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  03:15:04  25 February 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

We took Svetlana from the house in stages. First, Anatoly would enter a room and take up a position where he could cover our prisoner without involving me in his field of fire. She would then move into the next room and drop to her knees in the centre. I would enter and cover her while Anatoly set about the next stage. We treated the exit from the building as if entering another room. Anatoly climbed out and secured the area, eventually moving back into position, ready for Svetlana.

‘All clear.’

‘Right, Svetlana. Out you go,’ I said, giving her a not-so-friendly shove through the window. I’d bound her hands with Aleks’s belt, and had also strapped her upper arms against her body using some old webbing they’d had in the bundle. Unable to use her hands in any capacity, getting her outside was basically a case of bending her over and pushing her through. With her top half outside, Anatoly stepped forward and grabbed her collar, dragging her all the way out. He let go as soon as her feet started to touch the ground, causing her to fall heavily to her knees and slump over on her right side.

‘Bastards!’ she hissed between clenched teeth.

‘Sorry. There was no other way,’ Anatoly said, moving back again and keeping his weapon trained on her.

‘Face down, Svetlana,’ I said. ‘It’s only dirt. It won’t kill you.’

She gave a mirthless chuckle and rolled over, looking up at me with pure hatred lancing from her wide eyes.

I climbed out of the window and got my boots back on after tucking my jeans legs into my socks.

‘Now what?’ Anatoly asked.

I shrugged. ‘Nothing’s changed from five minutes ago, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Well we need to decide to do something,’ he said.

I ignored him. Stating the obvious wasn’t going to help.

‘Well, gentlemen,’ Svetlana said, still breathing hard against whatever pain she was in, ‘you have three choices: Kill me now, hand me over, or let me go. Though really, handing me over would be the same as killing me, so it’s better to say you have two choices and the third is an illusion.’

‘That right?’ Anatoly said.

I nodded. ‘Yeah. We hand her over to the people she stole from, she ends up being shoved into an anomaly.’

‘Maybe she deserves it. She is a thief.’

‘And you’re a murderer,’ she said. ‘What do you deserve? Either of you, come to that?’

‘That’s different. I didn’t mean for Mikhail to die. He just did.’

‘I’m sure that makes it all better for his family.’

Anatoly fidgeted, clearly disturbed.

‘Ignore her, mate. You did what you felt you had to at the time. I understand,’ I said, though Svetlana had a point: we were murderers; Anatoly had killed Mikhail, regardless of whether or not that act was directly responsible for much of what had come after, and I had killed Aleks…and what was more, I had always intended to. Meanwhile, the only crime Svetlana had committed was a bit of petty larceny, and I could hardly blame her for that. For a brief time, I’d mulled over whether or not to take the chance to help myself. I could hardly blame others for doing the same.

I felt torn between my sense of justice and my acknowledged guilt. What did Svetlana deserve? Part of me just wanted to shove her into the nearest anomaly and have done. Another part wanted to give Rusty his ‘foo’. Then there was the part, initially tiny but growing larger all the time, that wanted to let her go: Aleks was dead and I’d got my revenge for being framed. Wasn’t that enough? And if not, what might I deserve for killing Aleks, not to mention the guys who had died because of me at the Autopark?

‘I still say kill her,’ Anatoly said. ‘If the other Stalkers will anyway, why not?’

‘I can’t just kill her,’ I sighed. ‘I wish I could. It just wouldn’t be right.’

‘So what do we do instead, then? Ask her if she wants to play nice and be in our little gang? Maybe we could give her a gun.’

‘Weapon,’ I said, absently. ‘Or firearm. Not gun.’

He grunted. ‘Like you’ve never said it.’

I ignored him again. ‘Killing her in cold blood is out. If you don’t like it, tough.’

‘So what? You’re just going to let her go? All she’ll do then is find her friends and hunt us down.’

‘I know,’ I said, scratching my chin, the stubble rasping against my nails. ‘Fuck it. I guess we take her back to Cordon after all. Hand her over to the Duty guys down there. Maybe put in a good word.’

Svetlana grunted. ‘Might as well kill me now, like I said before.’

‘You could let Aleks take the blame,’ I suggested. ‘Say it was his idea. You went along with it because you loved him, even though you knew it was wrong and begged him not to do it. Most of them seemed to think you’re okay. They’ll buy that.’

She turned her head to look at me. ‘No. He’s dead and can’t defend himself. I’ll admit to what I did, whatever happens.’

‘You know what happens,’ I said. ‘A quick dip in a Fruit Punch, remember?’

She smiled. ‘Better than living a lie, pretending I am what I’m not.’

‘Sure about that?’

‘No. But at least I’d know I stayed…’ she paused, searching for another word. Her lips twitched into a smile when she couldn’t find one. ‘Honest.’

‘You’re sure it’s what you want?’

The smile broadened. ‘No, but seeing as you won’t give me a quick death…’

‘I’ll kill you if that’s what you want.’

‘Then you’re a double-murderer. And what might that sort of person deserve?’

Anatoly was getting agitated. ‘How about a medal? If he killed you, he’s no more a murderer than…than an exterminator is when he kills cockroaches. You are a thief – you admit it yourself. That arsehole in there was also a thief. Now he’s dead. That’s justice.’

I grimaced and Svetlana laughed.

‘And if a thief deserves to die, what of the murderer? Is it still death, but slower?’

He swallowed. ‘The law works differently in The Zone.’

She laughed some more.

‘Right, enough of this,’ I cut in. ‘I’ve made my mind up. You’re going back. If you won’t cover your own arse, it’s not my fault how you end up.’

‘I’ll tell them,’ she said. ‘I’ll make sure everyone knows who this little soldier-boy really is.’

Anatoly gave me a worried glance.

‘You do whatever you think is right, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘In the meantime, Anatoly, why don’t you take her up onto the higher ground near the swamp? You’ll have a good view and be far enough away from here if there’s a drama. If I’m not on my way to you in fifteen minutes, take her down the path through the swamp to the road, and then through the tunnel. Watch out for dogs at the other end. Keep going down the track and you’ll come to the Autopark. It probably looks more like a fort by now. Tell the Duty guard I sent you – remember, the Duty guard – and you’re to report to Colonel Petrenko in person. You are not to allow anyone else to claim Svetlana. Only Petrenko is to decide what to do. Clear?’

I could see him making the effort to memorize it all, then he nodded.
‘Give fifteen. Leave for Cordon. Watch for dogs. Report to Duty. Hand over only to Colonel Petrenko. Got it.’ He paused, frowning. ‘What about Bandits?’

‘There are none, mate,’ I said. ‘None have come past here, have they? So unless they went the long way, using the road –’

He was shaking his head. ‘They couldn’t. I tried, but every time I threw a stone, it went into an anomaly of some sort. Fire ones, the ones that whoosh, the crushing sort, electric ones like lightning on the floor…too many, no matter how good a Stalker you are.’

‘Right, so anywhere south is clear, then. But only of Bandits. There might be other nasties lurking, so stay switched on and don’t assume anything, right?’

‘Right,’ he said.

‘Good.’ I clambered back through the window. ‘Remember, give me fifteen, then if I’m not in sight, go.’

‘Wait. Is that fifteen from now, or fifteen from when we reach the ridge?’

‘Tell you what, let’s be generous. Make it fifteen from when you get to the ridge. I’m sure Svetlana will be grateful of a rest by then. She’s had a long night and might not be able to walk too well.’

‘Eh?’ Anatoly frowned.

‘He’s trying to be funny,’ Svetlana said. ‘Fucking pervert ambushed us as we were…occupied.’

‘Oh.’

I nodded to Anatoly. ‘Fifteen. Go.’

I watched as he took Svetlana out through the same gap in the fence I’d entered by and began to head towards the marsh. Again I thought of Rusty. Svetlana was right; the Stalkers were just going to kill her and Petrenko would let it happen. Meanwhile, Rusty was out there, weak and unable to chase down his own food. And I had made a
promise, hadn’t I? Wouldn’t it just be better if…

I shook my head. Taking her back was the best option, and a promise made to someone who was probably no longer human in any way could hardly be counted as a promise at all, could it?

I remained rooted to the spot for a minute or two, mulling it all over yet again. Or at least, imagining I was. Most likely I was only standing there and surrendering to the fuzzy kind of thoughts that precede sleep in the over-tired. I gave myself a quick shake and headed back to the other room.

*

Not quite twenty minutes later, I stuck my head through the window to make sure the coast was clear before gently lowering one very heavy backpack to the ground. Inside was all the kit the pair of thieves had taken, plus clothing and spare weapons by way of compensation. I’d also shoved a change of clothes and some armour in there for Anatoly, so he could ditch the tell-tale Ukrainian Army BDUs he was running around in. It’d mean him getting changed in the open, and in full view of Svetlana, but he was a big boy; I’m sure he’d survive whatever ridicule she might have in store.

I’d also made sure I had both Svetlana’s and Alek’s PDAs – though Aleks’s was now in a very sorry state…as was some of the armour I was going to give to Anatoly.

I’d realized that the former soldier was going to be severely in the shit without a PDA. Svetlana would start running her mouth and, without this one item of normal gear, anything he said wouldn’t be believed. He’d be the one put to death and Svetlana might – might – live to steal another day as part of the deal. I didn’t intend to let either of them die. I thought I had an idea of how to get Svetlana off the hook, whether she agreed with the effort or not, but Anatoly would need evidence to back up his claim to be just another Stalker, a guy I’d happened to come across asleep in a bush. In fact, he was the guy I’d been forced to radio back about, just ask the guard if I hadn’t.

It was a gamble, and it relied on Petrenko and the Stalkers believing me instead of Svetlana, but if it worked, Anatoly was home free.

Of course, Aleks’s PDA would claim Anatoly was Aleks…and the game would be up. However, if the PDA had been very badly damaged…say, by a bullet…

I’d set the armour-plated jacket against one of the walls and put the PDA inside the left-hand pocket at about chest height. I’d then drawn the pistol once more and fired two rounds, one into the armour covering the ribs on the left side, the other through the pocket containing the PDA. The device was smashed, the screen cracked and broken microcircuitry on clear display, with nice authentic-looking holes roughly in the places I might have hit had I really opened up on Anatoly if he’d taken me by surprise.

All the rest of the thieves’ gear had been shoved into the other variously-sized packs they’d been lugging and stashed in the attic. I’d noticed the access hatch in the ceiling as I’d checked and cleared the house of any and all goodies. It wasn’t exactly like putting your valuable in the safe, but hopefully it’d keep the stuff safe for the short time we’d be away. It wasn’t as if the area was about to become a major thoroughfare.

Clambering out myself, I unslung the AK and dragged the pack through
the gap in the fence before setting about getting it on my back. The weight of it was outrageous. I hadn’t carried anything remotely this heavy since leaving the Regiment. The closest had probably been during one of Nikki’s annual shopping raids during the January sales, though even Nikki’s unmatched ability to buy stuff she didn’t need, more shoes, and sundry pointless crap was nothing compared to the weights I was used to carting backwards and forwards to battle.

Smiling at the memory of that last trip (she’d gone over on some snow in the car park; I’d laughed so hard I ended up sliding on my arse as well), I cradled the AK and set off in pursuit of my ex’s double and my new best mate. The L.85 could stay where it was for now. It might have been the more familiar weapon – though I was still at a loss to explain how my hands seemed so used to the AK-74 when I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing – but it was also in shit state compared to the Russian rifle, and crucially I now had more mags and ammo for the latter, not least because I’d dumped the 5.56 in the attic with the rest of the unneeded stuff.

Rather than head directly to the marsh through the dead ground, I decided to get as high as I could now, while I was still at the peak of my energy. The artefact was still doing the business, but even so, tiredness would eventually tell. When that time came, Anatoly was going to end up doing his share of lugging.

The ground around my stash had been kicked up, presumably by Anatoly, but he’d apparently unable to locate it – there boot marks everywhere and a few branches had been snapped off the bushes, but everything was as I had left it.

Retrieving my PDA and detectors, I stowed the pack back in its hiding place and replaced the markers, just in case. I then took a few seconds to sort the area out: some boot marks were okay – they were to be expected, and a completely scoured, flat area would look suspicious – but the activity around this area was getting a bit too noticeable. Usually, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but this place was a natural enough area for an OP, as you could easily take not only the smallholding, but also the path north to the road and the trackway southwest-ish to the marsh.

After reattaching my Geiger counter and anomaly detector, I headed out again, making sure I kept just in the dead ground but not right down in the basin, and powered up the PDA. The pack on my back weighed a ton.

‘Balls to this,’ I muttered. ‘They want their kit back, they can come and bloody fetch it!’ I raised the PDA to my mouth. It was past time for a sit-rep anyway. ‘Colonel Petrenko. It’s Snorkbait. I have Svetlana in custody. Aleks is dead. Repeat, Svetlana in custody, Aleks dead. Request RV for handover, preferably somewhere in the tunnel. Over.’

I exited the dead ground and caught sight of the others ahead of me and slightly to my right. Svetlana was on her knees, apparently still resting, but I’d have to have a word with Anatoly about his tactical sense; the silly little bastard was standing just the other side of the crest. Svetlana’s head was about level with his waist, but was below the horizon. By contrast, most of his body above the waist was clearly outlined. It would’ve been be an easy take, if I were a hostile. Avoiding such situations should have been second nature to him by now, as it should be for any infantryman – or any soldier, come to that.

Snorkbait. Petrenko. Received and acknowledged. Free Stalker party will be sent to meet you. Well done. Over.

I moved the PDA to my mouth again to ask for a Duty party instead, but paused before speaking. Anatoly must really have been in a world of his own; not ten yards away from where he stood, an anomaly stood shimmering and distorting the air. He even had his back to it!

I frowned. I’d come that way no more than a couple of hours before. There had been nothing there then. I remembered reading that these things could form quickly and were supposed to have a cycle, so perhaps this one was just starting up again. Could they form this quickly, though? The answer seemed to be yes, but at least that should mean it’d be weak. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t noticed it – it was just too small and quiet. And, of course, Anatoly didn’t have a detector yet. I glanced over my shoulder, checking that the area behind me was still clear.

‘Colonel Petrenko. Negative to Stalker party. Duty only. Repeat, request Duty only. Svetlana fears reprisals without representation. I’ve also encountered another Stalker. He surprised me and I shot him. He’s okay but his PDA is destroyed. Can you sort him out? Over.’

The area was clear, the smallholding as still and silent as it had appeared earlier. The track beyond snaked away to the metalled road, desolate and abandoned, and a gentle wind stirred the longer grass and teased some old, twisted thicket across the yard like a tumbleweed in an old Western. I smiled and turned my attention back to Anatoly and Sveta, now less than thirty metres away and still slightly uphill from me. From my left came the distant, almost rhythmic thrum from the anomaly field that I’d chosen to skirt around, but which Anatoly had presumably managed to traverse despite having no anomaly detector.

I could see Anatoly’s head bobbing. He turned his head and I could see his lips were moving. He was probably trying to give Svetlana some old chat. ‘What’s a nice place like this doing round a girl like you’, all that bollocks. Either that or he was explaining why she had to die. I smiled again as I saw Svetlana turn her head away, a clear ‘fuck off’ gesture if I’d ever seen one. Then I noticed something odd and the smile turned to a frown. I narrowed my eyes, squinting ahead, looking away then looking quickly back again. The anomaly, whatever sort it was, was…the fucking thing was moving. It was about the size of a man, slightly taller than Anatoly, and it seemed to be edging towards them, almost stalking them.

Snorkbait –’ Petrenko’s voice began, and at that moment the ‘anomaly’ that had been closing on Anatoly let out a deafening roar. The shimmering column of air disappeared, leaving behind a dark, rough-skinned thing that suddenly rushed forward.

‘What the fuck –?’ I whispered, and the thing, somehow hearing me across that distance, turned to face me. Its eyes seemed to glow fiercely with eyeshine, something that seemed so familiar, yet far stronger than it had been just a short time before. The thing roared again, the tentacles that were its mouth flaying outward.

‘Rusty?’ I gasped.

The bloodsucker turned away, its attention now drawn by the screaming coming from the other two. Anatoly was rooted to the spot, muzzle down and drooping towards the ground as if his arms had turned to lead. Svetlana, meanwhile, was on her feet and shuffling backwards, her face dead white, her eyes large and terrified. She was, quite literally, unarmed and facing one of The Zone’s most fearsome predators.

Petrenko was still gobbing off over the PDA, but I couldn’t hear a word: all my attention was fixed on the mutant that was about to get all the ‘foo’ he could handle. I’d thought he needed to feed before doing all this shit – it was certainly the impression he’d left me with earlier. Yet now… Perhaps he had managed to get his hands on something. Maybe one of the local dogs had wandered too close, or maybe he’d been wrong about his needs. It was a scary thought; I’d been well within striking range for quite a long time, certainly more than he’d have needed to drain me of every last drop of Type O Pos I had.

‘Rusty!’ I yelled, hoping to distract it again, but it was no use; the mutant charged forward as I slipped the straps from my shoulders and started charging up the hill. It was hard going – the ground dipped lower before forming quite a steep slope immediately before the crest – especially for someone as knackered as I was. Even the artefact and burst of adrenalin I’d got didn’t help much. All I could do was keep my legs pumping and try to get to where I’d have a clear shot.

Anatoly cried out as Rusty – assuming this critter really had once been the Canadian scientist – slammed into him, sending him sailing through the air, before closing in on Svetlana.

‘Kill it! Killithelp meee!’ Svetlana screamed, half-turning and starting to run, though apparently unable to bring herself to turn her back fully to the advancing sucker.

I finally crested the rise. Svetlana was stagger-running away, zig-zagging as she went. Her biggest problem was, she was heading for the anomaly field. I glanced over at Anatoly. He’d landed hard and was still lying on his side, one arm folded protectively about his ribs. He groaned and started coughing. I saw blood on his lips.

‘Help me!’ Svetlana shrieked, forcing me to focus. Anatoly would have to get on with it for now, regardless of any injuries he’d sustained.
The AK went into my shoulder as I dropped to one knee, automatically checking the shot selector to make sure the safety was off and I was going to get some good, satisfying bangs when I squeezed the trigger. I fired three rounds, the percussion and displacement from the weapon making my ears ring and the skin on my whole face feel like it was wobbling like jelly. Perhaps there was a reason why you always saw people on TV firing these things from the hip. The burst had been intended to miss; Svetlana was zig-zagging, the bloodsucker directly between me and her. I didn’t dare aim too close to the mutant; this weapon was an example of Old Soviet thinking: plenty of men spraying plenty of rounds whilst piling forward equals war won, and balls to accuracy. Truth be told, they were okay…but I’d really want a nice, well-maintained NATO weapon for this. If the L.85 had been in any fit state, I’d have it in my hands and old Rusty would have a few holes in his head by now.

The mutant completely ignored the warning burst and continued pursing his intended victim, who promptly stumbled and fell.

Roaring victory, the creature loomed over her. Clear shots. I fired.

I watched at least three rounds impact the leathery-looking skin. It could have been more. I hoped it was. But all the sucker did was roar again. The head whipped towards me and he turned, spreading his arms wide. Svetlana was struggling to her feet. She’d have been better off where she was.

The sucker turned back to her, either hearing or sensing the movement and remembering he’d had her cold. I stopped firing, unwilling to risk hitting Svetlana. Those long, knotted-wood arms reached around and pulled her close. The tentacles wrapped around her head and neck in an obscene death kiss, and suddenly the last thing I ever wanted was for her to die like that. I didn’t care what she’d done or why she’d done it, nor could I believe I’d seriously considered this as an option. No one deserved to die this way.

Svetlana was still gamely trying to fight the thing off, though her strength was failing. Her eyes were darting frantically from side to side, though a clear glaze of death was falling over them by the second.

‘Get off her, you fucking ugly twat!’ I screamed, pushing the selector to single and double-tapping like a man possessed. Some of the rounds were striking home: three hit Rusty in the back; two more struck buttocks and thighs; another two hit the arms and chest as he began to turn towards the source of the threat. In other words, towards me.

The tentacles unwound from Svetlana’s head and he released her. She staggered away, falling to her knees, still bleeding profusely and with barely the strength to crawl. It was a testament to her strength of will that she was moving at all.

Rusty began lumbering towards me, limping heavily from the wounds sustained. My attention was fixed forward as I kept firing, but I was also peripherally aware of Anatoly finally trying to recover and sit up, and Svetlana vomiting up blood as she somehow made it to her feet. She was dying, there was no way to stop it now, yet she plodded away, reeling in and out of my peripheral vision. She paused, the staggered on, out of my line of sight. A low thrumming reached me, getting louder, then louder still. Svetlana began to scream again, the sound weak and not helped by the wads of blood in her throat.

‘Ah, shit!’ Anatoly wailed. ‘It’s pulling her in!’

I shut it all out, letting the bloodsucker loom large in my mind. This was the primary task. I had to drop it. If I didn’t, I was dead and that meant neither Svetlana nor Anatoly would be getting any help.

Another roar, and Rusty began a final charge. I kept my aim on his head now and just kept on squeezing shots away. All too soon, the AK clicked empty and I fished the suppressed pistol out of my pocket.

‘Fuck you. Fuck you. Bollocks Rusty, you fucking Canuck tosspot,’ I muttered, squeezing the rounds off until that, too, clicked empty. Still Rusty came. Still Svetlana tried to scream, though her efforts were becoming increasingly weak, not to mention increasingly liquid. It was over. There was nothing more to do. We were dead.

Rusty paused at ten metres, watching as I dropped the pistol to the ground. I had another mag in my pocket, but what was the point? Ten metres was nothing. Even my granddad might have stood a chance of closing that distance before I got the pistol reloaded, and he only had one leg.

I opened my arms. ‘Come on, then, you twat-faced old bastard. Dinner is fucking well served.’

Rusty’s tentacles flared and his eyeshine went into overdrive as he also opened his arms, a low hissing coming from what now served as his mouth. He stepped closer, then closer still, seeming to savour the moment, perhaps regretting that he hadn’t taken the opportunity I’d presented earlier. I was really going to die. The funny thing was, I didn’t care. Instead, my head filled itself full of defiant, slightly manic witticisms: ‘I’d say no tongues, but you haven’t got one’; things of that sort.

Anatoly’s AK rattled away to my left, and rounds slammed into Rusty from point-blank range. How he stayed on his feet, I had no idea. Maybe it was disbelief, maybe it was all to do with his changed physiology, or maybe it was a bit of both, but it was only when Anatoly put three or four rounds through the mutant’s skull that the light in its eyes began to dim and instead of moving forward, it began to finally crumple to the ground.

Anatoly coolly hobbled over, placed the muzzle behind what had been an ear but now looked like a small hole surrounded by wizened, puckered flesh, and emptied the rest of the magazine into Rusty’s head. Nothing could have survived that.

