I’ve been on a raid, taken a couple of beatings, and faced an all-night trip through the tunnel to here, as well as all this morning’s excitement. Right now, I just want to get some sleep. After that, I’ll see how I feel. If I feel up to it, we can stow the Stalkers’ stuff near the tunnel, tell them where it is, and head out. If I still feel knackered, we stay put. Which reminds me...’ I pulled my PDA from my pocket. ‘Colonel Petrenko. It’s Snorkbait. Cancel the RV in the tunnel. Svetlana is dead. Repeat, cancel RV in tunnel, Svetlana is dead. Over.’

‘Who are you talking to now? What are you doing?’ Anatoly said.

‘Getting round to something I should have done already,’ I replied.

Snorkbait. Acknowledged. What happened? Over.

Petrenko sounded pissed off. I wasn’t surprised. He’d probably had Stalkers pestering him ever since he got back from the tunnel, wanting to know what he was going to do if I never came back and advising on what he should have done in the first place.

From behind the screen, Anatoly groaned as if he was giving birth to a cow and gave off a series of blatting farts, the sound of which were amplified by the metal bucket.

‘Fuck me, name that tune,’ I mumbled. ‘Colonel Petrenko. We ran into a little mutant problem. A bloodsucker attacked. We engaged but Svetlana was badly injured. She walked into an anomaly before we had chance to start treating her.’ I paused. It was still so fresh: I could still see her, covered in blood and losing more as she staggered away; Anatoly’s cry that it had got her; the sight of her lifeless body being slowly drawn in and crunched down as if she’d been shoved into an invisible trash compacter. ‘The unknown Stalker I reported saved my life, Colonel. It was just tough luck that we couldn’t save her, too. Over.’

There was a long pause. I hoped it meant Petrenko was passing the news to Vasya and the others. Maybe they’d be happy now. I only wished they could have seen Svetlana’s demise for themselves and spared me the experience, let those bastards have the nightmares I was bound to get instead.

Snorkbait. The Stalkers want to know when they can expect their items back. Actually, they’ve wanted to know since last night. As for unknown Stalker…if you’re sure he’s safe, bring him here asap. We might be able to help with the PDA situation you mentioned before. If not, he’ll have to be escorted to Duty HQ. We can’t afford to have unknowns wandering around, given the situation. Over.

‘Colonel Petrenko. Acknowledged, however, be advised I am resting up today. We will leave for Autopark tomorrow a.m. Over.’

Snorkbait. Understood. Vasya and the other idiots won’t be happy about the delay, but they’ll have to live with it. It’s not like they were going anywhere, anyway. Petrenko out.

I shoved the PDA back into my pocket and went back to my area.

‘Good news, mate,’ I called, grabbing a random can from my now-sorted main pack. ‘We’re off to Autopark first thing.’

‘Good,’ Anatoly muttered, re-emerging from the makeshift toilet and rinsing his hands with some water. The stench that accompanied him was horrendous, but would soon dissipate. ‘This place is fucking bad news.’

I shrugged, though in truth I found it hard to disagree. It certainly hadn’t worked out well for most recent visitors, and God only knew what the original inhabitants had been forced to barricade themselves in against. Whoever or whatever it had been, it clearly hadn’t worked as there was no sign of them anywhere now. Maybe they’d ended up in those anomalies, just like Svetlana had. I didn’t suppose I’d ever know.

‘You feeling okay?’ I asked, watching him shuffle to his sleeping bag and lower himself gingerly to a sitting position.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Fucking gas, mostly. It was worse yesterday, though.’

I scratched my head. ‘What food you got over there?’

‘Half a loaf of bread, something that looks like sausage wrapped in paper, and some cans of…’ He fished around in his sacks, not having bothered with sorting his gear yet. ‘Fruit in syrup, rice pudding, and…soup. Chicken.’

‘I’d go with the soup, mate. Chicken soup cures all ills,’ I said, cracking a yawn so wide it almost locked my jaws. ‘Leave the bread, and especially leave off the fruit; you’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle if you have fibre and rich stuff. Your arse’d end up like a blood orange, and we’ve got a walk ahead of us tomorrow whether you end up mincing the whole way or not. Oh, and for fuck’s sake, sort your kit. Do you really think you can carry three half-full sacks instead of lumping it into one main pack?’

