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

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And perhaps not even then,’ Vampire finished.

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

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

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

‘We want a thousand roubles,’ Zhenka said.

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

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

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

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

‘Or dodging anomalies,’ Shotgun Ned said.

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

‘Vampire –’

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

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

Frustration built. ‘Fuck!’ I yelled.

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

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

‘Fuck me,’ I breathed.

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

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

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

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

‘What?’

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

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

‘You’re saying –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You got it?’ Fyodor asked.

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

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You sure about that?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glanced in Viktor’s direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Vampire,’ he said, exhaling.

*

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

‘He was the boss,’ Zhenka offered feebly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fyodor grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks...boss,’ the Stalker nodded.

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

‘Fine with me.’ ‘Yeah, okay.’

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

‘Okay then, gents: let’s get a move on, shall we?’ I snapped, unslinging the L85 and pointing with my arm. ‘That’s the line the shot came in on, so that’s our direction of travel unless we have to divert. I’ll take point, but I’m relying on your local knowledge to keep us out of trouble, okay? Right. Let’s go.’
  04:29:01  25 November 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

We moved roughly north by north-east, toward an area of high ground and the industrial-looking buildings beyond. A pool lay between us and the rock-strewn hill, the stagnant, probably radioactive water filling a concrete bowl that was bisected by the span of the road bridge. The smell of standing water and rotting vegetation increased as the breeze changed direction and strengthened, starting to blow out of the north, and the air was suddenly full of whines, screams and snarls from fleshes, boar and dogs as something on the wind created a mix of excitement and alarm. A far distant cry echoed, though whether it was a yell of warning or a protest at impending death, it was impossible to say. I supposed it could have been either, if the critters were getting as riled up there as they were here.

Behind me, Zhenka and Viktor started whispering urgently to one another and lagging further and further behind, forcing me to halt so they could catch up.

‘It’s nothing, I tell you,’ Viktor was saying. ‘We’ll be fine.’

‘But Viktor –’

‘We’ll be fine, I said. Be quiet.’

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Snorkbait, we really shouldn’t –’

‘Zhenka!’ Viktor snapped, leaving Zhenka staring at me, silent and fearful – but not of his friend.

I sighed. ‘All right, let’s have it,’ I said.

Viktor shook his head and started muttering under his breath.

‘We need to get out of here, Snorkbait,’ Zhenka said. ‘Really. It’s too late for any of this. We should just get to cover. Go back to camp. Do this tomorrow.’

‘I can’t go back to the Farm with you. You know that,’ I said. ‘What’s the problem, anyway?’

‘The wind!’ Zhenka said, almost cowering as he turned fretful eyes to the north.

‘What about the wind?’ I demanded, frowning. He made no attempt to reply. ‘Zhenka, what about the fucking wind?’

‘He thinks there’s going to be a blowout,’ Viktor said, wearily. ‘Every time the wind shifts to the north, he gets like this and insists there’s one coming.’

‘And is there?’

Viktor sniffed. ‘Of course not. He only thinks there is because he got caught out in one once – a big one, back at the end of the Faction Wars. Bunch of silly bastards ignored all the warning signs and that was that. They had to shelter as best they could. Unfortunately, it proved to be an...unwise...choice. He’s not really been right since, and now the silly bastard thinks every gnat fart is a blowout.’ He turned to Zhenka, getting right in his scared friend’s face. ‘Look, Zhenka! Look for the signs! Do you see any?’

‘The animals...’ Zhenka murmured.

‘The critters are crazy around here anyway, and it’s getting on for dark,’ Viktor said. ‘You know they get weird about now, it’s nearly time to hunt. Come on, man, there’s no blowout coming.’

‘Blowout,’ Zhenka nodded, all his previous confidence gone.

I turned north and could see nothing, save for the usual thin ribbon of strange light that I’d noticed on my first night. It did seem brighter than before, but I put that down to me being so much closer to the centre than I had been before. I sniffed the air, as if my nose might be sensitive enough to detect an increase in radioactive particles – and as if it’d be in my interests to discover them that way even if they were there – but all I got was a stronger whiff of rotting vegetation, stagnant water, damp earth and mutant shit.

‘Viktor?’ I said.

‘It’s nothing. The only thing I will say is, it’ll be best if we don’t try to skirt the pool and use the road bridge instead. The radiation level’s higher there, but we should be okay if we make it quick. I have some antirads just in case, and Zhenka always has vodka in his flask.’
‘Vodka combats radiation,’ Zhenka added.

‘Bollocks,’ I said.

‘No, it does!’ Zhenka insisted. ‘That’s why I carry it. It’s cheaper, too.’

‘Fuck off. The only thing it’ll do is get you pissed enough to not feel so much pain while you’re dying.’

‘No! It works!’

‘I still say it’s cobblers. Be a pisshead if you like, but for fuck’s sake be an honest one. Now come on. We’ll take the road – I don’t fancy getting trapped between the pool and those anomalies, and I think the shot probably came from the roof of that building anyway. Even if it didn’t, I can always stay there overnight and you two can come back to check the high ground with me tomorrow.’

The Stalkers exchanged an alarmed look.

‘Stay there?’ Viktor said.

‘Alone?’

I nodded. ‘Why not?’

Viktor barked laughter. ‘Because all we’d find in the morning is your corpse!’

‘You mean there are Bandits?’

‘I mean there are things. Ghosts. Poltergeists. And if they don’t get you, the bloodsuckers will. Or the snorks. The place swarms with mutants, especially at night. Shit, back when Marked One offed Borov, the Military choppered a squad in there. Six of them. Special Ops guys, these were; veterans, real hardasses. They took pot-shots at anything that moved, those bastards. They even had a sniper on the roof who took out one of the Bandits in a watchtower at their base. No reason, just...pop, get out of here, Stalker. It’s the only time I’ve known the “shoot on sight” policy to be enforced, and even then it was one shot. The guy probably just got bored. Anyway, that night we heard a shitload of gunfire coming from over there. Explosions too, you name it. Come the morning, Vampire sent a couple of guys to have a sneaky look around. No one shot at them and laughed when they ran, there were no sounds, no fire, nothing. Our guys finally crept into the compound and found the soldiers – all dead. The marks on the bodies said mutant attack, but by more than one type. Way I heard it, some of the soldiers had literally been ripped apart.’

‘It’s a bad place,’ Zhenka whispered. ‘Evil.’

Viktor and I chuckled. ‘You’ve just summed up the whole of The Zone,’ Viktor said. ‘But seriously, whatever else that compound is, it’s serious bad news.’

I looked over at the building again. It seemed so quiet and peaceful, bathed in the golden glow of late-afternoon sun.

‘Okay, look, we’ll get in there now and have a look on the roof. If I think the shot was possible from there or we find any evidence, you take it back with you to show Fyodor and I’ll head for Bandit Central. If we don’t find anything, we clear out until tomorrow morning and I’ll ask around among the Bandits in the meantime.’

‘No, we should just –’ Zhenka began again.

‘Zhenka, stop,’ Viktor said. ‘There’s not going to be a blowout. Not tonight.’

The wind gusted, causing grass and dust to fly up into our eyes. A peal of thunder rumbled in the distance.

‘Come on, let’s make sure we at least check that fucking roof before the weather closes in,’ I said, moving toward the road. Viktor nodded and followed, having to practically drag a reluctant, clearly shit-scared Zhenka along by the arm.

*

‘We’d better be careful from here,’ Viktor said close to my ear, his voice low. ‘The Bandits could be anywhere on this side of the bridge. The bastards like to stage ambushes now and then.’

I nodded slowly. ‘Fine. You two take the flanks. Stay off the road and keep your heads down. Move only when you’re sure it’s safe, and keep quiet. I’ll make it look like I’m wandering along on my own, maybe looking for somewhere to bed down. If there are any Bandits around, they’ll take the bait. I should be okay anyway. If nothing happens, I’ll check the gateway out and signal if it’s clear.’

Viktor nodded and slunk away to tell Zhenka what to do. I was worried about the guy, not so much for his sake but for Viktor’s and my own. I wished Zhenka had never come along; the man was a liability in his current state. It seemed that the Stalkers had closed ranks a little, taking their ‘wounded’ comrade under their collective wing after his experiences during the blowout. There was nothing else they could do, apart from shoot him or tell him to fuck off, he was on his own...and if they did that, they might as well have shot him in any case and had done. At the same time, they couldn’t carry him forever; he had to do at least something, otherwise he was utterly useless. No doubt he was a reliable operator when he knew it was safe. Put him under the slightest pressure, though, and it was pretty clear he started to crack straight away. Whatever tough-guy routines he played were exactly that: routines. It was hard not to feel sorry for him a little, though. He hadn’t asked for his nerves to be shot to pieces. Or had he, just by being here? The Zone was never going to be a peaceful, safe environment. Nowhere was, these days. Even gated communities in the Big Land had experienced their share of problems. An old mate of mine who was into a bit of the old Mystic East shit told me it was because we were living in the ‘Age of Kali’ and it was all to be expected; in fact, he said, it would get worse as the goddess’s grip strengthened. Another mate summed it all up more succinctly: he reckoned the whole world had ‘just gone fucking nuts’.

Whatever the case, Zhenka was obviously gone at least one round short of a full mag these days. Which probably made him the sanest one of us all – his first instinct was to take cover at the least sign of danger, while most of the rest of us blundered around the ‘man-made Hell’ thinking it was a Boys’ Own fucking Adventure.

I walked on, turning at random intervals to check behind. Everything was clear. The radiation of the bridge, the electro anomalies that bracketed the furthest extremities of the pool, the wandering herds of boar and dogs were behind us here. The road ahead seemed clear of anomalies. There were no dogs or other ‘natural’ mutants here, though Viktor had pointed out a snork as we crossed the bridge.

Another rumble of thunder rolled down from the north, accompanied by a stronger gust of wind, and I prayed that Zhenka wouldn’t wig out while Viktor wasn’t close enough to grip him.

The gates to the compound managed to be ornate and solidly functional at the same time, the difference between a strong, sturdy ‘Welcome, Comrade’ to the ordinary worker and a warmer, friendlier ‘Welcome, Comrade’ to the office staff that had presumably worked on the floors above. From down here, it was hard to tell if the upper floors had been used as office space, but it seemed most likely. The UK wasn’t exactly without its 1950s and 60s concrete buildings; if such a construction was usually an office block in the UK, chances were it had been the same here. I’d find out if I was right soon enough.
A crane of some type was parked in the yard, looming overheard with a large metal hook swinging gently from the supporting arms. Some type of fuzz or growth hung like a beard from the metal frame and this too swung idly in the wind, hissing and fizzing occasionally as it came into contact with other materials.

I moved closer, crossing a small bridge over what might have been a slurry brook but was now largely dried up, and peered in at the rest of the yard. Concrete pilings clustered around a set of wide-open hangar-type doors while more had been moved to form, in conjunction with a metal skip, a makeshift defensive position between the doors and the crane. To the south of the complex, a single-storey workshop or warehouse stood empty and doorless, every window broken and the weathered brickwork scored by dozens of strike-marks. A length of broken cable tapped against one of the walls in a random tattoo while elsewhere a tanker truck sat rusting to the south of the gates, and other half-destroyed vehicles were dotted here and there as they endured the long process of rotting away.

As I surveyed the scene, the wind picked up and howled around the abandoned buildings, screaming in and out of broken windows, whispering as it blew through the trees around the perimeter. The shadows were getting longer now, the sun rushing to its daily doom aided and abetted by the oncoming storm front. But something wasn’t quite right; the day had been fine and there wasn’t the pre-storm feeling that had been in the air the day before. I scowled, wondering what Zhenka was making of it all, hating the twin facts that I couldn’t entirely trust him and that I was yet to experience everything The Zone had to offer. Until I’d witnessed one of these ‘blowouts’, I could only go by what others told me...and right now, the only one of my companions that I felt I could trust was Viktor. The wind blew and ruffled the hair at the back of my head. My scalp prickled immediately. Again, I had a strong feeling that there was something wrong, something I was missing. But what?

‘Fuck it. Get on with the job,’ I muttered, and turned to face the road, flashing a quick ‘To me’ gesture that I covered by scratching my head and rubbing my face just in case we did have spectators, then ducked inside the gate. My companions broke cover and scuttled to where I waited.

‘Snorkbait, please!’ Zhenka whined as soon as he was inside the perimeter and close enough to be heard without raising his voice. Another dull boom rolled out of the north, and this time Zhenka did actually cower, casting a quick glance over his left shoulder before looking back at me. He looked like a kid about to burst into tears of pure fright. Even Viktor seemed more agitated now, though he said nothing.

‘Zhenka, we’ll be five minutes, ten, tops,’ I promised, unable to stop myself reaching out to touch his arm reassuringly. ‘Then you two can get back to camp, fast as you like.’

‘It might already be too late,’ Zhenka whimpered. ‘It’s coming. I can feel it.’

I cast a questioning look at Viktor, who shrugged. ‘I’m not seeing any of the normal signs, except for the mutants,’ he said. ‘Something’s weird, though.’

‘Maybe we should find good cover. Animals are usually a good indicator that something’s coming,’ I said.

‘Maybe. Not always around here, though. Who knows what the fuck’s up with them? Could be a thousand and one reasons why they’re acting up.’

‘And that noise, like thunder?’

‘Probably is thunder. Sounds a bit weird, but it’s probably atmospherics or something. We only had a big storm last night, after all. Maybe it’s pressure fronts and all that shit making it sound strange.’

‘Or maybe it’s not,’ I said.

‘Oh, Christ. Don’t you start,’ Viktor groaned.

‘Yeah, yeah. But you said it yourself, there’s something not right here. Let me ask another question: how often has he been wrong when he’s got as wound up as this?’

Viktor was quiet for a long moment. ‘Never,’ he finally admitted.

‘Fuck,’ I sighed.

‘First time for everything, though.’

‘Yeah, thing is, sometimes it’s the first and last. Come on, let’s get up there and see what’s what. If there is going to be a blowout and it really is already too late, there’s fuck all we can do about it now. We’ll just have to weather it out as best we can.’

‘Not here!’ Zhenka moaned.

‘Well you two can’t very well go and ask the Bandits to take you in, can you? Where else is there but here, if you’re right?’

Zhenka looked agonized. ‘Oh, God,’ he groaned, then started mumbling prayers or entreaties to The Zone under his breath.

‘Fuck this,’ I sighed. ‘Zhenka, stay down here on watch if you want. Viktor, let’s get up top.’

‘No! I’m coming too!’ Zhenka cried.

‘Well come on, then. We haven’t got all sodding day,’ I spat. ‘Just make sure nothing comes creeping up behind us, okay?’

We picked our way across the courtyard, moving tactically in case of a sudden appearance by Bandits or mutants alike, pausing and listening before moving to our next point of cover before finally entering the factory’s ground floor.

A wide concourse – concrete, of course – formed the L-shaped ground level, with the other half of the floor space given over to a fairly deep pit that was filled with what looked like pumping machinery of some sort.

‘What’s all that in aid of?’ I mumbled, jerking my head in the direction of the green-and-rust machines and pipes while keeping my eyes on the far end of the workshop.

‘No idea,’ Viktor murmured close to my back. ‘No critters down there, though. That’s something.’

‘Zhenka?’

‘I don’t know either,’ he replied, his voice not quite firm. ‘We’re still clear behind.’

‘Right. Zhenka, stay here and keep watch.’

‘Don’t leave me –’ he began, too loudly. I turned and clamped a hand over his mouth.

‘Let me finish, dickhead,’ I hissed. ‘Viktor and I will clear the corner, then signal for you to join us. Okay?’

He nodded, his eyes wide and full of fear, though not of me. I couldn’t blame him for being scared; the place was giving me the creeps, too, and I didn’t like the way the weather seemed to be worsening by the second. The wind had intensified in the last few minutes and the sky was darkening. Darkening, but also turning a very funny colour.

I put Viktor on point, since he had a shotgun and needed a clearer field of fire, and followed with the L85 half in the aim. Clearing the corner of the L, I nodded for Viktor to head past the piles of old bedding, the half-rotten sofa and old metal lockers while I provided cover. Once he was in position, having taken great care with a door about halfway down, I signalled for Zhenka to join me. Nothing followed as he moved away from the wide-open doors, nor were there any semi-furtive scrapes or scuffles from outside that might indicate that he had been being watched. There were no Bandits about according to my PDA, but that meant nothing: they were hardly likely to leave their devices switched on if they were moving in for an ambush.

Zhenka arrived, smiling nervously and fingering the trigger guard on his rifle in a way I didn’t care for at all.

‘You okay, mate?’ I whispered, earning a nod. I didn’t believe him for a second. His breathing was harsh and erratic; he was sweating up big-style. He was only a youngish guy, but the fucker looked like he was about to have a heart attack. ‘Right. You’ve done the hard bit,’ I said, pointing at Viktor. ‘I want you to go to Viktor, but keep a bit of distance, okay? I’ll be following and watching our arses. Okay?’

More nodding. But he didn’t move.

‘Zhenka, come on, mate. Calm down a bit. We’re fine. There’s three of us and we’re pretty well armed. No one knows we’re here and nothing’s going to get us. Right? Now move your arse.’

‘The soldiers were all dead,’ he said, his voice echoing in the cavernous room. ‘They were well armed. Better than we are, even.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, but they were shit. They made too much noise. Everything and everybody knew where they were. It’s not like that with us, is it? We’re going to be very quiet, sneaky-beaky. We’ll be fine as paint, you watch.’

‘I don’t want to die here, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘Don’t let me die in here.’
I forced a smile and swallowed my frustration. There was no time for any of this, but telling him that would only make him worse – wasting even more time. I put a hand on his shoulder.

‘I won’t let you die, Zhenka. I’ve got myself and other people out of worse places than this.’