I looked down at the dead bloodsucker, then over to where Svetlana’s body – or rather, what remained of it – was being devoured by the anomaly. It seemed to be taking a hell of a time. Finally, I glanced at Anatoly, who seemed unable to decide whether to watch the anomaly take finally take Svetlana or marvel at his handiwork with Rusty. He broke the cycle by raising his eyes and looking into mine.

‘Evens,’ I said, and stooped to pick the pistol up again, reloading and shoving it into my pocket as I watched the anomaly got to work on Svetlana’s head. ‘Come on. Let’s get out of here. You can get that fucking pack.’

We turned towards the smallholding. Neither of us looked back.
  03:01:56  25 February 2010
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

Zug: Ah, but it's not all bad, mate. Just a case of a little rain falling in each life. It happens.

Anyway...the story.

*****

‘Svetlana, get up. We have to leave,’ I said, wishing I’d kept my PDA with me. A quick check and I’d have known if I was in the shit or not…and if so, how badly. It would have been just one more thing to worry about, one more item that could have been dropped, adding to the risk of compromise, but right now…

I looked over at the assorted bags and other kit in the corner, but it would take too long to rummage through it all for one of the others’ PDAs, and there was the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to access the things even if I found one in time; if it was possible to lock mobiles and other devices in the outside world, perhaps that function been retained when they were modified for use here. I should have asked when Wolf handed over my device. A quick ‘Oi, Wolf, can you lock these using a password or something?’ and I’d have known. I just hadn’t thought. A stupid oversight. Exactly the kind that get you killed.

I cursed and glanced over at Svetlana.

She hadn’t moved. She hadn’t even raised her head. What was she playing at? Did she know who it was out there? Had she been playing for time, patiently waiting for rescue, and was now remaining still so a gang of lads could burst in and drop me without harming her? Her attitude certainly made it likely. It was how I’d trained in the Killing House for years: a ‘hostage’ would be in the room, usually sitting or kneeling in a more or less random location. The ‘enemy’ targets were also randomly positioned. This meant every exercise was a new situation, you had to stay switched on for every entry. Had we just done the same old thing, with little or no variation, we’d just be habitualizing – not good for when it came to doing the job for real. With everything in place and the brief out of the way, we’d get in and get it done, always using live rounds. All the person playing the hostage had to do was remain perfectly still and let us get on with it. We’d had all sorts in there: business leaders, diplomats, politicians, members of the Royal Family…it was all part of their training, too; if they’d ever been lifted, they’d know how to react when we came to retrieve them. It was impossible to believe that any faction in The Zone trained in the same way, if they trained at all, but there was a lot of familiarity in her stillness and non-threatening posture.

‘Svetlana?’ I stage-whispered, but still she didn’t budge. All my other instructions had been obeyed, so why ignore the one to stand up unless something was going on? It was all the proof I needed.

Pulling the pistol from my pocket and keeping the doorway covered, I crabbed over to Svetlana and knelt behind her, using my left arm to get her in a Half-Nelson and jamming the pistol under her right ear as best I could. The suppressor worked against me, forcing me to lean around more than I really wanted to. It threw me slightly off-balance; all Svetlana had to do was give me a quick nudge and she could roll away, leaving me as an open target. To counteract this, I wound a handful of hair around my left fist and pulled back on it even as I forced her head forward with my forearm.

‘Move and you’re fucking dead. Got it?’

She nodded as best she could. ‘Yes,’ she grunted.

Cold sweat dribbled between my shoulder blades.

‘Were you expecting anyone?’ I mumbled into her ear, giving her a quick shake by the hair when she refused to answer. ‘Talk to me, slag! Was there a meet arranged? Svetlana!’ I tugged her hair harder, causing a squeak of pain.

‘No!’ she whimpered. ‘No one!’

‘The truth!’

‘It is the truth!’ she cried.

My jaw tightened. ‘I know someone’s out there. Put your weapons down and step into the doorway with your hands in the air!’ I yelled.

No response. No counter-demand, not even a snicker of laughter.

‘Do you think I’m joking? Move where I can see you!’

‘How can you be sure it’s anyone?’ Svetlana muttered. ‘It’s probably your imagination. You’re seeing threats that aren’t there.’

Sweat ran into my left eye, making it sting even more. I had no choice but to let it smart. I couldn’t even afford to blink it away.

‘Hm. I’m imagining it, am I? And did this fucking imagined threat also step on the broken glass in the kitchen?’ I murmured into her ear. ‘There’s someone out there. Trust me.’

‘I didn’t hear anything. What if –’

A floorboard creaked in the other room.

‘Oh, shit!’ she gasped.

‘Hate to say I told you so,’ I said, then called again. ‘I heard you make the floorboard creak, you fat bastard! I know someone is there. Step into the doorway, now!’

The board creaked again, but the doorway remained empty.

Dragging Svetlana along with me so I could continue using her as a shield, I edged sideways until I could see the wardrobe in the other room.

‘What are you doing?’ she hissed.

‘Something. We’ll be here all week otherwise,’ I muttered, and aimed at the sink that was weighing the wardrobe down. With a final comment in English that was also half-prayer – ‘That fucking thing had better be ceramic’ – I squeezed the trigger.

Part of the sink shattered under the impact and a huge chunk clattered to the floor. The noise evidently startled whoever was out there, judging from the sudden rattle of boots. They were also gulping air as if they’d been holding their breath for the last five minutes. I was almost relieved; at least it sounded like there was only one person out there.

‘I’ll kill her!’ I roared. ‘Now stop the fucking dance routine, drop your weapons and get where I can see you!’

Nothing but the sound of panicked, laboured breathing.

‘Whoever it is, they’re not here for me,’ Svetlana whispered. ‘Threatening to kill me won’t mean anything to them.’

‘Maybe not, but threaten to kill a woman and most blokes won’t risk it. Fuck knows why, but they won’t.’

‘So you’re bluffing?’

‘No. I’ll kill you if I have to.’

‘No, you won’t,’ Svetlana mumbled, and I could hear a smile in her voice. ‘I heard you put the safety back on.’

‘Is that right?’ I said, extending my arm so she could see the pistol – and more importantly, so she could see that the safety was still off. I put the muzzle back under her ear. ‘Happy? Now he has five seconds. After that…’

She whimpered again. ‘Don’t. Please, I don’t want to die.’

‘You won’t have to,’ I muttered, then raised my voice; ‘as long as Disco Dan out there does as he’s told.’

‘Please!’ she cried. ‘Just do as he asks. He’ll kill me. He’s not bluffing.’

A sigh, then one empty, ungloved hand reached around the frame. Slowly, a lower arm appeared. Then an elbow. Whoever it was, they appeared to have got their hands on some military gear; the pattern was the same as I’d seen the perimeter guards wearing.
The arm finally emerged as far as the shoulder.

‘I…I’m not armed, Stalker. Don’t shoot. I’m not who you think I am,’ a voice quavered.

‘How do you know who I think you are?’

‘I’m not here for the woman. I came in because I thought there might be food. See my uniform? I’m a soldier. Ex-soldier. I deserted. I’m just looking for food and shelter. I don’t mean you any harm. I –’

‘Just stop fucking about and show yourself,’ I said, but he kept on inching into view. ‘For fuck’s sake… Halt!’

He froze.

‘Now, one pace to the right, march!’

The soldier stepped into view, and I released Svetlana’s hair, gaping at him at the same time as he got busy gaping at the naked body on the
floor.

‘You!’ I said.

His face was filthy and he’d picked up a few cuts and scrapes, but there was no mistaking my friend from a few nights before. As he’d promised, he was unarmed. In fact, apart from his standard issue BDUs and boots, his worldly possessions seemed to consist of a single lamp.

He looked up as I spoke and his eyes widened. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to realize he had no idea what to call me. ‘You!’ he exclaimed.

‘I thought you were dead!’

He frowned. ‘Why would you think that?’

‘You don’t know? All the patrols that were sent out to track down a murderer they said crossed in the same sector I came through? I thought I’d killed you by mistake. I didn’t believe it, seeing as you were able to shout down, but…I thought I might have caused some other damage that fucked you up later.’

He was shaking his head. ‘You did “fuck me up”, but not physically. And I did see some of the helicopter patrols after I jumped the fence. Spetsnaz too. Some of the arseholes got in a firefight with a bunch of Mercs…’

‘What? Where? Near where I entered?’

He nodded. ‘Not too far. I was hiding, of course, and was too far away to see –’

‘Was she with them? The blonde I jumped the perimeter with?’

He shrugged. ‘Like I say, I don’t know. I didn’t see who the soldiers were firing at very clearly. Besides, they were all wearing masks and lots of protective gear.’ He eyed me curiously. ‘Why aren’t you still with her, anyway? She was injured –’

‘Long story. Short version is we got separated. No choice.’

‘Ah,’ he grunted, then nodded towards Svetlana. ‘Who’s the woman?’

‘Svetlana Motyka…as far as she knows. This,’ I said, indicating the corpse, ‘was Aleks, her…whatever. They’re thieves. Caused me some trouble.’

‘Yeah. Looks like it,’ he smiled, looking at my face. ‘That hurt?’

‘What do you think? I’ll live. How’s the throat, by the way?’

His smirk vanished. ‘Still sore,’ he admitted. ‘I still owe you for that. But we made a deal, didn’t we? Next time we saw one another, one of us was going to die.’

‘I remember, but you’re unarmed. Seems harsh to slot you, so I’ll let you off and we owe each other nothing.’

‘Very gracious, I’m sure,’ he mumbled, eyeing the pistol in my hand.

‘What the hell are you doing this side of the fence anyway? Why d’you desert?’

He grimaced. ‘Because of you.’

‘A birthday card and some chocolates would have been enough. You didn’t have to come all this way.’

Svetlana giggled.

‘Oh, fun-ny,’ the former soldier replied. ‘Remember my relief turning up?’

I nodded.

‘Bastard said he was going to turn me in, even tell them I’d arranged everything so I could let a known smuggler through.’

‘You knew about her?’

‘You telling me she really is a smuggler?’

‘She was. Someone had rumbled her and she had no choice but to come in here permanently. We ran into her people – presumably the Mercs you saw – and they took her in. I was left to get on with it.’

‘How come? Wouldn’t she speak up for you?’

‘Couldn’t. She was out of it because of all the lost blood. To be honest, it was a good thing we did bump into them. She’d have died, otherwise.’

He nodded. ‘I watched you trying to save her. We both did, Mikhail and I. He said she’d die and you’d become so weak from carrying her that you wouldn’t survive the night, let alone reach a Stalker camp. He reckoned shooting you would have been a waste of bullets. So we watched you walk away, and that’s when he told me he was going to report me. He even had me at gunpoint, though I was unarmed.’ He looked over at the AK on top of the stuff in the corner. ‘Remember how the blonde couldn’t find my weapon?’

I nodded again.

‘It was because I didn’t have one. Mechanism problem. It was with the
armourer, being repaired.’

‘Yet they still sent you out?’

He gave a sardonic smile. ‘No other choice. I was rostered for duty, there was no one to cover and no one would trade shifts or let me borrow their rifle.’

‘Sidearm? Knife?’

He shook his head. ‘Only my rifle. My sidearm and knife…’ He sighed. ‘I sold them. My sister in Odessa needed money. Some street punk in Kiev gave me a hundred for both, final offer. I took it.’

I frowned. ‘How did you pass inspections, then?’

He shrugged. ‘There are ways.’

‘But aren’t sidearms –’

‘How did you get away?’ Svetlana cut in, casting me a look.

The soldier turned to face her and smiled broadly. ‘I pretended to accept what Mikhail wanted to do. At first I said he couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t let it happen, but he said all the evidence would support him – after all, the weapon malfunction was why I was put where I was; anywhere else would have been too dangerous, but there…easy. Nothing from The Zone can get up that way, and you’d have to be a lunatic to take that way in.’ He cast an uneasy glance in my direction. ‘Anyway, it would be easy enough for the commander to believe I’d sabotaged my weapon to pull that duty and allow my smuggler friends to cross unopposed. Once Mikhail made the report, the Hinds would have flown anyway. Stalkers might be tolerated, but organised smugglers? Never.’

‘And once the Mercs were found and engaged, it would have been more proof against you,’ Svetlana said.

He nodded.

‘But what about the cuts and bruises?’ I said.

He shrugged. ‘You’d have to make it look good, wouldn’t you?’ He came further into the room and sat down, resting his back against the wall. ‘It would have gone badly for me, even though what Mikhail intended to say was untrue. By pretending to go along with him, I got him to trust me. I even said he was actually right, that I had been a smuggler, that I had arranged it all. He would be a hero and I would go to prison, but I was relieved that it was all over; living two lives had been tiring for the nerves. Anything, really, to make him believe his lies were truths he had accidentally stumbled upon. He took me over to the wagon so he could radio back and ask for someone to come and pick me up, and…’

‘And what?’ Svetlana said. Something in her voice made me look over at her. Her eyes met mine and the message in them was clear: Here’s the real murderer. Petya died because of him.

‘I picked up a rock and hit him with it,’ the deserter said. ‘He gave a sort of groan and slumped to the ground. I checked to see if he was alive, took his weapon, then got in the wagon and drove it down to flatter ground. I crossed the wire and ran as far as I could before daybreak. Then I hid.’

Svetlana and I exchanged another look.

‘You took his weapon?’ I said. ‘Where is it, then? Why are you unarmed?’

He looked away from us, studying the floor between his feet. ‘Lost it,’ he said. ‘I was heading north, following the group of Mercs that had the firefight with the Spetsnaz guys – I thought maybe I’d be able to search any bodies, find food and ammo, a map to tell me where everything was, anything – when these things attacked me. Like pigs, only…not very much like pigs at all.’

‘Fleshes,’ Svetlana said. ‘They’re called Fleshes. Flesh, singular.’

He nodded an acknowledgement, and I filed the information away for future use too.

‘Anyway, I was running from these things and tripped. I fell flat on my face, and the weapon ended up in the anomaly I’d been about to run into. I couldn’t get it back, no matter what I tried.’

‘Probably for the best,’ she said. ‘Even if you’d retrieved it, it would probably have been so irradiated holding it would have eventually killed you.’

He nodded again and passed a hand over his face. ‘It’s a nightmare in here.’

‘It can be. It can also be…well, pretty good. Even amazing,’ she replied.

Something was puzzling me, however.

‘You said before that you checked Mikhail was still alive,’ I said, and waited until he raised his head to look me. ‘Was he?’

He closed his eyes, slowly. ‘I’m not sure.’

He might not have been, but I was. Mikhail had been dead – either that, or very unlikely to survive.

‘What’s your name, soldier?’

‘Don’t call me that. I’m not a soldier. I’m just Anatoly again now. Anatoly Zaleski.’ He glanced up at me. ‘Apparently, I never really was.’

‘Fair enough…Anatoly.’

‘And do I get to know who you are?’ he said.

‘Don’t laugh, but they call me Snorkbait in here.’

He didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile. He only nodded his acceptance.

‘Right, out with it, lad.’ I snapped. ‘Why did you really jump the fence? If Mikhail was spouting bullshit, that’s one thing. If he had survived your attack, that’s another. I can see why your commander might take Mikhail’s report seriously. I can see why you attacked him – though you could have put in a counter-claim saying you were both there when we arrived, and that’s why you were both in shit state. Seeing as you had a way out, why come over here?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I’d thought about it a few times – what it would be like to get away from the Army, what it was to live as a Stalker, how I would be able to look after my sister if I could only get rich…’ He paused. ‘And no one would miss me. I didn’t have many friends in the outside world and no one liked me much in the Army. If there was a bad job going, I got it.’

I nodded. I’d known a few guys like him, especially during my time in the infantry. The squad loser, singled out because he’s different in some way; perhaps he can’t run as fast as everyone else and gets the platoon a bollocking for being so slow, or perhaps he has strength issues that mean he’s crap at obstacles, or maybe he’s the dimbulb that just doesn’t get field-craft, fucks up when he strips his weapon, can never get the folds right in his sheets or the creases sharp enough in his clothes. I’d seen guys get beaten up because they were ‘Tick-Tock Men’ – recruits who couldn’t manage to march using left foot, right arm, right foot, left arm, and went along swinging left arm with left leg. Being naturally quiet and reflective wasn’t accepted, or more to the point, rejecting anything that wasn’t quite and reflective wasn’t accepted; the squad expected you to join in, be rowdy now and then, basically just engage in the ‘fun’. Anything that marked you out as different was seized upon and your life could quickly become nothing but a long round of misery. Some guys would try to help the weaker ones, some would rally round and even get into fights to protect those who would not or could not fight back – but every intake, every unit, had an Anatoly; a guy who just wasn’t cut out for it, who was unprepared, and who would have been better off doing something else entirely. In the British Army, such people tended to get weeded out pretty quickly; you were free to quit if you found it really wasn’t your cup of tea. In other parts of the world, though, you had national service, conscription…whatever you chose to call it, you weren’t free to leave. Compulsory service might not be a bad thing in itself, but I’d always thought that there should be more options. Perhaps Anatoly would have been better off if he’d been sent to hug Africans or count trees for a year or two rather than being sent here – or, in fact, being sent anywhere as part of the Ukrainian Army.

‘Mikhail was one of the better ones, actually. He’d stood up for me in the past, until it started affecting his status among the others. He was ambitious, though. It was my bad luck to be there. He’d have lied about anyone.’

‘And of course, you already had a reputation. If the commander was already prejudiced against you,’ I said. ‘Tea and medals for Mikhail, while –’

‘I’d go to prison for a lie.’ He snorted laughter and nodded. ‘Yes. Then I get to serve ten years for smuggling artefacts when I hadn’t seen a single one until just now, when I saw that one on your belt, plus another one for hitting Mikhail. After that time, I’d be released to go home.’ He shook his head. ‘Eleven years in prison rather than two years in service, and with a dishonourable discharge from the Army. My life would have been over. No one would have hired me. And my parents, their friends – it would have been too shameful.’

I sighed, struck again by how young and helpless he looked, wondering what I would have done in his situation. Fighting the allegations might have worked…if he’d been a better, more popular soldier and if he hadn’t already sold Army equipment – something which would have come out in the course of any investigation. Given the same set of conditions, I might have done much the same as he had, though there was a big difference: had I ended up doing time in a military prison before getting kicked out, I wouldn’t have given a shit about what my parents or their friends thought.

All the same, there was Mikhail’s murder to consider. Without that, Petya Runner might still be alive. That said, even without this boy pretending to be a man, the patrols would still have been dispatched, Spetsnaz would still have got into a contact with a group that could only have been Blondie’s mob as they ran north…and Petya might still have had to cover for me, risking – and ultimately losing – all. Anatoly had taken an action which had seemed the only one open to him and Mikhail had died. The question was, just how big a factor was that death in everything that had followed? Would Borisov have come up to the village if Mikhail had survived?

The answer seemed to be yes, he would have. Leaving the murder out of it, Mikhail’s allegations would still have caused the patrols, I would still have been seen. Surely the two would have been put together? Contact with Mercs, then I got scooting to the Rookie Village. Even the world’s thickest Private would have thought that suspicious. What was more, if the finger of suspicion of smuggling had pointed towards the village, perhaps Borisov’s orders would have been significantly different: a sweep-and-destroy mission rather than a patrol looking for an individual that could have no connection to the rookies. That would also have caused the whole deal with the Military to be cancelled. The Autopark raid would not have happened, and the Bandits would surely have swept down into Cordon to take control of the area. Petya Runner, Andriy P, and the others would have been just as dead. The difference was, Olga, Vasya, Dmitriy Monkey, Vasiliy Dynamo, me…all would have been killed by the Spetsnaz sweep. As Anatoly had said, Stalkers might be tolerated; organised smugglers, never – though I doubted things really were as clear and starkly black and white as all that. In situations where smuggling was involved, things could get very murky indeed.

‘Okay, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t need to hear any more. Someone died. It wasn’t you, so we can assume you slotted Mikhail and jumped the fence. There was follow-up, shit happens. End of.’

‘That’s it?’ Svetlana cried. ‘You were ready to do whatever to me because you were wrongly blamed for stealing a few things, but you’re happy to let him go?’

I smiled at her. ‘Fucked up, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Petya died because of this murdering asshole!’

‘No. Petya died because a cat decided he looked like breakfast.’

‘He wouldn’t have been out there at all if it wasn’t for you. Both of you!’

‘I didn’t ask him to go, he volunteered. Look, I’m sorry he’s dead. I’m sorry Anatoly killed another soldier, but the fact is, you deliberately set me up. Anatoly didn’t.’

Svetlana glared at me. ‘I don’t believe you!’

‘Svetlana, for fuck’s sake, don’t you get it? If Anatoly hadn’t killed Mikhail, we’d all be dead by now. You, me, Petya, all the others, because they would have assumed I was one of the smuggling gang. They would have assumed you lot gave me shelter. The mission would have been to wipe everyone out. Maybe even old Sidorovich would have been dragged out and shot, who knows?’

‘I doubt it,’ she said. ‘He’s involved, no doubt, but he’s just one of the spiders controlling the web. What he said before about smuggling not being tolerated…sorry, but that’s bullshit. There are senior officers, perhaps even Government figures, with a vested interest in things getting out. Why turn the dogs on them, with that being the case? No, the choppers flew because of him, a murderer.’

I shook my head. ‘Not everyone would be on the take. A report suggesting smugglers were definitely in the area, definitely organised, with moles in the perimeter guards…they’d have to do something.’

‘Don’t bet on it. And even if they did, it would only be cosmetic.’ She turned to Anatoly. ‘When you looked for bodies, did you find any?’

‘Not many. One or two,’ he said. ‘It looked like the Mercs got away. Of course, Spetsnaz would have recovered their casualties if they could.’
She looked back to me, smiling triumphantly.

‘It proves nothing,’ I sighed, turning to the former soldier. ‘Anatoly, did you see anyone else lurking around outside? Your old mates, perhaps? Or a bunch of tossers in long coats or black leather jackets?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Like I said, I came in here looking for food. I heard voices from outside and wondered if I might be able to scrounge a meal, perhaps fall in with a group. Safety in numbers, and all that.’

‘So why sneak in?’

He shrugged. ‘It pays to be cautious.’

‘Caution’s fine, but you’re lucky you didn’t get shot,’ I said. ‘It’s not a good idea to surprise armed people.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ll remember that. But I was unarmed and, to be honest, I’ve been shitting myself since I got in. I haven’t eaten in days. I thought there would be food, proper shelter, warmth. I saw these two late yesterday, as it was getting dark. I meant to follow them then, but there were anomalies in the way. In the end, I had to shelter in some bushes last night, deep in where nothing could get at me.’

‘Huh. Shows what you know,’ Svetlana mumbled, but he ignored her.

‘If you camped out on the other side of the anomaly field, I think I saw your light last night,’ I said. ‘You want to watch that light discipline. And, sorry if this seems like more of the same shit you came over the wire to escape, but here’s your horoscope: fuck up and give our position away like that while you’re with me, and you won’t have to worry about the enemy. I’ll kill you myself.’