‘Okay, I’ll get it sorted, don’t worry,’ he said, getting to work with his knife. Judging from his technique, this boy wasn’t used to field meals.

I opened my can and dug in, despite the fact I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry. It wasn’t just the stench from the other end of the loft that was killing my appetite; tiredness also played a part, and every time I closed my eyes I could see Svetlana’s bloodied face and slickly matted hair.

All the same, hungry or not, I knew eating was the right thing to do; I’d expended a lot of energy since my last meal and it needed to be replaced, and I didn’t need to miss so many meals that I ended up like Anatoly, full of wind and blowing holes in my underpants.

The thing was, canned meats had never been a favourite of mine even when I was a kid and my mom had served them up on sandwiches as part of our Sunday tea, and my least favourite of all had been spam. Now, just the sight of the soft, salty meat and surrounding jelly almost caused me to gag. To make matters worse, on the second or third bite I thought maybe this was how Sveta had seemed to Rusty: mostly meaty, but also soft and over-salty with bits that were a bit gelid. I closed my eyes and waited for the nausea to pass, shoving the can to one side with the meat only half-eaten. My brain started to shut down, relieved at finally being allowed to rest.

‘She was pretty,’ Anatoly said.

I opened my eyes again. ‘Do what, mate?’

He cleared his throat. ‘I said, she was pretty.’

I swallowed the temptation to tell him I hadn’t thought he was talking about the Tooth Fairy and watched as he continued to work on getting at his food.

I’d been waiting for him to open up about what had happened earlier, and it seemed like he’d now hit that point. It was odd that he wanted to do it just before eating, but otherwise it was a good sign – it saved him from mulling everything over and getting depressed. It was just one of those things that what I wanted most just now was to close down for a while. I closed my eyes again, hoping he’d get the hint and be quiet, at least long enough for me to slip away to Dreamland.

‘Don’t you think so?’ he prompted. So much for being allowed to drift off.

I coughed and sat up again, trying not to think of Svetlana as Rusty’s version of canned meat again. It didn’t work. The taste of the meat and sight of Svetlana covered in blood came back to me and I had to gulp down the plug of bile that tried to rise.

‘Yeah, she was pretty, if that’s the word you want to use. I can think of others.’ I managed a smile. ‘She looked like my ex.’

‘Ah,’ he said, nodding. ‘You were a lucky man, in that case.’

I felt my smile turn bitter. ‘Not as lucky as the man she binned me for.’

Anatoly looked away. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said.

‘Don’t be. You didn’t do anything.’

We lapsed into a long silence and I gave myself a mental dressing down. He clearly needed to talk about this stuff – so did I, for that matter, and the sooner the better; once we’d had our say, I’d be able to finally, finally get my head down – but just as progress was being made, I’d made him uncomfortable.

‘Look, mate, ignore me. Whatever went on with me and Nikki has nothing to do with all this. Well, apart from losing her being one of the reasons I came here.’ I smiled. ‘So, come on. What else did you want to say?’

He shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’ He paused, leaning back against a support post. ‘She seemed nice, too. Apart from being a thief, I mean. I think she was basically a good person. Sweet. Perhaps life had just treated her badly once too often. It happens that way, sometimes; a kind nature can change if it is abused. It’s like a callus on the soul.’

I rolled my eyes, making sure he didn’t notice. Perhaps he had her right, but I didn’t think so. Dmitriy Monkey had also fallen under some kind of spell as far as she was concerned, but, try as I might, I just couldn’t see the charm despite her good looks. Maybe it was an age and experience thing, or maybe her resemblance to Nikki had made me biased against her. Either way, Anatoly had obviously seen something he’d liked – or thought he had.

‘It should have been me,’ he said suddenly, choking up. ‘I was closest, so why didn’t it kill me first? Maybe she’d have got away, or perhaps you’d have been able to kill it in time.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘I’m a murderer. I’m nothing. I deserve to die here! Why did it have to take her first?’

‘No threat,’ I said.

He glared at me. ‘What?’

‘She was no threat – the weakling – and was therefore the easier target. She was bound; she wouldn’t be able to fight as hard to get away.’ I pointed a finger at him. ‘You, on the other hand, were still dressed like a soldier, and you were armed.’