He looked at me searchingly, wanting to believe even as his eyes said Lying bastard, then he nodded and all but ran down to where Viktor waited, leaving me to trail behind, facing our rear. Unlike Zhenka, I took things slowly, trying to eliminate noise, alert for sudden sounds or shifts in light and shadow, no matter how minute. At the doorway, I took a few moments to check everything for myself. It looked like there had been a smaller work area or maybe a foreman’s office in there, though it could just as easily have been a small locker-room or canteen for the workers to store their stuff and grab a bite to eat. It was hard to tell because the whole place had been stripped bare, probably way back when everything had suddenly become glow-in-the-dark – though everywhere seemed too clean for it to have lain empty for twenty-five years or so. It made me curious. Had this place served a more recent purpose? If so, what had gone on here?

Good questions, I thought as I shrugged and scuttled over to join the others, but not for now.

The workshop was connected to the low tower block at the far end, a dividing wall separating the work area from a staircase and more odd machinery. Cracked and broken dials were forever locked at whatever reading they’d happened to be showing at an unknown point in time, and the casing in a couple of places was dented and scratched. Hazards of an industrial site, I supposed, though the damage had probably been caused after the place fell into general disuse. And there had been at least one battle here, probably more. It was a wonder the place was still as intact as it was. Weirdly, I noticed that a couple of pipes seemed to go down through the floor. I frowned, even more curious now, but didn’t have time to get sidetracked. Nodding towards the stairs, encouraging Viktor to do his point-man thing again, I made a mental note to come back here and check the place out. I wanted to know where those pipes led to though, if asked, I couldn’t have said why.

The first floor was littered with leftover crap that spanned the decades. Machinery, what looked like old-fashioned computer banks, workbenches...most of it heavily damaged. At the other end of the room from the stairs, a mezzanine-type area offered a view over the work space below, while a normal-sized doorway led into another office or workshop area – again strewn with remnants from the past – where a metal ladder led up to the second floor.

‘What the fuck?’

‘There used to be stairs,’ Viktor explained. ‘The military ripped them out after the Faction Wars, along with most of the fortifications that had been put in place,’ Viktor said, and chuckled mirthlessly. ‘And now they’re shitting themselves because the Bandits are a threat. I’ve got to say, Snorkbait, if you’d been around back then, we had Cordon locked down pretty tight. Autopark was ours after Scar helped clear out the Military, the Bridge checkpoint was ours, the Farm...all of it. Even Garbage fell to us, in the end. Well, sort of. Duty took over first, then moved north to Rostok. They made sure they left a detachment behind, though. Oh yes. They had a new, improved base and they were going to keep it. But here, Freedom ran things, back in the day.’

‘So why don’t they now?’

He shrugged. ‘Army Warehouses came available. The Bandits were being pushed over here by Duty and our boys...then the Military started butting in.’ He shook his head. ‘They just had to go and play tough guys. The military did what the military always does: come in, fuck things up, then cry because they’ve made everything worse and want things as they were before. All because the politicians tell them what to do, and the politicians are stupid assholes and the military are even more stupid for listening to them.’

I grunted. ‘Modern democracy in action, Viktor,’ I said, pointing to what I thought of as the mezzanine, even though it wasn’t actually one. ‘Right, Zhenka, I want you to stay here, mate. Find a place to see without being seen, if you can, and then keep an eye on things down there. Any hostiles, don’t yell or anything like that; just come to us, quickly and quietly. Okay?’

He nodded. His face was still pale and drawn and he was still breathing hard, such was the depth of his fear, but he seemed less agitated. Maybe it was because he felt safer now he was properly indoors, or maybe it was because he had a commanding viewpoint, I didn’t know. Nor did I care, as long as he did his job if the shit hit the fan.

‘Right, Viktor, lead on,’ I said, and followed him up the ladder.

The second floor was similar to the first, except it had more obviously been used primarily as office space. Old bits of paper lay around the floor and, in some cases, had actually become part of the floor, they’d been there that long. A cork noticeboard hung lop-sidedly on the wall opposite a bank of windows, ancient memos and other bits of once-important office minutiae dotted here and there, skewered into place by rusty pins. The dust up here was thicker, though surprisingly no more radioactive than elsewhere, and it was pretty easy to see where people had come through even if there was no way of telling when or in what numbers. Chunks of wall, bits of broken glass and grit lay all over the floor, crunching underfoot as we stalked around, clearing the area.

Eventually, Viktor led me out onto a wide rooftop area. A tall brick chimney towered above us, an ideal vantage point – if you could get to the top and if you could find a way to stay there in a stable enough position. As it was, the ladder leading to the top had been partially torn away, while the rest lay behind a padlocked metal cage. It wasn’t impossible to get to the top, but it had been made difficult enough as to be not worth the effort.

‘There’s a ladder to the top roof over there,’ Viktor said, indicating the bolted-in-place metal ladder with his head while he stared north. ‘And I’m sorry.’

I whirled, bringing the L85 up, expecting treachery, but he was only looking at me and dusting his hands together.

‘I fucked up,’ he said. ‘It is a blowout after all. But the usual signs...’

‘Forget it,’ I said. ‘Done now. How long do we have?’

He shrugged. ‘Five minutes? Maybe a couple more or less? I can’t tell. It’s not like normal.’

‘How?’

He shrugged again. Thunder that wasn’t quite thunder rumbled. The sky flickered and flashed as sheet lightning ran through it, the clouds taking on a reddish aspect as the ribbon of light to the north became broader, brighter, much more intense.

‘Viktor?’

‘We’d better be quick,’ he said.

We ran for the ladder and I scrambled to the top with Viktor close behind.

‘You check that side. I’ll take this,’ I yelled, running to where I thought the shooter would have been – assuming they’d taken the shot from up here at all. Now I could look down upon it, the area of high ground by the pool seemed just as likely, if not more so – the rocky outcroppings there would have provided ideal cover for a sniper and the available cover, plus the extended areas of dead ground between here and there, would have made withdrawing a cinch.

I sighed, resigned to the fact that I was never going to find out who the sniper had been – and that made me wonder how I was supposed to clear the ‘debt’ for my entrance to this part of The Zone. I scanned the area regardless, looking for any sign on the ground – a fading sweatmark, a cigarette end, a drinks can, any sign of food or waste – but there was nothing. We were in the shit, and it meant fuck all.

‘Nothing over that way, Snorkbait,’ Viktor announced, running back to the ladder. ‘You?’

I shook my head. ‘Not a fucking thing. Let’s get back down and find some cover, if we can.’

‘Big if,’ Viktor said, getting ready to descend. ‘Have a quick look at the road. I’ll wait for you at the ladder indoors.’ He disappeared from view and I looked toward the road. It would have been an exaggeration to say it was awash with mutants, but it wasn’t far off. Some of the shaggy pseudodogs I’d seen before were sprinting hither and thither, leaping at fleshes and ripping chunks of meat away even as the mutated pig-things ran and screamed their alarm. A large boar bellowed and charged headlong at something I couldn’t see...and then suddenly could as the dark form of a bloodsucker flew into the air and crashed against a tree. The ‘sucker, stunned, never had time to recover as something like a man wearing a gasmask leaped upon it and tore it apart. Nor was it alone. Others of its kind were lolloping along in an awkward quadrupedal gait...and they were heading straight towards us. They were coming to the factory.

‘Fuck!’ I cried, racing to the ladder and practically vaulting over the safety platform. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck! Fuck me!’

Lightning flashed in the angry, reddening sky as though God Himself had grown tired of my profanity...and that was when I saw light wink from a single brass case that had been placed amid the flaking white paint and rust of the railings.

Quickly, I climbed back up the ladder and ran across the roof. The sniper, whoever it had been, had been here after all and, from the size of the casing, I could tell the calibre of the weapon used. If nothing else, I now knew it had been a Russian-made rifle.

Snatching the casing from where it had been placed, stood on end on the middle railing, I quickly levelled the L85 and squinted through the scope toward the metal gates near the Farm in the hope that I’d be able to take an educated guess at the precise weapon that had been used. I guessed the distance to target would have been a shade over three-hundred and twenty metres. There were no trees to block the line of fire, nor were there any other obstructions to draw the attention from the gates. All the same, unless the shooter had eyes like binoculars there was no way they could have used a Mosin Nagant – even scoped, the magnification just wouldn’t have been high enough to produce such an accurate headshot. From here, my 4x scope wouldn’t have cut it, and I doubted if a Mosin’s optics could match a SUSAT – though I couldn’t be sure. Of anything. I hadn’t gone down the sniper route with the Regiment, and I had no doubt that some of the guys who had, and for whom this shit was science and pornography rolled into one, would have laughed their bollocks off at my line of reasoning, but the one thing I did know was that sniping’s all about making life as easy as possible for yourself in order to make sure of the kill. Using a Mosin Nagant, even scoped, would have made life that much harder, whereas an 8x scope and a long-barrelled rifle would have made the shot a virtual cert for a practised hand. All of which meant one thing: they’d used a Dragunov SVD – rare, military kit, not the sort of rifle great uncle Vasiliy would have kept on the wall as a souvenir of Stalingrad until you nicked it to wander The Zone with.

I chewed my lip, thinking. The choice of weapon would make things easier in that it might narrow things down, but it also meant I’d have to tread carefully. A Dragunov would carry a high price here, nor would it be the weapon of a novice...and experienced men had friends. They’d close ranks, denying knowledge to strangers before running outside to send a warning.

What the fuck have I got into this time?

‘Snorkbait!’ Viktor yelled.

‘Yeah, coming!’ I called back, pocketing the casing as I ran for the ladder.

Sprinting across the roof, I could see something like a wave rolling towards us from The Zone’s centre amid the flashes of sheet lightning and clashing thunder. Somewhat belatedly, an alarm like an old air-raid siren began wailing. Clearly, this blowout hadn’t just caught Viktor by surprise; others must have looked for the usual signs and decided there was no threat. Only Zhenka had been right all along. I’d have to buy him a vodka or two...if we survived long enough for him to collect.

‘Thank Christ! Where the fuck have you been?’ Viktor said as I slid down the ladder to the first floor. I could hear Zhenka doing his nut in the other room as he told us that this was no good, being on this floor was no good because of the glass, not that being in this building or this part of the Valley generally was a good thing because of all the mutants and weirdness. I could hear him calling us both fucking idiots, saying we should have listened, we should have at least found somewhere safer, somewhere we could easily defend, but now we were all going to die.

I couldn’t disagree. In all honesty, with the screeching and squealing from the mutants and the fact we seemed to be trapped in the place they wanted to call Home – or at least Shelter – I was shitting myself. I cursed Vampire for getting killed and, more than that, for stopping me at the gates in the first place. Without all that shit, I could have been up at the Bandit HQ now, secure enough from the vagaries of The Zone to have my feet up in front of a fire, probably with a beer or shot of vodka in my hand.

It never hurt to dream.

‘Come on! It’s about fucking time!’ Zhenka snapped as we ran around the corner. The change in him was amazing. He might have been crapping himself at the thought of getting caught out in the blowout, but now the time had come he appeared to be fearless. His eyes blazed as he spoke and his entire demeanour was confident, even aggressive. ‘Our only chance is to get down the stairs and hide underneath. Remember: no noise, and tuck in as tight as you can. If we’re lucky, the critters won’t bother us when they get here.’

‘What if we’re in their favourite hiding place?’

‘We won’t be. There are...other places...here that they will prefer. Come on.’

Quickly but quietly, we followed him down the stairs, weapons up and ready in case they were needed – though I thought that any stand we might be forced to make would be futile: as soon as the first shot was fired, the other mutants would come swarming all over us. It’d be like ringing the dinner bell. It’d just be a question of seeing how many we could take with us, thus ending their horrible, hellish existences.

Mere seconds after we’d huddled under the stairs, weapons poking out so that we looked like the world’s fiercest worried maiden aunts, we heard the panicked clomping and scuttering sounds of mutants entering the building. Their cries and wails echoed off the walls and floor, and I kept expecting to see a horde appear around the corner at any minute, but they never ventured to our end of the factory. A series of bangs and metallic clangs sounded from around the corner, causing me to frown.

‘What the fuck’s going on?’

‘They’re going into that other room,’ Viktor whispered in my ear as we tried to settle into some sort of defensive position.

‘Why?’

Zhenka leaned close on my other side. ‘They’re trying to get back into the underground lab. Now shut. The fuck. Up.’

Something screamed, the sound both pain-filled and lunatic.

For once, I did as I was told.
  02:42:08  4 December 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

Everything went dark. One moment it was merely gloomy, as if the day had been plunged into early twilight, the next it was pitch black. A sound of screeching and clashing rose outside, drawing closer along with a low rumbling that set everything shaking. Elsewhere, the air seemed to come alive with the alarmed cries of panicking animals, and underlying it all was the ragged breathing of three frightened Stalkers.

The rumbling, clashing and screeching got closer, louder, more threatening...and then a sort of brightness returned to the world. I could see the wall and double set of wooden doors where, I assumed, delivery trucks would be loaded and unloaded. They were dim and ghostly at first, but the strange light quickly strengthened until it was almost as good as daylight, if somewhat strange and artificial. The rumbling and clashing passed, faded. Ceased.

‘Is that it?’ I mumbled. ‘Jesus. You were scared of that? For fuck’s sake –’

I stopped, only becoming aware of the continued tension in the air at the last second. Neither Viktor nor Zhenka had moved. Even the critters were silent. It was what old-time authors used to call ‘a pregnant pause’ – but I hadn’t recognized it in my inexperience and haste.

I was halfway to standing when the building was rocked by what sounded like the world’s biggest explosion. Beside me, Zhenka broke into a low moan. Booms and pops sounded from outside, these interspersed with shrieks and screeches, the same low rumbling as before, only ramped up to an unbelievable level, and, shortly, a howling, screaming wind. Dust fell from the walls and ceiling, and I could hear the concrete steps cracking above my head. How the old factory didn’t collapse around our ears was anyone’s guess. And of course the mutants started up again. Their calls and cries seemed exultant, hungry, and welcoming all at once, the din echoing and re-echoing in the high-ceilinged, mostly empty space to work on our already frayed nerves. Zhenka was moaning away big-time now, and even Viktor seemed to have lost a lot of his calm, unflappable edge.

More hollow booms were followed by a series of almost electrical-sounding clashes and the return of the same low rolling sound as before. The wind gusted, the howling rage of it as loud here as if we’d been crouched near the doors, and my Geiger counter gave a few alarmingly rapid clicks before mercifully falling silent again.

‘It’s okay. We’re sheltered here,’ Zhenka mumbled, able to speak in a relatively normal tone due to the other noise.

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I was afraid I’d puke if I opened my mouth. Besides, the air had taken on an oddly metallic taste. It made me think of a documentary I’d seen years ago, before The Zone as it was now had even formed. According to programme, the firefighters that first attended the scene of the NPP in 1986 had complained of a metallic taste. It turned out to be a sign that they’d copped a lethal dose of radiation. It was a recollection that turned Zhenka’s words to ash. We might be okay here...or the level of radiation might have climbed so high that my Geiger counter couldn’t read it and had broken under the strain. I wrestled with the fear that rose within me, but at the end of the day, what could I do about it? If it had been a momentary spike, there and gone, or a misreading, then there wasn’t a problem. If, on the other hand, the radiation level had flown off the scale and knackered the device, meaning we were sitting in a very hot spot, I’d be finding out about it soon. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but sit tight and ride it out.

The howling wind was fading; the rumbling receded again. It grew darker. Darker, but what light there was became redder. It started pulsing. Stronger and brighter, dimmer and darker. At the peak of the cycle, it was something like being in a photographer’s dark room back in the days when they needed them to develop their pictures. The red shifts became progressively longer.

‘Stand ready,’ Viktor hissed.

We didn’t stand, but remained crouched and huddled together under the stairs, grateful that the earthquake-type rumbling and rocking had diminished to nothing more than a series of irregular tremors. The grip on our weapons tightened as we waited for whatever came next.

Viktor began reciting a prayer under his breath. Zhenka remained stock still and alert, his face bathed in a sweat that looked like blood in the lurid light. His eyes were large in his face, watchful and frightened now that he could no longer mask his anxiety and fear with aggression and blind fury.

The light faded, faded, then pulsed back stronger, whatever phenomenon this was apparently coming to its peak...and there were figures standing by the wooden doors. I blinked in disbelief while, beside me, Viktor and Zhenka both gasped. Elsewhere in the building, mutants screamed. The light dimmed, but not all the way to black this time. The figures faded, finally vanished.

‘Not good. Oh, Jesus, God. Not good,’ Zhenka was whispering, the sound only audible when I leaned in close.

‘What is it?’ I asked. He shook his head. I turned to Viktor, who only stared straight ahead. ‘Viktor? What the fuck?’

His eyes never wavered from where the figures had been. ‘We’re in serious shit here,’ he whispered.

I frowned. I thought we’d established that much a while back. How could this be worse?

The light strengthened again and...yes, there they were again: three figures, two men and a woman. The woman and one of the men – a thin-faced guy aged anywhere between 35 and 45 with a mostly bald head and glasses – wore long coats, like lab coats. The second man was younger, stockier, and wore worker’s overalls. He was pointing at something on a clipboard the bald guy was holding, the woman leaning over Baldy’s shoulder. She pointed and looked between the two. Baldy seemed unhappy and the stocky guy got pissed off. He turned away, gesticulating angrily, but there was no sound so there was no way of knowing what had got him so riled. The light faded almost all the way to black again, and the figures went with it once more.

‘What are they, guys? What’s going on?’ I hissed.

‘Ghosts,’ Zhenka whispered back. ‘Ghosts.’

‘Come again?’

Viktor spoke into my ear. ‘Things that have happened. Things past.’

‘But still here. Still real,’ Zhenka added.

I didn’t pretend to understand. ‘What?’

A low, questioning growl came from the other side of the dividing wall, causing us all to remain absolutely silent and motionless once more.

Another pulse. This time the figures numbered about a dozen. Some of them were soldiers; young men with AKs and Special Ops uniforms who hung around near the now-open doors, standing guard while a knot of guys jumped to the ground and shuffled into the building in single file, their wrists bound by manacles connected to chains, US prison style. Baldy and the woman were there again, him checking something against his clipboard while she was getting busy with hypodermic syringes, jabbing and storing with all the enthusiasm of a worker on a food processing line, her movements practised, precise, and methodical, but bored. My eyes went to the last guy in line. He seemed to be crying and looking for some means of escape. The final guard nudged him in the back with his AK, keeping the prisoner shuffling forward. But then something else caught my attention. The doors. The open doors.