He looked stunned. ‘But I only used it for a couple of seconds –’

Unshielded. I ended up radioing back to ask if there were any friendlies meant to be around here. They said no. Poor light discipline is a quick way to get killed. The problem is, it’s never just you; it’s whoever you’re with that cops it as well. Anyhow, that’s one you owe me.’

‘How?’

‘I didn’t kill you last night when I could have, did I?’

‘You didn’t know it was me!’

‘Doesn’t matter. I didn’t fire, you got to live,’ I said. ‘Besides, I’m going to give you a meal and a share of this kit. I’ve also got an idea of how to get you out of the shit with other Stalkers, give you a fresh start. A favour in exchange won’t be too much to ask, will it? First, though, we need to get out of here. This place is a tactical fucking nightmare, as you’ve already shown. We need to get Svetlana outside. For that, you will need a weapon. Can I trust you?’

He looked me in the eye and nodded. I held the stare a moment longer, wanting to be sure. His eyes never wavered, never so much as flickered. If he was going to fuck me over, he showed no sign. I safetied the pistol and stowed it again.

‘Right. I’m going to trust you. Betray me, kill me, and I’ll come back and fucking haunt you. Fair enough?’

He smiled and nodded.

‘Right, grab that other 74. Here’s a full clip,’ I said, fishing the curved magazine from up my sleeve, where it had been wedged. ‘Remember: cross me –’

‘And you’ll come back and haunt me. Got it.’ He laughed and slapped the mag home far too roughly for my liking. ‘But what happens after we get her out of here? What’re we going to do with her?’

I looked over at Svetlana, who was still glowering at me, and sighed.

‘To be honest, mate, I have no fucking idea.’
  05:18:40  4 February 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

This is really more like Part XXIV continued, but together the chapter would have been way too long.
Cheers for continued reads and comments.

*****

She watched me watching her as I took a few steps backwards, still aiming the pistol at her chest.

‘What happens now, then?’ she asked.

It was a good question. I had control of her for now, but could I keep it? She would already be racing through plans and schemes, wondering how she could engineer a chance to escape, or at least come up with a plausible-sounding story to explain herself. Originally, the plan had been to just kill her, report back, and get on with what Petrenko wanted me to do next, as per the deal. Then I’d had the idea of giving her to Rusty and letting him sort her out.

The tattoo had changed things, though. I didn’t know if it meant anything, but seeing it had given me all sorts of bad feelings. It could hardly have been worse if I’d seen ‘666’ and an inverted-cross birthmark on her arse – yet I had no idea why.

‘That tattoo mean anything?’ I asked.

‘Which one?’ she replied.

‘The one on your inner forearm. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R one.’

‘Yes.’

I waited for more. It soon became obvious it wouldn’t be forthcoming.

‘So, what does it mean, then?’ I prompted.

She shrugged. ‘Depends on which story you believe.’

‘Where did you get it?’

‘Can’t remember. It must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time, though.’

‘What do you mean, you can’t remember? Were you drunk? High? What?’

‘Dunno. I didn’t have it, then I went north, artefact-hunting. Then I came back here, undressed, and there it was. That’s all I know.’

‘Who did you go north with? Have you seen any of them since? Did they get tattoos as well? Does it mean you’re part of some group or other, and that’s the way you’ll know others? Tell me, Svetlana. Am I going to get a load of mad screaming bastards after my head if you end up dead?’

‘I don’t know. It depends. Maybe,’ she said, then tilted her head quizzically. ‘Why would I end up dead, though? I thought you weren’t going to kill me.’

‘I’m not, unless you force me to. What I was going to do is hand you over to someone else. What happens to you then…’ I trailed off. What would happen if I handed her over to Rusty? Did it automatically mean she’d die, or would she be turned into a bloodsucker as well, become the Bride of Rusty instead of Dracula? And if so, did I really want that to happen?

‘You might as well kill me after all, then,’ she said. ‘Vasya and the others won’t be very forgiving.’ She looked me in the eye. ‘I think you already know what their idea of justice is. By the time you’ve sorted all this gear and are ready to move out, I’ll be part of one of those Fruit Punches in the tunnel.’

I stiffened. ‘You mean those blobs of glowing shit? They’re Fruit Punches?’

She nodded. ‘I forgot how new you are. Yeah, you get thrown into one of them – especially one of the big, mature ones, and…’ She shrugged. ‘It’s not quick, and it’s not nice. It’s like being in glue. You get stuck and you can’t get out. You can’t touch it to pull a part free and save yourself, and in the end you’re basically –’

‘Dissolved,’ I finished. ‘Jesus. Olga wanted to throw me into one of those things.’

She nodded again. ‘And clearly it’s what would happen to me, if they got hold of me. I’d rather go out with a bullet in my brain. So if you were going to hand me over to that lot…please, don’t. Finish me here. I’m not afraid of dying if I have to, as long as it’s quick.’

I met her gaze and saw the lack of guile in her eyes…as well as her lack of fear. My choices were clear: hand her over to the Stalkers, and let her die a slow, agonizing death; hand her over to Rusty for whatever that entailed; or kill her myself, now. It’d be easy enough; one round into the back of the head and it’d all be over. Justice, of a sort, would have been served and I’d have my revenge on her. The trouble was, living with myself after just topping her would be hard – perhaps too hard. All of which left secret option number four: Let her go, and allow The Zone to determine her fate. She’d have to be unarmed, of course, and with just enough provisions to get her to the nearest place of safety…but wouldn’t that just be condemning her to another sort of slow death? If I let her go like that, with her registered as a Bandit by now for sure, however that system worked, she’d be lucky to last the rest of the morning, let alone the day. True, she could go into Dark Valley, hook up with the Bandits there…but what would they do to her? What did they get up to? If she’d just end up as a slave of some sort, killing her now would be an act of mercy.

But then there was still the feeling that sodding tattoo gave me. I felt, instinctively, that killing her out of hand would be…what? Wrong? All killing was wrong, morally, legally and technically, but I’d done it before and would again. A mistake, then? But what sort of mistake? Was some funny kind of sixth sense trying to tell me I was going to need her later on? Or was she protected in some way? Is that what the tattoo was?

‘So,’ she said, looking at me as if she had read my thoughts as I’d had them. ‘Like I said, what happens now?’

I took a deep breath. What I should do – what I wanted to do when I remembered how close I’d come to being dissolved in a pool of gloopy, corrosive, radioactive crap – was kill her, either by shooting her myself or by letting Rusty have his way. But then, why shouldn’t Rusty have to search for his own food? He was a mutant now. Giving him food would be like running through wolf- and bear-infested woods with a load of lamb chops strapped to your legs; it’d make an easy target and you don’t invite predators to attack so they can develop a taste for human flesh and blood. If I let her go and he got her anyway…c’est la vie. Or la mort, depending. Either way, it’d be natural, the way of The Zone – as it had been with Petya Runner. As it might end up being with me.

‘I don’t know what to do with you, Svetlana. Honestly,’ I said. ‘My idea was to catch up to you, kill you, and give the others back what you’d taken.’ I sighed. ‘The thing is, I don’t think I can kill you. Not unless…’

‘You want to know how guilty I am,’ she said.

‘Yes. Before I make a decision, I want to know what you deserve. I need to.’

She tilted her head slightly to the right again. ‘Here’s the deal, then. You let me get dressed, and I tell you my side. As nice as this might be for you, I’m getting cold.’

‘Fair enough. But keep away from those weapons. You’ll dress over here, where I am now, and will move only when I give you the instructions. Clear?’

She gave a half-smile. ‘Clear.’

I edged around to my right so I was at right angles to her line of travel, keeping the pistol trained on her.

‘Right. Do not stand. Stand, and I shoot you. Crawl across the room to where I was just standing. Do not stop until your head touches the wall., then turn ninety degrees right and crawl until you’re in the corner. Do you understand what I want you to do?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded.

‘Good. Crawl now, Svetlana.’

Slowly easing herself onto all fours, she did as instructed.

‘Good. Now, I want you to turn around to face the centre of the room and lie flat on your stomach. You will bend your knees until your feet are as close to your arse as you can get then, and your kneecaps must be against the walls. Once that’s done and you’re lying down you must keep your forehead pressed to the floor. Yours arms must be outstretched with the palms clear of the floor, and your fingers must be spread as far apart as you can get them and outstretched, not curled. Is all that understood?’

‘Yes.’

‘Fine. Do that now, Svetlana.’

Again, I watched as she carried out my instructions. She flinched slightly as something bit into her exposed flesh, but made no sound or movement that I might deem threatening.

I moved over to the makeshift bed. ‘Well done, Svetlana. Remember, I am watching you all the time. It is now impossible for you to get up and attack me before I kill you. I do not want to kill you, Svetlana. Do you believe me?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

Keeping my eyes on my captive, I applied the safety on the pistol and slid the weapon into the waistband of my trousers before grabbing the first of the 74s and hitting the magazine release catch.

Svetlana didn’t move so much as an inch.

With the mag in my hand, I pressed down on the top round with my thumb. The clip was fully charged. I checked chamber. Empty. I slid the magazine back into the housing and pressed until it clicked. After cocking the 74 and slinging it over my shoulder, I repeated the clearing process with the second rifle, this time shoving the magazine up my sleeve and placing the weapon on top of their other kit. In an ideal world I would go through it all now, checking for sidearms and knives, but it wasn’t an ideal world and I couldn’t check the gear and keep an eye on Sveta at the same time. What I did was grab all the clothes I could see. It stood to reason that half of them had to be a decent fit for her, and maybe I’d find a decent belt or something to secure her hands with.

‘Right, let’s get you dressed, then,’ I said, sorting through the garments. ‘Move slowly. Sit up, then stand. Keep your movements slow and controlled. Move quickly or towards me, and you die. Do you understand?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay. Do it.’

I watched as she raised herself from the floor. Her breasts hung down, swinging as she moved. She looked so vulnerable, and I felt pissed off with myself for making her do all this. I could only imagine how I’d have felt in her position; naked, scared, stripped of all dignity, not knowing what was going to happen next... Christ, what the hell was I doing? This was the sort of shit I’d been sent to kill the Taliban for doing, once upon a time. Of course, back then it had been some dickhead freelancer who had managed to get herself lifted while out chasing a story, perhaps even the story: the location of old Osama himself, and we’d been tasked to go in and rescue her, taking out the enemy in the process. It had been too late, of course, and even though we’d taken ten enemy fighters out, the fuckers had had the last laugh: you only had to see the state of her body to know what they’d been up to.

I closed that line of thought down. This was different because I was different. Those arseholes had done what they did because it was what their fucked-up belief system was partly about. All I was doing was keeping control of a potentially dangerous situation. The fact was, I couldn’t trust Svetlana. I had to assume she’d kill me as soon as she got the chance.

When she was ready, I started throwing over those items that were clearly hers, and in another few minutes she was dressed again. I threw her boots over only after checking the lining, soles, and uppers for hidden delights like razor blades or small knives. I even frayed the middle of the laces with my teeth in case she’d threaded wire through them. She hadn’t.

‘Right. Sit down where you are, hands under your arse, legs crossed,’ I commanded. I didn’t want to sit down myself. If I did, among the nice, relatively comfy bedrolls and sleeping bags, I might end up nodding off. My eyes, already sore, now felt heavy, gritty and hot. Whatever else happened here, I was going to have to catch some serious zeds pretty soon. I was almost out on my feet.

‘That Moonlight might help,’ Svetlana said.

‘What?’

She smiled. ‘I can tell how tired you are. I know how tired you must be. I mean, you looked ready to sleep for a week the other night, but left to look for Petya yesterday before I was even awake. Then there was the raid, everything else that followed, then you chased us all the way here last night… I might not have got much sleep myself, but at least I caught some yesterday afternoon.’

‘So how will that thing help?’ I asked, trying not to yawn.

The smile became a little crooked and she averted her eyes. ‘It helps with stamina and endurance,’ she said.

‘I see,’ I said, then smiled as the full implication hit me. ‘Oh, I see. Your idea, or his?’

Her cheeks had gone bright red and she refused to meet my eyes.

‘Sorry,’ I said, unclipping the belt and wrestling it from under Aleks’s corpse. ‘Anyway, it’s not like he needs it anymore, eh?’

I drew the pistol from the waistband of my jeans and checked the safety was still on before clipping the belt around my waist. Almost immediately, the artefact began to glow a little brighter and I felt a brief surge of energy course through me. I still felt knackered and like I could sleep for about a month, but Svetlana had been right; the whatever-it-was-called had helped, at least a little. I licked the tips of my thumb and forefinger and pressed them into the corners of my eyes, rubbing gently. It made them feel better, or at least less sore, but not by much.

‘Come on then, let’s hear it,’ I said.

Her shoulders slumped. ‘It was my idea,’ she said, at length. ‘While you were out of camp looking for Petya, Wolf told the rest of us who’d be on the mission and who’d be left behind to guard the camp. We were all to take turns at the entry points, rotating every couple of hours so the others could get some food, sleep, or do whatever they wanted to do. Aleks and I had already planned on leaving – his sympathies lie…lay…more with the Bandits than with the Free Stalkers and he wanted no part of this new faction war, or whatever it will become. He wasn’t a Bandit himself, obviously, but he had friends up there, contacts who would be able to help us. We’d be better off, he said, and if it looked like the place really was going to get hit, we could always take off, perhaps even go back to the Big Land, if things looked really bad.
‘First, though, we had to play the game at the Village. We could hear the battle for the Autopark – it’s really not that far, and if you can hear firing in the Garbage from Fox’s…’ She paused, licking her lips. ‘Aleks was getting agitated. He kept asking why the Bandits up at the Gatehouse didn’t send people down and see what the noise was about, but it’s like Vasiliy Dynamo said; they’d probably just assume it was us against a Military patrol or something. After all, hearing gunfire isn’t uncommon anywhere in The Zone. There always seems to be someone shooting at something. Unless they received a message, they wouldn’t have known – and might not have cared either way. It’s not like yours was the first ever assault to take Autopark. There’ve been three or four raids in the last month alone. Stalkers would take the place, scatter, perhaps even leave the place entirely undefended, and the Bandits would return.’

I shook my head. ‘Why bother raiding, then?’

She shrugged. ‘Deterrent, I suppose. Or boredom. There’s not a lot to do around here, really. Not if you’re one of the Cordon-dwellers, anyway. They like to call themselves Stalkers, and some have been deeper in, but mostly…’ She grimaced.

‘So, given that Aleks wondered why the Bandits didn’t counter, why did neither of you use your PDAs and alert them, perhaps even tell them the whole plan?’

She sighed. ‘Too much risk. Aleks wanted to, but… Listen, maybe you don’t know this yet, but we think the messages are recorded somehow, or at least monitored. I couldn’t let Aleks take the chance. Once we got to the base, maybe we’d have told them then.’

‘Maybe?’

She smiled. It didn’t reach her eyes, which remained cold and watchful. ‘If the price was right, we’d have given them everything: names, numbers, weaknesses, everything we knew. We’d have emptied out the whole can of worms. Maybe the Bandits would have retreated north, maybe not. Most likely, they would have attacked en masse, maybe even hired some Mercs to help out or got even more bodies in from Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg. Who knows? But the battles would have been something else.’

I looked away, not liking the look of almost manic glee that had come into her eyes. Anyway, something she had said before seemed more interesting to me.

‘You mentioned messages being recorded or monitored. Who does that? D’you think it’s the Military listening in?’

‘Maybe, but it’s probably not just them,’ she said. ‘I think – only think, mind – that Sidorovich listens in. Him, or one of his spies. He likes to have something to hold over you, and once you’re in his hands…well, you’ll probably die paying off your “debt” – which is basically a nice way of saying your blackmail ransom. You want to be careful who you trust here, Snorkbait. Even among Stalkers with good reputations, no one is ever just what they seem.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ I said. ‘For example, I was hearing just yesterday how Aleks here was a complete dickhead, while you were such a nice, sweet, innocent girl.’

‘Dmitriy,’ she smiled, shaking her head gently. ‘I kept telling him I wasn’t what he thought. He’d built up this image in his mind. Even if he’d been right about me, his ideal would have been impossible to live up to. For anyone.’

‘Anyway, back to what matters. Pinching this stuff was your idea. Why?’

‘Money, why else?’ she shrugged. ‘Listen, you’re new, so you don’t know how it is here. There’s no fortune to be made from artefacts, and even if there is, the best ones are so hard to get it makes it a waste of time to try. There are just too many anomalies and mutants in the way, and that’s before you get tangled up with other Stalkers and all the power games.

‘No, we’d had enough. Our idea was to get as much money together as soon as possible and get out. We had some, but some’s not enough –’

‘It never is,’ I muttered.

She nodded. ‘We already had a deal going with some artefact smugglers – not that there’s a lot to smuggle, like I say – and we were doing okay. That little bauble you’ve got around your waist could fetch anything from five hundred to a thousand roubles, depending on who needs it most. Take off the smuggler or trader’s fee and you’re still left with a decent amount. And the scarcer certain things get, the more valuable they become.’

I sighed. ‘Sveta…I can’t just let you go after what you’ve just said. You know that, right? Your idea, you helped carry it out, your motive. Were you coerced at all by Aleks? Why were you even with him?’

She smiled at the corpse almost fondly. ‘He wasn’t like that with me. He never forced me to do anything,’ she said. ‘As for why I was with him, that’s simple.’

I waited. ‘And?’ I finally said. ‘It’s simple, how?’

She scratched her head and looked up at the ceiling. ‘Remember I said I went north, artefact-hunting?’

‘Are you saying that was a lie?’

She shook her head. ‘It wasn’t a lie. When I went up there – and I only vaguely remember it, and even then I’m not sure if it really happened. You know how sometimes you dream, and when you wake up you’re not entirely sure if you dreamt this thing or not, because it’s like memory but it’s not complete like a normal memory is, but it also feels too real to just be a dream?’

I nodded. ‘I think I know what you mean,’ I said. Over the past few months, I’d had a few episodes like that: dreams that I knew were dreams, or thought I knew, but the more I thought about them, the more real they seemed to become until in the end I had no longer known if these things were memory fragments or just ultra-vivid dream
shards.

‘Well, this trip north is like that. I think I remember walking, being on the road. I’m with someone, maybe more than one, I don’t know. We’re laughing. Happy. I get a feeling that I hadn’t been that happy for a long time before then, and a stronger feeling that I was happy because the person I was with was finally happy. But I don’t actually remember any of these things. I’ve tried, but I can’t.’ She grimaced in frustration. ‘It’s hard to explain. It’s like…you know déjà vu? It’s a little like that. I remember, but I don’t remember. It’s all hazy and weird, patchy. It’s like, I remember having a dog when I was a little girl, but I can’t remember the name and I don’t know where I came from before I entered The Zone. Even my name is just an impression. It was like this voice that wasn’t quite a voice was in my head going “Svetlana Motyka. Your name is Svetlana Motyka”. It was weird because it was all I knew…and I didn’t seem to really know that.’

I frowned. ‘How can you not even know who you are?’

She sighed again. ‘Story time. This might be true, it might not. Probably isn’t. But there’s a story that people like me – the Marked Ones, you might call us – are people that went north and…something happened. We’re us, but not us. If you see what I mean.’

‘I’m not sure I do,’ I said.

She pursed her lips, trying to frame her thoughts. ‘My name is Svetlana Motyka,’ she said.

‘Right,’ I nodded.

‘But it might not be. According to this story, theory, whatever you like, I might be – oh, I don’t know, Anastasia Something, or Nadia Whatever-else. I am who I am because of a feeling that my name is my name. I am not certain of it.’

‘How could you –’

‘The Brain Scorcher,’ she said. A tear tracked down her cheek. ‘There are stories about a device that wipes your mind. Sidorovich’s version for the newbies is that it makes your brain boil.’

‘But that’d kill you, so whatever it does, boiling your brain is bollocks.’

‘Right. But we know there are zombies –’

‘Yeah. Had a close encounter with a couple of them on the way here, near the tunnel entrance in Cordon.’

She shook her head. ‘Not them. I’m talking about zombiefied Stalkers, some of them are still armed, still with enough about them to pose a serious threat.’

‘I don’t think you’re one of them, Svetlana. You’re too…here to be one of them.’

She nodded impatiently. ‘Yes, yes. But then other stories say there’s a thing called the Wish Granter. Then there’s the Monolith, the thing that the Monolith soldiers revere. They might be the same thing. I don’t know. These things are just stories, you know? No one knows what’s up there for sure. No one even knows if you can get up there. I vaguely remember “North”, but then…’ She raised her hands in a nothing gesture.

‘And where does Aleks come into this?’ I asked.

‘He helped me. He was the only one who did,’ she replied. ‘I had no idea who I really was or where I had been. I had these half-dream, half-memory things in my head somehow and nothing else. Others kept clear of me. He didn’t. He said he wanted to be my friend and help me if he could.’

I smirked. Of course he did. She was a very attractive woman, even if I was biased because of her striking resemblance to Nikki. It was the biggest wonder in the world that she hadn’t been inundated with offers of ‘help’ and ‘friendship’ once she’d found herself back in a world she barely remembered, and only had impressions about.

‘Do you think it was Aleks who went north with you in the first place? Is it likely that he could remember what had happened?’

She shook her head. ‘I thought of that, but look at him. He’s not got the same marks.’

‘Maybe they just didn’t do it to him?’

Again, she shook her head. ‘No. The first time…anyway, when he saw the marks on my back for the first time, he said something under his breath. It sounded like “Monolith bastards”. And he was scared. Scared right to his bones. I don’t know if it was the scars, the tattoo, or both, but he seemed to understand it better than I did. He said I had to keep it from the others. It would be our secret and he would protect me. I don’t know why he felt he had to do any of that.’

‘Did you love him?’ I asked. If she replied in the affirmative, I was going to have to kill her regardless of anything else. I couldn’t afford to have someone who was, from the sound of things, mentally unstable running around out there bearing a sudden grudge because I’d killed someone she loved. I couldn’t even take the chance on her being killed by Rusty or the other Stalkers. I’d have to be sure, lest she take it into her foggy little head to come after me.

A sad smile crossed her face. ‘I don’t think so, no,’ she said. ‘He was kind to me and we were going to stay together, whatever happened, but…no, I didn’t love him. Not really.’ Another tear rolled. She slapped it away. ‘I think it’s part of what happened to me. I don’t think I can love anymore. It’s like knowing how has been scooped out of me along with everything else. I’m shallow, Snorkbait, hollow. I don’t know why or how, and I’m almost sure I was different before, but now…’ She lowered her head, apparently finding her thighs fascinating all of a sudden.

‘Christ. What am I supposed to do with you?’ I muttered, shaking my head. I should kill her. It might lead to trouble down the line, but what was new there? I’d spent most of my adult life hopping from one problem to another. Having people want me dead was hardly a new experience. ‘What will you do if I let you go?’