‘All the more reason to take me first,’ he said.

I shook my head. ‘Think about it. He did take you out first; he knocked you flying. You could have ended up in an anomaly, dead from a broken neck…anything. As it was, you were fucked up for a while; long enough for him to take the easy meal, at any rate. You saw how quickly Svetlana was drained. Even if she hadn’t walked into that anomaly –’

‘She didn’t walk into it,’ he muttered. ‘She was barely managing to crawl. She was dying, covered in blood, and –’

Even if she hadn’t walked into the anomaly,’ I repeated, silencing him, ‘there’s no chance she could have survived. I know wounds always looks worse than they are, but she was dead from the time that thing grabbed her. If I hadn’t opened fire, it would have finished her and had you before you had chance to recover.’

He gave a sardonic smile. ‘And here I was thinking I’d saved your life.’

‘You did, mate,’ I said. ‘Fact is we saved each other, in a way. Without me slowing him down making myself the next prime target, you’d have been Rusty-chow, and without you…well, I was out of ammo and I’d already gone through harsh language. I was in about as deep as it gets.’

‘It should still have been me,’ he insisted. ‘I just don’t get why it’d leave me, the bigger danger, alive while it killed her.’

I sighed. ‘Ever watch a nature programme on TV? Look at lions, tigers…any predator come to that. Do they go after the strongest of the herd, the ones that could give them a royal kicking and damage them, making them unable to hunt, or do they prefer to take the weakest and slowest?’

‘The weakest and slowest, obviously,’ he replied. ‘But do they run past stronger prospects to get to them?’

‘Look, that thing knew what it was doing, Anatoly. Like I said just now, it did take you out of the game; you just weren’t the easiest dish on the menu. Plus I was closer to you; that also made you the tougher option. By taking you on properly, it would also have had to deal with me…and the easy meat could have got away. Too much risk for little or possibly no return. It made no sense. By fucking you up and taking Svetlana, Rusty guaranteed himself a meal. His reaction to me wasn’t hunger-driven; he charged me as a form of defence. He’d have killed me out of self-preservation. You…you were just in his larder – or so he thought.’

Anatoly puffed out his cheeks and blew. ‘I’m still not sure,’ he said.

‘Neither am I. Who knows how those fucking things think? It’s the only thing that makes sense, though.’

‘If you’re right, could we ever have saved her? That’s the one question I keep coming back to; what more could I have done?’

‘Me too,’ I admitted. ‘The fact is, I think we were just unlucky today.’

‘Unlucky? Do you think Svetlana would agree that she was just unlucky, so oh well, never mind?’

‘No, and that’s not really what I mean,’ I said. ‘It’s all ifs and maybes, isn’t it? If we’d stuck together and I hadn’t sent you there to wait, maybe she’d have survived. If she hadn’t been bound, maybe she could have fought back long enough for us to engage. If that anomaly hadn’t been there, if she’d still had her detector, if she hadn’t been so drained and weak, if she’d been able to think properly, maybe…just maybe…she’d have got away with it and we’d have been able to treat her. Though I doubt it.’

I swallowed, feeling my gorge rise again as something I’d said came back to me: If I hadn’t sent you there to wait. I had sent them, hadn’t I? And why would I have done that exactly, knowing Rusty was up there? Granted, I had just assumed he’d still be lying there calling for help and food if he was still able, but…I’d heard that cracking as his jaw underwent some sort of change; I’d known there was a potential danger had sent them anyway. Different scenarios began running in my head, what might have been if this and if that clashing with what had been and what was done.

‘What kind of anomaly was that, anyway?’ Anatoly asked, breaking into my chain of thought.

‘What?’ I snapped, though I was actually grateful to him for dragging me back to the here and now. ‘I…Your guess is as good as mine, mate.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘Of course I don’t know. I’ve only been in The Zone about ten minutes longer than you, from the story you told before. How the fuck am I supposed to be the expert?’

‘Okay, okay. Sorry. I keep forgetting you’re still new. You just seem more at home here than I do. I don’t know why.’

‘Yeah, sorry, mate. I didn’t mean to snap. But this place is hard on me, too, you know. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you because I’m older, more experienced generally,’ I suggested, shrugging.