‘Shit, the doors are open! We need to get them closed!’ I hissed, and tried to stand. Viktor pulled me back.

‘They are closed,’ he said. ‘This isn’t real. Not now, anyway. But it can become real.’

‘What –’

‘I can’t explain. Now, ssh. We don’t want to draw attention.’

One of the guards had turned just enough so he could peer over at where we huddled, his expression intent as he squinted – yet we were in plain sight, the light was okay; he should have been able to see us.

After a long stare into what I could only assume was empty space as far as he was concerned, the guard turned back to the line of prisoners with a troubled expression on his face. He glanced back over his shoulder once more, seemed to shrug, and turned his attention back to the straggling procession.

The woman raised the last syringe as the final guy approached and two of the soldiers exited through the doors, pulling them closed behind them. Two other soldiers stepped forward and locked them before saluting Baldy, ignoring the woman, and marching away. The light faded just as the female scientist rammed her needle into the crying guy’s arm, causing him to open his mouth wide in what must have been a piercing scream. The light faded again, the darkness becoming more complete this time before briefly hitting full black.

‘Snorkbait, be really quiet this time. It’s the most dangerous time there is. We don’t want these things to find us here. They’ll be able to come all the way through.’

‘Eh?’

‘No time,’ Viktor said as the light began to improve. ‘Oh, God. Here we go. Just stay very still.’

The dying red light pulsed again. Zhenka pushed so hard against the wall that I was only mildly surprised that he didn’t pop straight through. As for me...I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Baldy and the woman were back...but she wasn’t much of a woman anymore. She was mutating, but I didn’t want to guess into what or know exactly how she’d gone from being one of the experimenters to being the experimented upon. Maybe she’d accidentally been given the good news with something nasty, or perhaps they’d lost control over whatever it was they’d been doing and mutation had become random and rampant. Whatever had happened she was...different. She was also still in her white coat. How that worked, I had no idea. It seemed a bit like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

‘Zhenka, you seen this?’ I whispered, glancing over when I got no response. Zhenka had turned his face away from the whole thing, preferring a close-up view of the wall instead. His shoulders heaved and shook convulsively. I decided to let him cry it out. He’d probably seen something very like this before anyway.

I turned to Viktor, hoping he could shed some light on what I was looking at...and almost screamed. There, less than three feet away, stood a couple of zombies wearing tattered uniforms of some kind. They were peering at us intently, just as the ghost soldier had before...but these bastards were actually seeing us. You could see the struggle for comprehension, a certain dull questioning, in their eyes and general posture. I didn’t dare speak. There was no need to in any case; Viktor clearly knew they were there. All his muscles were locked rigid and he had his shotgun in a death-grip. One of the zombies reached for him, the exploring hand inches from clamping on his shoulder.

‘Snorkbait!’ he mewled.

The zombie jumped. ‘Huh?’ it grunted, then started mumbling zombie bollocks to itself.

The second zombie shuffled closer. ‘What...is...it?’ it asked...in English.

‘What the fuck –’ I began, shock and fear lending my voice more volume than I’d intended. Which was a mistake.

The zombies wailed in unison and plunged forward, reaching for Viktor. Grasping fingers sank into his jacket and they began to pull him out, using a strength it seemed impossible for them to possess. I could hear the fabric of his jacket stretching and beginning to tear as he pulled away with everything he had. I looked on in shock, surprised by the use of English but frankly amazed at the way they were able to grab hold of him at all. There were meant to be ghosts, remnants of things that had once been. How could they possibly come through or interact normally with our world, now?

The world went black again. Utterly. I could hear Viktor struggling and panicking next to me, could still hear the zombies setting about him even though they should have vanished, according to what had happened before.

‘Help me!’ he screamed, but I could do nothing because I couldn’t see.
A shotgun blast rang out, deafening me. I felt Zhenka jump, then he slid away from me. I let him go. I’d get him out of whatever corner he crammed himself into once it was light enough to see again and I’d dealt with the zombies. Viktor was still screaming. Not even the ringing in my ears could block that out. Moving slowly, I lay the L85 on the ground by my feet and drew my sidearm.

The screams cut out.

‘Viktor?’ I called. ‘Viktor?’

The light began to improve, not enough to be like true daylight, but enough to see by. The zombies were in the shallow pit, presumably having fallen in there during the struggle with Viktor. I knew immediately that it was too late to help him; they were already tucking in, eating him, their attention fully occupied by the new-found meal.

I shot the zombie nearest to me in the back of the head and levelled the weapon at the second. With a hiss, it started to come at me, hand outstretched. One eye had gone missing at some point. I hadn’t noticed it before, so maybe it had dropped out during the struggle with Viktor. I squeezed the trigger twice more, and the zombie fell dead.

Dull sounds, something like roars, seemed to be coming from somewhere nearby, but I was still mostly deaf from the shotgun blast. I shook my head and plugged my forefingers into my ears, waggling them around in an attempt to clear the ringing. It did next to nothing. I could just make out the sound of falling rain outside, but that was all. I had no way of knowing if a horde of mutants was closing in, but thought it likely, given the scent of fresh blood and all the noise. The best I could do now was grab Zhenka and get out any way we could. Going back through the work area was out of the question – if nothing else, the courtyard would be teeming with mutants. Which left sneaking out across the roof as the only option. First, though, I had to find Zhenka and calm him down.

I turned, expecting to find him a little distance away, huddled into another corner. Instead, I found he was lying on the floor not too far from where he’d first crouched. Reaching over, I gave his shoulder a firm shake. No response.

‘Zhenka,’ I murmured close to his ear, but again, nothing. After giving his shoulder another, firmer shake, I gently rolled him over. It was immediately clear why he hadn’t responded before. Zhenka was dead.

I took in the wide, glassy eyes and blue lips. His face had gone the colour of old putty and I knew he wouldn’t be breathing even before I put my ear close to his nose and mouth. To be sure, I checked his pulse and got the expected result. A quick check revealed no external wounds, no nicks, scratches or holes in his armour that might indicate an unlucky ricochet from Viktor’s shotgun blast. Instead, it looked more like Zhenka had died of heart failure. From what he’d said, he’d been fond of a nip or two of vodka, which wouldn’t have helped. The rest of it, I supposed, would have come from the strain of what he’d seen and experienced before, had lived with every day since, and been confronted with again here. And those convulsions, the ones where I’d thought he was crying? Bollocks. That, most likely, would have been him dying; the shock of the blast would only have made things quicker. I felt that I should have realized what was happening at the time, though what could I have done to stop it?

I straightened slowly and turned. The loud ringing in my ears had been replaced by a high-pitched whistle, but at least I could hear pretty well again. And what my ears told me now was that, not too far away, something was stalking toward the scent of food. Whatever it was, its breathing was snuffly and over-loud, reminding me of someone who had over-exerted himself while wearing a respirator. Whatever it was, it’d be better for me if I wasn’t around.

I crept towards the foot of the stairs, trying to split my attention between what I was doing and whatever was approaching on the other side of the wall. I made sure to raise my feet high when I finally reached the stairs. I couldn’t afford any scuffling noises or squeaks of rubber against concrete. Better to let whatever it was think it had already hit the motherlode, not leave it wondering whether that shuffling and squeaking might be dessert getting away.

My mind was racing, hoping to escape more than expecting to now. With the other two, I’d have felt much more confident: Zhenka and I could have climbed the stairs, leaving Viktor with his shotgun to cover the rear. Once out of sight up there, we could have hustled to the roof and the critters would have been none the wiser. As it was...

We should have bugged out. We should never have pushed our luck as hard and as far as we had. Hadn’t I thought that Zhenka looked about ready to burst a valve just before I went up to the roof? Yes. But it had been too late even by then. I hadn’t listened when there was still time. I hadn’t understood. Now both Viktor and Zhenka were dead, and for what? A cartridge case that may or may not have been fired from a Dragunov that may or may not be owned by the sniper that killed Vampire? I doubted Fyodor was going to think that info was worth the price.

I was two-thirds of the way up the stairs and thinking of how I should break the news to the Stalkers at the Farm when the mutant came round the corner, heading for the zombies and Viktor’s fresh corpse. The thing’s face was mostly covered by an old gasmask...or it had an old gasmask for a face...and the skin along its spine was split open, revealing the mutated bowed column of bones and livid reddish skin. Here, then, was a snork up close. Close enough for me, at any rate.
What happened next was pure farce. The snork was clearly intent on the feast of corpses laid out before it. It seemed not to have even noticed Zhenka lying there like an unwanted platter at a buffet, let alone got round to casting an eye in my direction. Yet for some reason my top half backed up a step while my feet remained rooted to the spot. I toppled backwards and landed on my arse hard enough for me to grunt in surprise at the sudden jolt of pain.

The snork leapt in the air and turned to face me. A low, rasping growl rose in its throat and it reared up on its legs (back legs, now?) to let rip a combined roar of aggression and cry of alarm. The response to this call was immediate and frightening – the factory’s ground floor was chock-full of snorks, if the cacophony was anything to go by. I didn’t hang about to find out for sure.

Springing to my feet and trying to ignore the numbing ache that was trying to radiate out from my buttocks, I raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time where I could. I could hear the snork giving chase, unwilling to pass up the escaping meal in favour of the one already served below. It seemed to gain with every step, but, insanely, I was grinning. I couldn’t help it. After everything that had gone wrong, the thought that kept hammering in my brain was that this time something had worked in my favour: thanks to Duty, I was travelling light.

Once at the top of the stairs, I whirled and fired three times, hoping to put off the bounding creature, and sprinted through to the other room, practically throwing myself at the ladder. It wobbled, forcing me to pause. Thumbing the L85’s selector to automatic fire, I sent half a dozen rounds through the doorway to discourage any hasty pursuit, then slung the rifle and got my arse up to the second floor. The snork hadn’t bought the attempt at deception, though, either that or it was too stupid to wonder whether I was waiting to fill it with holes or not. Either way, the fucking thing came barrelling through the doorway and leapt up at me as I reached down for the ladder, having intended to drag it up after me. The thing’s clawed fingers missed my face by less than an inch, which was more than close enough for me. Instead of pissing about dragging the ladder up, I knocked it sideways so it fell. I didn’t know if snorks had wit enough to simply stand it back up again, or whether they might be able to jump high enough to do without ladders to clamber up in any case, but for now I had the advantage...and the thing knew it, too. It crouched beneath the hole, glaring up at me through its gasmask-lens eyes and baring its – frankly minging – teeth, hissing insanely.

I unslung the rifle and selected single shot mode again. ‘Fuck off,’ I said, and fired twice. Both rounds took it full in the face and it crumpled...but it didn’t die. At least, not just then. ‘Tough little bastard, eh?’ I fired again, hitting it just above the ear. No way was it surviving that.

His mates were a different matter, though. Others were already in the room next door, presumably having either ripped the zombies apart along the way or skirting around them. Given the levels of aggression I’d seen in their newly-dead friend, I thought it was odds-on that the zombies were no more. I also thought it likely that they’d soon find a way through the hatch. Even if some of them got sidetracked by their newly-dead former comrade, it wouldn’t be for long.

Slinging the L85 once more, I ran through to the ladder up to the next level. I doubted that I’d be perfectly safe up there, but no way could I risk the snorks discovering a way to the second level and finding me standing around like a spare prick at a prostitute’s wedding. I had eighteen rounds in the mag. Twelve had gone on just one critter. The higher rooftop would allow me to hide; it’d buy me some thinking time, and – if it came to it – it’d be an easier place to have a last stand. One other advantage: being higher up made it the best vantage point for picking a route out. Sitting around waiting for the mutants to get bored and disperse wasn’t an option, especially since, from what Zhenka and Viktor had told me before, the local creatures of The Zone tended to come back here at dusk. Thanks to the blowout and ensuing rain, dark would come early tonight. I had perhaps two hours to figure something out and make my escape, probably a chunk less.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter whether I had two hours or two days. It had to be enough.
  18:10:10  4 December 2010
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
12/05/2010 13:15:21
Messages: 4290
Larkhill meets Swan lake?

Now... see what you've done
(Again.)
http://img340.imageshack.us/img340/4660/sb10.jpg

(ed: better image)
  18:18:36  31 December 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

...And a Happy New Year.
Sorry about the Christmas fail - plans changed at the very last minute and I wasn't able to work on anything.
Comments to comments after.

*******

Twenty minutes later, I was still on the roof listening to the snorks snarling and roaring below. I wondered if any of them had the faintest idea what they were doing it for, or whether it had now become a case of Bob and Sam are doing it so Dave is too. It was clear that little, if anything, human remained in them in terms of emotion and higher thought, but what of memory and motivation? Was it possible for them to be highly goal-oriented and unable to formulate a plan to achieve the goals they set? What would be the point? Or was that why they were like they were; had they been an experiment that had either gone wrong or been left incomplete, perhaps a first step along the path to some sort of super-weapon that had somehow run amok?

I gave a mental shrug. I didn’t know and wouldn’t find out lurking around up here. If there were answers, they lay elsewhere and wouldn’t change anything in any case.

The rain continued to pour down, drenching everything. As I’d expected, night was beginning to draw early and the heavy cloud showed no sign of breaking up. The weather just wasn’t going to ease in time for me to get some properly useful light, so whatever I was going to do, I had to do it now. No way did I want to end up spending the night here, not on my own. If Viktor and Zhenka had survived, or even just one of them, it might have been a different story, but as it was…

I slicked back my hair and wiped my face, the gesture doubling as an attempt to rub away the guilt. I thought about their bodies lying down there, a couple of slabs of prime meat surrounded by a horde of hungry mutants. It was all too easy to imagine discoloured and broken teeth being forced through their flesh, the relish with which their innards were being consumed...

‘Fuck it!,’ I cried softly, kicking the wall rather than screaming and shouting. ‘Fuck it, fuck it, fuck the whole bastard place!’ I hunkered down, trying to cut it all loose, shove it to the back of my mind with all the other crap until I had the luxury of dealing with it. If I got away from here, if I made the Bandit HQ, I’d have three whole days to sit and stew and work through everything that had happened. Right now, I had a job to do. I had to regain control, and I did that by picturing myself breaking the news of V and Z’s deaths to Fyodor. It wasn’t really a thing that could be done over the radio; I had to do it in person. I supposed some people would have left it, but he deserved to know the fate that had befallen his men. Besides, he’d need to pass word along the chain so the farm could be reinforced. No way could The Zone’s own ‘Coalition of the Willing’ afford to leave the farm undermanned, even with a squad of Dutyers not too far away. If the farm was over-run and the Bandits could consolidate there, the whole of Dark Valley would be theirs. They’d be able to strike south more easily and far more effectively. At the same time, the Duty squad couldn’t be pulled from their position. According to the maps I’d seen, they were guarding the main – perhaps the only – decent route between Dark Valley and the Garbage. It was another key point. Abandon that, and the Bandits could decamp en masse and head almost anywhere. My message was therefore crucial; the defensive chain had to be preserved. That alone was enough to give me a goal, a purpose strong enough to knock everything else away. It also made me consider another problem: could I afford the delay? A radio message might not be the best way to go, but it would be quickest. I pulled the PDA from my pocket, but only looked at it.

‘What if the Bandits are monitoring transmissions? Just how secure are these fucking things?’ I wondered aloud. I chewed my lower lip, indecision pulling me first one way then the other. Speed was vital, but it meant nothing if opsec was blown. How had messages been passed along? Verbally, coded radio, or what? Some, I knew, had been transmitted – I’d seen it done. But tactical information?

At the same time, it was only two men we were talking about. The Bandits were hardly likely to scramble south to attack the farm because they were shorthanded by two.

‘It’s three though, isn’t it? Three, because Vampire’s dead.’

What percentage of the initial force was that? Ten guys, three gone meant a thirty per cent drop in manpower. Six guys, fifty per cent. I knew there were four guys left, including Fyodor. If he’d left two in camp and, perhaps, another two to four asleep, it meant a starting force of up to fifteen men. Three down meant they’d lost twenty per cent at least and the Duty squad was likely to be about half a dozen strong. Depending on the forces the Bandits could muster at their HQ, they could mount attacks at both points. Their weapons and armour might not be up to the same standard as I’d seen elsewhere, but they had numbers and a pack of rats will eventually overwhelm even the strongest dog. I couldn’t transmit the message. The risk of interception was too great. I had to get back to the farm and deliver the news in person. I could also help man the garrison until the replacements arrived. Given the circumstances, I felt sure Colonel Petrenko would approve, if and when he found out that my ban had been broken. And if he didn’t...tough.

With all of that, and more, in mind, I set about breaking the job down into smaller tasks. Part one: Get off this fucking roof quietly and safely. Part two involved finding a way back to the farm, but I’d worry about the details of how to do that once I’d seen how part one went. It would be pointless to plot a route only to find it impassable when I got there.

Making sure I kept out of sight of critters on the ground, I peered out to gauge the lie of the land. A pack of dogs had reclaimed the high ground to the south and were running among the rocks, chasing one another further and further away from the factory towards the pool, growling and yapping as they went. A pair of large boar ambled across the cracked road and headed down the bank on the far side, and I could hear a bloodsucker wandering somewhere nearby. Cautiously, I raised my head just enough for me to see into the yard below. The ‘sucker was standing near the gates, its tentacles swinging slightly as it turned its head from side to side. A couple of dead pseudodogs lay in the courtyard close to the open doors and, next to the abandoned tanker, the carcass of a boar twitched and rolled as something ate its way deeper into the cooling body. Moments later a snork emerged, covered in blood, guts and God above knew what else. It gave its chops an audible smack and almost strutted back towards the factory.