No reply. She only sat there in silence with her head down. Which was just as well, because if she had said anything, I might have missed the tell-tale skree of glass being ground against stone from the kitchen.
  05:37:35  16 January 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

Cheers for the comments, guys. We've not seen the last of Rusty just yet.

*****

The cluster of buildings comprised of a one-story house, aligned north-south and presumably with an attic used for storage; a barn that looked as if time and the elements had conspired to bring half of it down, and was working hard on what remained; a water tower, with the large, bowl-like tank supported on rusting, partially bowed struts; and what appeared to be a dovecote. Two cars stood in a state of relatively advanced decay on either side of the broken, wood panel fence on the northern boundary: a Niva, which was slowly degrading into constituent parts and perished rubber inside the perimeter, and a small van of the sort used for deliveries outside, where it had been parked or dumped beside a dirt track that meandered towards the metalled road to the north. A small, broken windmill, presumably used to generate electricity, leaned drunkenly over the fence in the most north-eastern corner of the yard, and a tangle of mutated, wildly overgrown vegetation indicated where a kitchen garden might once had been. By all appearances, the place had been a working, independent farmstead, the sort of place that, in time, might have grown to become an actual community – assuming it hadn’t been some sort of commune already. Either way, it would once have been a beautiful spot. Now, it was a ruin; a testament to humankind’s ultimate powerless in the face of accidents involving humankind’s ultimate power. I started to ask myself if our need as a species was really so great as to risk such catastrophic losses of control, even if they were accidental…but then decided to leave that sort of stuff to the world I’d left behind. Let them sort it out in their own sweet way, if gadgets and gizmos were so important to them and logic didn’t matter.

The light was getting stronger; I could now see without any visual aids. The question was, had I made it in time?

I peered over the rise again, staring intently at the house. All was quiet down there. No sounds reached my ears save distant barking behind me and the breeze rolling gently from the south-west.

Remaining in dead ground, I worked my way around to a low, shrub-covered rise to the south-east of the farmstead that still possessed enough elevation to allow me to peer into the courtyard. Once in position, I raised the telescopic sight to my eye and scanned for movement.

Nothing.

A surge of disappointment and self-recrimination hit me. I’d have to get closer and check it out, but if, as it seemed, I had missed them – if they had moved out at first light and, indeed, if they had even come this way, hadn’t been met and helped, or hadn’t just decided to carry on after all – there was nothing I could do but radio ahead and hope the guys at the Dark Valley Farm could shoot – always assuming there was anything for them to shoot at. Of course, I still had the second part of my mission – intelligence gathering for Petrenko – but really, that had only ever been a convenient cover for us both. Dutiers were already in that part of The Zone, and from what I’d seen there were more than enough guys with the required skills to gather all the int. that the good Colonel would ever need. And that was without sending in Zone-experienced, better-known and better-trusted Mercs, assuming Duty could meet their price.

All the same, I’d been tasked and if all else failed I could still perform that mission as best I could, though of course with Aleks and Svetlana still alive, the risk of compromise would, by necessity, require me to keep a certain distance. Not to mention a very low profile no matter what distance I was at.

I turned my PDA and other electronic gear off and stowed them back in the pack. None of this stuff was coming on target with me: it’d just get in the way. Likewise, the L.85, despite being a bullpup design, was still too bulky for my needs on this occasion. From what I’d been able to make out through the scope, the main door was boarded up. Assuming this house was of a similar design to the ones back at the Rookie Village, that meant I’d be making entry via an unbarred window, or perhaps even finding a way onto the roof and getting in from there. The L.85 would have to be slung…and it might swing, knocking into stuff. That wasn’t the only concern, but noise was a big primary. All in all, the L.85 would just be a pain in the arse. Even so, no way was I leaving my weapon and kit in the same place, and no way was I leaving the rifle with a full clip close at hand.

The respirator also went into the pack. The fucking thing made me sound like Darth Vader having a wank; no good for doing things covertly. In any case, I didn’t have to worry about breathing anything in anymore; if that mud had been radioactive, it wouldn’t matter if I scooped up handfuls of contaminated dust and ate the stuff, I’d be just as fucked either way.

Hitting the magazine catch, I deftly caught the STANAG as it slid out and shoved it into the left jacket pocket, carefully zipping it all the way up. It was a snug fit in there; the mag wasn’t going to rub and jostle away as I moved. The spare pistol clip went into my right pocket, which again was carefully zipped up and checked – though to be honest, if I needed more than the nine rounds I already had in the pistol I really ought to find something else to do, like knitting scarves for desert-dwelling Africans or something just to keep me out of the way. In any case, I still had my nice new knife; in the event of a stoppage or, heaven forbid, I ran out of rounds, I could always make it sticking work.

With that done, I made a hollow at the base of one of the bushes and shoved the pack into it, covering it over with a few decent-sized rocks and bits of shale, before ejecting the cartridge in the L.85’s breech. This was the bullet with my name on it. I kissed it, and put it where I’d normally keep my wallet. I was now safe. Either that, or I was just a daft superstitious tosspot. The jury was still out even in the court of my own opinion, but no one had ever been killed because they believed in grabbing all the luck you could get. Well, unless you counted the urban legends such as “their lucky horseshoe fell off the nail and landed in just the right spot to kill him” and all that shit.

It was time for one last look, in case newcomers were approaching or my targets were on their way out. No movement in any direction. No sound but the whisper of the wind. I picked the place where I was going to enter the compound, and worked up enough saliva to swallow when my mouth went suddenly dry. Adrenalin had started to surge. I just had to keep cool and control my breathing. Chillax, as Nikki had once taken to saying, probably because she knew how much it pissed me off.
‘All callsigns, all callsigns, I have control,’ I muttered to myself, more because I was used to hearing something prior to going in than just doing it. It was like a cue, a way of switching from thinking mode to doing, and it was in three parts, like ready, steady, go or on your marks, set, BANG. It got me focused. ‘Standby, standby… Go, go, go!’

Pistol in my right hand, L.85 gripped in my left, I moved quickly down the slope, keeping to dead ground as much as I possibly could, before approaching my chosen hole in the fence at an angle. In the movies, the good guys run straight at their point of entry. Usually, their luck holds and they aren’t spotted. In the real world, if you allow bad shit to happen, it will – I was living proof with the debacle on the Autopark mission. What I didn’t need now was for either of the targets to still be present and choose that moment to look out of a window or have a stroll around, only to see a big, pissed off me creeping toward them with a look of intent on my face through the gap.

In the normal run of things, I’d have avoided gaps like the one I’d chosen like the plague, but again it was zero option. Climbing over would make too much noise, especially if one of the planks snapped – none of them looked particularly strong or stable – and boxing around so I could enter via the gate was something I’d choose to avoid every time, as it was the most obvious approach. I had to assume they’d be keeping a trigger on the gateway and the terrain beyond. I would have been, if it was my intended exit route.

I reached the fence and gently placed the L.85 at the base of some old, dead thicket, where it’d be handy in case I needed to get back and grab it in a hurry. The black and khaki colour scheme did a decent job of making it blend in. I’d just have to remember where I’d left it later on – if there was a later on.

I made the final approach to the gap with caution. I doubted if Svetlana was that clued up, if she really was the innocent lamb knowing not what she did that others had made her out to be, but Aleks…I reckoned he could be a crafty bastard, and would certainly be wary enough of a follow-up to plant a few booby traps. Again, in these parts, it’s what I’d have done in their shoes. Wary, I’d take a couple of crouching steps and halt, looking around, checking. Up to now, nothing had seemed out of place: no obvious leaf, stone or wood disturbance; no stems or blades of grass bent at strange angles; no wires or strands of woven plant matter…nothing. Perhaps Aleks wasn’t as careful as I’d given him credit for. Still, overestimating an enemy was better than underestimating one. At least I wasn’t going to end up lying in a heap, wondering why I hadn’t checked the place properly with my legs halfway back to the tunnel and other bits of me decorating the general area.

Satisfied I wasn’t about to get the biggest – and last – surprise of my life, I risked a quick peek through the hole, just a quick head-bob at around knee-level and back again, listening for any signs of alarm or curiosity as I processed what I’d seen: fifteen metres in, house wall, no windows, with a tipped-over water trough lying next to it; the courtyard was open, a bucket lying about seven metres from the house, with the derelict barn a further twenty or so metres beyond that. Weeds and tufts of mutated grass blew in the breeze here and there, and some whitish flowers with bright yellow centres, like a cross between giant daisies and stunted daffodils, sprouted from the corner of the house to my right. Apart from that, there was nothing to see and even less to hear.

Once inside the perimeter, I hurried over to the side of the house, quickly dropping into a crouch, pistol out and ready for action, but with the safety still on. The smell over here was rank, a mixture of rotten vegetable matter, decaying metal and old oil, overlaying a subtler tone of damp, rotting wood and heavily weathered plaster.

A sound reached me and I paused, listening. I broke into a smile. Svetlana at least was still in residence: the muffled sound of her orgasms told me that much. She was being quite restrained, though. Perhaps she didn’t want to stir up the local wildlife too much with cries of wild passion. Either that or the walls were thicker than they seemed.

Taking my time, moving slowly to keep noise to a minimum, I performed a complete circuit of the house, keeping my eyes and ears open for sounds that might give away other approaching parties or signs of awareness from within.

The main door had been boarded up and barricaded, as had the window to the room in the north-east quadrant. Svetlana seemed to be in a room to the north-west of the house. Presumably Aleks was there, too, unless she was alone and in the mood for a bit of DIY that didn’t involve improving the house – though the only thing that could have improved this dump was a few pounds of C4, in my opinion. A window faced west from Svetlana’s boudoir, but it had been boarded up. However, erratic, weak, pale bluish-white light seemed to be coming from within. What that meant, I had no idea. All I could think was that it was a lamp, but if it was, it was on the way out. That said, if I’d been in there, I’d have wanted any sort of light to see by, just in case there really was a beast with two backs and the bastard was creeping up on me while I did the business.

Further down the western wall was another window, which gave onto the kitchen. The shutter latch was broken and the glass lay scattered over the floor, though whether this damage was recent or not, I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter anyway. What did was getting in, creeping up, and controlling the situation while the targets were still preoccupied.
Stowing the pistol in one of my jacket’s larger pockets, I removed my boots and tied the laces together into two strands so I could drape them around my neck. I then slowly unzipped my jacket about halfway and tucked them inside to prevent them from swinging free and banging into the window frame. Chunks of mud broke away and parts that hadn’t quite dried left big, skidmark-like smears down my jumper and the inside of the jacket, but with luck, I’d be getting a new jumper quite soon. It all depended on what I found in Mr Lover-Man’s kit when I came to loot it. Christ knew what I’d find in Svetlana’s, but I was ready to bet it wouldn’t be Chanel No.5 and pictures of kittens. As for the boots…I could have left them outside, but why take the risk? Anyone could happen along, see the mud-caked boots and think ‘Hang on, they weren’t there last week/yesterday/an hour ago’. I didn’t need Curious George and his posse rolling in to check what other goodies might be up for grabs.

After making sure none of my stuff was going to fall out, rattle, or otherwise ruin my day, I put my palms flat against the window-sill and tested for strength and noise, ignoring the central post between the panes. Grabbing that would be a big mistake. For one thing, I had no idea if it’d support my weight as I used it for leverage to hoist myself up, and for another, even if it took the strain, it might creak or crack. If that happened, I might as well have just banged on the door and asked them to let me in.

The frame itself still seemed quite good, so I boosted myself up before gently resting an arse-cheek on the ledge. Now came the tricky bit. Still using my hands to take my weight rather than just shuffling around on my arse, I managed to get one leg underneath me before pausing to control my breathing as best I could. The sounds of the couple’s passion were louder in here, and getting louder anyway from what I could gather, but that wouldn’t last forever. In an ideal world, I’d move, wait until I could breath normally, move again until I felt exertion building, and so on. As I was constantly finding out, though, The Zone was not an ideal world.

My arms were shaking quite badly by the time I had one leg inside the kitchen and my other knee up around my chin. Sweat rolled freely down my cheeks and drips kept forming on the end of my nose, but at least I was keeping my breathing regular and as steady as possible. One last effort, and I’d be in. All I’d need to worry about then was the shards of glass scattered all over the floor.

Sex talk began in the other room. Aleks sounded like he was in the throes of a massive coronary, but Svetlana was alternately cajoling and demanding. She was obviously a girl who knew what she wanted. Not quite Dmitriy’s Miss Butter-Wouldn’t-Melt after all, it seemed – though I’d known many a nice, ‘quiet’ girl that had been anything but once they got their kit off. I thought I’d married one, but it turned out she was a shrieking, two-timing harpy.

Svetlana was still giving Aleks a hard time about his lack of stamina while I tried to stop my arms from feeling like strands of limp spaghetti held onto my body by bolts of pure fire, and by the time I’d regained anything like enough fine control to think about the next phase, she’d got her way. He didn’t sound entirely happy with the situation, but he’d obviously manned up and stepped forward to do his duty like a good soldier.

Slipping the boots from around my neck and placing them on the tiled floor, I retrieved the pistol from my pocket and began to pick a path across the room, thanking my lucky stars that at least one thing had worked in my favour: at least there was enough light to see the chunks of glass by. If I’d got here in the dark, I’d have been stuck with waiting until it was light anyway…and the risk of compromise would have been so many times greater. Using the lamp or the NVGs would have been out of the question, given the visual alarm of one and the auditory alarm of the other.

The kitchen door was situated in the wall opposite the window, tucked away into the left-hand corner. Work units ran along the wall, forming an intersection with those along the wall to my right. An ancient-looking, white-and-rust cooker hulked on that side of the room. There was no sink, table, or chairs in sight.

Keeping away from the glass and as close in to the left-hand wall as I could, I crept over to the door and lowered myself to knee-height again, ready for a look through the door.

The hallway – if that’s what it had been; it could just as easily have been considered a main room, albeit a small one – ran almost the length of the building. The main door had been barricaded by use of a wardrobe laden with whatever had been handy and heavy enough to give it weight – including the kitchen sink – and a row of mouldy coats hung from a row of pegs to my right. To my left, two more doors led into the north-eastern and north-western rooms. That same erratic, pale light shone out into the hall, providing all the light I needed as I crept out onto the bare floorboards.

This time, instead of sticking to the wall, I began edging across the hallway or room or whatever it had once been, keeping low and constantly watching for signs of movement, weapon up and pointing at the doorway with the safety off, but my finger lying along the barrel. The talk from inside the target room now seemed to be more along the lines of ‘Who’s your daddy?’ going by the thick grunts coming from Aleks and Sveta’s even more enthusiastic replies.

Sweat rolled from my brow again and I slowly raised a hand to knuckle it away from my eye before moving again, hoping that one of the floorboards didn’t suddenly creak or just give way.

There were two ways I could have gone about this: one, I could have stuck to the wall to limit the risk of creaky boards, though that would have meant poking my head around the doorframe and hoping for the best; with my luck, one or the other – or both – the targets would have seen me straight away. The second method – the one I had chosen – was to stick to the shadows as much as possible, widening the angle by moving into the room so I could clear the door without framing myself unnecessarily. Not only would I stand more chance of finding out just where the fuckers were, I’d also be able to react quicker. What I lost to risk, I might gain in surprise.

I was in luck. They’d placed their bedrolls against the northern wall, stacking them and their sleeping bags to provide maximum comfort, and both were facing away from me. Svetlana, head down, hair lank around her face, was puffing away like a steam train, her breasts wobbling and jiggling around like crazy. The weird light was coming from something Aleks had in some kind of sling across his back. Was that an artefact of some type, I wondered? And if so, what did it do?
I froze as Svetlana suddenly threw her head back and turned her face toward Aleks, and I almost sighed with relief when I saw she had her eyes squeezed closed as she cried out. Unseen, I slipped back closer to the wall and began to move forward.

Neither of the other Stalkers noticed as I slid silently into the room, feeling like The Zone’s biggest pervert as I kept my eyes averted, allowing their movements to register only in the periphery of my vision. People can feel when they’re being stared at; if I’d glared at either one of them, some instinct would have prickled and one, or maybe both, would have turned to check. I didn’t need them knowing I was here until I was ready for the take. In any case, neither of them had that long to live now. It wouldn’t hurt to let them grab a few more moments of life and fun.

While they were still busy with each other, I ran my eyes swiftly around the room. Their clothes and the packs were in a heap in the right-hand corner as I looked, their belts and sidearms resting on the top. Both had rifles now, AKS-74s, by the look of them, propped against the wall on either side of their makeshift love-pad with the pistol grips facing in. I looked away again, back at a neutral spot, and assumed my firing position, behind and slightly to the right of Aleks, crouching, with my back against the wall.

‘You like this, don’t you?’ he said, making me feel embarrassed. It was like watching really crap 70s porn. Even the fact he still turned it into a question was enough to make me have to work hard to stifle a chuckle or two.

‘Yes,’ she gasped.

‘You like being fucked.’

‘Ooh, God, I love being fucked,’ she responded.

‘That’s handy,’ I said, ‘because you’re both fucked now.’

Aleks whirled…or tried to. He got halfway, his face red with exertion and fury, and Svetlana screamed in pain. Without thinking, I double-tapped him. Svetlana screamed again as his blood and brains splashed onto her upturned face. His body, still half-turned, slumped forward, pinning her as she partially came to her senses and made a frantic grab for her
weapon. She really was a bit green; because of the way Aleks had fallen, she’d have been better off reaching for the AK to her left. As it was, her fingers fell inches short of the one to her right.

‘Don’t bother, Svetlana,’ I said, rising and walking over to pull Aleks off of her. ‘You’d be dead before you got the safety off.’

‘You’re going to kill me anyway.’

‘No, I’m not,’ I said, truthfully.

‘Why?’ she said, turning to face me without even attempting to cover herself, and I couldn’t help but look. She was beautiful – a bit too skinny, perhaps, but beautiful, all the same. Again, I was reminded of how strongly she resembled Nikki, though of course there were differences. For one thing, Nikki had perfect skin, while I’d noticed how Svetlana’s back and shoulders were a map of welts and scars; she looked like she’d been whipped, and there were other marks on her inner thighs, as if she’d had cigarettes put out against the soft tissue. The other difference between this woman and my ex was the fact that Nikki had hated tattoos. ‘Tramp stamps’, she’d called them, and had been so opposed to the whole idea that it had cost her a close friendship. She’d shrugged it off lightly enough, but I knew how much it had to have hurt; you don’t have a twenty-year friendship go south and feel nothing.

What she’d have made of Svetlana, I had no idea. It wasn’t that she was covered in them, but the ones she had seemed to make no sense. The patterns obviously meant something – the designs on her upper arms and on her lower back were to intricate to mean nothing – but they looked like some sort of obscure religious or tribal marking. Strangest of all, though, was the tattoo on the inside of her left forearm: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  01:31:54  15 January 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

More on the way.

*****

The tunnel itself wasn’t the problem I’d expected. Either the zombies’ moans really had scared all the other nasties away, or they were having the night off. I hadn’t expected dogs and cats to be roaming around in here because the strange acoustics would have practically destroyed their ability to track by sound, but I had been expecting critters of some type or other. I’d also been expecting wall-to-wall anomalies and hours spent tossing bolts and other bits of debris around so I could pick my way through. The biggest danger, though, was the large, radioactive puddles that had formed where water dripped from the cracked roof or trickled down the walls to collect and spread on the uneven, potholed surface. The worst thing about the place, really, was the fact that it was so dark; the light from my head-lamp – a device I was already coming to loathe – barely reached ten metres to the front. It did an excellent job of casting bright white bars onto the roof and walls, however, just in case any curious Bandit needed a range-marker to go with the ‘aim here’ point the lamps provided. All in all, it truly was a piece of shit, and I hoped it wasn’t a typical example. If it was, I wouldn’t bother in future, even if it limited movement or made certain areas out of bounds.

I turned the light off as I rounded a long right-hand curve and scuttled to the left-hand wall, flicking my safety to the Off position. A faint, greenish light glowed from somewhere ahead, a faint luminescence splashing up the wall that was accompanied by a sound that, from here, sounded like breathing.

I squinted ahead, trying to discern movement, shape, silhouette, anything that might give away the location of whoever or whatever was up there. Using the head-lamp was out of the question, and the NVGs were useless in such low light.

Tightening my grip on the rifle, I crept forward, all senses alert. Still no movement, though the breathing sound increased in volume. It was steady, regular…but heavy and somehow wet-sounding. Was someone lying up here, wounded and in pain, but not so badly as to be life-threatening? If so, what could I do with them? Was it a Bandit or another Stalker, perhaps one trying to escape back to Cordon with a report? Or was it Aleks, injured and alone? And if so, where was Svetlana? Dead? Injured? Run away? Had she shot him and legged it? Had he shot her and left her to die, perhaps realizing I was in pursuit…or having been tipped off?

I crouched and closed my eyes. I had to clear my mind. Speculation wasn’t going to help. I’d find the source when I got closer. For now, I needed to stay calm and be able to react regardless of the situation. I took some deep breaths, opened my eyes again and moved on.

Moving without the aid of the light was risky, not to mention downright difficult at times; whole chunks of the road here seemed to have subsided or been dug away, leaving holes that could easily trap a foot or cause a serious, ankle-breaking fall. My left foot had already tried stepping on thin air a couple of times, and prudence suggested I either take a chance by putting the lamp back on, or shuffle my feet along the ground so I could be sure of my footing. It was just my bad luck that neither option made any tactical sense and not taking the choices open to me defied common sense.

Still moving slowly, I drew closer and closer to the patch of faintly luminous, greenish gunk, still constantly checking around me in case something was lurking, waiting to attack. Up ahead, I could see many more faint glows like this one. They were mostly along the sides of the tunnel, though a few were dotted in the middle of the road and one very large pool of whatever the hell this stuff was stretched almost from one wall to the other.

Taking a bolt from my pocket, I stood well back and tossed it toward the gunk. There was no dramatic reaction like you’d get with a Springboard, though a hissing noise rose as soon as the bolt landed and a blob of matter that was thrown up by the impact began eating into the concrete wall on contact. It was easy enough to guess that these things were some kind of anomaly, though they didn’t seem particularly hazardous – you’d have to be blind to miss them and a fool to get too near. If anything, the worst thing about them was that breathing sound; it played havoc with the nerves and, while I was within earshot of these things, I’d never be sure that I was entirely alone. To make matters worse, there were so many patches and pockets of the stuff up ahead that I wouldn’t be able to avoid casting shadow, showing silhouette, or being picked out cleanly by the light...but what choice did I have but to take the chance? Turn back, and risk losing what little respect I still commanded? Be forced to tell Petrenko he had been right after all, as well as tell Vasya and the Stalkers their stuff was gone for good?