‘Maybe,’ he mused. ‘But I’m not sure that’s it.’ He shrugged and sighed. ‘So what sort of anomaly do you think could do that to a person? I mean, property-wise. It was like it was sucking her in and crunching her down.’

‘Yeah. If I was pushed, I’d say it was some sort of gravity thing. It would explain the crushing part. I don’t know about the slow drawing in, though. I suppose it’d depend on what caused the local gravity increase. If it’s a vortex, spinning and contracting so it draws things in, like a tornado, that’s one thing. Otherwise you’re looking at a density increase, localised and limited in some way. A singularity. But that’d surely suck everything in, growing as it increased the mass in the centre.’ I shook my head. ‘Either way, there are clearly different causes when it comes to anomalies: the Fruit Punches would seem to be chemical, judging from their corrosive properties and appearance. If we say there are chemical and gravimetric anomalies, then maybe there are spatial ones as well.’

‘There are the electrical and fire ones for sure,’ Anatoly said. ‘There’s a field of electrical anomalies covering the road not far from here.’

‘So that’s four we know of, maybe even five, assuming there are spatial as well. There’s another thing,’ I said; ‘why do they appear where they do? Is it a susceptible spot, a weak area, like they reckon the Bermuda Triangle might be; nothing weird in and of itself, but under just the right conditions…’

‘I thought you were a soldier, but you sound like a scientist. Almost.’

I laughed. ‘Come off it, mate. Being a soldier doesn’t mean you have no other knowledge or interests, and it’s not like I know any of this for certain. I was always pretty interested in science stuff at school, though, especially physics. And I hate a mystery; I like to know.’

‘So why did you become a soldier, then? Why not something else?’

I shifted position. ‘Truth? There was fuck all else to do. I was out of work, my girlfriend at the time went to university without bothering to tell me I was dumped, and I’d had enough of it at home, so…that was me. “Gone for a soldier”, as they say.’

‘Why didn’t you become an officer rather than an enlisted man?’

I shrugged. ‘It’s not how it worked in the UK back then. Still isn’t now, as far as I know. If I’d been allowed to stay on at school and get the higher qualifications, then I could have applied for officer entry. As it was…enlistment was the only option. But to be honest, I don’t think I’d have liked being an officer. I wouldn’t have wanted the operation for one thing.’

‘What operation?’ Anatoly said, frowning.

‘The one to have my brain removed,’ I smiled, and he laughed. It was good of him, seeing as the Ukrainian Army surely had similar jokes. Most armies did, and the ‘brainless officer’ one was as much a cliché as the one NCOs traditionally gave in response to erroneously being called ‘Sir’: ‘Don’t “sir” me! I work for a living!’

‘Tell you what,’ I said, ‘on the way down to Autopark tomorrow, we’ll try to find where that anomaly was and chuck some stuff in, see what happens. That way we might be able to find out what type it was. Someone’s bound to know.’

We lapsed into silence once more, the conversation seemingly at an end.

‘I keep seeing her, Snorkbait,’ he eventually murmured. ‘All that blood…I can’t get over it.’

‘I know, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t think you ever get over seeing things like that, not properly. I don’t think you’re meant to, if you’re sane.’

‘I can’t believe this place. It’s…cruel. Evil.’

‘Seems to me like you and Colonel Petrenko might have that belief in common,’ I said. ‘Now, I really need to get some sleep. We can talk more when I wake up, if you want. Fair enough?’

‘Fair enough,’ he agreed, and I removed my boots and slid into the sleeping bag, closing my eyes once more. Images of Svetlana, battered and bloody, reeling away from the attack, were there and always would be, as would the sight of her being fully drawn into the anomaly. What had been worse than the sight of her, though - what was bound to find me in every nightmare from now until the day I died - was the sound: the cracking, ripping, pulping noise her skull had made as the anomaly finally crushed her head.
  03:16:03  27 February 2010
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Zugbarrh
Veteran
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/01/2009
 

Message edited by:
Zugbarrh
02/27/2010 4:49:08
Messages: 883

---QUOTATION---
Zug,where did you find this shit?

Man,we are all going to hell. What sick mind would make bloodsuckers doing each other?


---END QUOTATION---

what do you mean, blood sucker, http://img705.imageshack.us/img705/2966/zonerecognitionchart3.jpg heres part of it.

nvm.

Zug
 
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