I allowed everything to pour in rather than trying to concentrate of it all. A couple of seconds, if that, was more than enough and, satisfied, I slid back behind the cover of the wall. I closed my eyes and allowed everything I’d seen to come back to me. Concentrating on a few things, thinking as you looked, wasn’t any good. It took far too long, for one thing, and prolonged the risk of compromise. Some things you couldn’t help noticing immediately – the critter activity I’d seen, for example – but the key stuff had to be searched for. Better to see it in the mind’s eye and have another quick peek if necessary than spend minutes at a time exposed.

I grimaced as I ran through my options. None of them were ideal, and only one seemed to offer a decent chance of success: picking my way across the rooftops to a point where I could get beyond the factory perimeter, even though a lot of the panels and exposed beams were rust-pitted and looked about ready to fall in.

‘I’m getting too fucking old for this shit,’ I grumbled, calling up the barely adequate satellite image of the area on the PDA.

Over the next few minutes, I studied the map, looking for the best option – and hopefully some kind of Plan B. I couldn’t see one that I could make work. Plan A was bad enough: jumping down to the base of the chimney and trying to get out that way left too great a risk of being discovered by wandering mutants, as well as involving a relatively prodigious leap onto and off of a workshop/garage roof, not to mention that the second leap – the one that would take me over the perimeter wall – would result in a hard landing at the very least and could, likely would, end with me leaping straight into an anomaly; another way – via the crane – involved climbing down to first floor level on the outside of the building, exposing me to the view of creatures both inside and outside the buildings. That meant putting a certain amount of faith in the toughness of the windows and, again, placed an inordinate amount of trust in my leaping abilities. I didn’t want to put either to the test, meaning the crane was out of the running except as a place of final refuge if all else suffered an epic fail: there were ladders and platforms on the thing, after all...if I could get to them. Chances were that I wouldn’t. My final option for Plan A meant going over the hangar-type workshop’s roof, risking a long drop if the thing collapsed to an agonising death below – if the fall onto concrete and metal machinery didn’t kill me, the gaggle of mutants certainly would. There was, however, a handily-placed tree not far from the northern wall. If it was close enough and I could get to it, getting to ground level would be a cinch – relatively speaking. Plan B, meanwhile, seemed limited to one thing and one thing only: go back the way I came and fight my way out – which made it more of a suicide plan than a means of escape.

I closed my eyes and visualized myself running over the workshop roof. It’d be just like old times. As a kid, I’d certainly done my share of running across the roof of the local GPO/BT (General Post Office/British Telecom) depot while the other lads gave the vans a graffiti makeover. I ended up as the lookout not because I was too chicken to climb down and spray the vans, but because I was crap at anything remotely arty. Even a simple tag had proved to be beyond me. The others had laughed so hard and taken the piss for so long after my one and only attempt that I’d told them a) to fuck off and b) that I’d keep an eye out for the security guards and coppers from then on instead. I was pretty good as a lookout, too. For one thing, I’d wait in the shadows, not moving unless I had to – and doing my best to stick to cover and shadow when I did shift position – and in all my time with that group we never once came close to being caught. That time ended when I turned fourteen and started sort-of seeing a girl from school – which I took stick about again, not that I cared. I’d cycle past on my way home, knowing they were back there. You could hear them, laughing away like a pack of hyenas, and the lookout was always visible, standing there in plain sight like a prize dickhead while he watched the fun and games below rather than the road and security office by the main entrance.

My relationship hadn’t lasted longer than a couple of months, but I’d never gone back to my old ways. There’d never been what you might call loyalty on either side anyway, we weren’t actually friends. I’d simply clung to them because I had no one else, and they’d accepted me because I was local, always available, and because they accepted pretty much anybody. I hadn’t been missed, and I hadn’t missed them. Besides, I’d never had much interest in daubing slogans and shit on Government property in the first place. I couldn’t see the point while the rest of them considered it the height of amusement. Most of them were still fucking around with it even after they’d turned sixteen and left school. Or at least, they were until they finally got caught. A bunch of gypsies had turned up wanting to break in to nick some copper wire to sell on only to find they couldn’t because of a bunch of hoodlums. Switching to Good Citizen mode, they alerted the guard – ‘We were passing and noticed someone on the roof, mate, calling down to others inside’, that sort of thing – and he in turn called the police. The officers duly turned up and caught the vandals red-handed. Job done.

Except, unfortunately for both the police and the security guy, it wasn’t. While the law were congratulating themselves and the guard was dreaming of bouquets and bonuses, the gypos had taken advantage of the confusion and subsequent complacency to enter the compound. The management hadn’t been amused at the good news, bad news scenario that met them the following morning: good news, they finally had the gang who’d been vandalising their vans for years; bad news, they’d also lost several large spools of expensive copper cabling to thieves. Unsurprisingly, the security guard was sacked (with dark suggestions at his possible complicity in the crime) and my former acquaintances were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. BT saw to that: they might not have been able to get the thieves, but they certainly had the vandals. A couple of them went to prison, the others paid fines. One lad tried implicating me. I was questioned but there was no proof that I’d ever been there, let alone vandalized anything. The others got criminal records while I joined the Army. I’d gotten away with it.

Except I hadn’t, had I? I’d joined the Army, but most of my adult life had been spent getting in to and out of places I had no right to be. Sometimes I’d been ‘the lookout’, other times I’d been in the thick of it. I might have been crap at arty stuff, even tagging, but I’d found I was quite good at getting things to go boom! Getting out of the Regiment was supposed to have been an end to it once and for all, yet here I was about to go roof-running just as I had a quarter of a century or so before. Okay, I was doing it in a completely different part of the world, but it was pretty depressing to see how far I hadn’t come.

‘It’s worse than that, Tayls,’ I muttered, peering around the wall again so I could examine the hangar-like building’s roof more closely. Some areas looked sound enough, but these were relatively few and far between. I shook my head. ‘This roof’s likely to fall in if you fart near it.’

I sighed. Whether it did or not, I had no choice. It was this way or no way, and there was a job to be done as soon as I could do it. I got moving.

The first part – back to the ladder – was the easy bit. I crept across the roof and peered over the platform, looking for movement on the next roof down or in the yard below. There was none. Over on the higher ground, a couple of pseudodogs had decided it was time for a showdown and got stuck into each other. It sounded like a vicious fight, the sort that one of the critters would be lucky to walk away from, but that suited me: with luck, the kerfuffle and possibility of an easy meal might draw some of the more exotic creatures away from the factory, making my life easier. But I wasn’t going to bank on it.

Cautiously, always looking and listening for the slightest change, I worked my way through the office space – if that’s really what it had been – to the hatch. I then skirted the opening, keeping my eyes and weapon trained on it just in case one of the snorks found it could leap up and climb out after all, and clambered onto the workshop roof. It was slick and slippery with rain and lichen, making the going difficult. However, I found that, by edging along side-on and forcing myself to take time when securing my footing, I was able to make steady, if slow, progress as I shuffled and tested, tested and shuffled on a very indirect route to the roof’s apex. I wiped sweat from my brow and readjusted the L85, reminding myself that this was the easy part. The fun would really begin when I came to control my rate of descent on the other side, especially since my knees were already half-past wobbly and my thighs and calves burned thanks to the raw physical effort. It almost made me wish I’d tried running at it after all, but I knew that if I had, I’d have made the most God-awful racket and would most likely have gone plunging through the aging roof by now. It’d happened to any number of kids during the school holidays back home and they were not only considerably lighter, but were also not faced with negotiating roofs that had been largely neglected for twenty-six years.

‘No. Slow and steady wins the race, this time,’ I mumbled to myself, saying it aloud as a way of reinforcing my dwindling self-discipline. I felt exposed and vulnerable as I edged along and I half-expected to hear a series of rapid pops and groans as the roof suddenly betrayed me – either that or feel a heavy impact just before my ears registered a dry crack. The urge to hurry was immense and I had to fight it every inch of the way.

Finally, I reached the central peak of the roof and straddled it, clamping down with my knees and ankles so I could take a rest. Only then did I realize that the rain had stopped…and how dark it had become. I checked my watch and PDA: they agreed that it was 19:39.

The sky was still cloudy and threatening. Away to the west and south, camp fires were already well ablaze, and when the wind gusted – it still hadn’t quite shifted out of the north yet or calmed to its pre-Blowout level – I thought I heard the odd snatch of laughter or poorly-played harmonica. The Bandits, no doubt feeling safe and secure in their complex despite the chaos and danger that surrounded them and probably heedless of the forces that intended to sweep in and crush them if they could, were making the best of another night in The Zone. Silence fell when gunfire rattled in the distance – a heavy blat-blat-blat that sounded quite a bit like a .50 cal – but before long there was laughter again. Someone – or a group – burst into bawdy song and I listened, feeling a mix of longing and surprise. Contrary to what I’d expected, the Bandit camp sounded like a pretty relaxed, peaceful place.

Moving slowly and carefully, checking the solidity of the structure ahead before shifting onto it, I shuffled along until I was well aligned with the main body of the tree. It wasn’t quite as close to the wall as it appeared on the map – the satellite image had made it look almost like it was growing right against the factory wall – but the gap wasn’t prohibitively wide and I could see a crook between two thick, sturdy branches that had the rest of the trunk more or less behind. I couldn’t have asked for better.

The one drawback that remained had to do with the roof. It looked like I wouldn’t have a beam directly under my feet for the short run, which I would have preferred. Still, I had to risk it; there was nothing else to do. I supposed I could go one way or the other to find a beam, but then I’d have to slide down the roof and accept whatever landing awaited me. Knowing my luck, I’d go hurtling off straight into an anomaly that wouldn’t trigger until the pain from my broken legs had hit me. Worse, I might end up riding piggy-back on a passing bloodsucker. The tree at least offered a chance of reaching the ground in one piece and, more importantly, largely undetected.

After a moment’s hesitation – a moment when a shrill voice in my head that sounded a lot like my mother wailed ‘Stephen! What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ – I crouched, swung my other foot around so I was perched like a ski-jumper about to launch, took a deep breath, and ran. I had to run. There was no other way to do it. My arms pinwheeled as I leaned back to try to keep my balance and control my speed, but it was no use. My heels clattered on the roof and at least one segment fell in – I heard it hit the concrete floor and metal machinery below, eliciting a brief roar of alarm from the skulking muties. This was followed by another, then another to my immediate right. The rusted panel under my foot on the next step felt springy and...wrong.

The fucking roof’s caving in! I thought and, when I was still five or six feet from the edge, I jumped.

The impact against the trunk drove the air from my lungs, my left knee banged against the trunk hard enough to send a note of agony singing in my brain, and the makeshift sling for my rifle snapped, allowing the L85 to fall. There was nothing I could do to stop it; all my energy was going into hanging onto the tree while I gasped for breath and listened to two or three more bits of roof fall to the factory’s concrete floor. Something – God knows what – shattered in there and there was an immediate squeal of outrage and agony, followed by the sound of roaring snorks tearing into another easy dinner.

Snorkis snorkem edit. It’s a snork eat snork world, I thought, and probably would have laughed if I’d had the breath.

The rifle, meanwhile, clunked against the tree and toppled away, leaving me to hope the impact with the ground wouldn’t cause it to fire. It shouldn’t, but if it did, it’d be typical of the way these things went. It’d also likely cause a few curious mutants to come sniffing around. They’d have to be the dumbest things ever to ignore the tap-dance on the roof and an ND.

My luck was in for once. The L85 landed butt-first and clattered against the brickwork. It didn’t go off, and I muttered a word of thanks as, wheezing, I sat down in the crook of the tree and leaned against the trunk, trying to listen for any renewal in the alarmed calls and shrieks. From what I could tell, the only disturbances they were bothered about was the falling roof and wounded, now probably dead, former comrade. Nothing seemed curious enough to wander outside for a look round, which was a relief. Even so, I still checked to make sure I had my pistol, just in case.

After a few minutes, my breathing was returning to normal and there was no pain when I tried a couple of deep inhalations, a good sign that I’d not taken any damage to the ribs, which had been my main concern. Not so good was the way my knees – especially my left one – and calves still felt jelly-like, almost alien, as though they didn’t really belong to me, and the general feeling of weakness and fatigue. I needed something to help restore a bit of energy. Chocolate would have been ideal, a nice big sugar bomb – provided I wasn’t so weak and hungry that it made me feel sick instead of energised – but I had nothing like that and I needed to avoid the noise of opening a tin. I rummaged in my pockets for the remains of the sausage I’d had earlier. I was going to be here for a while until my legs felt something like. It only made sense to get some food down me while I waited. I’d been told long ago, as a baby soldier, that you ate, slept and generally sorted yourself out whenever you could because you never knew when you’d next get the chance. I wasn’t going to go taking forty winks now, nor was I about to break out the cleaning kit (not that I had any), but a bit of sausage would go down a treat.

Bracing myself against the trunk as best I could, I tucked in.
  03:23:08  15 January 2011
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

CS, DJ, shivam: Cheers!

*****

It was no good. My knee had swollen badly and, now that the initial numbness had worn off, any movement hurt. I was pretty sure it wasn’t broken or dislocated, but I’d clearly managed to give it a good old knock and I had no idea how I was going to climb down from the tree without making it worse. More to the point, I had no idea of how I was meant to get to the farm. It was getting darker by the minute and, thanks to Savko, I no longer had the NVGs. I still had my lamp, either because it was considered standard kit or simply because they’d forgotten to confiscate it, but the last thing I wanted to do was hobble around The Zone with white light pinpointing where I was for anything with eyes.

I tried flexing the joint again and squeezed my eyes shut against the pain, sucking hard on my lower lip to stop myself crying out. My back was damp with a cold sweat and waves of nausea pounded through me, becoming less and less as I breathed deeply. After several agonizing throbs, the pain receded, becoming tolerable again.

I tried to visualize a route back to the farm. It’d be full dark before I got even halfway. No moon. Not even any stars, thanks to the heavy, scudding cloud. I’d be forced to stick close to the road. The surface would stand out better; the sound of my boots serving as a guide. Wandering off over rough terrain, especially terrain that was unfamiliar in the extreme, would be ill-advised, given the likely limit on my mobility. The problem with the road, of course, was the critters. I’d have no option but to walk past the factory entrance, and that wasn’t something I relished the idea of even if it had quietened down in there by now. If I’d still had the NVGs, I might have risked the terrain so I could box round and hit the road near the bridge; but for my knee, I’d have taken a chance on trying to creep past on the grass verge before making a sprint for it if discovered. As it was, I’d just be inviting death either way – and I’d already worked hard enough to avoid that. There was only one thing for it: I’d have to risk a radio message after all.

Dragging the PDA out once more, I drew my right knee up and hunched over, shielding the screen as best I could – I didn’t need to stop a bullet because of a tell-tale glow – and called up the map.

In some ways, the best option was for me to stay put. If I was quiet, nothing would find me…and even if it did, getting at me would prove problematic, especially as I had my pistol and enough rounds to make a mutant’s life ‘interesting’ – and shorter than expected. On the other hand, I needed help. If nothing else, I needed a truly safe place where I could sort myself out, pass the message and rest up. That wasn’t going to be a tree near a regularly mutant-infested factory. I couldn’t guarantee being quiet enough so as not to draw unwanted attention. I had to assume that any human sound, such as even hushed speech, would draw critters like shit draws flies. I had to put some distance between me and the factory, find someplace where I wouldn’t be overheard.

The PDA threw up a few interesting possibilities. The first, and nearest, looked like it might once have been a construction site, perhaps an extension or new facility for the factory. For all I knew it had been visualized as a workers’ hostel or admin block. Maybe Oleg and Natasha had got pissed off with the noise from the machines and hadn’t wanted to be disturbed by working oiks when they had it off against the filing cabinet. Whatever the idea, work hadn’t got very far; the map showed something like an abandoned Portakabin-cum-railcar, a load of concrete pilings, and what looked like a half-arsed wall made from the same prefabbed panels that formed part of the factory’s perimeter. It seemed quite promising, until you heard the familiar humming-thrumming tone of a Vortex and accompanying buzz-crackle of a nearby Electro anomaly. It didn’t take Einstein to work out that option number one came with some heavy-duty problems.

The second option stood near the bus shelter on the other side of the road. These might have been the site foreman’s office, canteen and portable bog for the construction project, once upon a time. I’d noticed the place on the way into the factory: building materials had been heaped here and there and the grass verge had been churned to mud and tufts by trucks making deliveries.

I closed my eyes, trying to recall everything I’d seen. A long cabin, green; a fire-pit, the half-barrel inside blackened but not recently used. Had I seen water in there? I thought so, but couldn’t be sure. I’d been more concerned with any Bandits that might have been lying up near there. The place itself had left only vague impressions. What I was certain of, however, was that I had spotted a couple of distortion fields and patches of confused air near the smaller structures. What was more, these structures had lacked doors; anything could walk in. So option two was really no option at all.

Which left options three and four – respectively, an abandoned bus parked side-on in the middle of the road between here and the Bandit base, and some buildings near what looked like a petrol station. Option four, however, was directly opposite the Bandit camp, increasing the risk of compromise before I could get my message through. Again, I had to assume that the Bandits patrolled this area if they didn’t have a permanent presence there, and I thought it more likely that they did indeed have a few guys stationed nearby; why think you dominate an area when you can make sure? In any case, a closer look at the map told me I’d have to pass close to a watchtower, and the Bandits were bound to have guys in them. They’d be asking for trouble if they didn’t, and deserved everything they got.

The bus it is, then, I thought. It wasn’t that far, but the light was running out of the day faster and faster; I needed to get my arse in gear.

With the least difficult route memorized, I powered down the PDA and shoved it in my pocket. Zhenka and Viktor would soon be overdue at the farm. The last thing I needed was Fyodor gobbing off, asking me where the fuck his guys had got to.

Shoving my face into my jacket, I got some good gulps of air down me. Whatever else happened, however I went about the task, getting out of the tree was going to hurt. Even moving my leg caused the area around the knee to give a low throb of warning – Move me, and I’m going to make you scream, you fucker, it seemed to say. Part of my mind rebelled against the plan, begging to be spared, but a deeper part – the bloody-minded, victory-or-death part – refused. Pain is temporary, it said, it’ll pass. Death won’t.