Balls to that. If I went back now, I’d end up like Dmitriy Monkey: always left behind on ops, always put on guard duty at an already safe and secure location because I couldn’t be trusted to do anything else. I’d already taken all the steps down that road that I wanted to. It was true enough that even a full patrol wouldn’t have taken the risk I was about to take, but fuck it. This wasn’t the Regiment, I wouldn’t have a team I knew I could rely on around me all the time. What it was, was my life – a life I had chosen to lead. Taking risks – even ones that sometimes seemed totally stupid – was going to become part of that. If I’d wanted to stay one hundred per cent safe, I could have stayed at home, watched late-night TV, drunk too much beer – or as much as my dole money would buy me – and kept kidding myself that life could still get better. At some point on that route, I’d have realized that life wasn’t going to get better, that this was it until I died of old age (or when my half-senile older self forgot to turn the two-bar fire off and set light to my slippers or blanket)…and then the ghosts of what I had once been and done would have come back to pay a visit. I’d have ended up feeling old and useless, past it at thirty-odd, ready for the knacker’s yard. No job, no hope, divorced, with all my prime pulling days well behind me...

No. The way things had been going back in The Big Land, I’d have ended up pulling on the old clingfilm balaclava and sitting in the bath bleeding out from my wrists before I turned forty, just another ex-soldier who couldn’t hack it as a civilian. Perhaps Nicola would have gone to the funeral…but probably not. Nikki had her new life now, and seeing as we’d never had kids, there was no reason for me to be any part of it. In any case, I was already dead to her, even if she wasn’t to me.

I readjusted my pack, straightened my spine, and patrolled out. Bollocks. If I was going to die, I was going to do it on my terms, doing what I knew in a way that seemed best. Romantic love, work pressures and shopping at Tesco were things of the past. The Zone was my future, however long or short that proved to be.

Nothing jumped out at me as I picked a path through the pools of glowing crap, whatever they were called – I’d checked my PDA for info, but it seemed as clueless as I was – and I safetied the L.85 and breathed a sigh of relief as I finally put that panting, gasping, fat-bastard-run-too-hard-for-the-bus sound of the anomalies well behind me and felt able to turn the lamp on again.

The road seemed to be climbing, the incline as gentle in this direction as it must have been from the other even if my legs were protesting more. I might have just been getting tired, though. It had been a long day. I’d been awake for almost a full twenty-four hours, with that milestone sure to have been passed by the time I was done, and the couple of days before hadn’t exactly been filled with idleness and unbroken sleep. My eyes were beginning to feel very sore and gritty. It was tempting to lift the respirator and give them a good old rub, though I knew doing so would only make them feel worse, and the idea of resting for a while, leaning against the wall and closing my eyes for a spell, held an increasing allure even though I knew that, if I gave in to the temptation, my mind would start closing down immediately. I’d be asleep in no time…and in this place, chances were that I’d then wake up to find something gnawing on my arm or dragging me away to a feeding site – if I woke up at all. There was nothing to do but fight the fatigue and plod on. The road was rising and that was a good sign: it meant I was nearly there. At least, that’s what I told myself.

I finally reached the other end of the tunnel almost two hours after watching Savko trot after Petrenko and climbing over the barricade. The problem now became one of how to move out.

In company, we could have exited the tunnel together, two checking the sides, one checking above and behind, just in case there were Bandits or mutants keeping a trigger to mount an ambush. Alone, I was faced with doing it all myself, and that meant I was even more vulnerable. I wouldn’t enjoy having a few rounds hit my head and shoulders because I hadn’t had chance to check above me just yet, nor would I enjoy clearing two sides only to have something jump over and rip me to shreds from the third. Still, what else to do? Wait until morning? What, then, would have been the point of all this, when I could have been checking my eyelids for holes in the perfect safety of the Autopark?

I went to the left side of the tunnel and crouched in the darkness, removing the respirator and putting the NVGs back into place before turning them on. I winced as the high-pitched whine seemed to boom out and echo down the tunnel. That wouldn’t have happened right on the threshold of the tunnel, but I knew there was nothing in here with me and with luck I’d now be able to ping whatever was out there while anyone watching the tunnel mouth still wouldn’t be able to see me, even if they had their own NV kit. So far, though, there wasn’t much to see.

The road continued to rise as it left the tunnel, the gradient quite shallow: I was able to easily see trees and the tops of undulations beyond the artificial horizon where the road hit more even ground a couple of hundred metres farther on. What I didn’t like, however, was the way that the road was hemmed in by the almost sheer sides of the rocky gully that had been formed when the road was cut. Reinforced concrete had been used on the actual ninety-degree sections – I could just see the end of the flat, grey artificial material on the right-hand side of the gully from where I crouched – but as the sides became slightly less severe, angled at seventy-five degrees rather than the vertical, all that stood between the natural and the road was a double-layer of four metre high, heavy-gauge chain-link fencing and a row of one metre high, half-metre thick concrete blocks. The chain-link was bowed out in places from where rocks and mudslides had impacted, and here and there I could see spills of dirt and scattered stones – some of them quite large – spread across the road.

Standing, I approached the mouth of the tunnel, emerging slowly enough to make sure I checked all the angles, but quickly and quietly enough to buy myself a few precious milliseconds if they were needed. Luckily, they weren’t. Nothing lurked with malicious intent, as nothing could. I could make out some kind of disturbance above the tunnel, and a low pulsing told me it was an anomaly, probably a Vortex, judging by the sound. Either way, the area seemed secure, though no doubt many a meal had told themselves the same thing just before being devoured. Time spent checking is never wasted.

I followed the road east, keeping to the left-hand edge, moving as cautiously as possible. I hated this. If the moon came out, I’d stand out like the balls on a bulldog. I was used to creeping about, doing the ‘shadow among shadows’ shit. I’d been taught to avoid situations like this, but again, what choice did I have? If Mr Bandit Sniper was out and about or his mate, Mr Bandit Lookout, had already got eyes on and made a report, there wasn’t a great deal I could do about it now. I needed to get clear of this area quickly…but it was also virgin ground; I had no idea what was ahead of me and needed to be careful. Charging blindly into the unknown is a bad habit to develop. It just gets you dead. I was in Catch-22 land: move too fast and die; move too slowly… and die. Or at the very least, miss out on catching the thieves, thus rendering this entire trip pointless and myself…well…

I crested the incline, and immediately dropped to the ground, straining to confirm what I thought I’d seen up ahead. For a split second, a couple of flashes of white light had broken the shroud of darkness slightly to my left. Was it them? Had they been so challenged by the tunnel and the terrain that they were still only on their way to their safehouse? It seemed unlikely unless they’d got on their hands and knees and crawled. Friendlies, then? More reinforcements, a group to take control of the tunnel at this end, a patrol. Or might the Dark Valley Farm have come under attack, and these were the retreating survivors?

I raised the PDA and keyed in all Duty contacts back at the Autopark. ‘This is Snorkbait. I’ve got white light at eleven o’clock. I’m through the road tunnel from Cordon to Dark Valley, facing zero-niner-zero, two hundred metres from tunnel exit. It’s not the targets, repeat not the targets. Do we have friendlies known in the area? Over.’

I crawled forward and left, off the road, finding a measure of security once I was back among green and brown again. Darkness was my friend. Checking behind to make sure I wouldn’t break any light-reflections or horizons, I rose into a crouch and scurried forward, eventually going prone again near a cluster of bushes that I began working my way into. Another anomaly droned its warning note from somewhere to my right, while away to the left came a sort of low grumbling noise. A dog snarled from somewhere not too far away, causing another to yelp. I couldn’t hear any running paws, though, so they couldn’t have been in the immediate area. I lay perfectly still, eyes fixed on where I thought that light had come from, willing the Duty guards to wake the hell up and report back.

I was started to think they hadn’t received the message when the PDA burst into subdued life.

Snorkbait. It’s Savko.’ He sounded knackered. Perhaps the guard hadn’t had a fucking clue what I was on about, and had gone to find someone who might. It was nice of them to have told me. Even ‘Wait out’ would have been better than silence. ‘I confirm there are no friendlies in your area. Repeat, no friendlies are in your area. Do you require assistance? Over.’

I lowered my head to smother my laughter. Did I need assistance? He asks that now? Where was the concern earlier, when the question wouldn’t have been so redundant? What was I meant to do if I said yes? Wait here for two hours while someone hustled through the tunnel?

‘Savko. Thanks for the confirmation. Assistance not required. Sorry to have got you out of bed, mate. Out.’

I put the PDA away and watched for another five minutes in case Will o’ the Wisp decided to put his lamp on again. If he did, he was going to get a couple of rounds of 5.56 up his arse, just to be on the safe side. Fortunately for him, he managed to maintain his light discipline and I couldn’t waste any more time with it. Perhaps I’d imagined it in the first place. Anything was possible. Besides, lying there, in the bushes, I’d started to doze off. My mind had kept slipping off along dreamy lines. I’d even imagined that the mysterious Blondie was waiting for me, naked on the world’s biggest bed, literally begging for it in her slightly dodgy, but sexy sounding English. Then she turned into Nikki, then slid half a degree to become Svetlana – the only real difference being that Sveta’s face was thinner, her eyes larger, and her hair longer and lanker than Nikki would ever have countenanced – then there were all three, and then they started to become one, and the voice wasn’t a voice at all, not really, but still it cooed sweet nothings and wanted me to come to it, lie with it, become one with it. It loved me and wanted me. I’d rest and be perfectly happy, forever…

Waking suddenly, I finally rose from my prone position, having only dreamed I had done so before. I gave myself a talking to. Anything could have happened, and even if it hadn’t, I couldn’t afford to fuck this up. The fuck ups had to stop and the consequences of fuck ups past put right. Then I’d be able to sleep. Then I’d rest. As for perfect happiness…bollocks; it was impossible.

The terrain wasn’t too bad as it sloped downhill to the north and east, away from the road. Looking behind me, I could see I was on the lowest part of the hill – though to me it looked more like a low mountain – that the tunnel had been drilled through, and according to the map on the PDA, that hill was just one of several that formed a natural barrier of high, very tough ground between Dark Valley, here, and Cordon. Before long, though, I’d reached the end of the elevated ground and the going became a little tougher. Heavy, almost marshy ground broke away to my left and ended at another upslope, this one covered in trees. The grass between my rockier, relatively solid side and the stand of trees appeared long and lush, looking like easy, inviting open ground. Looking ahead on my route, I saw that the way was littered with anomalies again. Springboards, by the look of them, but I couldn’t be sure. The grassland looked to be by far the better option…which of course it wasn’t. Approaching the edge, using the L.85 as a kind of crutch – albeit a very stubby, almost completely useless one – I extended my left foot…and promptly lost it to the ankle in thick, clinging mud. I made a face, knowing I’d have no option but to wade through the quagmire later on, and elected to move up as far as I could before taking the plunge.

Depressingly soon, my anomaly detector began to emit a regular beeping. As much as I wanted to avoid the cloying muck that awaited me, I didn’t dare risk throwing bolts; according to the map, the target buildings weren’t that far away, and at night, with everything still, the sound of anomalies being triggered would alert my prey. Granted, one or two Springboard activations might not worry them unduly – they’d put it down to a dog or some other mutant being blind or stupid – but I’d be chucking bolts around like there was no tomorrow, if I was judging the density of the anomaly field right, and there was be no way to disguise that kind of activity. They’d soon realize the significance of it, leading to one of three outcomes: they’d either grab their gear and make a run for it, sit tight and wait for whoever it was to show themselves before opening fire, or come out and investigate, alert and cautious. I didn’t want them to do any of that. In an ideal world, I’d get there while they were still asleep, make entry…and whatever happened from there, happened. I didn’t know what I was going to do just yet. Maybe make one tie the other up, let the Stalkers come through the tunnel and decide their fate. Olga had wanted to throw me into an anomaly called a Fruit Punch, whatever that was. Maybe she’d want to do the same with the real culprits? Or perhaps I’d just shoot them. Maybe I wouldn’t be left with much choice. I just didn’t know.

The mud turned out to be deeper than I’d first thought. Within a few steps, it had risen from ankle-deep to my calf. I could feel cold, wet sludge sliding down the inside of my boot, and it was getting hard to lift my legs high enough to get them clear. So I stopped trying. The type of wading I’d been trying was only going to lead to trouble. I’d get tired much more quickly, and every step was going to force me deeper and deeper in. Once it got past my knees, I was going to be in danger of never getting out. Time for a different approach.

Slinging the L.85 over my shoulder and moving all my technical odds and ends to my pack – including the NVGs – I leaned forward, spreading the weight more evenly, and began to crawl through the clinging ooze. It’s a technique that works even in quicksand – I knew; I’d managed to find a patch while fording a river in Colombia and had lived to tell the tale – even if it does seem to be counter-intuitive. It is also very hard work, and before long the sweat was pouring off me. I could feel a couple of sores forming on my back where the weight of the pack made my clothes rub against the skin, but they were nothing compared to what else might be happening while I did my impression of a pig finding the porcine version of Heaven: if this shit wasn’t as radioactive as I feared, I was fucked. Most likely, I’d already have copped a lethal dose. Still, there was fuck all I could do about it. At least I had a weapon so I could finish the job myself before the sickness became too bad.

After what seemed an age – and maybe it was; already I could see the first faint tinges of light in the sky – I emerged from the mudlands and collapsed onto firmer ground. My entire front was caked with muck, but at least the L.85 and the stuff in my pack had stayed relatively clean and, more importantly, dry. I could still hear the tell-tale pulsing of anomalies behind me and to the right, but I seemed to be well clear of the field when I reactivated the NVGs and turned my head to check. After sorting myself out and readjusting the pack once more, I stumbled forward a few steps, heading towards a thin ribbon of trackway. My legs were too cold, too heavy because of the mud. My knees had turned to jelly. I started shivering all over. I’d run out of energy. I’d pushed too hard. I was going to die.

‘Not now. I’m too fucking close!’ I muttered, cursing my own body. ‘Close down later, you bastard. Rest then. Die, if you fucking want. Just let me get them first.’

The firmer ground rose gradually upwards, though the incline wasn’t anywhere near gradual enough for me. I began to wonder if I hadn’t made an error as I clambered wearily up-slope. Surely Aleks and Svetlana couldn’t have come this way. The road had to be passable. There wasn’t the slightest chance of them carrying all that kit all this way, not if they’d had that patch of bog to cross – though of course they could have taken time out to go bolt-tossing instead. Perhaps that light had been them after all, holing up somewhere for the night, one on watch while the other…

‘Stalker.’

I jumped and whirled round, crouching, the L.85 up, safety off, eyes scanning.

‘Stalker, help meee…’ The voice, not strong to start with, wavered into a thin keen of misery.

I swallowed. Was it a trick, a device to zero my position? I looked around. Surely not; I was standing in open ground. Anyone could see me from the grasslands, not to mention the trees over yonder. Not a trap, then, but someone in genuine need of help.

‘Where are you?’ I murmured. ‘Don’t call out. Wave, if you can.’
Movement to my half-right, on the other side of the narrow path. I stumbled towards it, finally able to make out a hand wriggling through long grass and a few reeds. The fingers were dark, clawed, and the motion as feeble as I felt.

‘It’s okay, mate. I can see you.’

The movement stopped. ‘Help me. Please, help me,’ he pleaded, in a voice that wasn’t exactly muffled, but wasn’t entirely clear, either. He sounded like someone with a very bad case of tonsillitis coupled with a heavy head cold gargling with pebbles.

He was lying on his back, his legs half-submerged in the mud, half-hidden in the thick grass. He had no pack and no weapon. Was he someone Aleks and Sveta had robbed and left for dead? Knowing what I knew of them now, it seemed possible. Too much would never be enough for The Zone’s version of Bonnie and Clyde.

‘Come on, friend. Let’s get you out of there,’ I said, reaching to grab the front of his jacket.

‘No! Don’t touch me!’ he cried, and clamped a hand to his face. Muffled sobbing sounds came escaped from between his fingers.

‘Hey…it’s okay, mate. But listen: I need you to be quiet, okay?’

He nodded. ‘Will you help me?’ he whimpered.

‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever you need. But first, tell me who did this to you. Was it a man and a woman? They’d be armed and carrying heavy packs. Did they…’

He was shaking his head vigorously. ‘No, no! I’ve not been attacked. Help me. I need…food.’

I frowned. ‘Is that all? I’ve got food, don’t worry. But first, how about we get you out of all that shit, eh? It’s cold. I know. I’ve been paddling in it myself.’

His chest began lurching up and down. At first I wondered if he was having a heart attack, then I thought he might be crying again.

‘I know. I heard you,’ he chuckled. ‘You didn’t want to use the path, then?’

‘It’s blocked by anomalies.’

He laughed some more. ‘The bank is. The path won’t be.’ The laughter subsided into crying again. ‘So hungry. Food. Please give me fooood!’

I frowned again. Something about this didn’t feel right anymore. I straightened so I could see over the top of the grass, turning slowly from the waist with the L.85 in the aim. Using the rifle would create just the sort of noise I needed to avoid, but fuck it; if I was about to get attacked, I was going to have bigger fish to fry than a couple of petty thieves.

As it was, we were alone. Completely, utterly alone. And that couldn’t be right, could it? After all, this bloke was in shit state: weak, limp, and lying where any passing animal or other mutant might find him. He should have been surrounded by predators, yet they were nowhere in sight. I couldn’t even hear one padding around while it waited for the fit, healthy one – the one able to fight back – to leave before closing in for the kill on the weakling. Why would that be?

I looked back down at my new companion…and almost cried out in blind fear.

He’d taken his hand away from his face, allowing me to see his features clearly for the first time. I wished he’d kept them covered up.
The flesh of his face was darker and rougher than it should have been and his nose was practically gone. As I looked, he tried to speak again. His lips – what was left of them – twitched horizontally, but there were also three vertical ‘mouths’ that opened and closed, too, starting just below where his nose should have been and ending not far north of his chin. The weirdest thing of all, though, was what was happening with his eyes. They kept changing. Through the NVGs, I kept getting faint glimmers of eyeshine, similar to what I’d expect if I came across a dog or cat.

‘Fucking hell!’ I snapped in English, levelling the L.85 at his face. ‘What the fuck?’

‘English?’ he said, in the same language. ‘You speak English?’

‘I am English,’ I replied. ‘Jesus…what’s going on, mate? Where are you from? How the hell did you end up like this, in here?’

‘I’m…shit. I don’t know…who I am anymore. The guys here called me Rusty. Because my hair is…was…a sort of reddish colour. You know?’ He grimaced, and I got some eyeshine again, there and gone. ‘I’m Canadian. Came here for…’ More eyeshine, then back to normal. ‘Research. UN.’

‘Ecologist?’ I asked. I’d read about these guys. The UN had asked for teams of scientists from some of the world’s leading institutes to assist in researching The Zone, cataloguing mutations to plant and animal life, taking soil samples, and all kinds of other stuff. That had been way back, between the fall of Communism and the early 2000s. They’d recruited and sent more after the second event, though many had ‘got lost’. All members had been, through necessity, top people in their fields, though the Ukrainians and Russians weren’t exactly short of experts of their own. They had, however, conceded to the demands of the international community as a kind of quid pro quo for financial support – at least on the part of the Ukrainian government, as it provided another means for Kiev to tell Moscow to go fuck itself back in the days of a pro-European, pro-Western Ukraine. Even when the political climate had changed and Ukraine seemed to be drawing closer to Mother Russia again, the UN had still maintained a presence here, arguing that The Zone was a global problem, not merely a local one. Russia could have played it as a political hardball, but for reasons of her own chose not to. Which was partially why the Brit runaway was standing over a mutating Canadian, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do next.

‘Ecologist? Yeah, something like that,’ he managed, though whatever pain he was going through seemed to be getting progressively worse. ‘Fooood!’ he gasped. The eyeshine flared again, lasting longer. This time, when he tried to speak, all that emerged was a low, almost whispered, sound. All the same, on some level, it roared – and I was alarmed that there was a quality to it that made all my muscles freeze in terror.

With an effort, I jammed the muzzle of the L.85 into the centre of the mouths.

‘Shut the fuck up!’ I hissed. ‘Any more noise, I fucking kill you. Clear?’
The shining eyes stared up at me and blinked. Could he still understand? Was he human anymore? The shine wasn’t ‘solid’; it wasn’t exactly what I’d expect to see in an animal. But then, even when Rusty’s transformation was complete, would the eyeshine be exactly the same for him as it was in, say, cats, or would it be different in some way – a way I might not recognize as no longer remotely human?

The shine faded again, but not all the way. ‘You need to get away from me, Stalker,’ he gasped, speaking quickly. ‘You’re standing too close. You’re bringing on the hunger. Even the other mutants keep away.’

I grimaced again. It sounded strange, hearing a mostly human voice describing itself as a mutant. But that’s what he was, without doubt.
‘What are you turning into?’ I asked, taking a couple of steps away.

He stared at me with a mixture of incredulity and blind hunger. ‘What? Are you new here or something?’

‘Yeah. Coupla days.’

He shook his head. ‘Jesus.’ He broke off for another round of grimacing and eyeshine. ‘Bloodsucker,’ he said, once the attack had passed again. ‘I’m turning into a bloodsucker.’

‘How? Why?’

‘No time for…more questions. Food, man! Please, help me. Kill me. That’d be…’ He covered his mouths and screamed into his hands.

‘I can’t shoot you, mate,’ I said. I had the suppressed pistol, but had no idea if the baffles were blown or what sort of racket the moving parts made. The last thing I needed was to think the shot would be nice and quiet, but get a big loud bang instead. ‘And you’re cracked if you think I’m getting close enough to use my knife. But listen: I think I can still help you. I’m after a couple of twats that I want to hurt pretty badly. Food, mate. I’ll bring you nice, fresh food.’

And when you’ve done drinking their blood, I’ll blow your fucking brains out. How’s that for a deal?

‘Foooo –’ he hissed, his voice breaking down into a low snarl. I turned away when I saw thin, gummy flesh and altered bone begin to stretch and pull apart. The sound alone was bad enough.

‘Yeah. Foo. Back in a bit, Rusty,’ I said, and moved out, turning back only once as I crested the rise. Sure enough, there, cutting through the lush, long grass that hid the bog beneath, was a narrow path. It ran out towards the copse of trees that now seemed to be full of eyes and looped left, where a large mound hid in plain sight among all the grass, before striking out again to link with the farthest edge of the slope I had so happily trundled down. Me being me, I’d missed finding the safe, firm path by less than ten metres; had, in fact, walked right past it in favour of wading through knee-deep (at least), possibly contaminated mud.

Shaking my head in self-reproach, I moved down slope, following the narrow track on the floor of the small valley toward the house…and only then realized I had committed another basic cardinal error: I’d broken the horizon, going over the high part of a rise. Tiredness played a part, but it was no excuse: I’d been tired before and hadn’t made such stupid errors.