The relatively gentle wash of low pain began to build towards waves of agony again as I moved despite all my efforts to keep the knee as immobile as possible, then flared as I rolled onto my stomach in readiness for the descent, freezing me in place while I fought the nausea and cold sweat all over again. I looked down. The drop was maybe fifteen or twenty feet and there didn’t seem to be any protruding roots down there, though it was hard to be sure in the gloom. Of course, I had to be careful not to land on top of my rifle, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I thought if I could just clamber down a little, control the rate of descent with my arms and good leg for just a few seconds, the remaining distance wouldn’t be too bad. Six feet, ten feet…I should be able to handle that. There’d be pain, sure, but nothing I hadn’t handled before. I’d just get the pistol out, lie there and take it. If anything came along, it’d find it had picked the wrong day for an outing. Easy.

Wriggling backwards, trying to hold my left leg as stiff and as still as I could, I began to edge out of the natural cradle, hugging the tree as tightly as the trunk’s girth would allow and using the toes and knee of my right leg as a brake. The muscles in my arms and shoulders immediately complained as I forced them to grip the rough wood. A painful cramp threatened to form in my right foot, but never fully materialized as I slid and bumped out of the tree. Every jar and knock sent pulses of pain from my injured knee up and down my entire leg.

It’s too much! The pain’s too much! What’re you trying to do? my mind wailed. Darkness closed in at the edges of my vision and I tried to shake my head to clear it. I couldn’t pass out. I daren’t. I wouldn’t wake up again. Whatever the pain, however badly it hurt, I had to take it. Too many parts of me didn’t want to, though; the darkness partially won. A final wave of pain crashed up from my knee. I lost my grip and, with any sort of control gone, I crashed to the ground.

*

We move forward through the trees. Nine of us, all in dark blue outfits and body armour. We’d look like a gaggle of lost journalists if it wasn’t for the Bergens and pistols – all we were allowed to bring with us in case of compromise; our primary weapons were waiting for us, having already been sourced from within The Zone. As for the amount of ammo we might get...that was anyone’s guess, as was the likely quality.

It’s almost dawn. Faint tendrils of light are visible to the east, wispy clouds lit from beneath as the sun prepares to make an appearance once more.

‘Where the fuck are we?’ Pete, my 2-i-c, hisses, his broad Glaswegian accent making the words almost unintelligible. ‘We should have been at the fucking wire ages ago.’

‘Hush! Keep quiet!’ the ninth, and only non-Regiment, member of our patrol murmurs.

‘Who’s going to detect us out here, the fucking squirrels?’ Pete replies.

Nicola turns on him. ‘There might be microphones, cameras or heat sensors in the trees. Ever think of that? It’s the twenty-first century. Technology is actually the cheaper option. You don’t have to have bodies on the ground. Some of us actually use our brains.’

‘There’s no need for that,’ I say, stepping between them before Pete does or says something he might regret. ‘And you’re right. He
knows you’re right. You just piss him off too much. Now let’s all shut the fuck up and get on with the job, yes? Pete?’

Pete nods and moves to the rear, ostensibly to give Scouse Mark a break from Tail-End Charlie duty. I smile at the MI6 operative and make a ‘Moving on?’ gesture, ignoring the heated look that flashes from her grey eyes.

She shakes her head. ‘No, we really should have hit the fence already and we were only meant to skirt the forest, not go right through it. We need to stop, figure out where we went wrong.’

‘Here?’

She looks around and nods decisively. ‘Here.’

I signal for the team to form a defensive perimeter and call Pete back over. The three of us crouch over a laminated map that Nicola produces from her jacket pocket and unrolls on the ground.

‘We know we left the vehicles in the right place,’ I say, pointing to the narrow local road, really little more than a trackway, where we abandoned the ancient Mercedes van - the second of the two vehicles we’d driven into Ukraine. The first had been an even older VW camper van, and that had been dumped thirty kilometres or so to the south-west. Both had been sourced by Nicola’s mates in Moldova, and both now had a nasty little surprise waiting for anyone who tried to use them. ‘So, we’ve either gone wrong since then or –’

‘Or the terrain has changed dramatically, which I doubt is possible in the real world.’

Pete and I share a moment’s eye-contact. The Firm might have sent one of their best and brightest, but every time she opened her mouth, she pissed someone – or everyone – off. I could only hope she showed more tact and diplomacy once we were on-target and she was doing whatever it was she was expected to do.

‘Something else, then?’ I suggest. ‘Maybe something fucked the GPS up?’

‘Please tell me you didn’t just rely on GPS,’ she says, her tone witheringly scornful. ‘You’re meant to be the best in the fucking business.’

‘We didn’t, and we are,’ I say, managing to keep my voice down only with great effort. ‘But anything that screws with magnetic fields will give us a false compass bearing, nudge it out by a degree here or there, maybe more.’

‘And you said yourself in the briefing that weird shit happens here,’ Pete adds. ‘For all we know, navigating by the fucking stars doesn’t work right around here anymore.’

I sigh. ‘Fuck it. The sun’s coming up, so we know that’s east –’

‘Not necessarily. Time of year affects –’

‘It’s
more or less east, then. It’ll do. It means that is more or less north, so we head that way,’ I say, swinging a finger to and fro to indicate the directions as I give them before standing and signalling to the others. ‘Pete, you lead. Andy watches behind. Let’s move before any Ukrainian heli pilots start playing Top Gun.’

‘Wasn’t
Top Gun US Navy jets?’ Nicola says when Pete chuckles.

‘Yes, but –’

‘Then I don’t understand. Any patrols will be by –’

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, forget it,’ I groan. ‘It wasn’t that funny in the first place.’

We walk through the forest for another half-hour, the rising sun showing us just how far from the familiar world we’ve come. There are fewer trees now: several of them have been cut down but other mature trees show definite signs of...something. The few saplings that have clung to life are poor, stunted, mis-shapen things, still trees, still recognisable as specific species, but...wrong.

‘Look at the fucking grass!’ Nick whispers, and I motion him to silence. We’ve all seen it, and we all heard it long before that. It, like the trees, is just wrong. It’s nothing any of us can put our fingers on, but...it’s wrong enough to set your teeth on edge. The way it moves, the texture, the sound it makes as you walk...none of it is as nature intended. Yet, in other areas that become increasingly rare the closer we get to the perimeter of The Zone, it can appear largely untouched, almost normal. But never quite.

All of a sudden, I’m not so sure entering The Zone is such a good idea. It should be left alone and monitored – assuming it can’t be destroyed. I don’t care who wants to know what about it. Let them come and see for themselves, if they want, as long as they leave me out. I don’t want to go in – but of course I will. I have to. Orders are orders. I don’t have to like them.

Andy raises a closed fist and drops to one knee. The rest of the patrol fans out, taking their defensive positions, eyes everywhere, other senses alert. I move forward, irritated to find Miss MI6 2012 closing in on Andy too.

‘What gives?’ I say, even though I can smell the woodsmoke for myself as well as see the faint plume coming from north-north-west.

‘Smoke, boss,’ Andy says. ‘And, if you stand and look down the slope, you can just see the perimeter fence. Fuck all beyond but open grassland, from what I saw.’

‘I’ll take your word for it for now, mate,’ I reply. ‘But why aren’t there any guards? Why no watchtowers?’

Both Andy and Nicola shrug. ‘Probably mined on the other side,’ Andy says.

‘Is that smoke going to be our contact?’ I ask.

She shakes her head. ‘I don’t see how. That’s inside The Zone. We were meant to make contact outside.’

‘But it could be? We’re late, so maybe the contact got bored?’

‘Probably had a place sorted where we could lie up and sort our shit out, grab forty winks,’ Andy says. ‘Maybe they stayed there to keep an eye out for us, rather than –’

‘Guessing gets us nowhere,’ Nicola snaps. ‘But it is possible. Stephen, you and I will work our way around. The others can wait here until we’ve established what the source of that smoke is and who caused it, then come to us.’

‘How’re we meant to call them in?’ I say. ‘You ordered –’

‘I know. Work something out with Sergeant Gregson. I’m sure you two can be subtle if you try.’

Andy flashes me a glance. I smile, not trusting myself to speak, and move off to speak with Pete.

#

‘Listen, Nicola, you need to go easy on the lads,’ I say as we head towards the area she insists was the original RV point.

She shrugs. ‘I don’t see why. They have their orders, as do you. It doesn’t matter if you like me or not,’ she says in Ukrainian.

I smile and shake my head. ‘It does.’

‘Tsch! In Ukrainian!’ she snaps.

‘It does,’ I repeat, using my heavily-accented Ukrainian. Every member of the patrol received the crash course in both Russian and Ukrainian, delivered courtesy of Nicola in order to maintain as much opsec as possible. Having the usual outside tutor come in, as we’d done when learning Arabic and Spanish for other overseas ops, was a no-no for this job. Russian sleepers had been uncovered everywhere, in all walks of life. It was worse than during the Cold War, and one visiting politician had likened it to thinking you’d got rid of all the woodworm in an antique chair only to find they’d been quietly munching on the timbers of your house all along. Between Osama’s mates, Russian and American sleeper agents, and others, it was a wonder there were any Brits left in the UK government and security services, let alone that they still managed to somehow actually run the country – however badly – while they were pissing around playing James Bond.

‘Well, I disagree,’ Nicola says. ‘What you think of me is irrelevant. You’re here to do as you’re told, get the jobs done that I tell you to do, and assist me in my role.’

‘Which is?’

‘Secret.’

‘It is hoped that you’re better at keeping those secrets than you are at hiding your presence,’ another voice says from our right, in English.

I whirl round to face the threat, pistol raised, safety off, finger on the trigger.

A striking blonde woman with piercing blue eyes smirks back at me. ‘Easy, tiger.’ She looks at Nicola and jerks her head in my direction. ‘Is he always like that?’

I keep the pistol on the strange blonde, moving so I maintain a clear shot but can also pick up any signals from Nicola. A twitch here, a grimace there, and it’d be all over for Blondie.

Nicola smiles. ‘I hope so.’ The smile vanishes as quickly as it appeared. ‘Tenevaya-Devochka Apokolipsisa.’ I tense, not because I recognize the codewords, but because it’s pretty clear that that’s what they are. A wrong answer, even a hesitation, and I’d get the signal to fire.

‘To speak that name means death, Svetlana Motyka’ the mystery blonde replies, equally serious. ‘And it’s good that your men are so...jumpy?’

‘Alert,’ Nicola says. ‘Though I expect better in future. He should have realized you were here long before you spoke.’

Blondie shrugs. ‘I was very still and very quiet, and he doesn’t know The Zone yet, but he will. All of them will.’

I narrow my eyes. ‘How do you know –’

She waves me away. ‘Please. I’ve been watching for a long time. I saw your lead man come through the trees, then watched them pull back and you come all the way around the perimeter rather than cross the open ground.’

‘We figured it was mined,’ I say.

She nods. ‘And it should have been, but the money ran out and...’ She shrugs, as if to say it is to be expected. She turns back to Nicola. ‘Why are you so late? I almost gave up on you for today.’

‘We got...confused.’

‘Ah. Lost. Yes. The Zone plays tricks. Even the stars sometimes seem to lead one astray. This is why I lit a small fire. Too big, and the wrong people might see it, but I thought you wouldn’t have wandered far from the right path, so...’

‘Well, thanks. We might not have made the RV without it,’ I say.

Blondie smiles and nods. ‘Okay, now I have to get back to the Big Land. Some of us have regular lives over there, you know? For us The Zone is like a hobby or handy sideline for money only. Near the fire there is a hunting cabin, not much more than a shack, where I have hidden some basic provisions: food, PDAs – the main means of communication in The Zone; not everyone carries one, but it’s better to have one than not. There’s ammunition and weapons, also; some Western issue, some not. Is that a problem?’

I shake my head and Nicola smiles. ‘That’s fine,’ she says.

‘How much ammo per weapon?’ I ask.

‘Three hundred rounds per rifle; fifty cartridges – shot – for each of the shotguns, a Mosberg Maverick Eighty-eight and a Saiga 12. Four grenade launchers, plus three grenades each, again, some NATO, some not. Semtex and C4 as ordered. Claymore mines, and a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle with thirty rounds. The only thing we couldn’t get for you was a heavy machine-gun.’

I nod. ‘Probably just as well. Sounds like we’ll have enough to carry as it is. We can always source something later if we have to.’

‘It’s okay?’ Blondie says, frowning.

‘You’ve done marvellously,’ Nicola says. ‘Pass our thanks on to your associates when you get the chance and tell them...my associates may well be in touch regarding further business.’

I look away, frowning. Even Blondie looks a little perplexed when I glance at her from the corner of my eye. She nods nevertheless and flashes a quick smile.

‘Now, my new friends, I must go,’ she says. ‘I really do have to get back to Kiev before noon. Eyebrows will be raised if I’m late for work again.’ She nods and begins to move off.

‘What’s your name?’ I say, drawing alarmed glances from both women.

‘Forbidden to you, for now,’ she smiles. ‘What’s yours?’
  00:40:38  18 January 2011
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
01/18/2011 11:45:22
Messages: 4290
Say Hi, Nikki.
http://img254.imageshack.us/img254/9444/nikki00802.jpg

(ed: better image)
  03:04:42  27 August 2011
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

Better very late than never, eh guys?

***

‘Snorkbait, according to his PDA,’ the deep, hoarse voice was saying as I came fully awake.

Unmoving, not even daring to allow my eyeballs to roll in their sockets, I lay and absorbed everything.

I’d been stretched out on what must have been an old mattress or knackered sofa – in either case, the springs were shot and my arse sagged well below the level of my head and feet – that stank of mould and general mustiness. The room itself appeared well-lit – my eyelids showed a pinkish-red rather than black-with-starbursts-and-swirls – but by artificial light; there was a window, but the quality of the light seemed wrong and, in any case, I could hear the sound of crickets fiddling away, forming a backdrop to the laughter, the singing of three distinct songs of various quality and volume, and the general sounds of a camp containing a fairly large body of people. So, it was still dark outside and was presumably the same night, since the voice had been talking about me, providing information. That had to mean I’d been out for just a few hours instead of a day or more. The questions now became, by whom had I been found, and where the hell was I? Had Fyodor sent people out to look for us? If so, had he then radioed for, and received, permission to take me in, given the circumstances?

Something wooden creaked nearby and someone cleared their throat. Paper rustled as a page was turned, the sound thin and brittle – a magazine, maybe a newspaper...though, this being The Zone, a magazine seemed infinitely more likely. Another page was turned, too quickly for there to be much in the way of text: a wank-mag, then. Well-thumbed too, from the sound.

Boots clomped past an open doorway, the sound of thick rubber soles on old concrete, and someone shouted an accusation of cheating from below. My hopes sank: the Farm had been made up of single-storey structures according to the map on the PDA, which meant I was either back inside the factory – doubtful, given the number of mutants that would have needed clearing out – or I’d been found and taken to the Bandit base. No Fyodor, no early redemption.

I checked my feelings of gloom and doom right there. Okay, I hadn’t got the best of all possible outcomes...but I had at least got to where I’d been headed in the first place and was safe.

Well, safe-ish, I thought.

‘Where did you find him, in the end?’ a second voice now asked, this one older, more thoughtful, yet still carrying an undertone of menace.

‘Near the base of the tree. Must’ve hit his head or something when he fell.’

‘Mutants?’

‘None that we had to deal with. They were going crazy, but were still inside the compound. He must’ve made so much noise and then been so quiet that they never realized he was outside the perimeter.’

‘Or the noise had scared them so much they didn’t dare come out,’ a third voice said.

‘I doubt that,’ the older-sounding man said. ‘I’ve never known a snork to be scared off by anything. He’s a lucky bastard, this Snorkbait, whoever he really is.’ He chuckled. ‘If nothing else, he was almost very aptly named.’

I flinched before anything else could be said. I’d become aware of a slight, but uncomfortable itching in my knee as soon as I’d awakened, the sensation not on the skin itself but actually in my knee, among the bones, ligaments, muscles and cartilage, and it had built and built until it became impossible to fight. My leg gave a twitch and I groaned as the itching stopped, but was instantly replaced by a grinding ache that was both better and worse than the torment of the itch.

A rustle of paper told me my movement had been noted.

‘Boss, he’s awake,’ a bored voice said to my right, and I opened my eyes and turned my head to look in the direction of the speaker. A young, dark-haired man was sitting on a rickety stool next to an even more rickety-looking table, girlie-mag in one hand while the index finger of the other was engaged in a quest for whatever intelligent life might be living up his nose. Intense grey eyes met mine in a cold stare. ‘What?’

‘How long?’ I croaked, only then noticing how thirsty I was.

‘How long’s what? My prick? The queue to fuck Maria Sharapova? What?’

‘To answer your question properly, Snorkbait, you’ve been here for almost three hours. Knuckles, Evgeny and the charming Mikhail found you a couple of hours before that. As for the other things...I believe Sharapova’s married now and maybe, Mikhail, you’d like to go and take over from Nikita at the main gate. Measure your prick there.’

‘Be careful of Milo, though,’ the owner of the first voice I’d heard said, a big, lean man who had to be Knuckles. ‘Word is, he bites.’

‘What? Fucking guard duty? For what? That shit’s for noobs!’

‘That shit is for whoever I decide to send,’ the boss, a fairly short, bald, going to fat man snapped.

Mikhail glowered at the leaders, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet in agitated indecision.

‘Don’t be so stupid as to say anything more,’ Knuckles growled, ‘just fuck off.’

‘Maybe I will,’ Mikhail said, sulkily.

‘Your choice. Don’t expect us to come when you start screaming about bloodsuckers.’

Mikhail scowled and threw the titty-mag onto the other sofa on the other side of the room before storming out, muttering to himself.

‘Evgeny, water for Snorkbait,’ the bald man said, lowering himself onto the protesting stool while his underling allowed me a few sips from his water bottle.

‘Thanks,’ I said, nodding. ‘Looks like you might have a bit of trouble with Mikhail, though.’