What the hell was wrong with me?
  14:03:28  16 December 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XXII - The Tunnel

I was feeling quite pleased with myself by the time we were ready to leave. In addition to getting all of my kit back (though it had been thoroughly searched), I’d been ‘given’ some old, battered, but serviceable NVGs, a new (to me) pair of Ukrainian Army boots, a combat knife, some tins of food and – perhaps most impressively of all – a suppressed PB 6P9 with a couple of clips that Mykola loaded with decent ammo.

‘I noticed you were short of a sling for the L.85, too,’ Mykola said, handing me his PDA so I could check my stuff against his list. ‘I didn’t have an exact one, but I managed to rig something for you out of what I did have. Okay?’

I nodded, eager to get underway, and handed the PDA back to him. ‘Thanks, Mykola. Looks like I’ve got everything.’

He smiled, then thrust the PDA under my nose again. ‘Acknowledge receipt of the goods on the list, please,’ he said.

I did as asked and made ready, stowing the food in my pack and finding places for my new weapons. The NVGs went straight on as I’d be needing them once we got outside, and I managed to rig the head-lamp I’d got off Dmitriy so I wouldn’t have to keep chopping and changing. Finally, I made sure I had a full clip in the L.85 and there was a round ready to go should I need it.

‘Don’t suppose you’ve got any spare STANAG mags, have you, Mykola?’ I asked.

The Quartermaster shook his head. ‘Sorry. We just don’t use that equipment. You’d be better off with our weapons. Finding ammo for Western stuff can be tricky.’

I grimaced. ‘Shit. No problem, don’t worry about it. Serves me right for being an idle bastard and going for what was most familiar.’
‘If I get any pass through, I’ll try to keep a couple for you. Best I can do,’ he said.

‘Ready to move out?’ Petrenko asked, pulling a hood over his head and slipping on a fancy-looking mask that appeared to be a respirator and NVG combo. The workings around the red-lensed eyepieces made him look weird, as though he had massively overdeveloped brow ridges that somehow extended halfway around his skull. Savko, I noticed, also had one of the all-in-one masks to go with his suit and I looked on enviously as they tested the head-lamps that were built into the hoods. It all made my old-time passive night vision gear and jury-rigged assembly for the head-lamp look like a nine year-old’s attempt.

‘Ready, Colonel,’ Savko said, his voice surprisingly clear despite having his face covered.

‘Snorkbait?’

‘As ready as I’ll ever be,’ I mumbled, feeling suddenly embarrassed and under-prepared.

‘Right. Let’s go.’

We left the compound via the east exit, which was blocked off by the burnt-out Niva, the old tractor with no front wheels, and some other stuff that had been added since the morning assault. As we passed the end of the eastern range, I noticed that my former comrades had beefed up their side of the defences too; maybe not to the standard that the Dutyers had managed, but enough to make sure they were not too weak a link in Autopark’s armour. The barbed wire fence just outside the perimeter would act as a natural funnel for any attackers, and what might look like an easy way in from a distance would prove anything but, thanks to the snipers up in the attic spaces. Even so, Petrenko clearly wasn’t satisfied with what he saw.

‘Savko,’ he said, casting an eye over the barricades and Stalker sentry. ‘Once we have those doors from the agro warehouse tomorrow and the other squad has arrived, remind me to send a team over to help these Free Stalkers with their fortifications. They’re okay but need more work.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Savko replied, tapping a reminder for himself into his PDA.

‘You’re getting more reinforcements?’ I said as we passed the final Duty guard, a shadow lurking behind an oil drum, watching the approaches through his NV gear.

Petrenko nodded. ‘I am. Six could hold that place in a raid. The numbers we have currently would hold comfortably in a sustained assault, but we can’t mount patrols and we’d have a constant twelve-hour shift rota. It’d mean being on-watch then grabbing food, performing maintenance drills, and getting whatever sleep you could. There’d be no time for anything else, you’d be stuck here, and morale would nose-dive. And that’s without considering the specialists. Danylo, for example. Great medic. Would be – and is – okay in a fight…but I can’t put him on the watch roster – nor can he do it alone. He has to have help. Same as Mykola. He might be the Quartermaster and he might have final say over supplies, but he can’t be on-duty all the time and I can’t spare anyone to assist.’ He shook his head. ‘I need more people here if we are going to be as efficient as we need to be. I need my guards and patrols sharp and confident, not knackered and jaded. Now, shush, and turn those NVGs on.’

I flipped the eyepiece into position and turned the device on, pausing while I turned and panned my head this way and that so I could get used to the world as it appeared in greenish monochrome. It had been years since I’d last used anything like these and it didn’t help that, even by Russian standards, this was well-used, outdated kit. The whine from the things alone was horrendous. Petrenko and Savko glanced over at me and shrugged at my grimace.

‘Noise off these things would wake the fucking dead,’ I complained.

‘Mutants will know you’re there anyway,’ Savko said, ‘they could see you, even if they couldn’t smell or hear you. Humans won’t have a clue unless you get fairly close. In any case, they’ll be better than stumbling around blind – or worse, having you lamp bobbing around in the dark. It’d be asking for some sniper to take a shot at you.’

‘I know all that. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful,’ I said. ‘It’s just that I’d forgotten how quickly the sound could drive you up the wall.’

Savko laughed. ‘“Drive you up the wall”. I like that one. You English have some funny sayings, man.’

‘Yeah?’ I said. ‘Well, we’re a funny lot. Funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha.’

‘We’re wasting time,’ Petrenko said. ‘Can you see through those things or not?’

‘Yeah,’ I nodded.

‘Right,’ he said, moving out, shotgun at the ready and rifle slung across his back. ‘Watch out for mutants, and keep quiet. Anomaly detectors off. We know there are dogs out there and they can hear a gnat fart at a kilometre’s distance. We can’t let the pack home in so we’ll have to do this the hard way.’

I frowned. Keeping quiet was all well and good for dogs, who would surely be able to sniff us out anyway, but they were not the only danger. They weren’t even the biggest one, to my mind. I was thinking of a creature more used to nocturnal hunting. Indeed, hunting in the dark was its way of life. I was thinking of cats, the silent killers of the night.

Petrenko picked a path on the right-hand side of the road while Savko and I spread out behind, forming a rough triangle and keeping at least three metres between us where we could. I kept hoping we’d find the body of the Bandit that I’d injured and the dogs had ultimately taken down, but all I saw was a few blood stains soaking into the scuffed-up dirt and gravel of the road. Drag marks led up-slope towards a cluster of bushes on the other side of the road.

A familiar low thrumming reached us from just ahead, and Petrenko signalled a halt. Savko and I dropped to a crouch, covering our arcs, allowing the point-man to figure out what lay ahead and what we were going to do about it. Another signal and we crabbed to the right until we were almost pressed against the barbed wire fence that separated us from the rising ground beyond. I glanced between the wire strands and saw more rusted little rectangular signs sticking out of the rocky ground, this time bearing a skull and crossbones and the international symbol for ‘Radiation’.

Drawing into single-file – Petrenko in front, Savko at the rear – we moved cautiously along the verge, passing another anomaly as we crested the rise and the mouth of the tunnel came into view. We could also hear dogs moving around and, as we drifted cautiously towards the edge of the road once more, we heard the splintery sound of bones cracking beneath powerful jaws. Fortunately, though, there were no growls or snarls of alertness and aggression, and nothing ran at us out of the night: the pack, it seemed, was either asleep, feeding, or satisfied with the day’s pickings.

More barbed wire fencing began to close in from the left, funnelling us towards the tunnel’s maw until we were forced onto the road. We spread out again, approaching slowly. We’d made it. Almost. Petrenko suddenly gave us the signal to halt, and we performed our drills as before – this time, however, Savko covered our rear and I took two steps forward and right to provide additional cover against whatever might emerge from the tunnel entrance.

The Colonel was peering ahead, alert, shotgun up. He moved to the verge once more and signalled for us to close on him. We scuttled over immediately and fell into a huddle, crouching just off the road, each man looking over the shoulder of the next rather than at faces, protecting ourselves and the group from surprise attack.

‘There might be someone or something up there,’ Petrenko said, as softly as he could considering the relatively slight muffling effect of the mask. ‘I thought I saw movement just beyond that excuse for a camp-site.’

‘Human?’ Savko asked, tension in his voice.

‘Unknown.’

A dog howled in the distance, causing me to jump. Savko started to laugh, but the sound died on his lips when the howl was answered by a drawn-out moan echoing out from the mouth of the tunnel.

‘Ooh, fuck. I really hope that was the wind,’ he said.

‘We all know it wasn’t,’ Petrenko muttered, his tone apparently even, unconcerned …but underneath, there had been a tremor of disquiet. Paradoxically, his slight fear comforted me. If he could get scared, he was sane and stable. If he’d betrayed no fear at all, I’d most likely have run off screaming to take my chances with whatever that moan had come from.

‘Any idea what made that noise, gents?’ I said, beginning to wish that I’d kept my gob shut and got my head down instead of heading out on this Boys’ Own adventure. The pain in my gum might have kept me awake half the night, but at least I could have got some rest. And listening to that moan, I started to think Savko had been right after all: Aleks and Svetlana, wherever they were now, were indeed dead. Perhaps those gnawing sounds I’d heard had even been dogs having a go at their bones. If it had been, this would be a wasted trip. But that was the problem: everything was ifs and maybes. I needed certainty, for my own sake if not for anyone else’s.

As all this passed through my mind, a realisation dawned. I began to smile, and the smile became a grin.

‘What’s so funny?’ Savko demanded.

‘My gum,’ I said. ‘I can hardly feel it.’

‘Adrenalin,’ Savko said, sagely. I already knew that, but to finally have some sort of relief, a temporary freedom from that persistent pain, was sheer bliss. It almost made it worth being scared shitless.

‘Having second thoughts yet, Snorkbait?’ Petrenko asked.

‘Second and third thoughts, Colonel,’ I admitted. ‘But I won’t back out now.’

‘Right you are,’ he said. ‘Let’s get on, then.’

We moved up, fanning out again as we approached the old, long-disused camp site. A rusting cargo container holding a couple of half-rotten bedrolls stood just inside the tunnel entrance. An old fire-pit lay dark and cold near the open end and a twelve-foot high stack of long concrete pilings provided some sort of security to the rear, blocking the makeshift camp from the open tunnel. Even so, I shared Petrenko’s dismissive evaluation of the site: there was nothing here to offer much deterrent to mutants and even a half-decent attack by a semi-determined enemy would have been enough to overwhelm the meagre defences. Perhaps it had been part of a larger encampment once upon a time, but those days were long gone – as was its usefulness. The only surprise was that it was still here when the pilings in particular could have been put to better use elsewhere.

We moved past the camp and into the tunnel itself, where the NVGs began to fail as the level of ambient light dropped almost to nothing.

‘Switching to white light,’ I said, flipping the image enhancer up from my eyes before hitting the pressel to activate my head-lamp.

Beside me, Petrenko and Savko were also activating their head-lamps but, as powerful as they were, they still did very little to push back the inky blackness of the tunnel. Petrenko suddenly leaned forward again, peering into the dark. It reminded me of something I’d seen once, a cartoon – if you could call it that – showing a scared-looking British soldier on stag, weapon held before him so you knew he had just issued the traditional challenge – “Who goes there?” – upon hearing a sound in the night. The single word in the responding speech bubble, the ‘voice’ echoing from the unknowable gloom, read “Foe”.

‘What is it, sir?’ Savko said, softly.

Petrenko seemed to jerk suddenly and he began to back up. At the same instant, another loud moan rolled down the tunnel - and this time the sound was accompanied by a shuffling figure emerging from the dark. I followed Petrenko's lead and took a precautionary step backwards – as did Savko.

The impossible figure kept coming, the open jaw slack, the eyeless sockets still seeming to stare fixedly ahead, the tattered remains of clothing hanging limply from almost fleshless arms: it was nothing much more than a walking skeleton, a remnant of something that had died long ago, but had simply never realized the fact or had the courtesy to lie still. I couldn’t even tell if the thing was male or female.

‘Gaaah!’ it said, raising an arm and tottering forward even faster than before.

‘Zombie!’ Savko cried, and I felt pissed off at Andriy P all over again. I might have looked like a bag of shit upon arriving at the rookie village, but being mistaken for one of these wraiths was just taking the piss.

‘Drop the fucker! Head-shots!’ Petrenko snapped, levelling his shotgun but not firing. He gave a sidelong glance as we also held back, staring in alarm and disgust at this horror from The Zone. ‘It’s out of my range, idiots. Open fire!’

I gave myself a shake and levelled the L.85. The radioactive mojo in the SUSAT was beginning to fail – what should have been a relatively clear, enhanced sight-picture was murky and the aiming reticule glowed the very faintest and dullest of reds. I’d need a new one. It could be fixed, but where was I likely to find someone with that ability in The Zone? Most of them wouldn’t know a SUSAT scope from a hole in the ground, and I couldn’t do it. I’d never even been able to remember just what it was that made the fucking things work in the first place, only that it was some kind of radioactive isotope or something.

Muzzles flashes spat into the gloom to my left as Savko began firing bursts from his AKS-74U. Some of the rounds at least were striking home – dust and chunks of matter and clothing were being sent flying – but he was missing the crucial shot. Clearly, the 74U wasn’t the sort of thing to use if you wanted dependable accuracy.

I fired a quick double-tap. One round must have missed, since I never saw a plume of dusty flesh or strike mark of any kind, but the other round smashed through the remains of the thing’s nose. Bits of bone and other matter erupted from the back of the shattered skull, but still the thing shambled on, albeit more slowly than before. I’d missed the brain stem and vital vertebrae that held the head on the spinal column. Hitting either would have done the job.

‘Enough. Cease fire,’ Petrenko called, and strode forward. The thing turned toward him but Petrenko was well within range now. The sound of the shotgun decapitating the animated corpse boomed down the tunnel, deafeningly loud. The body toppled and the nightmarish creature was finally dead.

‘Colonel!’ Savko screamed, and Petrenko turned, alarmed, as a second dessicated, half-rotted husk scurried from behind the concrete pilings. Petrenko had no time to raise the shotgun again to meet the new threat. To his credit, he had realized this and never even tried. The figure was mumbling something – actual words, it sounded like – until Petrenko smacked it in the mouth with the butt of the shotgun, driving it back. The mutant reeled and Petrenko took a couple of quick steps backward so he could raise the weapon. The mutant stumbled to one side and the muzzle of Petrenko’s SPAS-12 tracked it, bringing us into the line of fire. The zombie regained its balance and began heading for its intended target once more.

‘Gotta shoot it, guys!’ Petrenko warned.

‘Down!’ Savko yelled, and we both hit the deck as the Colonel blew the head to smithereens, sending bone, rotted brain and shot flying over our heads. This body, having somehow retained more substance and musculature than its companion, staggered backwards a couple of steps before subsiding slowly, sinking to its knees and then toppling
backwards in a manner that was almost graceful.

We stood and covered Petrenko as he stalked deeper into the tunnel, checking that it was clear – on this side of the barricade, at least.

‘Looks like you might have come out here for nothing, Snorkbait,’ Savko said.

‘How’s that?’

He shrugged. ‘I can’t see two loaded-down Stalkers getting past those zombies, and the fact they’re still here –’

‘The zombies followed them in,’ Petrenko said, chambering the next cartridge and pulling replacement shells from a pocket on his suit. ‘Just missed them too, by the look of it. There’re fresh scuff marks near the barricade and signs that someone’s climbed over recently. Plus, there’s no blood, bones, scraps of meat… Those bones we heard being crunched on the way up could have been one of our thieves ending up as dog chow, but most likely it was another one of these they got hold of – not that there’ll be much nourishment to be had out of them.’

Excited yips and yelps erupted outside and the sound of running feet thumped into the cavernous area. An eager, keening whine issued from a few metres away.

‘All we need. Fucking dogs are awake, thanks to all that noise. It’ll be fun getting back, Savko, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Savko replied dutifully.

Yes, it’ll be lots of fucking fun. Still, if there’s one good thing to come out of this, it’s that we’ve managed to lay a couple of walking corpses to long-overdue rest.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Savko repeated.

‘What were they, Colonel? Who were they?’ I asked.

Petrenko’s shoulders heaved in a sigh. ‘You and me, Snorkbait. They were you and me.’

I frowned. ‘How do you mean?’

‘What I mean is that they were ordinary people. Workers, mainly – the first one was a worker. Those rags were what remained of his – or her – work uniform. But there were also soldiers. Some of them, the engineers, were assigned to help out inside the plant itself. Then there were the new settlers, people who just wanted to get as close to their old homes as they could: scientists, traders, agro and industrial workers…you name it. A living, viable population daring to risk their lives to reclaim this land from the ’86 event.’ He pulled his mask off and spat onto the ground. ‘Fact is, I might have known these people. I might even have ended up just like them, had things not gone a different way.’

‘An op?’ I ventured.

Petrenko managed a sour smile. ‘Nothing so exciting. Leave. I was
overdue so they ordered me home. Of course I wasn’t a Colonel then, only a Major. Even so, I had my responsibilities and I took them seriously. Too seriously, perhaps. Anyway, I briefed junior officers as to what should happen, what might happen, what to do if this or that occurred – all the usual – and left my men for a couple of weeks in the paradise that is Maiaky, my home town – you probably won’t know it, but it’s a little place not too far from the border with Moldova. Not that I’d want to walk between the two.’ He paused, his eyes on the more substantive of the two corpses but his mind clearly years in the past. ‘The first I knew about a second event was when a car was sent for me. In one sense, I was glad to have my leave cut short – I never got on too well with the family and my father, particularly, never forgave me for being selected for officer training. Most parents would have been proud, but not him. I’d “let the workers in the family” down. Amongst other things.’ He paused, lost along another of memory’s paths. He gave a little start. ‘Anyway, the car took me to a helicopter, and the helicopter flew me to a base not too far from here. I was put in command of a search and rescue detachment –’

‘Search and rescue being…’ I prompted.

Another quick, sour smile. ‘A euphemism, yes,’ he nodded. ‘My real orders were in a sealed envelope, to be opened only when we reached as far into the new Zone as we could. Of course, we knew nothing at that point. Was the whole Zone irradiated again? Was it entirely uninhabitable? Had we, in fact, been sent on a suicide mission?’ He shook his head at the memory. ‘So much uncertainty. But things soon became clearer. Oh, yes.’

I surreptitiously checked my PDA. Eleven forty-five. It had taken us a full three-quarters of an hour to get to this point and I was against the clock.

‘You’ll make it,’ Petrenko said, his tone dry. ‘Don’t worry. But in any case, I’ll keep this short. If I can.’ He coughed, hawked, and spat. ‘Fucking dust. Oh, that reminds me. You’ll want to grab some antirads as soon as you can. These folks…well, you’ll understand when I’m done. My men and I were tasked to sweep The Zone from the inside out, but first we had to get in and get as close to the centre as possible, offering aid and reassurance where we could. Those were my orders at first. As it turned out, we were to do all this and then kill anything and everything in our path – even if they were survivors that we’d already helped on the way in – as we left again. I don’t really know why they did it this way, but at a guess I’d say they were more curious about whether the centre was still accessible at that point and didn’t need survivors clogging the roads or resisting – as they would have done had word spread that the military was killing everyone in sight. At the same time, they needed the survivors to be silenced in case they talked. Whatever we found – whatever awaited us in the heart of The Zone – the surviving civilian population would already know about…and it was nothing the Government wanted the whole world to find out about.’

‘That worked well for them, didn’t it?’ I muttered.

Petrenko gave a humourless chuckle. ‘Evidently. Anyway, we did make it quite close to the centre – though we noticed things got stranger and stranger as we went. The airborne patrols had reported strange things, but none of us really believed what we’d heard. Everything was just so confused. The NPP of course was completely cut off. Even with our adapted, as good as lead-encased APC, we could see the plant, but there was no way we were getting to it. We radioed back and it was at that point that I was authorised to open my real orders.’ He retrieved a small silver flask from another suit pocket and took a swig, swilling whatever liquid it was around his mouth and spitting it out before taking another swig, which was swallowed.

‘What did you do?’

He sighed. ‘I put it to a vote. We’d passed some civilian survivors – not many, but enough to give us some hope that the incident wasn’t as bad as feared – and the thought of going back and gunning them down made me ill. That’s not soldiering, that’s butchery. And we were Spetsnaz – the best!’ A corner of my mouth twitched and Petrenko smirked back, knowing what I was thinking. ‘We decided to disobey the order. None of us was willing to kill these people without reason. As far as we were concerned, what they wanted us to do was nothing but murder. On the way back, we told them to run, hide, get as far from the perimeter as possible and never trust the Military from then on. As it turned out, we might have done them the worst possible disservice, because a lot of them became…something else.’ He indicated the corpses. ‘These. That’s what happened to some of those unlucky enough to survive the event. And, for all I know, to some who didn’t survive. Before the second event, we’d talk about the ghosts of ’86 up at the NPP. Voices that came from nowhere, the feeling of presence. We could have imagined it, of course – probably did – but the NPP was a place where the past was still alive. It was spooky up there. God only knows what it is now.’ He closed his eyes. ‘When I think that I might have been up there, guarding the NPP…when I imagine I might have ended up like this…or worse, a snork…and that some of the snorks might once have been men I worked with, knew, trusted… It’s why I joined Duty. Me, and my new men. We took the APC back, reported mission accomplished, went through the debriefing…and then took off. I’d been promoted to Colonel and, being in good standing, they thought nothing of it when volunteered my men for a mission to Agroprom. We were meant to stay there for a few months, explore and monitor the area, keep watch over the eggheads who were keen to find out what changes had occurred. The boffins were ordered back along with half of the garrison – the enlisted men, ordinary grunts – while we were told to stay and await fresh troops and new orders. But time rolled on and we felt as if we’d been forgotten about – which we had, thanks to a change of strategy and an admin bungle as I later found out – and that was that. When Duty formed and they found a bunch of half-starved, poorly-equipped Special Forces soldiers, they took us in, provided for us, and we joined. One or two have defected, a few others have been killed or had run-ins with the Scorcher, but otherwise…my group is intact. Take Savko here. Savko’s one of mine from back then, aren’t you, old friend?’

‘Yes, sir. And never more glad to be.’

Petrenko smiled. ‘A loyal bunch, as I am loyal to them. And I would be loyal to you, Snorkbait, at least enough to be honest with you now. What awaits you on the other side of this blockade is Hell on Earth. I won’t tell you otherwise. Those poor bastards I killed earlier – if you can call it killing, seeing as they actually died years ago – made a mistake, you see: they thought they could tame the land, do God’s work by undoing Man’s earlier mistake if they could. What they found instead was the gateway to Hell. They went to work one morning with plans and hopes and dreams, and ended up as foul creatures, abominations to be destroyed – or at least the beginnings of such. And do you know there are those who want the world to share The Zone, not destroy it? Lunacy!’

‘Freedom crack-head mother-fuckers,’ Savko spat. ‘Never seen half of what we have. Hippy dreamers, the lot of them.’

‘I ask you now, Snorkbait, one soldier to another: is this what you want? I am bound to this place by honour and by blood. It is my land and I will not allow it to be poisoned like it is. It is my duty to cleanse it, to give those people and former people release where I can, as well as protect the world from The Zone’s influence. Why are you here? Are you truly a Merc, just out to get rich quick, or are there nobler motivations at work?’ He stopped, glaring at me. Even Savko turned from his vigil to look at me expectantly.

‘I’ve got nothing else in the world and nowhere else to go,’ I said. ‘I came here to live and be free. It’s my opinion that it’s the last place on Earth anyone can be free. I don’t want to see The Zone destroyed…but nor do I want the whole world to become like The Zone. I’m not here for loot, because I don’t intend to go back to the world, Big Land, whatever you want to call it. I just want to be, and do whatever my conscience decides.’

Petrenko sighed. ‘Then enter The Zone, if you won’t leave it. If you ever see that The Zone really is a place of evil, not opportunity of any sort, you know where I am. Then, we can really do business.’ He cradled the shotgun and walked back towards the tunnel entrance. ‘Let’s haul ass, Savko,’ he ordered.

‘Yes, sir, a moment, though,’ the soldier said, crossing to me. ‘Here.’ He dug in his pack and plonked a pair of gloves and a respirator into my hand. ‘You’ll need them over there. And for Christ’s sake, from here on, don’t go kicking up any dust without the respirator on; it’ll be contaminated for sure. Antirads will sort it, but too many, too often will make you sick. Oh, and don’t worry about Bloodsuckers. For some reason they seem to be scared shitless of zombies. Given the racket these two made earlier, I wouldn’t imagine there’s a bloodsucker within a couple of ks right now.’

‘Savko!’

The Dutyer held out his hand, which I shook. ‘Good luck, Snorkbait. See you around…if you survive long enough.’ He released my hand and turned to follow the Colonel.

‘Savko,’ I called. He stopped, turning back to me. ‘Those words…the zombie…I almost recognized them. They sounded familiar, but odd. They were in Ukrainian, weren’t they? What was he saying?’

‘He was saying “I’m dying. Please help me”. They were probably his last thoughts. Or his strongest ones. Stick in The Zone long enough and you’ll hear all sorts of theories. At least his troubles are over now,’ Savko said, and turned to jog out of the tunnel.
  16:49:23  11 December 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

‘That’s settled, then,’ Petrenko said, wrongly taking my nod as an agreement to wait, and headed for the stairs. ‘Go into the other room. I’ll find Danylo and send him up to take a look at your tooth. Savko! Get up here. You might need to…assist.’ Petrenko afforded me a sidelong glance and sly smile as he descended, allowing Savko to run up the stairs and lead me through the curtained doorway into an area the Dutyers had converted into a dorm-cum-sickbay. Another heavy swatch of thick material blocked this area off from the rooftop outside and, as in Petrenko’s quarters, the window had been boarded up. The difference here, however, was that one quadrant had been left open, allowing it to be used as a firing point. Assaulting this place now really would be suicide. We’d caught the Bandits napping, and even then had taken our lumps. These Duty guys took their faction name seriously; vigilance had been bred in the bone – a trait I found reassuring and alarming in equal measure. On one hand, it meant this place had become a haven of safety in a hostile environment…but on the other, it meant I wouldn’t be getting away without permission or a lot of help. Petrenko had made his position clear. I needed allies, and fast.

‘Savko, listen,’ I said. ‘I need to get out of here. I don’t have time for this shit. Every minute I sit here is another minute I fall behind Aleks and Svetlana.’

Savko nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah. And you also need to have that tooth extracted, if we can manage it – unless you’d rather suffer some more and take your chances with infection?’ He looked over at me, nodding again when I said nothing. ‘Besides, they won’t get far. If they were lucky, they reached the tunnel within twenty or thirty minutes of being spotted. Most likely, weighed down as you say they were, with mutants and anomalies in the way, it took them half an hour at least to get there. Then the tunnel itself is long and dark. They’d be getting more and more tired –’

‘All the more reason for me to go now!’ I urged. ‘Catch them while I can.’

‘You’re not hearing me,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to make you see there’s no rush. It’ll take them a couple of hours to get through the tunnel. I think I know where they’re headed, and it’s another couple of hours from the tunnel to there. Plus it’s all bad terrain, anomalies, and mutants. They might be halfway along the tunnel by now, I don’t know. But look out there.’ He pointed to the window. ‘Almost full dark. Of course, it will be in the tunnel anyway. But when they come out of it – if they come out of it intact and alive, and that’s a big If – they’ll be in total darkness in one of the scariest places I’ve seen in The Zone…and I’ve seen them all. Trust me, they’re as good as dead already.’

‘I need to make sure,’ I said.

‘Of course you do. And in the morning, I’m sure the Colonel will let one or two of us escort you to the tunnel, if not actually through it. You’ll find them somewhere along the way, I almost guarantee it. Either way, they won’t make it to where they’re headed.’

‘But where is that? You say you think you know, but I need to know.’

Savko looked round. ‘Come here,’ he said, leading me back into the Colonel’s quarters. ‘Look at this map. See where we are?’

I looked, pointing at where I thought we were. ‘Here.’

‘Exactly right,’ he said. ‘Now follow the dirt road to the tunnel.’

I tracked the brown line running roughly east-north-east with a finger. The quality of the aerial photographs the map had been made from could be called average at best. In places, it was downright poor. Unfortunately, that included the area I was most interested in.

‘Right. Now,’ Savko said, drawing his knife and using the tip of the blade as a pointer, ‘here’s the tunnel. It cuts through these hills – all highly radioactive above ground, by the way, so forget going overland – and emerges…here.’ The tip of the knife now rested on a metalled road nestled in a gully and running more or less east-west. ‘Here, as the road runs east, you can see how it comes out into even ground. It’s all woodland and grass, there and would be quite pleasant if it wasn’t but filled with anomalies and God knows how many mutants. It’s summer, so there’s no hibernation. That means there’ll be a lot of critters out hunting, especially at night. Even here, you’re better off finding a place of shelter near dark, and preferably not alone. Anywhere else in The Zone…’ He shrugged. ‘Anyway, go through that tunnel and you can expect to find bloodsuckers or a snork or two roaming around.’

‘That close to Cordon and the perimeter?’

Savko nodded. ‘That close. It's why this end of the tunnel got blocked off. But see this?’ He indicated what might have been a large house or a cluster of small buildings north of the road. The resolution made it hard to tell for sure. ‘That’s where Aleks and Svetlana will lie up for tonight…if they get there and if something else hasn’t already made the place their den. The most likely outcome is that you’ll find their bodies tomorrow morning. You’ll know where they are: the number of mutants clustered around will give their positions away. Now, come on, back in here. Let Danylo sort that tooth out.’

‘Yes,’ another Stalker said, ascending the stairs wearily. ‘Let old Danylo sort your tooth out. He is a trained dentist after all. Former Red Army combat medics are all trained dentists. Why, we used to whip teeth out all the time! Never treated things like, oh, gunshot wounds, fractures, and anything to do with soldiering. Oh, no. We were all about the dentistry. Don’t forget to floss. All that shit.’

‘Shut up, you old bastard, and get on with it,’ Savko said, laughing.

‘Disrespectful little turd,’ Danylo replied, without malice. ‘Right, come on, Snorkshit or whatever your name is. I’m not wasting good painkillers on you – they’re as rare as Georgians that want to work – so you’d better be as big and strong as I’ve heard you aren’t. Sit down and open wide.’

I did as I was told as Savko roared with laughter. ‘Gems as always, Danylo! Snorkshit! Rare as Georgians that want to work!’ The younger man doubled over, eyes streaming.

‘Now, now, Savko. I didn’t mean to upset you. Don’t cry.’

Savko laughed even more. If he didn’t get a grip soon, he was going to pass out. His face was already turning a funny shade of crimson.

‘I could keep this up and kill the silly little bastard. Why he has the position he does, I don’t know,’ Danylo muttered to me, tilting my head back and switching on his headlamp. He peered into my mouth. ‘Oh, lovely. From this angle I can almost read the label on your underpants.’

Savko collapsed onto the floor and choking noises came from me as I started to laugh as well. The middle-aged medic’s face remained neutral, his cobalt eyes betraying faint bemusement as to what was so funny.

‘Hold still,’ he said, tapping my tooth. That stopped me laughing pretty quickly. My arms raised involuntarily and grasped Danylo at the elbows. ‘Savko,’ he said, ‘when you’re done wetting yourself over nothing, a little help would be appreciated. I think when I really get to work Snorkbait here might have some fight in him he can’t control.’

‘Can’t you sedate him?’ Savko asked, breathless and still chuckling.

‘Oh yeah,’ Danylo replied, tersely. ‘I’ll just use all our supplies for this, shall I? Or maybe you’d like to tell the Colonel we all need to head back to Rostok so I can commit the same butchery but with a more ready supply. Or maybe you’d like to clear us a way to Yantar, where the scientists can do just as bad a job as I’m about to do but where their degrees and doctorates will make Snorkbait feel so much better.’

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘I don’t know…whatever it takes. Sit on him, hold him, whatever you have to do. Just hold him still and make sure he doesn’t knock seven shades of shit out of me later on.’

Savko got behind me on the cot and wrapped his legs around my waist, using his arms to force a Full Nelson before grabbing my forehead in one hand and my lower jaw in the other. Between them, the Dutyers forced my mouth to remain open.

‘Excellent,’ Danylo murmured.

‘Sorry about this,’ Savko hissed into my ear.

‘Right, Snorkbait,’ Danylo said. ‘I’m sorry, but this is going to hurt quite a lot. At least when I’m done you get to swill with vodka.’

*

‘Got you!’ Danylo cried several agonising minutes later, holding the tooth aloft.

I fought against Savko’s restraining arms with furious strength for a little longer, whimpering and trying not to scream, before finally expending my energy and becoming still.

‘Rinse and spit,’ Danylo ordered, holding a tin cup half-full of vodka before me. I tried to turn my head away, refusing the alcohol. ‘Come on, man. It’ll hurt, but it’ll do it good. I don’t have antiseptic mouthwash or whatever shit your dentist might use, so make do with what there is!’

I resisted, so Savko forced my head around to face forward and pried my mouth open long enough for Danylo to tip some vodka in.

The pain was immense. They may as well have got a hot stick from the fire and used that.

‘Let him spit,’ the medic said, and Savko released my jaw. Bloody vodka shot out onto the floor and ran down my chin.

‘Again,’ Danylo said, forcing more vodka on me. ‘Rinse and spit.’

I did as I was told, then again. Finally Danylo was satisfied, but forced me to take a drink for myself. For an instant, I thought it was going to make me puke, but the feeling passed and I found the shot actually helped.

‘I can put some pine resin on the exposed gum, if you want,’ he offered. ‘It’s really an emergency remedy for holes in teeth so the nerve doesn’t get exposed, but…’

I shook my head, feeling weak and weary. ‘I’ll be fine. Savko, you can let me go now.’

‘Sure?’ he asked, relaxing his grip only very slightly.

‘Yeah.’

The wrestling hold was released and he allowed me to stand. All three of us were out of breath, sweating, exhausted by the effort of the extraction.

‘It would have been easier if it’d been a bad tooth,’ Danylo said, dropping the remains into my hand. ‘As it was, the root was strong. If not for the damage caused by the kick you took, that tooth might well have lasted ‘til you were a hundred. Perfectly healthy. It’s what made it such a bastard to extract. Well, that and the fact there was hardly anything to grip.’

‘Great,’ I said, shoving the remnant into my pocket. I’d get rid of it later, somehow. ‘Thanks, Danylo.’

He nodded and raised a hand in acknowledgement. ‘Glad I could help. When the Boss told me about it, I thought he must have cracked.’ He looked at me askance. ‘Got painkillers?’

‘A few,’ I nodded. ‘I wasn’t planning on using them for this, though.’

‘Good. But don’t go suffering without need, either.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Right,’ he said, heading for the door. ‘I’ll see you boys later. Got to go see one of those Free Stalkers about his itchy bits.’

‘Vasiliy Dynamo,’ I said. ‘That’s his name.’

Danylo grunted. ‘No prizes for guessing how he got the name, I suppose. Well, if he’s got what I assume he’s got, he might think twice about sticking it in strange holes after I’m done.’

The older man left, limping slightly.

‘Is he okay?’ I said.

Savko raised his eyebrows. ‘Danylo? Strong as an ox and a good man to have around. Not much good for combat and running around, though. He took some shrapnel in Afghanistan back in about ’86. He told me once he was there when news about this place broke. He was from around here, you know. Limansk.’

‘Another one just wanting to come home,’ I mumbled.

‘What was that?’

I shook my head. ‘Nothing really. I’m just surprised anyone that was from here before the accidents would want to come back, though I guess I shouldn’t be. Shit, it’s their Zone, when it comes to it. I’m just surprised the local lot don’t resent people like me even more.’

Savko sat on the edge of another cot near the window. ‘What’s the point?’ he asked. ‘I’m a local, and I’m not going to say we’re always glad to see you foreign folks, especially Westerners, but…’ He shrugged and looked down at his feet. ‘The world being what it is now, I can understand the appeal.’

‘Savko, look, about what I was saying earlier –’

‘The Colonel won’t change his mind, Snorkbait, and if you try sneaking out of here, he might just have you shot.’

‘I know. I just –’ I began, but broke off when a Duty soldier up in the attic farted loudly and coughed as if it could hide the sound.

‘You’re excused, you fucking animal,’ Savko called, trying to suppress a grin.

‘Balls,’ came a reply.

‘You’ve never felt a good pair.’

‘Unlike you, you fucking arse-jockey.’

‘You know you love it,’ Savko finished, and both Stalkers laughed, their banter at an end.

‘Savko, mate,’ I tried again, keeping my voice very low. ‘All I need is a pair of NVGs. I’ve got nothing to do here. I was meant to drop the supplies and fuck off. If I stay here, one of those Loners –’

‘Free Stalkers,’ Savko cut in. ‘It says “Loner” on your PDA and Contacts list because that’s what you’re meant to be – Loners, alone in The Zone. It’s a faction of sorts but more of a description of what you are. There’s no real structure or unified purpose. You work together or you don’t and go on your way once you’re done. It’s why so many join a faction, be it Duty, Freedom, Ecologists. Monolith.’

‘Yeah, yeah, whatever,’ I said, getting impatient. ‘The point is, I’m not flavour of the month. One of them might have a pop at me.’

‘And they’d be punished. If they killed you, they’d be put to death. If they wounded you –’

‘I’d rather not give them the chance, mate,’ I said. ‘Listen. The only way I can redeem myself even slightly in their eyes is to get their kit back, right? It’s the only way to finally prove my innocence. But to get the kit, I need to find Aleks and his tart. Finding bits of them in piles of dog shit won’t help anything. All it’ll mean is I can’t retrieve what was nicked – it’ll be right in the middle of some mutant’s home patch and defended like it’s the Crown sodding Jewels. I have to go tonight, right now.’

‘The Colonel –’

‘Is just worried about how it’d look if I didn’t do things exactly his way. He lets me leave – whether he gives permission or I just walk out – and others ask why they can’t just up and go. No more gathering of forces. No more eventual raid on Dark Valley – ultimately, no authority over anything down here save you Dutyers…and he had that already.’

‘But as you’ve just said, he won’t let you leave voluntarily. He can’t.’

I smiled. ‘But what if I was “allowed” to go on my way? And what if, when harder questions were asked, “someone” was to crack and let it slip that I was actually on a secret recon mission for the Colonel…and if the indication was that this mission was probably one-way…’

Savko looked at me, scepticism evident on his face. ‘You’re that desperate to get away?’

I nodded. ‘If I stay around here, I’ll going to have an “accident” and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that. Olga and Vasiliy Dynamo want me dead. Vasya’s the closest I have to an ally among them but it didn’t stop him filling me in earlier. I can’t count on anyone. Badge me or whatever the fuck it is you people do, whatever it takes to make it all look legitimate. It’ll explain any kit I’m loaned and will help the Colonel maintain his position.’

‘You’re nowhere near ready for what you’ll find up there. Didn’t you listen to what I said earlier?’

‘Of course I did, mate,’ I said. ‘The question is, have you listened to a word I’ve said just now?’

Savko mulled it over and sighed. ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Just tell the Colonel my plan,’ I said. ‘I can’t. If this happens, it’s got to look like a normal deal, a chain of command thing. We can’t have it looking like something we’ve just cooked up to dupe the other Loner…Free Stalkers…just so the alliance sticks.’

Savko sighed again. ‘Okay. I’ll go and mention it to him,’ he said. ‘But I think I know what his answer will be.’

*

‘No way,’ Petrenko said, his hand cutting a horizontal line through the air. ‘It’s suicide and I will not be associated with it. Imagine: Colonel Petrenko, the man who recruited a veteran of two whole days in The Zone to the Duty ranks, and who then sent this Stalker of dubious standing to spy on the Bandits in Dark Valley.’ He glowered at me. ‘The reputation of the faction is at stake. Taking you in would not make us a laughing stock, exactly, but we can’t afford to be seen as taking any waif and stray in. Our enemies would see it as weakness. Besides, recruiting you and sending you up there, rather than more experienced men, would breed resentment. Your death would rest on my shoulders. Questions would be asked about my competence. No one placed under my command would trust me again. It would be a disaster for our relationship with our allies in Cordon.’

‘Okay, make it a covert mission, then,’ I said. ‘Don’t accept me as a Duty member. Flag me as a Merc. Report back that you hired me to collect data.’

‘But it’s in Dark Valley. It’s beyond anything you’ve experienced yet,’ he protested.

‘Just what I’ve been telling him, sir,’ Savko said. ‘Snorkbait, listen to the Colonel. This idea of yours is lunacy. You’re just going to end up dead.’

‘Perhaps,’ I replied. ‘But if I stay here I could end up just as dead, and for no reason.’ I turned back to Petrenko. ‘Colonel, please. It sorts out a load of problems, for me as well as for you. Either way, I intend to go. I’m free. I’m not garrisoned here. I’ll just walk out, and if anyone shoots at me, I’ll shoot back.’

‘Chances are you’d be dead already,’ Petrenko muttered. ‘My men wouldn’t miss.’

‘Maybe, but at least I would have died trying to do something.’

‘Won’t you just wait until morning? I –’

‘No, Colonel. I can’t and I won’t. It’s now ten-thirty. If Savko was right about the journey and the terrain – don’t worry, Colonel, he was trying to point out how futile leaving tonight would be – if he was right, then it should take me about four hours. If I can find them before first light –’

‘You’re going to be dead by first light,’ Petrenko said, leaning back against the wall with his head down.

I left him to think it over. The fact he had said “going to be” would have caused me to flap a few hours ago. Now, it seemed like I was going to get what I wanted. It seemed odd that I had feared death earlier but didn’t now. Or perhaps it was not death I had been concerned about as much as dying in disgrace. To be executed as a common criminal wasn’t even on my list of ways to go. Being killed whilst trying to do something positive…well, if it had to be, then it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

‘I will need tangible results,’ he said at length.

‘Colonel! You’re not seriously considering this?’ Savko exclaimed.

Petrenko nodded. ‘I am,’ he said. ‘The fact is, we have two criminals that must be brought to justice – even if it is arbitrary and as handed out by a wronged man – and we must be seen to have acted. Chances are The Zone has already taken them, but if not… We also have a security issue here. Vasya and I tried to explain the situation to the others Stalkers earlier on. They weren’t in a mood to listen, especially Olga and the one with the pox. And on top of that…I do have a need for intel. Advance warning, at least.’

‘We have the farm,’ Savko said. ‘The Stalkers there…’

‘Could be over-run, leaving us blind. If we can have a back-up, a neutral who could go anywhere. Perhaps even into the Bandits’ HQ…’ Petrenko said.

‘I’ve done this sort of work before, Colonel,’ I said, carefully. ‘Part of my SF work was covert intelligence gathering in hostile areas.’

‘But this is The Zone.’

‘Yes, and it is dangerous…but if I am to die here, I just want it to count for something. Besides, if I’d never considered the dangers here and accepted them for what they are, I’d never have come.’

Petrenko looked up at me and ran a hand through his bristly hair before raising his gaze to the ceiling.

‘Colonel Petrenko…sir…you can’t,’ Savko whispered. ‘He doesn’t know what lies up there. He has no idea of what he’d be in for.’

Petrenko raised a finger. ‘But he is an experienced soldier and a man who knows his own mind, Savko. All people have the right to decide how they live and how and when they die – or at least risk death’ He considered for a moment longer. ‘Right. Take him to Mykola. Give him whatever he need and that we can spare. Snorkbait, you are now a Mercenary soldier commissioned by me to serve the interests of the Duty faction for an unspecified amount of time. Status changes to this effect will be logged immediately and amended on your PDA within the hour. On my authority, you are to receive food and shelter from any Duty outpost or member should you require it.’ He tapped a message into his PDA and hit a key. Less than a second later, my PDA beeped a notification. ‘Show that message to the officer of the watch. Any problems, report the name and rank to me. I will deal with it. In the meantime,’ he said, crossing the room to retrieve his rifle before kneeling to drag a SPAS-12 out from a metal crate beneath his cot. ‘I believe you’ll be needing an escort.’
  22:23:35  30 November 2009
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hhiker
off to new worlds
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On forum: 10/31/2008
 

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And that's your feedback - right there.

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  03:55:01  30 November 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
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Part XX

The Dutyer half-carried, half-dragged me into the building, and I couldn’t help but notice how the defences had been beefed up since the relief force had arrived. Where there had been clear access to the interior, there was now a second and third line of defence in case any attackers managed to get past the overturned truck and chests, crates, timbers and sheets of corrugated iron – presumably from the garage roof – had been used to form a separate interior area where spare ammo was stashed, safely out of the way. A Duty soldier stood on guard, barring the way. It all made this end of the compound seem more like a fortress. It’d be a hell of a place for a last stand.

My pack and jacket were removed and handed to the guard.

‘Look after these, Mykola. Don’t let any of those others search his stuff.’

Mykola nodded and stowed my gear under the stairs as I was led up to the second floor.

The transformation and fortification of the western range of the Autopark hadn’t stopped downstairs. The window in what I still thought of as Wolf’s Sulking Room had been roughly blocked in, a double layer of wooden slats having been hammered over heavy sack-like material. A thin ribbon of weak light still filtered through, but apart from that this room was effectively sealed off and bulletproof, and was now lit by an old oil lamp that swung from a hook in one of the overhead beams. The boxes and crates that had stood against the other wall had been removed and replaced by an old army-style cot. Two thin bedrolls lay atop the rusted metal. A rough map of this part of The Zone had been pinned to the wall opposite the stairs, with another, even less detailed map next to it, indicating the relative location of all areas and known strongholds. It seemed I was now in the CO’s quarters.