‘That?’ the boss laughed. ‘No. He’ll get over it. And if he doesn’t...’ He shrugged. He really didn’t give a shit. ‘Now, an introduction is in order, I think. They call me Sultan. You’ve already been able to figure out which of my associates is which. Although...Evgeny, they call you Toecutter. Right?’

‘Right, boss,’ the Bandit said as he started fussing at my bandaged knee. ‘Here. Let me re-dress this. You’ve managed to shake the artefact loose.’

I sat up slightly to watch what he was doing. My trousers had been split to the knee and a wad of bandages and sticking plaster clung equally to my skin and a dull, coppery-brown sort of rock-that-wasn’t. Evgeny laid the artefact back against a large patch of exposed skin and set about strapping it into place again, and a strange, soothing heat radiated into my knee and along my leg, numbing the pain once more only to replace it with that infuriating itch.

Evgeny finally moved away, and I noticed with relief that I still had my boots on.

‘Thanks, Evgeny,’ I said. ‘And thanks to all of you for getting me out of there.’

Knuckles made an ‘it’s nothing’ face. ‘Just be grateful that our lookout saw you on the roof,’ he said. ‘If he hadn’t been so amused by your comedy escape, we might never have known about you.’

I nodded, getting the true picture. No doubt the lookout had seen me escaping from the factory, had watched as I fell from the tree...and had given Knuckles the tip-off when I failed to emerge. The Bandits’ mission had been less one of rescue than one of scavenging loot before my body could be found by mutants and other Stalkers alike.

‘Thanks anyway,’ I said. ‘I guess I owe you one.’

‘We’ll get to what you owe and how we’ll collect it later on, after you’ve rested,’ Sultan promised. ‘For now, let’s have a little chat about you, shall we?’

‘Me? I’m really not very interesting,’ I said. ‘Just trying to make it, you know.’

Sultan and Knuckles shared a look. Sultan grinned. ‘Don’t be so modest. And remember, you’re among friends here –’

‘I’d heard the Bandits were no one’s friends.’

Sultan put on a look of mock hurt. ‘Surely not.’ He laughed. ‘Whatever you’ve heard, things are different now.’

‘That was part of what I’ve heard, actually,’ I said, and instantly realized I’d said too much.

‘Do tell, friend Snorkbait,’ he said, leaning forward. Evgeny passed between us to the door and told the guards there to take a hike, closing the door as he came back into the room.

I forced myself to give a casual shrug. ‘I passed some time on the road with some Stalkers,’ I lied. ‘They told me things had changed with you lot since Borov died.’

Sultan held up a finger. ‘Since Borov was killed,’ he corrected. ‘What were these changes they mentioned, if I may ask? You see, things were okay, then recently we lost rather a lot of men. Our outposts appear to have come under what looks suspiciously like an orchestrated attack, and when we sent guys out to have a look round, they either failed to report back or told of Stalkers and Duty manning locations that had been, loosely, ours. That makes me wonder, what’s the word...friend?’

‘I don’t really know,’ I replied, and Knuckles stepped forward to give the sole of my left boot a casual kick. A sensation like a low electric shock sent a tingling sizzling through my leg. It felt as if the entire limb had been seized by pins and needles, with that effect being amplified to the strength of a cramp. I didn’t know whether to cry out in pain or burst out laughing. Instead, I went for something between the two, a drawn-out ‘Aah’ing sound.

‘Again, Snorkbait,’ Sultan murmured once the tingling had subsided. ‘I already know that the men I sent south last night didn’t make it. The fact that you came up that way proved that, even if we hadn’t assumed the worst after they failed to report in.’

‘How do you know which way I came, unless...’ I said, breaking off as the proverbial penny dropped.

‘Yes,’ Sultan nodded, ‘I have people watching the gate. I know my group passed through as planned. I also know none of them even attempted to come back. So tell me, Snorkbait, who must have seen something of them on the road...where did they die?’

I swallowed. ‘There were...remains...just this side of the railway bridge. You know, the one that emerges from the tunnel?’

Sultan nodded grimly. ‘I know it. Carry on.’

‘It looked like a mutant had attacked them. I think it was a chimera. I was at the old homestead the night before and saw a creature. When I described it to some others, they said it had to be a chimera.’

‘So close to the perimeter? What did it do, get lost?’ Evgeny cried.

Knuckles frowned at me. ‘Let me get this straight: you saw a chimera, knew which way it had headed...and still came that way alone? Bullshit. Even without seeing a chimera, no one would approach that bridge alone anyway. And if anyone did, they’d be attacked. There are things in that tunnel.’

‘I didn’t come alone,’ I said. ‘Not all the way, at least. I was escorted by a Duty squad until we found your men. We never saw anything near the bridge.’

But the Duty soldiers did seem much more vigilant there, I thought. And they weren’t looking forward to going back that way, either.

‘You not seeing anything doesn’t mean there wasn’t something in there,’ Knuckles mumbled.

‘Even so, the Duty members did not come all the way with you,’ Sultan said. ‘Was there any sign of this supposed chimera when you were alone on the road? You see, my people never reported seeing a chimera enter the area, and I have a hard time believing that it would kill all my men yet not bother attacking you, a lone Stalker, as you passed by.’

‘I didn’t see anything,’ I said. ‘It could have been watching me the whole time, resting up. It must have...’ I swallowed again. ‘It must have fed pretty well. Maybe if we’d touched the remains it would have attacked. It’s even possible that it has come into into this part of The Zone unnoticed. You can’t have eyes everywhere.’

Sultan smiled indulgently. ‘Is that a fact?’ he said. ‘Tell me, Snorkbait...why were Duty escorting you anywhere in the first place?’

I looked at him warily. Something in his tone told me that he already knew exactly the circumstances under which I’d come north. But how? And why had he hidden this knowledge? Had he been hoping to trap me in an obvious lie? How much about me did he already know?

‘I’m...er, not exactly welcome at Stalker or Duty camps.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s why I was heading here. I need a place to stay for a few days.’

‘And you were bringing Stalkers with you...why?’

‘I wasn’t bringing them. Not here.’

‘Is that so? You weren’t coming to lie up somewhere and spy on us, then?

‘No.’

He shifted, causing the stool to groan again. ‘So why were they with you, exactly?’

I frowned. ‘I think you know why,’ I said. ‘Someone killed a Stalker just as I arrived at the gate. One of your men must have seen that, if they saw me come up the road alone. Shit, I bet it was one of your guys that pulled the trigger and splashed Vampire’s brains across the gate.’

‘What? Vampire’s dead?’ Evgeny said. ‘Who...’

Sultan waved him to silence. ‘Whoever had Vampire killed, it was not me. Why would I kill the man, after he was so kind as to allow my men to pass?’

‘Maybe you thought he’d sold them out, took your money and then told the Stalkers or Duty where to find them? Maybe that’s what all the bullshit questions about the chimera were about?’

A corner of his mouth twitched. ‘Maybe,’ he said.

‘As for why the Stalkers were with me, I had no choice. The Stalkers at the Farm seem to like charging a toll for using the gate. I needed to get in but had no money or artefacts. The only way was to do them a favour.’

‘And Vampire getting killed provided just the opportunity you needed at precisely the right moment,’ Knuckles smirked.

‘So maybe your being here isn’t an accident,’ Sultan said. ‘Maybe there’s a complex deal at work here, allowing you to come here and spy on us.’

‘Why would I stop off at the factory, in that case?’

‘Why? To kill your companions, of course! Either we or the mutants could take the blame as far as the Stalkers were concerned, and you could come up here claiming to have information that would help us. Perhaps it was thought that the fact that you had killed to get here would only make us more inclined to believe you. Perhaps you’d already decided the best approach was to give me a little piece of info, just enough to whet the appetite. Maybe you’re actually working for Duty and your banishment is part of the cover story. Vampire getting killed and the Stalkers’ extortion racket were unplanned complications, but the hitches give the cover story credibility. And the way the obstacles were removed is certainly...convenient.’

‘But the blowout –’

‘Yes! The blowout! The blowout you could have sheltered from in perfect safety very easily. The blowout that, no doubt, claimed the lives of your companions –’

‘It did,’ I said.

‘Very convenient for you again! Especially as they were associates of Vampire, were manning the gate with him when you arrived, and weren’t averse to turning the odd blind eye in exchange for hard cash or artefacts!’

I began to feel sick. The conversation was spinning down the rabbit hole. It had started out well enough, or so I’d thought. Now, nothing I said was believed. The more events that had unfolded as Sultan imagined they might have been, the more likely it would seem to him that I was a spy. The fact that he would have been right, had circumstances not conspired otherwise, was not lost on me. It made me wonder exactly how many pairs of eyes and ears Sultan had out there, and exactly how far they saw and heard.

‘Look, Sultan...I’m not a spy and I had no choice but to come here. It’s the only place that I might be safe for the next two or three days. Fyodor, down at the Farm, asked me to find out who had killed Vampire. I found the shooter’s location but nothing to indicate identity. You say he wasn’t one of yours; I have to believe that. Equally, you have to believe me when I say I don’t know anything about Vampire’s death either, and that I did not kill Viktor or Zhenka. Their brief was to go with me to wherever I led them then return to the Farm with news of what we’d found. The blowout trapped us – I didn’t know how to read the signs. I should have listened to the others, but didn’t. Now they’re dead and I could easily have been killed, too. I’m not working for anybody. Duty have no time for me. I refused an order so a squad was sent to see what the shooting was about. It turned out it had been your men making their stand against the chimera. Neither Stalkers nor Duty had anything to do with them getting ambushed on the way south.’

‘So you say,’ Sultan said. ‘Luckily for you, we already know some of this is true.’

My mouth fell open. ‘Wha–? How?’

‘Intercepted transmissions,’ Knuckles replied. ‘Easy, if you know how to break the encryption codes.’

‘And we just happen to know people who do,’ Sultan finished. ‘We tend to keep them back in the Big Land, though. They’re more easily...controlled...there.’

‘You mean drugs,’ I muttered, grimacing.

‘Or women, or booze, money...you name it.’

‘So...what was the deal with the twenty fucking questions just now? Why do that if you already knew the answers?’

Another kick on my boot from Knuckles. ‘Mind your tongue!’ he barked. ‘Show some respect!’

‘Snorkbait, Snorkbait... A Merc arrives. Is he a Merc, really? He’s not the usual type, certainly; you’re a throwback, you belong in a time before the faction wars, when the Bandit groups owned the Garbage. Since you are an anachronism, a man out of time, maybe it’s a mistake, maybe it’s a bluff. And then, even if we accept that all the things we’ve intercepted and seen are true, is this Snorkbait the same one who set out this morning? Is he even the man who was seen entering the factory with his Stalker companions yesterday afternoon? Or is the original Snorkbait lying dead somewhere, with some Duty member or Stalker or, God helps us, an SBU operative carrying a dead man’s PDA? You see, there are things that we heard that only the original Snorkbait would be able to corroborate. Had he been replaced, the stories would not match, and then...’

I glanced at Evgeny, who looked up from inspecting his fingernails and gave a grim wink.

‘Of course all that’s assuming I – or he, in this hypothetical situation – hadn’t told “Them” everything,’ I said. ‘Jesus, look, Sultan: I am Snorkbait. I’m English. I entered The Zone a few days ago with a woman. The military reported that a murder had taken place on the perimeter; it wasn’t me. I know it wasn’t me because the man I dealt with to enter The Zone is on this side of the wire himself now: he is the murderer. At least, I think he is. I’ve been through some bad shit and I did do a deal with Duty to come north at first. That deal ended when I refused their order to investigate an incident that, as it turned out, had been your men getting killed. I really am out on my ear with nowhere to go. Everything else has just...happened.’

Sultan looked at me for a long time. I forced myself to meet his gaze.

‘What’s going on, Snorkbait?’ he asked. ‘What am I supposed to believe. Are you a spy? Are you aware of secret plans? Have you come to warn us, or are you going to report back to that bastard Petrenko as soon as you can? Are you really the man you say you are? Can I believe you, and to what extent?’ He shuffled his feet and grimaced. ‘You see the state I am in? You understand why I think these things?’

I nodded. ‘I can. You’re just going to have to trust me.’

He smiled without mirth. ‘I want to. But you see, I have no reason to. I don’t want to add to your troubles and discomforts, Snorkbait...but I have to know certain things.’

‘I don’t know anything,’ I murmured, looking between the three men: Sultan with his attention apparently somewhere on his boots, the other two intent only on me. They reminded me of wolves eyeing up a particularly juicy, slightly wounded fowl. ‘I’ve only been in The Zone a few days.’

Sultan shook his head. ‘The problem is, I can’t believe that. The luck you’ve had in getting here is astounding. You see a chimera, it kills my men...but leaves you alone. Did the Duty escort lie up out of sight, making sure you were safe? You needed to enter the Valley; this you did once Vampire was dead. Was there a signal you made? Had Duty or the Stalkers sent someone to make sure your passage was...eased? And then there’s the mysterious goings-on at the factory; you could tell us anything you liked and we’d have to believe you. It’s not like we can send a team over to investigate, not with the number of mutants that are currently over there.’

‘You’ve got my PDA. No doubt you’ve been through my pockets. Everything I am or have, you know about. Any messages you might have intercepted concerning me weren’t lying if they said I’d been kicked out. I really am in disgrace.’

‘All the more reason to tell us what you know,’ Knuckles said. ‘You want our help; this is part of the price.’

‘Come on, Snorkbait. If your PDA really does tell us who you are, then you’re a Merc for hire. What do you care about the Stalkers’ or Duty’s plans? What’s going on? What’s changed? Why have Duty and the Stalkers united? Why have my men been wiped out? Why am I hearing the things I’m hearing?’

‘I think you said it yourself, earlier on. They’ve changed because things here are different. You practically admitted your more organized now than you were before Borov die...was killed.’

Sultan rubbed his head and slicked back non-existent hair. ‘Being more organized than Borov would not be hard, believe me. The man had no idea of strategy.’

‘And you do?’

Another kick. More sizzling pain.

‘Enough, Knuckles. He’s within his rights to ask.’ Sultan rocked back on the stool. ‘Maharbal said of Hannibal that he knew how to win a victory, but did not know how to use it. Or words very much to that effect. So it was with Borov. He took over at a time when strength and a certain low cunning were needed, but he did not use his victory as he might. Nuisance raids, occasional forays into Cordon... What use are they? Four or five men get killed at the Autopark, so he allows three or four more to go down. In turn, they are killed. More men arrive from the Big Land, some sent for, others trafficked, more just coming in because we can’t stop them. It’s the same for the Stalkers: newcomers arrive at the Village, they raid the Autopark or Gatehouse, take it, we take it back...and so it goes.’

‘Then you arrive...’ I prompted.

‘No. I was already here,’ he said. ‘But then it’s my time, let’s say that. I get things more organized in the Big Land. I start acquiring codes – you would find the means of doing this unsavoury, so I won’t offend you by telling you what we and my outside contacts have to do – in short, I start treating this enterprise as exactly that: an enterprise, a business. Where Borov allowed raiding parties to leave as they chose, I send them.’

Yet still you leave a handful of men to defend the places and have to retake them, time and again, I thought. Whatever the reason, it surely couldn’t be manpower, not judging from the racket the various groups were kicking up outside.

‘Word among the Stalkers said that there was a new, strong Bandit leader who was getting everything organized,’ I said.

‘Which is probably how it seems from their point of view,’ he said. ‘In reality, we’re actually less organized than under Yoga. He wasn’t a particularly strong leader, but his inner crew ran the show. He had a trader, a technician...I don’t have those things even now. For fuck’s sake, there was even a bar at the rail depot in the Garbage back then. Borov ran it...and Borov got greedy, thought that Yoga was weak. The problem with Borov was, he knew how to be ruthless; he just didn’t know how to be strong. He was also paranoid. He trusted no one, deep down. He even mistrusted the men he hand-picked to act as his bodyguard. He was all too aware that what he had done to Yoga could as easily be done to him. A good lieutenant, never a general.

‘Yoga’s apparent weakness was actually a strength; he let his people do more or less as they liked provided they also did the jobs he assigned them to. It’s in our nature to be self-serving; Yoga knew this and allowed patrols and checkpoint guards to loot as they liked – but that’s really all they did. Some Stalkers didn’t have the booty, so they got taken to the anomaly fields or garbage heaps to work off their debt. After the faction wars, Borov declared all Free Stalkers as the enemy – it was open season, and that created chaos within our ranks. Where before groups of three or four would share the loot, now it was every man for himself. Whatever structure we’d had broke down. I, personally, have come across groups of corpses or dying men who had become the victims of in-fighting. We needed to rid ourselves of that, become more disciplined again. The problem is it’s like trying to hold back the tide with a sieve; too many people want to be the head man, too many others won’t listen. They’ve become used to acting like...no, not even a pack of jackals; at least they have structure, hierarchy. What we have here is still closer to chaos. So instead of unity and strength we have individualism and desertion. I know we lost the Autopark again the other day. Someone not entirely unsympathetic to us sent me a message, personally – though I’ve not heard from her in a few days now, either. Our men were wiped out it said. “All eight?” I asked. “What do you mean, eight?” said the reply. Half had deserted, it seems. The team I sent had a single mission: see if retaking Autopark was viable, and if not, retreat to the old homestead and await further instructions.’

‘Forget Autopark,’ I said. ‘I saw some of the defences down there; it’d be a massacre. It would have been tough to take when I passed through and they said the defences were going to be made even stronger. It’ll be like a fortress now. You won’t even be able to sneak into Cordon – what they don’t see, the Military outpost will.’

Sultan blinked slowly. ‘Some of my people have managed to report the same from the Garbage. Security everywhere has been strengthened, positions able to give support, snipers at the old depot – our old base! – who can cover our old ambush points... But why? Why have they gone to such lengths? And why now?’

I closed my eyes and made a decision. ‘ I know some of what they’re thinking, Sultan. Borov’s gone, and now they’re saying the new leader has united everyone. According to what they’ve been told, you’re bussing people in every night –’

‘We are,’ Knuckles said, ‘but almost as many go out again as arrive.’
‘We bring people in who want to come in,’ Sultan explained. ‘We also bring some people who don’t want to come, if you understand my meaning.’

‘Debtors, people who you want to get rid of...’ I said, looking up. ‘I get the picture.’

Sultan nodded. ‘Among others, yes. Most of these people get left to fend for themselves at the wire. Others – people who came to us to help them enter The Zone but lacked sufficient funds, let’s say, and those who get to the wire and still need more – are...recruited. So we swell our ranks. The trucks and cars arrive, the newcomers or returnees get out, guys who need or want to get back to the Big Land get in, and so it goes.’

‘Military patrols?’

‘Can be paid to look the other way. And again, we have people in the Big Land for when money and greed fail to work their magic. I’m sure I don’t have to paint you a picture.’

I thought over what little I knew of the Russian Mafia and tied it into what I’d seen and heard about the Italian mob, Colombian druglords, PIRA’s nutting squads, the truly nasty bastards that could be found even in the UK underground, and shook my head. No pictures required. I already had plenty.

‘The problem you have, Sultan, stems from the fact that they think you’re only bringing numbers in. They also think you have links to the Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg gangs and can get them all to pull one way.’

‘That’s not good, boss,’ Knuckles hissed. ‘If they think we’re that united and growing –’

‘They’ll think they have no choice but to push us north, as they forced us out of the Garbage. Close off our eastern access points so we have to come from the north.’

‘And if they replace the units up there with people they know they can trust, officers and men who are selected because they can’t be bribed or threatened –’ Knuckles added.

‘Yes. It cuts our lines in or out. We’d be trapped.’ Sultan shook his head. ‘It makes no sense. Everyone in The Zone knows that not every gang member from the Big Land enters as a member of one of our groups. If they’re savvy enough, they can come in and hide their background, be accepted as a Free Stalker... There’s every chance even some of the people involved in taking the Autopark ran with us in the Big Land, once upon a time.’

‘They want Freedom on board as well,’ I said, without really knowing why. I had no loyalty to these people; why was I being so forthcoming with information?

‘And Freedom are to the north,’ Evgeny said. ‘If we were squeezed here and they joined the Stalkers, we’d have to fight our way past them, or...’

‘Or go east and be forced to leave The Zone altogether,’ Sultan finished, getting to his feet.

Silence fell between us as the three Bandits mulled things over while the rank-and-file men carried on as normal. Someone started torturing a harmonica and got told to shut the fuck up before he was made to eat the fucking thing; a couple of tins rattled as their contents were skewered and consumed; flames leapt with a whoosh to window-height as someone chucked either vodka or petrol into the fire, to the delight of some and the alarm of others...

‘Who benefits?’ Sultan asked. ‘That’s what it all comes down to: who benefits from all these lies and alliances?’

‘The Stalkers, for one –’ Evgeny said, but Sultan turned on him, almost snarling.

‘No. They only think they will benefit. In reality, they’ll lose far more than they gained.’

‘So who –?’

‘Duty. Perhaps Freedom. The Military,’ Knuckles muttered, becoming thoughtful for a few seconds more. ‘Especially the Military.’

Sultan considered. ‘In the short term, yes...but those bastards in Kiev will have an eye on the longer game. No stalkers would mean there was no need for strong military control, and that would mean –’

‘Budget cuts. Yes. But who benefits from that?’

The vans bump along Ukrainian back roads, the light from Nicola’s iPad illuminating her face as she stares intently at the map displayed upon it.

‘Next option right,’ she says, her voice soft but terse. ‘Lay-by two hundred metres further on, left-hand side as we approach.’ She closes the device down, plunging the interior into complete darkness. ‘Weapons free, gentlemen.’

In the back of the our van, pistols are drawn and made ready for when we exit the vehicle and I slide a pen-light from my pocket, giving the vehicle behind two flashes...

A lonely road. Sunset. It’s beautiful. The Zone can be such a peaceful place.

A stronger flash. Intense. A voice that isn’t. Singing that can’t be...isn’t... The stars. The stars are shifting, like a rainbow, brightening. Screaming from the woman next to me. Screaming. Me. Pain. Getting hard to think...can’t...think!


‘Snorkbait? Are you all right?’ Knuckles asks, leaning over me, actually appearing to be concerned.

‘Yeah. Yeah... What?’ I say, looking around the sudden wariness and irritation on the faces of the other men.

‘You...kind of zoned out there, man,’ Evgeny said. ‘It was like you just...went away.’

‘It’s been a long day,’ I said, trying a smile and letting it drop when it received nothing by way of response.

‘What were you thinking about?’ Sultan demanded.

I shook my head. ‘Nothing. Nothing that made any sense, anyway.’

‘Tell me.’

‘It was...it must have been something from years ago. A different place, even. And I think some of it was like a dream or something. Things were just a bit jumbled up.’

‘Snorkbait...’

‘Don’t worry, Sultan. It can’t have anything to do with why I’m here. It’s just my mind playing tricks on me. Like I said, it’s been a long day.’

He scowled but let the subject drop. ‘There’s no other kind around here,’ he said, then got back to his former preoccupations. ‘Who benefits, in the end? Who?’ He mumbled, almost to himself, then looked up. ‘Knuckles, Snorkbait sleeps in here tonight. You and Evgeny keep watch. In the morning, show him to the...guest quarters. For now, send someone to tell Jack what we’ve learned. Like it or not, we’ll have to work together on this one.’

‘I thought you were the boss?’ I said.

Sultan whipped round. ‘Hear that?’ he said, pointing to the window. Again, three or four different groups could be heard singing, laughing, just hanging out. ‘The workshops over there are home to two groups. They work alone now apart from the duties they decide to do when we pay them. Behind this dump is another garage and workshop. That group is loosely mine, but don’t always do as I say. Jack’s group have occupied the workspace adjoining this office block, which, happily, is entirely mine. I have the largest number of people here, followed by Jack. There might be thirty, forty or fifty here, depending on who arrives, who goes east, who leaves and never comes back... We defend our own parts of the perimeter. We enforce our own discipline. We have our own enterprises.’

‘So you’re not united at all!’ I exclaimed.

‘No. Didn’t you hear what I said earlier? I’ve tried to establish order. It seemed to be working for a while, and then it started shifting back towards how it was before. Disorder. Chaos. And that’s what makes me wonder why anyone would say or believe that we are completely united. Our alliances are fragile at best; we have too many cooks.’

‘But I thought –’

‘Take some advice, Snorkbait: only believe half of what you see and a quarter of what you hear,’ Sultan said, ambling towards the other room. ‘And even then assume it’s all lies.’

The door slammed behind him.
  04:08:03  2 January 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 41

‘Shit! Snorkbait, wake up! Come on, man!’

‘What? What’s happening?’ I groaned, sitting up a little and shielding my eyes from the glare of early-morning sunlight. Boot-heels and trainers clattered and squeaked on the concrete-and-tile flooring outside the door, while a tumult of voices showed how confused everything was down in the yards.

‘Are you deaf? Can’t you hear?’ Evgeny said, dropping the remains of a roll of gaffer tape in my lap before striding over to the window, though by then my ears had caught the heavy, but still quite distant thwap-thwap-thwap of rotors battering the air.

Helicopters. Hinds, I thought, and immediately ran through everything I knew about them – or more accurately, everything I could remember. There were black spots in my memory; information that I should have known – that I knew I’d known – was missing. In the end, I decided the gaps didn’t matter. Hinds meant one thing: the shit was about to hit the fan for someone.

‘What are we looking at?’ Sultan snapped, striding from his quarters with my L85 in one hand and my pack in the other as the first wave passed overhead, twin turbines screaming.

‘Looks like gunships and troop transports,’ Evgeny reported, taking care to stay in the shadows.

‘Got it,’ Knuckles said into his radio, then turned to his boss. ‘Lookout reports more heading our way. Two waves of three.’

‘Making nine in total,’ Sultan muttered, but Knuckles was shaking his head.

‘Nine heading this way, boss,’ he said. ‘There’s more heading north from over by the Institute.’

Sultan looked stunned. ‘So many? What the hell could have made them mobilize like that?’

‘More to the point,’ I said, unwrapping the last of the bandages from my knee and giving the joint an experimental flex; it was stiff, but nothing more; ‘have any circled or landed?’

Sultan looked at Knuckles, who could only shrug.

‘No report,’ he said. ‘You think it’s an attack?’

I didn’t answer, though all three Bandits were staring at me as I got busy taping my split trouser leg together.

‘Well?’ Sultan demanded.

I shook my head. ‘No. Don’t ask me why, but I think something else has happened. The army have got bigger fish to fry all of a sudden.’

‘How do you know?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t. It’s just a feeling.’

Sultan glared at me for a long moment and drew a deep breath, then released it. ‘It’s one I don’t share,’ he said, turning to Knuckles. ‘Get everyone prepared in case we’re attacked, then see what else we’ve been able to find out. Snorkbait, I know you were expecting a quiet few days but I need every man I can get. You and Evgeny go over to the fuel station and check the road, then, if you can, move down to the factory and make sure it’s clear.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said, nodding at Evgeny and tossing him his artefact as Knuckles started jabbering into his radio. ‘What do you want us to do if the place is occupied?’

‘Nothing,’ Sultan replied. ‘Even if there’s only one soldier gone in there to take a leak, don’t engage. I need you to get your asses back here with a report. Don’t use the radio; I don’t want the bastards to know that we know they’re there – if they are there at all, of course. Besides, we’ll need all the people we have here, if we’re to mount anything like a proper defence.’

‘You what? Even fifty rifles here wouldn’t last five seconds,’ I scoffed.

‘No, but what other choice do we have? If the military are here to flush us out, they’ll kill us no matter what we do. We have nothing to lose by fighting...if we have to. Now what are you waiting for, an invite from the lost heir of the Tsars? Get out of here!’

*

The third wave screamed overhead as Evgeny and I neared the gate, forcing us to take cover by hunkering down next to the legs of the watchtower in the hope that the scrubby bushes would help to conceal us.

Two gunships, one troop carrier. Hind transports could carry up to eight men. Eight men by three waves equalled twenty-four pairs of boots on the ground, and that was in one area alone. Most likely, they’d be special forces: well trained, disciplined and armed to the teeth. Someone was in a whole heap of shit. I could only hope it wasn’t us – and I did mean ‘us’. I might not have been a Bandit, but I knew the Military guys wouldn’t discriminate. Anything in or near the Bandit camp that wasn’t them would be treated as an enemy; it could be taken as read that they’d exercise their right to shoot on sight.

With the choppers gone, the Bandits broke from where they’d been hiding, whether it had been inside buildings, under vehicles, or in the maintenance pits.

‘Igor, get up the tower. Tell us what you see.’

‘Why me? What if those bastards have got snipers out there?’ a Bandit in a long brown raincoat whined.

‘Then you get shot. You’re the lookout, get up there!’

‘Fuck you!’

A pistol was cocked. ‘Get up that fucking ladder, Igor.’

Grumbling, the Bandit pushed past Evgeny and started climbing while we headed to the gates, where I peered out at the fuel station through the stencilled hammer-and-wrench design that had been cut into the metal sheet. All very Soviet chic.

Concrete pilings and what looked like Russian-style portakabins blocked a lot of my view, having been set up so as to force any aggressors seeking entry away from the walls and into open ground before the final approach. I could, however, see a decent-sized two-storey building and a red truck parked up near some gates on the other side of the road. By edging round a little, I could just make out the first of the old pumps. It wasn’t much as cover from the air went and the building entrance would have to be cleared first, but it would have to do.

‘Right, Evgeny, we’ll go on three. Head for that building first. We’ll take cover inside –’

Evgeny shook his head. ‘Not a good idea,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

‘Bloodsuckers. Every time we clear the place, back they come.’

‘Bloodsuckers?’ I said. ‘That close to the camp? Don’t they ever just cross the road for a snack?’

He shook his head. ‘Too noisy. Too many people.’

I grimaced and could have said plenty more, but time was not on our side and there was a job to be done. I yanked the PDA from my pocket and called up the map.

‘Balls to it, then... We sprint across the road to the pumps. You take the one nearest that structure there. What is that, anyway? Some type of kiosk? Never mind. I’ll watch our rear. Then we’ll move into the kiosk for cover and –’

Again a shake of the head.

‘Now what?’

‘Burners,’ he said.

‘But that and the bloodsucker’s fucking social club are the only points of cover from above!’ I hissed.

He shrugged and looked apologetic.

‘Jesus Christ...’ I muttered. ‘Right, to the pumps, then. One, two, three – go!’

We bomb-burst from the gates – as far as two men can be said to bomb-burst – and sprinted flat out for the pumps, with me trying to ignore my pantomime trouser leg as it flapped and crackled. Something stirred in alarm as we raced towards and then past the building, and I kept a wary eye on the doorway in case one of Rusty’s mates popped out to say hello – or, more likely, ‘foo’ – but although I thought I saw movement of some sort in the gloom, nothing emerged to start chasing its breakfast down the road.

The day was already oppressively hot, the sun beating down and encouraging the grasshoppers to come out and play. Skrees and buzzes seemed to come from everywhere and I narrowly missed ending up with bugs for breakfast as a couple of midges or flies weaved out of my way as I ran for cover. By the time I crouched next to the pump and got the L85 up to cover behind, I was breathing hard and dripping with sweat, partly because of the heat but mostly from the sheer effort of keeping up any kind of pace. My knee had started screaming again after just a few yards and the pulses of hot pain were nauseating. Not that it was surprising; without the artefact, I might have been off my feet for days if not weeks, but had been healed inside a few hours instead. Even so such accelerated healing was only one thing, the physical therapy required to work residual stiffness out was another, and the couple of tentative knee bends and experiments with putting weight on the joint that I’d managed to fit in before just wouldn’t hack it.

I looked up at the watchtower. Igor was up there and had his binoculars out, but was crouching so low that he couldn’t have been able to see much over the parapet. At least no one had taken a pot-shot at him yet. That was something.

‘Clear?’ I asked, trying not to gasp.

‘Clear,’ Evgeny replied. ‘How’s the knee holding up?’

‘It’ll do,’ I said, looking down the road for the next point of decent cover. It seemed an awfully long way away. ‘Right. To the bus, then. I’ll go left, you go right. Ready?’ A nod. ‘Move.’

Evgeny streaked away across the tarmac, heading for whatever cover he could find on the right-hand side of the road, while I hobbled towards the kiosk, office, whatever the hell it had actually once been.

No way would I have gone in there, even without the warning, I thought as I approached. The place actually smelled hot, a stench like burnt wood and slow but over-cooked roasts, hot brick and melted tar. Waves of residual heat baked out into the already-warm air, so much so that I could feel it from several yards away. A tinder-dry ladder was propped against the wall facing me, but I didn’t want to risk climbing onto the roof. For one thing, I’d be exposed; for another, getting accidentally flambéd would not make for a good day out.

Evgeny was watching me from his chosen position near a massive wooden spool that had, presumably, once held a huge length of copper wire. I pointed to my eyes and then down the road. He nodded, but I had no idea if he’d understood or not. I knew a lot of the guys in The Zone would have some sort of military experience via national service if nothing else, but I had no idea how much had stuck or what form their service might have taken...or even how thorough their basic training might have been. I realized I may have ended up expecting some sort of tactical awareness from someone who’d only been taught how to march and peel spuds, assuming he’d turned up for his service at all. Still, a nod was encouraging. It was better than a blank stare and open mouth.

I got moving.

There was very little in the way of cover on my side of the road. There were trees, but they were obvious places of shelter – even an idiot would know to watch for movement around the trunk bases – while here and there the odd wintry-looking shrub clung to whatever life it had. Apart from that there was nothing but tufty grass and uneven, rising ground heading off towards the factory and construction site.

I hit the deck in the shade of a large tree after twenty or thirty yards and waved Evgeny forward, hoping he had the sense to move past me. I needed to watch the road and the surrounding area ahead, not go looking to see what he was up to. I was in luck: Evgeny entered my peripheral vision going like shit off a shovel and weaving to automatically take advantage of the cover available, though whether this was training or blind instinct I couldn’t tell. After another few yards, he also went to ground. I nodded. His choice of position was excellent, offering good coverage but providing plenty of sightlines.

I moved forward again, passing him before being forced to go to ground once more despite being relatively exposed.

‘Any sign?’ I asked Evgeny when we finally reached the bus. It felt like hours since we’d left Sultan, yet a check of the time revealed it had been something less than ten minutes.

He shook his head. ‘Road’s clear to the bridge at least,’ he said. ‘And there’s been no shooting. If anyone here or nearby, like in the Garbage, had been engaged, we’d have heard it.’

I nodded, registering his choice of words. ‘Let’s get close enough to the factory to do a PDA sweep, then we’ll head back,’ I suggested. ‘It’s already pretty clear that the Military have other things on their minds, but...’

‘I wonder what, though?’ Evgeny said, without sounding particularly interested.

‘Depends what’s up north,’ I said.

‘Army Warehouses, Red Forest. The NPP... Nothing new. Can’t see why they’d be interested in any of those all of a sudden. Not to that extent, at least. Eighteen helis, plus all those men…’ He shrugged. ‘It’s gotten pretty rare that they ever send one, even when heli patrols are announced. They basically like to shit us up every now and then. Anyway…’

I frowned. Something seemed to be tickling the back of my mind...something about a mission, and heading for the centre...

I shook my head and looked around to find Evgeny squinting at me curiously. ‘What?’

‘I asked when you wanted to move out, but you seemed to have...zoned out. Again,’ he said. ‘You sure you didn’t give your head a good whack when you fell out of that tree? I mean, I checked and there was no blood or lumps or anything, but...’

‘I’m fine,’ I said, scraping up a smile. ‘I was just thinking too hard about what the Military might be doing in the centre of The Zone, I guess.’

‘Could be anything. Probably gone artefact hunting for the generals again. Greedy bastards in Kiev like to pretend it’s Stalkers that’re the problem, but it’s not; it’s them. They just want all the artefacts for themselves so they can sell them and get rich instead of us. Never mind the cost of the operation; the tax-paying mugs can wear that.’