My escort let go of me and strode through into the other room, returning with an ancient-looking wooden chair. The legs looked knackered and the dowelled supports up the back were splintered, with one actually being completely cracked through. The chair was deposited in the centre of the room and my escort forced me to sit in it. It wasn’t much of a struggle.

A tall, dark-haired man – the commander, judging from his demeanour and slightly better standard of kit – entered once my hands had been bound to the chair.

‘Good evening, Snorkbait,’ he said, and smirked. ‘Snorkbait.’ He looked round at the escort and chuckled. He joined in like a good little soldier, humouring the officer. ‘I take it people in The Zone have never liked you much? Anyway, why you got your name isn’t important to me. I couldn’t give a shit whether people call you Hitler or Mother fucking Theresa, it makes no difference to the situation. We just need to have a little conversation, get some simple answers to a few simple questions. Okay?’

I said nothing. The gap where my tooth had been was wailing two-tone agony and my bollocks ached, feeling as though they had swollen to twice their normal size even in the few minutes it had taken to drag me up here. Being made to sit on the chair was a form of torture in itself, but that was the idea: despite the matey-matey tone, I already recognized this ‘conversation’ for what it really was – and was aware of how it might end. Training kicked in. They could call it what they wanted and dress it any way they liked, but I was already geared up to treat it as the interrogation – occasioning actual torture if required – that it was.

‘Hm,’ the Duty leader said, nodding and smiling as if reading my thoughts. ‘No reply. I might have expected it. But there is no need to be shy, Snorkbait. When I say this, now, is a conversation, that is what I mean. We Duty are…well, sort of the unofficial police in The Zone. It’s our…duty…to do certain things. We are not thugs, but how civilized this conversation remains depends entirely on the individual in question. Co-operate, and we have no problems. Play the hard man and…well, we’ll find out how hard you really are.’ He leaned over me, eyes boring into mine.

I watched him closely. His dark, close-cropped and just-beginning-to-gray hair, his weathered face, his cold, unreadable eyes…all these things told me this boy was ex-military, most likely ex-Special Forces, which meant he was ex-Spetsnaz. A hard bastard, then, and someone who wouldn’t make threats he could not or would not carry out. By his bearing, he’d also been an officer, not some ass-in-the-grass non-com grunt like me. And unlike the British Army, who seemed to recruit officers on the basis of least intelligence and membership of the correct social class, the old Soviet system – and the remnants of it that had lingered in the military after the collapse of the USSR – had encouraged and exploited the potential of some of the most intelligent, ambitious, and ruthless men they could produce. Never mind the kicking and playground bullshit I’d suffered earlier on, I was in real trouble right now, even if it seemed less.

‘Snorkbait,’ he began again.

‘Taylor, Stephen. Trooper. Twenty-two Special Air Service Regiment, retired, sir,’ I said, intentionally dropping the Special Forces connection just in case I was right about him being ex-Spetsnaz. All military groups have always gone on about being the best: we ‘knew’ no one could match us; the US Navy SEALS ‘knew’ the same thing; Spetsnaz ‘knew’ they were the ultimate. It was just regimental and national pride and soldiers’ banter. In reality, we all knew what the others were capable of and there was a massive amount of respect between the groups. It was exceedingly unlikely that my connections would make a difference right now, and usually I’d have kept that part of my past hidden, but I needed to try all the bullshit I could, if I was going to get anything other than a beasting and a lingering death as chosen by my fellow Stalkers.

The dark eyebrows raised, the cold greenish-blue eyes flickering with chilly mirth. He’d seen through everything as soon as I’d said it. A smile tugged a corner of his mouth.

‘Snorkbait,’ he said, leaning forward for emphasis and nodding in approval when I kept my mouth closed. ‘You took a big chance just now. What if I had been…shall we say “familiar”?...with your old unit and comrades? What if I bore some grudges? What then?’

‘Then I couldn’t be in more trouble than I am now, sir,’ I replied.

He lashed out, striking the side of my head with the palm of his hand, but this was no poncy bitch-slap; it was like being hit with an iron bar – or at least a bit of three-by-two. The new gap in my teeth began to scream even louder and my scalp stung, forcing more involuntary tears to my eyes.

‘Do not call me “sir”. Your attempt to play on any shared military background we might have has already failed. I have respect for the regiment you used to serve with – they are fine soldiers – but we are not always soldiers, Mister Taylor. For example, some of us fall foul of our demons and become mercenaries, or drug addicts, or drunkards. Or thieves.’

He turned from me and paced the room again before turning to his man. Nothing was said, but the Duty trooper disappeared down the stairs at the double. I didn’t blame him.

‘But, where are my manners? I have failed to introduce myself. Me! An officer! What must you think? You are Snorkbait, real name Stephen Taylor. I,’ he said, drawing himself almost to attention, ‘am Colonel Petrenko. As of today I am Duty Commander for the Cordon Area. Everything that happens here will happen because I say it will happen. I am responsible for the defence of all interests in this part of The Zone, extending up to the Gatehouse that Wolf and Fox helped liberate.’

I remained silent. If he’d expected me to say anything, his disappointment didn’t show.

‘You know, it’s interesting, you bringing up your SAS background. I’d heard that your people didn’t drop that sort of information. In fact, doesn’t the mythology have it that anyone who openly says he was or is SAS, is lying? So, if that is true – and I take it from your silence that
it is – then that must mean...’ He tilted his head, looking directly into my eyes, goading me. ‘It must mean you lied. You are no more ex-SAS than I am Tsar of all the Russias. You’re nothing; a little man. A poor soldier – if you were ever a soldier at all. However, if the thought had entered your mind that I might be ex-Spetsnaz…you are correct.’ He smiled.

I still said nothing. The mythology he had mentioned had been put about…but by us. It was, in itself, a myth, used to smoke out the wannabes and never-would-bes that the Regiment attracted. Books had even been published by ‘ex-SAS soldiers’ who had never been near the Selection course, let alone actually being a member. It was the downside to the Regiment’s secrecy and reputation. If everyone who claimed to have been in the SAS actually had been, the Regiment would have had more soldiers at any one time than the entire British Army. Hence the myth saying that the only ones who openly admitted they were SAS, weren’t. The wannabes had started going for the enigmatic shrug, the unfinished sentence, the unsubtle drop of ambiguous info…and all the while, the actual Regiment guys were telling the world who they were and not being believed. Just as intended.

His face hardened when he realized he had failed to flush me out.

‘Where’s the stash, Taylor?’ he asked. ‘Tell me, and we’ll get the rest over with quickly.’

‘There is no stash. I didn’t steal anything.’ I winced and squeezed my eyes shut. My tongue had slipped over and caught the jagged edge of my tooth. Talking had been painful enough – I’d been lucky that Olga’s kick hadn’t broken my jaw – but the way my tongue kept wandering over to the remains to inspect the damage was agonising. It took a conscious effort to keep it away.

Petrenko snorted. ‘Can’t you make things easy on yourself for once? They know you did it and I know you did it. Who else could it be? The stuff was there when the raiding party left camp this morning. You were the only one sent back, in some disgrace from what I can gather.’ He looked at me curiously. ‘That must have hurt. I mean, one Special Forces soldier to another, being sent back like that – fucking up like you did…that hurt your pride, no? Professionally, you’d be wounded by that.’

I shrugged. ‘The rifle’s in a bad state and the ammo has uneven loads.’

Pfft. Excuses, man. From what I saw of your target – and I made a point of inspecting the body when I heard what a gang-fuck this had almost become – you must have aimed far too low.’

‘I allowed for the usual margin of accuracy in the weapon plus the condition of the equipment.’

‘You were sloppy,’ he snapped. ‘A fresh conscript still crying for his mother shoots better than that.’

‘That round could just as easily have flown high, Colonel. What was I supposed to do, go for a head-shot with a weapon I couldn’t rely on, with ammo I knew to be of variable quality at best? What would you have done?’

Petrenko smiled. ‘As a professional, I’d have refused the job. You didn’t.’

‘I wasn’t left with a lot of choice.’

Petrenko waved me away. ‘We’re wasting time. The stash. The things you stole. Where are they?’

‘I…I didn’t steal anything,’ I said.

Petrenko punched me just below the sternum. Air wheezed out of me and I sagged forward, held upright only because my hands were bound. He grabbed my face in one hand and squeezed, steely fingers digging into pressure points.

‘Why did you steal from fellow Stalkers? Was it to get back at them? Did you blame them for your disgrace, your failure?’

‘I haven’t…stolen anything,’ I gasped, still fighting for air.

He back-handed me across the face. My newly-broken tooth sang a song of screaming agony and I couldn’t prevent myself from joining in.

‘Come on, Snorkbait, I know the L.85 isn’t that inaccurate from the range you must have been at. What was it? One hundred metres? Less? And you are extremely familiar with the type. Even using the point-blank zero, you could have done better than you did.’

‘I didn’t know…what the PBZ was…on that weapon. I…had to guess and…the ammo –’

‘Yes, yes. Spare me the litany,’ Petrenko sneered, letting go of my face. He raised his PDA. ‘Valeriy Trapper. Snorkbait is being stubborn. Arrest the stalker called Dmitriy Monkey. Question him about the location of the stash he and Snorkbait are using. Over.’

A pause. ‘Colonel Petrenko. Acknowledged, sir. Out.

‘Dmitriy’s got nothing to do with this,’ I said.

‘So it was all your idea?’ he said, sounding victorious. ‘Come on, tell me: why did you do it? You did do it, didn’t you? We know you did; you’ve practically just admitted it, and who else could it have been? Everyone else is accounted for. I have to admit, you’ve got balls, thinking you could brazen it out here. What was the plan? Go back, grab the loot, and head north as fast as you could? Or maybe you’re really a Bandit spy, eh? Was that it? Steal what you could, learn what you could, and head back to Dark Valley?’

‘“Back to Dark Valley”? Colonel, I don’t even know where Dark fucking Valley is.’

He shook his head at me, sadly. ‘You know what the funny thing is?’ he said. ‘I know I’m wasting my time with you; you’ll never tell one way or the other, will you? You’ve been trained to handle all this. Which is where Dmitriy comes in. If you don’t confess and tell me where the stash is, I’m not going to break your fingers; I’ll break his. Then his toes. Then his wrists… You get the idea. In the end, I’ll tell my men to find the nearest vortex or fruit punch and put him in, slowly, while you listen over the radio.’

‘You fucking barbarian bastard!’ I yelled. ‘What happened to “unofficial police”? What about law, you fucker?’

If you don’t want Dmitriy to be harmed, tell me where you hid the stash. Give these Stalkers back what is rightfully theirs!’ Petrenko bellowed, his face inches from mine.

I glared at him. If I ever got chance to slot this bunch of wankers, I would, and with the utmost relish. Shit, maybe I’d even strip them naked, cut them, and leave them for the fucking cat. Or a pack of dogs.

Why not just go home, Stevie? I thought. Go home. Something’ll turn up eventually, and maybe having no freedom anymore isn’t bad compared to this shit. If this is freedom, they can keep it.

But home wasn’t an option, was it? Going home was abandoning hope altogether, and I’d already put myself through too much to let it mean nothing.

‘Colonel, let me say this one more time, for the last time: I. Did. Not. Steal. Anything. I’m not a thief. Christ, if I was, don’t you think I’d have killed the Fuckwit Twins I was with back there, nicked everything, and
been long gone by the time your lot showed up?’

He walked away, rubbing his chin. ‘Sidorovich would have known it was you. He would have called the military up from the Checkpoint, if nothing else.’

‘Maybe. But listen. It’s not me. It makes no sense for it to be me. You know that, and while you’re here pissing about here with me and threatening to hurt Dmitriy, whoever did nick that stuff is getting away. I fucked up earlier, I admit it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to nick ammo and a couple of artefacts. For fuck’s sake, do you think I’m ten or something? “You don’t like me so I’m nicking your toys”? Jesus Christ, buy a brain.’

The Colonel glowered, clearly unused to anyone being so disrespectful. ‘So, given that I have no brain, who is the thief, if not you? You see, we keep coming back to one thing: Everyone else is accounted for. Only you had time, opportunity, and motive. You were alone with that kit. You even had permission to go into their packs. You knew just what each Stalker had: it was all on your PDA. It must have been you…unless, of course, you can think of someone else?’

This last was said off-hand, Petrenko’s tone indicating his scepticism, but it triggered a memory. I’d been sent back. I’d sworn to myself that my days of being a victim were over on the way. Then I’d got to the village and, as I walked to the centre, away from Vasiliy Dynamo…

Svetlana and Aleksander moved out from beside the fire-pit, performing final weapons-checks as they ambled along the road, both bending slightly at the waist. As we passed, Svetlana held my eyes in a watchful, sidelong stare, her pale grey eyes large and emotionless in her impassive face.

Dmitriy: ‘I asked Sveta for this ages ago but she said they were too busy.’ ‘Busy doing what?’ I asked. ‘All they had to do was stow their gear and wait.’

‘They were weighed down,’ I said. ‘They were weighed down like they were carrying all their kit.’

‘What? Who?’

‘My relief. Sveta…I mean, Svetlana and Aleksander. They were bent forward at the waist, as if they were carrying a lot of weight in their packs. Yet for all they knew, they’d end up back at the village before the day was out. And that look in her eyes…’

Emotionless? No. They hadn’t been emotionless. I had misread what I saw. She had been scared. Her eyes were large, her face kept impassive, because she was working hard to cover another emotion, a strong emotion: fear. And why would she be scared of a milk-run job like standing to at the Autopark?

‘Colonel, Svetlana was scared. Thinking back, she was scared shitless. And something Dmitriy said…she’s involved with Aleksander Dmitriy didn’t want to admit it because of the sort Aleksander was, but it seemed clear enough to me. I even thought she wouldn’t have been the first woman to get drawn in by a so-called “bad boy”.’

Petrenko stared at me for a long moment, then raised his PDA and checked the contacts list. ‘Svetlana who? Aleksander who?’

‘No idea,’ I said. ‘I only knew their first names because Wolf mentioned them before I was sent back.’

Petrenko grimaced. ‘Okay. There’s no sign of anyone with those names here anyway. They must have been sent back with the village relief.’ He flipped his PDA for radio-phone use. ‘Valeriy Trapper. Check your PDA for the names Svetlana and Aleksander and detain them for questioning. Over.’

Colonel Petrenko. Svetlana and Aleksander who, sir? They’re pretty common names. Over.

‘Everyone’s an expert,’ Petrenko muttered. ‘Valeriy Trapper. Unknown. Detain all Stalkers with those names. I’ll check up here for other names if you get a positive result. Out.’ He strode over to the head of the stairs. ‘Savko! Savko!’

‘Sir?’ a voice answered from below. ‘There’s nothing in his pack belonging to –’

‘Leave that. Get that Loner up here; what’s his name? The leader. The one with the old Mosin Nagant.’

‘Vasya, you mean?’

‘If that’s who he is. Get him up here, now.’

‘And a medic,’ I muttered. ‘Olga broke my fucking tooth. Might as well get rid of the rest, now.’

Petrenko glanced over at me. ‘That might be painful,’ he advised.

I tried not to laugh. It hurt too much when I laughed. All over.

Booted feet rattled on the stairs and Vasya appeared with the Dutyer who had dragged me up here.

‘Cut Snorkbait loose, Savko,’ Petrenko ordered.

What?’ Vasya exploded. ‘After what he did?’

‘He did nothing,’ the Colonel insisted as Savko released me, though I was happy enough to remain seated for now.

Vasya gaped. ‘And you know that because? Have you questioned him properly? Have you thought he might be bullshitting you?’ Vasya launched into a stream of Ukrainian. Petrenko glanced over at me and held up his hand.

‘Does he understand Ukrainian?’ he asked in Russian, then turned to me. ‘Do you?’

‘Only very little,’ I replied.

Petrenko’s lip curled as he turned back to Vasya. ‘So you say all those things about him in a language he cannot understand? Very good of you!’

Vasya eyed me, cold hatred glittering in his eyes. It was an alarming transformation, and I was shaken to think that, just a few hours before, he had been almost friendly with me.

‘Svetlana and Aleksander. Who are they?’ I demanded.

Vasya’s eyes widened. ‘You think they did it? How could they?’

‘They’re not here,’ Petrenko pointed out.

‘No. They were sent back with the relief force. I sent them because they were never meant to come up here in the first place.’ He paused. ‘They never would have left the camp if it wasn’t for him.’

‘I didn’t see them, Vasya,’ I said. ‘There was only one woman in camp as far I could make out, and it wasn’t Svetlana.’

‘Sveta’s no thief, you piece of shit!’ Vasya stormed, his face turning crimson. ‘She’s worth ten of you!’

‘Snorkbait seems to think she may have been…influenced,’ Petrenko said. ‘Is that possible?’

Petrenko's PDA broke in: ‘Colonel Petrenko. Sir, we’re getting a lot of movement here, so it took some time to check, but we have no Svetlanas or Aleksanders around the village. Over.

‘Valeriy Trapper. Acknowledged. But why are Stalkers being allowed to move around? They are to remain in the village as the defence force. Over.’

Colonel Petrenko. Affirmative, sir. Reminders have been given to that effect. Hiker decided to lead a hunting party, sir. She said she had noticed a boar’s nest on the other side of the road as she came in. She can be quite…wilful, sir. Over.

‘Valeriy Trapper. I don’t care if the uppity bitch thinks she’s the
reincarnation of Joan of Arc. You tell her that she either does the job she was sent to do, or I’ll have her replaced and re-garrisoned here. Out.’

I smirked. If Hiker was the same woman I’d given the tablets to earlier, I didn’t envy Valeriy the task of telling her anything. But I was surprised to hear that she’d led a hunting party. The last I’d seen of her, she was about ready to fall asleep. Maybe she just wasn’t big on kipping.

In the meantime, Petrenko had turned back to Vasya, who had gone a funny shade of white. His face looked like putty.

‘So, you sent them back, did you?’ Petrenko murmured. ‘You accused Snorkbait of being a thief, despite having no idea what had really happened? What would have happened to him had we not been here, if Savko hadn’t taken charge, hm? Would he have been thrown into that anomaly just along the track?’

Vasya’s eyes flicked in my direction and away again. It was hard to keep quiet, despite the raging pain in my mouth. Not so long ago, Petrenko had been willing to feed Dmitriy Monkey into an anomaly in an effort to get information out of me. Why he had believed my story so quickly after that, only he knew. Perhaps he had never really believed I’d done it, despite his claims to the contrary. Or perhaps his gut instinct had told him I was innocent. I didn’t suppose I’d ever know.

‘It seems to me that Svetlana and Aleksander saw an opportunity, and – for whatever reason – took it. As a result, I think we both owe Snorkbait an apology,’ Petrenko said. ‘You especially. You knew this man, no matter how briefly. The treatment handed out by you and your group…’

‘I know,’ Vasya mumbled. ‘Olga won’t apologize – she said her kick was more for Maks than anything else. But for me, for what it’s worth –’

‘Save it,’ I said. ‘It’s done, and saying sorry won’t heal my busted tooth, any more than my apologies earlier could bring Maks or Andriy P back.’ I met Vasya’s gaze. ‘How is Andriy, anyway?’

He swallowed. ‘He died this afternoon, just as the gatehouse was taken. His injuries…’

I nodded. ‘Yeah. I know. I’m amazed he held out that long. Tough little bastard, wasn’t he?’

Petrenko allowed us a moment of silent reflection and remembrance, then strode over to the maps.

‘What are their surnames, Vasya? Their Stalker names, I should say. I need to radio around, see if any of the other locations has them. It’s getting on for full dark. They’ll be bound to have sought shelter by now. I’ll have to make an update request, too, get their status changed. Like it or not, they’re Bandits now.’

Vasya opened his mouth to speak, but Savko shook his head in warning.

‘Vasya? Their names?’

Vasya cleared his throat. ‘Aleksander’s is Joyrider. He gave himself that name because he said he’d been convicted of it as a teenager, though most of us thought he was lying. Svetlana never used a Zone name, though the surname she gave might not be her own. She went by Motyka.’

Petrenko raised the PDA and tapped away, entering multiple contacts. ‘Guys, any of you know the location of an Aleksander Joyrider and a Svetlana Motyka? They were sent from the Autopark to the Rookie Village and never arrived. They are wanted on suspicion of theft and are to be considered as hostiles. Send acknowledgements and locations via text. Out.’

‘Why text?’ Vasya frowned.

‘In case they’re nearby and listening,’ Petrenko and I replied in unison, and laughed. Petrenko continued. ‘Earpieces, Vasya. My message is contained. Any spoken reply would not be.’

Petrenko’s PDA began beeping madly. Four were basic acknowledgements and promises to report any sightings. The fifth was more promising.

‘We’re in luck,’ Petrenko said, smiling grimly. ‘A couple of our boys at the old farmhouse on the other side of the railway track decided to thin the number of mutants. It seems they were over near the railway tunnel when they noticed a couple of Stalkers heading away from here, towards the road tunnel to Dark Valley. This was only about an hour ago.’

‘They must have broken off from the group and circled round,’ Vasya said. ‘I saw them off. They left with the rest of the relief. For them to have been spotted where they were, when they were, they must have waited ‘til they were out of sight here, feigned an ankle sprain or something, and just let the others carry on.’

‘Anyway, they were spotted about when I was heading up here with Vasiliy,’ I said. ‘I’ll go after them. I’ll get the stuff back. It was technically in my care, after all, and it’s not like I can’t make up the time. They don’t have much of a head-start.’

‘Whoa, whoa, Snorkbait,’ Vasya said. ‘They have enough of one. It’s almost full-dark out there now. Heading towards DV at this time of day is suicide.’

‘Besides,’ Petrenko added, nodding in agreement with Vasya. ‘We don’t have the people spare to pursue them.’

I weighed up the options. ‘I’ll go,’ I said. 'Now.'

‘You’re in no state,’ Petrenko said. ‘You need rest – anyone can see that.’

‘He’s right,’ Vasya agreed. ‘You had it rough coming in, then today’s not exactly been easy. You’re fucked.’

‘Look, we know they’re not far ahead. We know their direction of travel. I’ll call more people down from Rostok, let them trickle down. In the meantime, we’ll have a force ready. Rostok will reinforce the outpost in the Garbage. They will reinforce the old train depot, they will reinforce the scrapyard, and so on until we get more people from the old pig farm on the other side of the bridge. As soon as they’re in sight, we move out. In the morning. For now, you need to see the medic and get some rest. That’s an order.’

I grimaced, but finally nodded. I knew what they were saying made sense, but I’d been battered and might have even been killed because of Svetlana and her fuck-buddy. I wanted them, and I wanted them all to myself. As for orders…I hadn’t been in the military for a long time and Petrenko could go fuck himself. I took orders from no one. Not any more.

I was heading out, tonight, and woe betide anyone who tried stopping me.
  00:19:10  27 November 2009
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
11/27/2009 15:31:39
Messages: 4290
A furry head appeared around a half-rotten tree stump away in the vale, and I watched the cat watching me.

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