‘Yeah. Never mind, eh?’ I mumbled. ‘Come on.’

Still wary, but more relaxed than previously now the risk of danger seemed to be past, we walked in single-file down the road, sticking to the left verge as much as we could. The insects were still at it, buzzing and fiddling to their hearts’ content, and the dogs had come back out for some time in the sun now that the thunder of the helicopters had passed, though their yapping remained reassuringly distant.

‘You did well just now,’ I said over my shoulder.

‘What? When?’

‘As we moved down to the bus. You seemed to know just where to go for the best cover.’

He shrugged. ‘I’ve been here a long time. I guess I just know the terrain.’

I smiled. Again his choice of words betrayed him.

‘You used to be a soldier, didn’t you?’

His shoulders slumped. ‘Does it matter?’

‘Not really,’ I shrugged. ‘Conscript or career?’

He took a deep breath. ‘Career. But I’d rather not talk about it. Let’s just say I made a couple of mistakes and leave it at that, shall we?’

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘I just like to know something about the people I’m working with, that’s all.’

‘Jesus, you say it doesn’t matter and it’s okay if I don’t want to talk, but still you come with the attempts to open me up. Okay, if you must know...Snorkbait? What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing, mate,’ I murmured, pulling the PDA from my pocket. ‘I just...’ My voice trailed off as the PDA gave a soft beep. Then another. Agitated shouts rose from behind the wall.

‘Company after all,’ Evgeny spat.

‘Hold on,’ I said, trying to keep an eye on the PDA and the factory at the same time. ‘Let’s see who they are. There’s only –’ Beep. ‘Thr–’ Beep. Beep, beep. Beep.
  02:56:56  25 January 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 42

‘You need to go,’ I murmured.

‘You mean “we need to go”,’ Evgeny replied.

I shook my head quickly. ‘No mate, I mean you. Get back to Sultan, tell him to prepare.’

‘But –’

‘No “buts”, Evgeny. This lot are Stalkers and Duty, not Military. I should be fine but they’ll slot you without a second thought. Tell Sultan I’ll try to find out what’s going on, but that it’s not looking good. Now shift yourself, before they see you.’

‘Snorkbait –’

I levelled the L85 and looked towards the factory through the scope. I couldn’t see much, just the top of the wall and the higher parts of buildings, but it was enough. As I watched, the top of a head bobbed into view, a shadow among the grass. If I hadn’t been looking straight at it, or if I’d been without the scope, I’d have missed it completely.
‘They’re coming. For your own sake, fuck off!’

Boots scuffled on tarmac behind me and I knew he was gone. I looked through the scope again, watching as the head emerged above the grass, became eyepieces, a face. Shoulders. A second Stalker appeared from nearer the road, circling around the abandoned defences and debris. Both figures had their weapons up, so I lowered the rifle and raised my hands to show peaceful intent, knowing that I risked a bullet even from supposed friends, and breathed a sigh of relief when the approaching Stalkers also lowered their weapons to take up a watching brief. A signal, and three more bodies appeared over the ridge. One came to a halt on the downslope, leaving the other two to approach – a Stalker and a Duty man. Only five, when I knew from the PDA that there were at least seven. I wondered where the others had crept off to.

‘Hello again, Snorkbait,’ Fyodor said, removing his mask. ‘I had a feeling you’d have survived the party.’

‘My not being in there must have given you a clue,’ I murmured.

‘Poor Zhenka and Viktor, eh?’ he said, ignoring me, his tone falsely casual. ‘Don’t tell me: the Blowout.’

‘You don’t see any bullet holes in them, do you?’

‘We don’t see much of anything,’ the Dutyer piped up. ‘There’s not a lot left.’

‘We only know it’s them at all from what’s left of the suits and their weapons. That and the fact that it stands to reason. The three of you were headed here, after all.’

‘What can I tell you, Fyodor? We were trapped. Zhenka keeled over and died during the Blowout –’

‘Radiation? You left him to get exposed?’

‘No, we were in cover, but we... There was some weird shit going on in there.’

‘Like?’

I frowned, trying to find the right words. ‘I don’t really know…visions, I guess –’

‘Of what?’ the Dutyer snapped. ‘What exactly did you see?’

‘Oh...Christ knows. People in lab coats, a line of people coming through the doors, then something seemed to have happened to some of the people running the show...as I said, weird shit. Zhenka died when all that was going on. I think it was a heart attack or something. As for Viktor...well...’

‘Well what?’ Fyodor snapped when I didn’t immediately offer more by way of explanation.

‘Look, I don’t understand it myself, so...’

‘We might understand,’ the Duty soldier said, his tone smug even through his full face mask. ‘It is our Zone after all. We have insights and knowledge you foreigners will always lack.’

I smiled, though in my mind I was giving him the finger. ‘If you say so,’ I said. ‘Zombies got Viktor. English-speaking zombies that just...appeared. They were like the other visions, but then…there they were.’

‘Magical English zombies, eh?’ Fyodor said, glancing at the Dutyer and raising an eyebrow. ‘Did you see any zombies in there, Sergeant Makinfeyev?’

The Duty soldier shook his head. ‘Definitely no sign of zombies, dead or…undead.’

‘You sure?’ I snapped. ‘Your men have gone through that entire place, yes? You’ve examined every room, looked in the guts of every dead mutant?’

‘We have been very thorough,’ Makinfeyev replied, his tone calm and even. ‘The only remains were of Fyodor’s men, a pseudodog, and a snork. Nothing else.’

‘And outside? If the zombies’ remains are nowhere to be found inside, they’ve got to have been dragged outside, right?’

‘We looked in the yard. There is no sign. We know our jobs and how to use our eyes. If we say something is not there, it’s not there.’

I opened my mouth to say something further, but Fyodor stepped between us. ‘The snork’s remains looked well-gnawed. From the marks, I’d say it was by others of its kind. Thing is with snorks, they don’t give a shit what it is; if it’s a source of food, they attack and eat it.’ Fyodor looked at me from the corner of his eye. ‘Were there many snorks in there?’

I nodded. ‘Loads of them.’

‘There you go, then. Not much eating to be had off a zombie. Maybe the snorks ate the zombies, then moved on.’

‘But there’d be some remains, surely? You can’t have it both ways.’

‘I’m only trying to suggest –’

‘Whatever. Look, you either believe me about the zombies or you don’t. They were there, so there has to be some trace, right? And that means you’ve missed something.’

Makinfeyev shook his head vigorously. ‘We’ve missed nothing.’

I glanced at Fyodor for support, only to find him looking at me sceptically.

‘What?’

‘Here’s how I think it really happened,’ he finally said. ‘You get here and start poking around. The Blowout approaches, but maybe by then you’re too far in, maybe the mutants were already swarming – the pseudodog carcass proves that some animals came here for cover. In any case, you realize you’re cut off. During the emission, something happens. One of you makes too much noise. The Blowout ends...and that’s when the snorks start closing in. Which is when you ran.’

‘Leaving Viktor and Zhenka to their fate,’ the Dutyer grunted.

I shook my head. ‘I don’t believe this. I’ve already told you, Zhenka died during the Blowout. I don’t know what killed him but I do know he was scared shitless –’

‘Which I’m willing to accept, seeing as we’ll never know any different,’ Fyodor cut in. ‘Viktor, though...Viktor is another case altogether.’

‘I’m not lying, Fyodor,’ I said, though I knew by then that he’d already made his mind up on that score. I was just wasting my breath.

Fyodor gave a thin smile. ‘I suppose we’ll never know for sure, will we? Maybe these zombies were real and were completely devoured by the snorks, maybe they attacked and there is something we’ve overlooked –’

‘Nothing,’ Makinfeyev insisted.

‘Or maybe, in your haste to get away, you gave Viktor a little nudge, just enough to make sure the snorks caught him and not you. After all, it’s not the lion – or the snork – you have to out-run, just the person you’re with.’

‘You think I’d do that?’

‘I think anyone would,’ Fyodor snapped. ‘I think the instinct for self-preservation over-rides anything else. Viktor would have done the same to you, had you not been sharper. Survival of the fittest.’

‘That’s not what happened,’ I said.

Fyodor smiled again and wiped his hands together. ‘So you say. To be honest, it doesn’t interest me that much anymore. I wanted to know what happened to them, and now I do. I’ll have to send for a couple of replacements, but...’ He shrugged. ‘What I want to know now, Snorkbait, is why I had to come and look for them myself rather than hear it from you.’

‘You probably won’t believe this either, Fyodor, but I was on my way to tell you last night.’

‘Really?’ he drawled.

‘Really. Thing is, I fucked my knee up after I ran across the factory roof and jumped into a tree. When I tried climbing down, it wouldn’t take the weight and I fell. I was unconscious for a while – I don’t know exactly how long – and when I came to I was in the Bandit’s HQ. I couldn’t contact you because they had my PDA. Sultan only let me have it back about fifteen minutes ago so I could come out here.’

‘Why?’

I stared at him. ‘Why d’you think? Didn’t you see the helis? He thought there was a raid on.’

Fyodor and Makinfeyev shared a look and shuffled uncomfortably.

‘There is a raid on, isn’t there?’

‘Yes,’ Fyodor nodded. ‘But it’s not the raid. There’s been no word about that.’

‘Then what –?’

‘Put the pieces together, can’t you?’ Makinfeyev mumbled. ‘The Blowout – a pretty big one at that; the Military going nuts, sending helicopters north in such numbers...something’s changed. They’ve re-prioritized.’

‘And the mission against the Bandits?’

They shrugged in unison. ‘For now, we hold our positions and wait for orders,’ Makinfeyev said.

‘Which is why I needed to know about the loss of Zhenka and Viktor,’ Fyodor added. ‘And why I still need to know why we had to leave ours camps relatively undefended to come here. To tell the truth, I expected to find your body in there too. When I didn’t...well, then I had to wonder why you hadn’t contacted me.’

‘And I’ve just told you,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said, smiling that faint, cold smile once more. ‘You escaped by getting to and running across the roof, you said?’

‘That’s right.’

‘How very James Bond,’ Makinfeyev grumbled.

‘So you were up top, safe, for what? Five minutes? Ten? While you got your breath back.’

‘Sounds about right. I had to plan a way out, too, so...’ I stopped, looking at Fyodor. He smiled and nodded.

‘There you go,’ he said. ‘So...why did you not call me while you were on the roof? You had your PDA right there in your hand. Thirty seconds, and I’d have known. Thirty...seconds.’

‘I wanted to tell you in person. It didn’t seem right doing it over comms.’

Makinfeyev muttered something to himself and shook his head. Fyodor offered a sardonic smirk and looked down at his boots.

‘Do you really expect me to believe you were willing to walk all the way to the Farm, tell me what had happened, and then walk all the way up here to the Bandit HQ, alone and in the dark, all for a couple of men you didn’t know and had only just met?’ Fyodor murmured.

‘Well, I –’

‘Oh, be quiet,’ he groaned. ‘I was discussing all this with Sergeant Makinfeyev when your signal was detected, actually. Know what our conclusions were?’

I shook my head, unwilling to speak.

Again that infuriating smile. ‘Well, when I said “What reason would he have for not contacting me? He’d have to know that we’d investigate their disappearance”, Makifeyev said “He might be working for the Bandits. He might have been one of them all along”.’

‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘Is it?’ Fyodor replied. ‘You see, I contacted Wolf to find out what he knew about you. The answer was...practically nothing. Oh, he knew what you’d said, but what he actually knew about your true past?’ He shook his head. ‘According to Wolf, there was never time. You showed up and...’ He made a rolling gesture with his arm that said ‘everything went from there’.

‘So now I’m a Bandit all of a sudden?’

‘I never said that,’ Fyodor said. ‘It’s interesting though, isn’t it? You refuse to investigate what turned out to be a Bandit incursion –’

‘So much for the open Zone,’ I muttered.

‘Then you just happen to turn up as Vampire is killed, possibly on the orders of the Barkeep, possibly on those of the Bandit leader...and then Vampire’s companions die in strange, if not suspicious, circumstances.’

‘Fyodor, for fuck’s sake, how could I have had anything to do with Vampire’s shooting?’

‘A sign, a message...something like that,’ Makinfeyev suggested.

‘Guys...you’re way off. Your letting your paranoia get the better of you. I’m not part of any plot. I just came here because I wanted to get away from the world. Everything that’s happened...Christ, I’ve had no control over any of it. Shit’s just happened and kept on happening.’

‘Hm...but look at it from our point of view,’ Fyodor said.

‘I’m trying to, but you’re building castles in the sky. You’re making links where there are none.’

‘Really? So tell me, how do you come to be here? By which I mean, why did this Sultan – thanks for the name, by the way – send you?’

‘He asked me to keep watch on the road. When the helis went over, he thought the Military might be about to attack.’

‘And why would he think that?’

I sighed. ‘Come on, Fyodor. How stupid do you think these people are? They lose contact with areas they controlled and then notice Stalkers and Duty in larger numbers than normal in those locations when they send scouts to check it out. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out that something was going on. They were waiting for the other shoe to drop, then the helis go over. What would you have thought.’

Fyodor pursed his lips and jutted his chin out. Silence fell between us and I let it stretch.

‘So what happens now, Snorkbait?’ he finally said.

I shrugged. ‘You have your answers, whatever you want to make of them,’ I replied. ‘You also have your standing orders. I guess you go back to your positions and I go back to the Bandit base for a couple of days. After that...’ I shrugged.

Fyodor nodded slowly. ‘I guess you’re right.’

Makinfeyev gave a start. It was as if he’d just woken up. ‘You’re letting him go back to report?’

‘What’s to report?’ Fyodor asked. ‘He came to watch the road, saw no Military presence, and only came across us because we were in the area looking for missing men. We’ve had no reported sightings of Bandits sneaking up on our areas, we’ve heard no shots.’

‘All the Bandits were back at their place, preparing,’ I added. ‘There’s nothing going on.’

‘But then you would say that,’ Makinfeyev said.

I smiled. ‘Fair enough. But would a Bandit - spy or otherwise – tell you that your intel’s wrong?’

Fyodor narrowed his eyes. ‘Wrong how?’

‘You’ve been led to believe there’s a single Bandit leader, right? One with connections to various underworld organisations?’

Fyodor nodded. ‘He’d have to be one tough son of a bitch with a lot of pull, but...’

‘Yes, he would. If he existed.’

‘What?’ Makinfeyev snapped. ‘Our sources –’

‘Are wrong,’ I said. ‘Sultan’s the leader I met, but there’s at least one other with his power and then there are separate little gangs that might do as they’re told, or they might not. They only stayed and worked together today out of self-interest.’

‘More than one leader,’ Fyodor mused.

‘More than one leader, more than one group,’ I amended. ‘Tell Wolf and Petrenko, they can kick it higher up if they need to. If they can, in Wolf’s case.’

‘He’ll go to Sidorovich. In turn, he’ll get on to the other big Traders. Maybe.’

‘Right. Anything else I find out, I’ll let you know. They don’t trust me any more than you do, though, so it’s not like I’ll be able to give you chapter and verse on their entire plan – assuming they even have one beyond “control as much of The Zone and take as many artefacts as you can”.’

‘Thanks, Snorkbait,’ Fyodor said, then called me back as I turned to leave. ‘By the way...did you find anything in the factory? Any sign of the sniper?’

I shook my head. ‘Only this,’ I said, fishing the 7.62 cartridge casing from my pocket. ‘Whoever killed Vampire knew there’d be some sort of follow-up: they’d left this standing upright at their shooting spot.’

‘And you know they fired from there, how?’ Makinfeyev asked, his tone surly.

‘Because I checked the sightline,’ I said, looking at Fyodor. ‘Perfect. No doubt.’

‘Have your men seen anyone carrying that calibre, Sergeant? Anyone passed through with a Dragunov or Mosin Nagant?’

Makinfeyev shook his head. ‘No. Nor could they have crept by in the night. We have third-gen night vision built into our headgear.’

I was jealous.

‘And no one’s come past the Farm,’ Fyodor said. ‘We don’t have third-generation equipment – most of us don’t even have first – but I’ve got two of my most trusted men watching the gate and they didn’t report anything.’

‘Could they have been paid off?’ I asked.

He smiled. ‘Possibly. But the men I chose can’t stand each other. I also hid them in addition to stationing them far enough apart that they couldn’t be taken or even bribed together.’ He glanced at me from the corners of his eyes. ‘Paranoia pays.’

‘And a sniper couldn’t have got past any other way because of all the radiation.’

He nodded. ‘Spot on. Not to mention the bloodsuckers that sometimes like to lurk around on that side of the road.’

‘Which means the sniper’s either still in the area or hiding out at the Bandit base, like me,’ I said, sucking my lower lip.

‘Either that or the sniper is a Bandit,’ Makinfeyev put in. ‘And to be honest, if the sniper’s not at the base one way or the other, we’re probably looking for a corpse. There’s not much shelter from emissions around here. Whoever it was probably died yesterday.’

Unless he never left the factory, I thought, and knew I had to check it out.

‘I’ll poke around and tell you if I find anything,’ I said. ‘It’s what I set out to do in the first place, after all.’

Fyodor nodded. ‘Let me know either way,’ he said.

‘Fair enough.’

He nodded again, curtly. ‘I’ll hear from you in a few days, then,’ he said, turning on his heel and walking away.

‘Snorkbait,’ Makinfeyev said, also nodding a farewell.

‘Sergeant,’ I acknowledged. ‘Don’t forget to tell Petrenko what I said.’

He raised his hand, though whether it was an agreement or a signal to his men, I couldn’t tell.

As I watched them leave, two of the men who had been standing watch fell in and suddenly ran ahead, probably to make sure I hadn’t been playing for time while a Bandit force crept up to take the Farm in silence. I shook my head.

‘Paranoid fucker,’ I muttered, and glanced at the factory. A head was just visible above the grass, the black and green mask all but lost amid the backdrop of trees and shrubs. I’d only spotted the Stalker at all because of a hint of light reflection from the helmet’s lenses. ‘Crafty, too,’ I added, and turned away. Another second or two, and the straggling lookout would have seen my next move.
 
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